Connections, Spinning Plates and Cheerleaders

Some people just keep popping up on my radar and over time they prick my interest. Keir Wenham-Flatt is one of those coaches (not least because he has a funky name!). We've bounced a few e-mails back and forth and I recently read a great post that fits in rather nicely with a lot of my recent posts regarding breaking in and forging a career as an S&C coach. Keir has recently done what a lot of the young aspiring coaches that write to me are trying to do, get a foot in the door. In this guest post Keir will share with you some of the key lessons he's picked up during the past 12 months. Over to Keir. 

In July 2010 I took a gamble. I left my comfortably paid job as a personal trainer, moved away from my relatively new girlfriend to the most expensive city in the country, to work a full time, unpaid internship for London Wasps. It was a long 12 months, but in the end I was fortunate enough to have my services retained. I learned a bunch of lessons along the way, the top 7 of which are featured below. 

Many great articles have been written chronicling peoples experiences as interns and the lessons they have taken from working within the profession. The most recent of these was a fantastic multi-part series by John Annillo that I took a wealth of valuable information from. This article is my homage to his and those that went before; my attempt to organise my thoughts, to pay it forward and add to the pile of existing information. 

Lesson 1- It's all about who you know 

Professional sport is no different to any other industry. People do business with, give jobs to and recommend people who they know and like. For better or worse your prowess in your chosen field often won't even come into the equation. For a long time I had a chip on my shoulder about this issue. I told myself that I could reach my goals but just being good at what I did. Big mistake.   

A year of working within a small industry with precious few jobs quickly wised me up to the value of relationships. The more people who you are able to help and be valuable to, the faster you will progress in nearly all aspects of your development. You can learn this either by sitting on the sidelines watching your less qualified, but better connected peers pass you by, or by getting your head into Keith Ferrazzi's fantastic book Never Eat Alone. I've tried both and I know which I would recommend! (The name of the game) 

Lesson 2- It's all about what you know 

“Surely a contradiction?!” I hear you say. Perhaps, but both lessons 1 and 2 are of equal, vital importance. Sure, the span and quality of your network of relationships with well connected people will get you through the door. But lack the necessary skill as a coach and you will soon be leaving through that same door with your reputation tarnished. Scores of books have been written on what makes a good coach, but here's a quick breakdown of the things I admire in other coaches: Book smarts- having a balanced, deep and scientifically current knowledge of physical preparation. Coaching smarts- things like being able to put the theory into practice, manage and motivate a group, and get the best out of your athletes whilst keeping them injury free. Walking the walk- keeping yourself in good physical condition, have competed as an athlete to a decent standard and be able to kick your athlete's asses in at least one area or physical test. It shows you are serious about what you do and can be useful in getting athletes 'on side'. A proven track record- having a long list of previous or current high achieving colleagues and athletes who speak highly of you as a professional. 

Lesson 3 - If you don't want it somebody else does 

Learning from others has taught me that to reach the higher levels of any field requires years of dedication. I cannot speak for others but my internship was, at times, extremely tough. I lost a couple of thousand pounds that I didn't have to lose, had to work up to 3 part time jobs at any one time and a 15 hour day became the norm... all to keep my head above water.   I would be lying if I said I hadn't considered quitting at some point. Thankfully I persevered. I told myself “You have set yourself the goal of finishing this internship. This is the price of achieving that goal. If that price is too high then f**k off and move aside, because there are plenty of people out there willing to pay it.” Remember, if you are any place worth being, somebody out there wants to be where you are. Just make sure you are willing to pay a higher price for it and you will stay there. (How my internship felt at times...) 

Lesson 4 - Some people just don't get it 

I think it was the late Charlie Francis that first remarked that in any group of athletes, individuals will fall into one of 3 categories. Firstly, the gifts: these guys have physical talent coming out of their ears, and will take to any drill you task them with like a duck to water. Second is the normal human beings: these people take a little longer to get up to speed but eventually get there. Lastly, the problem children: no matter what you do, no matter how you tweak an exercise or try to correct their form, they just don't seem to get 'it'.   I can confirm this observation is certainly true in rugby union. Even at the professional level, I have witnessed players that were able to dominate opponents on the field yet move with all the coordination of a drunken baby giraffe in the weight room. My advice: don't be afraid to barbecue the odd sacred cow when it comes to these guys. For example leg presses may be far more appropriate than squatting at times for athletes like this.   

Lesson 5 - The concurrent approach is King for rugby athletes 

The old proverb says “Many roads lead to Rome”, and how you organise your athlete's training is no different. Each periodisation scheme has its merits and it's pitfalls. Yet my experiences over the past year have lead me to conclude that the concurrent approach (synonymous with the training of Westside Barbell) is King for rugby athletes.   

The breadth of the motor demands of rugby union is so great that any other system of training is rendered unfeasible. 'Western' periodisation and other approaches like block periodisation were all developed with nice, predictable sports in mind and in disciplines with a fairly narrow band of motor demands. A rugby player on the other hand must exhibit the highest possible development of all strength qualities, all 3 energy systems and other biomotor abilities in a largely unpredictable playing environment. Toss in 40 games a season, injuries, travel and a schedule that can change at the whim of senior coaches and the concurrent approach soon emerges as the most suitable candidate.   

For an in-depth exploration of the various popular approaches to periodisation check out this helpful article by Serbian physical preparation coach, Mladen Jovanovich.  

Lesson 6 - Olympic lifts are for Olympic lifters 

During my internship, in rugby union and the Strength & Conditioning community at large I encountered on repeated occasions the dogmatic assertion that athletes should perform the Olympic lifts. James Smith of Juggernaut Training Systems has written at length on this subject, and through my own experiences I can only echo his sentiments: In contact sports the shoulder takes a battering on a daily, if not weekly basis. Loading an already sore shoulder with lots of weight in an anatomically precarious position like that seen in the lifts is plain stupid. Perhaps 95% of coaches perform the lifts with subpar form themselves. If you suck at something, your athletes will probably suck at it too. I suck at the Olympic lifts, so I don't teach them to my athletes. The learning curve with the Olympic lifts is a slow one. Spending months trying to perfect an athlete's technique when preseason is maybe only 8 weeks long is a foolish way to spend precious training time. Olympic Lifts are not the only way to develop speed strength. The dynamic effort method, medicine ball drills and jump variations are all easier on the joints and take little time to perfect- good news for athletes with limited training time and for coaches who have to be technical models. Save the Olympic lifts for Olympic lifters.   

Lesson 7 - Coaches not cheerleaders   

Top coaches and authors alike agree that atmosphere is key when it comes to developing excellent athletes. If you can create an environment where people bring out the very best in each other and continually raise the bar, the rest is just detail. I agree, but this cannot come at the expense of proper technique- a scenario I have encountered on a number of occasions when visiting other clubs and weight rooms in the past year.   Athletes need coaches, not cheerleaders. Searching the magic words “power clean school record” on Youtube will soon give you a flavour of what I'm talking about: coaches and team members surrounding their stand out player, whooping and hollering, whilst he reverse-curl-sumo-squats the bar up with a degree of knee valgus that makes you wince just watching it. Injured players do not win games, so be a coach first and a cheerleader second.  

Great article and wise words for someone just breaking into the industry.