Evolution Not Revolution

The brains behind the Leaders In Performance conference recently asked me for my thoughts on training innovations. I don't think that I delivered what they were expecting, but then innovation isn't always about the bells and whistles.

Innovation in Strength and Conditioning 

One term that I have heard regularly throughout my career as a strength and conditioning coach working in high performance sport is 'innovation'. Coaches, performance directors and athletes are always looking for something new that the competition isn't doing, which will boost performance. The 1% that will make the difference. Sometimes they spend so long looking for the 1-2% that the other 98% that makes up performance is neglected. 

Recognising that 'innovation' doesn't always need to mean new, there are a number of principles that strength and conditioning coaches should apply when developing integrated performance training programmes. They may seem obvious, but for many sports and athletes, consistent application of the following principles during training will in itself be an innovation. 

1. Movement 

Having worked across a wide range of sports I've come to realise that movement is the key. Vern Gambetta says that

'to design an effective training programme, you need to train fundamental movement skills...'

When you actually stop and look at different sports, you find that they share common movement patterns. An integrated performance training programme should develop movements, not muscles. Use ground based 'Big Bang' exercises, compound multiple joint (unilateral and bilateral) movements emphasising quality of movement before quantity. 

 2. Transfer 

Functional training is a term that gets banded around a lot, but what does it actually mean? It certainly doesn't mean athletes should be wobbling around on unstable surfaces performing exercises that look like they belong in a Cirque du Soleil act. It also doesn't mean the exercise should closely mimic the actual sport in the misplaced pursuit of 'specificity'. For an exercise to be 'functional' we need to consider 'transfer' - to what degree each quality trained in the gym or in practice actually 'transfers' to improved sports performance. Transfer of training effect is far more important than specificity. Training doesn't always have to look like the sport to be effective, but for it to be 'functional' and impact on performance it should develop the following criteria: 1. Biomechanics (movement - kinematics) 2. Metabolic (energy systems) 3. Force velocity (kinetics) 

3. Continuity 

Talent is overrated! I don't subscribe to the school of thought that we are born with an innate talent that is just sitting there dormant, waiting to come to life. What I do believe, is that everyone will have their own genetic blueprint that may help them on their path to becoming a great athlete, it's what you do with that blueprint that makes the difference. Without doubt, one of the most important factors to impact on performance is consistent and focused training. 10,000 hours of deep and focused practice. The world of professional sport can be very fickle. It's simply not good enough to flit from one training regime to the other. Consistency of effort is the trump card that many professional athletes and coaches are missing. The latest trend or 'guru' won't bring about long lasting change or develop champions. Working on a long term programme, consistently with effort will. 

4. Injuries Are Opportunities 

There are two important things to consider during the rehabilitation of an injury; 1. train the athlete, not the injury and 2, injury rehab should be considered as a longer period of preparation. Train the athlete, not the injury. It's easy to fall into the trap of constantly asking 'how's the knee' and treating just the injury rather than the fighter. The focus of training becomes the injury and all the conversations and exercises are aimed solely at the injured body part. Big mistake. View the time you spend coming back from injury as an opportunity to develop the athlete. Rehabilitation has less to do with the specific injury and more to do with becoming a better athlete. Injury is an opportunity and everyone has the chance to become better during the process of the 'comeback' (Bill Knowles, 2010). Possibly one of the most important things to consider is that injury rehabilitation is a longer period of preparation, not a faster return to competition. All too often in high performance sport we are rushing the process. Whilst there will inevitably be time demands placed on the support staff, the aim should be to

'achieve the highest level of training within the shortest period of time while respecting the biology of healing'

(Knowles, 2010)

In other words, only return to competition when you are completely ready. This is particularly important when it comes to the later stages of the programme. There's a huge difference between being ready to return to training and being ready to step onto the court, or pitch and return to competition! 

5. Invisible Training 

Work alone is not enough to produce the best results. Recovery and regeneration is an integral part of overall training and practice, and it needs to be applied with both short and long term goals constantly in mind (Siff, 2000). The body needs time to adapt to training. To encourage adaptation to it, it is important to plan activities which reduce residual fatigue. Fatigue exists in various forms (metabolic, tissue damage, neural, environmental, psychological) and time should be spent making sure the body is in the best possible physical state before training. It is important to consider the '24 hour athlete'. It is what happens before and after training that is really important. Improvements in an athlete's ability to recover from training can be achieved by putting in place interventions that take effect long before the training event starts (training diaries, sleep/naps, myofascial release, pre-workout meals). Increasing recovery rates will increase the athletes ability to train and will ultimately enhance their training and performance. 

Final Thoughts Whilst the pursuit of innovative training methods may be warranted, my experience working across a wide range of sports has taught me that being 'innovative' doesn't always mean you have to be 'cutting edge'. More often than not, innovation can come in the simplest and most basic form and it is often a case of getting the basics right. 

Take care of the 98%.