Flip Flops and Broken Windows

Recently on twitter there was a discussion posted from a strength and conditioning coach asking the question 'whether or not he should allow his players to wear flip-flops?' 

Whilst I could post a long article on this topic itself, it lead me to consider the wider problem faced by many strength and conditioning coaches:

How to create an optimal training environment

It's all about broken Windows. I've had the benefit of working with a wide range of sports and athletes during a 15 year career as a strength and conditioning coach and the difference between success and failure often comes down to the ability to create a training environment that is conducive to high-performance. Several years ago I read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.  This is one of my favourite books and one of the concepts he that discussed was the 'broken window theory'. The theory was developed by two criminologists, James Q Wilson and George Kelling. They felt that crime was an inevitable result of disorder.

'if a window is left broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relative minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, they write, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crime.'

So, what the hell has this got to do with creating a high performance training environment. Well, quite a lot actually. If you don't take care of the basics, if you can't be bothered to look after your training environment, then why should your athletes look after themselves or take care of the training facility. I've worked in a lot of facilities. Some good, some great and some that were downright awful. Back in 2005 I visited Robert dos Remedios to see him coach at the College of the Canyons. It was time well spent and remarkable for a number of reasons. One thing that amazed me was that when we walked into the gym at 06:00 before the first lifting session, the gym was immaculate. Now don't get me wrong, it's not a sparkly college facility, it's a working gym, but everything had a place. Close to 100 college football players came in, trained hard and were about to leave when there was a bit of a commotion coming from one of the corners. Several of the players were giving a member of their training group a hard time for not replacing the barbell in it's proper place after the training session. Needless to say, he pretty quickly realised the error of his ways, picked up the barbell and racked it. Coach Dos didn't have to say a word, his athletes knew! If Coach Dos didn't take pride in his gym why would his athletes. The fact that he kept that facility tidy meant that the players were going to do the same. He had developed a culture from something as simple as running a clean and tidy facility.

Back around 2004 I trained a group of female international rugby players at their local club. The gym was a complete tip. Kit was always strewn across the floor, bars left out fully loaded, leg press loaded to the max. It was a pretty crappy training environment to work in. We spent most of the session unloading bars and trying to locate collars and small discs! It was a pain. Guess what, the broken window theory was in full effect! I didn't really feel compelled to look after the gym or kit either. If they can't be bothered, why should I! 

Compare that to a recent trip I made to the national rugby training facility. The contrast couldn't have been clearer. Now I know you are probably saying 'well hold on Nick, you can't compare the two, surely the national training facility is state of the art and money is no object'. Well, fair point but in my opinion it doesn't matter about money. It's about the environment you create (regardless of how much money you spend). The national centre could have easily looked like the club facility I trained at back in 2004, except for one thing, the coaching staff at the national facility clearly had pride in their surroundings. I don't care what you say, take care of the little things.

This summer I was fortunate enough to be part of the Olympics and Team GB certainly did a great job of creating a performance environment. Sure, you could tell there was a fair bit of investment in equipment and facilities but in my opinion the creation of a performance environment had a lot to do with some clear messages set out in the Team GB Standards that each and every coach and athlete signed up to. I'm not going to go into all 15 of the standards but I'll share with you some that I think may surprise you.

1. Hygiene - something as simple as hand washing can reduce the potential risk of illness.

2. Time - the Olympic finals are not going to wait for you to get out of bed!

3. Accommodation - Keeping the accommodation clean and tidy.

4. Kit - wear it with pride.

5. Language - bad language is not acceptable out in the public domain.

6. Noise - avoid making too much noise when coming back early in the morning or late in the evening.

Nothing amazing, just simple things. Making sure there are no 'broken windows'. One final example. A couple of years ago I was asked to become the consultant S&C Coach at a professional football club. The club had a rich history in sports science and medicine but over a period of about 9-12 months the S&C support had slipped. The gym wasn't organised but you could tell it had pretty much everything that you needed to develop a workable facility. The team travelled to an away fixture early one Friday and that was when we had a good old spring clean. We didn't have bundles of cash to spend on new equipment so we made the most of what we already had. Kit was moved and clearly defined training areas started to appear. An interesting thing happened during the following weeks and months. Prior to the spring clean, kit was always left out at the end of the training day no one gave a monkeys, and why should they, after all, there were “broken windows” all around. As soon as we started to take some pride in the facility the players started to tidy up after themselves!  Pretty much without fail, the kit would always be returned at the end of the training day so that the facility never ended up resembling a car boot sale!

I come in for a fair bit of ribbing from my athletes for being a clean freak and borderline obsessive compulsive! I take it on the chin because I know that the attention to detail is really important when it comes to developing a high performance training environment. Yes, I do make sure all the Nike swooshes face the same direction on my medicine balls and I'll admit I get upset when dumbbells are returned to the rack in the wrong order, but if you take care of the little things (the broken windows), the big stuff, creating a performance training environment, will follow.

So if we go back to the issue of flip flops. It may seem like a pretty trivial matter, but I'm going to hazard a guess that it could well be the 'broken window' that needs fixing. If you let the small things slip then eventually you will look up a wonder why you're no longer working in a performance environment.

What sort of environment do you want to create? Let me know