What makes a good coach? Part 1

Coaching, Team, Sports

Coaching, at its most influential.

I could go on for hours on the topic of coaching, and over time I will. At the very least, I hope it will be interesting. So I’ve planned a series of posts on the topic.

For starters, I’d like to share a bit of a story: Mine. (Yeah, I know, boooring. Bear with me, it has some insights you might find valuable.)

This is the story of how I got started as an “athlete”. Or, more to the point, how I became an athlete without really realizing it.

And it’s all because of a coach.

Beginnings

As a young child, I did like most of the kids in my neck of the Canadian woods: I played hockey. Although I was reasonably good, especially as a goalie, I only lasted 2 seasons.

Somehow, at 5-6 years of age, I had to endure the politics of sports managed by grown-ups. So, no, the story does not feature that coach.

In retrospect, hockey wasn’t my thing, even though I continued to play for fun, on ice and on snow-covered streets, throughout my childhood. But officially, I retired from hockey at 6, and spent the next few years mostly reading books.

Until the end of grade 9, I was considered pretty much hopeless as far as sports went. Last to be picked at dodge ball, unable to swim to save my life, not able to score hoops at mini-basketball, no running endurance, etc. You know the type.

New Beginnings

All of that changed at the end of grade 9, when I showed up at a volleyball camp.

Coaching, Training, Sports, Volleyball

Beginnings are key. But there can be many beginnings…

You see, volleyball season was over, but the coach was setting up this camp in order to get kids interested for the next season. Through games and challenges, he got us to build some basic skills as well as have quite a bit of fun.

One thing you need to understand already about this coach is that he cared about the long-term development of his teams, and the athletes thereof.

I recall that it was pretty difficult. But the challenges were achievable. And then you’d move on to the next level.

It was enough fun that when the next school semester started in September of my grade 10, I signed-up for volleyball. Me, almost the least athletic nerd around.

At volleyball practice, however, it was all about rising to the challenges put before us by the coach. And having fun. Very progressively, he developed us into volleyball players. He knew what he was doing; so much so, in fact, that we didn’t have to do any more than show up at practice and do what he told us to do.

In relatively short order, without really noticing it, I became one of the best players from a technical standpoint. I could not do much about my height, but I also compensated reasonable well by being fast and jumping higher than almost everyone else. And everyone around me was progressing, too. Some faster than others; yet everyone was gaining skills and fitness.

Learning

If you are paying attention, you now also know that this coach was tailoring the training to the skill levels of his athletes, and making sure they could progress according to their own abilities. We, the would-be athletes, did not have to do any extra training, or even think about it: all we had to do was show up and do as we were told.

Our coach did not need to motivate us to learn, or to show up for practice. We wanted to. Because he made it fun to be there, fun to learn.

We had reasonable success in the local league that year, even though our large pool of players was split into two evenly matched teams, so that the entire league could have a full complement of 5 teams.

When the next season came along, we moved on to the inter-city league. Now we were “big boys”, in grade 11, playing against guys that were older and much stronger (at first) than us.

But it did not last.

Through more playful challenges and gradual development of play tactics, for which by now we were getting ready, I moved from “the small guy on the team” to starting setter, challenging and, by mid-season, beating, the other setter who was a year older than me.

The team, that year, went on to finish second in the inter-city league, and win the regional civil championship to earn a spot for the provincial championship.

How did we do it?

Performing

Our coach adapted tactics to the team we had; the unique blend of athletes we were, and the situations we were in. He had the right encouragement at the right time. He pushed us when it was time (we started serious physical conditioning only that year, for instance), and told us to let go when it wasn’t time to push.

When he was upset, we paid attention. When he was pleased, he was able to make us all feel good.

He was a friend, and a bit of cheerleader at times, but not all that often. For the most part, he knew his stuff, and he was extremely well prepared to guide us through planned training sessions that had both physical and technical development goals.

No idle play, ever. No wasted time. Every drill had a purpose. Even the 4 on 4, 3 on 3, 2 on 2, and 1 on 1 games we played were challenges to build personal skills and team cohesion. And by then it was fun to challenge each-other that way.

Are you getting the picture I’m trying to paint?

Coaching, Team, Volleyball, Training

To reach high levels of performance, a coach is the way to go.

Coaching

As a side-story, by the beginning of grade 11 our coach had asked for help from us “athletes” to develop younger kids for future seasons. Some of us helped out, first by using or copying training sessions our coach would prepare, and later by applying the same principles and directing our sessions ourselves. That’s how I learned how to build a training session: by absorbing it, not by reading about it.

He encouraged us to learn as much as possible, but did not push. Not everybody got involved.

By the time I turned 16 and moved on to grade 12, my last year of high school, I was a certified coach and I had the responsibility of two local teams (about 20 kids, some barely two years younger than me). Oh, and I was the star setter of my admittedly small region.

Many of us from that team, built by that coach, went on to play varsity at the college and university levels. Some of the athletes I coached also did, but that’s more because they were later on coached by “my” coach as well…

We never found a better coach, no matter how far or “high” we went in our sporting careers.

Since that time coaching has been second-nature to me. You could say I learned well; I think I had an amazing example to follow.

And it’s been hard for other coaches to live up to that. But that’s an entirely other story.

One thing is certain: Learning to be a coach and coaching “the right way” has helped me through school (whether I tutored friends, or as a TA in grad school) as well as professionally (when it was time to train partners and resellers on new features, speak publicly, or simply give a presentation to colleagues). By witnessing, later on analyzing, and ultimately integrating how my coach was doing it, I was able to do the same in various settings.

The End (of the Beginning)

And that was the story. Next time, the lessons.

Pictures from Pixabay

Let’s do the Paleo Thing (yeah!)

(The above title needs to be sung to the tune of “Let’s do the Time Warp” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.)

Paleo, Diet, Movement

Here’s a picture of something “Paleo.” But is it reality?

This post is not what you think it is.

Why?

Because the Paleo Thing, is not what you think it is.

Bear with me. It will all become clear.

The Paleo Diet is dead…

If you are even remotely interested in health and fitness, you have heard of the Paleo Diet by now.

Most likely than not, what you think you know about it, or what you have been told, is false.

How can I make such a bold statement? Very simply:

1) For starters, we don’t know for sure what our ancestors ate on a daily basis.

What we have is a picture, incomplete at that, of their overall dietary intake. We get this from the analysis of archeological sites dating back many thousands of years, and of human remains when they are available (and often much more recent if they are complete enough to provide information).

To a lesser extent, we get some data from the current diets of so-called “primitive” people that somehow manage to exist in this day and age. So we have bits and pieces, hints scattered all over the place. And we “reconstruct” the most likely scenarios based on that.

But the complete, precise picture will elude us until we have time travel capabilities. (As a physicist, I feel pretty confident about making the equally bold statement that we never will.)

2) More importantly for this discussion, there is hardly any food nowadays that are still exactly the way they were when our ancestors of the Paleolithic were around.

Over thousands of years of selecting, breeding, and, yes, engineering plants and animals, you can be certain that what you eat nowadays is related, but not the same, as what our ancestors ate.

And if you go out of your way to select foods that have not been changed in some way, you are back to the first point I made: chances are very slim that those food items were actually eaten by our ancestors. You can be pretty sure that our ancestors, smart as they were, picked the foods they preferred when they started domesticating things. They would not have spent what little energy and time they had available on the things they did not enjoy eating.

So what you eat nowadays, no matter what anyone tries to sell you, is not what our ancestors ate. It is not, therefore, “Paleo.”

This idea of “eating a Paleo diet” must die once and for all. (Yeah, I know, good luck with that.)

…long live the Paleo Lifestyle

Now, given there is no such thing as a “Paleo Diet”, what is the big fuss about?

There is another reason why adherent to the “Paleo Diet” get it wrong: They pretty much get stuck on the notion that diet is the key to healthy living.

But our ancestors of the Paleolithic had something else going for them that makes all the difference:

They moved more than we do. A lot more.

Just eating well, whatever you call the diet, is not enough if you are entirely sedentary.

On the other hand, moving a lot, even if your diet is less than perfect, makes a huge difference in your health and fitness to survive in this world.

That’s why instead of a “Paleo Diet,” we had better embrace a “Paleo Lifestyle.” A lifestyle that puts emphasis on what contributes most to our health: movement.

So I’m arguing we should embrace the “Paleo Lifestyle” by exercising and moving all the time.

That’s a lot more reasonable that pretending to be eating what our ancestors were eating while taking our cars to the corner store to buy some meat…

But, what about diet? you ask

Good question.

The “thing” in the “Paleo Thing” of the title is that when I talk about lifestyle, I do mean making choices about diet that make sense as well.

Without being “Paleo,” the diet part is actually quite simple, and something our ancestors were indeed doing: eat real foods, mostly from plants, and as close as possible to the way they are found in nature.

To put it another way: seek foods that are not processed, or that have been processed as little as possible.

By the way, that does not mean raw food. Our ancestors had discovered fire for cooking well before agriculture. It also does not mean vegetarian or vegan, though there are excellent ethical and philosophical reasons to embrace such diets.

But keep in mind that we are still physiologically very much like our ancestors. Incidentally, they were opportunistic omnivores, and ate just about what they could find as they moved about and over the seasons. That included roots, fruits, animals, plants, and even insects. At least, that’s the part of the picture that scientists are pretty sure about.

Therefore, the “Paleo Lifestyle” I’m suggesting consists of moving a lot more, on a daily basis, and eating unprocessed foods. (Though I’m still not touching insects.)

I realize that even that, given our current society, is like turning back the clock on a lot of modern comforts and energy-saving technology. It is not easy.

But does it make any more sense than pretending to be eating what our ancestors ate?

At least we know for sure how our ancestors moved: they used their feet!

Movement, Exercise, Paleo, Daily

Embrace the Paleo Lifestyle: use your feet more!

Pictures from Pixabay.

Not all advice is good advice

Coaching, Training, Swimming

Online advice as replacement for a real coach? Photo credits: Sophie Tremblay-Paquet

Should you really trust the advice you read online? Should you seek such advice, instead of turning to a coach?

(What follows is a spoof, NOT meant to be taken as real advice. Anyone tempted to do so would only prove my point, but I’m sincerely hoping everyone has more sense than that. Enjoy at your own risk…)

Take your triathlon racing to the next level

Wanna take your triathlon racing to the next level? Wanna win races in your age group? Perhaps you still have this nagging feeling you could have been a pro?

Here’s how to get one step closer to that dream, and take your racing to the next level. You’ll be amazed how simple it is:

Have all your teeth removed and replaced by dentures.

Your training and racing will benefit in many ways from this little change in your body configuration:

1) While you recover from the surgery, the mostly liquid diet combined to extensive endurance sessions will cause you to lose a lot of weight, improving simultaneously your power to weight ratio and VO2 max.

2) Since in the beginning you’ll have a hard time eating anything, this is the best time to do a lot of training on an empty stomach, thereby improving your body’s ability to use lipids from fat reserves as fuel.

3) After you’ve recovered and been fitted with dentures, every time you’ll be racing, you can leave your dentures in transition (or at home), and be at an even better racing weight than the rest of the field thanks to the reduced weight to carry around. (And since you are also fueling your race mostly with gels, you don’t really need your teeth anyway.)

Be the first in your age group to do this. You won’t regret it! Besides, if you can still smile on your finisher’s photos, you’ve clearly not pushed hard enough…

(End of spoof.)

Back to our regular program

As a coach, I’m amazed at how much advice you can obtain by simply going online and performing a cursory search.

It is to the point that one hardly ever needs to turn to professional coaches for advice. Or buy well-written, well-considered books on how to train.

Or is it?

The Web is indeed shock-full of running, swimming, and triathlon advice (not to mention other sports, but those three appear to be popular nowadays). However, is it always good advice? More importantly, can such random bits of (generally good) advice really be the best course of action for athletes hoping to develop in their sports?

My main concern, because I am a coach, is with what coaches do: provide the best guidance possible at every stage of an athlete’s development. My contention is that advice sought on the Web, or pushed in our faces on social media, is NOT, in fact, the best advice. It may not even be good advice.

Why?

Because it does not consider where in his or her development an athlete might be.

It is advice out of sequence; out of the flow of development of abilities, endurance, and speed.

Some of the advice, I’m afraid, even goes against optimal health, generally in the name of enhancing performance. (I’m really talking about triathlon advice here, not other kind of performance enhancing advice or products.)

I’m preparing a few posts on coaching, and I will address this concern at length, but to set the stage, I thought I’d offer this short spoof of some triathlon advice I recently came across.

And I’d like to hear from you about your impressions of the advice you get online. Do you seek it? Do you follow it? Do you use the services of a coach?

More to come on this topic… and looking forward to hearing from you.

Photo by Sophie Tremblay-Paquet.