More alike than not… except in the details

Sports, Exercise, Performance, Athletes

A diversity of shapes and speeds at the Rome marathon a few years ago. All athletes, in a way.

Time for a story. (Isn’t it always?)

Once upon a time, in pretty much all lands on this planet called Earth, the thinking of sports federations and elite coaches was that an Olympic athlete had to be of average height and build, with lean bone and muscle mass providing a streamlined body type.

For all Olympic sports.

Such athletes were selected and tested early, then subjected to years of grueling training. Only a very small portion of even such “ideal” athletes rose to the top of each sport and were deemed good enough to represent their respective countries against the rest of the world. (The story does not say what happened to those who did not rise to the top, but rumour has it that they started hating sports, and took up knitting instead.)

This had come about because there was a clear picture of the “ideal” human shape that had endured to some extent since the time of the original Olympic games in Greece. But with more clothing. No doubt the statues of antiquity, and later re-born in the Renaissance, had helped solidify such an image of the perfect athlete.

Allied to that image was the notion, very much born of religious thought, that only through a lot of hard work and pain could the most gains be made in training. Fierce competition, even among teammates, was seen as the way to build stronger individuals.

Thus many countries went about, and generations of kids, teenagers, and young adults went about their training. Only a very small portion of all those who started in such programs ever made it, and they won medals and set world records.

But this story is not about world records and Olympic medals. It is about how athletes were selected and prepared to compete.

It all changed, of course, when atypical athletes started winning medals and breaking world records. This came about because many countries simply did not have athletes with the expected, “ideal” body type. They were not expected to win, yet there they were, running faster, jumping higher, lifting heavier than the rest.

Suddenly, coaches caught on to what biologists must have realized much earlier: That there might be something about the specific genetic make-up of an individual that might make them better athletes at SOME sport in particular.

Nowadays, we fully understand that notion, and athletes are not expected to look the same across all sports. That explains why we see a lot of Kenyans and Ethiopians win marathons, and tiny little guys and gals ride race horses. Volleyball players are tall and somewhat lanky; ping-pong players somewhat short but extremely quick.

You get the picture. We each have specific genetic variations that make us more or less good at some activities or sports. Some are very visible, others not.

As the eminent (running coach) Jack Daniels pointed out in a seminar I attended a few years ago, you would not expect Shaquille O’neal and Mary Lou Retton to perform at an elite level at each-other’s respective sports. (The reference to those athletes provides an idea of the age of Jack Daniels, and of the attendees, not of the date of the seminar.)

Big differences are expected, for instance, between a basketball player and a gold medal winning gymnast. (Just to be clear, for those of a different age…) Mary Lou could not possibly dunk a ball, and Shaquille might very well break the asymmetric bars. Hence athletes are largely selected based on their body types nowadays.

Tragically, what hasn’t changed (yet) is the notion that training has to be uniformly hard and painful for everyone. That is why we see PE programs in schools that are still based on (unfriendly) competition and pitting everyone against each other to be the best, or to meet some specific standards of fitness arbitrarily defined by someone.

That’s in large part been identified as the prime culprit for turning the vast majority of people away from doing sports on a regular basis. If all that seems to matter is winning, and there can only be one winner, that means there are a lot of losers. And nobody likes being a loser.

So it starts by hating PE, then it becomes hating sports. Except for those you can watch while drinking beer, and even then, it is watching games, not playing.

Exercise, Movement, Daily

Watching is definitely not the same as doing.

At the same time, the understanding that we are all different has been taken much too far: Nowadays, a lot of folks think that they are simply not athletic, not meant to do sports. There are winners, who are jocks, who are meant to do sports, and then there’s the rest of us who should not do sports. Who cannot do sports.

Given the premises of differences between individuals and of personally hating sports, it is understandable that many reached the (erroneous) conclusion that they are not meant to move.

But the reasoning is incorrect, and one of the premises is false.

The facts, based on biology, are all pointing in the direction of our bodies being meant to move. Needing to move. Regularly.

Hating sports and exercise is a learned behaviour; it can be unlearned, replaced by something better.

We are all different, but even in our visible (and invisible differences), we are more alike than not.

The story time being over, I’ll conclude this post by pointing out the ways in which we are alike, and those in which we differ. And I’ll come back some other time to the fascinating topic of how to learn to like exercise.

Ways in which we are all alike: Basic morphology and physiology

Cells, Physiology

The marvelous machinery of life.

  1. We all have the same number of limbs, fingers, heads, internal organs (types and numbers), etc., and they all are built according to the same plan. (Yes, I know, there are accidents of biology, but the basic plan before those accidents is the same.)
  2. We all have muscles connected to bones in order to makes us move; those muscles all work according to the same principles, and allow sensibly the same movements to be performed by everyone.
  3. We use carbohydrates, lipids, and to a lesser extent proteins, to generate the energy that allows our cells to function. Including muscle cells, which are used to move our bodies. More specifically, there are fast and slow ways of generating that energy, and although they vary in relative terms, they are all present in all of us.
  4. We all obtain such nutrients from eating; our digestive system, comprised as it is of our own guts and the microbiome therein, functions fundamentally the same way in all of us. Besides nutrients, we need water and oxygen (not too much) for our metabolism to operate.
  5. We need to move; for our bodies to be healthy, we need to move. The stress imposed on our bones, muscles, and internal organs by intense activity is what keeps bones strong, muscles large(-ish), and organs performing their normal functions. Including digestion and waste disposal.
  6. All of our bodies respond to exercise (or to a lack thereof). If you exercise regularly, the body changes to adapt to the exercise, and the organs and energy systems hum along. If you don’t exercise, the body “relaxes” and things start to breakdown, fat reserves accumulate, digestion is slower and we get constipated, etc.

That’s just how our bodies work. We are all very much alike.

Ways in which we differ: The details of performance

Because of the details of how each of us is shaped (tall or short, thick-boned or thinner, etc.) and how cells function physiologically, there are aspects of performance in which we differ. Specifically:

Sports, Physical Activities, Training

So many sports, so many choices…

  1. How much endurance we have (mostly due to differences in energy systems at the cellular level, though that’s trainable to a great extent, perhaps the most of all aspects of performance)
  2. How fast we can be (also highly trainable, but limits imposed by physiology exist in each of us, also at the cellular level in muscles)
    How strong our muscles can be (small differences there)
  3. How big our muscles can become (bigger differences there)
  4. How flexible we can be (muscles, ligaments, but also joint movement; we can’t all be circus performers!)
  5. How coordinated we can be (agility, efficiency, also technically trainable to a great extent)
  6. How a wide range of our senses perform (eyesight, hearing, smell, etc.) and how efficiently our brains put all of that together

Taken together, and in the right combinations, the accumulation of small differences is what, along with adequate training, makes top performing athletes.

So, while it remains true that there can only be one winner in each discipline, and that at the top level (Olympics, for instance), only a small portion of the population is equipped to truly compete, we all have the potential to take enjoyment in some physical activity. And we may even do pretty well, locally or within the cohort of people our own age.

What matters most, however, is that we are all alike in fundamental ways. We all need to move, a lot, to keep our one and only body functioning optimally for a long time.

It’s up to us to figure-out what makes us enjoy it the most.

Exercise, Endurance, Physiology

The author, laughing at a well-deserved muscle cramp, after having completed an iron-distance triathlon.

For an interesting discussion of physiological differences in triathletes, see the recently published book Triathlon Science by Joe Friel and Jim Vance.

Pictures from Pixabay and the author.

What makes a good coach – Part 4 (End)

Coach, coaching, sports, training, exercise

What makes a good coach? Lots, it turns out…

So, what makes a good coach?

If you have read part 1, 2, and 3, on this topic, your patience is about to be rewarded. No more discussions, no more illustrations, no more stories. Just my take on the question.

(But rest assured, there will be more stories later. There are always more stories later.)

Here are the qualities and attributes that make a coach truly good, based on my years of experience on both sides of the question. They are not in order of importance; I consider all of them equally important, but I had to organize the list, somehow. Consider that the earlier attributes in the list are, in some cases, prerequisites for the later ones…

The List

Athletes come first
A good coach puts the interests and health of the athletes before his or her own. So it should no longer be acceptable to put athletes through a meat grinder to extract a few star performers if you end up burning out the vast majority of hopefuls. And the converse is true: It must be acceptable that some athletes want to have a great time doing sports, but not necessarily aim to go to the Olympics.

Knowledge
A good coach is very knowledgeable in the sport(s) being coached, both the overall aspects (rules, tactics, etc.) as well as the techniques that are considered optimal for athletes to use in performing the sport.

Teaching
A good coach is able to teach the sport and its techniques to athletes. This goes beyond demonstrating the correct techniques: It is about being able to understand in what ways the athlete is not succeeding, and finding ways to gradually bring about changes in the athlete’s technique.

Customization
A good coach can adapt to the level of athletes, providing customized instruction and training programs that are suited to their own needs, instead of pushing a standard program onto everyone. You might say this goes hand in hand with teaching, and you would not be wrong; however, some aspects of this can exist where no proper teaching is found.

Planning
A good coach is also able to adapt the training so as to make progression fun and not seem like hard work. Basically, being able to plan individual training sessions so that athletes enjoy them even as they learn, and planning those sessions so that they fit neatly into an overall development plan. Especially for younger athletes or kids beginning in a sport, but I strongly suspect this approach would have significant success with adults who try to maintain a resolution to exercise more.

Role Model
A good coach exemplifies fair play and sportsmanship, and insists on it, no matter what, by being respectful of the rules, those who are in charge of enforcing them, and other athletes involved in the sport. Name calling at referees and treating opponents like enemies are not acceptable, ever.

Constructive
A good coach congratulates and motivates in a constructive way while sparingly using negative feedback. Basically, a good coach should only need to smile to show appreciation, but doesn’t, and frown to show displeasure, and does never more than that.

That’s it

This is a tall order. In some ways, almost impossible to find; at any rate, very demanding of the coach to perform all the time.

I feel that is why many coaches choose to focus on a type of coaching that does not require all of those attributes: By coaching highly committed adults, those I might qualify as passionate to the point of being obsessive about a sport, it is possible to get by with deep knowledge of the sport and techniques, and forget the rest. But that works only as long as the athletes are self-driven, and don’t particularly care about their own long-term health.

The key thing, when you are an adult interested in picking up a sport like running or triathlon (or any other, really), is that you should seek a coach that suits you. I encourage you to use the above list as a reference, but your own needs come first.

If you are a parent, you should look for the listed qualities in your kids’ coaches, and act accordingly. If you are considering coaching kids, your own and/or others, you should really keep the above in mind, and pick-up the knowledge and habits you’ll need. And keep your own emotions, and ambitions, in check.

And if all you are interested in is joining a group to have fun with a cheerleader-coach, then by all means, do so. The important thing is to move more. Yet I encourage you to ask for more, and expect more, of yourself as well as of others…

A few more words

A lot of what I wrote has to do with personality, at least on the surface of it. It is true that some personalities are ill-suited to be coaches, just like some athletes are impossible to coach. But it is not just about personality: It is about a fundamental attitude that coaches need to have.

No matter what their own ambitions and motivations, good coaches act in such a way as to show those qualities. They understand that the needs of the athletes are more important, and that if they do a good job as coaches, the rest will follow: good athletes, good performance, opportunities to coach at a higher level maybe, etc.

Knowledge, it must be noted, can be acquired in many different ways. No need to have a degree in sport physiology, or to have been an elite athlete.

Teaching is by far the least obvious part in the list. It takes skills, and time. And patience. But coaching is too important, because of its potential impact on athletes, to be given any less.

Finally, if you can’t be a good role model, if you don’t show respect to others as a coach, what kind of athletes will you have?

Have I forgotten anything? Let me know what you think…

Picture from Pixabay

What’s NBF all about – a refresher

Fitness, Exercise, Sport, Triathlon

What’s NBF all about? More than this picture, that’s for sure…

To celebrate the 40th post of No-brainer Fitness, I thought it worthwhile to offer a brief recap.

Basically, in case you are still wondering, or if you are fairly new to No-brainer Fitness, here’s what it’s all about, in the form of an interview, but definitely in No-brainer Fitness style:

What does NBF stand for?

NBF is my acronym for No-brainer Fitness.

Ok, smart ass, but what is it all about, really?

No-brainer Fitness is about getting fit so as to be, and remain, as healthy as possible, for as long as possible.

Why the “No-brainer” part?

Because it is my contention that, in order to get and remain fit, you don’t need to do anything very complicated. Also, the benefits of being fit are so good and numerous, that you should not have to think twice about it.

Don’t you have some secret agenda?

You mean other than helping others reap the benefits of fitness?

Yes.

No.

C’mon, admit it! You are trying to create a cult to fitness, or at least get rich from this, aren’t you?

Well, it would be nice to make a living helping others, but I still do it for free.

So, no cult?

No cult. Quite the contrary, I promise.

Ok, prove it: How does one get fit?

You need to move more. A lot more. On a daily basis. Not just 30 minutes of intense exercise every other day, and then sitting on your chair or sofa the rest of the time. Instead of seeking ways to save your energy, you need to get into the habit of using more energy. Walking more, taking stairs instead of escalators or elevators, doing some light strength exercises, not sitting so much at work, picking up a fun sport again, etc.

That sounds like hard work: I’m getting tired just reading about it. How does one get there?

A big part of it is changing your mindset so that you no longer think about moving as hard, but as something that your body craves, much like you crave food. Our bodies really do crave movement, and as you get moving, you start to feel it more keenly.

Talking about craving, what about eating super foods and taking supplements that will make me fit and healthy and help me lose weight? Isn’t that a lot easier?

There is no such thing as “super foods”, and if you eat well, you don’t need supplements. Losing weight comes naturally from moving more and eating a good diet, not from dieting. But the key is moving more. First and foremost, that’s what you have to focus on. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something (like supplements).

Unlike you?

Unlike me.

But if we wanted to buy something from you, we could. Right?

Well, if you are interested in picking up running or triathlon as a sport, because those are great ways of getting and remaining fit, I could help with that, too. And for that, yes, I do get paid, because it demands much more attention to make sure it is done right, and you reach your personal objectives.

What else do you provide? Surely it can’t be that simple…

It is. Really. But I try to make it enjoyable to do the right thing, and I provide advice to help steer through the wild west of products and tips out there. Because being fit is both simple and fun.

Hmmm… What else?

Well, it doesn’t hurt to stay away from things that are clearly bad for you, what I call NOT FOOD. But the key, I insist, is in moving a lot more.

Ok, I think that’s enough for now. I almost believe you.

Feel free to ask me other questions. Or read some of my 39 previous posts; you are sure to find more about what NBF stands for, and how to be more fit.

Move on!

Health, Fitness, Exercise

Working on some visuals for No-brainer Fitness… Feedback welcome.

 

What makes a good coach? Part 3

Coaching, Triathlon, Competition, Ironman

Coaching sports like running and triathlon: a league of its own.

Back in March (of 2014), my wife and I attended a triathlon expo at MIT. (It had nothing to do with MIT; it just happened to be held at their sports facilities. MIT has a very nice pool, by the way.)

We were there mostly to buy some equipment and supplies in preparation for the season. But we had a couple of nice surprises once we got there: first, we got to meet one of the original ironman finishers; second, we got to listen to Siri Lindley give a talk about coaching. (Well, she spent a lot of time talking about her career as an elite short-course triathlete, but the part about how she got there, and how she herself was coached, was informative.)

For those of you who don’t know her, Siri is coach to Mirinda Carfrae, the current Ironman World Champion (she’s been the champ three times so far) and championship course record holder among women.

So this post is really about coaching adults in the context of sports like running and triathlon, and, more specifically, the coaching of fairly serious athletes (or “intense” athletes, because if not elite athletes, you have to be intensely into training in order to pay for the services of a coach). Combined with the previous post on my personal experience, and the one about coaching in general, it is the background material I’ll need to conclude the series in Part 4.

Now, I have to admit that I’m no groupie of elite athletes or their coaches. I prefer to do, instead of watching or reading about them. We were not at the event in order to listen to Siri. We just thought: “We’re here, and we have a bit of time, so let’s sit down.”

It was time well spent, nevertheless, not just because it confirmed many of my own conclusions about what makes a good coach, and what makes a good athlete. I’ll list those attributes later, but for now, allow me to give a few key notes from her presentation.

Focusing

Siri only coaches a few athletes. I seem to recall she said 12, but it definitely was something between 10 and 15.

This makes sense at such an elite level as top Ironman competitors, since the pros and elites need specialized coaching, and are willing (or able) to pay for it.

The point, however, is not how much Siri gets paid by her athletes, but what she emphasized: She feels that only with so few athletes can she really provide good coaching.

It stands to reason that the more athletes one has to coach, the less time and attention can be given to each. That’s why joining a club is an excellent way to find a bit of support and coaching advice, but you get less personal attention that way.

For truly personal attention, you need to be one of few athletes being coached. Beware of coaches who work for a team or club and also coach more than a handful of athletes: You may be getting cookie-cutter advice and training programs that masquerades as individualized coaching.

Customization

Because she only coaches a few athletes, Siri is able to customize the training regimen of each so as to maximize the effect of the training. Or is it the other way around?

One thing is certain: She does provide very specific attention to each of her athletes; they each have their own season plan, and training session plans, and every plan in between.

This is key because, although the training principles are the same, and the general physiology is the same for all humans, no two persons react entirely the same to training on a daily basis. This is due in part to small differences in biology and in large part to previous training, current state of being, and psychology. That is normal.

Similarly, Siri does not treat all of her athletes the same, either during training or competition. To my surprise, she admitted acting almost like a cheerleader to some, while to others she is the quiet and wise adviser, and to others she can even be the forceful (not to say harsh) boss telling them to get their acts together.

This is squarely in the psychology realm: We are all different in terms of what we need to get, or keep us, in the correct frame of mind to perform. Elite athletes are no different (and perhaps even more sensitive and insecure at times, because of the added pressure of making a living out of sports).

The key point: no two individuals need exactly the same thing at the same time. So personal attention is mandatory for good coaching.

Knowledge

Siri was a top competitor in Olympic distance triathlon. She got there through some good coaching, but also through a lot of grit and determination.

However, there is no need to have been a top athlete to be a good coach. That’s a truth that’s often hard to believe by those who have never really been coached before. But it is true.

What is less obvious to most wannabe triathletes is that, unlike most top triathletes, even those who later make a living out of coaching, not all great athletes make good coaches. Only a few really pick up the fundamentals of coaching, and understand more than what works for them. Because what works for you is likely not what works for others. And a good coach knows enough to adapt to what each athlete needs.

What should a coach know?

In triathlon, it gets tricky, because of the three sports. A good triathlon coach must know enough about the bio-mechanics of swimming, cycling, and running. That’s in order to be able to work on form, not just intensity, in all the three sports while making sure to prevent injury (as much as humanly possible). Ideally, a good coach is able to bring about the necessary changes to technique and form to optimize performance.

But a good triathlon coach must also know about how those three sports are put together in triathlon, and how the body reacts to going from one to the other, and then on to the other.

That means having some first-hand experience in the sport is a good thing. Perhaps necessary. But being a top competitor is not. It can even be a detriment, as I think it is for fitness instructors and personal coaches, because of the “hey, it worked for me, so it will work for you as well” factor. (Or the “look at me, I was a champion, so I must know what I’m doing” factor. In either case, it is a fallacy.)

Also, understanding the physiology, psychology, and science behind training is mandatory. Too many coaches simply push their athletes to the breaking point, under the old philosophy of “no pain, no gain”. For some athletes, this leads to breakthroughs. For most, it leads to breakdowns. That old notion is now dismissed; there are much better ways to train.

The coach has to know when to push, and when to hold back an athlete. And with pros, elites, and would-be top competitors, the holding back part is often more critical. And difficult.

Planning

Finally, a good coach, much like Siri indicated, must be able to understand where his or her athletes are at, and where they aim to get, and plan a reasonable path from one to the other.

That’s precisely how Siri started working with Mirinda Carfrae, according to the talk she gave back in March. Although Siri had not done iron distance races herself, she was able to understand what physiological changes would be needed, and to chart a course to make them happen. And with an athlete like Mirinda Carfrae, who was hardly new to the sport, that was a pretty tall order.

Which of course begs the question:

What about athletes?

Being a good coach is only part of the equation. The athletes also have to do their share of the work. And with all the training and intensity, that part is of course the hardest.

But there is one aspect in which coaching for running and triathlon, and coaching in general, differ a great deal: Pros and elites (and triathlon freaks) are highly motivated, so they don’t need to be coaxed into doing the workouts. More often than not, they have to be calmed down, and forced to take rest. Not at all like the majority of folks trying to get into better shape in order to be healthy, who have to be convinced off the couch.

So a coach to such athletes does not need to cajole them into showing up at training, or find ways to keep them interested in the sport. But they should also not burn them out, or make them hate training.

On their side of things, athletes who want a running or triathlon coach and are serious about it must do one thing to deserve their coaches: Listen.

By this I mean to fully engage themselves into the process, and follow their coaches’ advice. Not argue, not go looking for second opinions, not say “I know what I need”.

Perhaps that holds true for any kind of athlete, and any kind of sport. But let’s leave that for the next, and final, post on what makes a good coach…

Picture from Pixabay.

What makes a good coach? Part 2

Coaching, Athletes, Sports, Training

Coach: More than a timekeeper.

Last time, I wrote about the best coach I ever had. (If you haven’t read that post, feel free to take a moment now to do it; if you don’t have time, I’m about to provide a short summary.)

If you recall, this person was able to progressively take me (and many others) from beginners to sufficiently skilled players, both as individuals and as a team, to win a regional championship. How?

  • He made showing up at practice a no-brainer (we were actually looking forward to practice, instead of dragging our feet to it);
  • he made learning and developing our skills and physical condition fun through challenges we could achieve with reasonable effort (and some friendly competition);
  • he provided advice and guidance during games, to make sure we could perform our best;
  • he chided when absolutely necessary, and congratulated when applicable.

To elaborate a bit more, in my estimation this coach had the following attributes:

  • He knew the sport inside-out, and was excellent at teaching technique as well as game tactics and strategy.
  • He was a great planner for both individual training sessions and the overall season.
  • He paid attention to individuals’ talents and guided each of us so we would progress as rapidly as possible.
  • He built relationships with his athletes on the basis of mutual respect for our roles and responsibilities.

No doubt he was well served by many years of experience as a coach, but that’s still a tall order.

Yet isn’t it what all coaches do? On the other hand, is it all that one should expect from a coach? It begs the question:

What’s a “coach,” really?

A coach can, and must, be many things. But people generally agree about the following roles that a coach can fulfill:

  1. Teacher / Instructor / Technical Expert
  2. Planner / Scheduler
  3. Motivator ( / Cheerleader / Disciplinarian)
  4. First Aider ( / Medical Advisor)
  5. Basic Nutrition Advisor

I put a few items in parentheses because they represent certain expectations of coaches which I feel are not reasonable, or smart. For instance, unless the coach is a medical professional, the advice provided really should be very limited, and always conclude by telling the athlete to seek the opinion of a healthcare professional of the relevant specialty (or a GP with an interest in physical activity, though any GP should be professional enough to refer instead of just saying “stop”).

As to being a disciplinarian, really, that should fall in another category such as legal and/or sport regulations. The coach is expected to teach the rules of behaviour and sportspersonship, not to enforce them. (However, the coach must abide by such decisions as rendered by referees and disciplinary bodies, and support such decisions. But I digress.)

Finally, let’s hold off on talking about cheerleading for the moment.

Do I believe a coach, a good coach being implied, has to do all of that?

My answer is: It depends.

What most adult “athletes” seem to need

Nowadays, you see a lot of coaches who are primarily fitness instructors, in a very limited sense of showing techniques and guiding through workouts, and motivators, bordering on cheerleaders. Especially in gyms, the kind that one joins in order to lose weight (oh, and get into better shape as well, but primarily to look better).

This is fine for the majority of people who dabble in spurious gym attendance and faddish, er, novel, exercise classes. It might even be exactly what some people need. But it might also explain a great deal about the tendency for people to sign-up for, and then drop, such classes and gyms.

You see, there is a big difference between being able to illustrate how to do something, and being able to teach someone how to do it right, possibly by modifying the movement and gradually bringing about the correct form. That’s teaching, not instructing.

And there is a big difference between cheering someone on while they are exercising, and making exercising so much fun (or at least enjoyable) that they’ll keep coming. That the difference between being a cheerleader, and being a good motivator.

More to the point, coaching should involve personal attention to the needs and progression of the individual. Being instructor to dozens of people at the same time, seeing up to hundreds of fitness enthusiasts each week, is not the same kind of coaching as taking a few individuals through the skills and fitness development they need to complete a triathlon, for instance.

A lot of those instructors and personal coaches come from a relatively recent discovery of the benefits of being more fit, and keep on going by becoming coaches themselves. Their personal experiences (“I went from so many pounds, to looking like this, so you can do it, too!“) speaks to hopefuls, and gets them hooked. Often enough, a group dynamics also forms that further motivates participants, which is what gyms and classes count on.

But that kind of motivation is not, ultimately, what will keep folks showing up at the gym, or get truly fit and healthy. What is needed for that is a real Purpose, not just rapidly fading enthusiasm.

And beware in particular of any coach who offers more than a generic level of nutrition advice. Especially if they start talking about supplements, or some strange cleansing diet. A coach ought to know enough to provide some guidance as to how to eat well, but unless he or she is a nutritionist, it should only go so far.

I am not (really) trying to put anyone down; I’m simply trying to point out that there is a wide range of people having claims on the title “coach,” and that not all of them are the same.

Does that mean only certified coaches should be able to call themselves coaches? (Let’s forget for a moment that there are numerous bogus certifications out there…) Certainly not: You can find excellent coaches that have not bothered to obtain certifications by recognized sports bodies. Especially in sports like running and triathlon.

What matters for adults, who have the life experience to make their own decisions, is that there be a good approach to coaching, one that suits their own needs.

There is, however, one exception to the “certification not required” statement:

What kids need

Childhood is a critical time in the learning of skills and fitness principles.

Unfortunately, too many kids are turned off from sports through old-fashioned (and simply wrong-headed) gym classes. Coaches can play a role there, if the kids are also taking extra-curricular activities like soccer, football, baseball, or hockey, but that’s an uphill battle if gym classes set the wrong tone.

Worse than gym class, however, is when kids are being yelled at by improvised coaches who focus more on performance than on development.

Pretty much every parent wants his or her kids to be healthy and to move, so participation in little leagues is pretty strong. Which means the teams need coaches, and lots of them. Hence the parents are asked to help out.

While it is commendable of parents to want their kids to move (they seem to be applying something they understand intuitively, yet don’t do themselves), putting them into the hands of just about anybody is not a good idea. Adults don’t see team sports the same way as kids do, and so emphasis is often put on competition instead of fun. (And I’m not even talking about parents with dreams of their kids becoming professionals.)

Coaching, Sports, Movement

Coaching kids: not the same as coaching adults.

That is something certified coaches are trained to deal with. That’s why I would much prefer there be fewer teams, with good coaches, than large leagues with yelling parents pretending to be coaching the teams.

Ok, I’ll admit, even some certified coaches are pushing the performance aspect too much, and much too soon. We are all human, it seems. But it is something that coaches are drilled about, and do know better, so a friendly reminder from time to time wouldn’t hurt.

Ultimately though, I feel it is primarily the job of parents to encourage their kids to move and learn to use their bodies. For that, nature has equipped us with a desire to play, to have fun. Organized sports and gym classes can be a part of that, but not at the cost of kids having fun.

The best thing one can do with kids is be a good example by moving as much as possible, and play with them (or let them play and organize their own games, that way they also learn to socialize). If you insist on organized team sports, make sure the coaches are certified and have the right approach to your kids’ age group and development level…

What a really good coach does

I’ve laid the foundation, put in place a few caveats, and even talked about kids. Together with the first post, you should start to get the picture of what a good coach’s actions and behaviour should be.

Next time, I’ll focus on what makes a good coach for adults interested in getting fit, and/or picking up a fun sport like triathlon.

Stay tuned.

Photos from Pixabay.

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

What’s wrong with this picture?

landover-89813_1280

Just a hint: It’s not just in the picture.

No, it is not the Navy game; nothing against that. It is not because it is American Football; though I’m not a fan, it is a very demanding sport. And it is not the picture itself, though I might have framed it differently.

Here’s what is wrong with this picture:

For some 40 guys that are playing a game, there are thousands in the stands just sitting on their rear ends, watching. And eating bad stuff. And drinking even worse stuff (and I don’t mean just the beer).

What’s worse, a large portion of them drove (see all the cars?) to be able to sit and watch a very small group of people move.

What’s worst, for those thousands watching the game in this stadium, there are many more watching from the comfort of their living rooms, not even having walked to their cars, and then from their cars to the stadium, to watch. And who knows what stuff those watching from home eat and drink? (Though you can bet it is less expensive than what is sold in the stadium.)

Why am I picking on this?

Just to make a simple point: As a society, we love to watch sports. And if you move plenty the rest of the time, it is not a bad thing. But we are way too sedentary; we tend to watch a lot, and not move nearly enough. And while we watch, all too often we eat at the same time…

It’s a perfect recipe for loss of fitness, weight gain, metabolic stress, etc.

Perhaps it is not your case. Perhaps I am preaching to choir, as they say. But the point remains: To be more fit, we need to watch less, and move more.

Photo from Pixabay.