The art of strength and conditioning

I don’t know heaps about art. It was never my favourite subject at school although I once did a pastel drawing of Waisele Sirevi I was quite proud of. I dropped the subject at the earliest opportunity because I didn’t have any desire to be an artist. Little did I know at the time that my career of choice would involve so much artistry.

I’m going to use a well known piece to illustrate, or sculpt, my point. If we view Michelangelo’s David as our goal. A complete athlete at their peak. Flawless perfection. In order to attain that, we strength and conditioning coaches have to start with a piece of stone. We will work with athletes at various points throughout their development. We might be starting at the beginning or adding to another coach’s artistry. At any rate, we are all working towards that same goal.

We chip away with our hammers and chisel’s, we refine, we smooth and we polish. Maybe we work on a certain area a little more at first because we view that as more important to the individual and their sport. Maybe we’ll get one area to a point we’re fairly happy with, in our minds eye it has a little polish and so we focus on another area a little more in the knowledge that we have to come back because the polished area will scuff.

This process is ongoing, maybe infinite. For some of us, it’s our job get some basic shape and pass over to another artist to add more detail, for others we are polishers adding the finishing touches. Sometimes we’re having to repair major flaws so the whole thing doesn’t collapse.

At any rate, there isn’t one set route of development from lump of stone to the finished article, there are so many variables that it’s very difficult to lay out a path or set of intructions for everyone to follow. I’m kind of glad of that because whilst I didn’t want to be an artist at school, I definitely didn’t want to work on an assembly line.


What drives early specialisation?

For this blog I/you have to thank Ian McKeown (@IanMackers – has a good blog here that is definitely worth following) for pointing me in the direction of a blog on early specialisation on twitter . It got me thinking. What is driving this behaviour? The blog mentions the commercialisation of sport and the media glamourising rich athletes creating extrinsic motivation for the young athlete, parents wanting to provide opportunities to excel and a limited number of coaching jobs causing coaches to push athletes into earlier specialisation as reasons. I’d like to delve a little deeper if I may.

I’m not so sure on the first point. Are young athletes driven by the wages and commercial opportunities that are associated with success at the highest levels of sport and the entrapments that so often seem to accompany it? They don’t tend to get mentioned in separate articles within the media. If young athletes read the tabloid press, I’m not sure the hounding that Tiger Woods, Ryan Giggs and Lance Armstrong have received recently would seem too appealing.

I’d say that young athletes are the most likely of anyone to dissociate the celebrity and monetary rewards from the adulation received from having 80,000 screaming their name after making a match winning play. If anyone is to be drawn in by extrinsic rewards, I’d have said parents would be the most likely candidates (see this documentary for details). I’m sure the majority of parents are driven by a will to give their children the best opportunity for success and that was why the dad I saw at 630am the other day was with his two under 10 year old children dribbling a football around cones in the park.

I think that commercialisation of  sport has had an effect but in a different way. Many professional clubs have academy sides that start at a very young age. These sides are seen as a gateway to success and so children (and parents) are trying to get into them. For clubs that rely on developing talent as a source of income by acting as a feeder club, these sides represent an important part of their business model and they perhaps see that the more kids they can hoover up into these sides, they have perhaps more chance of discovering talent and seeing an investment return. Essentially professional clubs are panning for gold. Instead, professional clubs should be playing the role of alchemists.

The approach of sports teams relating to community should be a joined up one across a number of sports. The development of athletic ability should be the primary aim and increasing long term participation in sport. The athlete can then decide what sports they enjoy competing in and have a pathway into whichever sport they choose because they are all involved in the development process. The talented, driven and more committed athletes will still succeed but social interaction between groups of young athletes can be enhanced. This can allow sporting success to be defined and measured differently.

At the top end, success will always be measured in time, distance and points. It has to be. But the success of community sporting projects should be measured in ongoing participation, sports club members, long term health and anti social behaviour and crime. Sport is about so much more than just winning medals and making money. We can’t lose sight of that.



Long term athlete and personal development

I read today about Harry Ellis, the Leicester Tigers and England scrum half who was forced to retire from rugby due to a succession of knee injuries. It must be a huge emotional blow to know that you can no longer do what you’ve been training to do for the majority of your life. I also read a piece on an interview with Barry Everitt (here) who expressed his feelings on the lack of preparation of young athletes for how to cope if the worst does happen.

Professional football and rugby clubs nationwide run academy structures, many of which will take on athletes full time with an eye to developing them for an eventual place in the 1st team or selling on to bigger clubs. Many of these athletes commit full time and withdraw themselves from education, often encouraged by family and friends, to pursue this goal. Inevitably, a number don’t make the grade or become injured and as such have to adjust to life without their sport, try to forge a career in the lower leagues or, in the case of UKsport’s pitch to podium scheme, attempt to make it in another sport. It got me thinking about the ethical considerations surrounding working with youth athletes and the responsibilities attached to their long term development.

Is it the responsibility of the club to attend to the educational and personal development of their athletes? Should the athlete shoulder the responsibility as, ultimately, the decision to sign a professional contract is their own? Is the full time academy environment even the best for developing professional athletes? The conveyor belt of talent from the American collegiate system where athletes have to maintain a certain grade point average suggests that other models exist that could produce a more rounded athlete and provide a guard against failure or injury.

My view? I think that those involved in training elite level youth athletes, myself included, have a responsibility to extol the benefits of education for the long term. In the LTAD model, retirement and retainment occurs neatly at the end of the model, retirement can happen anywhere throughout an athlete’s career and that eventuality needs to be addressed. In short, plan for the worst, hope for the best.