A Shift in Sports Performance

By Michelle Boland, PhD, CSCS

There’s a huge lack of awareness of what individuals in the fitness and performance industry are capable of doing and can do. Fitness professionals are the most important practitioners in the health care system but can be the most overlooked. My first few years working in the sports performance field, I often got the question: “Why are you a strength and conditioning coach disappointed tone)?” That question always bothered me as it came with assumptions: that I was too good for the job, that strength and conditioning is attached to a stigma of higher education being unnecessary, the career is viewed as a fall back for people who like to exercise, or that I should be doing something more important. I am uncomfortable with all those assumptions.

There are great minds in the fitness and performance industry who just happen to have a passion for training. Those minds are also not myopic, they are creating a paradigm shift in the fitness and performance industry. I am lucky enough to work with some of those individuals who blow me away every day with their level of knowledge and PURSUIT of knowledge. I will be referring to sports performance from a context focused on collegiate athletics, but inferences can be made throughout the fitness industry and the general population. The grand unified theory that I will be discussing is a theory that can be used to shift our performance training paradigm. We are going to raise the bar of what is possible and what we are doing with athletes and clients.

I recently returned from Dr. Ben House’s Functional Medicine Retreat in Costa Rica; Yes, a strength and conditioning coach attended a functional medicine retreat, this is the paradigm shift. One of the presenters was Dr. Bryan Walsh who provided this great analogy: A plant needs 2 things, water and sun. However, the soil it is in dictates how well the plant will respond to the water and sun. Well, humans are the same way. Our physiology is what dictates how well human’s will respond to diet and exercise. As a sports performance coach we need to apply our knowledge and PURSUE knowledge on human physiology in order for athletes to get the most out of training in relation to the outcome of performance.

What is Sports Performance?

We like to make things simple: If I program hang cleans, the athlete will develop the quality of power and perform their sport better. I can even objectively measure whether that athlete is improving in the hang clean exercise by testing. Boom. It’s as easy as that, right? But they play ice hockey, so how do I measure if getting better at the hang clean is making them a better ice hockey player? That’s a good question. I test their skating speed? Boom. Done. So, their ability to hang clean more weight and skate goal line to goal line in a quiet arena with about 10 people watching, no puck in play, and no stakes involved, is an indicator of game performance?

Performance is complex and multi-factorial and my job should be complex and multi-factorial. We are going to have to consider all aspects of performance which is governed by a complex interaction of variables: Task, Organism, and Environment. Performance improvement needs to consider EXPOSURE to elements of these variables and address CONSTRAINTS within these variables.

The specific task being performed is related to the goal of the task and the rules governing the task. The task can include shooting (skill specific) or it can involve an exercise during training; in all accounts it needs to be accomplished within the rules and be related to a goal. The goal of shooting is to put the puck in the net to score points (consistently AND WITH INTENT) and the goal of an exercise is to acquire a training quality with the idea of translating into performance.

How can we incorporate this into training? Manipulate the task (exercise) by setting rules and the completion of the rules accomplishes the goal (exercise). For example, the Kettlebell Deadlift can be accomplished by setting rules: start and end with the KB on a line, stand with midfoot on the line (shout out to Dan Sanzo). We can also educate athletes on the task in its relation to sport performance, which will improve intent.

In relation to performance, the sport itself involves rules, pace, and skills which all need to be specifically trained related to specific game exposure. Specific exposure involves incorporating all variables to the highest intensity or closest to game experience. An example would be creating competition within the specific environment of play, with the same people, with similar rules, with similar movements, and under similar pressures.

In relation to a team setting create competition days within the weight room and consistent testing to expose them to challenge (understanding what a ‘10’ feels like on a scale of 1-10 is a valuable tool). During high intensity practice days, practice at the highest intensity mimicking the game. Our job is to provide exposure to create adaptation and influence outcome.

The environment is what is acting on the system. It is the location of the contest, noise, crowd, weather conditions, and stakes of the competition. It is elements that effect the organism/player which can even include social relationships. Does the athlete respect/like the coach? Did they get into a fight with their significant other before the game? Do they respect their teammates?

Environment also includes the food available to the athlete. Coaches usually harp on athletes about their diet and body composition but rarely connect their actions to their goals. The environment we are creating for that athlete to succeed should do just that, help them succeed. The habits and routines that we want them to have should be facilitated through education, priority setting, and resources available. If you actually care about nutrition and you WANT your athletes to care, why are we creating an environment that provides pizza as a post-game meal? Does that action align with your goals? Is that creating and environment for that athlete to succeed?

The organism category is the player. This incorporates sports psychology, exercise physiology, and biomechanics. The role of the sports performance coach is usually boxed into the silo of biomechanics and physiology. We assess movement and fitness in order to develop exercise programs that will improve the qualities tested (at least that’s the goal). We want to create structural (ex. increase number of mitochondria) and functional (ex. decrease mile time) adaptations. This is where WE thrive. We can sit at a computer for hours and create complex rep schemes and program design. It’s what we love. But the athlete can easily sabotage your program by wrecking it with outside factors.

Show awareness that other factors exist besides your block periodization plan. Don’t take things too personally when an athlete comes in and isn’t excited to do your epic 5-3-1 rep scheme that day. Maybe they just failed an exam, were up until 2am studying, found out that their parents are getting a divorce, just broke up with their significant other. Maybe they perceive you as a jerk and don’t want to do your program. CREATE A WELCOMING TRAINING ENVIRONMENT AND TRY TO BE A GOOD PERSON. Performance needs to factor in all aspects of stress load, exposure, and avenues of interventions because they all matter. The whole matters, not just the parts. A HUGE part is psychological.

We need to create an environment where people can express their struggles and emotions. We currently live in a world full of superficial relationships with social media friendships. We shouldn’t play therapist but we should create an environment that encourages dialogue and communication where people can understand each other and express themselves. Having a sport psychologist referral is a way to incorporate an interdisciplinary collaboration. If you want to learn more about this or understand how it effects everyone, even professional athletes please read this article by Kevin Love titled “Everyone is going through something.” 

Sport performance coaches should explore knowledge of how psychological, physiological, biomechanical (Human), and environmental (Environment) factors interact with the performance outcome/result (Task/goal). We should respect the dynamic nature of constraints and their respective contribution to performance at any given time (Glazier, 2017).

Reducing the number of constraints within each category/component can improve the number of possible configurations that a complex system can adopt in respects to contribution to performance (collective output). Constraints within these variables/categories can create limitations and barriers (ex. fatigue, anxiety) Small-scale changes may have a large-scale impact. A component of this would be to consider actions that are excluded by constraints compared to actions that are caused by the constraint.

How do we do this?

Create a holistic/interdisciplinary approach to performance:

Steps for a better outcome as a fitness or performance coach:

  1. Create a team of referrals and professionals. We need to break down the silos (Glazier, 2017). We need to create an interdisciplinary, collaborative approach to sports performance. Find local physical therapists that you trust to deal with pain, find a local psychologist, and find a local sport nutritionist. Talk to the people you surround yourself with and learn about their areas so you can speak the same language. You will lose by-in and confidence if you speak negatively about other professionals or if the athlete is hearing different opinions.

Environment: Holistic Approach:

 Provide them with the tools to succeed outside of exercise; with the illusion that they have knowledge of the exercise they are participating in. Seriously though. Are athletes leaving with an understanding of how to exercise when they leave college? Do they know how exercise improves health? Do they have a baseline knowledge about exercise and health?

  • We often lose sight of how the other 22-23 hours in a day outside of the gym can influence performance and health.
  • Provide them with education and an understanding about how sleep, nutrition (micronutrient and macronutrients), stress, and gut health (yes, we have conversations about the microbiome and probiotics) which can all have an enormous effect on performance and health.
  1. Open communication and provide resources about social connections (interactions with other players), intentions, skills for crucial conversations, and creating a successful environment.
    • Consider both inter-individual and intra-personal relationships
    • Environment breads quality of life and genetic expression
    • Have conversations about who they associated themselves with: Do the people they surround themselves with support the process of accomplishing their goals or do they do the opposite?
  1. Set an example of behavior/habits.
    • Ultimately you need to work on yourself before you can help or attend to others.
    • EXPRESS GRATITUDE. Gratitude is the opposite of threat so create an unthreatening environment in which athletes genuinely know that their work is appreciated. (Learned this from Dan Sanzo).

Organism: Create opportunities to make better people

  1. Provide opportunity to develop as athletes as people. Instead of complaining that an athlete is immature or misbehaving, that can be an opportunity for a life lesson. Show that you care outside of how much weight they can lift.
    • Create a process driven environment instead of a goal driven environment (shout out to Kyle Dobbs).
    • Attending college should not just be a time to chase a degree or grades in the hope of getting a job. College is about learning to understand who you are and who you want to be. Students and athletes often become lost after graduation when they lose their identity as a student or athlete.

Task: Choice of Training Modalities: Train them HARD and SMART:

  1. Provide challenge and exposure. Challenge athletes personally and physically. Provide athletes with fitness and challenge so they can physically increase the body’s ability to cope with the physical stress of their sport. Challenge them mentally by creating competition and make them think. Challenge them with accountability and standards.
  • We should understand that there is more than getting athletes to increase their max deadlift weight. There are consequences to training (especially myopic training), which implies both positive and negative results. Increasing an athlete’s deadlift max may reduce their performance on the field. Performance enhancement is complex and multi-factorial. The important thing is how the athlete plays their sport.

Conclusion

 The Grand Unified Theory was originally introduced by Newell (1986). In order to accomplish a performance outcome we need to consider how organism, task, and environment interact to influence behavior (coordination and control). Constraints within these categories provide boundaries and limitations that reduce the number of coordinative configurations (options) and create compensations that impact behavioral output. A limitation to performance can be anxiety. Lack of exposure to any of these variables can create anxiety due to lack of control. Anxiety as an emotion can physically manifest shifting from an external to internal focus of attention.

We also can take away from this theory that there are no absolutes. Sports performance can and should incorporate a wide variety of knowledge and the PURSUIT of knowledge. If you do what you have always done, you will be what you’ve always been. Explore not just the what but explain how and why it happens. We need to start rewriting what our industry is rather than letting people define what our field is. There is no such thing as having all the answers but change happens when we ask the right questions and pursue the answers…

References

Glazier, P.S. (2017). Towards a Grand Unified Theory of Sports Performance. Human Movement Science, 56, 139-156.

Newell, K.M. (1986). Constraints on the development of coordination. In M.G. Wade & H.T.A Whiting (Eds), Motor development in children: Aspects of coordination and control, 341-360.

 

Unconventional Powerlifting Preparation: Challenging the Old School Mentality

I’ve always been one that’s quick to adapt to ideas, concepts, and practices that produce better results than what I was previously attaining. Letting go and moving on to better methods helps my clients achieve better results.

This is why one of our core values for our gym, Enhancing Life, is Progressive.

We created an environment that encourages change and innovation. New information and updated ideas will always be applied to better serve the needs of our clients and staff.

I’m progressive AF. I’m like the Bernie Sanders of the fitness industry. Why else do you think I wear glasses?

I’m okay with admitting I was once wrong, leaving things behind, trying new things, and letting my clients know that sometimes we stop doing certain things to better service them.

For example, one day I learned that better pelvic positioning during lifting could be attained by tucking the hips compared to my previous cue, squeezing the glutes. That following week, I never cued it again and taught my clients the difference between tucking and squeezing.

This willingness to change requires keeping your ego in check, which unfortunately, many coaches struggle with.

I thought that everyone who was presented with new information would be willing to admit that they were wrong and adapt the new information to improve client’s results.

Change for people is hard. People get emotionally attached to certain mentalities, methods, exercises, and philosophies. Then when confronted with conflicting beliefs, dogmatism and defensiveness takeover, and no progress is made.

It was very early on in my career that I gravitated towards the post rehab population. When I first joined the industry, I had mentors with a powerlifting background. When I asked where I could learn more about programing for the general population (with the post rehab people in mind), I was told to read 5-3-1.

However, 5-3-1 wasn’t helping me get my deconditioned post-rehab client who had never lifted more than 20lbs in their life move better and gain confidence in the gym. What did though, was breathwork.

With the immediate results I saw, I became obsessed. I wanted to know every breathing and biomechanical thing I could get my hands on. I ended up getting my massage license, took several continuing education courses, practiced daily what I learned, and imposed my will on people.

The deeper I got into it, the more I realized that movement is not so simple.

My exercise selection was constantly evolving. Cues and activities were always getting left behind when I found something that expedited results.

And around 3 years ago I ran into a huge problem. It wasn’t a simple, “hey we don’t squeeze anymore, let’s tuck the hips like this” kind of fix.

It was a paradigm shift in how I train client.

I was starting to question conventional industry wisdom: “row twice as many times as you press” or “pinch the shoulder back and down”, and those damn band pull aparts.

All things I was doing for years.

I started questioning how powerlifters “fixed” problems they saw on the training floor, such as adding extension to someone rounding over during a lift.

Or does the person losing upper back position during a deadlift really need to hammer more lat pulldowns and band pull aparts?

Or does the lifter who can’t get their elbows down on their back squat really need to open up their chest and pull their shoulder blades back?

And what got the biggest backlash: Would a competitive lifter get weaker if they got away from their extension-based exercises and chased some movement variability?

I was repeatedly told that if a powerlifter chased variability, they’d lose what “made them great” at their sport.

This belief had beginner powerlifters do the opposite of what I was trying to do with them because they were told they’d lose strength if they got away from extension based exercises.

Finally, in 2017, I was able to put my unconventional methods to the test.

Tracy Jones, a world class powerlifter, was referred to me. She was barely able to walk without feeling discomfort, couldn’t sit in the car without feeling miserable, and didn’t have the mobility to squat below parallel without a massive weight shift and pain.

Limited variability isn’t a problem, until it’s a problem.

It’s a problem if it’s affecting your lifts. It’s a problem if you can’t hit certain depth in your squat. It’s a problem if your quality of life starts falling apart. It’s a problem if doctors are telling you that your done competing.

What “made her great” was about to finish her powerlifting career.

If you think you have the ability to take an athlete’s sagittal plane dominance away from them and make them weak, let me tell you, we’re not that good. No one is.

The 10-15 minutes a day Tracy spent chasing variability did not stop her from being an absolute monster on the training floor 4-5 times a week. What it did do was produce positive change in the way she moved, in a manner specifically targeted at her movement limitations.

The result? Hitting squat depth without pain, and staying in the game that she loves.

(These’s squats are about a year apart. On the first one Tracy has a pretty big shift as she tries to come up from the bottom. She was also not able to squat below parallel without a ton of pain. During the second video, she has less of a shift, comes up from the bottom without breaking down, and NO pain! )

Between Tracy Corey Hayes, and the other powerlifters I’ve worked with, I have yet to hear a single complaint about the better movement they’ve achieved.

So if you’re a powerlifter, train powerlifters, train the general population that lifts heavy, don’t be afraid to break away from extension-based exercises, don’t be afraid to do the opposite of what you’ve always done when it comes to “maintenance work”.

If you’re openminded in trying new things, let me get you started 😊

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as giving you one list of exercises. Everyone is different. I can’t just throw a blanket warm-up and tell you that is THE warm-up that every lifter needs.

What I gave Tracy Jones was different than what I gave Corey Hayes.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t guide you to the right direction or work with you to find out exactly what you need.

Here’s what we need to do.

STEP 1: ADDRESS DEFAULT RIBCAGE POSITION

The body is great at giving you illusions and as a coach, you can’t trust your eyes. As a lifter, you can’t trust what you feel. Muscles that feel extremely tight, might be the complete opposite, and blindly stretching it because of the way it feels, might cause more harm than good.

An example of not trusting your eyes would be rounding over during a deadlift. It may look like you’re lacking extension, but that probably isn’t the case. Below is an easy explanation that I take my students through when we talk about when I’m teaching them not to get fixated on the visual assessment.

Because I can’t trust my eyes to guide my client’s correctives, I use assessments like the infrasternal angle (ISA) and obers test to help me decided what do with each client. These tests can tell me the position of the pelvis and rib cage may be in.

Looking at the ISA helps me determine what kind of exercise to choose for each person, what kind of arm position will achieve better movement results, what positions may better drive change, and what breathing style will best address movement limitations.

By being guided by the ISA, I always end up getting changes throughout the body, such as shoulder mobility.

Or hip mobility, decreased tightness or discomfort.

So what angle do you or your client have?

Is it wide?

If so, you would like to start your warm-up with these types of activities

But what if it’s narrow?

Then I’d start with these warmup activities.

And if you’re not sure, you can work with me online and I can customize your warm-up so you’re not doing a bunch of mobility activities that don’t produce results.

If you’re interested in checking your client’s ISA, check out Zac’s video that is attached below, and my article where I go into more detail on why I use it as an assessment tool.

Once you have your 1-2 activities to get your started, let’s dive into other common activities that you might be doing that could be substituted for something more effective.

STEP 2: ADDRESS THE RIBCAGE’S RELATIONSHIP TO THE SHOULDER BLADES

A greater pull to push ratio was done to theoretically create a strong upper back, to “undo” all the benching in a program, and keep their shoulders healthy to stay in the game.

Sadly, this philosophy has a shaky foundation. Literally. Shoulder blades require a congruent foundation to sit upon to allow for effective movement. That foundation is the ribcage.

Look at the client’s ribcage as the door frame, and the door as the shoulder blades. For years I’d been trying to fix the door (shoulder blades), but this whole time the door frame (rib cage) was the one that needed work.

If a door frame is crooked, will you ever have a functioning door?

No.

Same with the shoulder blades. If the shoulder blades don’t have a rib cage to sit on, you might see some movement limitations and restrictions: anterior humeral glide, keeping the back together during lifts, issues with shoulder blade retraction, winging, hunched over back, limited shoulder flexion…..the list can go on and on.

Shoulder blades can move on a fixed rib cage, but don’t forget that a rib cage can move on fixed shoulder blades.

When I began to appreciate this movement, I got away from band pull aparts and Y T Is. Instead, I programmed reaching activities like rockback breathing, arm bars, reaching squats and quadruped work into my group classes. Even with my rudimentary understanding, I immediately noticed client’s movement quality, especially around the shoulders, improve in ways I never thought possible. I was sold!

Having a healthy relationship between the ribcage and shoulder blades gives all the muscle in that region better leverage to work. Better leverage means better mobility, strength, work load distribution, and less discomfort.

Try doing activities that work on the position of the rib cage instead of hammering a bunch of isolated scap work.

Rockback Breathing

Supine Arm Bar

Sidelying Band Reach

Reaching Squat

Still can’t break that pulling addiction? Try one arm pulls while keeping the opposite arm reaching. This movement places the rib cage in a better position for the shoulder blade to glide smoothly along. Say goodbye to winging, shrugging, pinching, and other compensations you may have experienced in the past.

Supine Band PNF

Half Kneeling Band PNF

For a more in-depth article on why pulling wont undo your benching, check out Justin Moore’s article “Why We Must Reach” and follow him on social media!

 

STEP 3: STOP STRETCHING HIP FLEXORS!

Conventionally, stretching hip flexors was thought to improve hip extension, but muscle lengthening is near impossible.

Unfortunately, this stretch doesn’t take into account pelvic position. In the above stretch, the pelvis remains in a flexed position, which leaves the hip flexors in a shortened position. What ends up being stretched are the anterior ligaments in front of the hip. <- Not good.

What to do instead?

Drive hip extension by getting hamstrings to pull the pelvis into a position of extension, which will result in lengthening of the muscles that you’re trying to stretch.

Before I share with you what to do instead, let’s go over the next exercise you can leave behind because they’ll have the same substitutes, might as well kill two birds with one stone 😊

STEP 4: BURN THOSE BANDED GLUTE BRIDGES AND MONSTER WALKS

It’s not that these activities are causing you harm. It’s that your time is precious.

If you’re going to spend time doing any breathing/corrective/maintenance work at all, I’d rather you spend it on activities that may do a better job at making you move and perform better.

A lot of people do banded glute work because they’re trying to “activate” or “turn-on” their posterior chain. Even though getting the posterior chain to fire is important, you’re better off putting the pelvis in a better position that changes the length-tension relationship to those posterior chain muscles, allowing them to perform better.  Just because you feel a muscle burn, doesn’t mean you’re making a positive impact on how that muscle will perform in other movements.

So instead of stretching the shit out of your anterior hip ligaments, doing 15 different banded glute bridges and multi directional band walks, do activities that alter the position of the pelvis. These movements will put less strain on the hip flexors, and put the glutes in a better position for them to work during your training session.

Supine Hip Extension Drill

Half Kneeling Breathing

Toe Touch to Squat

And then you can add a little intensity to these new positions. I would focus on the sagittal plane with the next few exercises. Really making sure your hips are tucked with some hamstrings, working on trying to keep your rib cage on top of your pelvis vs arching your back.

Glute Ham Raise Hold

Glute Ham Raise

KB Front Squat

Assisted Step Up

RFES

If you’re wanting to take this to the next level and start working on all three planes, which would be great during the off-season, I’d read Pat Davidson’s article, and check out this podcast where he goes over what a powerlifter should to do during the off-season.

After going through everything I wrote out for you, you should have a pretty badass warm-up.

You’ll start with your two activties you picked after figuring out your ISA. Those breathing activities clients will usually do 3 sets of each with 3-5 breaths each time.

From there you’ll move on to what we call “movement prep”. These activties are usually 3-6 exercises all done 1-2 sets of each with 3-5 breaths/reps.

This should only take 15 minutes to complete. At first when you’re first getting started, it might take a little longer, but once you know the exercises, you can get through them pretty quickly 🙂

On your days off you could go through your whole warm-up or just the first two with your ISA measurement.

 

I hope all of this was helpful!

Until next time 🙂

Lucy