By Carl Valle
After the clear popularity of earlier top five articles on Freelap and a million reads since 2003, I decided to look back see the biggest problem with athletes and injuries are number one. Instead of writing about various interventions and ways to monitor athletes I am going to go full throttle and pull no punches with this article. The number one problem of sports is that coaches are afraid to do the basics over and again as it looks like they are not evolving. Anytime I see a big competition I look at the warm-up and can tell who is likely to win by the facial expression and the attention on moving in an organized manner. In the last ten years I wrote about a dozen articles on warming-up but it seems to be fighting against the tide because the sacred time of getting ready for big efforts is polluted by pseudo-science. My solution is simple; instead of blaming everything and everyone for injuries or poor performance, follow a checklist of ten essential components to properly get ready for quality power work. The article is not sexy or going to share cool studies that you can post to get you more twitter followers, but it will make you appreciate that some concepts are timeless. I will not use thou shalt as it’s cheesy, but if you want use a deep voice from James Earl Jones or even Bane from Dark Knight Rises for full effect!
Be Prepared and Ready
When an athlete is walking in for a warm-up, they are ready to train mentally and physically. Nothing irritates me more than athletes who come to training and see warm-up as a transition to get ready instead of being ready to go. Currently, the trend is to get self-therapy during the time of training, and if you are doing something that is self-guided do it before and after workouts, not during the warm-up. If you need a quick fix to train, rethink the training program or finish rehab. Obviously heavy training is going to leave things tight and a little beat up, but if one needs constant therapies just to do normal training sessions, the training system is lacking. Training, good training, should improve functional abilities not create dysfunctional athletes. Elite athletes with a laundry list of problems from years of training is a different story, but anyone can do those therapy interventions at a different time. If athletes follow the Gary Winckler model and leave workouts the way they want to feel starting the next session, we are going to have better outcomes down the road. Finally, athletes should be prepared with all needed attire and have done the needed little things, so they don’t have to leave practice for excessive bathroom breaks and equipment.
It Takes Time
Athletes and coaches must see warm-up as the period before the hardest component of training, not a segregated period to do things before one trains. Training is a continuum and warming up is never ending, since each effort in maximal output will continue the loop of the training cycle. To think that 5-10 minutes is all it takes to be ready is foolish, and even weight room workouts with poor warm-up time periods can benefit with a little more time. When a plane is going to take off, the pilots do an extensive review of the equipment with a checklist. That is one reason air travel is safer than medical procedures according to the Checklist Manifesto. Coaches need to progress and do many things to encourage a great training session. That includes dynamic mobility with real exercise choices, drills and other teaching options, and a slow progression of intensity in order to reduce risk of injury during practice. Five minutes is barely enough time to do attendance or perform a full set of strides. If I have an hour, I am spending half warming up because you can do some great training during the warm-up, it’s not just jogging anymore.
Temperature is Underrated
For ten years, I have explained that body temperature is the simplest way to improve performance and reduce injury. So many research studies use telemetry of core temperature of elite athletes and that usually means they are swallowing a pill or inserting sensors in areas that are not exactly popular with everyone. Why does temperature matter? Science is 100% sure but when John Smith says “cook the bird to the bone” I listen. What we do know is that the output is higher with those that warm-up, and so many chemical reactions help prime the body. Injuries are hard to dissect with warm-up routines, but not moving isn’t getting ready for a fight for flight event like explosive exercise. I am all for breathing, tissue work, and stretching, but doing those activities usually are not the same as a real traditional movement program. Just because you reduce rest and place “new” things into a circuit doesn’t mean its warm-up. I have invested in Thermography for years to see what works and what is not helping, and warm-ups are nearly pass-fail. When it doubt, sweat it out!
Teach by Doing not by Explaining
Coaches love to lecture and do speeches like Any Given Sunday, but the truth of the matter save them for later and get to work. You can talk and do whiteboarding for hours and nothing beats hands-on doing. I spend more time talking about non-training things after observing some amazing coaches at work. I wondered where all magic cue words and instructional exchanges were when I visited. I quickly learned it’s about the learning of the athlete, not the teaching of the coach. Good workouts peel away errors and reinforce good habits, and that comes from minimalism not by cute analogies and shouting abracadabra to sound smart. Self-Organization requires tons of preparation in designing workouts, so don’t think rolling out medicine balls and hurdles one is going to create the next Dayron Robles. Teaching is about exposure to the right elements and guiding by doing just enough to create a tipping point in skill acquisition. Here are three simple concepts to integrate a little teaching in the warm-ups.
- Nudge – Sometimes a small suggestion or adjustment sometimes breaks the barrier or execution, and coaches should think about doing enough lightly to guide an athlete versus overkill of excessive talking and explaining. Less is usually more.
- Tug – Holding back an athlete by reducing complexity or other variables to stabilize the activity execution is enough to get something accomplished. Usually dialing down a little is better than giving up on something that may just come together and fall into place with a slight adjustment.
- Let Go – Sometimes athletes need to focus and just do it. Dealing with pressure and dealing with challenges are needed to grow. If a coach is excellent, the athlete will develop with and without them, so let the ego move to the side and trust that passionate athletes can problem solve.
Conditioning is not Dated or Passé
Athletes need to be fit. I hate the word fitness because it sounds like Jazzercise or similar, but fitness is before performance. Don’t come to me talking about insane training goals when you are gassed after a thorough warm-up. I see a lot of athletes fade at the end of the season because they spent more time doing wimpy exercises than they spent time on creating a deep and wide foundation. I don’t think one needs marathon workouts or endless training circuits for “Cardiac Output” but something is needed to get the physiological adaptations that encourage handling heavy work later on in the year. Recovery is not about ice baths or secret protein drinks, but starts with being in shape. One presentation I did on recovery was mostly about training and people were expecting supplements and massage, but those are the last 10% of a good program. We have a saying that our warm-ups are your workouts, meaning we are likely more fit compared to the average program. I have seen this slogan on t-shirts, but I got the idea from Mighty Subs in the 1990s when then boasted that “their small is their large.” The goal of the warm-up density and volume is to create a stimulus to improve capacity of quality work not become a cross country runner. Seeing warm-up as a light workout is a safe bet, but it’s preparing to sprint not doing a session too demanding. The workout should enhance speed, not dull it. Just having a solid warm-up and add 15-20 of general work can add to the 250-300 days a year people are training.
Embed the Screening
Screening athletes is a continual process, and Dan Pfaff said it best when he explained that screening is part of coaching. Screening should be both isolation and integration. Efforts to see the changes should include a cessation from normal schedules and add a medical evaluation by a good therapist and have a warm-up that includes a checklist of activities that can track issues that are probable causes of poor performance and etiological risk factors. Eventually, a warm-up will lead to the actual full maximal or near-maximal activity, so screening should systematically evaluate the process and flag problems before they become out of control. Managing is about minimizing and not elimination because the very nature of pushing the body past levels thought were unimaginable is a known risk. Good screening activities are simple exercises that reveal potential hazards, but don’t spook athletes thinking that something that is sore is an injury. Pain science is not perfect and even the experts fail. Unless training is causing structural damage that is career or season threatening, be conservative and work with sports medicine not be a pseudo therapists with false diagnosis. To me, pain is warning system if interpreting correctly, but sometimes inflammation and mental state can create false positives. Pain is subjective, and athletes have functioned with torn tendons and ligaments because of sheer will, so be warned. Elite sport is different. While many concepts are the same to regular Joes and share universal concepts of rehabilitation, preparing an elite athlete has experience and skills different than average patients. The opposite is true, as the weekend warrior who is older will not on average follow the same guidelines as the professional or college athlete. Give them expectations and methods different than what you would do with an elite. Here are some guidelines that matter.
- Biomaterial Remodeling – No screen is perfect, but the key to reducing injuries is to manage training load and recovery, as well as controlling forces to keep overload and tissue failure from happening. That is very complicated, individual, and highly genetic so don’t expect any screen, even the best options, to be perfect.
- Acute Pain versus Chronic Pain – When an injury has healed, the goal of a good therapy and coaching should focus on the mindset. When fatigue and fear seep into the environment, past experiences will create a haunting scenario. I use the term exorcising the demons to explain that pain is a spectrum of experiences and may be emotional and not physical. Good coaches and therapist give the right training to re-pattern the athlete’s mind to remove pathways that revert to pain experiences.
- Positive Environment – Highly educated coaches cause more pain syndromes than ignorant ones. Why? When you are looking for imbalances or injuries, the athlete will believe that something is wrong and may feel phantom pain. I wonder if some of the best therapists are just warm and friendly people who give confidence and positive energy.
- Focus on Function – A good warm-up is my screen for sprinting. If you can’t do it, feel free to do a secondary option and get evaluated. Waiting may remove an overreaction, but a well-rounded warm-up can drill down to the very problem by providing clear information. Not all problems stem from biomechanics, but cardinal issues that show up with the connection between motion and the physical structures of the body.
The warm-up is a time that most athletes and coaches will decide if further training is possible. Outline a policy before the gray area causes confusion and stagnation. Screening should be a seamless process, and the role should be directing to further evaluation or choices, not a diagnosis.
Value Social Interaction
The hardest area to balance is the amount of freedom and discipline during practice. Training can’t be silent but also allowing for distractions will ruin long term development. More important communication between athlete and coach and athlete to athlete is essential. Group training dynamics is a part of the game and at the end of the day, talking should be one part productive and one part expressive. The human to human social touch should be part of training just as much as teaching. Relationships matter and trust comes from things outside of expertise; it comes from the athlete knowing you are doing it for them, not using them to get ahead in a career. Most athlete and coaching relationships have the understanding that mutual collaboration is a win win for both parties, but when an athlete leaves the high school level and goes beyond the business side is a reality. Athletes can see through the fake smiles or half-hearted exchanges and know when a coach doesn’t care and when the information is sincere. I have coached high school, college, and post college, and each level my most important value was ensuring athlete health was paramount. No coach wants to be the person that the athlete remembers is the cause for injuries and burnout because the coach had “speed greed”, meaning the focus was results at any cost.
I could write an entire book or multiple chapters on mistakes and discoveries with athlete interaction, but each coach should create their own list of values and make sure they are known. If I had to do things again, I would have made some document for athletes to ensure that peer to peer communication was healthy and that athletes had more input into the process. My warm-up includes a walking period after each drill because it allows time to communicate and reduce the drilling environment from making practice feel like a nasty Broadway rehearsal.
Whatever is your philosophy of training, make sure factor in a healthy social and communication environment that welcomes healthy exchange and fosters encouragement of bonding of the team. Sometimes outside of warm-up is needed like team dinners, and other activities can get the tribal benefits, so training focus is not compromised. Not having a healthy social balance will create mutinies and backlash. Embracing the big picture with team dynamics and warm-ups will not resort to fiestas, I promise.
Build Mental and Physical Connection and Development
I have worked with some great talents and done a decent job getting people better, but sports psychology has beaten me many times. Some of the master coaches are not just technical geniuses, they are builders of championship minds. Many elite athletes have big egos and confidence, but to be world class you need both body and mind prepared for extreme pressures and razor sharp focus. I can’t say I have the answer, but do pose a problem and requirement with coaches thinking it’s just about the X’s and O’s. One warning though, it’s not one or the other it’s both and do know that confidence comes from learning objective improvement, not just positive feedback. All the motivation and positive energy to the athlete after getting smoked isn’t going to help, so it’s about providing the right feedback and the right time.
Any period of length a coach has the available time to talk to an athlete is an opportunity progressively to overload the mind and spirit of the athlete. Success and failure are normal and necessary, and the athletes need reality and objective input by coaches. Coach Hannula shared in his classic work Coaching Swimming Successfully the need for honesty, and breaking down an athlete to build them up is sometimes needed. I think it’s good to complement first before correcting, but times of deep accountability by removing the sugar coating keeps athletes hungry. I wish I had more, but coaches need to think about the eternal flame versus the quickspark. The days after the Olympics many athletes want to train, but the dark periods in December is when many athletes realize that it’s more a marathon than a sprint with training and improvement. Coaches should invest an additional amount of time focusing between the ears and in the heart to get athletes to achieve beyond their dreams. I welcome anyone in the comments section to list good reading or education.
Monitor what is Valuable
Just add the term or word monitoring to any job interview and soon you have a better chance of getting a gig with sports today. Monitoring is not new, and for years, over a hundred in modern sport, coaches have used methods and equipment to get objective data on athletes. Right now, monitoring is used as patchwork to problems monitoring can’t solve. The good news is that data is normal instead of heresy, and some very amazing people have done great things before number crunching became en vogue. Warming up or preparing for speed training allows coaches and athletes to do the needed data collection before, during, and after training.
The age old question is what to monitor with all of the available systems. The answer is deceptively simple, anything you can do over time that doesn’t hurt the daily grind of training. Monitoring warm-up is useful for many things because it’s the precise time one is training. If an athlete is training in the late afternoon and early evening and does a subjective report in the morning, it may mean something completely different right before training. So warming up for speed gives immediate feedback to the reality of what one is experiencing with data that is relevant. A few things coaches want include fatigue, readiness medically, athlete psyche, and of course, speed.
Monitoring doesn’t have to be complicated, and countless options for the physiological state and mental state exist now, but a good 20m sprint is popular with athletes. I frankly overthought CNS fatigue and power testing, but speed athletes want to cut the middleman and get right to warm-up sprints. The time and the sensations of training combine to a great perspective. If an athlete feels off and the times are not jiving, he or she can adjust the training or do what is expected. If the times are great and the athlete feels ready super. The main takeaway is that don’t overthink the obvious and be blinded to easy and straightforward thinking. Simple subjective questions and general wellness tracking can help address the obvious, but good timing and general weekly power tests are great indicators of change. Do what you believe and what you can administer over time. It’s better to under promise and over deliver than start off doing a lot and be unable to see the data over an entire year. Each year add something and see how much you can do as athletes become part of the process.
Remember to have Fun
Periodization of Fun is the most important biomotor skill period. Athletes after years of training will get bored and flat from even solid workouts with normal variety. How to fall in love with effective training without resorting to “EnterTrainment “ and random workouts to keep things interesting. Obviously a few Dodgeball games inside a basketball court with GatorSkin balls can substitute for tempo sessions and bring a coach out of retirement like Tigris of Gaul from the movie Gladiator. What I have learned from age-group coaching is that fun matters, and still use things like Casino Night and Disco Night to spice things up. Warming up becomes a chore only when it’s boring because effort in planning fun is not there. Be creative and put in the effort.
One key to think about is don’t worry about the perfect workout as enough YouTube videos of elites doing stupid training exist to remind us that sometimes people just improve over time rather than one magic workout. I like to save the gimmicks like special sessions with new equipment or different technologies only when things are slow. Also, sometimes changing the venue up or having another coach run the session gives the athlete a break from the monotony. Whatever you do plan fun like any biomotor option. Ask, did we have something interesting or different daily than last year at that time and did we do something once a week for people to look forward to as a reward? Behavior modification and motivation are important factors in training success and should be part of the process in getting athletes better.
Closing Thoughts on the Ten Commandments
The suggestions above are not rocket science, and choose what is important and don’t take anything from this article you feel you don’t agree with. I have confidence that this article has points to consider and even follow carefully, but no article can replace experience and expertise of one’s time at a coaching situation that may have unique challenges. Remember warming up is not junk time or labor, it’s one of the most important parts of training that should be respected.
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