By Carl Valle
I have visited enough pro, college, and high school teams to see what some shrewd coaches have done and what others need to do better. To keep you from slowly learning through trial and error, I will save you time and money by sharing what makes a great training environment and technologies that can help or hamper it. I have been on the support side for technology for 13 years and helped teams deal with complex issues by making things quick and easy.
This article can help make any training facility—from high school to elite—cutting edge without breaking the bank. My goal is to get you started with best practices by pointing out mistakes many coaches are lured into by listening to companies with no experience or understanding of what it takes to keep a group of athletes organized and coached properly. Don’t worry about what other teams are doing. Most of the hype is smoke and mirrors. Instead, put your trust into polishing the basics.
Coaching First, Technology Second
Weight rooms are entering the “science lab” era of evolution, and some coaches worry about being left behind. My coaching friend Bob Alejo explained to me years ago that the most cutting-edge element of coaching is . . . coaching itself. It doesn’t matter if you are using the latest software or coolest smart fabric to get physiological and training loads. Program design and the ability to instruct are timeless. With the increasing reliance on technology, I see more “digital dark ages” with training. The problem is getting worse. Instead of complaining on Twitter, I crunched all the technology reviews I have done for pro and college teams and came up with a “greatest hits” of the most common and useful suggestions suitable for all levels.The most cutting-edge element of coaching is coaching itself. Click To Tweet
General Warning on Technology: Design Trumps Flash Every Time
The best weight rooms function well regardless of whether chalkboards or Apple TV-enabled flat screens are on the side. The core issue with most weight rooms is that they want to add technology to a bad set-up. It amazes me that many quarter-million-dollar weight rooms struggle to function, even with full-time staff and a dozen volunteer coaches. Here is a brief checklist of what you need before adding the latest tech.
- Lean and Clean – Weight room design should be minimalist, with only the essentials. I am disgusted when I see $50K worth of machines with no business being in a modern weight room, like adductor ThighMasters and preacher curls areas. Focus on racks, open space for jump training, and keeping everything spotless. Infections begin in the weight room. I won’t get into cleaning details, but a clean weight room wins games. Heavy training and poor hygiene are a bad combination.
- Focus on Barbells – It’s fine to have other loaded options like dumbbells and weight vests as they are excellent tools, but eventually the use of barbells teaches that getting stronger is the way to get better in team sports. If your weight room looks like a recreation or hotel fitness center you are doomed. We need more training halls that zero in on basic lifts. Overload is boring and not sexy, but focusing on the basics isn’t slowing down Dr. Nic Gill in his work with the New Zealand All-Blacks.
- Segregate Medical and Regeneration – Medical and regeneration areas don’t need to be connected physically. Instead of therapists showing up doing return to play as guests, just use an AMS platform that enables the coach to know what he or she can do and cannot do. A training table in the weight room doesn’t make a program progressive. When athletes focus on recovery, why blast heavy metal while they stretch or do self-care work? It’s like planting a Zen meditation rock garden next to a construction zone or airport.
Design Elegantly—Excel or Cloud Software Solutions
This tip is the most important. The worst technology practices involve online training software and Excel templates. Some great stuff exists, but 90% of what I see makes me want to throw up or give up. I have made some amazing templates and used simple white boards.The secret is the elegant design of training and then the needs of programming in Excel or AMS tools.
Currently, the coaching bottleneck is not writing workouts. Instead, it’s not having access to universal and creative tools to design workouts based on contemporary training theory. It is embarrassing that a 12-year-old with GarageBand software has a better option to do his or her “art” while we are stuck with either hand-me-down Excel templates or suffer from online software that is inflexible and slow as molasses. Coaches go blind with entering data and resemble Zoolander trying to break the computer when the formulas get screwed up. Even the best tools are just electronic versions of graph paper, and we are killing trees with all the cards printed each day.
Another emerging problem is that the only real-time individualization that comes to training is the weight room. Writing workouts for 400 student-athletes, all customized according to needs and current states of orthopedic and fatigue readiness, can singlehandedly increase the divorce rate among performance coaches. Trying to have a life and do a good job with a standard program runs the risk of being labeled “cookie-cutter coaches” or lazy.
The solution is a constraints approach to workouts and focusing on what is realistic and creates a high impact to transfer. I hate the term KISS, so I prefer KICK—Keep It Clear Knucklehead. I start training with metrics or tests that best summarize my training, not testing the talent of athletes. I have seen several athletes show up and dominate speed and power combines because they are genetically gifted, but conditioning and skilled lifting sessions seem to show who is training well and who is just talented and loaded with great DNA.
After testing what you feel are the key benchmarks for training and performance, focus on workouts that best get you there. In the past, I would design based on periodization books. I have over 300 books on annual planning or training. Most are Sports Sci-Fi—not historical workouts of legendary coaches, but self-proclaimed experts drinking their own Kool-Aid and living in a fantasy.
By moving to a benchmark and data-driven programs with practical considerations of environment and time, periodization becomes straightforward instead of Eastern European riddles. Workouts become clear and easier to write. Your energy should be on coaching up an elegant program with hands-on instruction and guidance, rather than working on a block of training needing to be concurrent or conjugate.
Be recursive and repetitive. Music and poetry use repetition to empathize their message. Training is similar. Making changes at the genetic level and disturbing homeostasis isn’t easy, so keep sending the right signals. Not only is repeating training helpful for teaching, but it’s also smarter for monitoring and managing development. If workouts look random, it’s hard to see what is getting better without direct comparison.
Finally, think modular. Most workouts can be built by a series of connections of modular training units that can be plugged into a training session like Lego pieces. Take the elements of your most effective training sessions that run well live and tag the session for easy plug and play. Eventually, a GarageBand experience will come to coaching. Hopefully, the experience is a pleasure, not a punishment.
These suggestions have helped me save time and allowed enough leeway to avoid making things too tight for adjustments.
Enhance Workflow, Don’t Encumber It
Anytime you add steps—whether primitive or high-tech—you increase the risk of mistakes and loss of time. Technology seems to kill more time than the DMV. My rage-inducing pet peeve is jump testing large groups with one testing device, regardless of the quality of data. I favor force plates, but due to the price tag and lack of training time I wonder why they are so beloved in strength and conditioning departments. Sometimes testing jumps can help, but it’s better to use the same money on outfitting a Velocity Based Training option to manage power training.
It’s better to see how training changes and make training the test rather than isolate to jump testing. The same goes for speed testing. Instead of doing combine options with one athlete at a time, simply just do a speed session and see how training improves over time. Only do absolute testing when needed.
Quiz, Test, Examine, Graduate
I like to use the rhythm of grade-school class evaluations for data collection: daily quiz, weekly test, quarterly exam, and career or annual graduation.
Daily – Subjective questionnaires, morning physiological testing, and weighing in should be done every day if possible.
Weekly – Some transient power test should be noted, as well as an aerobic session to ward off chronic fatigue patterns.
Quarterly – Biochemical and absolute testing are helpful to see cellular adaptions and raw athletic output. Keep the tests straightforward and leave excuses and room for interpretation to the pretenders. Enough classic sports science books on power and conditioning exist, so use only universal tried and true tests.
Annual – Write down PRs from the quarterly tests and create a scorecard for seasonal data. Each year development will show up, or if not at least explain what is holding the athlete back.
How does this approach relate to workflow? The biggest time-consumer is collecting data. Best practices involve having enough data to create clarity about what is happening, and data-driven means using enough data. On the other hand, data-driven can lead to “driving one crazy,” so test changes at the pace you expect improvement or need.
One final piece of advice: Measure what you do, don’t do things to measure them. Let the companies and sport scientists find better ways to extract information from training. Some tests are workouts while others express ability but don’t develop it. For example, a soccer player wanting to improve power can do vertical jumps every other day and make progress, but simple leg training will do more because of the overload. When you have to test, don’t compromise the integrity of the data by skipping steps or skimming on the science. Do the protocols right and accept that gathering some information takes time.
Integrate and Embed Sensors
The good technology integrates seamlessly and is embedded in the training process. The problem with good technology is that “embedded” doesn’t sell well. Nobody is seduced by the sleek and shiny more than me, but the best way to support workflow is to embed the technology more intelligently.
Take heart rate straps. One very smart soccer fitness coach explained his disdain for straps because players find them uncomfortable. Some companies have tried to create smart fabric solutions by making wearable tech shirts, but even those have an enclosure that is obtrusive and annoying. Also, smart fabrics break down quickly, making them expensive for most scholastic teams looking to do HR monitoring. In my opinion, you need three to clean and dry them at a rate enabling constant use. I suggest building your own if the companies are not collaborative.
Bar tracking (Velocity Based Training devices) now requires tablets to run effectively. So, teams, listen carefully or don’t say I didn’t warn you. Don’t use the mounting tools the companies suggest, as they have not experienced the wear and tear that coaches know all too well. Do everything custom and don’t mount the tablets in front of the platforms. I made the mistake of wanting athletes to be accountable. Now I just want them to focus on the right load and reps.
Some devices like the Bar Sensei require the user to wait for a reset period per rep, so those must be mounted in front. But as firmware and apps evolve, expect some passive acquisition protocols as companies constantly work on better user experiences. Since iPads and other tablets become caked with chalk dust and sweat from fingers (provided you train like a beast and not a kitten), use a stylus and attach it with a thin chain.
Share Data and Feedback More Intelligently
Building on the earlier tip, sharing data among team coaches and athletes is more of an art than a number-juggling exercise. Some of the wisest moves in the weight room require out-of-the-facility support options like athlete accounts to push video and other information.
With the GoPro and smartphones making video more easily acquired, the real struggle is editing and distribution. Like the custodial staff, video professionals must be treated like royalty. Most teams don’t have biomechanics experts and athletes’ need to consume film is steadily increasing. Sometimes a 5-second delay on a flat screen is great, other times keeping leaderboards in the locker room is a smarter idea. Olympic sports need more video review time; team sports need more efficient use of video.
I don’t do analysis as frequently as in the past; I just go deeper when testing. I like training footage to be trimmed and sent, so athletes have their own ability to slow down and scrub to areas they think give good information. Showing errors in real time should only be done with athletes who respond well to live visual review. I have said this multiple times: Slow-motion review can create temporal issues with motor skill acquisition.
Timing feedback or performance feedback increases output. Dr. Bryan Mann scolded the CVASPS attendees by reminding them that simply measuring and sharing data can create arousal and better training outcomes. Any effort-based testing and training should include some feedback. Remember, though, that feedback doesn’t need to be just bar speed—it can be simply knowing you are going harder. Use the continuum of feedback during heavy training and throttle down by muting the feedback during recovery or maintenance sessions.
Last but not least is the coming digital locker rooms we see with progressive AMS products making sharing smarter and making athletes want to share and collect data coaches want. Feedback is not just for athletes after lifts; it is also among athletes. The more the athletes understand and value the training process, the better the actual sessions will be. Each athlete having an account that collects personal data and shares information properly will change the sports world. Private sharing and mini-team communities will drive compliance when other culture issues seem to fail.
Learn How to Master Automation and Streamlining
Most coaches give up family time to help their second family. They spend a lot of time doing tedious jobs and tasks. Technology needs to work for us, yet I see few solutions that make my life easier. Most solutions are thinly disguised opportunities to access my eyeballs with added “features” (marketed parts of the software I don’t want or need) so they can brainwash my buying patterns. Great solutions cut time, remove routine work, and keep things error-free.
The solution to having technology work for you is automation. Creating procedures and routines that don’t require the coach at all is the secret. Being brilliantly lazy involves a lot of work upfront, but it pays off exponentially later. Let’s start with the basics.
- Simple account settings (administrative duties) – Email is a constant struggle. The problem is that even though it’s free and instant we still don’t do it right. Its purpose is to communicate succinctly and share calendars to talk and save time. I just don’t get why people don’t do more of this. Other options like meetings should be reduced to standing-room fast huddles. Some meetings kill the time needed actually to get work done. The ones that communicate what people are doing are best replaced with shared project management software or AMS Pipelines.
- API connections of smart devices (athlete data) – Smart devices have made us communicate less effectively and made us dumber on average. On the other hand, some users make more time for human interaction by using smartphones better. The solution is to spend less time pushing data and uploading it manually with API connections. Coaches need to coach, not babysit athletes. Specialty apps help athletes collect data and report information effectively. Many are free or dirt-cheap, making technology more of a tool rather than a burden.
- Communication scripts and algorithms (communication) – Texting, emailing, Tweeting, calling, video conferencing all increase noise and make it hard to communicate more effectively and efficiently. The simple solution is written rules of engagement that show each person how to contact, who to contact, and when to do it. For example, one sports medicine professional has an open calendar to schedule rehab sessions. Another therapist includes a sushi menu of manual treatments an athlete can request based on body charts. One great example of communication is messaging an athlete based on a metric on a dashboard that allows for alarm responses (injury) and fatigue adjustments in training.
To illustrate communication with athletes, many start inputting data when they wake up and share it live with the coach. One strength coach can get dozens of texts, emails, or survey updates a minute. The best way to fix this gridlock is to have procedures explicitly stated, so an athlete knows what to do when communication breaks down. What happens when a cell phone dies? What about illness?
The challenge now is creating a smarter and more streamlined communication network. Doing so requires a central cloud-sharing tool and expectations of what is an emergency. A coach should know where athletes are at all times without interfering with privacy. Sleep devices and recovery tools allow for lifestyle tracking, and those clever enough to adopt those practices will make the biggest impact in the future.
Wrapping up the Technology Tips
Without knowing the specifics of each organization or team, much of this article offers general advice. Budgets force coaches to be creative, and time constraints force them to be more efficient. I am not the best user of technology, as some coaches continually teach me a thing or two. But I do have a great eye for what is not a good approach. By addressing each area of technology need, coaches can fall in love with what got them into sports in the first place—the passion of working with people and helping them achieve goals.
These tips have helped me enjoy sports more and have proven to help coaches save time, remove headaches, and increase productivity. Athletes also see results because they are getting access to what they need, and administrators see their budgets worth the investment.
Please share so others may benefit.