Closing in on a decade long service in the world of sports performance, it has been one of the most rewarding times where I’ve attained two degrees while helping athletes from preparing for medal performances in international games to kick starting a 12-year old’s development in sports. With the highs there comes the inevitable lows and I’d like to use this opportunity to share some of the key practices I have implemented along this decade long journey.

 

1.     Authoritarian leadership to environment of nurture

Over the past 10 years the biggest shift in my coaching practice was probably not so much in my training methods or techniques as much as my coaching ‘style’. Whilst I have always cared greatly for all of my athletes, starting out as an authoritarian-styled coach I was probably not the most fun guy for athletes to be around.

In an effort to improve myself as a coach and the quality of my athlete’s learning/training experiences, I worked to become a more effective my communicator. Admittedly, this shift in my coaching style was in response to my younger athletes becoming less responsive to authoritarian-style of communication where it’s either my way or the highway. In retrospect this may very well stem from a generational shift of the millennials (a topic I have discussed passionately with experts in psychology and sociology) where there seems to be a lack of mental resiliency towards obstacles.

Hence in my 6th year as a coach I started to change my approach, I reached out to my athletes and include them in the planning processes of their training while constantly seeking their opinion on how we can help each other be better. During this time I also tore down much of that ‘wall’ separating me as a coach and my athletes, where I became more open to engage in recreational activities and building relationships in- and outside the weight room. Just like that my coaching style had shifted from an authoritarian-styled leadership to one that is inclusive, fun, and performance-driven. With this change in leadership approach where athletes became more like my peers than my subordinates it begs the question then where does that barrier lie? How do I remain control and ‘respect’ of the athletes? I found my answer in the great Roman conqueror, Julius Caesar. Through reading about his conquest, I learnt that Caesar the General treated himself no different to his subordinates, he supposedly knew the names of all his soldiers, ate the same food and slept on the same ground. While he wasn’t ‘best friends’ with his soldiers, but through personal connection he won the hearts of his army who would sacrifice themselves for him. The truth of the matter is true leadership has no barrier; we are in fact working alongside each other, although we may have different roles and responsibilities but we are all striving for a common goal.

Today training in our weight room is a fun but yet hardworking experience. Athletes understand we all have a job to do, and because of this freedom that they enjoy athletes develop a greater sense of self-accountability. As a coach there’s much less of those motivational speeches but more private chats to see how each others are going. I no longer find myself cheerleading my athletes to work harder, that’s now a self-driven process and I can better spend my time on coaching the technical execution of an exercise.

These changes in style by no accident corresponded to better training efficacy with athletes producing greater results. The balancing act of an enjoyable but productive culture rests on the shoulder of a great leader and as a coach I am still looking for the Goldilocks ratio that will produce the highest efficiency among my team, but non-the-less this has been a monumental shift in my career.

 

2.     Principles over method

In an industry saturated with a plethora of ‘cutting-edge’ training methods it is easy to be dazzled by these so-known revolutionary training methods. Often times coaches without principles will change their whole philosophy according to the ‘buzz’ of the industry. Even in the past 10 or so years we’ve seen trends in the sports performance world of coaches shifting their coaching philosophy based on the trends going from weightlifting in early 2000s to sports medicine in the mid-2000s to today where there is an emphasis towards athletics and sports science. However, irrespective of these contrasting training methods, the potency of any method is dependent on the underlying principles governing it’s influences. At the end of the day no matter the method, the principles of science remains the same! Before we delve further I’d like to share a quote I’ve lived by throughout my life:

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

When we speak of principles we are talking about fundamental laws of physics, biomechanics and biology. To help some make the distinction between principles and methods we’ll use grilling a steak as an example. To grill this steak you can choose between different methods such as gasoline, charcoal, or electric grill, whilst they produce steak of different results but they will all give you a piece of grilled steak. Irrespective of these methods, they all share the underlying principles of a hot sizzling plate. Only by acquiring a firm grasp of these underlying principles will you have true understanding of all the mechanisms leading to your desired outcome.

This is why although there may be flaws in the education system but I remain a strong advocate of tertiary education. University is a place where you are introduced to principles of athletic preparation, you will not find dramatic changes in what they teach because barring revolutionary discoveries science don’t change; what changes is methods.

A focus on the methods is a habit of instant gratification, what we need to embrace is the arduous process. A process that is built upon daily commitment to a craft, something that can only be attained through reckless pursuit and dedication. The invaluable information taught at the university aside, a young man will develop this habit by going to University. The final piece of paper you receive is a recognition in the society because it signifies years of dedicated pursuit in one discipline. Over the years I have spoken to various personnel at the tertiary level, and I can assure you they are cognizant that there needs to be better connection between the current system and field practices. So I remain confident the sports performance industry whether if it’s education or everyday practice will improve as our system become more refined over time.

For good principles-based practices I recommend coaches to continue learning and revisiting textbooks in biomechanics, physiology, biology, chemistry etc. And stay up-to-date not only with the latest methods in training but focus on the latest in research. Journals from National Strength and Conditioning Association, Australia Strength and Conditioning Association, and Journal of Sports Medicine are good places to start. Aim to spend at least 30 minutes a day on learning something new about your craft and you’ll find yourself staying relevant in this industry for at least 30 years.

 

3.     Learn cooking skills before worrying about recipes

In current practices I’ve observed a trend of coaches who spends majority of times writing what maybe the best training program and/or plans man can think of. However, in the midst of pursuing the most revolutionary program the ability to actually coach and execute the exercises on those programs often becomes an afterthought.

To become an effective coach one need to develop the requisite ability to identify and remedy technical errors before worrying about periodization. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how good the recipe is, if you don’t have the skills to cook your food will never taste like that from a master chef. A quote that I remember from earlier on in my coaching career from one of the highly-respected strength coach, Coach Michael Boyle: “a bad program done well is better than a great program done poorly”.

Since that point program/exercise execution has always been an imperative part of my coaching practices and paying meticulous attention-to-detail is the top priority at any sports program I’ve been a part of. These details require unwavering focus (meaning as a coach we should NEVER be on our phone) and an active coaching eye, one that is developed through years of experience and understanding of biomechanics. In my opinion the best way to develop a competent ‘coaching eye’ is through film study. Through film study of the elite athletes in fundamental movements such as squat, jump, and run you will start to develop an eye for what is good mechanics for any given exercise. Eventually you would even want to identify deficiencies in the performance of an elite athlete! From working with a diverse level of athletes I’ve found what separates higher to lower level performances are all in the details. So if you aspire to be an effective coach working with elite-level athletes paying attention-to-details is a must. In addition to film studies, aspiring coaches can also explore different mentorship programs like the one offered at ESS Performance, these courses are useful to kick start one’s practical learning in the field. I’ve found these mentorship courses can be an invaluable way for those who need guidance and direction in their career but at the end of the day it is more important for the individual to take this information away and run with it.

Neal Wen

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