Over my time in professional sport I’ve not only seen many things, but I think its also fair to say I’ve evolved a long way into the “coach” I am today.
My biggest transformation was undoubtedly from the physiology-driven semi academic circa 1990 to a mechanics-driven professional coach by 1997. From 1997 to now, I have unquestionably evolved my mechanics based methodology, but also along the way become part psychologist.
Dealing with athletes on a daily basis has taught me the value of appreciating and integrating the athlete's psychological state into each session. How we interact with athlete's can have an enormous impact on what the athlete produces in training...and we know what happens in training is ultimately replicated in competition.
"The mind and body are inseparable". In a large portion of his more recent works, Professor Tim Noakes exhaustively argues that the body can always go further, it is the mind that gives up. If we believe this to be true, what then is the difference between training the mind and just dishing up a mindless "flogging"? At what point do we give up assessing running speed, split times and MAS distances and just pound the athlete into submission and see who survives?
The notion that the mind is always the weak link is based primarily around observations made in environments where absolute speed is not a requirement e.g. marathon running and military operations. Speed brings into question the degree of "tissue tolerance" that the athlete possesses. Attempting to overload psychological pressure with training modalities that overload speed is fraught with danger.
Equally, overloading extremely unfamiliar activities can also cause problems. The classic "special forces" camps that football teams often find themselves pursuing is a great example. I listened to one of my current athletes just this week, recall a story of a "special forces" camp he undertook some years ago when he entered the AFL. The summary was that in aiming to achieve 'mental toughness" via crazy volumes of truck tyre carrying on sand dunes, the team ended up with five new groin injuries they didn't have at the start of the camp. It would appear in this case that the body in fact gave up significantly before the mind.
Despite any indication I may have given to the contrary, I actually do conceptually agree with Professor Noakes. My view however, is that when it comes to sport, it is critical to create the overload required to test and subsequently grow the mental resilience of your athletes in a medium that they are prepared for. By that I mean runners run, swimmers swim and boxers box. Keep it as specific as possible. Then, in the modality of choice pick the right moments in which to extend the athlete to their limits and beyond. Good planning and knowledge of your playing staff will allow you to implement a session that while taxing at the highest level, does not constitute a "flogging" given your control of the stimulus.
Does hard training make an athlete tough? One session certainly doesn’t…but multiple sessions over a sustained period? Now we might be onto something. You are what you practice! "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit". Aristotle ...so is being tough!
For me, in order to define TOUGH, I like to distinguish it from bravery.
Brave people do really hard things, once, generally fired up on emotion, not knowing the impact their actions will have on themselves.
TOUGH people on the other hand, CHOOSE to do really hard things, knowing full well what will happen to them, not once...but repeatedly!
"All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsions, habit, reason, passion, desire". Aristotle ...help your athletes understand why they do things!
"If you quit once it becomes a habit. Never quit". Michael Jordan
A significant part of training is to assist the athlete to develop the mental resilience to go beyond themselves and the opposition. Our job is to ensure this can be achieved on a regular basis in the most controlled and specific situation possible. Study the athletes and study your sessions...and know how to "turn the screws" so the athlete gets the full benefit of the session and the team coach gets to select them for the game.
A Merry and Safe Xmas to all.