This is the eighth time I’ve recapped some of the bigger discoveries of the previous year in an article. As I look back on the previous seven years of content, I notice a number of key observations that have immeasurably improved the way that I coach and program for athletes. To that end, I hope that the 2013 recap offers some solid pearls of wisdom you can apply right away.
1. Frequent soft tissue work throughout the day works best.
We might not know exactly why soft tissue approaches – everything from foam rolling, to massage, to instrument-assisted modalities – work, but we do know that they help people feel and move better. With that in mind, we’re always searching for ways to help people get faster results with less discomfort.
Earlier this year, Chris Howard, the massage therapist at Cressey Performance, was flipping back through an old massage therapy textbook and found a little pearl: a suggestion that shorter, frequent exposures to soft tissue work throughout the day is likely more effective than one longer session. And, it certainly makes sense; our bodies “learn” and adapt better with frequent exposures.
Candidly, it always drives me bonkers when I see someone foam roll for 30 minutes at the start of the session. You aren’t going to magically fix everything in one session; you have to be patient and persistent. In fact, Thomas Myers (an authority on fascia and bodywork), has commented that prominent changes may take 18-24 months to set in.
Nowadays, when we have an athlete who is particularly balled up in one area, we heavily emphasize repeated exposures. We recommend that they split massage therapy sessions up into shorter appointments throughout the week. And, we’ll have them hop on the foam roller 5-6 times per day for 30-60s, as opposed to just grinding away at the same spot in one lengthy session. It’s not convenient, but the results are definitely noticeably better.
2. Understanding an individual’s movement learning style can improve your coaching effectiveness instantly.
I’ve always divided folks I coach into three categories, according to their dominant learning styles: visual, kinesthetic, and auditory.
Visual learners can watch an exercise be performed, and then go right to it.
Auditory learners can simply hear a cue, and then go to town.
Kinesthetic learners need to actually be put in a position to appreciate what it feels like, and then they can rock and roll.
While most individuals are a combination of all three categories, one invariably predominates in every single case I’ve ever encountered. With this in mind, determining an individual’s learning style during my assessment is something I started to do in 2013. If you can streamline the cues you give, athletes will pick movements up faster, and you’ll be able to get in more quality work from the session.
I should also note that no one of these three categories is “superior;” they’re just different. I’ve had professional athletes from all three categories.
3. External focus cues rock.
Building on the coaching cues theme, the best presentation I saw this year was Nick Winkelman’s Perform Better talk on external focus cues.
As a brief background, an internal focus cue would be one that made you think about how your body is moving. Examples would be “extend your hips” or “tuck your elbows.”
Conversely, an external focus cue would have you focus on something in your surrounding environment. Examples would be “rip the bar apart” or “drive your heels through the floor.” The bar and the floor are points of external focus.
Most coaches use a combination of the two – but with a greater emphasis on internal focus cues. As Nick demonstrated with an extensive review of the literature, we out to reverse this trend, as external focus cues almost universally lead to improved performance and technique when compared to internal focus cues.
With this research in mind, evaluate the cues you give yourself before each lift. When you deadlift, are you telling yourself to “keep the chest up” or are you reminding yourself to “show the logo on your shirt to the guy in front of you?” Sometimes, relating things just a little bit differently can yield dramatic changes.
4. You should learn as much about recovery as you do about training at an early age.
Every decade in life seems to come with new “scare tactics” to make you think that your body is going to fall apart when you hit 30, 40, 50, 60, etc. I turned 32 in 2013, so I’ve now had almost three years to stew over this. Recovery just isn’t the same as you age, not matter how great you are with diet, sleep, and monitoring training volume, as degenerative changes kick in faster. I can tell you this and I’m only at the start of the gradual downslope!
I’ve heard that, on average, strength peaks at age 29. Obviously, this can change dramatically based on training experience. However, in my line of work – professional baseball – the “prime” for players is widely regarded as ages 26-31. Effectively, this constitutes just before the peak, the peak itself, and then just after the peak. The higher the peak, the longer a playing career a player has. This is one reason it’s so important to establish a strong physical foundation with athletes early in their career; it’s what will likely sustain their skillsets for longer.
It is equally important, however, to learn about what recovery strategies work well for you at an early age. In fact, I’d say that not paying more attention to recovery in my younger years was one of the biggest mistakes I made. It would have not only made my progress faster, but just as importantly, it would have prevented accumulated wear and tear for down the road (i.e., now).
Everyone responds differently to various recovery protocols. I have guys who love ice baths, and others who absolutely hate icing. I’ve seen players thrive with compression approaches, and others who saw no change.
Some high-level athletes can do great with seven hours of sleep, and others need 9-10 each night. Recovery is a 100% individual thing – and it’s constantly changing as you age and encounter new training challenges.
For that reason, don’t just get excited about the latest, greatest training program on the market. Rather, try to get just as excited about finding a way that you can bounce back effectively between sessions. It might be nutrition, supplementation, manual therapy, movement schemes, or initiatives like ice or compression. The sooner you learn it, the better off you’ll be when you start hearing more and more of the “scare tactics” about age.
These four items were just the tip of the iceberg, as the strength and conditioning field is incredibly dynamic and new information emerges on a daily basis. Luckily, it's easy to stay up to speed on the latest cutting-edge information. If you're looking for an affordable online resource to help you in this regard, check out Elite Training Mentorship.
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