We often think the key to winning is more. More speed drills, more training, more control, more discipline on and off the field. But what if I told you more was less? How would you react if I said in your attempt to create “coachable athletes”, you instead were manufacturing “docile automatons”?
Could the key to unlocking our athletes’ potential be empowering them to break all the norms of being “a good athlete”?
Coachable or Compliant
Imagine your ideal “well run” high school weight room. An immaculate facility, racks perfect aligned, every plate and dumbbell in its place, everything in the exact right spot. Athletes file in, all in uniform, grab their cards, go to their racks and get to work. It’s efficient, orderly, disciplined; a dream scenario for many of us. But swap out the racks for a work station, the dumbbells for tools, and the athletes for union hands and you have an auto factory… still sound like winning? Now imagine if racks were cells, the cards were mail and the uniforms were all orange? Same structures, same order, but not as ideal, is it?
It’s easy to confuse a “coachable” athlete with a “compliant” athlete. We say we want athletes who follow all the rules, give unconditional effort, and always put barbells back where found them. We make rules to shepherd young, rambunctious kids into orderly systems which we as coaches can control. But ask yourself: do rules about uniforms, music, language, and conduct exist to make better athletes? Or do we as coaches simply use these rules to make our jobs easier?
Compliant athletes are easy to work with. They’re malleable, docile, they obey the coach’s every word. In youth sports, where the team that’s more disciplined usually wins the game, these are celebrated as positive qualities. But “discipline” can also have a stunting effect; if parents and coaches aren’t willing to let their kids improvise and possibly fail in the present, they’re hurting their growth in the future. In youth lacrosse, running a zone defense might win you the game, but each player on that defense is losing an opportunity to learn the skills involved in 1-on-1 strategy. A win today but a loss in the long term.
Now, how can we stop creating docile players and start creating empowered athletes?
Let’s unpack this question using the principles found in the Power Athlete Methodology. As founder and CEO John Welbourn often notes, there’s a difference between principle and dogma; principles are living ideas that offer direction and space for growth, dogma is just BS. In that spirit, I am going to apply six of the nine principles of Power Athlete training towards developing empowered athletes.
Athletes need stress to progress, but progress can be measured by more than just weight on the bar. Stress exposure is also critical to skill acquisition and problem solving. If you’ve only practiced swinging a bat against slow pitches lofted over the plate, the first time you face real gas, high and inside, you’re going to be blown away. Just as we progressively load our athlete’s back squats on Bedrock, we can also load their capacity for physical and mental creative problem solving. Think about prone or “blind” sprint starts. An athlete is face down no clue where or when to go. Coach gives a quick direction, a sharp whistle then BOOM! Get up and go. These starts develop an athlete’s “body control and organization” but also confidence; now the athlete knows how to be athletic from any position.
To train mental creativity instead of dictating every movement in a given workout, let your athletes drive the bus. Creating opportunities for choice can go a long way in their development. Directions like “pick a vertical pull for 3 x 8”, “choose a lunge variation for 2×12” or “hit 25 FAST squats, break up sets and reps how you want” are all easy ways to give a destination, but let them pick the route. Decision making, problem solving, and thoughtful consideration all translate from creativity in training to success on the field.
An adaptation ignored is an adaptation lost. Stop lifting heavy weights and you get weaker. Stop sprinting and top level speed is gone in a flash (pun intended). Our athletes’ ability to continually exercise their autonomy and self expression needs regular attention too. An easy way to do this is through what our athletes wear.
In addition to being the most dominant athlete in any sport (fight me on this) Serena Williams is also an all-time fashion icon. The two are linked; frilly tutus and jet black cat suits are as quintessential as her backhand. Unfortunately, too often we use what our athletes wear as a form of control. The idea of the uniform is to help show that the team comes first. But any team is the sum of its parts, and if any player cannot be their best and most authentic self because of some inexplicable uniform policy, I’d argue that hurts the team as a whole.
While certain settings will have restrictions, at the very least you can encourage your athletes to express themselves with what they wear on their feet. Shoes and socks are a simple way to show some personality. Even in a strict collegiate environment, a fun pair of socks goes a long way. Don’t just allow that sort of expression, encourage it. As Deion Sanders noted “If you look good you feel good, and if you feel good you play good”.
We have all seen what happens in the doldrums of training: the same program for the sixth week straight, nothing new, nothing interesting, the body and the mind go on autopilot. Little is more detrimental to an athlete than that sort of monotony. Adding in new programming stimuli to keep physical progress moving is great, but if you’re not stimulating the brain in other ways, you’re leaving holistic gainz on the table.
Raph Ruiz famously changed the physical layout and set up of his gym regularly. Was this to just watch Tex lug stuff around the room? Partly. Mostly it was to continually provide his athletes with a new perspective beyond what he was changing in their training program. Change is scary, so when there is something different in our environment our brains perk up to pay attention. Isn’t that the locked in headspace we want?
Instead of forcing athletes to the same squat rack with the same people day in and day out, create change. It’ll make them uncomfortable, they’ll push back, they’ll complain, but then… they’ll adapt. Success in sport, like in evolution, is less about who is the strongest and more about who adapts the fastest. Speed kills; it also survives.
“You cannot hit the same squat twice, because you are a different squatter and it is a different squat” – Heraclitus (probably)
Power Athlete’s principle and my take on athlete autonomy here are in total alignment. The effect of practice, games, life, and school, all shape how we perform. By prioritizing posture and position rather than arbitrary standards of depth, we empower our athletes to move through THEIR range of motion. If an athlete is stiff after a hard practice, they’ll get more from squatting to the depth they can with intent than half-assing it to go ass to grass.
Ownership of movement can be taken further. When looking to develop power, we either need to move more weight at the same speed or we need to move the same weight faster. Letting our athletes explore this through greater autoregulation vs using prescribed weights, sets, and reps can build a greater sense of ownership. By taking more control of their training, athletes also take more control of their own athleticism. While teaching good technique and execution is critical, the control of sets, reps, and weights can be micromanaging. If you can’t trust an athlete to deadlift, how can you trust them to make the big play? Yes, sometimes an athlete may pick the wrong weight, or go too slow, or do too few reps, but they’ll make mistakes on the field too. Remember these are their mistakes and as a coach you can help them discover their solution.
We talk a lot about finding the “minimal effective dose” in training. The same thing applies for implementing a plan for transforming your teams from docile to empowered athletes.
Now, do not read this and go into your gym tomorrow and burn the entire system down. That won’t help anyone. Instead, think about the rules of accelerated adaptation then objectively look at the way you’re running your gym. There are plenty of things any coach could change but I want you to only select one, implement an improvement then watch what happens. Just as we don’t need to destroy our athlete with load or volume every single day, even subtle alterations can have profound effects.
For the longest time I was the “Czar of Music” in the weight room. I picked what I thought my athletes wanted to listen to, never asking for their input. When I did finally hand over the playlist control, the change was immediate. My athletes knew exactly what to play everyday, the team felt empowered to request certain songs, and felt confident to ask about the training in order to DJ accordingly.
Small changes, big results.
Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands
If you want to build a world ending women’s rugby player, where do you start? Instagram? Checking out what equipment the New Zealand All Blacks use then buy it ALL for your gym? No, you study the sport and watch lots of rugby matches to gain an understanding of the physical demands required, then reverse engineer those demands and build your program. What are the energy system needs, what are the shapes needed in play, what are the strength and speed requirements?
We can do the same thing in creating empowered athletes. Look at the athletes who exemplify not only athletic excellence, but a peak of self actualization: MJ, Rapinoe, Serena, and Khabib. Beyond their physical talents, each one of those athletes is unapologetically themselves on or off the court, field, or mat.
As the Power Athlete Methodology states, we accept “no bullshit, no gimmicks, no excuses, no half measures”. To me, that means that we need to encourage our athletes to give “no excuses, no half measures” in being the best and fullest version of themselves. Try this experiment: next testing day, give your athletes some extra freedom (music, clothing, sets, reps, etc.) and see what happens. I predict big smiles and big PRs.
As coaches, we encourage our athletes to take small steps to make themselves just 1% better. More sleep, better diet, more training, less training, more water. Yet the thought of shaking up the “norms” around uniforms, music, and athlete autonomy, often feels like a bridge too far. I promise you, it’s not.
At Power Athlete, we are dedicated to “unlocking athletic potential”. We know how to get athletes bigger, faster, and stronger through the application of the above principles. These same ideas, applied beyond the barbell, can help us not only craft athletes who are lean mean athletic machines, but also athletes who are more creative, more confident, and more empowered.
Blog: Coaching Kids to Fail by David McKercher
Blog: Coaching Keep Components of Grit by Jim Davis
Podcast: Ep 504: Where Private Sector Coaches Fit Into High School Athletics
Podcast: Ep 498: Presence, Intelligence, Professionalism, Emotion w/ Raph Ruiz
Andy Holmes is a Power Athlete Block One Coach who has over the last decade worked with athletes from nearly every walk of life, sport and occupation. A college athlete Andy graduated and commissioned in the United States Marine Corps as an Officer. After leaving the Corps he began coaching full time working with both general, athlete, and tactical populations. He has coached collegiately at Georgetown University and The University of Texas working extensively with football, lacrosse, rowing, softball, and volleyball teams. Andy is a firm believer that better people make better athletes and better athletes win championships. He is currently enrolled in Denver University’s Masters of Arts in Sport Coaching Program and loves to chop it up about philosophy, Russian history, and obscure films between heavy sets. In addition to the coveted Block, Andy holds certifications from the NSCA, CSCCa, and USAW. He currently most likely drinking coffee or eating tacos with his wife and dog in Austin, TX.
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