One of the most highly regarded skills in our weight room is adaptability.
In a given session we might have as many as 100 student-athletes in our facility. Our lacrosse team, scheduled to peak in spring, will be squatting in the row of racks on one side of the room. The soccer team, a fall peak, will be working on the mechanics of the power clean down the center aisle of the space. Softball (spring peak) will be in the hallway with a set of med-balls while Field Hockey (fall peak) will be working on sprint mechanics and change of direction in the field house. Midway through the session we will shift Lacrosse to the hallway with bands to work on shoulder stability as Swimming & Diving (in-season) enters the facility for a power day in the racks.
In this sea of dedicated high-achievers with a wide range of experiences and abilities, one of the Softball players has rolled an ankle in her weekend tournament and cannot perform certain movements; it’s the first day for one of the Soccer players and he is not familiar with any of the terms or the structure of the workout; one of the Lacrosse players came in late and missed the instructions…
A coach has to be able to adapt.
The uninitiated coach might become overwhelmed by this sort of scene. Coaches on our strength staff excel because they work toward mastering the ability to thoughtfully adapt. We accommodate more than 2,000 weekly student visits because of this amazing staff of coaches, but they didn’t show up ready. None of us did. Adaptability is a learnable trait.
Scanning for Deltas
When a pilot is flying, they must address not only the airspace in front of them, but the cacophony of switches and levers and dials in the cockpit. Within the onslaught of attention-grabbing stimuli, especially in the heat of battle, a pilot might experience what is referred to as helmet fire.
Helmet fire is essentially cognitive overload. When there is an abundance of stimuli to process and one’s attention bounces around aimlessly, stress and frustration become overwhelming. At its worst, the enormity of the situation discourages action. At times people freeze. At times people sink into the background. Ensign Benjamin Hogin of the U.S. Navy sums it up as “a state resulting from task saturation and stress.” All of a sudden, the most complicated component of the environment is what’s happening between one’s ears.
The remedy is simple. Slow down. Take a breath. Defer to the anchors of your training.
Ensign Hogin is a product of our program. He was part of some of our more accomplished powerlifting teams. Under his leadership we won multiple strongman championships, a powerlifting regional championship, and saw countless weight room records fall. He continued his powerlifting career in the Naval Academy, where he was a 4x USAPL National Qualifier and Vice President of the team as a senior.
He is now a student naval aviator, learning and sharing all the way through. We each hesitate to compare sports to war. It is a flawed comparison that often discredits the sacrifice made by our service men and women while exaggerating the importance of, say, Friday night lights. That said, some of the skills employed by these heroes operating in complex situations can provide valuable and transferrable insights into problem-solving.
In the Navy, when one finds himself overwhelmed by a complicated scene and unable to make effective decisions, when the helmet fire is raging, he defaults to a thoughtful approach to situational appraisal.
In the cockpit, pilots are taught to scan the environment in rhythm. “It’s like muscle memory,” says Hogin. You start in one fixed spot and continually scan in a predetermined pattern. Instead of trying to identify exactly what each of the dials and lights are specifically related to (an inhuman task which would surely lead to cognitive overload), you are taught to recognize which ones are “off.” They are not consuming every nuanced detail of the situation alongside its implications. They are scanning for deltas.
A delta, in this sense, is any component of the environment so significantly altered from the standard that it demands one’s attention. To “scan for deltas” you must have a clear idea of the normal operating standard. Hogin coined the term by referencing his studies in engineering, where “delta” is a term used to describe the degree of a given condition away from an equilibrium.
We use the term in our weight room on a daily basis.
The key in any complicated situation is to have a clear set of “anchor” concepts before entering. After all, if the delta is measured by its distance from the standard, the standard must be clearly understood.
In our program, we have anchor concepts at every level. We have anchor concepts for coaches, for athletes, for communication, for the space and equipment, and for individual movements. Adaptability in a crowded weight room depends on each of these concepts: anchors and standards, then scanning for deltas.
For example, every student-athlete who comes through our space understands what we are looking for on our favorite movement, the squat. They understand how to load the bar evenly, how to approach the bar, how to place one’s hands equidistant from the edge of the knurling (the grip), where the height of the rack and the height of the support bars should be, the approximate width of their stance, appropriate posture, breathing mechanics, and depth of the movement. We take time to anchor these concepts. We coach them over and over again, even with our most experienced athletes.
If we have 100 athletes in the weight room, all 100 of them should be able to respond the same way when we ask them about squat depth: knee and hip on the same plane. That is our standard. That is how we anchor our expectations.
With the squat depth concept securely anchored, we can then equip our coaches to scan the room for deltas. A coach can begin at the first rack and scan for depth. When he or she notices an athlete not achieving full depth on a squat, they approach. This delta has demanded attention. The coach does not hesitate or waiver – the standard is clear and the delta was noticed, so they respond.
“Power comes from the rapid utilization of the information that is present to you,” said Ensign Hogin. In the weightroom, that power comes in the form of athlete accountability, performance enhancement, and safety.
In fact, safety is our number one anchor. Any movement or behavior that reads as a delta from our standard of safety is immediately acted upon. This might come in the form of poor technique or excessive loading (the opposite of what is referred to as Appropriate Load Method), it also might come in the form of inattentive spotting or an equipment malfunction. In all cases, our coaches act fast.
We anchor a concept, scan for deltas, and enlist proper decision making given the feedback of our environment. If the load is too heavy, adjust. If there are too many people at a rack for it to be a safe lifting environment, adjust. If we have run out of bands or med balls, it’s time to adapt, Coach. It’s a constant loop.
There is no magic pill for effective weight room management. There is no single directive and certainly no predetermined script to follow. There is a process that is dependent on a coach’s ability to prepare, pay attention, and adapt.
This skillset does not happen automatically, it takes time to learn and plenty of experience to master. At times it will be difficult, but it’s worth it.
Reach Out as Needed
This is the sort of work we do at the Good Athlete Project. If you’re looking to talk through the complex issues on your team, reach out to us. If you’d like to host a team workshop, we’re in. Find us at goodathleteproject.com, @goodathleteproject on Instagram, or reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Jim is a former professional football player and champion powerlifter turned author, educator, and coach. He is the founding director of the Good Athlete Project (@goodathleteproject), Director of the Illinois High School Powerlifting Association (@ihspla), and the Staff & Student Wellness Coordinator at New Trier High School (@ntstrength), where he runs one of the nation’s largest strength programs. He was the 2018 NASA National Coach of the Year and has recently been recognized as a 2020 Semper Fidelis All-American Mentor by the U.S. Marines. His keynote and invited presentations have taken him all around the world (from L.A. to Ireland to Haiti) and his writing has been published in the Harvard Crimson, the Orlando Sentinel, the Psychologist, World of Psychology, and the USOC Coaching Magazine, among other journals. Jim is a graduate of Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Knox College. Find him on Instagram @jimdavis.art
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