By Mac Guy and Jim Davis
This article was originally published in NISCA Magazine as a compliment to a presentation by Coaches Guy and Davis at the 2017 ASCA World Conference.
In 2016, the swim team we worked with was full of hard workers, dedicated student-athletes, and talented individuals. On the first day of dryland training, however, a passing observer might have found that hard to believe. The group entered the weightroom with their heads hung low, slowly plodding through the room with an air of skepticism and (likely) disdain. This was a group of good, hardworking human beings, mind you, but something beyond the early wakeup call was clouding that picture.
Great team chemistry can elevate performance, even in a sport comprised of primarily individual efforts, like swimming. Chemistry, or lack thereof, can make or break a program’s long-term success. Communication between teammates is central to the cultivation of chemistry, which can be difficult in practice, since a swimmer’s face is so often in the water. Dryland training provides an ideal environment for face to face communication throughout training sessions. In that setting, we set to work with our reluctant swimmers, cultivating chemistry by focusing on three key ingredients: Clear Standards, Deliberate Practice, and Community.
STANDARDS are the overarching concepts which lay the foundation for team success. In our weightroom there are two, in order of importance, which precede the rest: 1) Safety and 2) Bias Toward Action.
Our key to maintaining a mentally and physically safe environment is reciprocal teaching, a framework in which athletes reinforce their own understanding of a concept or movement by teaching it to their peers. Just as we teach movements to our athletes in a way that they can easily repeat to each other, we also empower them to teach the philosophy of the weightroom. We teach our athletes to hold each other accountable to the team’s agreed upon goals. We ensure that there is no room for bullying in our space. Mental safety is essential. Physical safety appears in two ways: immediate and predictive. Immediate safety refers to an athlete’s weightroom presence. We continually reinforce posture and technique, since proper and efficient performance of a lift is more important than how much weight is lifted. We prioritize movement patterns over intensity, especially in the early sessions. Additionally, we identify spotters as the next essential component to immediate safety. Reciprocal teaching by athletes in spotting roles reinforces proper technique for each lift. For essential lifts like Squat, we have a safety spotter in the rack with the lifter, and a technique spotter beside the rack calling out adjustments and motivation as necessary. Ensuring the athlete can train in a safe environment in the primary standard of our program. Predictive safety acknowledges the demands of the sport alongside the training volume in the pool. This is where sport-specific training occurs. With our swimmers, we design training that complements, but does not overload, the shoulders or lower back, as these tend to be the areas of the body most prone to overstress during a training cycle.
Beyond a safe environment, we strive to cultivate a
bias toward action within our athletes. There is no sitting down in our
weightroom. The language we use to reinforce our second standard is “Never Do
Nothing.” While we mostly use positive, encouraging, optimistic language, we
use “never do nothing” because we want the act of being inactive to feel
strange, to go counter to the language. In order to accomplish this, it is
essential that we provide the athletes with enough to do. For example, we begin
every session with a highly choreographed workout that consists of a universal
warmup (an empty bar progression of Deadlift, Jump Shrug, Jump Raise, and Front
Squat), a Band Auxiliary routine (Reverse Flys, External Rotation, and a series
of pull/fly movements), and two sets of strict pullups. The first 8-10 minutes
of our session if full of movement. In the early days of the 2016 season, we
were far from fulfilling that standard. But we worked on it. Slowly but surely,
we improved. By the end of the season, that group understood the explicit standards
of the weightroom, and started every day on point, with a
focus on safety and action.
If our STANDARDS are the overarching concepts, then DELIBERATE PRACTICE refers to the specifics of our process. Work, Grit, Grind, and similar words have become popularized in those who strive for success. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the ten thousand hour rule, suggesting that expertise comes only after many, many hours of practice. Angela Duckworth identifies high achievers who are more likely to engage in those many hours of practice by quantifying a quality called Grit, defined as “passion and perseverance toward long term goals.” But it is Anders Eriksson’s work we refer to in the pursuit of Deliberate Practice. Professor Eriksson acknowledges that ten thousand hours does not accomplish anything, necessarily; rather, ten thousand hours well spent, time spent in well-considered, deliberate practice, is the actual determining factor for success.
Deliberate Practice begins with the coaches. Those practices with which we ask the athletes to engage must be well-considered on our end. In fact, in the coaches’ office, our hope is to maintain Bias Toward Action when Action is Well Considered. A slightly longer, but more accurate mantra. But that’s just it – the act of deliberate practice begins with the deliberate use of language. For example, every athlete in our program knows that every time we perform a bilateral hip hinge (any variation of Squat movement), the expectation for depth is at least “knees and hips on the same plane.” We have more than one thousand athletes lifting with us, and they all reiterate that explicit expectation to themselves and to their teammates. We are specific, and repetitive. Similarly, “posture” is a term that can be heard dozens of times over the course of a session. Improper, slouched posture can round the swimmer’s upper back, extend the cervical spine, and put shoulders at increased risk. For that reason, we consistently reiterate that key coaching cue: posture. We enforce posture through every one of our weightroom movements, but also when the athlete is standing (listening to a coach), or sitting (never in the weightroom, of course). At every turn, we ask the athletes to practice self-aware body posture. They practice being intentional, and aware in the moment. For hundreds if not thousands of reps, they are deliberate.
The inevitable result of our focus on standards and deliberate practice is a COMMUNITY with outstanding team chemistry. Each member of the team understands their role throughout a workout and can execute that role with confidence and enthusiasm. Athletes constantly reinforce those attitudes with one another by reinforcing our standards and bias toward action. As a result, it is nearly impossible for the kind of plodding, skeptical body language we witnessed in our program years ago to take hold. In its place, confidence, and high-volume support became a familiar presence in all our workouts. While loud, energetic communication might be the norm on a football sideline or on the volleyball court, it is much harder to generate in a swimming practice where athletes spend so much time with their face in the water. Ultimately, the weightroom became the place to rehearse the kind of volume and energy we want our athletes to bring to the pool deck when the pressure is at its highest. When they step on the blocks at their championship meet, they step with the confidence that we have rehearsed in the weightroom.
Our routine emphasis on community becomes a way for our athletes to reinforce goals and habits that will help achieve them. Each day, after athletes have completed the warmup as they enter the room, we call the team to “the board” to give an overview of the day’s workout. We use this initial gathering to help reinforce the expectation for a high energy workout, regardless of how everyone is feeling. If the team does not move from the warmup to the board with hustle, we will ask them to leave the room and we practice moving to the board with energy again. Before the workout has even started, we have established the expectation for deliberate speed. While at the board, we clarify the movements and the key reciprocal teaching points that spotters should focus on. We have veterans of the room demonstrate movements that are unfamiliar to anyone in the group. By ensuring that every single person can execute all of the workout’s lifts safely and with confidence, we ensure that we can move into the workout with intensity and speed. Often, before the workout begins, we have a team member “break us into the room” with a cheer. “Who has the juice?” the coach asks. The first person who says “I have it! I’m ready!” is the athlete to get everyone going. Again, if at any point the enthusiasm is sub par, we ask the team to do it again until we get it correct. Every single team at New Trier that works with our strength and conditioning program starts their workout the same way.
Similarly, each workout ends with a routine that is the same every day. After athletes rack the weights and clean the room, we come together in a team circle. The coach in the room begins by recapping the strengths and weaknesses of the workout. This initial reflection by the adult in the room is essential. In just a few words, we reinforce how the group has progressed and identify areas for growth. It is also an opportunity to reiterate the team’s goals. Did the group move toward those goals that day or not? Either way, we continually restate the team’s purpose and force the kind of self-reflection that helps athletes to change the behaviors that will ultimately lead to improvement.
That self-reflection is further reinforced with the next segment in the huddle: quote sharing. At the end of a the first workout of a season, we elect an athlete to “break down” the group, calling her teammates together and leading a quick chant to close the session. That athlete is then responsible for bringing in a quote to the next session. She is asked to keep an eye out for anything that motivates her – it could be a quote from a famous athlete, or a line from a movie, book, or song – and share it with her team. On the following training session, the athlete reads the quote to the group and interprets in based on the specifics of her setting. These interpretations connect athletes to their own personal motivations and keys to success. Once the quote has been shared and interpreted, one athlete is chosen to “break it down” with a final team cheer.
Our team’s body language in 2017 could not have been more different from what we saw at that early session one year earlier. From our first dual meet to the state finals, our athletes were confident. They were relaxed. They were ready to swim fast and have fun. Our performances were undoubtedly better as result. But more importantly, more than ever before our athletes are connected to a self-reflective and supportive community that ensures every athlete’s process matches their purpose. An emphasis on Clear Standards, Deliberate Practice, and Community, had created a championship culture on our team.