This summer’s training with my athletes has been easily the most incredible I've ever had. I've watched athletes who I have coached for over 4 years make PR's up to 80#, and seen a gym squat average settle in at around 345#!! There are a whole slew of other positive gains that I've seen within the entire group, but that really is not what this post is about. It is about athletes understanding what it means to get better, as athletes. Before going on I need to make one major point: the vast majority of my athletes are baseball and football players, so they are not training for GPP (general physical preparedness) like the majority of the CrossFit world. I make this distinction because the program I have designed for them is a little different then what I would design for a group of serious CrossFitters. Certain movements and workouts (like high rep Oly lifts, kipping pull ups, and longer metcons to name a few) do not translate as well into these athletes’ goals, so there is not really a point to risk their livelihood by programming those things. They are going to get better at their sport by playing their sport, and I am here to assist them in becoming as athletic as they possibly can.
That being said, I have to deal with a good bit of tweaking during the summer because the baseball guys are all in the midst of some pretty serious stress on their bodies. Most of them are playing almost every single day through early August and because that is their sport, I need to be aware that what I program does nothing to risk their ability to perform at the highest level. We do push pretty damn hard (I think our numbers speak for themselves), but I always keep a dialogue with each athlete as to how they are feeling throughout the summer months so I can help them stay at their peak. This leads me to my big question: if you are getting stronger (as in, a better squat, better bench, better deadlift, better clean, better snatch, and so on), does that mean you are getting better?
A lot of really interesting thoughts and conversations have been coming up over the past two months thanks to me having my first assistant coach. His eagerness to learn, and my new focus in generating a seminar to help coaches program and deliver the best coaching has lead to some really insightful discussion on what it means to be a good coach. I have traveled around a ton, been to almost 100 CrossFit gyms around the country as well as many, many other gyms (from globo gyms, to bodybuilding gyms, to athletic training centers, to specialty gyms), and have seen so many different styles and approaches. One of the biggest issues I have seen, especially in the CrossFit world, is how coaches deal with injuries. Injuries are an inevitability in the training world, but I have found, from my own experience, that you can help to avoid the "in training" injuries, and decrease the risk of "on field" injuries WAY more by constantly checking up on each and every athlete.
First step – ask your athletes how they are feeling. Create a feeling of comfort for your athletes to express even minor issues with the body. As any good trainer/coach should know, most injuries in training occur from something very small. So, if an athlete comes in saying his/her shoulder is acting up a little, don't just write it off. Help to work in a little extra mobility with that athlete and then pay close attention to them while they work. If you see compensation, unusual or extra imbalance in their movements, or any form of pain, no matter how small, address it. A good example of this is that I had an athlete (a pitcher -- that's baseball for any of you living with your head under a rock) that complained of some serious biceps pain. Ok, typical for a pitcher to have constant soreness in this area, so, I had him warm up a little extra before approaching the workout. We took out the pressing that was programmed, and I watched him as he very delicately avoided exerting too much force with his upper body. I asked him to push a little harder to see if he was just being a wimp, and saw very quickly that his pain was genuine. So, I shut him down. This did not make him happy (most 18 year olds don't like admitting they are hurt) but we talked for a while after class to see what his throwing program had been like all summer and I found out he was moving very quickly down the path toward some serious injury. Oh, and this guy had just recently PR'd his clean, his snatch, his squat, his deadlift and his bench, along with attaining a whole new level of speed and explosiveness, saying his usually slow fastball was now jumping out of his hand faster than ever. So, he was stronger, faster, threw harder, but he was at such a risk of injury that those gains would all go to waste if he pushed through and kept going. I insisted he get an MRI and we are moving forward with some light PT and modified training along with focused corrective exercises as he has pretty serious tendonitis.
So how do you deal with a gym full of people, all wanting to get better and all with their own unique body issues? And if you run a class-based gym (like CrossFit), how do you find the time for such personal attention? Program in movement assessments. You can do this by using mobility tests of the shoulders, hips, ankles, spine and anything else during warm ups for a week. Chart how people score and begin designing corrective exercises as warm-ups for the next three weeks. Make sure to mark people with serious issues so that you always know who needs modified exercises (like, an athlete with such tight shoulders they can't hold their arms straight overhead would probably not do so well with heavy snatches or kipping pull ups). People can lie about how they feel, but they can't hide their inability to move.
Re-test these movement assessments every 2-3 months to make sure all of your athletes are improving. If your gym’s squat average goes up by 2% in four months, but your average hip mobility decreases, I would argue with relative ease that you have a problem on your hand. I would not be high-fiving your new PR's. And you are going to start seeing more and more issues and injuries in your athletes.
As I mentioned, most major injuries start with something small (unless you drop a bar on your neck or something), so having good communication is key. If you are a coach who just tells people to always go hard, and when they come to you saying their knee hurts you yell at them to sack up and keep doing thrusters, um, you just might be an idiot. Sure, athletes, clients, and people and general might be a little soft, but unless you really know the inner workings of that person, take their vocalization of an issue seriously. Even if you DO tell them to get back to their bar, make sure to keep an extra eye on them to see how they are moving. If you make sure everyone knows you are there to help and support them, you will have a group of athletes who will be open and honest with you. Remember coaches, these people pay YOU to look out for them, take care of them, lead them, motivate them, teach them and support them. They don't pay you to sit on your ass and shrug off their issues.
Athletes/clients: if you are in pain, or if you feel like you are at a serious risk doing something, SAY SOMETHING. Say for example you walk into a gym and you've never done a snatch before. In fact, you are one of those people who giggle when the coach says you all are snatching because you thought he/she was making a racy joke or something. Your coach goes over the movement with a PVC, then tells you all you are doing "Isabel" (30 reps of power snatch at a weight of 135 for men and 95 for women). Well, here's where I become an aggressive writer: that coach is a jackass! For the experienced GPP athlete, Isabel is not really that crazy of a workout. But for a beginner, or an athlete who must use their shoulders in a dynamic and structured manner for sport, Isabel is a horrible workout. Ask your coach why what he/she is programming is good for you and how it will make you better at what you want. And if it makes sense, OK, cool, keep on going. But if it doesn't seem to make sense, or if he/she doesn't give you a full, detailed response, I would suggest moving on. Remember, you are paying that person to HELP you get BETTER, not to hurt you.
In terms of exact assessment exercises, corrective exercises, modification exercises and proper programming, I leave you to ask yourself (coaches) or your coach (athletes). I've written about these things a bit before, and I am sure I will write up a few details on these things in the very near future. And if you want them from me, post to comments or email away. And if you are one of my athletes, I'm sure you probably know a good deal of them already (although, I do question the intelligence of the athletes I deal with every day :-). And in the end, always keep things in perspective: if you play a sport, EVERYTHING you do should be geared towards making you better at that sport. If you just want to get healthier and better at life in general, EVERYTHING you do should be geared towards making you healthier and better at life in general. And if you are a serious CrossFitter, well, it's the same thing as sport, EVERYTHING you do should be geared towards making you better at it. If your numbers are going up, but you are feeling more and more like crap, something is NOT working. If nothing is going up, something is not working. If you are feeling better but numbers aren't going up; give it some time, and if it stays that way, something is not working. And if those things are not being addressed, ask your coach to address them. And if your coach still does not address them, go find a better coach.
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