Lessons in Principles From a Sprint Coach

Bret Contreras posted a guest-post by UK sprint coach Greg Potter, that was really great. Seeing as how a lot of people won’t sit through long posts, I hope he doesn’t mind me regurgitating the points that I feel resonate on a general level whether you are a coach or not. This post was chock full of “principles” and great tidbits. So I figured a condensed version of some of those that apply across the board might be helpful for anyone who’s not going to go over there and read it in its entirety (still a good idea mind you). 

Bret’s intro:

“Today I’ve got a kickass blogpost for all strength coaches, track & field coaches, and sprinters. This post is a compilation of insight and reflections provided to me by UK Coach Greg Potter. You can find his blog and twitter handle at the very bottom of this post. As I read through this article, I found myself nodding in agreement. Greg is highly astute, and it’s a rare treat to read such insightful observations from a strength coach.”

And the post:

Sprinting Lessons – Greg Potter on bretcontreras.com

“It quickly becomes apparent that many divergent training methodologies can produce outstanding results.”

Instead of looking to see why something wouldn’t work, see why it would. Bret once made this comment that stuck with me (paraphrasing): “I try not to hate on any exercise, I like them all, and look at an exercise to see how it would be useful.” Or something to that effect. You can get important pieces for success from many different areas and styles. Expand your knowledge. You can argue for and against basically any method. But finding what works is often a bit of a mish-mash of different methods that nonetheless fulfill the principles needed for success. Keep that in mind with your own training and diet choices, with a healthy dose of the next point (remember that all opinions are NOT equal).

“Think critically.”

If you only read this one point. I would almost be satisfied.

“There are many ways to skin the cat – be wary of those who suggest otherwise.”

This is an excellent rule to follow when approaching training, diet coaching or getting advice from somewhere, and is part of the above two. Be wary of those who can only preach one method or tend to downplay the importance of context.

“If your athletes truly believe in your approach, success is that much more likely. And this is not reliant on anecdote alone – both placebo and non-placebo effects are well-documented in the sports performance literature.”

Pay attention to the first sentence, and you see the main reason for success on some seemingly retarded practices. Now take that idea, add common sense and a capacity for learning and growth and you can double your success. Marketing and fads rely on this principle to “prove” that something works. Remember it as you make your choices AND use it to your advantage. From a coaching side, sometimes I haven’t always been sure that what I am doing is “optimal” or “right” (not unsafe mind you!), but it’s my job to observe, find out, and be willing to change. I don’t put that burden on the students. Nothing I do will hurt them, that’s a strict rule, but while I am growing in my knowledge I stick to what I know and believe in it. Often it’s not perfect, and I can see that, but it serves the purpose in the mean time. On a individual level, this goes along with committing to a plan and sticking to it, even if it has flaws. The best way to learn, is just to do.

“…keep your brain switched on in the gym, and novel thoughts on exercise may emerge at unexpected times from people that others may have dismissed as ignorant beginners, or meathead simpletons.”

I posted this one on Facebook, and its one of my favorites. Another principle; you can always learn something from someone or some circumstance. In fact, watching people exercise badly or ignorantly is a great learning experience. I use it ALL the time. Sometimes they have no idea that I am standing there thinking “how would I fix this if it was my client?” or some other highly complicated mental thought process ;P. You can find unexpected gems in unexpected places. If you miss out because of bias or being overly critical, you’re the one who loses.

“Educate athletes on the other 22 hours you’re not around.”

SO important that I regularly spend overtime answering questions and lecturing kids are how to eat right, sleep, about supplements or vitamins, latest diet fads, myths they’ve heard etc. I LOVE that they come to me and ask. I also encourage them to never just take my word for it, but to go do their own research and think through their own conclusions. In a general context…..this is extremely important for anyone. You can spend an hour strengthening your body to improve something, and undo most of the work with a shitty diet, bad sleep, bad posture etc. Don’t waste your investment of work and time and pay attention to your other habits throughout the day.

Every training means must be justifiable, and it can therefore pay dividends to have somebody question you as to your training choices. Furthermore, this person needn’t be an expert in the sport that you coach.”

This is gold. Just gold. Principle: leave nothing unexamined. Ask why. For what purpose? I’ve had people do this to me and question what I was doing, and while it sucked for the times I ended up tongue-tied, it required me to review my choices and sometimes ditch them for something much better. Everything must be justifiable on some level! Doesn’t mean you have to “know” right away why something will work or not…the point is to have a good reason for doing it. That’s it. I’ve had people who knew jack-all about something ask me one simple question that sometimes made me go “Oh shit” and have a mini-epiphany-mind-gasm on the spot. Those people deserve to be kissed.

“Accordingly, choose exercises that an athlete can do with good form while working towards exercises that the athlete cannot currently perform proficiently, but that you foresee as being worthwhile further down the line.”

This ties into a blog post I am doing about easier substitutions for bigger exercises and applies to any exerciser of any age and level. There is no “MUST” exercise. Look at the bigger picture and work with yourself to minimize injury, protect your joints and keep you progressing! Aim to do a certain exercise down the line? Think about what it needs in terms of strength, mobility or technique, and bite off what you can chew now.

“On a related note, conversations with certain coaches suggest that avoiding very high strength training intensities (e.g. over around 80% 1RM) while emphasizing bar speed to maximize motor unit recruitment has elicited very impressive strength gains for many power athletes.”

This one I like, because it’s something I was mulling about in my head while coaching power cleans. I am not a great Olympic lifting coach. I have never been formally taught the lifts, just read, and practiced on myself and taught others the basics. I believe I can teach the hang clean, power clean and hang snatch pretty proficiently (while referencing Olympic Lifting for Athletes hahaha), but one thing I do know; the lifts are meant to be technical and fast. Heavier loads, that by default must move slower, especially for a beginner/intermediate athlete, defeats the purpose of training for speed/power. You want them to think and move fast. I feel more confident in my conclusion now, and will continue to use this principle for Olympic style lifts. I mostly use hang power cleans, push press and dumbbell snatches. For those who want to incorporate Oly style lifting into their programs, take A LOT of time to learn technique. I read that the Russians would take up to 2 years coaching the movement before loading it. Course that’s elite athletes, but it gives you an idea.

“Left-right lower limb strength asymmetries have been shown to predispose athletes to injury in sports involving sprinting. Moreover, addressing these asymmetries can reduce the incidence of injuries (Croisier et al., 2008).”

Another consideration I am using more and more. Using myself as a guinea pig and dealing with many imbalance issues has me emphasizing more unilateral work with all my players to stack the odds in our favor for not building in any imbalances. Applies across the board, IMO. Along with your bilateral work, use lots of exercises that make one side work at a time. Oftentimes people are surprised at the differences in strength when starting unilateral work, and you can’t fix it unless you know about it.

“This point will come as no surprise, but I still find it easy to revert to certain exercises without continuing to challenge athletes with new movement problems to solve. With respect to musculoskeletal health, exercise diversity will help avoid overuse injuries and promote mobility.”

Guilty as charged. There’s something to be said for fuckarounditis, and if you are brand spanking new, perhaps you DON’T need a lot of variety because you are fooling around in the back of your head anyway, and then what you need right then is MORE basic focus, not variety. But for those who train faithfully, and especially as a consideration for athletes who do this day in and day out, keep it fresh. See the disclaimer there though? “With respect to musculoskeletal health…”, you still need to justify your selections and have them serve a purpose. But, you can do plenty of variations of exercises that will elicit the same training “response” you are looking for.

“I like the isometric holds initially as in my experience some athletes initially find it difficult to maintain lumbar spine lordosis in the position of greatest hip flexion (although this is dependent on the height of the shoulder rest). I teach these with the bench positioned just below the scapulae and with a strong chin tuck to counter the habit that so many have of carrying the head anteriorly.”

A couple good tips for hip thrusts right there. You DO NOT want to be wiggling around in the lumbar spine during a hip thrust. Unless someone has great core stability and control (proper hinging of the hips) throughout the movement, you shouldn’t be giving them heavy loads. I also see a lot of people “cheating” on the concentric portion by leading with the head. This can apply to other lifts too. Keep the chin tucked, don’t get “momentum” with moving the head up and down. Learned this the hard way, and I still got to cue myself not to do it.

“Train deadlifts and Olympic lifts from the top down.”

Great coaching consideration for teaching these lifts. He gets into more detail that I won’t repeat.

“The 1 arm dumbbell bench press is also a useful tool in teaching correct bench press technique, ensuring left-right strength balance and training an athlete to control rotation.”

Another exercise that I have been using way more, before getting athletes to bench. I saw lots of these at Eric Cressey’s place, and am moving towards everyone starting with dumbbell benching both bilaterally and unilaterally before any kind of regular benching.   Two big problems in bench that I see regularly are: 1) Uneven pressing strength 2) lack of control on the eccentric portion and “losing” it at the bottom with the head of the humerus rolling anteriorly(not controlling rotation) which means they sort of  “drop” their elbows at the bottom (even if they don’t bounce it off their chest).

“It has previously been demonstrated that imaginary muscle actions elicit strength gains, albeit in a finger abduction model (Yue & Cole, 1992), and this appears to be due to enhanced neural drive to the relevant musculature after imagery training.”

So glad to see there’s *some* scientific basis for me telling the kids to close their eyes and “think about their butts”, for instance. I always explain the purpose of “mind-muscle” ESPECIALLY when they really need to contract a certain muscle in the right way, or visualize what muscles should be working while in a particular position. Course we all know Arnold said that ages ago. 😛

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

I always err on the safer side, even if it means being less “rah-rah” about training at times. You can always up the intensity or the difficulty, but an injury is an injury. 1.5 years coaching here and not one accident or injury. Might make me a tad more boring, but I ALWAYS tell my athletes that it my job to keep them performing well and safely. The goal is a happy, healthy body for years to come. Keep the long term vision in mind.

“Embrace Nordics for bulletproof hamstrings.”

Youtube these wonders. Haven’t used them consistently, was mostly doing GHD machine versions…but I think I shall switch it up a bit more to these when appropriate. Showed a bunch of kids them the other day, and you don’t need a machine, just somewhere to hook your feet. Another thing I have been musing on is the role of the hamstrings in knee joint protection, partly from my observations coaching and my own knee problems…..I shall approach the topic more in-depth perhaps at another date.

Exciting stuff.

Huge thanks to Bret Contreras for sharing this and allowing me to find another coach to follow, and to Greg Potter for his awesome insights and writing!


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  1. Many thanks for this, Joy.

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