Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Triangulating On The Target: Part One

I'm not going to get caught up with providing too many graphics or pics in this post yet it has occurred to me, through dialogue with colleagues, that it would be very helpful if I were to provide a little more of a roadmap regarding how I train volleyball athletes on a day to day basis. It's no coincidence that this blogpost is titled "Triangulating on the Target" as Steven Plisk wrote a blog with the same title and while these thoughts will be "original" it should go without saying that my primary influences in the field currently are, ahem, Steven Plisk, Dan Pfaff, and Mike Boyle. These people have set very important standards for me re: systems, implementation, and communication and I can't see myself ever getting away from acknowledging that.

To the meat and potatoes of this post re: day to day management of the athlete as you develop them and their programming over time. Yes, I believe it happens in that order. The "athlete" is an ambiguous term as many times what we really have is an individual who plays a sport but does not behave like much of an athlete. When I was first starting out as a coach I would put athletes through a rigorous assessment and a lot of paperwork. I wanted to find out upfront what I was dealing with. And the result of that process was basically nothing. I tell people now that everyone is Tarzan when they are filling out their questionnaires/forms but when it comes to doing the work they behave like Jane.

To reconcile those things did not mean that I needed to change my process for starting with athletes; I just had to be willing to teach and hold them responsible for the standard that they themselves wanted to be held to. Every time an individual athlete let me know by how they filled out their forms that they thought of themselves as a high-performer it helped me 1-assume positive intent, and 2-know that their expectation was for me to push them with that idea in mind. What a great opportunity!

So in my mind that really simplifies things as far as how we go about beginning. Steven Plisk discusses the triangulation objective as dialing in on mechanics, energetics, and coordination. For the athletes I am coaching this concentration works extremely well. For the junior club volleyball athlete, and for the NCAA DIII athlete, my number one issue is going to be mechanics. I tell athletes often that 90% of our issues will be corrected with better postures. That is an oversimplification but in my mind it captures our intent very effectively. For the volleyball athlete specifically we get to pack a pretty hefty punch by hammering at some very general processes that will have some very specific benefits. A lot of our early developmental postures mirror those required in high level front row play at every level; which, not coincidentally, is the reason why I gravitated to volleyball as it is my belief that it is one of the few sports where you see fairly equal representation of performance across genders even if the upper limits of play are still only achievable by the men (the women, across the board, play at the same level just with constraints reflected in the height of the net; play within the same square footage of court space is equally dynamic).

Specific to mechanics the sagital plane is dominant from the beginning as is my vertical jump developmental model. Even though it is sorely in need of updating the vertical jump methodology piece I shared years ago can still accurately represent a big part of my process. As a fundamental piece of the athletic development process jumping is important! With volleyball there are two pivotal points to jumping as 1-effective vertical jumps are a tremendous part of the game, and 2-power in the sagital plane is a keystone element for your program overall as well as when you need to simplify your program for maintenance/stability purposes it is where you will first look to contain your strength-power-speed work.

If we clear the functional movement screen (I will not defend the FMS here, at all) and isolated ROM assessments then we will look to lay out the absolutely essential parts of the programming in, initially, a concurrent fashion and develop those patterns on a day by day basis. At this point I do not program anything more than a week out as there are many issues that will not be exposed until you attempt to load them with more force, speed, fatigue or some combination of those things; this will require a lot of flexibility/adaptability within the plan. This is essentially a heavy teaching phase and one where I don't know how well each athlete will learn until I start teaching.

It is important to note that the limitations of each athlete are not theirs or mine but some combination that occurs between their learning ability, my teaching skills, and the environment provided. I always find that attribution theory helps me explain behavior at this point as it states that most people attribute behavior to the internal characteristics of the individual whereas the reality is that most behavior is external/situational (of course there is always some back and forth here). Simply put it is often situational stress that impacts behavior. The better we manage the situation the better the behavior overall. Put another way in my 10+ years of coaching I can count the number of kids who I would say I could just not help at all, for character reasons, on less than one hand; but the number of kids who needed some emotional support and encouragement and who thrived after being provided that are innumerable. 

Back to the physical preparation parts of this, it again is no coincidence that I am noting all of the psycho-physiological interactions at this point, one thing I tell people often is, "your daughter will move and jump better before they move and jump faster and higher; but soon they will do both." Given an appropriate focus on mechanics this is the proverbial low hanging fruit spoken of. Progress comes pretty easy if we take the challenge of "coaching every rep" seriously. We are literally getting better with every rep and every session for weeks and, potentially, months. In my mind at this point it is not critical to do anything but to observe and continue to communicate standards and expectations: 

-Standards exist as absolute necessities; they are the consistency of process. Just because gains are coming easy now does not mean that they will be easy forever. They have to be prepared for the inevitability of the slowing of progress, the struggle, the grind. 

-Expectations are essentially moving targets for me. Again, because our programming is working so easily now, "newbie gains" for the win, does not mean it will be that way forever and we have to know that because we are now capable of better does not mean that we have seen what our best looks like. I believe it was James Madison who said, “If better is possible then good is never enough.”

In order to simplify the remainder of this post let me just focus on the vertical jump and our technical model. It begins with the loading/drive phase. This in my mind is where we are laying the groundwork/foundation for the remainder of the jump. MANY coaches and athletes overlook the opportunity here. We do not. In one of my primary jump series progressions we use we skew the number of reps towards jump loading activities (15:5 loading:jump ratio). 

 (Pic demonstrating equal Ecc RFD across different loading strategies)

This is a great way to: 

1: Limit the stress of too much jumping
2: To skew the initial practice towards the rate-limiting factor of vertical jump performance. As I communicate to my athletes Newton’s 3rd law states every action produces an equal and opposite reaction; therefore a more explosive loading phase (Eccentric RFD) will always better potentiate the concentric/explosive part of the vertical jump (Concentric RFD). Better still because our neuromuscular system has plasticity it doesn’t just equate forces our muscles and tendons adapt to better perform in order to reduce the stress this places on our body.

So assuming our body can absorb and adapt to this stress successfully, a direct link to Selye’s GAS model, we will supercompensate and exceed initial projections based only on an improved technical model that addresses the E-M-C components successfully (not to underestimate everyone but again this is Energetics-Mechanics-Coordination). Improved posture/mechanics, improved rate of work/energetics, and improved action/coordination in teaching (assumed here as there is plenty still worth mentioning but for brevity purposes, lol, I will leave this alone). 

(Image courtesy of

Beyond this point is where I typically have to address "what got you here will not get you there ." This is where we typically move away from a concurrent model and into more concentrated loads consistent with block periodization: narrowing our concentration on the things that we can see limiting us but have not worked hard enough at to take full advantage of yet. The meso:micro-cycle structure becomes absolutely essential as does consistency for the necessary complementary effects of each training session. This is an important point as along with this is the fact that most of our "newbie gains" now will pay diminishing returns and if we were to persist with a concurrent model, because it is easier to coordinate, then we would essentially just accumulate unnecessary repetitions in many qualities. The learning curve for different qualities is shorter or longer depending on the current level of preparedness. Put simpler still we will now no longer be impacting our work at the upper limit, our ceiling if you will, but the work contained within it. We can work endlessly on the work capacity side of things with endless repetition schemes and variations but still have very little if any impact on increasing our maximum capacity.

My original intent was to lay this all out in one post but I can now see that if you are still reading you can surely wait a few more days, as I cannot imagine very many making it to this point any way, and I will do my best to concentrate that blog post to make sure it strictly covers the essentials in my best impression of "blogging block periodization style" :) Specifically my next blog will further elucidate on auto-regulation, velocity-based training, and laying out the necessary microcycle structure to DOMINATE.

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