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How far should coaches push their players in training?

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Alasdair Jones

Where do you draw the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable training regimes that place a physical and emotional toll on players? ConnectedCoaches member Alasdair Jones, pictured left, provides a physiotherapist’s perspective.

Coaches who operate merciless training methods risk causing their athletes physical and psychological harm. 

These hidden dangers exist irrespective of a person’s age, sex or ability. 

That’s not to say that drilling performers to the point of exhaustion is always inappropriate. Going to such lengths can give them an all-important edge, equipping athletes with the capacity to dig deep and find an extra 1 or 2% in their locker when they most need it. 

You would hope common sense would prevail when it comes to recognising the boundary lines, and almost always, it does. But in the fiercely competitive world of sport, common sense can easily go out of the window as an urge and impatience for success drives and warps coaches’ thought processes, to the extent that the best interests of the athlete get quickly forgotten. 

Physiotherapist Alasdair Jones has worked with coaches from a range of sports, and athletes at amateur, national and international level. He has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of coaching cultures – which approaches work well, and what should be consigned to Room 101. 

His special vantage point allows him to provide a neutral view on the debate. 

Not every coach – or every athlete, come to that – is receptive to the ethical issues that it is Alasdair’s job to consider. 

So while, in an elite sporting arena, a physio’s medical expertise is often sought, it is not always implicitly followed. 

Whole new ball game 

Besides owning his own clinic, Alasdair has recently dipped his toe into coaching, helping out with the under-eights section at Colchester Rugby Union Club. 

And he says he is seeing coaching through new eyes now he has a foot in both camps. 

‘I have been fortunate to work with some incredible athletes and coaches over the years in many disciplines, but the real challenge has begun now that I also coach at a very junior level,’ he says. 

‘It is enlightening to see the daily (and often minute to minute) struggles that the coaches face in becoming a good coach, practising emotional intelligence in an environment where not all stakeholders have bought into such a concept – primarily the parents! 

‘My empathy for the coaches I disapproved of has grown enormously.’ 

I ask him to don his physio hat before inquiring whether pushing players beyond their comfort zone, or even to their physical and mental limits, is ever justifiable. 

As ever, there is no simple answer, as the sporting arena is so all-encompassing. 

‘You’ve got a massive range of coaches out there,’ he says. ‘There are those who have had success by just doing it their way or the highway, so therefore they continue down that route; there is the historical Russian/Chinese model, I think it’s fair to call it, where perhaps they work as many of them as they need to until they break, and those who don’t break they take. From an ethical point of view, that’s not something I would ever feel comfortable supporting. I will say I don’t think this is the right way to go.

‘In sports such as gymnastics, they are encouraged to do 12 hours a week, on bodies that are only 9, 10, 11 years old, and it’s scary.

‘And you look at some of the practices that are going on overseas, and the athletes are going through pain.

‘Is that acceptable, and are national federations complicit with the way they monitor or implement the parameters? It’s impossible to say unless you are within an organisation as to how much work they are doing in the interests of their athletes, and how much is influenced by other stakeholders.

‘But the more enlightened coaches have found ways of achieving elite performance by listening to, first of all, the player, and then the rest of the team around them.’ 

Leicester’s winning formula 

The secret, says Alasdair, is to align the goals of all the different stakeholders who are involved in the athlete’s development. 

The more people are singing from the same hymn sheet, the fewer complaints there are likely to be over a coach’s unreasonable demands or behaviour. 

Where individual athletes are concerned, it can be relatively easy to accomplish, but the larger the club or organisation, the more difficult it is to get everyone to see eye to eye.

‘There can be lots of jostling, from the head coach through the auxiliary staff, all chipping in with their views on how much you should push players,’ says Alasdair.

‘Once you have the goals fully aligned, then the medical staff, the nutritional advisers and the strength and conditioning coaches will be able to advise appropriately.’

Nowhere is this better illustrated than at Leicester City Football Club. 

‘There has to be a central philosophy that is bought into and followed by as much of the team as possible. With Leicester City, that has happened.

‘Look at what they have done on their strength and conditioning side and their fitness. It is absolutely phenomenal,’ adds Alasdair. ‘You’ve even got Team Sky sending people there to try to learn from them.’

Manager with the Midas touch Claudio Ranieri has shown faith in his entire workforce, including his players, giving them the opportunity to be in control of their own destinies by trusting them to make the right decisions on their welfare.

‘He seems to listen to the individual, and empowers them to make those intrinsic decisions, rather than being massively influenced by extrinsic factors. He’s basically saying, “I’m in your hands, I’m not going to be dictatorial about it.”’ 

Don’t gamble with injuries 

Leicester, it is fair to say, are in the minority where athlete autonomy is concerned. 

The outside pressures that exist in professional football – the incredible amounts of money, and the apparent browbeating of coaches from agents – means that individual needs can sometimes get overlooked, and any stipulated club ethos is clean forgotten. 

Take niggles and injuries as an example. If risks are taken by coaches and players alike, eventually, the law of averages states some of these gambles will backfire.

‘If you are a young player and your objective is to break into the first-team squad, then you are not going to listen to your body if you have a niggle. The physio may advise them they shouldn't be playing, but you try telling that to a 19 year old at the top of their game – they’ll say they are fine.

‘And there are numerous clubs who will be tempted to put their players out there, having had injections for injuries, telling them, “Just get on with it, you are paid to play,” putting their careers at risk.’

Such is the nature of high-stakes professional sport that is difficult for elite coaches to look beyond the next result, and physios have to be careful not to overstep the mark when attempting to sway their decisions. 

Mike Friday – coach for the USA Rugby 7s squad ensures a great environment by insisting not simply on winning, but ‘winning development’ being one of their core values.

There’s always a certain amount of push-pull so the managers, the coaches, the conditioning coaches will want to push and push to maximise what the players have. And the players want that as well. They want to succeed and be better than everybody else. There will always be a reluctance to say, “No, enough is enough.”

‘As medical professionals, we can make the risks evident to coaches, but it’s a neutral piece of advice, and we will support them whichever decision they take.’ 

Which is why it was so refreshing for Alasdair to read about England international Joe Marler ruling himself out of the summer tour to Australia. 

Marler has been seeking help from sports psychologist Jeremy Snape (who featured in our blog post Strategies for coping on the big occasion) after admitting: ‘Whenever you play for England, you have to be 100%, and unfortunately, I’m not in that place at the moment.’

‘To pull himself out of that environment, with the blessing of the coaches, is a huge step forward,’ says Alasdair.

British Cycling in the spotlight 

The recent controversy surrounding British Cycling illustrates the advantages and disadvantages that go hand in hand with operating exacting training methods as a means of testing athletes’ physical and mental limits. 

The hoo-hah that erupted over the regime overseen by Technical Director Shane Sutton, which resulted in UK Sport ordering an independent review of British Cycling’s performance programmes, caused ructions inside and outside the camp – the aftershocks of which are still reverberating to this day. 

Their methods have divided opinion. There can be no dispute over the effectiveness of the approach (eight gold medals at the last two Olympic Games, in Beijing and London, is proof of that), but not every member of the Team GB cycling squad is an advocate. 

‘You’ve got Chris Hoy saying, “Shane Sutton was fantastic, he was my mentor, I couldn’t have done it without him,” and those on the other side saying, “His methods didn’t work for me.”’ 

But how can you alter your organisation’s entire philosophy from athlete to athlete, bawling at one to give you one more lap, while making concessions to another? Surely you have to be consistent? 

Alasdair agrees it is virtually impossible to please all the athletes all of the time in regimes that set such high expectations and where traditional boundaries are stretched. 

‘In clubs where they have more fixed ideas on what they should be doing – when you take away people’s opportunity to be in control of their own destiny – you’ll see amazing players that come to a club that just don’t fit in, they never achieve because they can’t adjust to those constraints that the club have imposed,’ he says. 

A solution presents itself at amateur level, where the element of choice comes into play. 

The onus is on the individual to carry out some due diligence before they join a club. With no agent putting the squeeze on them to sign for the club offering the highest wages, and no Olympic gold medal to compete for, they are able to choose the club that best fits their needs. 

‘Certainly at adult level, there’s enough nous among the players to understand what sort of environment they are in,’ says Alasdair. 

‘They have the choice to move clubs if they do not agree with the ethos of their current club. Do they want to go for the title, or are they looking for a Sunday afternoon chill-out? There are enough levels within the league structures of most sports to allow you to change the level of ability you play in.’ 

Three steps to success 

Regarding grass-roots level, times, they are a-changing, according to Alasdair, who says: ‘As a physio, it is great to see a wider push for coaches to shift away from the old school “grind them into the dust” philosophy that was so disheartening to see.’  

Only last month you had Richie Gray, coach with the Springboks and Scotland rugby union sides, saying at the Rugby Innovation Summit that the sport has finally discovered some of the secrets to player welfare, including co-ordinated teams of coaches and medics, and is looking to the future with all the players at every level with a collaborative approach, looking to achieve a legacy rather than an overnight success.

This is the ethos championed by Colchester minis and juniors, where fun and enjoyment are the priorities of every age group, from under-sixes upwards. 

‘We always send out a mixed ability squad, the idea being the currently more able players help the less able players, and the team ethic starts to come through. 

‘If you look further up the structure, there will also be clubs within our region who don't want to play mixed ability and will always put out an elite squad to win a festival at under-eights.’ 

While the article will have given coaches much to ponder, Alasdair successfully summarises his own ethos in one concise sentence. If you follow this advice, you won’t be going far wrong. 

‘To help crystallise it, I would say, first of all, know the player, then ensure the goals are aligned and then push them as much as you agree with the player.’ 

Where do you stand on pushing players? Plesae share your thoughts.

Alasadiar's top tips

  • Establish the one common goal at the heart of the organisation.  
  • Live, sleep, breathe and embody the culture you want to be a part of.  
  • As always, communicate. Listen to each other, gain some understanding of the others' specialist fields, and ask difficult questions.
  • Physios: understand that you must compromise - a consensus view can work!
  • Coaches: Honestly, good physios want to keep the athletes in play just as much as you do.  We will always give you options to maximise performance and minimise risk in the short, medium, and often long term, aligned to the goals of the organisation.

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Comments (1)

I think that many sports have a real problem with the romantic notion that progress has to come from pain and toil. Whilst dedication is of course important, too much emphasis has been put onto hard graft. I really like Charlie Spedding's idea of assessing sessions by how close to perfect they were - he'd set target times and if he hit them it was perfect. Going too fast was just as bad as going too slow. That breaks the mindset of always thinking you could have pushed harder.

Most sports have some technical component to them and movement quality is of course crucial for avoiding injuries. There are some occasions when the desired outcome might mean you are willing to sacrifice technique because you want to see the sportsperson deal with fatigue, but where skill development is the intended outcome, once they are fatigued it gets to a point where they are just rehearsing sloppy technique. And as regards injury prevention, we as coaches need to take at least some responsibility for the health of our athletes. If we overload them and push them beyond the point where they are exhibiting poor mechanics, the resulting injury is our fault.

There will never be one answer to how hard an athlete should be worked - it will depend on the circumstances. But we as coaches need to have good reasons for why we have chosen to call it a day on a session or decided to push the sportsperson further and not just grind athletes into the ground because that's what happens in Hollywood sports movies!
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