From Athlete to Coach
Whilst standing on the shoulders of giants
Written by Laura Turner - Lead Sprints & Hurdles Coach at West London Track & Field
When my coaching career began in the summer of 2014, I decided I wanted (and needed) to gather as much information as I could. I had just retired from 10 years of competing as an international athlete, but during this time I was very much in my own bubble. I needed to understand Track & Field from the other side of the fence, so to speak. I swapped my spikes for a stopwatch, whistle, lots of reading and even more questions.
I swapped my spikes for a stopwatch, whistle, lots of reading and even more questions.
My quest for information took me to ALTIS in December, where I was able to immerse myself in an environment, which I would describe as the most desirable destination for an elite athlete in the world, with a star-studded coaching line-up.
I went to ALTIS to develop my understanding of the technical models in hurdles, long and high jump. I currently coach a large group of Heptathletes, and have limited experience of competing in multi events, let alone coaching. Confirmation of sprint models were also on my list, but my understanding of these are slightly more developed having read a lot from Stuart McMillan and Dan Pfaff, amongst others.
With the growing success of West London Track & Field, I wanted to watch a successful coaching team in action and understand what makes them so successful.
Why do athletes go to ALTIS?
What is an elite athlete looking for?
What do ALTIS do that draws so many elite athletes through their doors?
Arriving at the track on Day 1 was very strange. The last time I was at Paradise Valley Community College track I was training and preparing for an Olympic season. It was quite intimidating walking onto the track at first, just due to the sheer number of people who were already there. Athletes, coaches, therapists and fellow coaches on the course. There were easily 100 people on the track at 9am. I relaxed more as I floated from group to group and started to get talking to people.
The athletes were very friendly and often introduced themselves. I was fortunate to already know a few of the coaches and athletes, which helped break the ice. Even though the track was full of people there was a sense of calm and it was not chaotic as I would’ve expected.
Everyone was busy doing something whether it was a warm up or therapy. As the session continued so to the sense of calm, as athletes moved through their warm up and training session with very little fuss. My overall feeling from Day 1 at the track was a reflection of how smooth the whole process seemed to be.
Following the track session the athletes moved to EXOS; a 5-minute drive - to continue their workout. The facility was huge, both inside and outside. Once again athletes were moving seamlessly through their workout under the watchful eyes of the coaches. The visiting coaches were given a talk everyday after lunch, followed by a round table chat with Dan Pfaff and other ALTIS coaches. Dan spoke about the theme for that days training, which was Potentiation. All groups use Day 1 of the week for this purpose.
This led onto a discussion regarding Potentiation prior to competition. Dan suggested that medium/slow converters of power should use a Potentiation day the day before a competition … The twitchy guys may not need it before a competition. If there are multiple rounds in one day, the early rounds can also be viewed or used as Potentiation. A great bit of advice from Dan, with respect to athlete “buy-in”, was to “think like a Lawyer and build a case for your programme” … A humbling thought for any coach.
Day 2 in the ALTIS week is a big day. The jumpers were working on short approach jumps. Dan had made an adjustment for one of the triple jumpers: the athlete was able to make the correction on his next jump and commented to Dan “you the man Dan”, to which Dan replied, “this is not my first rodeo”.
This made me chuckle, so much that I wrote it in my notebook. Technical points from the jumpers were focused on their penultimate step, how it looked and sounded. The sprinters were running some flying 30’s and I witnessed Mikel Thomas post a 2.68s — pretty impressive. The hurdlers had an interesting session: Andreas had paired an approach run over 1–2 hurdles with a quick 3 step drill over 5 hurdles. I really liked this session as it combined 2 elements into 1 session, something I will be implementing with the hurdlers at West London Sprints & Hurdles.
The talk on day 2 was delivered by Nick Winkleman and was called “Coach like a Caveman”. If you are not following Nick on twitter then why not, his handle is @nickwinkelman. Nick spoke about how athletes learn, that variability helps change a motor system where words don’t work. For example, performing a drill with arms above the head. Additions of variations to a pattern, consolidates that pattern, therefore adding robustness. Nick also spoke about the amount of feedback a coach gives an athlete. If an athlete relies on their coach for feedback, they will not be able to self regulate and replicate during competition. A coach must think about the information they are giving the athlete. Could they have figured that out themselves?
The coaches round table discussion continued on a similar theme to Nick’s talk and Dan recommended we encourage our athletes to write down cues and thoughts that worked for them. I actually did this today after the long jumpers all had a great session. My conclusion from day 2 was that I talk too much!
Day 3 saw the jumpers doing a sprint session so I got a chance to quiz Dan on sprint mechanics. The session started with an interesting take on a flailing arm being an indicator of a locked sacrum. The elbow opens too early to compensate for an unstable SI joint and/or foot. Don’t fix the arm, fix the sacrum! My first instinct would be to fix the arm, don’t look at affect, look at cause. What else? Where else? As the jumpers started sprinting over longer distances we spoke about racing. Dan commented that most races are lost between 50m-70m because the athlete feels the pressure so they try to push again. Instead they need to bounce. The session was very tough and many athletes had to move to a plan B session. One athlete commented, “that’s hard!” Dan replied, “It’s not hard, it’s different. Monitor your self talk”.
Brett Bartholomew delivered the talk on “The Importance of Influence” … Make sure you are following Brett on twitter @Coach_BrettB. Brett started with a quote from Ernest Hemmingway: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master”.
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master”
Everyone is learning, even Dan. I think this put me at ease - that the quest for the perfect training programme, method, coaching style - just isn’t out there.
Enjoy the process of discovery.
Brett spoke about a road map approach to training; different route, same destination. I have actually used this analogy before, mostly when dealing with injured athletes but it does apply to all athletes, all the time. One size does not fit all. As coaches we must connect people and purpose. All decisions are sparked by drives. Drive sparks desire. Desire sparks beliefs. Beliefs ignite action.
During the round table chat the ALTIS coaches explained that the regeneration day for sprinters was an active process. Regeneration isn’t sitting at home on the sofa. The athletes completed a series of fascial stretches, ELDOA, mobility and recovery runs on the curve treadmill.
On day 4 Dan gave the talk after lunch. He spoke about KPI’s, key performance indicators and inhibitors. He spoke about writing programmes and thinking about what you need to have versus what is nice to have. He categorizes training activities into generations. First generation activities are the event, sprinting, long jumping, hurdling. Second generation activities would be short approach long jumps for example. Third generation activities include acceleration, speed and jump exercises; fourth generation are weight training, throwing and plyometrics. Drills build context but doing the event builds transference, but nothing beats doing the event itself.
Drills build context but doing the event builds transference, but nothing beats doing the event itself.
In the round table chat that followed Dan commented that every athlete at ALTIS should be able to get a call to race in 3 weeks and be able to perform to a world-class level. Kevin Tyler spoke about how different types of athletes run the 200m: you have the chasers who like to run people down and the athletes who like to come off the bend in front. It depends on how the athlete responds best. We then started talking about block starts. Andreas has found that the 5th start tends to be the best so will encourage the athlete to make sure that is the race start. On specific block start mechanics all coaches encourage lifting or arching the upper back. Dan likes this to encourage the spinal reflex and Stu and Andreas because it aids the arm split and moves the body away from track — which gives the body less distance to travel. I find this particular technical element interesting and am still playing around with it. Dan was quite firm to highlight that the gym provides context, but is not transferable!
Day 5 started with a video analysis session with Stu. I was rubbing my hands together at this prospect.
The session was held at EXOS on a regeneration day. There were so many technical gems during this session, the best way to summarise is to write a list:
• When hands leave the ground, look for the front knee to drop less than 5 degrees.
• Reverse back onto the track quicker to get the knees together at foot strike.
• Foot of free leg stays under the knee for 5 strides, foot lands under the centre of mass (belly button) for 1 step then slightly in front, to spend more time on the floor and generate force.
• Mid stance — figure 4 position.
• Toe contact — knees together, shin of free leg parallel to floor or under, not above.
• Slight forward lean helps the foot contact under the centre of mass.
• Toe off — straight line knee to shoulder of rear leg.
• Toe under the knee of the front leg, in flight (toe off).
• Think of toe up while on floor, you can’t dorsi flex in the air.
• Use a speed dribble as the cadence is quicker, overloading the body. Also easier to be technically sound.
Stu showed the athletes the videos one by one and asked them questions to get them to analyse the footage rather than him doing all the talking. All the athletes were receptive and seemed to already be good students of their sport. They all took notes and had questions: that familiar impossible quest for all the answers.
Off to the track to catch a long jump session with Dan, who noted that “jumping is intuitive, if you try and jump you will screw it up”. I let out another chuckle while I made a note of that quote.
The hurdlers had “Freestyle Friday”, a concept Andreas was working with where the athletes came to training with an idea on what they wanted to work on. Andreas later commented that he found interesting what the athletes chose to work on; it wasn’t always the same aspect that Andreas would have chosen for them. I really liked this idea.
Shaun Myszka delivered the talk on “Science and the Art of Mastering Movement for Sport”. He told us to absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is your own. I liked that. His talk focused on movement and noted that not all compensations should be deemed dysfunctional.
The end of day discussion theme continued on from Shaun’s talk. The coaches suggested asking the athletes if they feel they have grasped the technical aspect they have been working on before moving on to the next. A good point, doesn’t matter if the coach feels the athlete has grasped it, the athlete needs to feel comfortable and be able to replicate the movement before moving on. This also allows the coach/athlete to focus on 1 technical aspect at a time. I then asked Kevin Tyler about indoor 400m tactics, he was able to give me a few tips and tricks!
Day 6, the final day, I was exhausted. So much information in such a short space of time. The sprinters were doing a speed endurance session with a focus on running off the bend correctly. Stu was encouraging the athletes to run the bend fully before straightening up. He had cones out to help guide the athletes. Their runs were being timed but the athletes were not being told their times.
There were no talks or coaches’ discussion on day 6, which was a blessing, as I do not think I would have been able to process anymore information.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at ALTIS and will definitely try and get back there. I came away feeling positive about my future in coaching. Track and field is finally catching up with other sports around the world where coaching is a genuine career and not just a hobby for evenings after the 9–5 job. I feel I have achieved what I had set out to do. I feel more comfortable with the mechanics of long jump, hurdles and sprints thanks to the openness and willingness to share from all the ALTIS coaches.
The most valuable lesson I learnt was to think about how I am communicating and delivering my sessions to the athletes. This is a topic I will investigate more now I have heard from both Brett and Nick. I have been fascinated with psychology since I have started coaching, something I wasn’t really interested in as an athlete, but definitely a side to sport I need to investigate more.
ALTIS is a very successful team, not just because they continue to produce excellent results but also because they have worked hard to cultivate a fantastic culture and work ethic amongst their whole team. They select their athletes based on their capacity to fit in with this culture rather than on ability alone. It is this culture I believe is the main contributor to the success of ALTIS and what draws the elite athletes to this fantastic environment.
I would strongly recommend all coaches get out to visit ALTIS, a fantastic resource for developing and elite coaches alike. The culture and environment created at ALTIS is exciting to witness and can only serve to improve the quality of coaching in track and field, and indeed all sports.