The Role of the Fitness Coach in Football
Mike McGurne sheds light on the diverse role of a fitness coach
Roy Keanes' recent comments on how he addresses the fitness staff of the Republic of Ireland Football team raises the question of the Fitness coaches role in such an environment. The following article was written over 9 months ago, but after presenting all weekend in Warsaw one of the constant questions fitness people are asked what do you do?
The role of the Strength and Conditioning coach has changed dramatically over the last number of years and it got me thinking. I often wonder does the title S&C coach do justice to the duties we carry out? I had a recent conversation with 2016 NSCA Strength and Conditioning Coach of the year Ashley Jones about this matter, and we both agreed that the title Physical Performance Coach better sums up what we actually do.
The title Strength & Conditioning coach conjures a notion of lifting weights and hours on end in the gym. In reality however, a good S&C coach offers so much more. The role has diversified over the years to include warm ups, mobility, Olympic lifting, speed sessions, aerobic sessions, anaerobic sessions, conditioning games, strongman, cognitive skill development, hypertrophy sessions, strength sessions, velocity based sessions, agility, boxing fitness, wrestling, hydration monitoring, recovery sessions and post game training. The list can be bigger or smaller depending on who you work with.
I’m not particularly one for fancy titles, but in the world we live in, I feel at times that I am in the minority on this issue. What in my head was once called a binman is now a Refuse Technician. There is no doubt that in today’s world of vanity and competition, image and perception is everything. Bearing this in mind do we ‘previously known as S&C coaches’ need to move with the times and essentially ‘rebrand’ ourselves?
The S&C profession, in my opinion, is still not valued as highly as it should be in the world of sport. The world of professional soccer perfectly illustrates this point.
I recently had the pleasure of getting to know and work with the former Manchester United Power development Coach Mick Clegg. The time I have spent with Mick has been inspiring and given me a new impetus, helping spark new ideas. I would go so far as to say that he is a real innovator and world leader in his profession. Mick worked for Manchester United through the Alex Ferguson years, coaching world class and global legends from Roy Keane, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs in the earlier days, to more recently Wayne Rooney and Christiano Ronaldo. There is no doubt that Mick was instrumental in shaping the careers of these players but how many us would have heard of him on the news bulletins after a good result?
So what’s the reason for this? Why are S&C coaches not getting the credit they deserve? I’ll stick with soccer as my example, considering the fact that it’s one of the biggest and most lucrative sports in the world. These players as we now know, earn crazy sums of money. They have become used to the best of everything when it comes to facilities, accommodation, transport etc. One would imagine that a professional outfit such as soccer would extend their ‘best of everything’ ethos to the way in which they prepare for games. After all that’s why they are all there. I would however question how ‘professional’ they are when it comes to their way of training.
Having worked in the English Premiership as a S&C coach, I came away with the distinct impression that S&C is viewed in a fairly dim light by players, coaches and managers. So what is the reason for this? I concluded that part of the reason for this is lack of education on the part of the managers/head coaches. I refer back to my opening paragraph. I believe they thought S&C coaches were all ‘gym bunnies.’ They have no idea of the sheer range of services we have to offer, and how this could develop and improve their players. A perfect example of this ignorance, is the fact that there are currently Premiership and National soccer teams who do not employ S&C or fitness coaches as part of their back room team. They choose instead to get the physio or masseur to take on a dual role. There was also this feeling of competition for player’s time. I don’t think they got the idea that S&C could compliment and run parallel with their coaching and incorporate the ideas that they were trying to promote. In essence, S&C could make their lives easier!
Soccer is steeped in tradition. They do things a certain way, just because they always have. For such a dominant sport around the world, their pace of change is pretty slow to say the least! Old players become new coaches and so history repeats itself. Change in this kind of environment is very difficult.
Skill is viewed as the optimum discipline that needs to be incorporated into the football training programme, but skill coupled with the speed of the players actions should be the building blocks of any Premiership footballers training programme. I have witnessed in my own National sport of Gaelic football that fitness coaches have come in, and yes, their players have become fit and strong, but at the expense of skill. It is an obvious statement to make but there is no point in having a fit team if the players cannot deliver on the pitch in terms of scoring goals, points or tries! This can provide outsiders with the ammunition to slate our profession.
Most fitness coaches at soccer clubs are consigned to supervising the players running around the pitch at a pace slower than a five year old toddler can run and giving them some stretches. If they are really modern they will pull out some bands and do some glut activation work because they saw some other team doing it on Sky TV!
It really does appear that we can’t do right for doing wrong, but the key is balance and incorporating our fitness and conditioning with skill and sport/position specific work in order to tick all the boxes.
Perhaps I am too harsh. Perhaps these S&C coaches do not have the remit or the backing from their managers to do much more. This is where we need to look at the type of individual who works as an S&C coach. I’m not for one second suggesting that one should be belligerent or argumentative but S&C coaches certainly should be able to stand up for themselves when it comes to addressing how exactly the players need to train to be fit for purpose. They need to have the courage of their convictions. Admittedly, it would take more than one lone voice and this is where we have to look at the type of individual who could work as a S&C coach successfully, being an ambassador for the profession.
There are fitness staff working in team sports, with athletes and in organisations who have every fitness qualification ever invented! When it comes down to the practical aspect of coaching however, they seem to be unable to transfer this wealth of academic knowledge into for example teaching athletes in the gym. To me, it often appears that they lack that quality of motivating players and that intuition to push when they feel they can push no more. Todd Hamer recently wrote a brilliant article titled Certification Craze, which looked at all fitness professionals being properly qualified. There are some who believed that academic qualifications would help the S&C profession finally get the respect it deserves.
I don’t mean for one second to take anything away from those individuals who have worked hard, made sacrifices and struggled financially in order to obtain their qualifications, however I am not entirely convinced that you need a degree in order to be a good, competent and successful S&C coach.
If you talk to most graduates in any walk of life, from medicine to business to teaching, I’m sure most will tell you that a lot of their learning comes ‘on the job.’ Sure, they come out of university with their theory but it is practical experience, time and learning what doesn’t work, that ultimately shapes a successful individual. It is naïve to expect that a piece of paper makes a good coach. The current crop of graduates springing out of the various academic institutions with degrees, MSc’s and even Ph.D’s still have to learn the art of communication. They need to learn how to build a working relationship with elite athletes, how to read them and know what makes them tick in order to get the best out of them. Often athletes can be complex characters! It is one thing being able to read a book but quite another to read an athlete. Sometimes I find that those of an academic persuasion can be quite rigid in their thought process. S&C though is rarely a ‘recipe’. Prescriptions must be for the individual and importantly the S&C coach must be able to adapt when players get injured, or strategies change. Programmes cannot be ‘cut and pasted’ or copied from a book so we need flexible thinking individuals.
The goal underpinning this argument is that we as a profession get the kudos we deserve. If academic coaches need to step up and become good communicators in order to deliver the full package, then the good communicators need to get their knowledge from somewhere. It frightens me that often I have seen situations that if you are a friend of the manager and you are prepared to double job you can be the physio, fitness and strength coach! Also if you are very good at talking a good game, in some sports there is the potential to graduate from water bottle cleaner to strength and conditioning coach. Then to really compound the situation, you are given license to prescribe a training regime that could serious implications on performance, and possibly the health well being of certain athletes. I use the analogy you wouldn’t get a Priest to plaster your house or you wouldn’t allow a bricklayer to pull one of your wisdom teeth out, so why would you allow the masseur or physio to run your fitness programme? Likewise I am sure there are not many fitness coaches out there who would wish to do, or would be competent to perform the Physio duties? I think the key word here is competence. Going forward, how do we assess competence in our industry and how do we maintain it?
I have had the great fortune to meet and become great friends with, what I consider to be four of the Worlds top Physical Performance coaches. In no particular order; Dan Baker, Mick Clegg, David Boyle and Ashley Jones. I don’t know what qualifications any of the aforementioned coaches have. What I do know, is that what really sets these coaches aside from the rest is their ability to motivate, inspire, prepare, push and put their athletes/teams in an environment so that they excel at the very highest level. This is illustrated by the fact that they have won World Cups, Super 14 Championships, Premier League Titles, NRL Titles, Bledisloe Cups, Champion League Trophies, FA Cups, World Club Championships Titles.
Whatever the route an individual takes into the world of S&C, I do feel that they at least need a universally recognised S&C qualification. Personally I am a big fan of the ASCA (Australian Strength and Conditioning Association) as they emphasise the practical element of being a good S&C coach. My philosophy is to get in the gym and get under the bar. Get out on the training pitch and work your athletes hard. Have the ability to apply what the athletes need in order to be world class. Have the ability to know when you need to stand on an athletes/teams throat and rip them a new one, and likewise know when an athlete needs an arm round the shoulder and a day off.
Don’t become a bookworm who can quote you every training plan, max velocity outcomes and periodisation adaptation, but when asked to take a warm up you fall apart! I also feel in order to gain credibility from your athletes/teams as a Physical Performance Coach a certain level of competency is required when it actually comes to lifting/training. You don’t have to be able to full clean 200kg+ or snatch 150kg+ to function as a good coach, but you do need a certain level of proficiency in demonstrating and coaching all the lifts.
I do agree with Todds point in his excellent article, we as an industry do need to be more professional, we need to support each other a lot more and not to be scared to give other S&C coaches credit. One Sports Performance Coach who I have not met yet face to face, but have corresponded with is Wil Fleming. Wil is a brilliant speaker on the topics of power development, speed, and strength training for athletes. Wil is the co-owner of Force Fitness and Performance and Athletic Revolution, in Bloomington, IN. I have read Wils articles on T-Nation, IYCA websites, bought his DVD’s, watched his coaching videos on Youtube and the guy is brilliant as a coach and writer. He comes across with a real passion for sports coaching. Does this make me any less of a S&C coach by saying this? No it doesn’t. Maybe it is the competitive streak in all of us, but often we are too quick in the relatively tiny physical performance world to criticise our fellow peers. We all have our own philosophies. We all have our own opinions on how to prepare athletes. That doesn’t mean to say if another coach trains differently to you he/she is wrong. We should embrace other coaches ideas as learning opportunities.
Goodness knows, we have enough people willing to stick the boot in to the ‘Fitness Guys,’ especially after a defeat or poor performance, the last we need is to do it to each other.
In summary, I do believe that this is a fantastic industry that we work in. The S&C coach has so much to offer managers and Head coaches but we need to sell and promote ourselves, and educate others on the diversity of our role. Bearing this in mind, the title of Physical Performance Coach is more suited to describing what our jobs entail. Our job is to present our athletes to the Manager/Head Coach as athletes who are as fit, powerful and as explosive as possible. We should strive to include a skilled based element to our philosophies and to the environment we work in, to achieve continuity and a cohesive approach.
The background, training and personality of those entering the S&C profession and undertaking this work is crucial. We need coaches who are the full package that possess competency and flexibility, with the skills to communicate and motivate in order to achieve success. It is these individuals, who collectively will steer the profession toward a secure and respected future in the sporting world.
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