Today we start our Strength and Conditioning article series with Coach Mat Fitzgerald.
Here is what he had to say!
‘YOU’RE A WHAT?’
..or put another way ‘What the hell is a Strength & Conditioning Coach anyhow?’
I know, not exactly a snappy title right? It is hard coming up with a title that is going to grab your attention and make you read the words below it. This was my fourth attempt; ‘The role of strength and conditioning professional in performance enhancement and the critical elements of periodization for optimal performance’ wasn’t really doing it for me – so hence the rather shorter one above! Still awake? Ok, lets crack on then……..
If you work in a job that isn’t on someone’s register of ‘I know what that is’ then the chances are, this has happened to you. In any kind of social gathering; parties, christening, that kind of event - there is a point where you will come across someone you don’t know and inevitably in the flow of polite conversation comes the question ‘So what do you do?. That’s when the ‘You’re a what?’ comes back at me.
I’m a Strength & Conditioning Coach and to the general population these words conjure up an image of huge men lifting barbells full of weights or bodybuilders strutting round in really tight little pants. To be fair, unless you were an elite athlete or a professional in your sport it was probably something you had ever been exposed to or experienced before either. It doesn’t help that different job titles pretty much mean the same thing; Performance Specialist, Physical Performance Coach, Sports Enhancement Consultant, Re-Conditioning Coach….it’s basically all strength & conditioning.
Some people think that kettle bells, ropes, sledgehammers or tractor tyres are strength & conditioning; ‘Right lads, we’re doing strength and conditioning tonight…break out the prowler’.
(Note: if you have never used a prowler before – it’s really not what you think. You should try it sometime…honest!)
These are actually some of the ‘tools’ that we use in strength & conditioning, but in reality, it is a little bit more involved than that. Thankfully more and more athletes understand what they get from strength & conditioning and gradually it is becoming more accessible to recreational, amateur and semi-professional athletes across a wide range of sports and it is no longer just the preserve of high level performers. So…just for clarity…let’s look at what S&C really means and what it involves.
I always take the view that if you take part in a sport, then you want to be GOOD at that sport. I can’t really think of any one I have worked with that didn’t really care how they performed (you may know different). Being good at any sport depends on three important elements coming together. Together these elements are what I call the ‘Model of Optimal Performance’.
Technical Preparation + Tactical Preparation + Physical Preparation = OPTIMAL PERFORMANCE
Technical preparation – traditionally this has the biggest focus for most athletes (and while I’m at it - if you take part in a sport, at any level – you’re an athlete). This is about learning and developing your skills in your sport. You can learn a skill quickly, but it can take years to develop that skill and most athletes will continue to improve their skills for however long they participate in their sport. Even for sports that might look quite simple to execute, for example throwing a javelin. The number of different motor skills that have to be developed then brought together seamlessly to have the ability to propel the javelin across long distances is staggering.
Tactical preparation – this can apply to team and individual sports. What is your plan going into the game or match? Tactics can apply to what formation your team will play to give you an advantage or It could be knowing that your opponent is carrying an injury and how you will use this to your advantage. Tactical preparation enables you to solve problems and think how you put together your skills to come up with solutions.
Physical preparation – this is where I come in. My role as an S&C Coach is to make sure an athlete has the physical capacity to use and sustain their skills at the highest level possible. Strength & Conditioning Coaches use science and evidence of what works and put into practice in a plan for the athlete.
Every athlete is individual and every sport has very different physical demands, so if you really want to be good (or even the best) at your sport, your training should be structured to meet the demands of your sport – and not how good you want to look in a pair of ’swimmies’ on the beach in Ibiza.
How this works in practice – what we actually do! When I start to work with an athlete there is a basic process to go through. Before we even look at a weight or get out on to a field, we learn! More specifically…..I learn.
The most important part of the whole process is the athlete. A good S&C Coach will get as much information as possible about that person. How long have they being taking part in their sport? At what level do they take part? What is their injury history like? Have often do they train? What other commitments and pressures do they have in their life? How much sleep do they get? There is a lot to find out; because if I have any chance of improving their performance in a sport, I need to make every plan I write individual to them!
The next part of the process is understanding the sport. An S&C Coach should be able to improve performance in ANY sport. To do this I analyse the physical demands of the sport. I look at movement patterns (not just muscle actions). Are there are lot of quick changes in direction? How fast do you need to be? What distances do you need to cover? What is the work to rest ratio? How long is the total play? What forces are the body and the joints subjected to? What is the potential for injury and what are the common injuries of the sport?
A big part of S&C (if not one of THE most important parts) is to minimise the risk of injury. You could be the star player in your team; but if you miss half the season through injury, the guy (or gal) who is not as good as you but has played every game and had more chance to improve than you have is going to be the better choice for any coach.
After I have collected all this information I have to put it together in a plan. Sometimes the plan covers a fairly short space of time, like an 8 week Fight Camp or six weeks of pre-season football training. Other times it will cover a full year where the athletes has anywhere from two or three competitions right through to an entire season.
The plan gets you to your ‘Peak’ before your competition. It tells you when and how to train and when to rest. The plan is there to develop all the physical qualities you need improve, whether that is movement efficiency, strength, co-ordination, speed or power. Everything the S&C Coach does is focused on you as an athlete and how to make you better at your sport.
Ok, so maybe now you have a better understanding (if you didn’t already know) about what we actually do and what S&C is all about – this is however making it sound very simple, which sometimes it is and other times it is very, very complex. What I hope to do is make S&C more accessible, for everyone.
Through regular monthly articles on this site, I have the opportunity to break down S&C into manageable, understandable chunks. From planning training, developing power and speed- right through to improving specific aspects of performance.
I will talk about why being strong doesn’t mean having bigger muscles and or making you slower. Why running isn’t the only way to improve your aerobic capacity. I will cover why resting is vital to your performance and why learning to move properly is foundation of all sports and might be what is holding you back in your sport.
You may have questions – great, send them in and I will try to answer them. If you have a specific issue or topic you want me to cover….just let me, or Mike know! I do this job because I want to make people (athletes) better at what they do. Hopefully that will include YOU!
Mal Fitzgerald is a self-employed Strength & Conditioning Coach and Personal Trainer trading as Performance Conditioning & Fitness. He works with a broad range of individual athletes (mainly combat athletes) and teams at all levels from recreational though to British & World Champions. He is currently studying for an MSc in Strength & Conditioning at Teesside University and as well as being an Olympic Lifting Coach, competes in the Masters Category of weightlifting.