Food As Fuel and Building Material (again)

Over the last few years I have had the good fortune of working with 100’s of different athletes of different ages, skill levels and stages in their athletic career. I have notice a number of things that are important but probably the one thing I have noticed that ALL successful high level athletes share is an understanding that food is fuel or building blocks and eating does not need to be an experience.

Personally, the switch flipped for my progress when I stopped regarding food as good or bad and instead choose to look at it as bricks, mortar or fuel. Once I stopped looking for experiences out of eating my progress accelerated dramatically – I remain lean all year round, continue to build muscle and have more energy now than I had when I was in my early and mid 20’s.

I have tried to impart this understanding onto ANYONE who is interested in getting more out of their bodies in terms of appearance or performance, but I’d venture a guess that longevity and quality could also be added to the list of things that will improve once someones relationship with food becomes realigned with reality. This understanding in not one that is easy to pass along and, frankly, getting someone to see food as something other than something that should be enjoyed is probably the most difficult task that a strength coach will have to perform as there is a lot of social inertia to overcome. Lets face it, our society treats food as a reward so the association of food and a positive experience is deeply ingrained in our brains.

ANYONE who has been able to overcome the food must be good belief has benefited from it tremendously. The body composition improvements lead to performance improvements which lead to confidence improvements. Without fail, correcting your understanding of what food actually means to you WILL make your life better. The simple act of making decisions that are based on reality will represent a significant movement towards self-awareness and self control. The inverse is also completely true, continuing to eat food for emotional / reward reasons will hold you back from complete self-awareness and optimal health.

Eat because you need to rebuild yourself out of the best quality materials and power your movement with the right fuel. Don’t eat because you like the taste of chocolate, cookies are an easy breakfast or because pizza tastes better than spinach. The easy way is rarely the successful way. If you want more out of your life, do what elite athletes do and eat mindfully.

If you have not yet read my first post about food = fuel and building material you should check it out.

The Best Piece Of Equipment

I have noticed a disturbing trend of people preferring to spend their money on better gear as opposed to better quality food. Some players won’t think twice about spending $200 on a hockey stick but will claim a good quality protein supplement costs too much money, or that better cuts of meat or good quality fresh vegetables aren’t worth the price. What gets to me about this attitude is that these players will become the food they eat – the body remakes itself out of the stuff it digests. The same cannot be said for the $200 stick – no matter how good it is, it will never actually become the owner.

A little apprehension is fine as I work for a company that sells supplements; I may have ulterior motives for suggesting them. But the cost push back I get from people when I suggest eating more plants is insane. Countless studies have shown the positive effect eating more vegetables has on the physical and mental development and health of all people so there isn’t any question about it, all people should eat more vegetables. You will live a longer better quality life if you eat more plants, you will have less cancer, have better functioning organs, you will be leaner and you will have more energy. There is no debate here, these are facts.

The shortsightedness of favoring gear over good quality food means that the one piece of equipment that controls all of the gear ISN’T as good as it could be; the body doesn’t move as well as it could. This has a negative impact on how the great gear performs so the competitive advantage that could be gained from better quality equipment is lost because the players aren’t looking after the best piece of equipment they have – their bodies.

You get one shot at life with this body so do the right thing and treat it like the best piece of equipment you own. Remember, it’s the only piece of equipment that you can’t replace!

New Interns, New Enthusiasm

Over the last few weeks a few interns started working with us at SST Vaughan. I have always really enjoyed the first few months working with trainers / coach who are new to the industry because of their enthusiasm and because it reminds me of how far I have come.

When I look back on my first training job I kind of laugh because I’m not sure why I was hired. I didn’t know what I didn’t know and thought that I had all the answers. I was pretty certain that I was a better trainer than most of the ones on staff. Over time I began to realize that I didn’t really have a clue. The three things that I brought to the table were passion, enthusiasm and only just enough knowledge to not seriously injure someone.

The last number of years have seen me build on the big three traits of a trainer adding knowledge, experience and possibly some wisdom to the mix. I have evolved from a person who helps motivate sedentary people to move to a professional who possess sufficient abilities to advance people towards their athletic or fitness potential all while maintaining my personal integrity and behaving in an ethical way. I no longer say things that I have read or believe to be true and now say things that I KNOW to be true. Today I have no difficulty saying “I don’t know” when asked a question and I do not fear not having the answer as I can either research and find the answer or direct the person to a more knowledgeable coach / trainer. I understand where I fit into the big picture and make sure I do not venture where I do not belong.

This is something that I try to impart to the interns. The reputation of the company rides on our ability to get results from our athletes and members and NOT on our trainers ability to have an answer for every question they are asked. There is nothing wrong with taking a few days to get the correct information and in the grand scheme of things, taking your time to dispense accurate advice is more important than giving the wrong advice for fear of losing esteem in the eyes of the people you train.

These are exciting time for the interns because they are at the start of their careers in a great field. Working with them is in many ways more rewarding than working with the athletes.

Getting Lost In The Coaching – Finding Your Flow

During one of the last conversations I had with Chris Brown about SST he reminded me, above everything else, to get lost in the coaching. It’s a great comment and it should be part of the employee manual for EVERYONE who works in the strength and conditioning field.

His notion is simple and given that he is less than a year out of school rather profound. Unless you own the gym, you are there to do a job and that job ISN’T necessarily to do things correctly (or as you view them to be correct). Your job is to do what your bosses ask you to do without injuring people. If you match on both of these criteria, you are doing a good job. It’s that simple when you work for other people.

This is a tough thing for many strength coaches to keep in mind because most do not own the gyms they work at. They are skilled employees with vision and they want to move their athletes along as quickly as possible to help them become even more successful on the field/ice/pitch/floor and to become examples of optimal health. When a business owner asks them to do something that falls outside of their coaching vision or something that will hinder the athletes progress, the coach will usually dig their heals in and advocate for what they believe is correct. This may create a dissonant feeling that disengages the coach from the job which will impair their ability to be an effective coach.

What non-owner strength coaches need to do is get lost in the coaching as much as they can because this is the surest way they have to remain engaged with their athletes. They need to clear their mind of the business thoughts as much as possible and instead focus externally on making a master piece out of the clay that is the developing athlete. They need to make the coaching experience a flow experience that allows proper coaching to simple come out of them without much thought.

For me, getting lost in the coaching is a very similar experience to riding my bike or teaching a cycling class. My words and actions are spontaneous. My vision is narrowly focused and naturally drawn to what needs my attention – I’m aware of everything yet conscious of very little. The right behavior, words and actions just come out of my brain, body and mouth and every athlete gets exactly what they need at any particular moment to achieve a slightly higher level of success. I find that this state feels really good, it’s timeless and it is when I feel I am at my most productive. Hours are like minutes or seconds and at the end of the sessions I am exhausted yet have no idea why.

I think it was the same sort of thing for Chris and it’s the same sort of thing Rachel describes when she recaps a successful BodyFlow class. For each of us, there is no resistance to how things are and we simple go along with everything that happens contributing as needed and letting the irrelevant stuff float over and past us.

Being lost in the coaching is fantastic and it makes for more productive time on the floor.

More Money Than Desire

As a strength coach one of the toughest things for me to deal with are the athletes who don’t care. I find it tough because I know there are a lot of people who would love to be in the gym training with me but simply can’t afford the cost of a membership. It bothers me slightly less when we are training a team and there are a few individuals who don’t want to improve; but I know it really gets to their coach. Work ethic is something that is obvious to everyone and the lack of one is something that can spread easily through a team.

I understand that part of my job is to coach and motivate people to be more successful. It is to help them find something that they cannot find on their own. My issue is that more and more people are arriving for their sessions wanting to be trained but NOT wanting to train. Somewhere along the line they seem to have made a mistake and believe that they can get better by showing-up, watching and going through the motions. They failed to learn the lesson that TRYING to improve is the most critical part of the equation. In a number of these cases, their parents support their belief and make excuses for why their children didn’t complete a food journal, didn’t do their movement homework, didn’t get enough sleep, didn’t eat breakfast, didn’t bring a water bottle, didn’t whatever.

Initially, it’s the parents fault that their children are unmotivated and showing a propensity towards making excuses. Children learn how to interact with the world through observing their parents during the first 10 or so years of life. Their attitude is formed for the most part during the first decade and the work ethic that is established early will continue until something happens to change it.

Life is good for some people; they have high paying jobs that they worked hard to get. Unfortunately, their children may never see how hard they had to work to become lawyers, doctors, business owners so they never learn the lesson that hard work is required to nurture a skill into a high paying job. The outcome is a lot of disposable income that the children have no sense of where it came from and therefore no perspective into what is needed to be successful. They simply get whatever they want whenever they want it without connecting the dots that effort makes success possible. When they end up in front of me, they are ill prepared for the lesson I try to teach them and come to realize that I like people who try more than I like people who make excuses and they fail to realize that it is their attitude that I dislike, not them personally.

If you really want you children to be successful, make them work for the things they want. Stop handing them everything they ask for. Risk the argument with your child and teach them the value of money, hard work and a good attitude when it comes to tackling difficult tasks.

Are You A Transactional Employee?

I’ve had a lot of jobs because I leave most jobs very quickly once I stop caring about them. Once I check-out mentally, I look for something else and move on. I never learned to put my head down and keep doing something that I hated to do just for the sake of continuing to do it. This is a mixed blessing. The negative part of it is that I haven’t built a name for myself at any one company. I’ve passed through so many doors and met so many people that I haven’t really made a huge impact on any one organization.

The positive side is that I have never become a transactional employee – a drone from sector 7-G who performs a function for a company while earning an income without thought of or action to improve life. For me, work is almost always about having fun, developing some skill or ability, or being able to find a state of flow in the moment.

Signs that you are starting to become a transactional employee:

  • Clock watching – you are painfully aware of the time, you know exactly how long it will be before you leave. Your mind is out the door and thinking about the after work stuff well before your body leaves the building.
  • There is an unexplained decrease in the quality or quantity of your work. You start to make mistakes that you wouldn’t normally make, you begin to table today’s items to tomorrow, you sign-off on or submit work that you know isn’t up to your standard. Your attention is no longer on the task as hand and your willing to pass sub-par work off as acceptable quality.
  • Your talk with co-workers isn’t neutral or positive about work or you find yourself connecting with the office / work place gossip or complainer. Misery love miserable company and you find the other people who share your level of dissatisfaction. This only serves to foster a larger sense of resentment for your employer and your job. It also alienates those around you who remain fully engaged in their jobs.
  • You start sending out resumes for other job opportunities. ANYTHING looks better than what you are doing regardless of what it is. You are open to changing careers and moving into something for which you are unsuited or unqualified.
  • There is an increase in the amount of escape behaviours in which you engage; both while at work and while you are not. These can range from things that are simply a waste of time – Internet, excessive trips to the bathroom or unnecessary breaks – but it can include things that are harmful like drinking in excess, an increase in the number of smoke breaks, or pursuit of new sexual partners.
  • If you are in a salaried position, you begin to count every hour and minute you spend working. You develop a sense of persecution and begin to collect evidence that validates this belief. You continue to loss perspective and use this “evidence” to further develop your sense of disengagement.
  • You feel bitterness or resentment towards your bosses or coworkers. What used to be good interactions begin to be negative and hostile. Their attitude towards you begins to change to reflect your negative approach to work and them and you start to take this as further proof that work is crap and they are lousy people to work with.

There is nothing wrong with trading your time for money so being or becoming a transactional employee is fine as long as it isn’t hurting the quality of your life. It becomes a problem when you change from being highly engaged to disengaged as this is a symptom of a fundamental shift in your personality. If you find yourself showing any of the above behaviours it is probably time to examine your career or job choice.

So You Want To Train Athletes eh?

People who want to work in the strength and conditioning industry often say that they want to work with athlete. When they say this to me I always ask why. Usually they cite some belief that athletes will work harder than the general population and that it will be fun to train them. When I ask them why they think this most are left scratching their heads because it is based on the belief that ALL athletes work hard.

Then they join the industry and their preconceived notions disappear very quickly because most people who come to strength and conditioning centers do not train like athlete, at least when it comes to their time in the gym. They play higher level sport and are considered athletes because they are talented, have been given an enriched head start or they have enjoyed some sort of political advantage when it comes to joining the best teams. There are not a lot of them who have the work ethic to excel in the gym and that is why most of them are there.

Working with elite athletes can be very rewarding as they are able to learn faster, train more effectively and train using more diverse training methods than the general population BUT this is only true for elite athletes. It falls on its face when dealing with talented general population athletes because, unless they have had to work hard to get to their level, most are not prepared for the demands of intense sessions in the gym and their talent may actually work against them.

If we think about it, great hockey players are great because they are able to do things that other players can’t. One of the key difference I have noticed is that great players achieve equal or greater results with LESS effort. Their efficiency means they move less than other players. This works great on the ice, but when it comes to the gym where efficiency of movement isn’t the goal, they are at a big disadvantage because they are programmed to cut corners and get the job done in less time. This translates into incomplete reps, increased rest time, decreased loads and a difficulty understanding why they are not make progress or why the strength coach is riding them so hard. Some of the time, the laziest people in the gym are the best athletes or the most talented players.

When I ask them how they are playing, what line they are on, how many points they have it is more to find out if there is a possible mental predisposition towards slacking than for any other reason. They answer the questions with pride and I gain a sense of what their work ethic may be. With anyone under the age of 14 or 15, the best players are likely going to be a complete pain in the ass when it comes to training because they are ill prepared for the true demands of intense training and they are prone to frustration when they cannot acquire skills immediately.

With these individuals the first goal of training is to help them break down the mental barrier that talent creates – that which dictates that success should be effortless. This is a draining task and it is, in my opinion, more draining than working with the adult population because adults KNOW their is a connection between hard work and success, the young and talented tend to have no idea. The good news is that with some the break down occurs very quickly – usually within a few months – but there are some people I have been working with for the last 3 months and they are no closer to working hard now than they were when they started training with me.

Other than elite athletes the best group to work with is the moderately talented – those individuals who are not the best and have had to work hard to enjoy any level of success. These athletes do what they are told, when they are told and they follow direction to the letter. They have learned that listening and applying the lessons with as much effort as possible is the first step in achieving their potential. But they also know that reaching their potential isn’t a certainty. They are well aware that it will take sustained effort for a long time to reach it and even then it may not happen.

If you are thinking of making the jump into the strength and conditioning field you need to be aware that MOST of the people you will be training will not be elite athletes. Most of them will not be untalented hardworking athletes. Most of your clients will be talented players who have yet to learn that their talent isn’t enough to move their play to the next level and they may fight you the entire way until they actually realize that hard work AND talent make great players. Your effort as a coach is worth it when you finally break through and help them, but until that moment your time with these athletes it’s pretty thankless.

Supplements – When They Are The Answer

There is a disturbing trend in the fitness / strength and conditioning industry to sell supplements to create another profit center for a gym. This is a big mistake and it’s going to be the next black eye to an industry that is still suffering the consequence of aggressive sales approaches and double dipping with pre-authorized payments.

In principle, I believe in supplements. They are needed for most people. We don’t eat enough fish to get sufficient amounts of fish oil and the good fats that it contains. Those who supplement with fish oil tend to enjoy great benefits such as reduced inflammation, reduced body fat, improved skin health and improved cognitive functioning. I would also say that most people would benefit from taking a high quality multi vitamin given that they don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables to consume the bare minimum amount of nutrients. In the case of those people who are trying to lose body fat or gain muscle, a high quality protein supplement is probably in order to boost protein intake or to replace the calories that have been eliminated due to diet. There are a few others that may be useful, but these three – fish oil, multi vitamin and protein – would be the stables.

You can, however, get by without any of these IF you get your diet in order. There were lean and muscular people before fish oil supplements and protein powders were created; the supplement industry has been around for a long time, but not as long as there have been healthy people. Supplements and the supplement industry is a relatively new player in the health field. In fact, and I’m not implying causation, the supplement industry has grown almost in line with the obesity rates in north America. Supplements do not necessarily cause obesity and when used correctly they won’t cause it but the industry exists BECAUSE of obesity.

The typical gym or health club approaches supplement sales in the same way they approach membership sales – they sell them by creating hope. If you join this gym you will lose 30 lbs and feel great. If you take this supplement, you will lose body fat and feel great. Some of them are even more aggressive with the sales of both and basically tell you that you CANNOT achieve your goal without working out at their gym and buying their supplements. The first claims is false in 99% of the cases – some gyms are better than others so if you join a good one that hires good trainers and staff, you will be more successful; but only because you are getting the guidance you need or the experience of attending the gym is so positive that you continue to attend the gym – the second claim (that you won’t be successful unless you take their supplements) is false in 99.9% of the cases. The truth is, you can be equally successful if you consume a good quality diet or you can be equally successful if you buy the same supplements else where.

My beef is that gyms that rely on selling supplements to boost revenue have lost their way. They have conceded one of two facts, either their services are not good enough to generate sustainable revenue or they don’t actually care about the services they offer and are in the business to make money. Both, when it comes to health and fitness, are not the way the business should function. First off, if your services are not good enough to generate sufficient sustainable revenue, you are in the wrong business. Second, if you are in the fitness business to make a lot of money, you are in the wrong business. Fitness and health promotion is tough. It requires more than skilled salesmanship, flashy marketing and overpriced supplements, it requires skill, knowledge/wisdom and empathy. If you can sell anything to anyone but don’t know how to get someone to do a safe split squat or lunge you need to stop selling the belief that you CAN teach someone these movements. If you can sell protein powder at a huge mark-up but cannot get someone to complete a food journal, review it and offer feedback, you need to sell something else.

There is a time and a place for supplements but that time isn’t always and that place isn’t anywhere. They should be taken to eliminate gaps in your whole food nutrition or when they are the only thing that will work. Whey protein after a hard workout to promote protein synthesis, a carbohydrate solution during intense exercise when solid food would not be digested correctly, fish oil with breakfast, lunch and dinner, a multi vitamin with breakfast and before bed. There may be some use for other supplements but one should proceed with caution when considering them and they should get their defenses up when someone is telling them that they are completely necessary.

Coaching High Level Athletes

I wrote the following about 4 months ago but I didn’t hit “Publish” for some reason. My work situation has changed since then and I don’t get to work with this group of skaters any more. The lessons however have stuck.

I have fallen in love again – Rachel need not be jealous or concerned for it is not romantic love or the feelings of love that I create as a muse for writing. I’ve fallen in love with coaching high level athletes since I was tasked with looking after the strength and conditioning needs of a group of figure skaters in March.

Initially I wasn’t sure what to expect. As an athlete, I was never very good; I was the middle of the pack and was happy with any finish in the top half and ecstatic with the one or two finishes in the top quarter. I trained hard to make up for a lack of talent and as anyone who doesn’t have the correct fiber typing and didn’t do the correct type of training at key periods in their development knows, hard work is a very poor substitute for talent. I probably came within a couple of places of my potential, which might have been in the top 15 -20%. Before I began working with the figure skaters I felt that I was probably as athletic as most of them – given that I am about twice their age and likely stronger than all of them. It turns out, my belief was not rooted in reality. Figure skaters are athletes in many ways that I would never have considered.

My understanding of them changed very quickly one day in late March when we were able to go outside for the first time. The snow had melted enough to allow for them to run laps outside of the building. Being who they are (young, bright and looking for any way to make their workout easier) all but one of them decided to cut their lap short and come in the back door, walk back to the workout room and pretend to be winded. Initially I thought they had run really quickly, but there was something strange about the way they looked – their faces weren’t red, they finished together in spite of their differing running abilities and the guy who I thought would be the fastest was the last one back and he didn’t finish with the group. Once I figured out what had happened, they were assigned more weights instead of running. The guy who ran the lap was the only one I let run it again and given that I wanted to make sure he ran hard, I ran with him. I embarrassed myself trying to keep up. It was close for the first 100 meters, but he was pacing himself. I started to surge and catch up with him, but he looked back and accelerated. He finished about 20 or 30 yards in front of me and a lot less winded that I was. I said “do you feel good about yourself beating an old man?” He laughed with me as I called it a workout. This was the sign of things to come.

As the weather got nicer, we were able to spend more time outside sprinting. One of the things that struck me was just how quick most of them can run. Technically, their running isn’t that smooth – all of them would benefit from ironing out some of their arm movements and relaxing when they run, but boy can they accelerate and their top speed is something to be envied. They are on track to run as fast as any of the football players I have trained who are the same age in spite of the fact that they do not train to be quick runners. This was the most remarkable thing to me, they don’t work on starts, accelerations or top speed tempo work – they jump and spin and dance with quick feet on the ice; football players train their starts for the 40 in combines. The speed of the figure skaters is remarkable when compared to those athletes who are actually trying to get faster.I look after 3 groups which are determined based on their skill level. The elites are the top group followed by the senior A and then the senior B. The elites tend to be older and all of them have been skating for a very long time – some started when they were 2 and are now 18. The B’s tend to be younger (ranging from 8 to 14) and the A’s are a range of ages from 12-17. I’m not certain what the criteria is for moving up in groups, but it has something to do with the type of Axel they are able to do – I think a B becomes an A once they can consistently land a double.

I look after 3 groups which are determined based on their skill level. The elites are the top group followed by the senior A and then the senior B. The elites tend to be older and all of them have been skating for a very long time – some started when they were 2 and are now 18. The B’s tend to be younger (ranging from 8 to 14) and the A’s are a range of ages from 12-17. I’m not certain what the criteria is for moving up in groups, but it has something to do with the type of Axel they are able to do – I think a B becomes an A once they can consistently land a double.

I’m not sure if I am coaching any future Olympians but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was. The drive of some of these athletes is remarkable. I have little doubt that the drive comes from the fact that they started when they were young and didn’t realize that they could give less than 100%. A few of the younger elite group will cut corners and complain about the work I assign, but when they come to work, they work intensely. They work like they are trying to make up for a lack of talent and in that way, they remind me of myself.

The toughest part about working with them is that they do so much skating. They are on the ice at least 2 hours a day and it’s closer to 5 hours a day during the summer. This makes it challenging to train them not because they are tired, but because some of their eating habits are abysmal. I can related to this because when one is completely engaged in their passion, eating falls by the wayside, but their performance suffers because of it. The first version of food journals I collect from them looked like something a middle aged lawyer would have submitted – one or two meals a day of fast food, less than the minimum amount of protein, too much refined sugar and not a mention to any vegetables. When asked about it they all said basically the same things “we don’t have time to eat”. I got the evil eye from a few of them when I said “if you don’t have the time to eat, you don’t have the time to be the best”.

I feel for them because they know they should be spending more time and energy on nutrition, but they’re also told that they need to spend more time on skating, and school, and ballet, and a multitude of other things that conventional wisdom dictates will make them better performers. Regardless of their conflicting agendas, only a quarter of them are at or close to the right body composition to excel. My desire to be a better coach means I’m offering them parts of my lunch, commending them on their positive nutritional changes and praising them for making the tough decisions to skip the burger and fries and suffering through another salad of mixed greens, ground flex seed and chicken breast.

The strangest thing about working with them, and it’s only something that I noticed after reading Speed Trap again, is that I am forming unique and purposeful relationships with them. Some of the athletes really like me – they know I care about them as people and as well as athletes and skaters. I talk to them like adults regardless of their age and I try to explain my rational for choosing the exercises and program they are following. To others, I am just another coach who is trying to get them to do things that they wouldn’t spontaneously do. There is rarely a battle of wills because I’ll be very blunt with them and let them know that I do not suffer when they do not work, they suffer and in particular, their on-ice performance this season will suffer if they don’t try.