Good coaches and trainers are constantly looking for ways to increase their knowledge base. We spend a great deal of time reading books and articles, watching videos, attending clinics, and talking to other coaches. Yet, there is another very simple practice that people often forget to use. I was taught this concept a long time ago, but it took me years to actually put it into practice. Another excellent way to learn is to simply take the time to thoroughly reflect on your own experiences.
For example, the summer before their National Championship season, the University of Kentucky brought me in to work on acceleration techniques with their Men’s Basketball Team. The coaching staff recognized that there was an opportunity with their ultra-talented recruits, and they had a very clear picture of what they wanted. I stayed in Lexington for three days with the specific purpose of getting each player to accelerate more efficiently and cover the court faster than ever.
I spent my time in Lexington doing a lot of teaching, individual evaluation and consultation with their staff on how to approach training. Everyone I worked with – coaches and athletes – were very professional and 100% committed to improvement. The training sessions were very successful, and I left feeling like I taught the team a lot. It wasn’t until later – when I took the time to sit down and reflect on the experience – that I realized how many valuable lessons I learned from my time with the team.
None of these concepts were completely new to me, but they were all hammered home in a way that can only be done through experience. Here are 8 valuable lessons I learned from my experience with the University of Kentucky basketball team:
1. Skill is king in most sports. In most team sports, speed, strength, power and conditioning are all important, but great skills kill them all. You can be a physical specimen, but if you can’t play the game, your best sport option will be the CrossFit games (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Watching the amazing skill level of these guys drove this point home. Sure, helping them accelerate faster was helpful, but their ability to shoot, dribble, defend, etc. is hands-down what makes them so exceptional, and will ultimately be their ticket.
2. Recruiting trumps training. Strength coaches can boast about their programs as much as they want, but the bottom line is that finding the right talent is the best way to make a training system look good. There are some things that strength coaches don’t really teach, like being 6-foot-9, 250 pounds and moving like a cat. Don’t get me wrong. A great training program can elicit fantastic results, but we sure look a lot better when we have superior athletes to work with.
3. Size matters. I was watching sophomore forward Terrence Jones play 2-on-2 with an incoming freshman trying to check him. Terrance has put in a lot of hard work in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Mike Malone, and he has gotten a lot bigger and stronger. He was dominating the younger player, saying things like “you’re too little!” and flexing his muscles. He told me later that because he’s bigger and stronger, he feels like he can do things he couldn’t do before. What a confidence booster! You can train an athlete however you want, but putting on some size and strength sure seems to make a difference.
4. Fine tuning can make a big difference. Elite athletes already have most of the puzzle pieces in place. Athletes at this level only need slight advantages, so making one small improvement has the potential to pay big dividends. My only job was to get every player better at covering half the court. They already excel in most areas of game, are in great shape, can jump out of the gym and they work on fundamentals every day – that kind of stuff is in place for most elite level athletes. Getting an elite basketball player one or two steps faster down the court could mean the difference between a breakaway and having to reset your offense. It could mean running down an opponent’s fast-break to block a shot at a critical point in the game. All of the players bought into this concept and recognized that it could give them a significant advantage. When you get elite athletes looking for tiny advantages over their competition, exciting things can happen.
5. Strengthen weak links. Most athletes have a lot of strengths and a few weaknesses. Of course, you should always capitalize on your strengths, but finding an athlete’s weak link may prevent a lot of problems down the road. Maybe he has terrible foot or ankle flexibility, which is altering his running mechanics. Maybe she lacks internal hip rotation which is making it difficult to perform certain movements. Whatever it is, finding and improving it can make a huge difference to an athlete’s career. It may improve his game or it may just keep him healthy. Continue to capitalize on strengths, but attacking the weak link can be a difference-maker.
6. The basics are not broken. Athletes in all sports and all levels often need similar training. There are way more similarities than differences because the basics just plain work. Sure, every athlete may need some individualization, but just about everyone can benefit from improvements in strength, speed, power, and conditioning. You may attack them differently for each sport or athlete, but the basics should be the foundation for most athletes. Here I was teaching elite level athletes the same concepts we show middle school kids….and it was helping! We don’t need to find revolutionary new methods. The future of training more likely lies in figuring out better ways to apply what we already know works.
7. There are no cushy jobs. The grass is always greener on the other side, and I hear coaches all the time saying things like “Man, I wish I had that situation.” Well, watching Mike Malone bust his tail with these guys drove this point home. A job like this sounds great (great athletes, great program, great facilities) but there’s a lot of pressure in situations like this. Expectations are high. A lot of hard work is put in, and coaches get fired from great situations all the time for reasons completely out of their control. Jobs like this don’t come easy, and you never get to sit back and enjoy the scenery while you’re there. A lot of people think certain jobs would be great, but be careful what you wish for. It’s tough being at the top.
8. The “out-of-towner” theory is true. For credibility, there’s nothing like being an expert from out of town. You can tell an athlete something a million times, but having an “expert” come in from out of town grabs their attention like nothing else. It’s kind of funny, but everyone seems to respond to this. The same holds true in parenting. You can tell your kids that something is important, but when an influential coach or teacher says the same thing, it’s a total revelation. I’m sure the coaches at Kentucky could have taught acceleration and speed training, but they also knew the value of having someone else say it.
I was only at UK for a few days, and while I taught a lot, I think I ended up learning even more. Often, in situations like this, you never sit back afterward to reflect on the experience. You get wrapped up in what you’re doing and teaching, and it’s hard to turn it into a learning experience for yourself. I see this all the time with interns, grad assistants or volunteers who are working so hard they don’t take the time to reflect on their experiences. I even see it with coaches and trainers who are so busy teaching, that they miss out on valuable lessons. I’m absolutely guilty of this.
A lot can be learned when you’re open to it. It’s going to be difficult, but from now on, I’m going make an effort to spend a little more time reflecting on important experiences in my life. This helped me gain more than I ever thought it would, and I don’t want to miss out on that in the future.
Jim Kielbaso MS, CSCS is the Director of the Total Performance Training Centers and is a co-founder of UltimateStrengthAndConditioning.com. He has written three books and speed and strength development and has produced multiple video products related to speed training.
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