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May 29, 2015

Thoughts and Links for the Weekend – Lifestyle Training, Word Choices, Complaining, and Schedules

Here are some thoughts and links for the weekend to consider.

Effort applied over time (work) is something that Dan Millman (author of the Way of the Peaceful Warrior) extols in this podcast. So it had me thinking about ways that I do little things that add up over time. What little things can I add or change to make a big difference over time? Here are the resources I found, and here’s what popped into my head.

Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule by Paul Graham

The idea that the Maker, or the creative can have their creativity completely compromised if they have to adhere to a manager’s schedule. The manager’s schedule includes the idea of meetings, hourly scheduling and pragmatic planning. The maker, when faced with mid day meetings will avoid starting hard or ambitious projects if they know they have an impending meeting. On the other hand, when the maker is left unperturbed for an entire day, they are more likely to start projects that are difficult or ambitious. This blog post and research came from purposefully putting myself on the maker’s schedule. I removed myself from my normal day to day routine, and as such my mind expanded and asked questions like it rarely does when I know I have a group I need to train later in the day.

10 Most Common Words to Avoid by Tim Ferriss

I wanted to write an article on this a while back, but then I realized Tim already did it for me. I believe that speaking precisely requires precise thought. When thought is precise, rather than vague, goals and objectives can be clearly defined and more easily met. Two words to add to the list (inspired by Jeff Compton…and Laird Hamilton) are “try” and “can’t”. Tim’s words to avoid are vague and inspire judgment. Using the word “try” gives the user subconscious permission to fail at whatever they’re doing. Using the term “I haven’t yet” instead of “can’t” implies that effort and practice are required to achieve something, rather than it being impossible to achieve.

Ask Why Three Times by Jason Zook

To get to the root of difficult question, ask why three times. I find that athletes we train, and those we don’t, make decisions without much thought. They do so based on superficial variables; on how things seem rather than how they are. Many athletes will turn aside training opportunities with reasons like “I don’t have enough time”, “it’s too expensive”, or “I have schoolwork”. Asking why three times as described in the article may help to uncover the root of why someone is passing up opportunities and what they can do to instead take advantage of them. It also allows athletes to consider how they are spending their time.

Lifestyle Cardio

I always wonder about athletes, or people, who seemingly put in close to no effort with their training, but still have excellent cardiovascular endurance. I think part of it has to do with early training stimulus (sensitive period for cardio training), and genetics. But I also think it has something to do with lifestyle. As a rational S&C coach, my goal would be to control what I can control. And I could mostly control the work done by my athletes while they are under my supervision. But if the other 23 hours of the day, the athlete is engaged in counterproductive activities to their training, even the best designed program is useless. Obviously, strength & conditioning coaches then encourage their athletes to engage in optimal lifestyle choices such as getting enough sleep, eating well, etc.. What if coaches could also get athletes to improve their athletes’  cardiovascular training by adding a lifestyle cardiovascular component. i.e. meditative/refreshing jogs with natural sprints (Fartlek/Bruce Lee style), encourage thinking of manual labor positively, and do more low intensity exercise. Since I’ve stopped doing manual labor as my primary means of income like I did when I was younger, I am on the lookout for more ways to add methods of improving my cardiovascular fitness by adding lifestyle components, not included in my training. For example, Bruce Lee would explore a new city with a light jog first thing upon getting to that city. What habits could I set for myself like this? What habits could I suggest for my athletes?

Complaining and Blaming

The idea that complaining and blaming was destructive to our mental health was something I accepted. But after watching the video linked above, what stood out to me, was that when someone blames/complains, they are using up energy that should be used to hold the person/situation you are complaining/blaming accountable. Essentially, by complaining, you are making the situation worse for yourself psychologically, and also pragmatically because you don’t have as much energy to address the problem. Interesting thoughts.



May 24, 2015

The Spider and Your Next Big Improvement: The Core

The spider has eight legs that are very mobile. They are responsible for all of the spider’s movement. The spider’s body is nothing but a “core”, and is the stabile attachment point for all the legs. It does no movement of its own to contribute to the spider’s mobility.

This idea should not be far removed from how an elite athlete should move. The core is stabile and relatively immobile while the limbs are responsible for the movement. The core might be responsible for slight adjustments in posture and positioning, but it is inefficient at gross movements or corrections, as mentioned here.

My Story

Story #1: I thought I had a great core. I remember doing some sort of (stupid) core strength test at a tryout camp, where I had the longest plank. I’m sure that zero attention was paid to my form and that’s how I was able to manage a 2min15s single arm, single leg plank with a dowel on my back. Regardless, I thought I had a strong core.

Story #2: I went to a power skating camp when I was younger. Like many power skating camps, they wanted to see an upright torso angle and a very large knee bend. Expecting that the money my parents were paying for this hockey camp was paying for valuable information, I listened closely to them. I was very proud when after my third year of attending this camp they had no negative feedback on my video, indicating that I had perfectly assimilated their technique into my stride. However, the only way I was able to get my torso upright was to jut open my ribcage. And this also led me to over emphasize my knee bend my entire career up until recently.

Story #3: A few seasons ago, I asked my teammate for feedback. He is a goalie, very perceptive and intelligent. He said that I was very readable. In order to solve that, I tried to be less predictable. I don’t know how…and my “trying” didn’t yield results.

Expert Movers – All Star Athletes

See if you can pick out the commonality between the next three videos given what I’ve mentioned about the spider.

If you noticed that their core is very stable and hardly moves or deviates. Meanwhile, their hands and legs are responsible for movement and manipulating the ball/stick/puck, then you’re on the right path.

Motor Programs – Efficiency in Learning, Efficiency in Execution and the Proximal to Distal Gradient

So the best athletes have excellent core control. I’ll explain in a bit, and refer back to Story #1 (the 2:15 plank) how typical “core training” won’t create the excellent core control needed by elite athletes. The best athletes are able to keep their core stable in many positions and in many movements.

Going back to Story #3, I’ve realized that I essentially had a different core position for each skill: skating forward, turning, shooting, passing, hitting. This made it very easy for a goalie or other player to read me because they knew what I was going to do depending on how I was leaning. In contrast to Patrick Kane (or Curry & Messi), they maintain a very stable core position in many movements. This makes them less predictable and harder to read.

Having less core positions, or the same core position that applies to more movements leads to efficiency in learning. There are less core positions that apply to more movement, which makes learning a matter of adding variations than adding different motor programs. For example, if an athlete (like I did) has a different core position for skating with the puck, without the puck, and for shooting, each motor program is distinct and needs to be learned independently. Transitions between the three core positions also need to be practiced. All of this leads to the player requiring more time for practice. If instead, the player has the same core positioning for all three skills, the additions of skills are variations of the main motor program, and not distinct motor programs. Also, transitions between the skills are more subtle and require less or no practice…making skill acquisition more efficient.

This fits into what I wrote about the proximal to distal gradient. Subtle movements should take place at the proximal joint (the spine), while gross movements should occur at the distal joints (hips, knees, ankles, shoulder, elbows, wrists). Subtle movements should take place at the proximal joints because that is where stability and tension is best held. If stability and tension is not held there, then they will be held in joints and limbs that are supposed to be fluid. For me, I didn’t hold tension as much as I should in core, and instead held it in my shoulders.

Core Training: What to do

Situps, planks, bear crawls, boss balls, crunches, ab rollers, leg lifts, ab belts, etc, etc, are absolutely useless if they are not respecting what the core’s function actually is. After working with Sergey Nazarov of Fitnastika in Vancouver, he explained to me that the core’s purpose is to minimize the distance from the ribs to the pelvic. [Lightlbulb] Didn’t take me long to see that in about 9/10 of my movements occurred with my ribcage flaring.

I’m not afraid to go back and blame this on 1) my hockey and 2) Story #2. Due to position required in hockey (knees bent, hips back, torso leaning forward), and the instruction from this power skating (or should I say core power eliminating skating) had me flaring my ribcage to get my torso upright. Unfortunately, this habit somehow stuck with me. I’d also say that the forward arm swing that they preached also led me to develop a dysfunctional core while skating. Obviously, this isn’t anyone’s fault…the power skating camp wasn’t intentionally trying to make this happen, and I obviously didn’t know the consequence…regardless, it occurred. I’m writing this article so that it might not occur to you and your youngster.

In hockey players, here are a few things you can do to improve core function:

  • Do not have a forward arm swing. Let your arms drive naturally.
  • Do not force an upright torso. Teach/learn a hip hinge instead which will lead to a modest forward lean angle.
  • Focus on keeping the ribcage down and hips back in all exercises and movements. Skating, stick handling, shooting, lifting, running.

Of course this little three bullet point list won’t give you all the answers. Stay tuned for some video instructions or come out to beautiful Vancouver Island for some coaching. Make comments below if you have specific questions.

How people who can benefit from this post:

Whether you have great core function in all movement, or just a few, you can probably improve your library of movements with solid core positioning. You might have great core positioning and function in 9/10 movements, but not notice that that last movement that you’re having trouble with is due to improper core positioning. As I started to be more aware of my core positioning, I started rooting out movements that I thought “I’m just not good at”, as movements where I moved my core incorrectly.

Good luck stabilizing that core.



May 8, 2015

What We’re Doing this Summer with Our Hockey Player and Why

Yesterday, I volunteered at my old high school to instruct some PE classes. Then I went to the gym and instructed our elite hockey players.

In both situations, I found myself explaining the same thing: cardio and interval training does not improve strength & power.

I found this odd. In my mind, it is ridiculously obvious that fatiguing your body is not the best way to increase speed and power. But obviously there is a disconnect between what I think is obvious, and what a younger generation thinks is obvious. This post is to address that disconnect:

The Path

In my mind, I have constructed a logic chain on how to develop strength and power that looks something like this:

  1. Teach athletes to move with proper movement patterns. These proper movement patterns should:
  2. Teach the athlete to be able to handle more load with proper movement patterns
  3. Teach athletes to move loads at higher speed, maintaining correct movement patterns
  4. Develop an athlete’s capacity to handle high loads, at high speed, while under fatigue

I find that athletes and parents associate fatigue, intensity and volume with workout value. Here’s the thing: anybody who can yell at athletes is capable of making people fatigued and sweaty. And yes, there is a chance that said person is going to develop the strength and power of their athlete. If they are really lucky, they’ll inherit an athlete with great movement mechanics and great work capacity, and that athlete will respond to that training, and will then go on to do well in fitness testing…thus “proving” the efficacy of the fatiguing, high intensity workout. The huge problem with this (and I know, because I’ve previously been the coach to prescribe high-intensity, fatiguing workout after high-intensity, fatiguing workout), is that the players who don’t move well and are not able to adapt to the increased workload, well, they get left behind. They just “aren’t working as hard as those other guys”.

If we go back and look at point #1 (Teach athletes to move with proper movement patterns), there is a new challenge for coaches with today’s athletes. I have noticed that there are less and less multi-sport, natural athletes. As a result, I’m inheriting athletes who might be excellent hockey players, but lack BASIC HUMAN MOVEMENT. The main problems I see with young hockey players is that their hips are so tight, that they have to use their knees and spine to generate their movement. Of course, the hips are capable of generating much more power than both the knee joint and the spinal muscles combined, so players with tight hips are leaving a lot of strength and power generation on the table if they are not correctly moving their hips. And simply put, we cannot train the athletes to properly move their hips if they do not have the mobility to do so.

Someone might tell me that by doing squats, deadlifts and lunges you can fix this problem. I’d agree, but only if the athletes are doing squats, deadlifts and lunges like they are meant to be performed by the body. Again, the tight hips often prevent squats, deadlifts and lunges from being performed properly, so the body learns and reinforces sloppy movement mechanics. Under fatigue, this problem gets even worse because the body is already not using its most effective and efficient muscles, so now those muscles start failing and recruiting even less effective and efficient muscles.

For me, I cannot, in any sort of good faith condone or prescribe consistent workouts that do not first address movement quality. I believe it would be negligent of me to do so. Of course, I believe that athletes should still be placed in challenging and fatiguing situations to prepare them for camps. But this type of work should be done with conscious attention towards minimizing risk, and it does not need to be done all the time. Furthermore, I of course believe in developing a high aerobic and anaerobic capacity in our athletes, but there are more effective ways of improving that specific capacity than running them into the ground every day.

Measurement and Value

Like I mentioned, fatigue is often associated with the value of a workout. Let’s please change that.

I can understand that void of any other metric, valuing a workout by the amount of fatigue it generates is a very reasonable thing to do. And I can also imagine that if a trainer is not actually wanting to put a lot of thought into how their workouts make on ice contributions, then they’ll want you to think that fatigue is a useful value measuring stick.

What metrics actually matter? Some will say that a strength and conditioning coach should only worry about the fitness variables they can effect. So they will tell you they have improved the athlete if they improved their squat weight, their bench weight, their clean weight, their broad jump, and some measure of aerobic capacity. Others use those metrics as well, but also consider their role to be to help the athlete in their sport. They may take a bit of emphasis off of the bench, squat, clean, jump and VO2, and spend a bit more time and effort trying to translate or transfer the skills to the sport.

I fall into the second camp. But, not radically so. I believe that improvements in athletic movement principles (needed for hockey) will manifest themselves in improved lifts, jumps, sprints, and aerobic tests. Therefore, those tests may provide an indicator as a proxy for improved sport performance. The reason that I fall into the second camp is because I am in (what I think is) a fairly unique position of having almost amassed my 10,000 coaching hours (I’ve been coaching for about the last 9 years consistently) and also having amassed my 10,000 hockey playing hours, meanwhile I’ve studied Kinesiology. Because I am also continuing to play while doing all this, I’d say that I am very in touch with the process of what it takes to get better. I’ve made committed almost every mistake by enthusiastically following every person who has a claim that they can help improve my game. I have ruthlessly thrown aside any and every method that does not provide immediate and lasting results. I’m also 100% in touch with the demands of the athlete, and the psychology of the athlete. So I remember the days when I crushed a fatiguing workout, went to the farm to work and pushed a lawn mower and carried a weed whacker and didn’t have time or energy to develop my skills. I remember dropping 400lbs on my back in a back squat with incorrectly adjusted spot arms and no spotter. I remember lunging around my backyard with a friend (who never worked out with me again), for 2 hours, and then not being able to walk for a week (my mom literally carried me up and down the stairs…embarrassing for a 12 year old).

After almost 20 years of hockey, I’ve realized that the most valuable physical skills I learned were actually very different than what a strength & conditioning coach might suggest. They are:

  • Not to tense up in pressure situations.
  • Not to “try” too hard. Give 100% intensity instead.
  • Not to tense muscles that are not immediately involved in performing the skill.
  • Generate and receive contact through the core.
  • Learn to generate elasticity through the core on shots and passes.
  • Don’t bend your knees too much, use your hips to generate power.
  • Under fatigue, stay calm, breathe deeply.
  • Correct posture (shoulders, pelvic alignment, ribcage alignment) matters as much to physical performance as it does to psychological performance.

All of these things are movement quality related. They were sprinkled throughout my career, with many of them only coming into crystal clear focus very recently. Disappointing, then, that all the fatiguing workouts I did never taught me those things. Some I learned when I used to play the violin, others I learned through martial arts, golf and soccer. A few teammates have given me pointers on others. The rest I learned by researching information  from the best minds in sports and strength and conditioning.

Of course, I’m now also blessed with great aerobic capacity, strength and power. While these occurred as a result of my training, I still believe that my training was NOT the most efficient way of improving all of those things. For example, I learned that I didn’t actually need to lift as much volume as I thought I did. I also wish I had adopted a different running style when I was back racing, as that would have made running so much more enjoyable. In any case, all of this was a valuable learning experience because I can now do a lot more with a lot less time and energy.

So what are we doing this summer? We are trying to boil down 20 years of my enthusiastic pursuit of excellence through training…into one summer. We are drawing the straightest line through the sand. I’m hoping it can help everyone we are training get better faster.

If you liked this article because it was different than most Drone Coach advice, and you’d like to get to work on becoming a Hockey Wizard, then click here to check out the benefits of becoming a Train 2.0 Member.

May 5, 2015

Principles before Plays – My Philosophy of Learning, Teaching, Coaching

Specific plays, memorization for studying, adopting fads, copying people… these all have one thing in common, and I think it holds most people back.
In Joshua Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning”, he describes making smaller and smaller circles. This means that he would rather learn one skill deeply to internalize its principles, rather than learn many skills just to show off. Bruce Lee also said, “I fear not the man who practived 10,000 kicks, I fear the man who practiced 1 kick 10,000 times.” The idea behind these statements is that understanding principles trumps other types of learning.
My first foray into principles based learning was in my second semester of my second year at UBC. My first year, I followed my high school dogma that most of my fellow students also seemed to be following: memorize everything! The question always was: how am I supposed to know everything in this textbook for the final?? However the word “know” is most often thought of as “memorize”, so most students are really asking: how am I supposed to memorize everything in this textbook for the final. That semester, I took an economics course from a professor who was known to have very challenging exams. His exams were abstract, and he’d ask questions like, “Joe believes in the Sun God. Explain why Joe should not believe in the Sun God.” Then, he would provide a whole page for an answer. This proved very troublesome for a student who had memorized terms and graphs in order to study for the test. That was, until I went to look at an old midterm to see how it was marked. What I learned that day changed my approach to education and life.
The way that those questions were marked, was by checking to see if the student had written down three principles. The prof called them “Brainwave Principles”. That’s it. Three principles. No page long ramblings…three simple principles. A student only had to write three lines to get full marks on a ten mark question.
I then realized, that he had 12 “Brainwave Principles” in his textbook, and that you could answer every question by applying those 12 principles. If I truly understood those 12 principles, I understood the whole book. I tested this on my next exam in his class and aced it. Specifically, I knew what Principle applied to what question, and I was able to explain that in my answer.
My second brush with principles based learning was after listening to this Ted Talk with Elon Musk. In it, he talks about using First Principles based reasoning to come up with his ideas for business. He said that reasoning by analogy is just like copying everyone else. But when you copy everyone else, you follow their same thought pattern and therefore see limitations where they see limitations. By instead boiling everything down to first principles, Elon claims that he has been able to see the problem from a completely different perspective and is therefore able to examine if the perceived limitations of an idea are in fact true. This talk inspired me to dive deeper into the idea of First Principles reasoning.
Finally, after talking with a teammate, he mentioned how some of the really intelligent students in his program didn’t need to study for their courses, because they DERIVED their answers. They completely understand the principles behind the questions that a prof is asking, and therefore are able to piece together how to answer. In contrast, students who memorize answers to questions have trouble answering those questions if they are presented slightly differently than what they expect. They are less flexible, and their knowledge if more fragile. Meanwhile, a student who understands principles is flexible and robust because they can answer any iteration of a question testing their knowledge of a principles.
I then purposefully aimed to make my studying more principles based. The process looked something like this:
  • Understand the terminology so that I could understand the language of the concepts, the principles, and the problems
  • Aim to understand the overarching principles of the subject at hand
  • Aim to have a working knowledge of the concepts inherent within those principles
  • Enjoy my free time!
I applied this process to all of my courses. I was able to study much less…meanwhile, my marks actually went up. Why? Because I internalized the principles and it was easier for me to bring forth information in test taking scenarios. Because my knowledge represented a deep understanding of the principles on which the question was based, I could answer any type of question about that principle because all I had to do was apply it. On the other hand, memorized information was always more fragile because if I took in too much information, there was a chance it would be crowded. Also, without any sort of association, it’s fairly easy for your memorized information to go POOF in a test taking scenario. Principles based learning creates associations.
Strength & Conditioning
How this translates to strength and conditioning is just that…through translation. Coaches (myself included) often get bent out of shape over what exercise, modality, intensity, volume, etc etc, is best for training. In my eyes, it simply doesn’t matter. If we accept that the goal of strength and conditioning is to improve sport performance, then we’d also probably agree that sport performance can be improved when athletes can completely express themselves physically, in their sport, without hindrance of any kind. This usually translates to the idea of effectively and efficiently using the body in a coordinated and controlled manner to express force. To do so, the athlete should have internalized various movement principles. Things like: holding tension through the core while under load in order to stabilize the spine, mobile joints should be mobile and stabilizing joints should be stabile, be able to dissociate different parts of your body smoothly, etc.. Therefore, the idea that athletes “must train this way” is absolute bogus. A coach who is saying “all athletes should squat and lift heavy”, is really probably saying that “athletes should be able generate lot’s of force into the ground, and hold tension through their core to maintain a neutral spine while doing so.” I think that there are principles of movement that athletes must master in order to perform in their sport optimally. With those in mind, I aim to find the most effective way to train those movement principles. A mistake that coaches make is that they think “these drills are good for hockey”  because it looks sport specific and then end their thinking there. If those drills do not lead to an improvement in hockey performance through skill translation, those drills are a waste of time. But if those drills lead to some sort of translation (let’s say, increased ability to generate lateral force, and increased control and power in the hips in certain movements), then those drills are useful. The key is translation of athletic/movement principles, not mimicry of sport movement in non-sport contexts.
The strength coach should therefore understand what movement principles their athletes can develop that will translate to their performance. Then the strength coach should explore the best way to instruct and implement those principles into an athletes training program. Instructing exercises for the sake of instructing exercises, or improving numbers on lifts for the sake of improving numbers of lifts is absolutely useless unless an athlete can translate a skill or ability to generate force to their sport. So improving a squat does nothing for the athlete unless it now allows the athlete to learn to hold more tension in their core to keep themselves stable and put more force into the ground. If the athlete has increased their squat weight without actually improving in their sport, the squat was a waste of time for the athlete.
Hockey Coach
This also translates to being a hockey coach. When coaching, I’ve struggled with teaching plays to my players because I found that those plays would often fall apart when the players entered a game. If I’m particularly good at constructing clever players, and if the players are good enough to execute them, I may get a quick win. But as soon as another team figures out those plays, if all the players have previously relied upon was the plays, they are now standing on one leg. If instead, the players are taught principles, the players can adapt their play to the situation that meets them. Like a student who has internalized principles of a subject versus memorization, the player who has internalized important principles in hockey is more flexible and robust to any situation. This creates an empowered player and team who have the trust of the coach to solve their own problems.
The coach should aim to teach principles that will lead to the biggest effect in a team’s game. I do not think that chipping the puck out, or dumping and forechecking are good concepts to be preaching. Both of those concepts teach the principle of chasing. I think that passing and possession are principles that coaches should be aiming to teach. If I teach the principles of passing, support, and creating triangles, then if a specific play isn’t working, but the players are flexible in finding their solutions, the players are more adaptable, and the team is more likely to succeed.
Ideally a coach would ask themselves what principles they should teach in order to get a desired outcome. Not, what play or action should they teach. For example, a coach struggling with the breakout could either: a) tell their players not to make turnovers and to chip the puck out or b) teach their players principles of making plays to exit the zone. Similarly, a hockey player struggling with stick handling can: a) try to pick apart each aspect of their stick handling that they are deficient in and try to train each piece or b) figure out the principles of puck control on a deeper level – for example, posture and relaxation. A student should look at the principles and concepts taught my their teacher and aim to understand them completely rather than memorize every word in the book.
I’m aiming to improve my ability to use principles based learning, teaching and coaching. I hope this has inspired you to do the same.
P.S. If you liked this article because it was different than most Drone Coach advice, and you’d like to get to work on becoming a Hockey Wizard, then click here to check out the benefits of becoming a Train 2.0 Member.