S&C Education Conference 2014 Kelvin Giles on the Overhead Athlete

This weekend saw the launch of the first Online S&C Education Conference (by webinar), hosted by my friend and colleague, Brendan Chaplin.  Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get to hear all 12 speakers this week due to work commitments but I wasn’t going to miss any of the presentations over the weekend!  Given that a lot of my time is spent in the sport of Tennis I was really looking forward to hearing what a mentor of mine, Kelvin Giles had to say on the topic of the Overhead athlete.


He started off by talking about the different sports that we could be discussing when we say ‘Overhead athlete.’


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Tennis serve

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cricket bowl2


Kelvin also gave examples of sports where they might not be throwing an implement but there is a clear action of their arms being away from their body such as:


  • Swimming  
  • Goal keeping  
  • Rock climbing  
  • Rowing  


Kelvin then went on to say that while he understands that a lot of people might be expecting him to discuss shoulder pathologies and shoulder return to play strategies etc, he was actually going to talk about the bigger picture.




In Kelvin’s opinion we get very preoccupied with looking at the rotator cuff.  Now understandably we want to reduce the occurrence of shoulder injuries which are prevalent in a lot of sports BUT rather than focus on the symptoms and have a reductionist approach, we need to look at the bigger picture and understand why athletes are getting injured!!


Kelvin is a passionate advocate of the need to follow a movement efficiency journey that starts with developing basic movement patterns (squat, lunge, push, pull, brace, rotate, gait).  Vern has been quoted many times before:


”Train movements, NOT Muscles!”


He went on to discuss the human body as an amazing thing that not only has joint articulations that require different amounts of MOBILITY and STABILITY (see Mike Boyle’s popularisation of the ‘Joint by Joint’ approach) but also connective tissue slings that mean movements at one place have an affect on the ENTIRE body!!


Kelvin Giles movement efficiency


A lot of the problems that occur up the kinetic chain are due to a lack of movement efficiency from ‘toe nails to finger nails.’  We need to master these basic physical competencies!!!


Kelvin referred to various research papers supporting the point that shoulder health is directly related to movement efficiency at other places in the body (such as thoracic mobility).


The Overarm Throw


Overhead throw cues


Then Kelvin showed a series of videos of children learning to ‘solve the movement puzzle’ of throwing a ball at the wall above a marked line that was of varying distances away from the child.  The younger children started off throwing a ball around 12 feet away from the wall, and were told to throw the ball over the marked line that was at around head height.  

Initially the youngest child would have many faults in their throwing action- including being square on, having the elbow in front of the shoulder and so on.  But as the children advanced and moved first 15 and then 20 and then 25 feet away they were able to solve the movement puzzle by improving the action until you get the action see in the images above  where it pretty much follows the ‘technical model.’


Now in the presentation the children being shown were older with each progression as we moved through four stages to get to the ‘final skill ,’ so this journey for a single child may take months or years to get to that stage.  What I liked was that there was minimal explicit coaching- Kelvin said that the coach absolutely would NOT ask the 6 year old girl who was throwing square on, to move side on- he would let her figure it out for herself.


Role of Implicit Coaching


The idea of NOT correcting the young girl to get side on might ruffle a few feathers with coaches as this might go against your instincts to correct poor movement mechanics.   I personally think that with all these things there needs to be a balance between letting them work completely independently and risking possibly ingraining BAD HABITS and coaches telling them exactly what to do from the BEGINNING.


I think you definitely need to have a skill applied in the sport context, so letting the athlete determine information about how far the ball went in relation to the mark on the wall is important.  Frans Bosch in his UKSCA conference presentation referred to this as ‘Knowledge of Results (KR).’   I like to call this setting a ‘Target’ for the athlete.   But the coaching should be more towards ‘cues’ that will help them focus on the result:


Focus their attention on something external like- ”notice how high the ball travelled!!  Do you think you could send it a bit higher??”


Hopefully adding a constraint such as asking them to throw the ball from further back will get them to figure out that they need to get side on to better transfer weight through the legs and hips!!


Target versus an Outcome


The point I am going to make below didn’t actually get discussed by Kelvin but I wanted to make the point as I think it is important to clarify this.


In the above example I think of the task of throwing the ball over the marked line on the wall as a ‘Target.’  Equally it could be asking them to throw the ball 20m, or sprint 20m in 3.50-seconds.  These are performance outcomes and I think all athletes need to start getting used to working with targets early to create better attention and intent levels.


Where we have issues is when there is a score attached to the performance outcome, such as if you hit the ball over the marker you get a point for your team.  When there is a perceived pressure to win or a threat of losing , this is when we see the mental side of skills come into play.  Dealing with pressure is so key to transferring from skill practice to actual performance.


Now like with all aspects of coaching the secret is in the blend.  I think all athletes of all levels should have some exposure of applying their skills under score pressure.  For me this is a gradual process but there is a need to always have a Target and at some point also have a score pressure where they will be a winner and a loser.


Earn the Right through Physical Literacy


Getting back to Kelvin’s talk he went on to examine the reasons why our athletes get injuries while performing athletic skills such as the throw.  He mentioned a few different issues.  The first one is an obvious one but hugely important and often overlooked these days.  This is the ability to develop a deep and wide reservoir of physical literacy.


Fundamental movement skills


Athletes have to earn the right to do more specific throwing practice.  Physical literacy is build on a foundation of physical competencies (Squat, Lunge, Push, Pull, Brace, Rotate, Gait).  These are then connected and integrated to create Movement Skills.  On top of Movement skills you build Sports skills.  It has to be done like that.


Physical Competencies  


Movement skills  


Sports skills  




The Volume Trap


Kelvin went on to say that a lot of well intended coaches will often introduce a lot of physio orientated rotator cuff work with bands and hand weights etc- BUT BE CAREFUL that you are not adding stress to stress!!  If you add these PREHAB type activities to a throwing programme then you had better be taking something away.  Yes we know our athletes need to throw but if they are doing even more prehab type actions you need to reduce the throwing volume, or do the prehab during a period in the year when throwing volume is lower.  He personally prefers more dynamic shoulder warm-ups like the one he shows here of Tracey Fober using  some power balls to warm-up the shoulder.



prehab issues The Volume Trap


Finally, Kelvin did a great job of showing how the we need to build the journey up by exploring more and more challenging movement puzzles that take us closer and closer to the performance skill.


Movement efficiency journey


And all these movements should be experienced using different constraints such as:

Kelvin Giles movement efficiency2

Well that about sums up Kelvin’s talk.  As ever Kelvin was extremely passionate about this topic of the journey to movement efficiency and I was really glad to hear him talk.  I mention some of the work Kelvin introduced me to on assessing movement efficiency in my new Ebook, ‘Speed, Agility & Quickness training for Sports;’   you can find out more information HERE.


I hoped you enjoyed the Post! Speak to you soon.


Daz Drake

Gaining Positive Outcomes through Negative Consequences

I’m pleased to be able to bring you the latest APA Blog with another instalment from Fabrizio Gargiulo, on ‘pressure training.’  This is part of a series of articles where we are looking at the relationship between cognitive factors and physiological performance- see the first article here.


As part of our quest to develop appropriate levels of mental effort, attention and intent during the task, at APA we have been increasingly using ‘consequences’ to apply perceived pressure to the action of certain skills.  As a  football fan I think of Stuart Pearce taking a penalty for England in Euro 2000, having the courage to step up and take a penalty after missing one in a previous tournament.

Check out  what Fab has to say below on this topic.


Inside the mind of an athlete there are many thoughts, as coaches we try to influence the process and situation where these thoughts are used, however ultimately we cannot be inside their minds when it comes down to the pressure of a competitive situation. Pressure in itself is a made up environment, created by the mind and that only influences the mind. The ‘pressure’ of a situation cannot alter a physical outcome without first influencing the mind, for example the chance to score the winning penalty in the world cup final or the 100m Olympic final, arguably two of the most ‘pressurised’ situations an athlete could be in. The physical demands do not change from any previous example of the same skill – kicking the ball, running as fast as possible, yet players will often crumble under the enormity of the situation. So what is pressure? How does it influence the mind? What strategies can be used by coaches and athletes to overcome the stress of being ‘under pressure’?

The definition of pressure helps us to understand its nature; ‘a continuous force (physical) exerted on an object’, ‘the use of persuasion or intimidation to make someone do something’. These definitions show that pressure is time sensitive – it can increase or decrease over time dependent upon what or who is applying the force to the object (person) and how resilient that object or person is to change. If there is easy influence over the controlling mechanisms of change – notably in this instance – the human mind, then the intimidation to alter ones state becomes great enough to cause change. Within the athlete setting pressure can be internal – from the mind e.g. expectations, or external – crowd/coach demands. An example currently witnessed a lot is amongst tennis players. When player A has a chance to break the serve of player B, the ‘pressure’ of the situation increases. It is still a single point in a tennis match but it is at a key time, there may not be or have been an opportunity to create this change thus far in the match and the mind tells the athlete ‘this is a big opportunity to win here’. These added constraints to the same task demand asked hundreds of times throughout a match can lead to the visual changes in physical approach – the player ‘tightens up’ and this causes an alteration in the mechanism of the skill execution. Ultimately the fantasy and ecstasy of winning is the positive outcome desired by athletes and coaches. It could be argued that the reward that goes with winning also creates ‘pressure’ with a similar time effect reasoning used by athlete – this may be my only chance to win! However the muscles do not change their physiological response to neural stimuli, but it is the mind that controls the chain of stimulation to cause muscle activation, so when the mind is influenced to change, the physical output will also be changed – sometimes for good, sometimes for worse – and thus we reach the status of a missed world cup penalty or break in serve during the Wimbledon final.

The notion of ‘pressure’ influences the mind at any level however as it is not just the elite sports men and women of the world but anyone engaged in an activity with a positive or negative outcome as a consequence of their actions. Businessmen and women, surgeons, fire fighters, students in exams or service men and women at war. For every action they make there can be a negative consequence, so how do we train the mind to deliver a positive outcome when under the ‘pressure’ of a situation?

Essentially the answer is through practice of situations with high levels of stress. This should be done in training where there are negative implications to results – such as forfeits – but that ultimately don’t have financial or health consequences. Remaining calm during extremely stressful situations is a critical trait of elite athletes (Jones, 2008). Coaches should employ high pressure situations in their training as this will better prepare the athletes for actual real life scenarios. From a coaching stand point this ingrains the learned behaviors desired to cope with ‘pressure’. Examples of this are self talk, – both positive and negative can be used to motivate an athlete – breathing, as a release of stress and acceptance – possibly the most importance as only when a negative outcome has been accepted can the player move on to achieve another positive outcome.

As an athlete being successful in your chosen sporting environment often means learning to ‘love’ and embrace pressure (Jones, 2008). The elite players of all sports will have become successful through increasing performance when under stressful yet highly rewarding situations. This is the positive outcome gained through experience of ‘pressure’. The ability to achieve under stressful circumstances can be trained from a young age. The English Cricket Board has recently published an article on findings from a study they conducted. The ECB took a group of young cricketers on the elite pathway and exposed them to mental toughness and consequences training by generating a threatening environment in which the players were systematically exposed to punishment-conditioned stimuli in the form of “consequences” for failure to meet strict disciplinary standards (e.g., punctuality, tidiness, correct kit) or specific performance standards (e.g., during testing). The importance of consequences were explained to the players as a fundamental aspect of professional cricket training, where the consequences of poor performance and/or poor discipline are potentially expensive, distracting, humiliating, and career ending. More importantly, punishments were consistently presented as part of an inspirational vision of what it takes to be a world’s best player for England. The punishments served as an opportunity to practice coping strategies for real ‘pressure’ based situations in the elite game.

After a period of 46 days with various mental toughness challenges (some physical such as a multi-stage fitness test and vertical jump test), the study indicated that punishments, and more specifically the threat of punishment, can lead to enhanced performance under pressure if presented in a transformational manner. Ultimately, the purpose of the punishments was to provide the players with opportunities to cope with the pressures, threats, and disappointments that are commonplace in the world of elite competitive sport. The results indicate that training under pressure conditions from an early age can lend itself towards developing mentally robust athletes capable of coping with the pressure demands of elite sporting competition.

In conclusion, pressure is very real to the person who creates it in their mind. It is not a physical state but it can alter the connection between your minds and performing a physical task, especially skill based tasks. There is no ‘best’ practice for improving an athletes’ ability to cope with pressure other than practice itself. In particular situational practice with potential negative consequences can lead to increased performances under the pressure of real life stressful conditions. Ultimately athletes seek perfection and winning and only practicing under real life conditions will improve real life results.

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect” Vince Lombardi.

Latest Coach Resource- Speed Ebook

I just thought I would take the opportunity to let you know that I am due to launch an Ebook- Speed, Agility & Quickness Training for Sports Bible.  I have written more about it on one of the pages at the APA website- check it out here.


It’s a 68-page colour Manual and access online to over 200 video clips of the very drills I use with my athletes every day. It will go over the entire APA Speed Development Pathway from Stage 1 to Stage 6.


                 COMING SOON


SAQ for Sports cover page



APA review of the Middlesex Students S&C conference 2014

Well it’s been a busy week for me getting the latest Ebook I’m writing finished and the highlight of the week was spending the day at the Middlesex Student S&C Conference.   

Anthony Turner organised another great line up of speakers covering biochemistry, nutrition, screening protocols and coaching science.  

For this first post I’m going to review Rob Walsh’s presentation on ‘Movement screens and Integrative Corrective Exercise.’  

Rob said he had been working with the students at Harrow school for a few years now and had gone from his first day where he saw around 5 good clean screenings of an Overhead squat out of 800 students to now having students at 15 years old lifting 175kg for 8 reps on the Deadlift.  

He started by showing us this Snatch balance performance and asked us a) if it was any good and b) to find the fault.

We agreed that it was good.  The symptom of the fault was that he would fall forward with the weight but the cause was a very slight heal raise of the left foot.  Now he went on to explain later that this type of fault could be described as a ‘mouse in the room.’  He said that for professional Olympic lifters then this mouse in the room would be very important.  To squat deep butt to floor (B2F) you need around 20-30 degrees dorsi flexion.  This lifter probably lacked about 5 degrees in his left foot but that was enough to throw off his lift and the imbalance got magnified as he went up in weight.  

However, for most athletes you need to focus on finding the elephant in the room.  Rob said that several screening tools have come on the market of which the Functional Movement screen (FMS) is the most widely used and well known.  The problem with the FMS is that even for experienced coaches it takes at least 12 minutes and up to about 20 minutes for less experienced coaches.  This is too long when you have a large group.  



So at Harrow and in other professional settings where he works, he has decided to use an Overhead squat and a Single leg squat as these TOGETHER will reveal most of the elephants in the room and allow you to quickly determine the key programme considerations. Below are the key aspects each of the squats highlight 

Overhead Squat:  

– Movement pattern  


-Sagittal plane  


Single leg squat:  

-Sub-Systems (slings)  

-Strength Stability  

-Transverse and Frontal plane  


Chicken or the Egg?


chicken or egg


Now all these screens are designed to detect a muscle imbalance, which is a combination of a motor pattern issue, a tightness and a weakness.  Rob said the problem is ‘Death by Over Analysis,’  who cares if the athlete got tight and then got weak, or they got weak and then got tight or the motor pattern was faulty so they got weak etc etc.  In 99% of cases the elephant in the room will be because of one of three things:  

1. Blocked ankles  

2. Weak posterior hips  – especially glute medius  

3. Thoracic mobility  


Instructions for testing:


overhead squat


-Don’t wear shoes- the heel lift will promote more dorsi flexion  

-Don’t coach them  

-Save time by putting their feet in the correct place for them (shoulder width apart and facing forward)  

-Do 5 reps in each plane (this will also test the movement under fatigue)  

-Ask them to go ‘as deep as possible without falling over’  


Key points on Overhead Squat:




Rob asks the athletes to go as low as possible.  Apparently the NASM only ask athletes to go to parallel (which is about 120 degrees at the knee).  The picture above is at 90 degrees.  I learnt from Rob that you need about 10-15 degrees dorsi flexion to 90 degrees (which is also known as a half squat).  You need about 15-20 degrees to hit the parallel squat and about 20-30 degrees to hit a full squat (B2F).

  I also learnt that you should expect the spine to stay in neutral up to a depth of thighs parallel.  After this point the pelvis will have to tuck under into a posterior tilt to make room for the femur.  He also said that the pelvic tucking is nearly always attributed to tight hamstrings but actually in many cases blocked ankles are the cause.  Don’t assume it’s hamstrings.  

I asked Rob about the ‘Scottish hip’ that I had heard Stuart McGill talk about at the UKSCA conference a few years back. Rob agreed that for athletes whose hips get impinged when their feet are parallel will be allowed to turn their feet out but it will be noted on the screening results.  This impingement can be confirmed with an assessment of their hips on a couch, where they will probably present with tightness in internal rotation.  


Key points on Single leg Squat:

  Rob looks for 45 degrees bend at the leg on this one.  His rational is that in most sports it is very rarely necessary to have more bend at the knee when on the sports field.   The hands are on the hips and the free leg is slightly bent in front.  

The main thing to look out for are:


-hip drop (glute medius weakness relative to hip adductors)  

-lean back (you can correct this with cable chops)  

-lean forward (you can correct this with cable lifts)  


Well that sums up the review of our first presentation.  Hope you like it!


Influence of cognitive factors on physiological performance

What makes a great performer?


Our role at APA as S&C coaches is to create the best all round athletes possible. We do not specialise in just a single method of training as some other companies do (Parisi Speed School, West Coast Strength for example). Our niche is creating the best athletes on their field of play. A talking point amongst the coaching staff in recent weeks has been the application of ‘cognitive factors’ in the training environment. There have been arguments for and against and we will discuss this topic in today’s blog.


Firstly it is important that to create a great athlete, he or she needs many components of fitness, these are a given and widely understood and accomplished, however what separates the top players from the rest is the ability to utilise the physiological adaptations they have accomplished in the performance environment. In order to do this they must be able to perform skilled actions under changeable circumstances, with confidence and in all likelihood on a repetitive basis. How does strength and conditioning training fit into this equation? Surely the most skilful player will be the winner?


Let’s start with strength training; the aim of strength training is to illicit a physiological adaptation to the muscles to generate a greater force. This force can then be applied to movements such as running, throwing, kicking, punching, tackling etc. In most sports speed is a vital factor to winning. Being stronger makes you faster, therefore strength training and sprinting combined will make you faster (linearly at least). Some sports require the ability to maintain speed over a long time period – the marathon for example – previously trained for as an endurance event in which getting in the mileage was the key factor, nowadays coaches have incorporated speed training into their athletes’ regimes.


This is because the person that wins the marathon is the fastest person over that distance. Long duration events require an increased ability to supply oxygen to the muscles and remove waste products. This ability can be improved through training the body to increase mitochondrial densities or volumes in order to achieve greater oxygen exchange in the muscles. Aside from muscular hypertrophy, neurological adaptations and flexibility/muscle imbalances, these are the main aims of the physiological adaptation process garnered through TRAINING.


In high level sport strength and power levels do not discriminate the more successful athletes


Now let’s look at some other areas that would typically fall under the remit of the S&C coach. Agility, balance, co-ordination, power, reactivity and ultimately winning are all elements that require skill acquisition and cognitive input in great demand alongside the physiological challenge.


”The ability to achieve success at the top level of sports is not decided by strength and power amongst an equal field, but by the ability to transfer skill acquisition into performance (Ives and Shelly, 2003).”


This could be argued that in order to reach the top level of performance, physical prowess is a determining factor; therefore all the top players will have similar physical attributes in terms of strength, power and speed and it is only the level of performing skill based tasks under pressure that creates the ranking in terms of the best performers.


This is where we at APA feel we have the upper hand. Some of training modalities we use with our cohort of tennis players encompass both the physiological challenge and the sport-related cognitive and perceptual demands. This is the environment under which our athletes learn to utilise their physical qualities in a more challenging and competitively stimulated situation. Research has shown that training is more effective in a cognitively stimulated environment (Ives and Shelly, 2003).


Value of practice and training


Ives and Shelly (2003), discuss the difference between what is called a practice session and what is called a training session. Growing up I played football and would attend ‘football training’, I learnt to pass, head, shoot, tackle etc and did some physical development, but not much (maybe because the level wasn’t that high).  This environment could be considered a PRACTICE environment rather than a training environment as the key focus is on improving movement techniques, strategies and the mental skills needed for peak performance.  Since then, when I joined university I became part of the American Football team and would attend ‘practice’ 2-3 times a week. Seeing as this was a new sport to me with a new set of demands and skills to learn the key to becoming successful at it was repetition of learned skills – in other words practising.


Around this time I also began my journey into strength training, much like many of the young athletes I coach nowadays, I had to learn how to squat, lunge, push, pull, twist, Olympic lift properly before I could begin to train these movements. Because I had a background in being strong – manual labour work around the house when growing up – once I had learnt the skill of the exercise I was able to develop my training ability in that skill quickly. Because of this I was able to become highly skilled and adept at the game, whilst continuing to improve my physical ability and it enabled me to win many matches and championships. This highlights the point that  learning skills (again at a young age by preference) can lead to becoming adept in training by subsequently preparing for improving physiological adaptations during later training.


But ‘training’ also needs to have a cognitive component right?


Otherwise we are just going through the motions? Now clearly not all physiological systems training should be done as cognitive  training. For example, hypertrophy training requires a protocol different from the one used to train the neural coordination system. Hypertrophy training may constrain movement exploration, yet may promote certain muscle adaptations, like increasing muscle size, that are building blocks to functional performance.


But if we can assume that since this blog is more about making physiological tasks have a cognitive component we need to consider the point that performing skills (even in the weight room) needs to be mindful.  This can be achieved obviously with heavy loading which require maximal intent but what about sub-maximal loads?  How do we cultivate and accelerate mental effort to tap into that cognitive component??


Functional Training


The recent burst in ‘functional’ training – training to meet the demands of the environment and placing the athlete in a mentally challenging environment to illicit cognitive interaction and greater learning and transfer of skills can and has been successfully utilised in sports training.  Vern Gambetta brought this into the gym domain with a message to make movements integrated, multi-directional and proprioceptively enriched.  This should be applied to all training including strength and power training but so far it has mostly been applied to a lot of single leg balance challenges that are more suited to being a part of a circus act than an exercise that will actually improve performance.


So why don’t we make strength training more ‘functional’ or is the action of gaining strength ‘functional’ by its own definition as it assists in improved performance? A further question still remains, if additional cognitive training can be beneficial in the strength training environment where the stimuli of lifting increasingly more demanding loads or speeds of movement is the skill in itself. Is there further need for ‘stress’ to placed in the strength training environment?


To help us answer these questions we can draw on a journal article by Ives and Shelley (2003) who discuss the following key points:


1.  Overall need for a cognitive or perceptual environment- sport related perceptual challenges
2.  Specifically the need to put cognitive challenges in a functional strength-power programme
3.  A need for a Strategy based around: directed mental effort, attention and intention


I will focus on the components of the Strategy for creating a greater cognitive environment in the weights room, which goes beyond the traditional application of ‘functional training,’ which typically involves balance tasks that look like circus tricks.  While these unquestionably challenge proprioception they are not necessarily preparing the athlete for their sports.  So what does?

MENTAL EFFORT: The challenge


I think we first need to say that we need to direct our mental effort to something, whether that be getting ‘psyched up’ for a maximal effort or directing that effort to the ‘challenge’ of the task.  Basically, we want our athletes to be ENGAGED by the task, whether that be a maximal effort, or a  really difficult challenge in some other way. Sports related skills are what excite the athlete so we need to find ways to tap into that sort of feeling in the gym with engaging tasks! What makes sport so compelling is the competitive element, the chaos and the constant mental stimulation and decision making!!  Running after a ball or chasing an opponent have clear outcomes and things to attend to so we need to learn from the sports domain and bring that into the gym.


INTENT: Outcome


I think we need to say here that it is important that the athlete is clear on what they are trying to accomplish. What do you want them to be able to do?  In tennis this is obvious, get behind the ball and beat the bounce; it’s especially important to have the right intent in that situation because intent drives visual focus!!!  But what about in the gym?? I think of the typical intent we say to athletes in the gym that ALL reps need to have an explosive intent on the concentric phase no matter how heavy the weight.
The same exercises done with different intentions – maximal speed, force or accuracy – can lead to markedly different outcomes in neuromuscular control and movements. This is where strength training and cognitive training can have the biggest cross-over; getting athletes to practice having different intents in force production, speed, or accuracy which will lead to greater improvements in performance.

Weight room example


Our coaching commands and instructions are important here.  How about simply telling them, ‘beat your best time or performance’, or a asking them to try and win in a good old fashioned race against your peers.  Or how about aiming for a specific height on a jump or power output on a lift, or to achieve a specific number of reps in a row without stopping etc (e.g 10 skips in a row).  But the best type of instruction is the one which is really open to the interpretation and imagination of the athlete, such as:

Get through this obstacle course as quick as you can’, and in the weights room it could be, ‘I want you to find a way to get up off the floor while  keeping your left arm straight- Turkish get up.


turkish get up



To me the key thing Ives and Shelley are saying here is the need to develop a ‘non-awareness’ strategy.  We don’t want the athlete to pay attention on the task while it is in progress.  [Note: this may not be applied across all exercises and session but we are offering it to the reader as a tool to accelerate learning where appropriate]
Focus from the athlete will typically be internalised and given to feelings of range of motion, control of the load, bracing, breathing and alignment. However it has been argued (Wulf et al., 2000) that internalised focus results in poorer learning of motor skills and that external focus should be given to cues, equipment (e.g., golf club) or movement effect (where the ball goes). Similarly Ives and Shelley (2003) advocate against athletes focusing on themselves – i.e. looking in a mirror – but would rather have mental effort directed towards strategies and cues relevant to sports specific performance.


Weights room example

How about paying attention to the bar path in a clean, or the benefit of just giving the athlete the cue of sit down on to the box and stand up on a squat to focus their attention on the box rather than themselves????


In a later section we will talk about the use of sports skills being incorporated with the physical task to really help with this movement non-awareness!

Movement Variability


When the athlete has more variability they learn more adaptability and in the end the skill is more robust. When athletes are free to generate their own movement solutions during practice they learn more adaptability when faced with novel performance situations, which may be particularly important for higher-level performers. As such, functional training within an appropriate psychophysical environment provides a setting to exploit movement variability as a mechanism to enhance an athlete’s adaptability, creativity, and spontaneity— all of which can be argued to be hallmarks of the best performances in sport.”




Now we have introduced the need for directed mental effort, attention, intent and movement variability we can introduce the application of these aspects into a coaching framework involving discovery learning. 


Discovery Learning is about learners solving for themselves how and what movements to make given the SITUATIONAL CONSTRAINTS imposed upon them. We will discover below that the constraints are key aspects we can control to influence the performance of the task. This becomes especially important when we are dealing with more advanced learners whose skilled are more developed.

Working with Beginners

In the case of working with beginners or any situation when we are introducing a new skill to an athlete we could look at giving minimal coaching technical feedback and simply letting the athlete come up with the solution.   They will bring their own inherent variability to the party because they are learning to coordinate their body.
Ives and Shelvey (2003) say:  

”To illustrate for functional training, we suggest that athletes not be told to perform weight training exercises with specific techniques. The athlete, within the bounds of safety, should be free to explore the exercises and become aware of their own movement effects and perceptual outcomes.  Rigorously defining ‘proper’ form and the use of mechanical stabilization and anti cheating aids excessively constrain athletes’ exploration and problem-solving movements, and bear little resemblance to that which occurs during athletic performances. With no instruction, however, the athlete may search endlessly for a proper movement solution.


Athletes may learn poor movements and adopt bad habits. The coach or trainer can guide the athlete by providing purposeful intent, ideas about where to focus attention, and clues to key perceptual cues.  In this fashion, athletes are able to resolve problems and begin to understand the nature of movement on their own, and determine optimal solutions for themselves.”

In summary we can view the role of the coach as guiding the athlete to optimal performance through giving them a clear instruction on the intent we are looking for, and a few attentional cues BUT letting them solve the movement problem!



Working with more Advanced athletes


Now for more advanced athletes where a basic motor pattern is already learnt and there is less variability in the skill then there is a danger that the athlete can get stuck in the motions of doing the reps with less engagement.  Here we can introduce the next level of complexity by building in constraints to re-introduce movement variability that was previously now not present.


clean and press mixture



Weight room example


SKILL: clean and press
INTENT: I want you to lift that weight from the floor to above your head with your arms straight, 10 times.
ATTENTION: keep the bar close to your body
CONSTRAINTS: (Environmental) Use of different equipment- barbell, kettlebell, sandbag, single arm, double arm etc, jump onto a box, land in a split stance. 

So we’ve already seen above that playing around with the equipment and foot position etc can introduce some nice constraints to challenge the movement.  But there’s one obvious thing we can do to introduce more movement variability!

Combining a physiological task with a sports skill


volleyball spike


I just wanted to finish by giving another example of how a coach can enhance learning through introduction of constraints:  This is perhaps the best way to enhance the specificity of physiological adaptations.


Using the volleyball spike as an example we can all see how a rebound jump might enhance jumping related performance in volley ball.   But hopefully by now we can see how just doing a rebound jump could be missing a few important cognitive pieces.   By being smart we can also do it in conditions of variable practice by manipulating the environmental and task CONSTRAINTS.  
rebound jump

Remember how I said earlier that Tennis players get excited about hitting balls, well volley ball players like to spike volleyballs. [The caveat is that they have some basic jumping technique].  But if you put their focus on the skill of the spike a ball then the rebound jump is a means to an end rather than an end unto itself.  Basically what I’m saying is jumping from one box doesn’t excite the athlete and won’t get the  intent you want as much as throwing a ball in the air and making them spike it as you jump off the floor from the box!!!

This will create movement variability because the type of ball will vary.

Intent: A successful ball spike (rather than an outcome of jump height as a means to an end)
Attention: Placed on the ball and the setter (not on the ground!!!!!)
Constraints: Can put a net in the way, can put other team mates around as well as blockers on the other side.
Note: if the skill of jumping from the box is compromised because of the increasing number of constraints then remove them until the skill can be executed safely,  But, THE OBJECTIVE IS TO CHALLENGE THE SKILL and create an acceptable amount of movement variability without compromising joint mechanics at all during the landing.
I hope that has given you some food for thought and will challenge you to keep your weight room sessions challenging and engaging!!!

Fabrizio Gargiulo with contributions from Daz Drake




Ives, J.C. and Shelley, G.A., (2003). Psychophysics in Functional Strength and Power


Training: Review and Implementation Framework Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,


Wulf, G., N.H. McNevin, T. Fuchs, F. Ritter and T. Toole, (2000). Attentional focus in complex skill learning. Res. Q. Exercise. Sport 71:229–239.


APA Latest workshop: Speed, Agility & Quickness Training for Sports

Below are details of the next APA Workshop on Speed, Agility and Quickness Training for Sports.

SAQ for Sports

Date: May 24th


Location: Gosling Sports Park


Time: 9-12pm


Cost: £30  with 3 license points for Tennis Coaches 


For those of you who made the last workshop (of the same title) I encourage you to come to this one too! I want to pick up where we left off on the theory and get stuck in to some more practical and really consolidate our learning. 

For those who didn’t make the last one, don’t worry, I’ll give you a summary of the key theory on the day so you understand the key concepts behind the drills!  

Full details are at the link on the website


To wet your appetite check out this video of some of the work APA have been doing with our pro team Tennis players at Gosling Tennis Academy this winter pre-season!!



APA Announce New 1st4sport Level 2 Strength & Conditioning Qualification

This is the news you have all been waiting for!!!! Athletic Performance Academy (APA) are pleased to announce that APA Director Daz Drake will be running APA’s first coaching certification, a 1st4sport Level 2 Strength & Conditioning qualification.  The qualification is being run in conjunction with strength & conditioning education online, the highly successful S&C education business run by Brendan Chaplin.


Developed in partnership with the Rugby Football Union (RFU) the 1st4sport Level 2 Certificate in Coaching Strength and Conditioning for Sport (QCF) is designed to provide learners aged 16 and over with the level of knowledge needed to build and lead well-constructed strength and conditioning programmes through an understanding of how to plan, conduct and evaluate strength and conditioning sessions. This will enable successful learners to seek employment as a strength and conditioning coach in a number of settings such as a sports club, or with an athlete or team in an educational/youth environment.


Want to kick start your S&C career?

The reality is that currently there are no recognised strength & conditioning coaching qualification stepping stones to full UKSCA accreditation at this point in time.  The workshops are excellent but they don’t provide the attendee with a qualification at the end.  Therefore the majority of want to be S&C coaches are pursuing expensive qualifications in Gym Instructing and Personal training.  A typical Level 2 course in Gym Instructing will be around £400 and a Level 3 Personal Training qualification comes in at around £1000 plus.  This is not small change for any one, not least new up and coming S&C coaches looking to get themselves out there.  Wouldn’t you rather spend your money on a more relevant qualifcation that prepares you to work with athletes?


Save your club money!

APA are really excited to be offering this opportunity to aspiring S&C coaches.  Remember a Level 2 qualification is enough to let you run your own sessions so if you are a sports coaching business like many of APA’s partners are, and can’t afford to get an S&C coach to come in and run sessions for you on a part-time of fuller-time basis, then what are you waiting for?  Send one of your sports coaches on this course and let them run the technical sessions and S&C sessions for you!!!!!


It’ll be the best £ 370 investment your club could make all year!!!!!!!


Full details and bookings can be made at the link below: