During the summer of 2014, I began my first job in collegiate strength and conditioning. I was about 6 years into my career, most of which was spent in the private sector. I had a few stints here and there in team sports, but this was going to be my first exposure to being the go-to resource for my athlete’s training 12 months a year. To this point, I was a very technical model/one size fits all-minded coach; it was really all I knew. Now, I was fortunate enough to have interned for Shawn Myszka before 2014, however, this was so long ago it was before he started fully diving into ecological dynamics and wholeheartedly applying the theory in his training sessions (does that age both of us? ☺️). Luckily, I stayed in close contact with Shawn in the years following my time as his intern, so he was solely responsible for my introduction to Ecological Dynamics. While I was remarkably lucky to have someone with his level of knowledge on the topic in my ear, nudging me towards adopting a new coaching framework, I’d be lying if I said it made the “transition” in adopting this framework any easier. With that said, it is important to note that my hesitation with everything Ecological Dynamics had to offer had nothing to do with Shawn’s mentorship, and everything to do with my ego and lack of ability to adapt. In fact, had he not continued to push and challenge me despite my resistance to new ideas, I probably would not be writing this blog for Emergence today.
The summer of 2014 was so significant for me because this new position is what really pushed me to get over myself and begin to take a long, hard look at my coaching philosophy and how I could improve it. The unique part for me was the ideas and concepts brought forth by Ecological Dynamics made a lot of sense, and I agreed with everything I was reading and hearing. The issue for me was not theory, it was practice. I just could not wrap my head around how I was going to inject these new ideas at such a large scale and, quite honestly, I just did not fully value it yet. At the beginning of my stint at this university, I was responsible for 3 teams and assisted with the other 7. Roughly 300 athletes competing in 10 different sports, ranging from team-based field sports to court sports, to individual sports. Where in the world was I going to start?
Before now, I was living in a world where making athletes bigger, faster, and stronger was all I cared about; it was all I thought I had to do. I was comfortably living in my bubble with a clearly defined role. Intense weightlifting and traditional speed, “agility”, and conditioning drills were all I knew, and I was confident in my ability to implement them. Now, I do want to make myself clear. I am not saying that increasing an athlete’s physical capabilities is not important. Of course, that is a big part of my job and it always will be. However, this was the first time I realized increasing physical capabilities might only be a piece of the pie, not the entire thing. This had me looking in the mirror and encountering a significant ‘gut-check’ moment. Terms I was hearing about and slowly looking into, such as: ‘rep without rep’, ‘problem-solving activity’, and ‘representativeness’ started to run circles in my head. What exactly do they mean to me and my role as a performance/S&C coach?
For me, the transition started with football in 2016 after I was promoted and afforded more autonomy in programming. I believe that the more you understand nuanced tactics of a sport, the easier it is to make the theories of Ecological Dynamics live and breathe in your practice. One of the barriers I faced during this shift was my learning style, I am a visual learner. Between my side conversations with Shawn and some very surface-level reading, I was starting to gather pertinent information. However, I was still struggling with how I was going to logistically implement these concepts with 80-100 athletes at once. This was about the same time I was started following the work being done by Michael Zweifel, my now colleague here at Emergence. Michael was regularly active on social media and was constantly posting videos of how he was working through these concepts and implementing them with his specific population. As I started to see more of what he was doing, I realized I could easily implement these kinds of activities. All it took was a couple of visual examples and, not only was I starting to gain clarity on how to turn theory into practice, I was starting to realize that these concepts can verily easily be applied at a large scale. This is where the flood gates began to open, so to speak. I was slowly taking bits and pieces of what I was seeing and reformatting them into activities that applied to me and my specific set of constraints. Straight away “speed” days shifted to a lot of curve-linear and chase activities. “Agility” days shifted from cones and change of direction drills to perception-action, problem-solving based activities. They were starting to become true agility days instead of rote repetition, change of direction days. “Conditioning” days shifted from gassers, sleds, and repeat sprints to small-sided games. All the cones, ladders, and agiles (non-specifying information, as I have come to know them as) were tossed out and replaced with the one thing I used to see as a barrier, extra bodies. Sessions that used to be littered with me telling and showing athletes how I wanted them to behave and move, were now sessions that had them genuinely and authentically solving problems in scenarios that actually looked like the sport they played.
After I started to see these concepts live and breathe in a football setting, I began to see how I could use them in sports like basketball, baseball, soccer, and lacrosse. I started to have more conversations with coaches and athletes to gain a deeper understanding of their respective sports (these conversations were vital!!). Most importantly, I started to fearlessly experiment with different activities and was fully ok with some of them failing. In fact, I failed more than I succeeded those first couple years. The beauty of that is I learned a tremendous amount from my failure. I also allowed athlete feedback to shape how I reconstructed “failed” activities to make them look, feel, act, and behave more like their sport. In short, I started to become less of a dictator and more of a guide/facilitator who valued the reciprocity between athlete and coach.
Before I go any further, I think it is important to note that what I tried to summarize here in a couple of paragraphs was a 2-year process. I slowly made subtle changes and did not try to change too much too soon. I let myself slowly gain confidence and clarity in the theory so that when I did make changes, I knew why I was doing it. Unfortunately, I was only able to scratch the surface with most sports on campus. Though I had made significant strides, I was still very green and was not able to put all this theory into full practice by the time I had moved on to a different job.
My current form of life
As we know, rates of learning ebb and flow in a very non-linear fashion. There is no better example than myself as I have grown and learned more over this last year or so than I did in the first 4-5 years of this journey combined. A lot of that learning I attribute to the fact that last summer I was able to get a job in the same facility as my fellow Emergence colleague, Tyler Yearby. In this last year I have been flooded with new information, ideas, challenges, and critiques, most of which I am certain I would not have been ready for early in my journey. The foundation that was set in the 4-5 years before my time with Tyler, afforded me the opportunity to accept everything that has recently come my way. I have made a complete 180 in the way in which I approach my craft. Ecological Dynamics now lives and breathes in everything I do: the warmup, speed/agility work, plyometrics, resistance training, you name it. The best part is, for as far as I have come, I feel like I have only learned about 1% of what is out there. We are constantly learning.
In closing, I want to highlight some points I feel to be unbelievably valuable as I reflect on my form of life.
- Be patient. It took me about 6 years to fully transform my philosophies. Does that mean yours should or will take that long? Of course not. Especially because you have us here at Emergence to help you through. What I am trying to get at is, no matter how overwhelmed, angry, or confused you get throughout this process, you need to be patient. This will not be a quick, easy fix and you will set yourself up for failure if that is what you are expecting. Be patient, it is a slow drip.
- Coaches in mentorship roles–Do not give answers and pretend that there is an “Ecological Dynamics Menu” that you can wrap up and give to all your interns and apprentices for future use! This was the best thing Shawn ever did for me (even if he did not know he was doing it). He never gave me the answers, instead, he challenged me and guided me to find the answers on my own. Sound familiar? He was literally using principles of Ecological Dynamics in his mentorship towards me. There were times when I would get so frustrated because all I wanted was for him to just tell me what to do, if I am being honest. I was impatient and unwilling to be my authentic self. True to form, he continued to guide and challenge me to a point where I finally realized these were problems I needed to find the answers to myself. I mean he was working with NFL football players and I had college athletes involved in multiple sports. Clearly, he could have given me suggestions that would have been fine, but we were working with two different sets of constraints. He knew that I knew my situation way better than he ever could, so the only right answers were ones I was going to find on my own. That is what this is all about, authenticity, ownership, and autonomy. Guide the people you mentor towards the right information but do not tell them explicitly how to use it. Show them where to look, not what to see.
- Allow athlete feedback. The coach-athlete relationship is vital to this process. Once I realized this it changed a lot for me. I started asking simple questions like, how did that feel? What did you see? What are some specific situations you feel give you trouble in competition? What do you feel you need to work on today? Did that last activity have aspects that felt like your sport? If not, how can we make adjustments so it does? The answers I got helped shape sessions I was constructing for them. I am not saying you get to throw in the towel and just let them run the show, but certain amounts of ownership and autonomy can cause a tremendous increase in effort and buy-in to sessions. At the end of the day, this is their athletic journey, not yours. They need to be in the driver’s seat with you there next to them providing guidance and navigation. There is a lot you can learn from them if you allow them to be a part of the process.
- Seek help. There is no place for egos here. You do not have all the answers and neither do we. However, one thing I can tell you is that working together to find them is going to be far more efficient than working alone. I wish that I would have had a company like Emergence to turn to throughout my journey. Obviously, I am beyond grateful for the direct mentorship I have gotten from my colleagues. However, had I had access to all this information, packaged as we have it, that also comes with the opportunity to have dialogue with other eager professionals– that would have been a GAME CHANGER. Which is why I have made it my mission to help people who are in the same position I was. I want to be that guide that others were for me.
This transition is a slow drip and I urge you to be open and willing to immerse yourself in these theories and concepts. I strongly encourage readers, regardless of where you are at on your learning journey, to pick up our 2020 Sport Movement Skill Conference Package. This conference has challenged me and helped me grow tremendously over the last few years. This past year was themed “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.” Some of the foremost leaders and thinkers in the arena of Ecological Dynamics gathered and delivered material that you do not want to miss out on. In addition to SMSC 2020, I would also encourage you to read our entire blog series. These blogs are a great resource for sparking new thoughts and helping readers gain clarity on topics related to Ecological Dynamics.