Easy gains aren’t for the elite.
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“Test the brakes before you hit the accelerator.”
It’s a simple mantra repeated by strength and conditioning coaches everywhere. The premise is simple, an athlete needs to be able to stop effectively before they even need to consider how quickly they can accelerate. It’s a safety measure we use to ensure that our athletes are comfortable when they need to stop quickly, as is often the case in many sports which require a change of direction.
Quite frequently, you’ll see the ‘progression’ of exercises along a continuum or matrix, starting from the really simple ones that you’d expect your athletes to do in their sleep, right along to the complex drills that you often choose to explain rather than demo, for fear that you won’t be able to do it justice (there’s a reason S&C coaches aren’t the ones on the talent pathway!).
One great example is the plyometric continuum that Lachlan Wilmot (@performancecoach_wilmot) has put together to simplify plyometric progressions and make it easier to formulate a clear, logical pathway for your athlete to make their way through. It’s a great resource, created by an excellent coach which helps coaches and athletes to identify where they sit on a continuum.
It’s a great resource as it allows you to identify what some athletes can and can’t currently do and gives you a clear idea of where to take them next.
However, is this approach hindering the rate at which your athlete can improve? I see hundreds of Instagram/twitter/<<insert social media platform>> posts each week which show kids/athletes hitting a strong landing position from a standing start or stepping off a box (and yes, I am aware that these things need context, and you can’t draw conclusions from a snapshot!). In fact, I too have taken this approach on several occasions. It seems logical – make sure the landing is safe, familiar, easy. The problem with this, is that sport is none of these things. Top level sport is fast, unfamiliar, unique and difficult to master. It’s why it’s called an ‘elite’ pathway – it’s not for us mere mortals.
Continuing with the theme of social media posts, I saw one recently that discussed “the lowest hanging fruit on the tree” i.e. make the easy gain and work your way up. Teach an athlete how to stick a double leg countermovement jump – easy win. You can go home and feel satisfied that your athlete improved. And as expected, there were a number of coaches quick to congratulate this man for an excellent post. Why wouldn’t you make the easy gains? Your athlete is one step closer to the top of the tree. Job done.
The problem is, anyone can do this. Does it make your athlete better? Probably not. It certainly doesn’t make them elite. At what point do you test them and give them a taste of the fruit at the top of the tree? Simply saying ‘they’re not ready’ or ‘they need to earn the right’ doesn’t fly with me. Many will argue that it’s unsafe – which I agree with – but a common-sense approach should work just fine. Be aware of your athlete’s limitations but be willing to challenge them. Setting a complex challenge for your athletes will be a greater differentiator than simply stepping off a box and hitting an artificial ‘athletic’ landing position.
Recently, I had the fortune of attending a seminar delivered by a Premiership Rugby Club Academy physio, who introduced the group to the methods of Bill Knowles (@Billknowles_HPS) – the Director of Reconditioning & Athletic Development at HPSports (if you’re unfamiliar with his work, or his background, I suggest you read up!). The main premise of this part of the seminar was to go straight to the top of the tree and pick the highest hanging fruit. If you can successfully complete the most complex tasks, then everything below that should be well within reach. Whilst this is largely used in a rehabilitation (or reconditioning) setting, the principle is just as relevant when applied to a training environment too.
Following further research, and after listening to Mr Knowles on a couple of podcasts, I started to re-evaluate my methods. I will freely admit that I too, am guilty of picking off the lowest hanging fruit – it makes you feel like your athlete achieved something. But they didn’t get better.
Instead, I started to challenge my athletes more and more with little movements that require a high degree of skill or movement efficiency. It’s a classic example of the Pygmalion effect (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968) – if you set high expectations for your athlete, they will achieve more. Allow your athletes to fail. Be comfortable watching them fail and let them figure it out. Control that need to make things ‘look’ good and trust the athlete to improve on their own. Build a growth mindset and some resilience whilst you’re at it as well.
This isn’t to say that I don’t believe in building a strong foundation of movement skills. On the contrary, I think they’re essential. However, too often we take the same old beaten path when we’re trying to develop these attributes. Is there a faster, more interesting and more direct route we can take? Quite possibly.
Remember, easy wins are for the average, and average never gets you anywhere worth going.
1. The lowest hanging fruit is an easy win. But easy wins don’t make us better.
2. Challenge your athletes and set high expectations for them.
3. If you can grab the highest hanging fruit, then everything else below that is within reach.
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Rosenthal, R, and L. Jacobsen. Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.