Originally Published: Saturday, 14 April 2007 at www.t-nation.com
This year I'll enter my twenty-fifth year as a strength and conditioning coach. Last month I watched Barbara Walters celebrate her thirtieth year with a special called "30 Mistakes in 30 Years." I'm going to celebrate my twenty-fifth anniversary by telling you my top twenty-five mistakes. Hopefully I'll save you some time, pain, and injury. Experience is a wonderful but impatient teacher. And unfortunately, our experiences in strength and conditioning sometimes hurt people besides us.
Mistake #1: Knowing It All
I love Oscar Wilde's quote, "I'm much too old to know everything." Omniscience is reserved for the young. As the old saying goes, you have one mouth and two ears for a reason. I'd take it a step further and say the ratio is four to one: two eyes, two ears, and one mouth.
To continue down the cliché road, how about this one: "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." When I was young I had many answers and few questions. I knew the best way to do everything. Now that I'm older I'm not sure if I even know a good way to do anything.
Mistake #2: Not taking interns sooner
I was so smart that no one was smart enough to help me. (See mistake number one.) My productivity increased drastically when I began to take interns.
Note: Interns aren't janitors, laundry workers, or slaves. They're generally young people who look up to you and expect to learn. Take your responsibility seriously. Remember the golden rule.
Mistake #3: Not visiting other coaches
God, it seems everything goes back to number one! I was too busy running the perfect program to attempt to go learn from someone else. Plus, when you know it all, how much can you learn?
Find the good coaches or trainers in your area (or in any area you visit) and arrange to meet them or just watch them work. I often will just sit with a notebook and try to see what they do better than I do.
I can remember current San Francisco 49'ers strength and conditioning coach Johnny Parker allowing us to visit when he was with the New England Patriots and then asking us questions about what we saw and what we thought he could do better. Coach Parker is a humble man who always provided a great example of the type of coach and person I wanted to be.
Mistake #4: Putting square pegs in round holes
The bottom line is that not everyone is made to squat or to clean. I rarely squatted with my basketball players as many found squatting uncomfortable for their backs and knees.
It killed me to stop because the squat is a lift I fundamentally believed in, but athletes with long femurs will be poor squatters. It's physics. It took me a while to realize that a good lift isn't good for everybody.
Mistake #5: Not attending the United States Weightlifting Championships sooner
My only visit as a spectator to an Olympic lifting meet made me realize that Olympic lifts produced great athletes. I know this will piss off the powerlifters, but those Olympic lifters looked so much more athletic.
I remember being at the Senior's when they were held in Massachusetts in the early eighties and walking away thinking, "This is what I want my athletes to look like." Understand, at that time I was a competitive powerlifter and my programs reflected that.
Mistake #6: Being a strength coach
How can that be a mistake? Let's look at the evolution of the job. When I started, I was often referred to as the "weight coach." As the profession evolved, we became strength coaches, then strength and conditioning coaches, and today many refer to themselves as "performance enhancement specialists."
All these names reflect the changes in our job. For too many years, I was a strength coach. Eventually I realized that I knew more about conditioning than the sport coaches did, so we took on that responsibility. Later, I realized that I often knew more about movement than the sport coaches too, so we began to teach movement skills. This process took close to eighteen of my twenty-five years. I wish it had been faster.
Mistake #7: Adding without subtracting
Over the years we've continued to add more and more CNS intensive training techniques to our arsenal. Squatting, Olympic lifting, sprinting, pulling sleds, and jumping all are (or can be) CNS intensive.
I think I do too much CNS intensive work, and intend to change that. My thanks go out to Jason Ferrugia for pointing out this one.
Mistake #8: Listening to track coaches
Please don't get me wrong. Some of the people who were most influential in my professional development were track coaches. I learned volumes from guys like Don Chu, Vern Gambetta, Charlie Francis, and Brent McFarland.
However, it took me too long to realize that they coached people who ran upright almost all the time and never had to stop or to change direction. The old joke in track coaching is that it really comes down to "run fast and lean left."
Mistake #9: Not meeting Mark Verstegen sooner
Mark may be the most misunderstood guy in our field. He's a great coach and a better friend. About ten years ago a friend brought me a magazine article about Mark Verstegen. The article demonstrated some interesting drills that I'd never seen. I decided my next vacation would be to Florida's Gulf Coast as Mark was then in Bradenton, Florida.
I was lucky enough to know Darryl Eto, a genius in his own right, who was a co-worker of Mark's. In the small world category, Darryl's college coach was the legendary Don Chu.
Darryl arranged for me to observe some training sessions in Bradenton. I sat fascinated for hours as I watched great young coaches work. Mark was one of the first to break out of the track mold we were all stuck in and teach lateral and multi-directional movement with the same skill that the track coaches taught linear movement. This process was a quantum leap for me and became a quantum leap for my athletes.
This was my step from strength and conditioning coach to performance enhancement specialist (although I never refer to myself as the latter). The key to this process was accepting the fact that Mark and his co-workers were far ahead of me in this critical area.
Mistake #10: Copying plyometric programs
This goes back to the track coach thing. I believe I injured a few athletes in my career by simply taking what I was told and attempting to do it with my athletes. I've since learned to filter information better, but the way I learned was through trial and error... and the error probably resulted in sore knees or sore backs for my athletes.
Track jumpers are unique and clearly are involved in track and field because they're suited for it. What's good for a long jumper is probably not good for a football lineman. It took me too long to realize this.
Mistake #11: Copying any programs
Luckily for me, I rarely copied strength programs when training my athletes. This mistake might be beyond the statute of limitations as it was more than twenty-five years ago.
I think copying the training programs of great powerlifters like George Frenn and Roger Estep left me with the sore back and bad shoulders I've carried around for the last twenty-five years. What works for the genetically gifted probably won't work for the genetically average.
Mistake #12: Not teaching my athletes to snatch sooner
We've done snatches for probably the last seven or eight years. The snatch is a great lift that's easier to learn than the clean and has greater athletic carryover. Take the time to try it and study it. You'll thank me.
Mistake #13: Starting to teach snatches with a snatch grip
When I realized that snatches would be a great lift for my athletes I began to implement them into my programs. Within a week some athletes complained of shoulder pain. In two weeks, so many complained that I took snatches out of the program. It wasn't until I revisited the snatch with a clean grip that I truly began to see the benefits.
Just remember, the only reason Olympic lifters use a wide snatch grip is so that they can reduce the distance the bar travels and as a result lift more weight. Close-grip snatches markedly decrease the external rotation component and also increase the distance traveled. The result is a better lift, but less weight.
Mistake #14: Confusing disagree with dislike
I think it's great to disagree. The field would be boring if we all agreed. What I realize now is that I've met very few people in this field I don't like and many I disagree with. I probably enjoy life more now that I don't feel compelled to ignore those who don't agree with me.
Mistake #15: Confusing reading with believing
This concept came to me by way of strength coach Martin Rooney. It's great to read. We just need to remember that in spite of the best efforts of editors, what we read may not always be true.
If the book is more than two years old, there's a good chance even the author no longer agrees with all the information in it. Read often, but read analytically.
Mistake #16: Listening to paid experts
Early on, many of us were duped by the people from companies like Cybex or Nautilus. Their experts proclaimed their systems to be the future, but now the cam and isokinetics are the past. Just as in any other field, people will say things for money.
Mistake #17: Not attending one seminar per year just as a participant
I speak approximately twenty times a year. Most times I stay and listen to the other speakers. If you don't do continuing education, start. If you work in the continuing education field, go to at least one seminar given by an expert in your field as a participant.
(Note: Mistakes 18-25 are more personal than professional, but keep reading!)
Mistake #18: Not taking enough vacation time
When I first worked at Boston University we were allowed two weeks paid vacation. For the first ten years I never took more than one.
Usually I took off the week between Christmas and New Years. This is an expensive week to vacation, but it meant that I'd miss the least number of workouts since most of my athletes were home at this time. I think the first time I took a week off in the summer was about four years ago. My rationale? Summer is peak training time. Can't miss one of those weeks.
I think there's a thin line between dedication and stupidity, and I often crossed it. I think in my early years I was more disappointed that the whole program hadn't collapsed during any of my brief absences. I felt less valuable when I returned from a seminar and realized that everything had gone great.
Stephen Covey refers to it as "sharpening the saw." Take the time to vacation. You'll be better for it.
Mistake #19: Neglecting your own health
This is an embarrassing story, but this article is all about helping others to not repeat my errors. Every year in February I'd find myself in the doctor's office with a different complaint: gastro-intestinal problems, headaches, flu-type illnesses, etc. I had a wonderful general practitioner who took a great interest in his patients. His response year after year was the same: slow down. You can't work 60-80 hours a week and be healthy.
Like a fool I yessed him to death and went back to my schedule. After about the fifth year of this process my doctor said, "I need to refer you to a specialist who can help you with this problem" and he handed me a card. I was expecting an allergist or perhaps some type of holistic stress expert. Instead I found myself holding a card for a psychiatrist.
My doctor's response was simple. I can't help you. You need to figure out why you continue to do this to yourself year in and year out. I went outside and called my wife. I told her it was a "good news-bad news" scenario. I wasn't seriously ill, but I might be crazy. Unfortunately, she already knew this.
Mistake #20: Not recognizing stress
Again I remember talking to a nurse who was treating me for a gastrointestinal problem. I seemed to have chronic heartburn. Her first question was, "Are you under any stress?" My response was the usual. Me? Stress? I have the greatest job in the world. I love going to work every day!
Do you know what her response was? She said, "Remember, stress isn't always negative." It was the first time I'd really thought about that. My job was stressful. Long days, weekend travel, too many late nights celebrating victories or drowning sorrows. A part-time job to make extra money meant working at a bar on Friday and Saturday until 2 AM, and that was often followed by drinks until 4 AM.
Sounds like fun, but it added up to stress. The lesson: stress doesn't have to be negative. Stress can just be from volume.
Mistake #21: Not having kids sooner
As a typical type-A asshole know-it-all, I was way too busy to be bothered with kids. They would simply be little people who got in the way of my plans to change the world of strength and conditioning. I regret that I probably won't live to 100. If I did I'd get to spend another 53 years with my kids.
Mistake #22: Neglecting my wife
See above. It wasn't until I had children that I truly realized how my obsession with work caused me to neglect my wife. I have often apologized to her, but probably not often enough.
Mistake #23: Not taking naps
Do you see the pattern here? Whether we're personal trainers or strength and conditioning coaches, the badge of honor is often lack of sleep. How often have you heard someone say, "I only need five hours a night!"
In the last few years I've tried to take a nap every day I'm able. As we age we sleep less at night and get up earlier. I'm not sure if this is a good thing. I know when I'm well-rested I'm a better husband and father than when I'm exhausted at the end of a day that might have begun at 4:45 AM.
There's no shame in sleep, although I think many would try to make us believe there is.
Mistake #24: Not giving enough to charity
Most of us are lucky. Try to think of those who have less than you. I'm not a religious person, but I've been blessed with a great life. I try every day to "pay it forward." If you haven't seen the movie, rent it. The more you give, the more you get.
Mistake #25: Reading an article like this and thinking it doesn't apply to you
Trust me, denial is our biggest problem.
Read Coach Boyle's Follow up Article: "40 Mistakes, 40 years"