Team Sports Are Not About Individual Glory

TAGS: training mentality, social media, selfies, Look Good and Lose, Gabriel Naspinski, training athletes, coaching, performance

In sports and life, many have the want or need to always look good. This is a way of saving face regardless of outcome. In the movie White Men Can’t Jump, Woody Harrelson’s character criticizes the character played by Wesley Snipes for this. He calls him out for his showboating, shit-talking antics. However, this is only a very limited scope of the entire problem.

In this article, I'll provide some other examples of how this may apply. Some people may be currently engaging in this behavior and not even know it. However, by examining this mentality, perhaps those people can make changes that will lead to more positive outcomes.

As athletes, lifters, or competitors

This is the most obvious one and goes along with the aforementioned example from the movie. We live in an age where the advent of social media has made everyone a pseudo-celebrity in their own mind. At the click of a button, obnoxious messages, selfies, videos, and so on can be plastered all over the web, detailing every aspect of a self-serving personality. This is evident by the number of professional and college athletes posting numerous updates to feed into their egos and mesmerize their legion of followers. Of course, like anything, this has a trickle-down effect, as athletes of all levels start to think that the image they're creating is more important than what they actually do in real life.

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The high school athletes I currently work with or the college athletes I've worked with in the past are good examples of this. Young athletes see the players they look up to blabbering on and on about their personas and feel that this is the way to act. They either set up accounts on various forms of social media or view the activities on television and begin to emulate those they look up to by posting obnoxious messages void of any true meaning on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. Or they begin to act like superstars even though they don't understand the basics of the sport they're participating in. While I wouldn’t say this makes up the majority of young athletes, there is still a significant percentage to make it irritating.

Some may find this to be harmless and think that it's just in good fun and never hurts anyone. On one hand, I can see the sentiment. However, here's what I find irritating. Some young athletes will care so much about saving face or creating an image that it affects their attitude and in-game abilities. Instead of being worried about their assignments, fundamentals, and performance, they're worried about everything being all about them. They'll focus on their appearance or perform in a manner that isn't fundamentally sound or is different from how they've been coached in order to keep the attention on the image they've created.

For example, let’s say that a team needs to gain two yards for a first down. The play is a simple dive play that, if executed correctly, will gain the required yardage. However, the running back decides that he wants to bounce outside and try to break a long run as opposed to just getting the two yards needed to secure the drive. He has made a conscious decision to attempt to color outside the lines because just performing the task won't be glamorous enough. If he can’t score and show off his moves and athleticism, he'd rather be able to say that he attempted to put it all on his shoulders. A similar example is celebrating for making a big hit and routine tackle. However, on that particular play, the opposing team still gained enough yardage for a first down. It doesn't make any sense because it goes against the fundamentals of the game and the object of the defense, which is to stop the drive to get the ball back for the offense.

To bring this back to strength sports, let’s look at powerlifting for a minute. How many times has a lifter had a hit or miss training cycle and known that he's unsure of his capabilities going into the meet? We've all heard this from training partners, other participants at meets, and even ourselves. There are two ways this can go at the meet. The lifter can either open conservatively, take what is there, and salvage what may be realistic or use the approach of “PR or bomb trying.” At every meet, there are many lifters who take the latter approach and end up with a wasted trip and entry fee or, worse yet, an injury. I fully understand the idea behind this because sometimes if you go to a meet and fail to PR, it feels like a waste. I also understand the ego that can drive this. Sometimes it looks better to open with something heavy and bomb out. Then at least you can hear, “Let’s get behind him folks. He needs this!” followed by “Well, that was a good try, but it just wasn’t there today.” However, is it worth saving face and possibly risking an injury? Does anyone really care how heavy your attempts were if you missed the lift?

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We also see this in powerlifting with the amount of obnoxious social media tying up bandwidth. There are many people out there who have few qualifications other than a keyboard and an opinion talking about what they do, how great they are, and why everything else sucks. I usually stay away from most social media related to lifting. I like to read articles but usually favor those that are information-based as opposed to opinion-based.

As far as videos of training footage, we see a lot out there. It's important to decipher the useful from the useless. I've had people ask me why I don’t post much of my training or video footage. For one, it's boring. I don’t do many exercises that are overly interesting to watch. I also don’t really feel that I would want all my stuff out there because I'm a middle of the road lifter at best. While I'm a firm believer that a lifter doesn't need to be the absolute strongest or fastest for someone else to learn from his methods, I've always been on the fence about the self-promotion that goes online. I feel uncomfortable taking advice from those who don’t exactly light the world on fire in performance, and I'd feel the same if I was posting my training videos all over the internet. However, this may be because many take the “me, me, me” approach with this, which I never follow, even from the top performers. This is more of the approach that comes off as obnoxious and useless as opposed to informative and useful, much in the same way that Twitter showboating does.

All of this goes back to the idea of keeping in mind the fundamentals of the sport you participate in. With each decision, you need to be conscious of what the fundamental goal is, what the correct process to achieve this goal is, and what outcomes may happen depending on your actions. I know this from experience in both of the aforementioned sports. Back when I played football, I had a tendency at times to try to do my own thing, which would put my team in a bad situation. For me, it wasn’t in a showboating fashion but because I wanted to try to make plays defensively that weren’t part of the assignment for my position. As a lifter, I know the mentality of throwing caution to the wind and figuring that it's better to attempt something big rather than leave without a PR because it feels like a waste. However, this leads to a string of sub-par meets and bombs that could have been avoided.

As coaches

The athletes in sports aren't the only ones guilty of the “look good and lose” phenomenon. Many coaches fall into this trap as well. Whether it's boredom or the desire to include advanced concepts or game plans for the sake of being different, there's a tendency to abandon fundamentals and use things for the “sexiness” factor.

Go on YouTube, Strength Performance Network, or other similar sites and you'll see athletes performing advanced exercises that don't have any purpose for them. It's important to understand that if an athlete doesn't possess a level of competency in basic, fundamental skills, we have to question the validity of using more advanced means of training. It's also important to not have what I like to think of as coaching attention deficit disorder. This is rotating means for the sake of rotating them without any other reason but boredom with trying to coach athletes through fundamental skills.

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For example, many coaches are quick to push young, developing athletes into barbell movements without any fundamental skills of body weight movements or other rudimentary skills. It's also popular to progress to maximal strength work, Olympic lifts, depth jumps, or other intensive means when there isn't any reason for it. In the past, I've been guilty of this. But it's important that we teach the fundamentals of movement and motor patterns and then progress athletes when they're ready or in need of a greater stimulus. It's always important to look at the individual and not the sport he or she plays. Many athletes are under qualified when it comes to base levels of physical preparation. Instead of training them with a large scale view of what we believe they “should” do, we need to look at what they can do at the current point in time.

I can understand where some of this comes from. In the private sector, there is a need to distinguish one's business from competitors. Due to the nature of the business, it's important to grasp a potential customer’s attention. Sometimes these advanced modalities that are of little use will be what many want to see. Most consumers may believe that these are the magic bullets they need to reach whatever their goals are. However, if the training doesn't match the needs of the individual, results will be substandard, which will in the long run not bring any return.

In the team training sector, many physical preparation coaches come under fire from their head coaches or superiors. I've been placed in this situation before as an assistant strength coach. While I was in charge of the sports I trained, I had a sport coach go over my head to my superior. This made the head strength and conditioning coach tell me to “spice it up” because the sport coach and her team were bored with the programming that I had designed. The head strength and conditioning coach was known for using a large amount of exercises and rotating them often because either he was bored or thought the athletes were bored and that this somehow “kept the body guessing.” However, it wasn't consistent with results, which to me made it an inefficient use of the athletes’ time.

Coaches in team settings may also use what may not be appropriate for the needs of the individual due to limited time and resources. In high schools and at smaller universities, this is a common problem because teams train in one group and supervision or the ability to individualize becomes more difficult.

Sport coaches sometimes want to use multiple types of strategies that may not fit the current capabilities of what their athletes can handle. In football, this is much more common on the offensive side than the defensive side. We often see overzealous offensive coordinators who want to have a massive selection of formations and plays, but the athletes can't grasp the assignments of a simple running play. Instead of teaching the fundamentals of how to block or find holes, the coaches run more variations of more complex plays. Individual periods at practice are cut, and team periods are extended to try to run the new plays or variations. However, players haven't even mastered the fundamental skills needed at slow speeds. Additionally, they may not even have the fundamental tactical knowledge of what is required to perform their assignments correctly in the offensive scheme. This leads to frustrated offensive coaches and players who reach low levels of competency both in movement and an understanding of their assignments.

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Ultimately, the coaches will bitch and moan about how the players aren’t good enough to fit into the offense when, in reality, they haven’t ever been instructed in skills that will allow them to be successful. This is the equivalent of giving a student a one-page study guide as a sole resource on a subject and then telling him he has to write a doctoral level dissertation on that subject. It isn’t likely that there will be a high quality outcome.

We see this a lot. Sometimes this leads to recruiting at the high school level because coaches want to just line up and play with physically gifted players without having to work on the fundamentals of the game with them. This allows a coach to have an elaborate offense with multiple looks and plays that he can run, which in effect looks better than being able to competently run a smaller number of plays. While I understand the need for this at more advanced levels of football, we aren't at a level of mastery with younger athletes where they have as large of a pool of skills that can fit into the multiple needs that a complex offense may require. Conversely, many defenses at the high school level aren't intricate enough that such in-depth playbooks offensively are warranted. In effect, this fits the “look good while losing” mentality because an offensive coordinator wants to be seen as smarter than his peers. However, most of the time at the more developmental levels of football, it isn’t a matter of outsmarting opponents as much as it is playing fundamentally sound football and sticking to the assignments dictated.

With lifting sports, many of us are in the unique situation that we either coach ourselves or work in a group of lifters where we coach each other. There aren't many people who have everything designed and monitored on a session by session basis with a coach. Even in powerlifting gyms, there may be one leader who dictates some of the programming, but after the first movement or two of the day, everything else is individualized. While this is good from an individualization standpoint, it's only as good as whoever is designing it. Often times, this can be a double-edged sword if the idea of “looking good while losing” comes up.

This becomes apparent if lifters focus on movements they don’t need but are skilled at. It comes from wanting to feel good during training as opposed to doing what will lead to bigger competitive lifts. This may have been exacerbated by the internet era, which features lifters posting videos of themselves moving big weights in exercises that don’t transfer well to the platform.

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Another example is wanting to look better when it doesn't have any transfer to the platform. In the series of articles titled “There Is No System, I–VI” by Bud Charniga, Charniga talks about how the American Olympic lifters of the so-called “golden era” of U.S. Olympic lifting often looked very strong compared to their European and Asian counterparts. He says that Bob Hoffman of York Barbell fame often criticized foreign lifters, calling them “fatty” and “muscle-less wonders.” He didn’t understand how they could out lift American lifters. Charniga also states that while many of the foreign lifters were in awe of the American lifters’ physiques, once the actual competitions started, that awe disappeared. The things that some of the American lifters did in the training halls leading up to the competition were ego driven, such as getting in bench press competitions with each other or athletes from disciplines such as track and field, betting money, and trash talking.

While I take some of these stories with a grain of salt, it isn't that hard to believe. American strength sports were born out of bodybuilding mentalities. We see this even today. Many people plug away at bodybuilding exercises without really thinking about why they're performing the movements. At times, these exercises are done almost as fillers because the thought is that doing something for the muscles involved is better than nothing at all. However, training efficiency and transference of training need to be considerations. Being the biggest looking lifter in the meet doesn't add any weight to the total if you're out lifted by someone else.

Conclusion

When thinking of the end goal of sport, it isn’t about creating an image. Sports have defined process and outcome goals that should be kept in mind by the athletes as well as by the coach. Any fame, glory, or notoriety that comes from sports should be based around the performance of the athlete or coach and their competency in the actual event or process that leads to success.

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