elitefts™ Sunday Edition

By the Coach, For the Coach

A friend and strength coach who I respect immensely (Sean Foster of American University) has been waiting for me to write an article titled "Why Periodization Sucks." This title came out of a conversation during a visit to see Sean, Carl, Mike, and all the other cool strength coaches at Georgetown in which I mentioned that I see too much paralysis by analysis. Then yesterday, Mike, a strength coach at Penn State University, visited and we talked about how our jobs are to just make our athletes better at knowing how to work, push themselves, and push their teammates. I believed I used a more, um, colorful term to describe this, something along the lines of "teach them to be motherf**kers."

I'm not in any way bashing periodization. I'm just trying to make the point that we must train our athletes hard. Think about this—if you work at a Division I school, how many weeks of training do you get with your athletes without a break? Do they have a long road trip? A summer break? A mid-semester break? In other words, if you coach, say, softball, and they miss much of the season due to the crazy schedule of that sport and then they have a summer at home, you'd better push them hard in the fall.

Knowing that our jobs are much bigger and more complex than just sets and reps, I base my philosophy on improving everything that the athlete does and I aim to make them stronger at critical thinking. My philosophy is based around this statement: "I will improve the athlete through and of the human body"  (a big thanks to Harry Selkow for that). Understanding what you stand for and what you believe in will give you an idea of what you should be doing every day. I try to live by this statement. And this is why my staff hates me. OK, they don't hate me. They just think that I'm unique in an interesting way (I bribe them with shade-grown coffee). Don't worry—I'll explain how this all ties together soon.

Thursdays are slow days for me this time of the year. I have early morning groups, I lift, and then I have nothing until 3:00 p.m., so I try to do something outside the weight room that I need to do. Last Thursday, I decided to go to the co-op where I buy my groceries, about a thirty-minute drive from campus. So I set out, leaving my staff to run things.

On my way back from the co-op, my car died in the most inopportune location. I was on an elevated roadway about forty feet above the city with four lanes of traffic all exiting to get on to one of the four highways that connect there. Luckily, I was able to limp my car to the side of the road. My next move was to call AAA and then sit and wait. While waiting and watching many cars come very close to killing me, I decided that it was safest to get out and walk, staying close to the edge of the 40-foot drop. While thinking about my life and enjoying the 40-degree rain, I remembered that I know some local police in this part of town. The first call that I made was returned with a text that said, "in court, can't talk." The second call, which was made to a former athlete of mine, was answered. She said that she'd have a car there in five minutes. This was exactly what I was hoping to hear.

After six minutes, a paddy wagon pulled up and blocked the lane that I was partially in. This made me feel much safer. They said that they would call a tow truck, one that would arrive much faster than AAA. I jumped on this. The tow truck showed up, only to tell me that he couldn't tow my car due to its construction because he would end up damaging it. But his boss could be there in five minutes with a flat bed that could tow my car. Again, we waited and the other truck showed up.

The second guy got my car on the truck in under five minutes and we were back on the road. So far, all was going well. He asked me how far I needed to go. I told him fifteen miles, but if he could just get me off the main road, I could get AAA to tow me from there. I told him that I'd pay him for his time and wait for AAA. His response was awesome: "Nope, I'll take you the entire way."

I figured that this was going to run me $200. On the ride, we made some small talk about employees and how he motivates his drivers to be great and start their own businesses. We also discussed some other great ideas that I'll be using. Then he asked me what was in my car. I explained that I was returning from the grocery store and had all my groceries in there. He then offered to run by my house to drop off my food before dropping the car off at the shop. Again, wow! This was saving me!

We dropped the groceries off, dropped my car off at the shop, and then he took me back home. When we got there, I asked him what I owed him. His response was no charge! I asked why and he said, "The cop you called is a good friend, and a friend of yours is a friend of mine. I knew you were stuck." I thanked him profusely, tipped him $50, and waited for one of my assistants for a ride back to campus.

When I returned to campus, I told everyone this story as a way to pay it forward as well as for the amazing customer service. My two staff members got mad at me because they said that no matter what happens to me, it all seems to work out in a positive way. Anyone who knows me well knows that this isn't true at all. The difference is I find the positive in these situations and I received the free ride because of who I knew.

In our profession, we often hear that you get jobs because of who you know. When I was young, I thought that this was a problem. I was wrong! You know who you know because of where you've been and what you've done. I received a free ride because a former student athlete respected me enough to make a call on my behalf. If I had been a strength coach who hadn't cared about her as a person, I wouldn't have known that she was a police officer and I wouldn't have kept in contact with her. But because I paid it forward in my job, I wasn't left sitting on the side of the road.

The lesson for my staff and the younger (and some older) coaches out there is pay it forward each and every day. I liken this to "The Tragedy of the Commons," a theory developed by Garrett Hardin "according to which, individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one's self-interest, behave contrary to the whole group's long-term best interests by depleting some common resources." Think about your teams, your staff, and your family. When you coach, train, or live, do you do what is best for the group or what is best for you?

Every day I ask this of the people who work for me and I have them question their own goals and successes. I doubt that they hate me for it, but I'm sure they don't always get excited about the self-reflection. Most days it ends with them saying, "Hey, Ham, we hate you." No more free coffee!