Todd: Hey Nick, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. I know you’re short on time, so let’s jump right in with the first question. As a coach at EXOS you see some of the best athletes in the country—each with markedly different personalities. What’s one of your first steps in evaluating your athletes to determine what coaching style/cues work for each individual?
Nick: When an athlete first comes in we will place a heavy emphasis on assessment and education. Throughout this process we are trying to get to know the athlete at a personal level. There are no formalities outside of using engaging communication skills to make the athlete feel at home. Once we have aggregated their data then we will sit down and have a formal debrief. We will discuss their testing results in terms of their positional norms for the combine as an example. We will then discuss their personal goals and what they feel they need to get out of the training process. Finally, we will look to get an understanding of why they want to play in the NFL, as an example. This may seem like an obvious answer (i.e. Love of the game, fame, money, lifestyle, etc.), but every athlete has a different answer. Once we have all the information about process goals, outcome goals, and professional goals, then we can have a comprehensive conversation about the process. We spend a lot of time educating the athlete on how they will physically and psychologically respond throughout the training process. This sets strong expectations and helps with immediate buy in from the athlete. The athlete also feels that they are at the center of the process since we are giving them such a detailed landscape of what they have signed-up for. Throughout this entire process we are getting a sense of communication styles, body language, and learning styles. To be even more formal, some coaches might use a DISC assessment to capture actual communication preferences and a VARK assessment to capture learning styles. In the end, how we cue and coach evolves with the athlete through the process. The key is to make the athlete feel comfortable sharing their feelings/opinions, while being incredibly sensitive to how the athlete responds to cues and comments. This is constantly dynamic, and how we coach one day might be different from another simply because the athlete might be having an ‘off’ day. Resources around motivational interviewing, emotional intelligence, behavior change theories, educational psychology, and motor learning can empower coaches with valuable resources in coaching their clients/athletes.
Todd: How about assessing their speed development needs? How do you determine if an athlete needs more acceleration training as opposed top-end speed or reactive ability?
Nick: We use a system we refer to as the ‘Performance Quotient.’ This involves taking athletes through specific Mindset, Nutrition, Movement, and Recovery physical/behavioral assessments. From a movement standpoint we will capture data on vertical/horizontal jumping and hopping, sprinting (Splits: 0-10, 10-20, 20-40), change of direction, and reactive agility. We will then map how strength, jumping/hopping, sprinting, change of direction, and reactive agility all interact. For example, if someone is relatively weak in their strength and power, has poor jumping characteristics, and is standard with sprinting and agility, then we know their primary limitation is strength. Conversely, if their strength is good, jumping characteristics are average or better, but their on-field movement skills are poor, then we know it is likely a pure movement emphasis. From there we can dissect sprint splits to see how each time maps to positional norms. This will tell us if more time should be spent on acceleration or max velocity. Similarly, we will grade the relationship of change of direction with reactive agility. Therefore, an individual fits into one of the following categories (Slow COD/Slow RAT, Slow COD/Fast RAT, Fast COD/Slow RAT, Fast COD/Fast RAT). Based on these relationships we can see if they need to work on the physical qualities of change of direction and/or the decision making based demands associated with reactive agility and sport. In sum, we look at each category in an independent and integrated manner to best prioritize the training process.
Todd: I love that you talk about creating an environment that allows an athlete to motivate themselves rather than relying on constant extrinsic motivation from a coach. What’s a simple technique you use to enhance the EXOS environment?
Nick: From day 1 the athlete knows that they are in a safe place with a family mentality. As safety and wellbeing are two critical needs, this puts the athlete in a great frame of mind. Everyone on our team has one central goal, to optimize the performance and quality of life of everyone that walks through our doors. Further, with a pit crew mentality the athlete knows that every resource they need to optimize performance and resiliency is available to them. This means that structurally the athlete buys into the process and the general efficacy of the environment. From a coaching perspective I have recently put together a model that I feel, and we at EXOS feel, represents how training sessions should be run to help motivation emerge. It is based on behavior change models within social-cognitive theory. Specifically, we use self-determination theory (SDT) to guide how we craft the motivational climate. SDT was first proposed by Deci and Ryan in 1985 and is based on a number of micro-theories that date back into the early 1900s. Central to the theory is the concept that individuals are at the highest state of motivation when basic psychological needs are fulfilled. These needs include self-determined autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Therefore, a person needs to feel they have an influence on the direction of their development and that their world is a product of themselves. Through this self-determination an individual wants to feel competent (or have self-efficacy) in the tasks they take on and the situations they are in. As a coach, helping an athlete/client feel competent in what they are doing is critical for developing integrated forms of motivation. Finally, as an individual we want to be part of community and need affirmation for our actions. Therefore, relatedness works to make an athlete/client feel like they are part of a community. This community gives energy back to the individual and confirms that the competence the athlete feels because of their autonomous choices is in fact real. In the end, the coaching literature refers to this as creating autonomy-supportive environments and being an autonomy-supportive coach. Simply put, this involves giving athlete purposeful choice with specific rules (autonomy), coaching with positive psychology in mind (competence), and developing small groups that support everyone involved (relatedness).
Todd: Let’s talk briefly about everyone’s favorite combine test—the 40yd dash. How do you cue the raw aggression necessary to run a solid 40.
Nick: There are a diversity of cues to help the athlete start well. Cues that trigger the athlete to “explode off the ground,” “push away from the line,” explode out as if you were already running,” drive out like a jet taking off,” and sprint like you’re driving up an slight inclined hill are all very good.” For acceleration you can use the same essence of the previously mentioned cues through 6-8yds. Past 8yds we shift to a more front side mechanic emphasis. For example, “drive your knees forward like your breaking a pane of glass,” explode your knees forward like your smashing into a boxing mitt,” snap your knees towards the gates,” and “sprint as if someone is pulling your forward.” Once the athlete is upright and transitioning to top speed it is about aggression and holding on for the 40yd distance. Many of the cues in the previous section carry over as well. Additional cues include, “stay tall,” drive tall,” lean into the wind,” and “sprint like you’re in a wind tunnel.”
Great answers from Nick. I’m excited to see him present in just a few weeks at Ranfone Training Systems in Hamden, CT. His two day seminar “Speed Development and Coaching: Connecting the What to the Why and How” covers the above answers in far more depth. It’s a must-attend for any coach.
There are still a few seats left, so if you want in snag one now.