Please remember, this is a transcript, and it was never meant to be an article, so the grammar isn’t perfect.
The continues the topic of Neuromuscular Development, with a focus on the sprint events.
Kebba Tolbert is the Associate Coach at Harvard University, specializing in Sprints, Hurdles, and Horizontal Jumps. He has 2 DVDs produced by Coaches Choice.
Latif Thomas is a former All East Sprinter while attending the University of Connecticut on a track and field scholarship. Latif is USA Track & Field Level II Certified in the Sprints, Hurdles and Relays.
He is the co-founder of CompleteTrackandField.com and produced the 11 DVD set on Complete Speed Training for sprinters.
NOTE: This was recorded January 2011.
Conversation with Kebba Tolbert & Latif Thomas
[Latif Thomas]: So, let me shift gears here a little bit or maybe leap forward. At the end of the day it seems to me everything that we’re doing from day 1 from warm-up to cool down from recovery day to speed and everything in between really is gearing us toward a championship season and getting us prepared so that athletes can be at their best, at their healthiest during championship season.
Talk about how you use these considerations or these evaluations for major championships? Can you give some examples how you gear this to get athletes primed and ready to go for the conference championship or regionals or nationals or the state meet or the league meet or whatever it is?
[Kebba Tolbert]: Yeah; I think that one is there’s so much mythology behind peaking or ideas about peaking is that it’s not really a set of magic workouts. I don’t have any magic workouts. I think I have very good workouts, but I don’t have…
[LT]: Can I cut you off there real quick because you just said something I don’t want to forget. What do you say to people who always want to know your secret peaking workouts?
How do you explain to people that if you haven’t’ been addressing all the things that you’ve talked about so far today, it doesn’t matter what you steal from Dan Pfaff or Boo or Kebba Tolbert, it’s not gonna work.
What’s your response to that because people always want to know the magic workout that’s going get the kid to run the crazy time at the championship meet?
[KT]: A couple of things. One is I have workouts that I like to do later in the year versus early in the year and workouts that I like to do during championship season, but they’re not magic. Sometimes they’re just indicators to me of where we’re at, but there’s nothing special about those versus what somebody else is doing necessarily. I feel like I have a good sequence of things and we get to that point responsibly by not doing too much volume early and not backing off too late in the season. I think even in championship season you need to have a certain volume of training or else the athlete can get too stale. So in terms of the magic peaking workouts, a lot of the ability to perform well at the major meets is does the athlete confident? So the psychological factors. Does the athlete feel healthy? If you get an athlete that’s going in healthy and confident, then that’s 75 percent of it; maybe more. If they’re in shape ‘cause most athletes should be in shape by that point; whatever you might call in shape.
But are they healthy and are they confident? Well if they’re healthy and confident and then that’s huge. So on top of that you need to have to back up to the fundamentals, like can they execute various movements under pressure? So a lot of times what happens is it’s not that the workouts weren’t good. It’s that the athlete doesn’t have the psychological composure to handle pressure. Some of that is from training.
So some of our practices are designed to exert a lot of pressure on the athletes. Sometimes in practice they fail and that’s okay because failure in practice doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re gonna fail in the meet. If they’ve never faced failure, then they’re not going to succeed.
I’m a huge Star Wars fan. One of the things that when Luke Skywalker in the Empire Strikes Back, he has this big failure at the cave in Dagoba. When he’s getting ready to leave Dagoba and go fight Darth Vader, Yoda said to him, “Remember your failure at the cave.”
You’ve got to use that as a learning experience to save yourself from destruction. So failures as coaches sometimes we have them and failure of athletes at certain times of the year aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes they can be huge learning opportunities that allow us to succeed later.
[LT]: That’s good stuff. Talk about how you create a pressure atmosphere where you can imitate meet pressure? How do you put that pressure on the athlete in practice in such a way that they can directly apply what they learned from it from a success and even better, a failure standpoint to a championship meet and that final or whatever it is, that last jump, et cetera?
[KT]: I think one of the things you have to be demanding. I think you can’t be afraid as a coach to be demanding. That doesn’t mean you can’t be sensitive. Doesn’t mean you can’t be caring. Doesn’t mean you can’t be understanding, but you have to be demanding.
If you look at the best universities and the best high schools in the country, they have demanding professors and teachers. They ask a lot of their students. They don’t cut corners and even the students who may have a lot of potential but may be are lazy, they don’t cut them any slack.
I think in track sometimes we feel like oh, well they’re trying or that’s the best they can do when we know in our hearts that they have more to give. Sometimes you’ve got to challenge the athletes to give their very best at practice.
I don’t mean necessarily they gotta run a certain time, but when they warm-up are they focused. When they do their sprint exercises are they focused. When they’re doing their block starts are they focused on the things they need to do to be excellent on that day on that week in that year.
So certain times of the year I’m very demanding about certain things because they need to have those qualities present at the championship time of year. How we setup the blocks and I don’t let my kids set them up any which way. I want them set a certain way because those yield the best opportunity to setup an efficient acceleration pattern. So I’m demanding about that.
I’m demanding about how we exit the blocks, about how we come to set. They might seem like small things to somebody else, but I’ve seen so many kids blow races by not coming to set correctly.
[LT]: Yeah; right.
[KT]: So that’s how you exert pressure. Then the next level is doing acceleration work with three really good people together. So you’ve got your 4 by 1 relay practicing block starts together.
Well can they perform the activities correctly? Can they accelerate correctly with two other good kids around them? Say you’re doing 12 block starts that day. Can they do nine of them at least a B level or is like they get two really good ones and the rest of them are all scattered, with a scatter gram if you had to plot those or grade those.
So a lot of times what happens is maybe the kids who are real talented but young can maybe only do a few really good efforts and then maybe by the time they get to be juniors or seniors or they get to elite status their ability to stay focused over a whole workout from warm-up to cool down is much better than when they were younger.
I’ve had kids that were all good and did the track workout great, but then the multi-jumps such and the lifting sucks –
[LT]: Yeah; right.
[KT]: Kids will go around the track and they might not like doing track stuff, but they like the weight room. So they’ll be really focused in the weight room or they’ll be really focused on the bench press, but they’ll let their Olympics be sloppy.
Well part of being elite and part of being a champion is learning how to do all those things really well, at least at a very good level so that you can bring all those qualities to the starting lineup.
[LT]: That’s a really great point. Let me ask you a question, Kebba. Again, I’m a developmental coach. I don’t work with the type of athletes that you work with. The athletes you have on your team are like once in every ten year type of kids for me, but I always say to people that I really feel like what I really excel at is not the sets and the reps and how many multi-jumps to do on this day, but it’s the psychological component.
I get kids to buy in. I can get kids to believe they can achieve things or run times or compete at levels that they didn’t think they could do at the beginning of the season when we first got together. You talked about this a few minutes ago, about maybe feeling confident could be 75 percent or more.
So would you say that’s an accurate number? How important is the psychological component in your personal opinion, in your personal experience of training, versus the physical component, the sets and the reps and the Xs and Os?
I think you can have an average knowledge of all these things you’ve talked about over the past hour, but if you can get kids to believe that they’re in the greatest program and that they have the ability to achieve things, if they can outperform the coach’s knowledge per se just based on that confidence or that belief or the feeling that they can do it or they can get to that next level or run those times. How important to you is the psychological component when you’re working with your athletes as a group and then an individual basis?
[KT]: I think that the psychological part, especially in terms of buying in is absolutely important. What I mean is I’ve had some very talented females over the years, kids I thought could run 22 seconds. I’ve had three females I think could have run 22 seconds in the 200 meters. Only one has. The other ones ran 23 low and I think the reason was at that time they didn’t have the confidence in themselves to execute the race plan the way it should have been done.
They were in shape. One of the girls ran 27 250 and 16.6 150, which is fine, but she’d never go 23. She worked her butt off. She was a very, very hard worker, a very talented female, but because she didn’t have the belief in herself, she couldn’t express those qualities when it came to competition.
She made the world championships and Olympics, so she was relatively successful compared to the rest of the world, but amongst her own peer group, top 20, top 30 people in the world, she couldn’t climb to the top just because of those issues. She just didn’t believe and at certain times she didn’t buy into things that I thought were very important. But she was successful. Just not quite the level that she had the talent level to be, as an example.
So I think that’s a crucial area to look at. Yeah; Xs and Os are important. Training design is absolutely crucial. Speed and power, absolutely crucial, but there are other things that go into the pot as well and the athlete’s mental approach and the coach’s ability to help the athlete develop the mental capacity to do those things under pressure is important.
And that’s why we try to have practices with pressure to perform things correctly, where there is an expectation that whether you’re feeling great that day, a little bit sick that day, whether you had a bad test or you were up late studying that there’s still some standard of excellence that we expect because when you go to the meet you can’t say to the person next to you I had a bad day yesterday; I’m not gonna be able to run; will you take it easy on me. They’re gonna try and blast you no matter what.
So you have to come to practice, you have to come to training with the attitude of I’m gonna try my best to leave this stuff at the door and do the best I can.
Now that doesn’t mean as a coach that you’re not sensitive. So maybe if this kid is at an A- level normally, but on their bad day they’re at a B level, well that’s not such a bad drop off, but the kids that are usually pretty good and when everything goes bad, they don’t even look recognizable. Those are the kids that are gonna have problems under pressure to me.
[LT]: That makes a lot of sense. I like that. I hope people reading this right now really take that into consideration.
You’ve covered a wide range of topics we could take anything you said right here and make that its own hour long discussion But, I’m going to ask you one more question and maybe you can give us some good information to maybe allow us to go off on our own direction here.
What are some resources that we can look at to get more information, to get more in-depth in some of the topics that you’ve covered in this discussion so far?
[KT]: I would say from the anatomy and therapy standpoint, one of the books that I would suggest, I would suggested Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists by Thomas Myers to most people.
There’s Soft-Tissue Manipulation: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Diagnosis and Treatment of Soft-Tissue Dysfunction and Reflex Activity by Leon Chaitow. He also wrote Clinical Application of Neuromuscular Techniques, Volume 2: The Lower Body, 2e, which is a very good read and very helpful.
Touch For Health: The Complete Edition is very good by John Thie.
Travell & Simons’ Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual by Travell and Simons is a bible in a sense.
Cressey and Robinson wrote Assess and Correct. They did a DVD series on that, which is very, very good to learn how to assess certain movements and assess certain body areas to see and how to correct those areas, too, when there’s dysfunction.
Movement: Functional Movement Systems: Screening, Assessment, Corrective Strategies by Gray Cook who is an inventor of the functional movement screen is very good. Mark Lindsay, a great therapist up in Canada has a book called FASCIA: Clinical Applications for Health and Human Performance. It’s very, very good. Then the Primer on Anatomy and How to Look at Anatomy has very good diagrams. There’s Anatomy of Movement (Revised Edition) by Blandine Calais-Germaine, a French author. That’s a very, very book. I refer to it all the time.
So maybe some of the therapy, anatomy, movement related type stuff. Training Theory, there’s the classics, too. Looking at Bompa, looking at Medraev, people like that. While every part of it doesn’t necessarily apply to what we’re doing today, there’s lots of very good information in those books that were written 20, 30, 40 years ago. Some of the old German literature and Soviet literature on psychology and restoration I think are very important.
So I think there’s a big rush to read the new stuff, read the new stuff and look at the new stuff, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s classic that’s still very, very helpful.