Derek Hansen: Eight Athlete Development Lessons from Charlie Francis

This article is guest blogged by Derek Hansen, and cross posted on his website, Running Mechanics.

You can view all of Derek’s past guest articles here, with his last two article on hamstrings titled Hamstring Pull Recovery: EMS and Weight Training and Hamstring Strains and Training Camp: What’s the Connection?

Eight Athlete Development Lessons I Learned from Charlie Francis

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I had the fortune and pleasure of working closely with and learning from Charlie Francis for a period of approximately ten years prior to his passing. As a young track athlete in the 1970s and 1980s in Canada, I was guided by many of the ideas taught by Gerard Mach and his protégé coaches such as Charlie. In fact, one of my youth coaches kept in close contact with one of Charlie’s athletes during the 1980’s and relayed training concepts to us on a weekly basis. In many ways, I was experiencing an early education in Charlie’s approach to training that has stayed with me until this day. Not a day goes by when I am not reminded by some of the training principles Charlie passed on and how it impacts how I teach my athletes, my assistant coaches, interns and even my own children. As Al Vermeil has always stated, Charlie Francis’ brilliance was in his simplicity of application for effective results. “Simple application, complex explanation,” Al would always tell me. If coaches need to resort to long lectures and explanations for “why” they are doing “what” they are doing, there is something wrong. The eight points below demonstrate Charlie’s assertion that none of this is “Rocket Science” – if anything it is pure common sense.

1. Cast a Wide Net

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Charlie was adamant that when identifying future talent it is always best to have the largest pool of athletes from which to select. He discussed his own experiences in track and field and how he was given a large group of young athletes to coach. “I started with 30 kids. How was I to know which ones would be Olympians and World Record Holders?” He never made himself out to be an expert in talent identification. However, he understood that while early identification of talent was something that everyone wanted to do, some of the real superstars would develop later on and it was his job to keep them around long enough so that they could mature into top performers. The problem with many current development models that incorporate early specialization is that they can be exclusionary, separating the high level groups from the others. Charlie realized that while success can breed success, it could also breed contempt, apathy and a false sense of entitlement and security – which could lead to problems in the long run. When I had the opportunity to work with Charlie, I remember one occasion where he had a pretty mixed bag of athletes: one world record holder, one Olympic gold medalist, one master’s athlete and a few national class athletes. Part way through the workout, a middle-aged Ben Johnson showed up and did a few explosive starts out of the blocks like he had stepped out of a time machine, not missing a beat. That was quite a day and quite the training group. Yet everyone still received the individual time they needed and the mood of the training group was extremely positive. The take home message from all of this was simple. Most of the time an organic, natural approach to athlete development and group dynamics works better than an over-managed specialized, centralized approach. This is why some national training centers never pan out. In these centers, there is no synergy or natural fit for athletes. They have been taken out of the environment that developed them into elite performers, only to be dropped into a situation that may not be a good fit for them. Competition with peers is only one aspect of a balanced, effective approach to athlete development.

2. Nothing is Too Fundamental

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If Charlie Francis was coaching you, there were no surprises. You were fed a steady diet of good technical instruction using basic exercises and movements. He had enough experience with success to know what would work and when it was needed. Nothing was suddenly thrown in or haphazardly taken out. He always wanted to solve a technical issue with the easiest means possible so as not to upset the delicate balance an athlete had achieved. If it were something as simple as modifying their head alignment by a few degrees, or telling them to relax their shoulders to achieve more hip power, Charlie would look for very basic cues or fixes to achieve his goals. I was always amazed when watching Charlie work with world-class sprinters, elite tennis players or superstars from the NFL who made millions of dollars per year. He had a certain way with these athletes that made them pay attention to every detail when he was coaching them. He would focus on minute details that you would likely use with beginner athletes – such as where to look when accelerating or how to swing your arms at top speed. He had the right combination of saying just enough to elicit a positive outcome, but never saying too much. In some cases when someone was having difficulty attaining a body position or reaching a certain range of motion with a technique, he would always know whether it was caused by poor execution or something as simple as too much muscle tension. In many cases he would pull the athlete out of the workout and have them engage in some targeted flexibility or mobility work. Once he thought they were adequately loosened up, he would re-insert them into the workout. The athlete would be drastically improved. While another coach may have kept forcing the issue and berating an athlete for poor execution, Charlie simply made the necessary adjustment – without fanfare – and moved forward with the workout. Through Charlie, I had learned that it was important to keep things simple. In an age of technological fixes and multi-syllable jargon designed to impress and confuse people, the need for simplicity and efficiency is absolutely essential. People are always trying to sell you a bag of goods or tell you story. “Simple” doesn’t sell and it may not be entertaining, but it can certainly get the job done.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Walk Away

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A good bit of advice from Charlie for coaches is, “Do all that you need to do to make an athlete better and nothing more.” There were many instances, during the time I worked with Charlie, when he would be in the middle of guiding a workout and after a particularly good repetition by an athlete where Charlie would say, “Okay, that’s good!” and the workout would be over. Knowing that much more work had been planned, I was often left thinking, “You’re kidding, right? We’re only halfway through the workout plan.” When I prompted him for an explanation on why we were finishing so early, he would typically say, “They had some exceptional reps over those distances and there wasn’t a chance it was going to get any better. We accomplished what we came here for.” Thus, Charlie had seen that the athlete or athletes had reached a level of performance that was far greater than they had experienced in some time, and it was such a significant stimulus to their system that it would create a positive adaptation that we could build on in successive workouts. Loading any more work on these athletes would likely not result in an improved situation and may even pose an injury risk. How many coaches would have the confidence and self-security in their diagnostic abilities to make such a decision? From my experience, any coach who has dedicated 90 minutes to a training session typically uses the entire 90 minutes. The other scenario where I’ve seen Charlie shut down a workout early was in situations where he saw something out of the ordinary – a potentially negative side effect – with an athlete’s technique or posture and he decided that it was not a prudent to continue with the training session. With his keen eye of observation, he would often tell me that he would see a hip drop, an arm swing deviate off path or a foot-fall land too hard or too far in front of the center of gravity. Of course, the rest of us didn’t see anything and once again would be left wondering why we were suddenly heading to the parking lot. When we would review the video later in the day you could then see what he was talking about (although he would argue that the video at 30 frames per second would miss some action that his naked eye could see more readily). Another confirmation of his exceptional observational skills would be revealed in conversations with the athlete the next day. We would find out that the athlete had some muscle soreness or tightness in the exact area where Charlie suspected the problem started – almost in a David Blaine-like exhibition of magic. This is a difficult concept for many coaches to grasp, particularly if they are stubborn about sticking to their training plans, regardless of what they see with their own eyes. If an athlete is fatigued, no level of extra work is going to make them better. In many cases, it will make them worse. Charlie had a firm grasp of the concept of stress and adaptation and how it related to the various athletes under his supervision. He was like an artist who knew exactly how much paint to leave on the canvas or how much stone to chip off a sculpture, when others would be slathering on the paint or taking a jackhammer to the work. However, like an artist, it takes a good amount of experience, discipline and self-security to determine the optimal amount of work on the day. While modern day coaches are hoping to rely on iPhone apps and other diagnostic technology to evaluate their athletes, Charlie simply relied on the powers of observation.

4. Adapt to Your Individual Circumstances

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Charlie is known for developing and refining a short-to-long approach to sprinting, whereby the athletes develop their power and acceleration abilities in their initial training phases and then begin to lengthen their speed abilities throughout the season. Many people believe this is the basis of the Charlie Francis training system – short-to-long sprinting. However, if these people actually spent any time understanding Charlie’s philosophy, it was really about fitting the training to the circumstances of the athlete and the training group. As a sprint coach in Toronto, Ontario, Canada – Charlie was faced with extremely cold weather for at least four to five months of the year. This environmental reality forced their training indoors and limited their methods. The indoor training facility at York University is a wonderful track and field facility, but only allows athletes to sprint in a straight line for 60 meters, with another 20-35 meters allowing for deceleration. Although the facility also has a 200m training oval, like many indoor tracks it is an unforgiving track that can wreak havoc on feet, ankles, knees and hips if an athlete tries to run at high velocity on its curves. Thus, Charlie was forced to evolve his program that could take advantage of the 60m linear track that they had. Fortunately, it allowed him to develop athletes who would have exceptional acceleration abilities to get up to a very high top speed – qualities that are required for good 100-meter sprint performances. While the short-to-long approach worked well for his most notable sprinter – Ben Johnson – I have seen Charlie assemble programs that included long-to-short elements, as well as concurrent training approaches that were tailored to a specific athlete’s strengths and preferences. In one instance, Charlie acquired one top athlete that was accustomed to longer sprints as part of the general preparation phase. He adjusted the workouts to continue this approach. His intent was to continue with work the athlete was familiar with and not introduce unfamiliar stresses during the transition period. Drastic changes could only result in soreness and a greater potential for injury. In another case, an athlete had a history of stress fractures from a previous coach and Charlie adjusted her program to distribute the volume of work in a manner that allowed for more complete recovery. As always, Charlie was considering the individual circumstances, costs and benefits, and making the best choice for success.

5. Coach to Your Athletes’ Strengths

It is common for coaches to try to build character in athletes or strengthen them mentally by making the athletes do things that they are not good at or that they hate doing. I remember one sports psychologist telling me that athletes needed to fight through those days when the weather was horrible, with the rain driving down and the wind blowing in your face. “Those are the times when an athlete really grows. The days when the conditions are perfect, the sun is shining and the temperature is cozy, those are the days when you should take a day off training and go home!” Of course, when I told Charlie this story, his reply was, “Goddamn sports psychologists!” Charlie was not big on playing mind games with athletes. His approach was simple. “If I can create a situation and environment where the athlete is constantly succeeding in training, I don’t need to have a sports psychologist on hand. They will be in a good state of mind and confident about their training. When they get into a competition scenario, they will feel less stress because they have already demonstrated their ability in training. There will be no surprises.” He bolstered this approach by determining the types of training that his athletes responded well to. In the case of Ben Johnson, the athlete preferred and responded better to shorter distance sprints and weight training. Longer sprints made him feel lethargic and slow. Other athletes responded better to explosive medicine ball throws as opposed to heavy lifting. Some athletes excelled more with plyometric jumps as a high intensity stimulus, doing less maximum speed training and focusing on long sprints. Being a former world-class athlete himself, he knew that athletes responded better to activities they excelled at and where gains came easily. This approach is no different than a head football coach who alters his game plan to fit the players that he has on his roster. You will likely not have a pass-focused offense if your quarterback is 5 feet 7 inches tall and can run a 4.3 forty-yard dash, and your offensive line is undersized but quick. Recognition of your athletes’ strengths and adjustments to make sure your athletes train to their strengths will result in more significant gains and happier athletes.

6. Don’t be Tied to One Approach

Charlie never claimed that his way was the best way or the only way. “We did what worked for us. Could we have done things better? Probably, but we were making improvements every year and it wasn’t necessary to make drastic changes. If someone started to run faster than us, then we would have to look at different ways to get better.” He had great stories of other coaches successes and was impressed with what they had accomplished using different methods. He was always talking about how the East Germans made great gains with their female sprinters using unconventional techniques. When someone claimed they had copies of the East German weightlifting program, Charlie was quick to jump in and call them on it. “The East Germans didn’t lift weights, so I’d be pretty curious to see what is in that program!” He was very good at looking at what other training groups were doing and determining what made them successful. In some cases, he took aspects of these training programs and incorporated them into his philosophy. In other cases, he simply observed and respected their training techniques, but chose not to adopt them for his own use. Like Bruce Lee, he chose to, “Absorb what is useful and discard what is deemed not useful.” Of course, this is a personal decision and judgment call made by each individual coach. Charlie always evaluated each individual training method and determined the science behind it and the suitability of that method within his training program and for the individuals he coached. This approach served him well because every decision on training was carefully evaluated and implemented. Don’t get me wrong – when Charlie saw something that did not stand up to his evaluation of training efficacy, he was the first to call it out. When the trend of balance training was making its way through the fitness and sport performance industry, Charlie couldn’t hold back. “So, if standing on a physio ball doing squats is considered good training, doing the same exercise in roller skates at the top of a flight of stairs must make this an excellent training choice?” he would say sarcastically. You could never underestimate Charlie’s sense of humor when assessing bad training methods.

7. Recovery Will Determine Training Objectives

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In his book, Speed Trap, Charlie documented the time when he was an athlete and showed up for a training session with his coach and mentor at the time, Percy Duncan. Coach Duncan gave Charlie a pre-workout massage to test the status of his muscles and then told Charlie he would not be training that day. “You’re muscles are not ready to train today. They are all tight and knotted. Go home!” This was Charlie’s first lesson in the importance of determining recovery status between bouts of training. If an athlete’s muscles were not ready for training, there was no point in putting the athlete through a workout session. Not only would the results of the session be poor, but you would also be putting the athlete at serious risk for injury. With his own athletes, Charlie was very hands-on in his approach. If it wasn’t himself that was providing consistent massage work on his athletes to hasten recovery or assess their status, it was a trusted soft-tissue therapist like Mike Dincu or Waldemar Matuszewski that relayed the pertinent information to Charlie at the beginning and conclusion of each training session. The information that Charlie received from his hands or the hands of his therapist would play an important role in how he prescribed work to his athletes each day. In reality, the recovery status of the athlete was the primary determinant of the type of work to be done that day. Training programs are often rigidly assembled, with specific types and intensities of work being prescribed for certain days. Coaches and athletes get into a habit of completing this work regardless of how the athlete feels. If Monday is a “speed” day, then speed work would be prescribed and implemented – no questions asked. However, when new information is introduced to the coach that confirms that conventional speed work cannot be adequately performed on a given day because the athlete has not recovered – whether centrally or peripherally – the plan must be altered. Of course, this information can only be had by coaches if they an experienced therapist on hand, seeing the athletes on a regular basis to get a feel for their readiness status. Short of having a therapist present, coaches may have to get involved and gain some experience in hands-on evaluation. However, this can be deemed in appropriate or outside the scope of a coach’s work. The important lesson from Charlie’s experience is to learn to communicate with and collect information from your athletes on many different levels. Charlie primarily used the medium of massage to determine recovery status. Other coaches can use other means of communication such as stretching routines to determine stiffness levels, foam rolling protocols to identify muscle soreness ratings and simple surveys to determine athlete recovery. While nothing can replace the diagnostic value of hands-on techniques, coaches must make every effort to assess their athletes and then plan their future work accordingly. This assertion also emphasizes the importance of having active strategies in place to hasten recovery and position your athletes in an area of ongoing readiness for optimal adaptation.

8. Quality Begets Quality

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Quality of performance was the key measure that Charlie was looking to capture in every training session. Whether it was assessed through a stopwatch, distance on a throw, the amount of weight lifted, the sound of foot contacts during a run or jump, or what he saw in terms of technical execution, Charlie was adamant that if the quality of performance in training was not high, you would be training to fail. One of Charlie’s favorite sayings was, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice will make perfect!” Many of the previously mentioned points are closely related to the goal of maintaining the highest quality of work. All of an athlete’s work is organized in a manner that elicits the best possible quality of performance. Low intensity work is designed to assist with recovery and the maintenance of a baseline of physical conditioning that props up and sustains the higher intensity elements of training. The low intensity work, however, is not haphazardly implemented, but strategically inserted around the more specific elements to synergistically generate greater levels of performance as the athlete approaches peak competitions. Charlie was also adamant about taking adequate rest between bouts of exercise. Specifically, when he was working on speed, full recovery periods were necessary to ensure the quality of the runs were maintained. While full recovery to one coach may mean five to 10 minutes of rest, Charlie was sometimes taking as much as 20-30 minutes between runs to provide the means to make each run as maximal as possible. Charlie made a clear distinction between what comprises a maximal effort in sprinting. It had to be 95-100% of an athlete’s fastest time at a given distance. A sprinter who ran 10.00 seconds in the 100 meters had to run 10.50 seconds or better in training for it to be classified as a maximal effort. It did not matter if an athlete put 100% effort into the run in adverse conditions and ran 10.70 seconds. In Charlie’s mind, you had to put the athlete in a position to run maximally to achieve a positive adaptation both in the central nervous system and the involved muscle and connective tissue. There was no fat in Charlie Francis’ training system. Every training element served a specific purpose and had a well thought out rationale behind its inclusion. Conversely, many modern training approaches include long lists of exercises designed simply to provide variety, fill time and give the impression of completeness, but not serve a useful purpose. When you go to a lower quality restaurant, you will typically find the menu is rather large with too many dishes of every variety. However, fine dining has a significantly smaller menu that has a much higher quality of food prepared with great care and attention. Training programs are much the same. “Retain what is useful, discard what is useless.”

Concluding Remarks

SeminarGroupThere is a whole generation of new coaches out there who have very few, if any, experienced mentors to guide their ongoing education and development. I had the luxury of learning first-hand from who I believe was one of the most brilliant minds in coaching and athlete development. Any coach in any setting can apply Charlie Francis’ simple recommendations and guiding principles. Charlie understood that coaching is about getting the most out of his athletes through careful planning, an emphasis on quality, and an acute awareness of what his athletes were capable of doing on any given training day. If you haven’t already reviewed all of Charlie’s books and video resources, I highly recommend you visit www.CharlieFrancis.com and purchase what you can. It will definitely make you a better coach and give you a greater awareness of what you need to do to allow your athletes to reach their full potential.

  • Thanks Derek. I’ve remembered my trip to Toronto with my friend “pakewi”. Charlie was a great man, many his ideas are priceless. Charlie’s work should be an example for all of us and you article is an excellent explanation of that.

  • One of, if not THE, best articles on this whole site! Thank you for taking the time to write all this up. As another great coach has said, “Our job as coaches is to continuously rid of all the bull*&%$! Because there is a lot of it out there!” Charlie knew what worked and what didn’t and used common sense to thoroughly think through every part of his program.