Forced Evolution: Practical Takeaways Through Navigating the Pandemic

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In our competitive profession, coaches at all levels strive to represent themselves as leaders who personify what we speak to our athletes about. Across the sports performance spectrum, we see a race to be the first to discover the newest training method, develop the best acronym, read the most books, or present the latest monitoring approach that we’ve integrated into our high-performance programs. We all spend significant energy investing in the perception that we are all at the forefront of the latest industry trends.

What is rarely spoken about at conferences or on podcasts are the difficult internal conversations about our failures and where we need to improve as professionals and people.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the catalyst that has driven a personal internal audit about what I do well, what I struggle to understand, and where do I need to invest my resources to have more impact. Those tough conversations have certainly happened before, but now there has been an opportunity to capitalize on finding efficiencies and solutions to better develop the route going forward.

I imagine that I am not alone in the creation and absorption of negative feelings around how the pandemic has affected our profession and more importantly, the health of family, friends, and ourselves. Although I find myself in many all-consuming spirals throughout the pandemic, I choose to write this article about how this pandemic has forced me to positively adapt, abandon and adopt strategies not only as a coach but as an instructor and, most importantly, as a person.

Coach

Invest in the Individual.

“I think coaching has become more about the way you relate to players than it is about what you’re actually teaching them.” -NHL Coach Rod Brind’Amour

When I began my career as a personal trainer, many of my clients worked with me via 1 on 1 training sessions. Although inexperienced and with limited knowledge to share, I developed successful personal and professional relationships through listening, asking questions and connecting with them as people. When I look back, not everyone always saw the results they spoke of in their initial assessment, but I believe that most would look back on our time together as a great investment of their hard-earned income and limited free time.

As I have progressed through my career as an S&C coach, I manage and coach multiple athletes within a single training session while constantly striving to achieve a specific, measurable result. In my setting, it is not uncommon to oversee 30-40 athletes in one workout for multiple sessions a day. During our return to training progressions in the summer of 2021, our outdoor training sessions progressed to 90 athletes from 2-4 different teams simultaneously.

As I reflect on my time as a personal trainer and the logistical struggles through the pandemic, I am reminded of the importance of finding the time to develop individual coaching relationships with the athletes you work with. You won’t be able to connect with everyone, but learning about the goals, obstacles, and most importantly, the life of the people you work with will always return you more back as a coach than what you give. These conversations have provided me with more purpose and fulfillment than I initially could have imagined. Some strategies I have employed are:

  • Utilizing Zoom and Microsoft Teams to connect with small groups of athletes about how we can maximize their unique training environment but also just check in about how they are doing
  • Using Instagram Live through our @GaelsStrength account to share information and allow athletes to ask questions and/or hop on to discuss their training and modifications through the pandemic. We even spoke to some alumni about their experiences in the program and how it has influenced them in their life and career. Use the technology that “speaks the language” of our athletes.
  • Using our COVID attestation/registration check-in period to learn all athletes’ names, positions and personalities. This provides multiple opportunities to connect throughout the week.
  • 80/20 rule: Spending 80% of our time discussing how the athlete is doing, how their family is and just encouraging general conversation. Spending 20% of our time focused on discussing training details.

Truthfully, the logistical challenges brought on by the pandemic have certainly had a negative impact on our ability to coach, provide effective services and support our athletes.  Representing the lighthouse in the storm, I have been reminded during this past two years of the importance of connecting with the people we support, both for the health of athletes and coaches. Performance results are built on the foundation of our relationships as people.

Autonomy.

One of the reasons that many of us enjoy our profession is because of the autonomy we have to program and coach as we see fit. Conversely, we need to provide more opportunities for informed autonomy in order for our athletes to thrive throughout the training process. With full transparency, this historically is not something that I have done well. Over the last two years, during multiple lockdowns and restrictions, I’ve witnessed athletes’ engagement with structured programming dwindle and the number of fitness Instagram accounts go up. My initial frustrations sent me down a rabbit hole that led me to realize that my inflexibility with my programming structure gets old for an athlete when they’re stuck in their apartment for six months out of the year.

As lockdowns continued and bodyweight workouts grew old, we shifted our focus from prescribing overcomplicated generalized training plans to investing in the education of the athletes. Throughout the summer months, I have made the time to host multiple “S&C 101” information seminars that work to explain the why behind what we do, providing athletes with our templates and systems. In response, athletes would jokingly send me videos of pro athletes juggling coloured tennis balls while performing a pistol squat on skates, on a BOSU ball.

In addition to providing learning opportunities, requesting feedback from the athletes at the end of each semester has been eye-opening. For example, during our first return to training period in the fall of 2020, we hosted speed sessions in a small indoor court to manage our athlete capacities and provide some constructive acceleration development. Although this makes physiological sense, these sessions in this type of facility tend to be very boring at 7am in the winter when athletes likely won’t play a game for 10+ months. Athlete feedback universally told us that we were better off providing a small dose of speed work followed by a challenging bodyweight circuit that required athletes to sweat and compete.

Going forward, I’ll continue to ask for more frequent feedback while also regularly connecting our training back to their sport with relevant and visual examples (see figure 1). Looking for opportunities throughout the yearly calendar to provide unstructured, athlete-driven training options can also increase engagement and enjoyment. This may take the form of personal exercise selection from a movement category, athlete choice accessory supersets and/or veteran lead training sessions. I’ve recently experimented with asking athletes halfway through the training session, “What would you like to work on with the remaining time?” I’ve noticed that the programming we prescribed in answer to that question has become part of those individuals’ regular routines. Our goal as coaches should be to provide our athletes with the tools to make healthy training decisions through their athletic careers and throughout their lives.

Figure 1. Example of sport specific presentation given to athletes to explain the why behind the training plan.

Instructor

Over the last five years, I have had the pleasure of being a co-adjunct professor for a third-year undergraduate course focused on developing athletic training programs. Traditionally, this has been a lab course that actively requires the student to participate in the physical preparation process. With the limitations of the pandemic, we shifted this course to an online learning experience, which hopefully was a positive experience for our students and an excellent opportunity for growth as an instructor.

Additionally, I have the pleasure of working with 30+ student interns through a course-based mini-stream that progresses students over a 3-level system. The pandemic also required us to adapt this experiential learning opportunity to an online delivery method.

Use of Video.

In order to accommodate different learning styles and multiple time zones, asynchronous teaching became the norm for course delivery. Although my tendency to ramble on still found its way into pre-recorded lectures, the use of video as an information delivery method proved to be very useful. Through purchasing a quality camera and a soft box light, I converted my home gym to a recording studio that allowed for exercise demonstrations and lecture delivery. Although we could not be in the same training environment, we could use pre-recorded video to walk through exercise categorizations, assessments, technique breakdowns and excel data management strategies. This provided a great opportunity for some of our senior interns to pre-record demonstrations that we could utilize throughout the semester with younger students. We now have a significant video library we can pull from as needed.

Throughout the first few months of working from home, it became clear that an over-reliance on lengthy, information-heavy emails created challenges in converting information to practical actions for our students, athletes, coaches, and interns. Taking my newfound skills with screen recording, I utilized short videos to explain procedures, session plans, training information, etc. This made walking students and athletes through the COVID protocols easy and allowed us to smoothly transition between phases and steps with high compliance. Keeping your videos short, information dense and being visual is key.

Finally, utilizing apps such as Hudl Technique allowed us to break down technical training footage of athletes across the world. Showing students and athletes a split-screen of their front squat positions while explaining the importance of posture and control provided an excellent opportunity to visualize and personalize the learning experience (see figure 2).

Similarly, I found it helpful to share social media posts with quality information and video examples supporting our training discussions with our students and athletes. I believe that this helps them navigate the variability and volume of information available through their social media platforms.

Figure 2. Screen shot of virtual form and technique session with athletes during COVID shut down

Utilizing technology like video screen recording provides an excellent opportunity for us as educators and coaches to speak the younger generation’s language. Minimizing the reliance on traditional email communications can offer greater efficiency and effectiveness to your communications. Video also supports a more visual and self-paced style of learning which many students prefer.

Diversity of Experience.

When in the fast-paced day-to-day training environment, it can become difficult to think outside the box and bring creativity to your planning and teaching. When we look back at the end of each semester and each academic year, I regularly think to myself, “These students must get sick and tired of hearing my voice.”

When contemplating how to adapt an in-person, coaching-based internship that requires 120+ hours a year of on-the-floor instruction, we decided to consult our network of professional colleagues to help educate our student interns. This highlighted what I believe to be the most significant strength in our field here in Canada; the willingness of others to share their experience and knowledge.

With primarily reaching out to alumni of Queen’s University, we were able to plan 15 unique seminars where performance practitioners from the private sector, the NBA, NHL, NSO’s and military presented on their unique pathways and knowledge (see figure 3). Additionally, we also connected with professionals outside of the S&C field and invited those in academia, sport coaching, an Olympic athlete, sport administrators (including our own Executive Director) and very recent program graduates to provide their insights to our students. The feedback on the value that this brought to the learning experience was so positive that we will continue this in some format going forward.

Figure 3. Outline of Queen’s Performance Seminar Series 2020

Additionally, we regularly discussed the importance of networking and professional communication, which led to many revelations around specific careers paths of interest. For example, after speaking with a recent alumnus about their experience in the University of Toronto Masters of Professional Kinesiology, one of our graduates is now attending that program this fall. Another student intern wasn’t entirely convinced about pursuing her Masters of Physiotherapy, but after listening to Dave Leyland discuss his approach to an integrated and movement-based treatment, she began to shift her focus to pursuing a career in physiotherapy through a lens that makes sense to her.

This Seminar Series also allowed us to show our students a more diverse group of practitioners. Hearing from strong women running their own businesses, managing sports performance departments in the NBA and coaching male-dominated sport programs for 30+ years had more students sit forward in their chairs and engage in our calls. The impact of this is immeasurable and incredibly significant for both our students and coaches. Personally, this was an enlightening process that I am grateful for having been involved in.

Additionally, seeing others willing to offer their time and expertise to our group inspired me to engage with our community more. Getting involved with CSCA, speaking with high school classes (including one school in Sweden), connecting with recent alumni, and mentoring younger coaches are all examples of ways to support the growth of our profession that I would not have invested as much time in to pre-pandemic. Recently we have had five new alumni gain stable employment in S&C/educator roles, and we look forward to the continued engagement that helps support the next cohort of students coming through the program.

As people, we are our best when supporting and investing in others. Thank you to those who invested their time and knowledge into our students and coaches the past two years. You truly exemplify the meaning of “planting trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

Person

Going into the first lockdown, I was significantly more concerned with how our coaching and teaching would adapt to the new environment than I was about how I personally would navigate the pandemic. As we work back into the daily training environment, I see now that the latter may have had the most dramatic but most necessary evolution.

Importance of Community.

There is much to be learned through the experiences of others. Nothing drives this point home more than our growing connection within the community in which we live. The pandemic has provided an opportunity to get to know a diverse group of people (who literally live on the same street) with diverse backgrounds and professional experiences.

Shortly after the pandemic began, it became a daily conversation with myself as to how I was missing purpose in my work. As a coach and instructor, I have always thrived on the in-person connection with colleagues, athletes and students, so this has never been an area of concern. I am sure I am not unique in feeling this way, but the thoughts of frustration and “spinning my wheels” slowly crept into how I carried myself and was present in my relationships with family and friends.

During this time, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting neighbours who’ve developed routines throughout their day to help support a better balance between the feelings and emotions about their work environment and the things outside of work that bring them joy in their daily life. A few good examples are:

  • Ensure that your working station is out of sight and has a door in which you can close. I kept my office on the kitchen table, and it felt as though I could not escape/shut off the thoughts about work at all hours of the day.
  • Start your day with a walk to replicate your commute to work. Finish your day the same way.
  • Take a short break after each zoom meeting and grab a bite to eat or run to the bathroom. In a true office setting, you will always walk back to your office/training facility post-meeting.
  • Use your calendar and hold yourself accountable to it. Block periods of time to work, eat, break and connect. I still do not do this so well, but it can pay dividends in managing both your time and mental resources.

Additionally, another neighbour has shown me the importance of having hobbies that don’t relate to your career. Although I likely won’t pick up welding or managing a chicken coop anytime soon, there are some important lessons to be learned through having other interests to focus your attention. I have a career in the fitness industry because I thoroughly enjoy training, reading about training, watching content about training, and connecting with others about training. I realized that I might be scrolling social media and watching content about programming in the evenings while never turning the page mentally and allowing myself to be present in other tasks. That all-consuming passion and interest that makes you successful can be the exact thing that holds you back in other areas of your life. Find something that allows you to shift your focus and challenges you in a different domain. For me, I’ve found significant enjoyment in working on renovation projects both at our property and those of friends and family. This is something that I find challenging, detail-oriented and I look forward to learning more about. Moral of the story: Find your “neighbours” who can inspire you.

Importance of Time.

Early in your career as a coach, it’s common to “embrace the grind” while gratifying, the long hours you work and the accessibility in which you grant others. I specifically remember a feeling of pride when athletes would say, “you’re here in the morning, you’re here in the evening, do you ever sleep?” In a highly competitive field, that dedication is one of the reasons that young coaches can have success, but over time that same drive can be what drains you. The demands of in-season training for fall and two-term sports, combined with off-season development periods, require S&C to be engaged for all 12 months of the year. In conversations with multiple colleagues, this is why many people leave what seems like “stable” positions to pursue a better balance. 

Over the last year two years, the slower pace of life has been an unexpected but welcomed change of pace. Shifting from setting alarms for 4 am to having breakfast and dinner with your family on a daily basis opens your eyes to the importance of creating boundaries and the value of your time. Regular Zoom calls with family, putting your phone away when you get home, utilizing app time restrictions, getting outside and/or planning safe get-togethers with those you love all require regular effort and provide significant opportunity to “fill your bucket.” I admittedly struggle in this area, but the pandemic has allowed me to renovate the strategies and systems that I utilize both in my personal and professional life.

After first being incredibly grateful for the health of all of those I love, when I think about the last two years, I need to remind myself not to seek a return to the way things were but to be excited about the opportunities to come and the progress that we’ve experienced. There is ample negativity and frustration to consume your days, but ultimately, we have made significant strides as coaches, instructors and people over the last two years. It is important to embrace both opportunities and challenges in your life (i.e., growing your family, moving to take a new job, marriages, losses of loved ones, pandemic, etc.). All of these provide a canvas for you to self-assess your strengths, areas requiring improvement, values and how you invest your time. Using these opportunities to evolve, prioritize, and develop efficiencies will allow for greater time spent on tasks that mean the most to you professionally and personally. No one does this perfectly, but it’s a conversation worth having with yourself. Self-awareness will provide you with an opportunity to evaluate the effective and unproductive aspects of your life. Evolution will favour your advantageous traits while avoiding those that are detrimental to your happiness and productivity.

So, ask yourself, how have you evolved over the last two years?

Author Bio: Since 2014, Colin McAuslan has been the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Queen’s University. Colin is originally from Windsor, Ontario where he completed both his bachelors and Master of Human Kinetics degrees at the University of Windsor, with a focus on applied human performance and exercise physiology. Colin’s responsibilities as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Queen’s include programming year-round training systems for 13 varsity sports teams, athlete monitoring, integration with the Queen’s Sports Medicine clinic as well as supporting the development of approximately 35 interns in the Strength and Conditioning ministream. Additionally, Colin is an adjunct professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies.

Colin McAuslan
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