My Take on How You Turn a Tortoise into a Hare – or, at Least, a Faster Tortoise
My coaching career began as an assistant tennis coach in a small town in my native country, Denmark, when I was 13 years old. I was fortunate to have several great coaches. One of them had played professionally when he was younger and was the doubles partner with Boris Becker’s long-term manager, Ion Tiriac. A few of the exercises I learned as a teenager are still among my top picks 37 years later.
One of my first memories of strength and conditioning (S&C) occurred when I was 7 or 8 years old; I was unable to do a single sit-up during soccer practice. Growing up, my experiences with S&C were in the contexts of the sports I played: tennis, badminton, and soccer. They were all organized by the sport coach. I don’t think S&C coaches existed in Denmark when I was a teenager (1980s). Interestingly, I don’t remember the first time I became aware of the concept of an S&C coach.
At 19 years old, after the Danish version of high school, I enrolled in a two-year study of math and physics. It was a period which seemed wasted at the time, but later turned out to be an incredible foundation for my understanding of biomechanics and movement. I could not see myself spending my future in a windowless lab, so during a sleepless night, after graduating, I asked myself: What do you really enjoy doing? The answer was sports.
It was four days before the application deadline, but I was accepted and started studying exercise physiology at the University of Copenhagen in 1991. I enrolled because I liked sports. I had no idea what type of position/job I could get once I graduated.
Years later, my father told me that he worried for me. It is a testament to the space he always gave me and my brother to allow us to grow and find our own path. I am thankful he did not try to talk me out of my chosen career.
During my second year of university, I participated in track and field. My first clocked 100m was 14.28 seconds. Most readers will be aware that a sprinter can likely run closer to 150 meters in that timeframe! I would obviously never make it to an Olympic time trial.
This experience was the beginning of my interest in S&C. The big question in my mind was how to train to get fast and explosive, or How do you turn a tortoise into a hare, or, at least, a faster tortoise?
I remember studying books by Tudor Bompa, Vladimir Zatsiorsky and Frank Dick in the university library and gradually getting the feeling that I wanted to become an S&C coach. That decision, as well the one to move to Canada, appeared to me as very clear “gut-feelings” in such a way that I have never questioned them.
Positions I held in Denmark
Beginning in 1993 I worked with world-class triathletes, world-class badminton athletes, world-class figure skaters, and national to international volleyball athletes before I graduated with a masters degree in 1999. I got these positions through my own initiative and willingness to work for a low to moderate pay to get my foot in the door. However, my dream was to work full-time for Team Denmark, the Danish equivalent of Sport Canada. It is a long story, but after an intensive interview, several testimonies from the sport coaches I previously worked with, and a study conducted in conjunction with the coach of the National Men’s Volleyball team, Mikael Trolle, Team Denmark hired me as their first full-time S&C in the fall of 1999, a month after I graduated from university.
It was a great position with the responsibility to create highly individualized training programs for approximately 20-30 high priority athletes. I worked roughly 50 hours per week (note, 37 hours was required) not because I had to, but because I wanted to grow as a coach.
Many coaches are told to specialize in a specific sport. Up to this point, I have been involved with 27 different sports and thus performed a thorough needs analysis 27 times. Developing thorough needs analyses provided me with a clear understanding of the uniqueness of each sport. It also gave me greater insight into the differences between the various sports and propelled me to develop a system of periodization that was flexible enough to accommodate the vast differences between the athletes’ needs presented to me.
Through working with amateur athletes in both Canada and Denmark, two of the biggest challenges I have experienced are as follows:
- Sport coaches are well educated on the technical/tactical aspects of the sports, but not the needs for long-term physical development. In many cases, I have had a respectful relationship with the coaches I have worked with. However, one thing I have learned is that if a coach speaks negatively to you about their athletes, then you might consider if that is an environment you wish to be a part of. (Hint: It is not the athletes that are the problem).
- By far, most of the athletes I have worked with have always been engaged in 10+ hours of sports training each week. Thus, their energy for strength and conditioning were/are limited. However, this scenario has taught me to be as effective as possible with the program design.
Moving to Canada
I moved to Canada in 2007 to live with the love of my life and wife, Lucinda Jensen, whom I had first met at Dr. Ken Kinakin’s SWIS Conference in 2005. From the beginning, it was our goal to have the freedom to travel to see our families in both Denmark and Antigua. Therefore, we started Yes To Strength, a company that provides online and live education for S&C coaches as well as individualized training services for athletes.
Initially, I sought part-time employment to offer individualized training services. However, except for four good years at the University of Toronto (teaching Olympic Lifting classes and working with select clients) that never materialized. I had already started developing a very comprehensive approach to periodization and program design that I used and wanted to share with other coaches. As a result, I put my full efforts into sharing that information.
From an S&C point of view, working in Denmark and working in Canada is very similar. The only thing that stands out as a difference is that during 15 years of working in Denmark, including my time in university and censoring the yearly examination at the only school offering specific education for S&C, I had never heard the concept of asking permission to touch when spotting someone; a concept I now embrace wholeheartedly. Thus, my approach to training has not changed because I moved to Canada. I do, however, continue to evolve due to continued studying, refinement, and inspiration from the best in our field.
Key Attributes and Skills
The key attribute to succeed as an S&C coach is expressed eloquently by legendary motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar: (1,2)
If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you.
If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.
Willingness to learn is not only the willingness to read books and take courses. The information available to us related to S&C is very fragmented. To truly be able to apply what you learn, you must think about how different pieces of information relate to each other.
Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits.
Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. Albert Einstein (3)
In Denmark, my masters degree in exercise physiology and the fact that I had already worked with international level athletes with proven success opened the door to Team Danmark (www.teamdanmark.dk). In Canada, additional certification as a strength coach is typically required to be selected for any higher-end S&C job.
The number one advice I would give to any S&C coach of any age entering Canada would be: Be so good that they can’t ignore you. (4) And if they still ignore you, at least you get to feel good about yourself.
Karsten is the owner of Yes to Strength (https://yestostrength.com/) a company that offers live and online practical and theoretical education for athletes and S&C coaches.