Coaching the youth beginner athlete

Coaches must be aware that the initial learning period of the beginner in Weightlifting is profoundly important and will leave an indelible impression. In the case of coaching children and/or young adults, there is an increased level of responsibility to ensure that the coaching methodology employed lives up to community expectations and provides the beginner with a good start to their career in the sport.

The following guidelines are provided to assist coaches working with children and young adults in Weightlifting:

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The hardest step

The journey of the athlete in Weightlifting from beginner to the qualifying standard for the national senior championship takes perhaps 3 years of goal driven, well organised, and consistent training. For the athlete, the first 3 years are full of wonder as there is so much to learn. The motivation to train is aided by a series of intriguing discoveries about the nature of Weightlifting skill, the complexity of the training process and the remarkable mental skills required to perform in the competition environment.

In the right training conditions, and depending to some extent on age, progress in the first 3 years is usually rapid. The male athlete might achieve a 200 Sinclair score in their first year, 270 in their second and 310 by the end of their 3rd year. For the female athlete the Sinclair scores might be 150, 200 and 230 for years 1, 2 an 3 respectively. Progress of this nature will create an expectancy of significant further improvement in years 4 and 5, and likely the athlete who has come this far will have aspirations to compete at the highest levels: World Senior Championships, Olympic Games, and Commonwealth Games.

Progress in Sinclair total in years 1- 5 for highly committed athletes

But in reality, for aspiring athletes, years 4 and 5 are not like the first 3 years, Much of the motivating discovery is behind the athlete and the journey becomes more like a race. It is now a question of whether the athlete has the capacity and motivation to leave no (ethical) stone unturned in their quest for improvement. The athlete must be prepared to invest very considerable effort to correct as best they can all weaknesses and idiosyncrasies that affect their training and competition performance. Every factor must be examined for possible improvement including the time commitment, content and quality of training, the athlete’s physical functioning and well-being, and the daily routine of the individual outside the gym to ensure that the athlete’s life energy is focused on training. This is what it takes to succeed.

But it’s not all about the athlete. Coaches must also demonstrate their dedication to help athletes successfully take the next step and to move into contention for national team selection. Coaches must assume that they are leaders and role models to their athletes. The values they portray, their behaviour in the gym, the example they set, all matter a great deal. Coaches must be prepared to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses, invest time in their own self-improvement and keep an open mind and never stop learning. They must expend great effort to plan, organise and monitor training, provide feedback, and generally go the extra mile to assist the athlete in a myriad of ways.

The next step is the hardest step. To reach the highest echelon, it is no longer acceptable for athletes to pay insufficient attention to warming up in training, flexibility, physical fitness, nutrition, sleep, recovery and injury prevention. It is not longer acceptable to train without discipline, to train without paying great attention to one’s weaknesses, to train with less than 100% conviction or to engage in other sporting activities that risk injury. For the athlete and the coach, there must be total dedication. To miss training would be like running a 1500m race and diverting on lap 3 to say Hi to a friend in the spectator stand. If you miss training, you cannot pretend to be running the race.

Why is it a race? It is well for the athlete to be mindful that the prize they seek, that is national team selection, is also coveted by many other individuals. To win this prize, athletes must not only reach qualifying performances but also be the very best in their category that the nation can produce. Every athlete who seeks national team selection must envisage that across the nation that there will be others training with great determination to beat you. To succeed in this task, therefore, you must prove that your attitude, your commitment, your meticulousness, your effort and your courage is second to none.

Do not commit the cardinal sin of thinking that time is on your side, because it isn’t. The clock is ticking.

Gold Standards in Weightlifting

The purpose of “Gold Standards” is to help individuals to identify strengths and weaknesses and to target areas of performance for improvement. There are always differences between individuals due to anthropometry (body dimensions), flexibility, technical ability and quirks of nature.

The following table will help to identify your strengths and weaknesses.

  1. Snatch
    1. Power Snatch is 88% of PR Snatch
    2. Overhead squat is 100% of PR Snatch
    3. Snatch Balance is 105% of PR Snatch
    4. Snatch from Knee is 95% of PR Snatch
  2. Clean & Jerk
    1. Front squat for 3 reps is 100% of PR Clean & Jerk
    2. PR Clean & Jerk is 80% of PR Back Squat
    3. Power Clean is 88% of PR Clean & Jerk
    4. PR Jerk from Racks = PR Clean
    5. Good Morning for 3 reps is 70% of PR Clean & Jerk

These “Gold Standards” have been developed as a result of observation of athletes over the years by the author. In general, these standards are arbitrary and need further development.

The author would be pleased to receive feedback from athletes as to how they compare with the above standards so that they can be improved.

Key Issues in the Jerk

anko Rusev (Bulgaria) performs the Clean & Jerk
Figure 1: The Jerk performed by Yanko Rusev (Bulgaria).

The Jerk is a highly complex movement that many athletes in Weightlifting find harder to master than the Snatch. In the Jerk, athletes must overcome several key issues if they are to become good exponents of the lift. These key issues are as follows:

Issue #1: The extreme heaviness of the barbell

Although Weightlifters are masters of ‘heaviness’, an exceptional performer in the Clean and Jerk will lift in excess of 80% of their best Back Squat. In addition to excellence of technique, the athlete will need great courage, will power and tenacity to complete a Clean and Jerk that is near to the limit of their strength capacity.

Issue #2: Achieving and maintaining a lockout of the elbows with the weight overhead

If an athlete, for anatomical reasons, has a difficulty in maintaining an elbow lockout, then the likelihood of reduced performance potential in the Jerk increases significantly.

Issue #3: Maintaining balance and control of the weight overhead

Even when both elbows are locked out, the athlete will experience significant difficulty in maintaining balance and control of the weight overhead. This is a matter of physics. In the situation where the athlete has a barbell of twice bodyweight overhead, the combined centre of mass (of the barbell and lifter) will be situated at approximately neck height or higher (see figure 2 below). The higher the combined centre of mass, the greater the balance problem.

Jerk Combined Centre of Mass
Figure 2: The heavier the barbell the higher the combined centre of mass rises

Issue #4: Structural integrity of body in receiving position

The Jerk is a movement that is unforgiving of any weakness in the position of the body in the receiving position. An athlete may elevate the bar high enough, and have sufficient lockout strength in the arms, but if the rest of the body is not positioned correctly to support the bar, then the lift is likely to be lost. A common receiving position error as depicted by Figure 3 below, shows the weight of the bar toward the front of the base with hips are behind the bar and a pronounced forward lean of the torso. These factors tend to cause the athlete to have significant difficulty in maintaining stability of the bar overhead.

Forward Jerk Receiving Position Error
Figure 3: A common issue is a receiving position where the weight of the bar is to the front of the base of support reducing the athlete’s ability to stabilise the weight overhead.

The receiving position as shown by Figure 3 above is very likely to result in forward movement of the bar as the athlete struggles with the receiving position. This occurs not only because the weight is distributed toward the front of the base of support, but also because there will be an uneven amount of force emanating from both legs. The ideal situation as depicted by Figure 4 below, is a weight distribution over the centre of the base, and equal amount of force derived from each leg, and an equal amount of pressure through each foot.

It is important to have an equal amount of weight distribution on both feet.
Figure 4: The ideal situation in the Jerk receiving position is that there is an equal amount of pressure on both feet. In other words, there is an equal amount of force from both legs to support the body and the bar.

Issue #5: Pelvic rotation

Another all too common issue in the Jerk is Pelvic Rotation as depicted in Figure 5 below. Rotation of the Pelvis in a forward direction results in a hyper-extension of the lumbar spine, or Lordosis. Under heavy load (with a barbell overhead), it is ideal for the spinal shape to remain normal. Any adverse or exaggerated curvature of the spine increases the risk of injury. The cause of such pelvic rotation in the Jerk can be: (1) As a result of errors in the learning process for the Jerk Receiving position and/or (2) Tightness in hip flexors.  These issues are described later in this article.

Pelvic Tilt in the Jerk
Figure 5: A straight back leg in the jerk is associated with pelvic rotation and increased lumbar curvature

The rest interval between sets

The time interval between sets in Weightlifting training and what happens during that interval is a source of great interest to me personally and perhaps to others as well. Initially, my thoughts centred around the quest for productivity in training and the need to get as much training done in the time available. For many years I have operated on the premise that an average of 2 minutes between sets in training is optimal, and I am still of that opinion. It’s not rocket science to work out that, in any fixed period of training, an average of 2 minutes between sets accomplishes 50% more training than an average of 3 minutes.

However, in more recent years, my thoughts about the time interval between sets have expanded beyond the mere need for productivity. What has also become an interest to me is the mental process of the athlete in that time period. Furthermore, through observation and study, I have begun to formulate ideas about environmental factors that beneficially or detrimentally affect that mental process as the athlete prepares for their next effort.

It is probable that we have all experienced or witnessed the situation where an athlete in training, having completed the previous set with comparative ease, fails unexpectedly with the next set. This might happen even if there is no increase in the weight on the bar. The situation is similar in the competition environment. An athlete might succeed well with their first attempt, and be momentarily confident of the next lift, and then to seemingly suffer a loss of confidence as the wait prolongs.

While it seems clear that the time duration of the rest interval is a major factor that impacts on the performance of the Weightlifter, an explanation is needed why this is so. Furthermore, it is important to consider whether factors other than the passage of time are at work.

This article proposes that:

  • the underlying cause of performance reduction due to the passage of time is the weakening of the neural imprint or memory of the previous performance
  • during the rest period, a range of environment factors may disrupt or degrade the neural imprint of the previous performance.
  • the possible environmental disruptors include sights and sounds in the gym, conversations with other athletes, the mobile phone, and interestingly the intervention of the coach.

At the heart of this proposal is the concept of a neural imprint or memory of the previous performance. Such a memory arises as a result of the activation of neurons in the brain which send electrical impulses to muscles and then receive feedback on the quality of movement achieved. Thus, for a short while after performance, there is significant neural activity within the brain. For the Weightlifter, this neural activity is a strong ‘remembrance’ of how the lift felt and, for a time, the athlete will be confident that they can repeat the performance if required. This cycle of activation and feedback is depicted in Figure 1 below.

sensory feedback
Figure 1: Neural Activation / Sensory Feedback Cycle

The feedback emanates from special sensory organs located within muscle tissue, connective tissue (tendons), and joints.  This feedback provides information to the brain that movement is occurring and as a result we don’t need to observe our own movement, we can simply feel it. The sensory information enables us to accurately determine the configuration of our own body at any one moment in time, and thus we can learn to achieve movement patterns with a high degree of consistency, that is we become skilled.

So, for a period immediately following performance, the brain is alive with feedback from the body. The important questions are (a) how long does that neural activity remain sufficiently strong to benefit the next performance, and (b) is it possible that environmental factors can interfere and degrade that neural activity so as to harm the next performance?

In sport, highly skilled performers are often said to operate on a sub-conscious level at least in the way movement is controlled. A high ranking tennis player does not have to think about how to swing the racket or move their feet but simply to determine where they want the ball to go. Similarly, the highly skilled soccer player does not think about the physical movement of the body required to trap or pass the ball, or make a shot a goal. Their consciousness will be centred on reading the game and deciding where to move next on the pitch. However, if a skilled performer does revert to conscious control of movement during a match invariably things go wrong, errors occur. This phenomenon is referred to as ‘choking’ or ‘constrained action’. It’s as if the performer’s own thoughts actually interfere with their performance.

For the Weightlifter, the waiting or rest period between one performance and the next poses problems. Ideally, during the rest interval,  the neural activation/feedback loop is quietly and subconsciously doing its thing, that is retaining an imprint or remembrance of the previous effort. But what happens if the wait period is too long? Does the neural imprint degrade with time, and if so, how does the Weightlifter attempt to compensate?

Figure 2 below hypothesises that for the Weightlifter there is an optimal wait period between performances, and it is dependant on a complex interplay between recovery of the musculature from the exertion of the performance, and the neural imprint which degrades with time (and other factors – see below).

neural readiness
Figure 2: Neural readiness

Within the first minute after the previous performance, the neural imprint will be strong and there will be a high state of neural readiness. But also within the first minute of the wait period, the athlete will also be in a state of fatigue as energy systems replenish the energy used in the performance. Therefore the optimal time between high intensity performances is between 1½ and 2½ minutes, as depicted by Figure 2 above. But as the wait time approaches 4 minutes, although the athlete is well rested their neural readiness is beginning to fade with possibly detrimental impact on performance. For this reason, Weightlifters often have difficulty with a long wait between platform attempts.

So what does the Weightlifter do when the wait is long? It is probable that the longer the wait period, the more the Weightlifter will attempt to compensate with cognitive effort to keep the memory alive. This in term leads to the locus of control moving from the subconscious to the conscious, and an increased likelihood of a constrained action as described above.

So far, however, the discussion has mostly centred on the duration of the wait period between sets in training, or platform attempts. But what if during this wait period, the coach interacts with the athlete, for example the coach endeavours to impart technique instruction to the athlete prior to lifts of high intensity? The risk is that such technique instruction by the coach will cause the athlete to revert to conscious control of movement and interfere with the neural imprint of the previous lift causing a degradation of performance.

This does not mean that there is no place for technique instruction by coaches! But what the coach does need to think about is:

  1. the timing of technique instruction/feedback (when should technique instruction be given to best advantage the athlete)
  2. the paramount importance of the athlete’s own sensory feedback in the development of skill and the lesser role played by verbal instructions of the coach

In addition to coach-athlete interaction, there are other possible disruptors of the neural imprint (or remembrance) of the previous performance. These disruptors include  sights and sound in the gym, watching other athletes lift, conversations, the use of mobile phones, and watching video recordings of your own performance? Figure 3 below proposes that these disruptors have a cumulative effect. The more time goes by between sets, or platform lifts, the greater the potential for environmental factors to interfere with the neural imprint.

interference
Figure 3: Accumulation effect of interference

Having attempted to explain the problem of interference with the neural imprint as a result of the passage of time, or coaching interventions, or environmental factors,  it is necessary to offer some guidelines to mitigate the problem? Researchers – please feel free to test!

Guidelines

Coaches should:

  • Appreciate that athletes develop skill as a result of practise, and many thousands of iterations of the neural activation/sensory feedback cycle. Therefore athletes should be encouraged to understand the importance of sensory feedback in the skill learning process and the desirability of high productivity in training to maximise sensory feedback (i.e. SHUT UP AND LIFT!)
  • Keep the athlete busy. The busier they are, the less the neural imprint after each performance will be degraded as a result of the passage of time or suffer interference as a result of their own thoughts or disruptors in the training/competition environment
  • In competitions, when athletes have long waits between attempts, they should return to the warm-up room and carry out further warm-up attempts to keep alive the neural imprint of performance
  • Be careful to ensure that technical instruction given to the athlete does not slow up, delay or reduce the amount of training performed by the athlete.
  • If needed, provide extensive verbal instructions about technique at the beginning of the exercise and/or when weights are very light. Avoid providing extensive technical instruction when the athlete is approaching high intensity sets so as to minimise interference with the athlete’s natural ability to learn from their own neural feedback.
  • Utilise only one short/simple coaching cue prior to high intensity lifts and only if the athlete is very familiar with that cue
  • Take care not to overuse coaching cues and risk the athlete reverting to conscious control of movement. If this happens failure may eventuate as a result of constrained action.
  • Try to prevent the athlete overthinking, self-evaluating, asking questions, or losing focus. Such activities will increase conscious control and interfere with the neural imprint.
  • Assure athletes who constantly self-evaluate their performance to be 95% error, that in fact their performance is indeed 95% correct. If an athlete associates each neural imprint with failure, they are bound not to succeed,
  • Insist that athletes do not dwell on technical errors but accept that errors are a normal consequence of learning.

These days, I find myself providing less extensive technical verbal instruction but more positive reinforcement of behaviour that I feel leads to success. I provide positive reinforcement if athletes:

  • Maintain focus between sets by avoiding activities that disrupt or degrade the neural imprint created after each set
  • Keep time intervals between sets with metronomic precision
  • Appear to be implementing technical instruction provided by the coach, even if the result is a lift failure
  • Do not engage in self-deprecation if a failure occurs
  • Exert a high degree of effort on each set

The Inner Journey

These days Weightlifting is fortunate to be well promoted via the Internet. There is an endless stream of videos and photos of people, of all levels, enjoying a moment of achievement and preserving the memory digitally. Coaches post videos on social media to display the prowess of their athletes, business owners post to encourage potential new members and athletes create reciprocal posts to encourage and support each other. There is also a constant supply of articles to read which attempt to explain the ins and outs of technique, uncover the hidden secrets of strength development and provide opinion about the daily organisation of training. Occasionally, authors of articles comment on other aspects of the sport such as the recruitment of participants, the structure of competitions and the standards of performance at national and international level. All of this digital material  is helpful in conveying the complexities of the sport, increasing understanding within the community and providing impetus for further growth of the sport worldwide. Continue reading

Developing a new culture for weightlifting

There are presently 188 nation members of the International Weightlifting Federation spread across the entire globe from the tiny populations of Pacific Islands to the might of China, reputed to have a population of weightlifters in the hundreds of thousands. In some nations there are great legacies of state sponsored sporting systems that, for decades, have produced results in Weightlifting that we continue to marvel, while in other nations results are achieved through the largely unaided effort of individual coaches and athletes.

 Where does your nation stand in the global pecking order of weightlifting nations? Do you have grounds for hope that weightlifters in your nation are making headway on the international stage, or do you come from one of the many nations permitted just one male and one female participant at the Olympic Games? How can a weightlifting nation move from being among the inconsequential into to the big league? Is this possible and is it really worth the effort?

A new culture is needed for the sport of weightlifting

A new culture is needed for the sport of weightlifting

Achieving such a change in international status Continue reading

Exercises for Improving the Snatch

This article examines how to build a training program for improving the Snatch beyond the initial technique learning stage. Making continued progress requires an understanding that it is fundamentally necessary that an athlete develop all the physical and mental abilities required in the snatch – technique, speed, power, timing, stability, balance, flexibility, will-power and confidence. It is a gross over-simplification to think all that is necessary is to just get stronger.

Relative proportions of volume and intensity spent on Snatch exercises
Figure 1: Relative proportions of volume and intensity spent on Snatch exercises

In Figure 1 above, the relative size of circles depicts the distribution of training volume and effort between various groups of exercises for improving the snatch. The small circles indicate the training intensity (effort) while the larger circles depict the training volume. Thus, figure 1 depicts the dominance of two exercise groups for improving the Snatch – the Power Snatch group and Snatch Pull group (see Figure 2 below for examples of exercises in these groups). There are a number of reasons why variations of the power snatch tend to predominate over variations within the full snatch group for most of the year round. Firstly, as a lifter progresses beyond their first year of training experience, technique tends to stabilise and more time can be spent developing power and strength. Secondly, all Weightlifters must focus on developing the “finish” of the pull. Exercises in the power snatch group and snatch pull group will be more effective in developing power in the finish of the pull. Thirdly, if an athlete overly concentrates on full movements all the year around, chronic knee soreness may arise.

Exercise groupings for Power Snatch and Snatch Pull
Figure 2: Exercise groupings for Power Snatch and Snatch Pull

Furthermore, Figure 1 also provides an indication of the useful intensities in each exercise group. Thus, for example, the most prevalent intensity in the Snatch Pull group is likely to be 110%, then there should also be significant volume at the 105% and 115% intensity, and then smaller training load at the 100% and 120% level.

Other Exercises for Improving the Snatch
Figure 3: The exercise group that includes overhead squat and snatch balance can very beneficial for improving the Snatch by developing overhead confidence.

However it should not be construed that the other two exercise groups (Snatch group and Other Exercises group) are not important. Quite the contrary, it is fundamentally important to spend a great deal of time on these exercises to perfect technique, timing, speed and confidence in movement under the bar while securing weights overhead in deep squat positions. While there may be conjecture amongst coaches about the usefulness of exercises in the “Other” group (see figure 3) for improving the Snatch, these exercises can be greatly beneficial for many lifters in developing overhead confidence and positional correctness, and in the case of Snatch Balance, speed under the bar. The “No Heave” Snatch Balance is performed by simply dropping into the receiving position without any push of the bar upwards up.

Figure 4 below aims to portray the volume of training across the whole spectrum of intensity. In terms of improving the Snatch, it is important to use the full range of intensities  between 60% and 125%. As the following illustration depicts, the lightest end of the intensity range (60-70%) is important for developing speed and the heaviest end (115-125%) is for developing force (strength). The range (80%-110%) is where most training occurs. This intensity range is much needed to develop power (a combination of speed and strength).

Intensity spectrum for pull exercises for improving the Snatch
Figure 4: Pulls with weights more than 100% of personal bests on Olympic Lifts are an important part of the training program for experienced weightlifters

The really important principle is that proper attention and effort should be paid to training over the whole of the intensity spectrum. By proper attention, it is meant that the quantity, proportion and frequency of training done at the various intensities from 60-125% must be closely managed. By proper effort, it is meant that athletes need to know and understand the purpose of training at all of the intensity spectrum so that they will be consistent in their application of effort.

So often, athletes fall into a number of traps:

Trap 1: “Lighter intensities are just warm-ups!” It is common to see athletes perform lighter intensities very poorly in terms of technique and speed as if these sets do not matter. They absolutely do!

Trap 2: “Power snatches are just an exercise you do when you give full snatch a rest!” No, power snatches are a critically important exercise that enables the athlete to really focus on speed, power and technique of the pull. The exercise is also saving of knee soreness for those who are sufferers. Improving the snatch really requires the athlete to really get a move on with the power snatch. New personal bests in the power snatch are an indicator that improvement in the snatch may be in the pipeline.

Trap 3: “Pulls are not that important, 5-6 sets should be enough!” Since pulls (all variations) should in total be about 20% of all training, an athlete should be performing a minimum of 8 sets in a session (intermediate experience) and 10-12 sets (advanced athletes). There is no rule that says an athlete cannot perform two variations of pulls in a single session.

Trap 4: “I like to train on the snatch more than the clean & jerk (because the clean & jerk is too hard)!” You have to be good at both lifts, its completely unavoidable. It is common to see lifters spending 30-35% of their entire session on the full Snatch, and more in some cases. Such a strategy tends to cause the lifter to “plateau” and if they are in a habit of lifting to maximum on a regular basis, with frequent failures, then they may even go backwards. The problem for many lifters is that too much time is spent in the 85-95% part of the intensity spectrum results in damage done to confidence and technique and a failure to take opportunities to develop speed, power and strength.

Trap 5: “I don’t bother much with snatch balance or snatch squats (overhead squats)!” This is a very common error. It is critically important to develop a stable and CONFIDENT receiving position. Take a good look at experienced elite-level athletes and notice that they all have excellent receiving positions. No-one is going to have any confidence moving under a heavy bar if they have inadequate strength overhead and a poor receiving position.

Apart from the need for constant attention to technical perfection in all movements, Weightlifting is obviously a sport where the accumulation of great strength and power over time is completely important. To this end, the weightlifter must spend much effort and time developing “the pull”  by using to best advantage the whole intensity spectrum from 60-125%. The Weightlifter should endeavour to realise that all lifts in this intensity spectrum play an important role in developing the expert performer. Great attention should be paid to correct body positions and movement irrespective of the exercise and the intensity.

The Path to High Performance: Part 2

In Path to High Performance: Part 1, the article identified four challenges that an athlete in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting will face. These challenges are:

  • The pursuit of technical mastery
  • The magnitude of the training
  • Limitations of the training environment; and
  • Self-imposed performance limits

The article followed with a discussion about Technical Mastery and the paramount need for good quality coaching to avoid developing persistent errors of technique. This second article discusses the magnitude of the training regimen required to achieve the superb physical adaptation of athletes who compete at the highest level. Continue reading

Mindset of the Olympic Weightlifter

Carol Dweck is a distinguished professor and well-published researcher in Psychology who has taught at the universities of Columbia, Harvard, Illinois and Stanford where she is still a member of faculty. In 2006 Dweck published an influential book entitled Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck theorised a continuum between believing that one’s abilities are innate and believing that one’s abilities are based on hard work and learning. According to Dweck, if a person believes that their potential is governed by innate factors then they have a “fixed mindset”. Whereas, if a person believes their potential is governed by their individual effort and learning, then they have a “growth mindset”. Importantly, Dweck’s view was that people who are high-achievers have a Growth Mindset. Continue reading