- (“Into the mind of the coach” – all the interview links)
- Please tell us something about yourself: where and when were you born and places you lived. Where do you live now?
I was born in Detroit, but spent a lot of time with my grandparents in Arizona while I was growing up. Too much of my formative time was spent in Detroit in places I probably should not have been. I traveled extensively as a coach and in the Navy, and finally wound up in Florida.
- How would you describe yourself as a child? Very active? What types of activity interested you the most? Did you get involved with sports at an early age?
My earliest consistent memories are hitting the heavy bag under the eyes of my Grandfather, who was also my first martial arts instructor. Very old school way of discipline. As my mother was a figure skater, I learned to skate so early I have no memory of this. The two combine fairly naturally, and I wound up playing quite a bit of hockey.
- Was any athlete your hero as a kid? If so, who?
Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis were my favorite boxers, Goride Howe was – and still is- my favorite hockey player (he signed my stick when I was six years old, and yes, I still have it. Picking it up is like drawing Excalibur from the stone). I was also a fan of various legendary fighters.
- Were you involved in sports during High school? How was that experience? At that age, did you already entertain the idea of becoming professionally involved with sports/training?
Boxing, judo and hockey. I wanted to be professionally involved in sports as an athlete. This did not quite mature as a hockey player, but it did as a fighter after college. During college I was able to go to my first Muay Thai school, which was the style I enjoyed the most up to that point.
- When and how did you decide to become a coach? Can you tell us a little about that choice and what it involved? Did your family support your decision?
By accident. I had good coaching in weightlifting from day one (Olympic lifting to the heathens). So I was very lucky and avoided the traditional mistakes that I am sure I would have made. This, and being a multi-sport athlete, led me to a better understanding of technique than some of my friends, whom I wound up coaching by default when no actual coach was present. I studied exercise physiology to become a better athlete, and this too helped me as a coach. It would be nice to say this was some sort of plan, but really it was all about personal improvement.
Eventually I wound up working with the S&C staff at college because I knew everyone and many of the athletes trained at the same gym as I did over the summer. So when the next assistant S&C coaching position was posted, I pretty much had it nailed down.
- Did you / are you involved in sports as an athlete? If so, how is your experience as an athlete influence your decisions in coaching?
Well, I do not compete much anymore, as my injuries prevent certain things. I still train as if I do, and may one day do a meet again. Not exactly a priority in my life right now. However, more than 30 years as an athlete allows me to empathize with all the things an athlete goes through, which is critical. As a very wise man once said “If you are not speaking from experience you are talking out your ass.” Fortunately I have plenty of experience to go with my traditional Italian ass.
- What is your educational background? Do you think school provided you with good tools for the profession you chose?
Undergrad in Exercise physiology and nutrition. MS in Sports Physiology/Kinesiology. ABD at one time in Ex Phys, but the Navy decided I needed to go somewhere else. And yes, it gave me a good background. An education is a tool, and it is up to the tool user to use it effectively.
- You had more than one career (academic and military). What were the significant factors in your choices? Since when did you know you wanted to be a sports scientist/coach and enlist?
I always knew I wanted to enlist. My grandfather and father both served. My grandfather spent most of his life trying to talk me out of it, so of course I signed up as soon as I could (reserves, got activated very much to my surprise). My becoming a sports scientist grew out of my continually trying to figure things out in training. It is important to have both practical and theoretical knowledge. I was always the kid with endless questions. Now at least I know enough to look for answers on my own. One day I hope to find the right ones.
- Military experience: what can you tell us about tactical training when you were in the service? How did your previous athletic experience affect your military career?
Well, at the time it was mostly conditioning based. Even with more advanced units, there is, well, I am not going to say anything negative about the military. This is not the place. We did do far more running than I ever, ever hope to do again. In the history of ever.
There have been improvements in tactical training, but one needs to take many of the current “tactical” programs with a large grain of salt.
- At what age did you start coaching at a professional level? How was that beginning (where, who helped you the most, what were your greatest challenges)?
Depends on how you define professional. I was getting paid to coach at 21 years old. If, however, I had called myself “coach” one of the senior coaches would have given me a barbell in suppository form. Really, I would class it as my second S&C position at UCLA, where I was given far more autonomy and was able to do some good for guys with bad movement patterns and injury. This led me to doing a lot more work with injured athletes or those with compromised movement patterns.
- If you feel comfortable, I’d like to know your thoughts about the educational background for coaches in your country: are the programs available adequate for your needs? What do you think makes a strong basis for coaching? How did you obtain this?
Programs are hit-or-miss. It is not as if everyone gets to study under Garhammer or Stone. Often much of the theoretical focus is on cardiovascular exercise, with very little emphasis on proper strength training. A greater balance of the two could be emphasized in some programs.
- The gap between science and practice: in your experience, how much does current scientific knowledge on exercise physiology, kinesiology, biomechanics, etc contribute to your daily decisions in coaching and how much does it fail to?
Well, a great deal, but I have been doing both at the same time for pretty much my entire career. It would be nice if this was some sort of master plan, but really I was working in the ex phys lab while I was an assistant S&C coach and going to school. Most people are not as fortunate as I was. Sure, I had no free time to speak of, but this did enable me to integrate what I was learning in the lab and classroom into the training of my athletes.
- What were your biggest challenges as a coach? Can you give us some examples (stories)? What do you think contributed for you to make the best call?
Originally it was just to be taken seriously as a coach. Hard when you were an athlete the year before and are basically the same age (or one year older) than many of the people you are coaching. Then it was dealing with coaching staff who did not understand strength and conditioning. Then it turned into dealing with administrators who did not understand athletics. When coaching kids, it is dealing with parents. Coaching is basically problem solving, or putting the pieces of a puzzle together. People make no damn sense at all.
- Some professionals in the health care fields become so traumatized when making a bad call with a patient/client that they give up. Did you ever make a bad call? How did you handle that? What advice would you give to younger people starting their coaching career?
I allowed someone to over-train which screwed up their performance. I let them persuade me, and I should have known better. Or, to phrase it another way, I did know better I just failed to do better. Never happened again. Adopted the “there is a reason why I am coaching” attitude. The best advice I can give anyone new to coaching is that you are walking a lot of fine lines: between pushing enough and pushing too hard. Between learning enough and suffering from over-analysis. So you must have a good reason for everything that you do. If you cannot support your decision, it is a bad decision.
- How do you handle special groups, such as the elderly, pregnant women and the disabled? How is the communication with their primary health care professionals? Is it necessary and is it easy? What advice would you have for younger coaches when they are contacted by their first “special” client?
Each one is on a case by case basis. Not the best answer, but there are even more variables here. Take in as much information as you can. Listen to what they say, but more importantly what they do not say. In every coaching situation, you should be learning as much or more than the athlete. They just need to learn to train. You need to learn the athlete, and people are far more complex than anything you will do in the gym.
Communication with health care professionals depends on the facility, the health care provider and pretty much everything else. Again, case by case basis. Some facilities have everything integrated practically seamlessly. Sometimes getting a doctor to either listen or answer is about as much fun as sliding down a barbed-wire fence.
My advice to anyone contacted by their first “special” client is to learn everything you can about them, their condition and everything related to it. Each unique client provides unique opportunities to learn, and one thing you learn might help you with 100 other athletes.
- Academic career and coaching: is it possible to combine them? How to “bridge the gap between science and practice?
It is quite possible. The Russians did it when I was still a twinkle in my father’s eye. You study the athlete more than anything else, and theory gives you a platform on which to construct a successful program. Hell, Aleksey Medvedev was a world champion weightlifter, coach and PhD. And did quite a bit of research. It is nearly impossible to do everything at once, due to the singular focus required to excel, but a coach should keep expanding his base of knowledge because over time, the singular focus required to excel as an athlete can become limiting as a coach. So having a solid academic base to build on and the willingness to keep learning from all sources allows a coach to develop new methods to allow his athletes to continue to progress.
- What is your clientele today? (types of people and their needs) Do you have a preference for one or another type?
Full spectrum. Everyone from young athletes to the elderly and infirm. I still tend to prefer athletes. It is a mindset that I understand.
- Athletes: in which way are they different (or not) from other clients?
Generally greater focus and more performance-oriented. Often more used to listening to a coach so can be easier to deal with in that aspect. Although there are some who should probably become hair-stylists or something the way they cry when you ask them to do something they dislike.
- Emotional / psychological aspects of coaching: if you had to instruct a group of young coaches, what would you say is the best professional attitude a coach must have concerning the emotional burden clients bring into the coach-client relationship? Besides a general approach, do you think some types of clients demand extra emotional work? Examples: anorexic young females, low self-esteem people in general, depressed or other psychiatric condition patients, over-stressed business people, etc.
Be understanding without babying the athletes. They will all have problems, and you are in the parent role to a degree. This is why coaches need to be athletes. We all know what it is like to have to deal with shit. However, you must draw the line when it comes to allowing anything to affect performance, particularly in a team sport. As a coach it is your job to produce healthy, successful athletes. If they need daily hand-holding, they should call their mother.
And yes, some need extra work, always. Most do. The trick is finding out how to provide this in a minimal amount of time. This is why coaching is more learning than it is teaching. You need to figure out what everyone needs, and often the physical aspect of training is the least of it.
- Non-presencial coaching (online programming and/or coaching): what are the challenges? What to you require from clients to conduct a successful program?
The biggest challenge is compliance. It is easy for someone to do what they want instead of what they need. Such as not tell you about a meet they decided to do at the last minute, or whatever. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies here very heavily.
I require consistency and discipline. If they just want to ignore what I am telling them, then they can pay me a consultant’s fee and I will not have to worry about them ignoring me. Feel free to question, but do not argue. There is a fine line between questioning and disrespect.
- What are your goals today as an athlete, as a coach and as a sports scientist?
I will do one more meet before I retire, and want to beat my best raw total. Not sure how realistic this is, but hey, it is a goal. My goals as a coach and sports-scientist are identical: to fully integrate everything I know into the best possible program. This includes nutrition, supplementation, training, recovery, etc. Given that I can always know more, this is an endless quest, one which I am proud to still be able to undertake. And I learn from everyone I coach. Including one very tiny little lifter who impresses me every single day.
- The golden question: what is your approach to training (your “training philosophy”, meaning the way to organize exercises in a program, progression, principles to observe, whatever you think defines YOUR approach)?
Integrate with care and caution. Evaluate everything with the risk to benefit ratio firmly in mind. As a coach athletes trust us with not only their performance, but their dreams, as we once trusted coaches with ours. This is an awesome responsibility, and it should be at the forefront of every decision we make. Once upon a time someone was, or should have been, there for us. This is the only way we can truly show ourselves worthy of the gift we were given. For a short period of time, we are the caretakers of the futures of young athletes. We must not fail them.
e-mail: [email protected]
facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/The.Sweat.Pit