In Search of Transfer – Part 1

Rob Assise Coaching Blogs, Illinois HS Track & Field, Philosophy/Ideas Leave a Comment

By Rob Assise, Homewood-Flossmoor High School 

I’ve had a Twitter account (currently @HFJumps) connected with the track and field programs I have been a part of for eight years, but I’ve only been very active the past two.  I love being able to connect with so many people who are experts in areas in which I have interest.  I have learned a tremendous amount and have developed some quality collegial relationships.  Most importantly, my athletes get to share a lot of slow motion video and pictures of them performing in their events.  Pretty awesome for a parent who cannot be at a meet, or for family members who live out of town.

One downfall, however, is that I occasionally see something that really grinds my gears.  Recently I was scrolling through my feed, and I came across this tweet:

Need to sprint faster – SQUAT
Need to jump higher – SQUAT
Need to explode out of a stance – SQUAT
Need to push off the mound harder – SQUAT

 

I have never met the coach who posted this.  I viewed his Twitter feed and he seems to be a very dedicated coach.  If we worked at the same school, we would probably be friends, or at the very least have inspired conversations about training.  However, there was no other time in my life that this post could have irritated me more.  I have noticed a good portion of the time I spend on professional development in coaching comes down to trying to answer one simple question: What transfers best from practice to competition?  The aforementioned tweet bothered me because it seemed to take something fairly general (the squat) and imply that it would have a very high degree of transfer to specific movements (I say very high degree because the author used caps when he spelled squat…a very scientifically accurate measurement).  My initial thought was to create an analogy, and in my case, no better way to do so than use what I teach everyday.

Want to improve in geometry? Practice algebra.

A question you may be asking yourself is which seems more illogical, the squat tweet or the geometry/algebra statement?  For me, both are mostly ridiculous……yet have merit.  I have had many students whose reasoning ability in geometry was excellent, but the algebra skills they needed within geometry were lacking.  They needed to practice algebra to improve their grade in geometry.  Likewise, there are probably many high school athletes who would benefit from being able to squat more weight, and that general strength could carry over to more sport-specific movements.

After my initial irritation, I decided to investigate.  It turned out the coach who posted the squat tweet actually obtained the content from an article posted on the Train Heroic Blog by Andy Baker titled “5 Offseason Training Mistakes That Are Keeping Your High School Athletes Slow, Small, and Weak.”  I knew it wouldn’t be fair to Baker to determine that those four lines of his article encompassed his entire message, so I decided to read it.  There were many points he made that I currently agree with:

  1. Improvements can be made in a high school athlete’s strength.  We should do something to address this because “old man strength” doesn’t kick in until 35.
  2. Many high school weight programs incorporate too many exercises.  Being great at a few things beats being average at many just about every time.
  3. Sports involving movement should not use high-rep body building protocols.  Keep the quality of the reps in each set high!
  4. There is an overemphasis on conditioning (which means 1000 different things to 1000 different people).

There were also some points made that I questioned:

  1. The argument against being sport specific in the weightroom.  More to come on this in the second installment of this article.
  2. Baker questioned whether speed was a trainable quality.  My initial thought is to disagree with this completely, but to be fair I would probably have to have a conversation with him to get some clarification.
  3. The squat as the solution to sprinting faster, jumping higher, exploding out of a stance, and pushing off the mound.

Ultimately, I found what really bothered me about the squat being portrayed as a cure-all was that is EXACTLY how many athletes and coaches would interpret it, especially in the limited context of 140 characters or less.  To date there have been 287 retweets and 308 likes of that four-line tweet!  That’s not Katy Perry or Justin Bieber traffic, but I think it is pretty substantial in the world of athletics with a physical preparation focus.  I can picture myself reading that tweet as the naive 16 year-old I was.  Chances are I would have gone down to the weight set in my parent’s basement and hammered out squats until exhaustion.  And then I probably would have done it again the next day….possibly twice.     

As I stated before, I do feel there is merit to what Baker says in regards to the squat.  I have coached athletes who have improved their weight room numbers and have become faster, but I have also seen many high school athletes improve their weight room numbers and get slower.  The million dollar question is how much is actually transferred from a general movement to a sport specific movement.  If we view it in terms of arbitrary percentages, maybe there is a 20% transfer for one athlete, 60% for another, and 80% for another.  Due to the fact that we are coaching athletes who still have a young training age and are still developing physically, I don’t know if there will ever be a simple answer to determine what percentage actually transfers.  The difficulty in answering this is further amplified by the poor choices our athletes often make during the time they are away from us (sleep and diet habits, additional training, etc.) and what they need both mentally and physically on an individual basis to succeed.  I’m probably not alone when I say there are times I want my athletes to be locked up in a lab, controlling all variables,  but I’m pretty sure that won’t be legal at the high school level any time soon.  

I have heard my colleague/boss Nate Beebe (head boys’ track and field coach at HF) say that the only thing that can be said for sure about squatting properly is it makes you better at squatting.  When in doubt, I think this is a solid philosophy to follow.  Eliminate the bells and whistles and keep things simple.  Josh Bonhotal, director of sports performance of Purdue men’s basketball and diving supports this idea with his response to the squat tweet,

“As for sprinting faster and jumping higher, sprint fast and jump high – A LOT.”  

When it comes to the concept of transfer I certainly have a lot more questions than answers,  ESPECIALLY when the implementation of strength exercises is included.  However, I am fairly confident there is no “magic bullet” general movement for everyone that guarantees improvement in something other than itself.  In part two of this article, I will explore the journey I have gone through thus far in regards to transfer.  It will provide many ideas to consider (all of which are from people way smarter than myself).  In the meantime, to all coaches and athletes, always be aware of the type of impact you can have when you post something on social media.  You never know if there is a 16 year-old Rob Assise who will end up squatting himself into a stupor.

 

Feel free to contact me directly at rassise@hf233.org.

 

 

Baker, Andy. “5 Offseason Training Mistakes That Are Keeping Your High School Athletes Slow, Small,

and Weak.”  http://blog.trainheroic.com/5-offseason-training-mistakes-highschool. December, 2016.

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