Jason Ralya, MS, CSCS, TSAC-F, USA-W LVL1, CSAS, FMS
The assumption many make with coaching is that in order to provide a superior service, you must stay up to date with the latest research and technology developments. While l agree, this constant pursuit of the latest information should not come at the cost of mastering the basics. To be clear, the basics are squatting patterns, pressing patterns, hinging patterns, bracing and running mechanics.
But the basics are simple, right? They should not take long to master, and you can move on to advanced training exercises and periodization models. Many coaches (myself included) move on from the basics prior to true mastery.
Consider the back squat: you may have spent years performing the movement, hours reading about the best ways to coach it, and helped a few people fix their technical issues. This is easy to mistake for mastery. However, unless you are able to guide every athlete to the same level of proficiency you have achieved, then this is the difference between your ability to understand and your ability to articulate what you understand, the latter of which is far more vital to your value as a coach. I recall many individuals that could not perform foundational movements flawlessly, yet I was looking ahead to fancy periodization and flashy progressions.
Real Life Scenarios
I’ve come to find that more often, elite programs are simply performing the basics savagely well. To get a better look, I will present four different scenarios I’ve come across in my time as a coach.
1. As a young intern at a Power 5 school, I quickly learned that time is scarce. Coach to athlete ratios are unfavorable and athletes are elite at their sports, not in the weight room. With 1 coach to 30-70 athletes and only enough time for 60-minute training sessions 2-3 times weekly, training had to be to the point.
2. As the Director of Sports Performance for a private sector facility, I observed the same thing. Most of the athletes were on limited timelines, so the program had to be progressive, but flexible enough to work around inconsistent schedules. The answer? Stick to the basics, and do them often. Daily training focused on sprinting mechanics and foundational total body sessions.
3. I spent two years with a US Army Infantry Battalion consisting of 700 soldiers from different backgrounds preparing for deployment and the ACFT with minimal equipment at 0630. Training had to be simple—linear periodization or APRE methods centered on the big 3, and low volume (2-3 x/wk), high quality running intervals. Within two testing iterations, the BN had 10 perfect scores on the ACFT.
4. I currently work with students in the Special Warfare PJ pipeline. I get two years with them, but they arrive straight from A&S and other grueling schools, meaning they are frequently overtrained as a whole but underdeveloped in the weight room. In order to graduate a healthy, prepared PJ at the end of two years, I start with an aggressively basic foundation. They master positions through isometrics, high-frequency training at moderate loads and linear progression. While not sexy, the results were startlingly effective.
As you read through these scenarios, I hope you have recognized the importance of teaching and focusing on the basics. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve strayed from basic exercise and loading schemes from time to time myself, but the majority of the performance puzzle was solved by focusing on exercise technique, running technique, consistency in the gym through linear programming and promoting a competitive culture.
Executing the Basics
Aggressive mastery of the basics is a commitment to vanilla training. There’s little fluff and lots of meat and potatoes. In order to truly master movements, they should be performed often, without fatigue and under varied constraints. After all, strength training is truly skill mastery: increase motor unit recruitment and firing rate. If the goal is to improve a skill (ie: sprinting, rucking, lifting) it should be done often, with stimulating loads, not annihilating loads. As a coach, your tool belt should be full of drills that help teach patterns, tempos that foster controlled movement and loading patterns that stimulate adaptations without excess fatigue.