Keep your tribe small and close! And what it means for coaches & leaders
In this day in age we can have massive groups and teams under our direction in the weight room and on the field/court/etc. But how do we take it to the next level? How did we get to where are we are, and will it keep working? We know that untrained athletes respond quite favourably to most general training principles. So, for new coaches that take on positions that had no previous S&C support, they tend to see quite favourable results over the beginning of their tenure. It is also accompanied by the want for more results, while simultaneously increasing the progression, quality, specificity and individualization of the training. More time is required to analyze what worked, what didn't, to research and implement new methodologies and stay on top of best practice. One thing that doesn't generally increase with this is the investment in coaches to handle the front end work or back end work that accompanies this demand. It asks the question, how many athletes can a coach realistically provide a high level of service. In this short post, I'll explore a concept from a book I've recently read, and provide recommendations for other coaches to push to their administration to ensure that resources can match expectations. I've lived this experience personally, where I was offered a position start a strength and conditioning program from scratch, servicing 10 teams, 300 varsity athletes, with less than ideal resources. Grinding and putting the time in on the floor was what I needed at the time, both to improve my craft, but also because just coaching the heck out of a solid program and showing that I cared were the two primary indicators for success. Since it's grown, so have the expectations to improve the service, both in depth and breadth, which can be challenging if you're spending longer than a 'normal' work week just coaching. For me I rely on frameworks and theory to find a way to structure the growth, and I recently read a book that helped me shape it, and provide framework for other coaches. Two concepts from the book "Culture Code" by Daniel Coyle caught my attention as an S&C coach that works with a large number of athletes and coaches, while providing what I believe is a good level of service and improved performance over the past 7 years. It did make me stop and think if these concepts relate to what I think is holding me back from taking the level of service I believe I provide from "good to great", along with the success of our teams. The two concepts are "Dunbar's Number" and the "Allen Curve". I'll expand on each of the two concepts and how to apply them in the next two paragraphs.
"Dunbar's number" is a theory that suggests that humans can hold a finite number of meaningful relationships with at a given time. This number ranges, however the most thrown around number is 150 people. In the book "Culture Code" it describes situations in prehistoric conditions where groups would naturally split off at approximately 150 people to form new tribes. In current times, this has been studied to find that the optimal divisions in companies is around this same number, since anything greater than that, people start to lose personal connection with each other, and in turn, culture is negatively impacted. Daniel Coyle also says that in addition to this total number of 150, that in order to effectively lead, a person should only have about 6 to 8 direct reports in their immediate circle. He talks about this occurring in the the highest organizations and military teams. So, why is this important for coaches? In collegiate settings, there is often only 1-2 strength coaches responsible for interacting with 100's of athletes, in addition to support staff, administration and sport coaches. Although a good strength coach can certainly positively impact a large group of people, this over reaching of relationships can certainly hold a group back from moving from "good to great". At a certain point, you'll need stronger relationships, as well as just more time to be able to effect more change. After all, what allowed a coach to take a group from beginners to good, is different than what will take them to the next level.
It's interesting to look at this issue and see how collegiate S&C coaches have worked themselves into a disadvantageous position. Through hard work, long hours and dedication, they've undoubtedly provided value with a large number of athletes. They have certainly provided value to their bosses. So, it's easy to see why administration wouldn't want to invest in a more optimal ratio of coaches to athletes. Though, I feel it is necessary to take a program to the next level. I think that at most, a strength coach should provide coaching to 100 athletes, since once you add in all the other moving pieces (coaches, therapists, interns, etc), you'll be close to the magic 150. It will allow the coach to keep strong relationships and improve the quality of service. After all, when you first start to train, everything works, but not everything works forever. This extra 'non-delivery' time would be similar to what sport coaches put in towards analyzing practices, film, communicating with staff, etc. I think at a bare minimum coaches should push for a minimum of an hour or prep time for every hour of coaching time they put in. This was highlighted by Ed Mcneely in an article on the Canadian Strength Association, who argued for at least 2:1 at the university level. The full article can be found here: http://canadianstrengthca.com/the-changing-role-of-sc-planning-the-time-outside-the-gym-for-an-sc-coach-by-ed-mcneely/ . Bottom line, if you're starting off with a new organization, push to get at least a 1:1 with the expectation to get to 2:1.
Once you have your time sorted out, it's important to create environment where you'll have multiple contacts with staff and athletes. The concept of the 'Allen Curve' is a communication theory that was researched in engineers in the 1970's. What the theory says is that as physical distance increases between individuals in an organization, their communication drops off. It has later been a focused in management theory for improving collaboration and reducing silos in organizations. I think this has a place in the world of performance with the rise in the size of support staffs. Bottom line, if we're only ever in the weight room, it will be tough to have meaningful relationships with coaches, therapists and other support staff. So, if we know that proximity is important, what does this mean for strength and conditioning.
First and foremost, I think it shows the importance of having in-house strength and conditioning staff for universities. There are still many places that send out their athletes to external facilities for their training. Although this is a good option, I think it will limit the ability to maximize overall performance in the athletes. This would also apply for other support staff that work with athletes.
Second, we as coaches need to be cognizant of our blind spots with our relationships. If we aren't in the same hallway as a other coaches, we should make a point of 'bumping into them' to maintain and build relationships with them, as well as catch up and be on the same page. Same goes for therapists and administrative staff. This strategy should be paired with having formalized on-going check-ins to make sure communication levels stay high. In a perfect world, or if you can build your facility out from scratch, you'd ideally setup offices to create natural 'run-ins' where 'water cooler' talk can occur. One thing that we do at Acadia is have 'Coach Workouts' where coach and staff can come and interact. If often leads to good discussions, which in turn can turn into lunches. I can say with certainty that the coaches and staff who come to our workouts have great working relationships, and rarely have any issues.
Finally, we need to build time in to check in with athletes and other S&C coaches/interns depending on the size of your staff. If you aren't working with all teams in your group, you should aim to make appearances at their practices, games to interact and keep up face-time. We need to remember that we can be putting in long hours for our athletes, but athletes only see the work that we put in, so there is an element to putting in face-time to make sure they know we're all-in as well.
Overall this chapter in the book provided me a great framework to organize my ideas about size of staff and the importance of maintaining the quality of our relationships. At Acadia, we'll soon be heading towards a third full time S&C coach, meaning that each coach will have roughly 100 athletes that they're responsible for. Our delivery to non-delivery ratio will improve to best serve our athletes. It will then be our challenge to make sure we're maximizing our relationships with coaches, athletes and staff. The bright side is that we'll have a minimum of 1:1 delivery to non delivery time which I think can help us perform better analysis on the impacts of of our program, and the search for the holy grail - total sports performance improvement across all areas.