Podcast #8 – Steven Plisk

October 23, 2009 at 2:27 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The interview with our latest guest, Steven Plisk, was unfortunately not able to be podcasted because of some severe technical difficulties we had with the audio recording software we were using. We were able to transcribe it though into this readable format so at least we can get the main portion of the interview across to the listeners.

Here is a much condensed bio for Steven Plisk:

Steven Plisk is the Proprietor & Director of Excelsior Sports, and has over 20 years of experience in Sports Performance and Strength & Conditioning.  He earned his BS in Exercise & Sport Science at the University at Buffalo and his MS in Kinesiology at the University of Colorado. Steve is a prolific author and presenter at professional conferences and symposia, and chaired the original Strength & Conditioning Professional Standards & Guidelines project.

His detailed resume can be found HERE.

Keats: Steven, we understand that you are actually no longer involved the coaching business anymore and have recently retired from the industry; but you are still involved professionally in some consulting, you’ve got some products as well. Can you tell us a little about what you’re doing with that?

SP: Sure, I don’t do the day-to-day coaching anymore but I am still involved in the professional developmental aspects of the field. The main thing I have on my agenda right now is a conference I’m running with Dartfish, at Cortland State University, which is part of the SUNY System in upstate New York, and we’re doing that next month which is going to be a cool 2-day symposium. I’m also working with some other colleagues and partners on some products we’ve developed; we have a National Combine Preparation DVD set that we’ve prepared; just all things related to trying to help the field from an educational standpoint.

Patrick: Speaking of that educational standpoint, you place a high demand on evidence-based practice, understanding the science behind strength & conditioning is something that is very important to Keats and myself as well. So for the listeners, can you explain a little about your coaching philosophy and basic ways that you may go about developing a training program for an individual using the science that we currently have available to us.

SP: Sure. Well, being evidence-based is crucial; it’s also seems to be a guaranteed way to make sure that you are a very lonely person; and not very popular. But I can sum up my philosophy into two buzzwords: one is being multidisciplinary. That’s a real hack-kneed term that gets bounced around a lot in this industry, and I’m not sure many who use it really know what it means. But I don’t think we really have a choice in this field because there are so many different disciplines that are involved. Not just from the sciences that are involved – the physiology, the mechanics and so forth; the psychology and all the other retractable aspects, the teaching and the management and so on…I think that being a “generalist” it that sense, is a real important thing to be. The other thing I’ve learned is that, there’s a concept out of management called “best practices,” which might be the most underrated idea in the world. I hope it get more popular because it’s really important. Basically it shows that certain things work better than others. And those things aren’t always really highly scientifically validated; its kind of interesting because what you realize is that evidence exists on a spectrum; there’s an idea called “level of evidence” and Best Practices is based on the idea that empirical evidence is still really valuable, and still need to be battle tested; it still needs to be validated. But it does still take you to a place that is evidence-based and it takes you to a place that’s principled; and those are two truly extraordinary things to be and also really important.

Keats: Wow, that is a very interesting concept. I read about this in some of your writings on your website and it struck me as extremely important concept for people in this industry to understand. It makes sense that not everything in the lab is or a research setting is how things are going to work on the field or court or in real life. However we obviously need to have the more structured and organized lab tests to isolate a specific motor quality, variable or element in a study. Without a true science lab available the coach or strength professional still needs to have an organized way of thinking to determine what the best use of training time is I suppose.

SP: You realize through empirical evidence and experience; it gets right into the whole issue of how coaches and scientists should get along. I don’t know if a lot of coaches appreciate the fact that empirical evidence is were most good scientists are looking for their ideas.  There are definitely some scientists that are just wearing a lab coat and trying to get the research money and researching the not so practical stuff; but a good practical scientist is looking to us for empirical ideas that they can then go test in the lab and validate or disprove.  But that is were they generate their best ideas.

Patrick: You have to give the scientists the questions to ask otherwise they don’t know what the hell you are doing.

SP: You do, and it kind of shows up when some people who work in the field tell you, “When a scientist can show me how to coach, I’ll show you what to research.”  I think those guys are missing the point!

Patrick: You, as the coach, have got to show them what to research.

SP: Yes, and you have to have a collaborative mindset in the first place.

Keats: Yea, I always find it kind of odd when I have talked to various strength coaches or people that are involved in various universities that may have a very well known researcher, like Zatsiorsky over at Penn State, and there is not really a big collaboration between what he is doing and having an influence on the football program or the other sporting coaches.  They are so separate, even here at Arizona State, I would say the psychology people have the biggest influence, when I went through that program at least, in terms of working with the athletes a little bit, but the rest of the stuff was like two different universes.  There wasn’t much of a melding of the minds, which always seemed odd to me that you wouldn’t take advantage of enhancing those professional relationships between the coaches and scientists.  I guess it is what it is.

SP: It is, and it is unfortunately very common and it gets into the history and past interaction a lot of those folks have had.  But there is a huge opportunity lost.  A lot of times there are very good people working side by side and as you guys just pointed out, they aren’t interacting or helping one another the way they could.  It does get very frustrating.

Patrick: It seems like there is an interesting relationship at University of Conneticut.  Every time I have seen William Kraemer speak, he is always talking about his non-linear or undulating periodization research and how they have tried to implement it with the basketball team or some of the other sports teams at the university.  It seems like there, they may have a little more collaboration between the coaches and what he is doing in the lab.

SP: They do have an interesting relationship, and there are a few other places like that around the country.  I have gotten the chance to sit in on some of the pow-wow’s between Dr. Kraemer and Jerry Martin and his staff and I know they have got a good situation at the University of Kansas as well.  So there are some really good situations here and there.  But it definitely seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Keats: Interesting!  Changing topics here, in a blog article you wrote a few months ago, you wrote about specific and generic demands in training.  Can you tell us a little bit about how this applies to training and were coaches and parents of young athletes are often missing the boat when they want their “little Johnny” to always be in programs that are really “sport specific” and look like they are going to improve specific qualities, when really that may not be what they need at all.

SP: Well, you just touched on probably the third rail of training here, because at some point with this topic, you are going to get zapped.  You’re absolutely right; most people want something very specific and usually want it very early in their child’s development.  There are a couple of distinct problems there and it’s nobodies fault, but it just seems to be the way things are.  The first problem is that the training out to be really educational, in a sense that if a 10-year old athlete walks in your door, that is still a 10-year old, and they are not ready for what a 15-year old or a 20-year old might do.  This can be a difficult concept to get across to baby boomers, because they are a little crazy, and full disclosure, I am one myself, so I appreciate the mentality.  The generic demand that is not being addressed adequately in this country – and again which is a great way to make yourself really unpopular fast – the generic demand is running!  And here is the problem.  If you look at our national standards for physical education, which is were all movement skills really should be taught, it is quite comprehensive but they have neglected the skill set of running and jumping.  They mention it at certain points as kind of an applied or off-handed thing but at no time in our national standards for phys. ed. does it say, “here is when you should introduce marching, skipping, and running mechanics and so on, and furthermore, here is how to teach them.”  This is a crucial blind spot because it is kind of like not teaching English class in the academic curriculum – we are just going to let you pick that up on your own while we throw other applied subjects at you.  If you have ever turned on videography equipment when athletes are moving, especially when they are running, and just looked at it in slow motion, you guys and everybody working in the field will discover that most kids don’t run correctly as a result of that.  And that is not an opinion; you can actually compare them with the technique that actually works – the technique and elite athlete would use.  So that is kind of the problem, because that is the generic skill set that is happening regardless of whether you stick handle or dribble or shoot or pass or anything else you can do.  But it seems to be the last thing a lot of parents and coaches have in mind and that has huge implications when you think about it.

Patrick: The thing about that is people don’t want to hear the truth.  Parents will tell you how they want you to take their 15-year old kid and totally blitz them and make them throw up, or they want their kids on an overspeed treadmill to learn to run faster…It makes them work really hard, so it has to be better!  People don’t want to hear that their kids have to learn how to jump and land and learn basic mechanics before we can do anything.  We need to learn basic exercises – can you even do a body weight squat properly, or a chin up, or pushups?  Unfortunately, it is so weird that parents and coaches don’t even want to hear you talk about that stuff because to them, it is to basic – there is no possible way that it could work!

SP: Right! And we are victims of the fact that people paint us as glorified fitness instructors, so they struggle to see a new way, and they don’t always warm up to the idea of being a teacher first, where not puking may be the best thing we can do today.  I understand that half the kids they bring to us may have some hyperactivity issues and they just want to calm them down on the ride home.  I can fully appreciate those issues, but at the end of the day what seems to be the best for that young athlete’s development should be the driving force there.

Keats: You have talked a little bit about Istvan Balyi, who talks about developmental processes and the ABS – Agility, Balance and Coordination – and how important it is at the younger ages to not specialize, but rather to develop those basic movement qualities, like you just talked about, and some of the things that were happening more in Eastern Europe in their heyday, when they were dominating sports – not that they are not doing it today.  But there was such an emphasis at such a young age on the generics, the basic fundamentals, and all the other stuff will come into place as the athlete develops and matures.  You are really setting them up for injury and poor performance, as they get older if you specialize to early.  That seems to be the biggest problem in this country.

SP: You are absolutely right.  The international community has been onto these ideas for decades.  It is a different approach where they do understand the role of pre-requisites, and that is really what they are talking about when they discuss general preparation training.  But, they have also embraced some other really interesting bodies of evidence.  There is a really interesting trend that has arisen out of the motor learning literature called the 10-year rule or the 10,000-hour rule.  What the Eastern European’s have known for a long time is that if you want to achieve mastery in anything, including athletics, you are looking at a long-term investment.  Now, if you want to be a grand mater at chess or a musician or a physicist, that is one thing, and it still involves a huge amount of time and preparation of about 10-years or 10,000-hours of really deliberate preparation, and this seems to be the average.  When we are talking about getting on your feet and running and jumping around and lifting barbells, 10,000-hours, which is about 1000-hours a year is a heck of a lot of work!  You need to build up a heck of a lot of stress tolerance.  So that is why they start them young and use a prerequisites first approach, and they really weren’t kidding around when it came down to how much work volume they threw at even the youngsters, because they knew that if you can’t tolerate these workloads, you are never going to get there.  When you back engineer that whole approach, it looked pretty ruthless, but it was really based on the same thing it takes to get you to the world championships of any event.

Keats: Yea, there is a guy here in Arizona by the name of Jay Schroeder, who does all this “Russian stuff” and he says he doesn’t use any Olympic lifts with his athletes – which is his preference – and his reasoning was that the American physical education system is so poor that most people don’t have the prerequisite mobility and movement to do the Olympic lifts.  Certainly there has to be a kernel of truth there.  That is his rationale behind not even doing them, but of course he is doing a lot of really aggressive force absorption stuff which may be equally as hard on the joints or more-so than Olympic lifting.  But, I do suppose he does have a kernel of truth in that people are relatively physically illiterate, I suppose would be the term, and then in high school they may start doing some weight training and if they are good enough they will make it to a collegiate program and then all of a sudden they are doing these maximum effort type of lifts, and you have to wonder how long they will be able to tolerate that without that foundational base of training, that they didn’t get.

SP: That is a decision that everybody has to make – what movements do they want to teach or how to simplify them for the athletes they work with and you have to respect the coach’s prerogative there.  But, at the end of the day, most movements that involve some technique can be simplified in my experience, at least to an extent.  You can usually introduce them, even if you don’t do the full technique.  I have never been somebody who needed to teach somebody to do a full squat clean or snatch, and for that matter catching was never a big priority in the early preseason, where we were just trying to pull and get in that position and generate that power.  But, I can totally appreciate the challenges there, because if you get a lot of athletes, or even if you don’t, even if you are trying to do a bang up job with small groups or just individuals, the stuff that works tends to be pretty time intensive, and everybody has got their own approach to it.  I don’t know Jay, but I know he is a pretty innovative guy.

Patrick: Time intensive, but also, as Keats was saying, the kids don’t have a whole lot of movement capacity and they go to high school and they start lifting weights for the first time, and then they go to the college program; and I have talked to a number college strength coaches for the football teams who are just amazed that in their incoming freshman class needs to be taught how to do a basic body weight squat.  That is crazy to hear considering they went through four years of high school sports, lifting weights with there coach, and they are not proficient in that basic movement!

SP: It is.  It is a travesty and unfortunately when we look at how most high schools are equipped and staffed, it is actually understandable.  They just don’t have the facilities and they do not staff them or supervise them adequately, and in a lot of cases, they just try and pile 50-people into a room that can take half that many and tell them, “here, go do this program”.  There are still a lot of cookie cutter programs being used as well.  I even experienced that when I was working here in the private sector.  There were coaches in or around the town where we were located that just wouldn’t work with us because they had bought something out of a catalog and that was what they were doing.  It is really unfortunate and it gets even worse once you look past football because those are the sports that couldn’t generally get in the weight room at all!  A lot of schools, from the time class gets out until the time the team gets done, we have a two hour window of time where nobody else could get in the weight room if they wanted to!  That is a common problem in a lot places and it definitely changes the game when they get to the next level.

Patrick: The other thing about having a cookie cutter program, is that I find a lot, at least out here, that the person that is taking the kids into the weight room is their coach who may have purchased the cookie cutter program, but has no coaching skills as far as teaching the lifts.  I have even contacted some coaches and said, “I’ll come down and do a free workshop for you and show you how to teach these kids these exercises and how to cue the exercises so that the kids can get the most out of them.”  It is amazing at how turned off they are to having someone come in or how defensive they are about their program.

SP: Coaches are interesting people.  There are good ones, and then there are all the rest of them.

Keats: That sums it up pretty well!

Patrick: You have been in the industry a long time, and have worked with a lot of high-level athletes and collegiate athletes.  The big question is, how has the industry changed – for better or worse – and what kind of common errors do you see coaches making these days?  Maybe you can do a little baloney detection for us!

SP: Jeez, my baloney detector has been in the shop so many times, I don’t know if it works anymore!  It’s gotten kinda burned out over about 20-years.  The trends in this field are that deafening noise that we are getting peppered with all the time.  The world has gotten to be an interesting place with the internet and the ability for anybody with a connection to declare themselves an expert and start pontificating on things.  That is problem number one and it trumps all the other problems put together.  There are definitely some agendas at work in terms of profit motives and people seem to re-invent themselves every year or two and come out with a little program or widget or whatever it is and then they basically do an infomercial to sell a lot of them.  But, it is shaping belief systems in the process.  That is just the private sector having an influence on the field.  It is understandable.  The bigger issue is that if people do have their BS detector working, they can sniff this stuff out; they can still walk through it and find a very sound strategy to work with their clients.  The thing to me is, “how do you tune out the noise?”  And focus on the stuff that matters, especially when everyday is urgencies, surprises and headaches of being understaffed or whatever.  It is not easy to step back and say, “Hold on! Let me tune out that stuff.  Here is what matters.”  Especially when a lot of the clients you are working with are saying, “But that’s not what we want.  We do want the noise!”  That is when it gets very frustrating and challenging.

Keats: So basically the ability to filter out the nonsense is what helps you get to that best practices approach.  That essentially helps us find what is useful and, as Bruce Lee said, “discard what is useless”, and just hold onto the stuff that is going to apply to your specific athletes or training population and just get rid of the rest of the stuff.  That is the problem I see with the internet, there is just to much information.  People don’t even know how to disseminate the truth and most people aren’t trained in sports science and don’t know the basics of motor control, motor learning, exercise physiology, basic science, kinesiology and all those things that good coaches need to be generalists in and people don’t even have a background or understanding in one of them.

Plisk: And even when they do have that background, it is open to misinterpretation and things can get very interesting, very fast.  But that is why; the best practices paradigm is essential.  If you circle back to that and unpack that idea, it is one of the things that will help us sort this stuff out really well, because when you look at what it means and when you look at what being principled really involves, it doesn’t mean, “Well, I am going to try and do the right thing today”, in kind of a vague sense.  What it really means is, “I have got a set of principles that I believe in so strongly, that I can spell them out clearly for everybody to see.”  Furthermore, when somebody walks up to me and says, “What does this one mean?” I can actually explain it to them, even if that person is a child.  I can explain it to them in terms that they can understand.  It gets very interesting because the principles themselves aren’t very exciting, but when you look at them in context, there are a lot of decisions there and a lot of challenges involved in making them work.  That to me is a huge concept to work with because all of a sudden it helps you see what actually works and it helps you deal with the folks that still don’t want to “get it”, but at least there is something to lean on that you can say, “hey, this isn’t my opinion.”  Those principles have been around for a long time and I’ve read about them and post them everywhere I can and all I did was borrow them in wordsmith. I didn’t have an original idea there.  But that is the beauty of it, they show up everywhere you look, if you take that evidence based approach to the field.  They just keep bubbling up to the surface.

Keats: So true.  There is a lot of good information you have written on these ideas that are available on your website.  Can you let our listeners know what your site is and where they can find your writings and the combine prep DVDs that you developed, as well as any conferences you may be involved with or organizing in the future?

SP: Sure.  My website is www.excelsiorsports.com.  From there you can link to our blog and our youtube page and you can check out the NFL Combine DVDs there and if you are really glutton for punishment, we even have some of our articles archived there.  There is lots of information for people to check out on the site.

Keats: Yea, Patrick and I have enjoyed reading the articles and we have talked about getting you on here since late spring, so we were really excited for this interview to help get your info out to people and keep this best practices approach and the truth in the limelight, as the “noise” tends to drown things out and muddy up the field a bit.

SP: Well thank you guys for following up with me on this.  It’s interesting, you get some flashes of interest on these issues, but it is really challenging to keep people’s full attention to focus on stuff that appears to be to basic or to fundamental.  And at the end of the day, that is where it’s at because when you look at the big mistakes in the field, you can almost always back engineer them to something fundamental that is being overlooked or misinterpreted and if you look at the people that have had great success in all situations, they are the people that don’t make those mistakes.  They are just fundamentally so sound in a few basic things that they don’t mess up, even under pressure.  It is very interesting.  That is the big take away for our field, in my experience.

Keats: Well, we want to thank you so much for coming on and if you are willing, in the future if we have a specific topic that might be more pertaining to power or some specific motor quality, we would like to get your opinion again, if that would be something that you would be willing to do.  I think our listeners would definitely enjoy it.

SP: I’d be happy to.  Thanks again for the chance to join you today and I will be happy to come back and drill into some other topics.

Keats: Yea, maybe in the meantime, some of our listeners who are not familiar with your evidence based approach and some of your writings can read a few of those, and when we get you on again, people might be able to send in some questions to realitybasedfitness@gmail.com and we can get you to answer those.  We want to thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Patrick: Thanks Steven.

SP: Okay guys, thank you.


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