Matt Dickens Explores the Difficulties in S&C
Matt has been an elite strength and conditioning coach since 2008, working with many professional athletes within various sports. He is also accredited with the UKSCA.
Currently Matt is the head of physical preparation for the Andorran National Men’s Alpine Ski and Snowboard Cross Teams.
Matt has the ability to improve athletic performance and has shown this through his work with British diving, British Snowboarding and his work with the Worthing Raiders RFC.
I particularly enjoy this article as it highlights important values within the field of sport, fitness and S&C.
The hardest part of my job is...me!
I’ve been writing this post on and off for ages now and I’ve decided to scrap everything I’d written (I’ll post it in a 3rd additional part) and be honest. Or at least tell you my latest revelation! This wasn’t intentional but I’ve recently come to the realisation that the hardest part of my job is me. There are several sub components but it all boils down to who I am.
One of my biggest core values is to always be a positive influence. I often harp on about this! But that’s because I truly believe it’s important. You’ll always hear me ask my guests on the podcast what they do to make sure they’re in a positive state of mind before working with their athletes and I’ll often quote Bob Marley who said “the greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively”.
Another core belief of mine is that life is an opportunity, whatever route you choose to pursue, you should do so with all you can. I don’t believe that being a professional athlete is for everyone, it’s not easy and I certainly never managed it, but if you’re going to pursue it, if you want to achieve something great then you really need to give it everything you have. Alongside this I choose to believe that success comes from hard work and making the most of your opportunities.
So whilst I like to be a continuous beacon of positivity, it’s not always that easy. Especially when perhaps an athlete doesn’t seem to conform to those beliefs too (particularly the second). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to force my beliefs on anyone; and if you read the last post I understand that success in this profession is all about aligning your beliefs with those around you. Sometimes rightly or wrongly, it can be difficult when you feel that you care more about the athlete’s performance/development/education than they do.
I guess in many ways we will all come across situations where our belief systems clash with those around us. I’ll give you two examples of my personal struggles and how I choose to deal with them below.
First I should point out that understanding in advance that there will always be differences of opinions & values means that you can be much better prepared in such situations to act with an open mind.
Next I will remind you that I work for the National Alpine Ski Team of Andorra. We are not Team Sky or England Rugby. Our programme is continually becoming more professional and so is the sport of Alpine Skiing. And in some areas we still need to nail the basics before we can focus on marginal gains.
1) Nutrition – this is a bug bear for me. In line with my values I outlined above and bearing in mind that the ability to recover dictates the ability to train with nutrition being an essential component of recovery, I believe that a professional athlete should eat in a way that will maximise their performance as often as possible. Unfortunately here our athletes have had little education on nutrition, falling into particularly bad habits when we are travelling.
Over the last year, with the help of a new nutritionist to the team, we have introduced a series of education to the athletes. Personally, I believe that this education plays an essential role if the athletes are going to understand why they should eat in a way that fuels their performance and recovery.
There has been an improvement, however this has only gone so far and still when we are on the road there is a lot of “crap” consumed. This is difficult for me because I find it frustrating to see an athlete that I spend a large proportion of my time trying to help, eating in a way that will certainly not improve their performance. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there are great benefits to comfort food! It’s good for the soul and we all know that the main reason there’s a sugar epidemic is because it tastes so good! Occasional treats are necessary, they just shouldn’t form the staple of anyone’s diet, let alone an athlete’s.
So here are my 2 methods of dealing with it:
Choose to ACT not REACT. This is an essential lesson I learnt from “How to win friends and influence people”. When I see my athletes eating crap on the road, a natural reaction would be to say “stop eating so much sugar” or give a disapproving look. This is not positive!! And when I have fallen into this trap in the past, I know I am unhappy with the way I’ve reacted and I know it doesn’t do much to build relationships. Maybe from the outside it shows that I care but I don’t think adolescent athletes will see it that way.
So I won’t say anything at the time and later revert to our collective approach, one that the entire support staff has decided upon (technical coaches, nutritionist, doctor & myself) which is education first. I also make sure to remind myself that on reflection, looking at the bigger picture, we are in an incredibly better position than 1 year ago.
With regards to the latest education, the athletes all know what is “good” & “bad”, macros, micros, how your body uses them and have a decent understanding of how they should eat. However they still make bad decisions. So I recently asked them 3 questions as to why?
a) “You know what you should and shouldn’t eat but you still make bad decisions, so, are you stupid?” – I don’t think so.
b) “Are you lazy? – prepping quality meals in advance takes effort and it’s much easier to buy convenience food, sugar fuelled taste bud satisfying crap from the shop.” Maybe there’s a little of this element but I don’t think it’s the main problem.
c) “Is it habitual?“- this, I believe is the main issue. Over the last 15-25 years the athletes have fallen into the same traps that most of the population do, eating food that is manufactured for profit not health with very little education on the subject.
Identifying why to any problem, helps find a solution. So we have 2 steps in place to continue improving this part of the puzzle. As I mentioned, the first part is to continue putting education first. As we’re currently on a training camp, it’s a great opportunity to spend 30 minutes a day in “class” as it were. Yesterday I taught them why as humans we love sugar so much and why food manufacturers therefore design their food to satisfy our taste buds rather than fuel our bodies. Later today we’ll discuss how our bodies respond to sugar and why we end up craving it throughout the day.
Secondly we try where we can to make it easier for them to make better choices. On half our camps we provide all the food, on others the hotel does. When I can prearrange menus with the chef it’s ideal but not always possible. And by providing “healthy snacks” and a high quantity of good food at meal times, it’s easier for them to make good choices. The next step is to convince my performance director to fund this whilst we’re actually on the road which I believe will go a long way towards breaking the habits as this is their biggest time of weakness.
Without wanting to call it a “culture clash” I guess that’s probably the best way to describe an origin of my next struggle:
2) Time – my other area of personal conflict is time management. In line with my above values, I believe time is our most valuable commodity. Sometimes I’m obsessed with productivity and being a little selfish I certainly believe that my time is precious! Whilst I understand that my frustrations are down to my own values, it’s safe to say that organizational skills are somewhat of a rarity here in Andorra. I don’t like to point the finger, but once you become used to the saying “es Andorra”, you start to realize that poor organization and time management are just commonly accepted here. I also don’t like to stereotype but there is somewhat of a lackluster “Mediterranean” mentality, hopefully some of you can relate to this without thinking I’m looking for something to blame.
For example if we’ve arranged a coaches’ meeting for 10am, I can guarantee that half the coaches will be 10-20 minutes late, have a coffee and chit chat first and it’ll be knocking on 10.45 before we get started. One coach in particular has arranged to meet me numerous times (including twice at his own house) and when I’ve called to see where he is after waiting 15 minutes, he’s told me he’ll be another half an hour or more. One time, he turned up at my house 3 hours late. It is hard to say that this is not disrespectful; I’ll elaborate on this in the next post but I actually don’t believe it us, we all have different priorities and values, and respect is just different amongst different cultures. I guess I can say that I value time with the utmost importance; others are perhaps a bit more chilled out about it. The same coach left the athletes waiting to load the van at the end of the last camp for an hour whilst he had a couple beers with another coach. The main lesson I’ve learnt here is to always have some backup work that I can be doing and ring to confirm in advance! My secondary issue with this problem is the example it sets to our athletes and the impact this has on our environment. We demand our athletes are punctual and they are fined (€2) when late, the same goes for the coaches but there is still a huge inconsistency in the message that is portrayed. This is a much bigger part of the puzzle that I’m working on. I’ve spoken to coaches about it before but I can’t say those conversations have been a resounding success. It’s much more advisable to work with an existing culture than ever try to change it! However I have recently introduced the athletes to Vince Lombardi, what he achieved in American Football and of course the principal of “Lombardi Time”. Mostly I strive to lead by example and hope that some of my values and professionalism are appreciated by those around me. I am never late.
I understand that I may create my own problems because of who I am, what I believe and the way that I operate. I believe life is an opportunity and we should really make the most of it. I don’t believe that being a professional athlete is for everyone and most people will achieve a richer life away from professional sport. However for those who do pursue that career, I believe you should do all that you can to be the best you can be. That is because I believe in always delivering my best to any given task and I invest a large amount of my time in personal development.
Having this view on life presents problems in itself. Especially when working with athletes. Mostly because motivation doesn’t come in a continuous never-ending supply, we all have bad days and believe it or not, some athletes don’t actually like training! That last point particularly can be hard to swallow for some S&C coaches because let’s face it, most of us probably got into this job because we love lifting heavy objects and chucking bits of metal around. So in dealing with this I simply try to understand that we all live in our own worlds, with our own values and our own priorities. I do everything I can to create an environment that fosters and rewards hard work but ultimately everyone has bad days, ups and downs and when my athletes are lacking motivation I’ll think twice before mindlessly pushing them on.
Despite the challenges I’ve mentioned in this post, writing this has given me a great opportunity to reflect on the progress we’ve made in the last year and a half. There will always be cultural differences and new challenges. No matter what environment you work in, I believe you should always be in the pursuit of improvement. However I’m extremely happy to say that in the last year alone the team has improved leaps and bounds, both in terms of their performance when it counts and the environment in which we work. This job is so rewarding, not only to see your athletes improve in the gym, on the field, track or slope but also to see them grow as individuals. I recently heard Ashley Jones refer to himself as an educator as well as a coach; I believe that is so true. Within the performance team the S&C coach often holds the closest role to the athletes. Therefore it is our responsibility to be a mentor as well as a coach. From my understanding this is perhaps more akin to the American approach rather than science led UK job descriptions. I don’t like to say motivator as I believe real motivation comes from within (intrinsic motivation is what counts) but we should certainly strive to inspire. I believe a person’s value is measured by their ability to positively influence the lives of others and it gives me great pleasure when I have an opportunity to do so.
What a great read! If you would like to read anymore of Matt’s articles or podcasts you can visit his website here