Keir Wenham-Flatt: Military Lessons

If you haven’t already heard of Keir Wenham-Flatt, he is the rugby strength and conditioning specialist for Los Pumas Argentina and Argentina Rugby Union.

Keir is a highly qualified S&C coach boasting a number of qualifications including a Masters degree in S&C and a Bachelors degree in sports science.

His work has been featured in Mens Health, Mens Fitness and many top S&C websites. Keir is also a popular guest speaker at various universities, rugby clubs and unions.

Keir has kindly shared an interesting article with us regarding discipline within the field of strength and conditioning. I hope you can incorporate some of these suggested techniques …


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Learning lessons from the military


The longer I coach, the more I realise that though we are a science based discipline, there are limits to science in the strength and conditioning field. This is for several reasons:

  • Research almost always lags behind best practice of coaches. Coaches find what works, then researchers tell us why it works. Until as late as the 1980s, science was convinced steroids didn’t enhance athletic performance. Some people still think that about growth hormone use now. If you do everything according to the science, you risk being 10 years behind your competitors who aren’t relying exclusively on the peer review process for their training.
  • It is impossible to prove something works in the real world. Something may work well in the research, but there are a million other factors to consider in real life which may render a technique or method ineffective. Just because it works in the lab, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work with your athletes or your situation.
  • Whilst scientific research about a particular idea may be extremely promising it is often unviable in the real world for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t fit with your head coach’s philosophy, there isn’t the money, there aren’t enough hours in the day, you don’t have the staff or hours in the day to collect and process all the data it would entail.
  • There are many differences between science and real world coaching. Where science is concerned with discrete time periods and individual attributes or similar groups of attributes, real world coaching is a continuous and evolving process concerned with only one thing- winning. Likewise when something bad happens in science, you just start the study again. In coaching, successful teams must have contingencies in place for when the shit hits the fan. The game does not stop.

I should preface this post by stating that this is in no way an attack on the value of science to strength and conditioning practice. I love science, I use it every day in my work and at times I have been accused of being an overly scientific coach. Nor am I apologising for coaches who- for the above reasons- completely abandon science, shrug their shoulders, and adopt a training process that is akin to a mixture of cheerleading and throwing shit at a wall to see what sticks.




However in light of the above, the longer I coach the more I look to other fields to advance my coaching practice and the performance of my athletes. A field in which I have taken particular recent interest is the military. Though the stakes of winning and losing are obviously far higher in the military than professional sport, I have identified an interesting number of parallels between the two fields:

  • The perfect plan never exists. You go to war with the resources you have. If you don’t have a cryo chamber, tendo units, or a GPS system, well, you need to learn how to create winning team with regular old ice, a cheap ipad app, and asking players how tired they feel after every session. Don’t expend energy on worrying about what could be, deal with what is.
  • Though resources matter, far more important is organisational culture, leadership of the group and the depth of thought that goes into planning and executing the strategy. I’ve seen some truly terrible strength and conditioning programmes produce great results on the field, because whatever the programme lacked physically was more than compensated for by the culture of the team, the leadership of the players and coaching group, and a near perfect game plan.
  • Winning strategies put contingencies in place for all eventualities, because if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. What makes the difference is how you adapt to it. Do you have a plan B for when an athlete turns up exhausted, injured, can’t do an exercise or has limited time to train?
  • The list goes on. This is without getting into the great ideas we can steal from the business world, such as checklist and system development from the aviation, construction and medical industries.

For today’s post I want to share with you some insights from a fantastic podcast that highlights all the lessons that we can learn as coaches from the military. The interview was between Tim Ferris and General Stanley McChrystal, who was responsible for leading the allied war effort in Afghanistan in the 2000s. Here are some of the key points I took away from General McChrystal (my notes in italics):

*Never take advantage of anything your troops don’t get access to. If they sleep in shitty bunks, you sleep in shitty bunks (If your athletes can’t party or drink in camp, or be fat fucks who never train, you should not be either). 

*It is rarely the brightest officers or those with the best disciplinary record who make the best soldiers. Consistently it is those who are rated highest by their peers who succeed (Train the person just as much as you train the athlete. Good teams are filled with good people). 

*If you are a commanding officer, you don’t have to be able to physically dominate those under your command but you must be credible and demonstrate effort (Do not be the out of shape coach who is never seen training). 

*What would your biggest critic or worst enemy say about you as a person? If you cannot answer this question out loud perhaps you do not have the self awareness and/or courage to lead a group of people (This is getting used as an interview question for me!).

*The turning point in Gen. McChrystal’s career was when his commanding officer told him he could be great- and 35+ years later he still remembers those words and feels their effect on his career. (What can we say to our athletes to have a similar positive effect on their lives?)

*”Success is purpose of organisation shared by members of a team” (Does your team have a purpose or big vision that everyone is working towards? Is it shared and lived by everyone on the team?)

*Red teaming is key to a successful plan. Red teaming is where you ask someone from outside the team with a fresh set of eyes and ideas to tear your plan to pieces. If your plan can stand up to red-teaming, it’s a good plan. Never get married to your ideas. Always test the key assumptions of your plan.

*Learn to deal with incomplete information. The speed of warfare is such that commanding officers are forced to take decisions without always knowing the full picture. Learn how to react to new information, have contingencies in place for every eventuality, the plan should always be evolving.

*Leadership is about asking and convincing people to do things they do not necessarily want to do. Relationships are vital in this dynamic. (Great programmes often require athletes to dig deep and make tough commitments. The harder you ask them to go, the stronger your coach-athlete relationship needs to be.)

If you would like to listen to the podcast click here

You can also visit Keir’s full website to access many other inspiring blogs and podcasts by clicking here

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