This is the eighth instalment of a series of interviews with industry leaders in fields such as Strength & Conditioning, Coaching, Physical Therapy, Sports Psychology, Nutrition & Physical Education.
In this latest post we hear from Queensland based Level 3 ASCA Strength & Conditioning coach, Grant Jenkins. I originally began to follow Grant on Twitter after Ian McKeown (PAFC) retweeted one of his posts and was instantly drawn to the way he challenges the norm and his outlook on the profession. Another thing which really clicked with me was Grant’s posts were directed to not only fellow S&C coaches, but specifically to the athlete, the sport coach and even the parent.
Grant has an extensive background in the industry having worked (and working) both at the developmental and pointy end of sport, but also having been mentored by the who’s who of Australian physical preparation. Like many of the top coaches around the country (and world), Grant is a generalist by nature who doesn’t subscribe to absolutes and has more tools in the toolbox than just a hammer. He is an athlete first type of coach searching for what is going to make that individual better, rather than giving them a cookie-cutter program. If you want to hear from someone who speaks the truth, knows his craft inside and out and is a bloody good coach…Keep reading.
Enjoy the interview!
Can you share with the readers a little bit of your background (education, sports, previous/current role/interests).
In South Africa, the process is to complete a degree in Sport Science (or a Human Movement Science equivalent) and then apply for an Honours program in Biokinetics (similar to Exercise Physiology in Australia). Once graduated, you cannot register as a Biokineticist until you have completed a year-long internship (read: slave labour : ) under a recognised practitioner. I was fortunate to be accepted to intern under Jimmy Wright, the Biokineticist for the Natal Shark Rugby team. It was an ideal situation to gain experience: high performance and sports rehabilitation in the mornings; individual athletes and general population in a multi-disciplinary clinic in the afternoons.
Who are some of your major past & present influences/mentors in the S&C field?
Jimmy Wright (mentioned above) and I continue to stay in touch and bump into each other at conferences around the world. I still rely on the guidance of Mark Steele. Mark has an unbelievable ability to keep things very simple. After a chat with Mark I leave with a very clear mind, and sometimes wonder what I was confused about. I mean this as a compliment when I say his programs have hardly changed over the past 15 years, and they still get great results. Mark introduced me to the works of Mel Siff (think: Supertraining, Facts & Fallacies, etc.) and although we only communicated via email, Mel always took the time to answer my questions in such a way that I learnt as much through the process as I did with the final answer.
I recently wrote a blog titled The Strength & Conditioning Network; it is clear you have a very extensive network of colleagues in the industry, both locally and globally. Can you explain the importance of this network to your development as a Physical Preparation coach?
Alex Hampton wrote ‘It’s not what you know, it’s not even whom you know but who knows you’ and this can be very important in the early stages of one’s career: we see jobs filled long before the ads go out. At the moment I enjoy catching up with my colleagues as much for the friendship as the information sharing. Since I believe we all have access to the same information, it is more about how we process and apply that information that sets the great coaches from the rest. And the good thing is that many of the leaders in the coaching world share their experiences quite freely. Guys like Darren Burgess, Lachlan Penfold, Jeremy Sheppard & Damian Marsh have been open with some of the top-end stuff they’re exploring and implementing. Working mainly in the private sector this is a very important area of my professional development, as I don’t often have the ability to share information at the proverbial water cooler. These things don’t just happen though. Like any relationship, it takes work and plenty of giving. While on the subject of network, working the private sector it is important to have a solid network of physiotherapists, massage therapists, sports physicians – basically anyone who can also help your athletes. Ideally, this network must be the some of the best in their respective professions AND be able to prioritise seeing your athletes. This has been a big part of what has been achieved in a very short time.
I initially came across some of your work through a retweet from Ian McKeown; can you describe what influenced you to begin your blog and how it has evolved over time?
I started propelperform while I was employed at Tennis Australia as my private/consulting work began to become a legitimate form of income. I didn’t have a marketing budget, so word of mouth was how it grew and I needed a contact page – in case someone wanted to get in touch. Over time (my business partner at the time) David Hodge and I wrote some articles and realised that there are many great coaches who just needed a place to post their thoughts for the whole coaching community to benefit. If you read through some of guest authors you’ll see that many are leaders in their field, some working in the NFL, in the US College system, AFL… There are coaches like Brendyn Appleby, Ian McKeown & Emily Nolan who have some serious runs on the board when it comes to improving athletic performance. In terms of content, a lot of what I write about comes from regular conversations I have with Coaches, Athletes & Parents I work with on a day-to-day basis; or ideas and influences I have been implementing in my coaching. I figure, if people asking these questions, or being confused by certain information there must be others that need similar guidance too, so why not post it and make it available to everyone.
You are a Level 3 accredited coach under the Australian Strength & Conditioning Association coaching structure; can you detail how ASCA has been part of your development as a coach?
ASCA has been a huge influence in my career. In fact, one of my biggest regrets in my career is gaining my Level 1 & 2 through the “Recognition of Prior Learning” process rather than attending the courses. Now that I present those courses, I see the learning that occurs not only from the slides and the lectures but also through the other attendees and wonder how much I missed out on. Returning to your ‘networking’ question: spending a weekend (Level 1) or two weekends (Level 2) together is a great way to expand your knowledge and network. I did the Level 3 course in 2008 and it was fantastic to not only meet and interact with the other participants but being able to have meals with lecturers like David Boyle and Dan Baker.
You have a breadth of experience in the profession from working with Rugby Codes, Elite Tennis players to action sports such as BMX and Skateboarding; can you explain the philosophy or principles you follow when working with various athletes?
My overriding principle is to build a Healthy Person, then a Healthy Athlete, then a Healthy Sportsperson. The first phase has a focus on building resilience, addressing injury concerns, looking after nutrition, etc. Phase 2 has an emphasis on General Athletic Qualities – jumping, hopping, pushing, pulling, bracing, etc. Once they can do that, they have ‘earned the right’ to progress to Phase 3 where we place a importance of performance.
Within that paradigm, it is important to work from the performance backwards rather than testing forwards. I know that sounds basic (and it is) but as a profession we are sometimes guilty of improving numbers in the gym (bench, squat, 40m time, etc.) and think we’ve done our job. For example, if my test results suggest my Athlete is unfit but they’re covering every inch of the field or finishing their races strongly, I throw out the test. It’s the performance on the track, field, pool or court that counts.
This principle guides me in three ways.
- Firstly, it also means some of our sessions might not be training at all. Understanding that my Athletes are people first, we might chat about sleep or nutrition or something that has nothing to do with training but could be hindering performance.
- Secondly, I make a concerted effort to watch my Athletes compete. That feedback is way more valuable than a number in the gym. The high pressure, high speed of competition magnifies the areas the Athletes might need to improve, or the improvements they have made.
- Lastly, it frees me up from constrictive paradigms.
Too many Coaches get caught up thinking in terms of weightlifting V powerlifting; bilateral V unilateral; their way vs your way…Some of my Athletes squat with ‘weightlifting-style’ while others squat using what could be considered a Westside-style, and still others change depending on the time of the season or what they need at that moment. If I keep coming back to ‘What does this Person need?’ I don’t’ pay attention to the distractions. I think that any Coach can coach the performance, good Coaches coach the Athlete and great Coaches coach the person.
You recently developed your own facility and began working in the private sector to a greater degree with a small number of athletes; what have you found to be the main differences between this setting and previous positions?
Every single person who walks through my door wants to be there. They have made a conscious choice to have me help guide their training. Having someone put their career in your hands is a truly humbling thought.
Some of the most enjoyable posts I’ve read on your blog are those which relate to junior athletes, their parents and their coaches; can you explain your passion and focus on junior athlete development?
Up until about a decade ago, all I wanted to do was work at the pointy end (elite) of sport. Then one day I was working with a rugby league club and we’d just signed a few players from the Canberra Raiders. In one of my orientation meetings with the oldest player we were discussing his playing, training and injury history when it dawned on me, I could probably add very little to his development. He’d been in academies and training squads since his mid-teens; played professionally for most of his adult life; had at least 6 S&C coaches, almost the same number of nutrition experts… I realised there and then I wanted to contribute more: set good habits, technique and mindsets early on.
Stepping back a little… While in your role at the Tennis Australia National Academy, from a Physical Preparation view, where were you directing the majority of your focus?
David Hodge was the Head Coach at the time and had previously coached at Stanford. This meant he had a unique insight of developing a great (team) culture in an individual sport. We figured we could never predict who would ‘make it’ so focused on making sure every athlete 1) had a great work ethic, 2) was on the pathway to independence and 3) loved the sport. Every decision we made focussed on those three factors. As it was structured, I tried to achieve those goals using physical training as means; while the tennis coaches used their on-court work to achieve something similar.
With tennis not being bound by a ‘season’ can you explain the periodization/programming model used in preparing junior players for the circuit?
The simple answer is to divide the juniors into those who play the junior circuit and those starting on the professional tours. The former category is fairly straightforward. Most of these kids have their more important tournaments over the school holidays. This means there are four periods of about eight to ten weeks (term time) where training is the priority and anything from two weeks to two months where tournaments are a (slightly higher) priority. As we know, young Athletes can continue making adaptations to a program for 8 to 12 weeks, so I didn’t use any fancy periodisation models. On the other hand, junior players stepping up to the professional circuits have far more tournaments; with more varied scheduling. The better Coaches still ensure the players continue improving their physicality, even when playing tournaments. As a general rule, I’d just drop the volume to about 60% (very simplying, 3 sets becomes 2 sets) during tournaments but keep the intensity high.
Most people would associate BMX and Skateboarding with the ‘X Games’ rather than Strength & Conditioning; can you explain how you ended up in the role of preparing these athletes?
To understand my answer, I need to say I never actually wanted the Tennis Australia role. At that time in my career I was more interested in collision sports, especially since I loved the clean, squat and bench as fundamentals in most of my programs – I had a hammer and was looking for nails. Tennis taught me a lot, especially the appreciation of skill-dominant and individual sports. I loved the challenges, so when Skate Australia asked if I’d help with a national injury prevention program I knew I’d have to be creative in terms of equipment (i.e. none), program adherence AND have the foundations of a scientifically sound program. Funnily enough, working with skaters seemed to build my credibility with BMXers which built my credibility with MotoX which built my credibility with Mountain bikers…. You get the picture.
What many people might not appreciate, and I certainly didn’t, is the participants in these sports are genuine Athletes. Sure, their bench press and squat numbers might not impress most Physical Prep Coaches, but their proprioception, elasticity (think stretch-shortening), independence, resilience and robustness is often way ahead of other Athletes I have worked with.
Can you describe the current climate of how Strength & Conditioning/Physical Preparation is delivered/received in Action Sports?
With the growth in earning potential and some sports (e.g. BMX) attaining Olympic status, more and more Athletes are embracing strength, power and endurance training. They also understand injury prevention, nutrition and recovery are essential components of performance. In fact, they’re also looking at improving mental prep, technical and tactical coaching too. In other words, I’d say for the up and coming generations, they approach training much like any other Athlete would. Perhaps the only difference is that many of these Athletes are self-funding (well, for many their Parents are) where as a lot of the mainstream sports the schools and clubs provide these services.
Within the Action sport setting, what are some of the KPI’s which must be addressed from a Physical Preparation perspective to prepare the athletes’ for their events?
This is an interesting one. There are a number of us worldwide who are grappling with these questions. For example, in BMX a double bodyweight squat seems to be a minimum goal for Elite riders. And if you speak to any (older) Coach, especially former Athletes, double bodyweight is essential. But there are a bunch of us, many new to the sport, who are questioning this. Is it essential or nice to have? We probably don’t know. So the main KPI I focus on? Ensure the Athlete feels prepared.
You’ve just hosted the Junior Sport Science Symposium VI – Action & Individual Sports – Can you detail how the annual Symposium began and the main themes of this year’s conference?
Many of our colleagues use the developmental space as a pathway to work with elite athletes and seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time learning about what’s happening in the elite world rather than learning about improving their current Athletes. I know – I did this too.
The JSSS is for those that want to learn how they can improve their coaching of younger, developmental athletes. I specifically invite those who are working in the developmental space – Chris Gaviglio from the QAS, Sally Bailey from Brisbane Grammar, Tony Meyer from Golf Queensland, etc. – to share their knowledge with the rest of us. The JSSS is built on the understanding that the accumulative knowledge of the delegates is greater than anyone presenter. So the emphasis is on discussion: the Presenter is limited to 15 to 20 minutes and the rest of the hour is sharing ideas, learning from each other and even a few ‘robust discussions’.
When Darren Roberts told me he was coming over for the ASCA conference this year I figured I’d time the (6th) JSSS with his visit and tap into his knowledge of working with ‘Extreme’/’Action’ sports. While previously I have limited the delegates to ‘decision makers’, this one was open to Parents too.
There has been an influx of analytics, technology and sport science into almost every major sporting code around the world; what transfer has there been in the sports you are currently working with?
Depending on the sport, and the age of the Athlete, I get as much performance data as I can: gate times, reaction times, as necessary but on the whole I am rather low tech. I use this data mainly to help my understanding of the Sport, especially since I am fairly new to most of them I am currently working with. It’s ironic, as I become more experienced, I rely less on my ‘physical training’ knowledge and more on my ‘mental & emotional training’ knowledge.
Monitoring athletes is high on the agenda for most Physical Preparation professionals; can you explain the monitoring methods you use with the Athletes you work with?
Most of my Athlete monitoring involves 1) understanding them as a person; 2) asking how they’re going & 3) watching them move…Depending on the Athlete and the sport, I do look at some of their hopping and jumping to add some objective/historical data to their files too. I haven’t found a method that is more effective… Yet.
As an experienced S&C coach, what advice do you have for young coaches coming through the ranks, looking to further their skillset?
Firstly, every decision you make should be with an eye on keeping doors open. You don’t know where your career will take you; nor what passions might be ignited. So much like the advice you give your young Athletes, don’t specialise too early. Rather ‘sample’ – sample health & performance, sample development & elite, sample team & individual sports, etc. Secondly, you don’t have to rush the process. Coaching should be viewed as life-long profession. With this in mind, taking a few extra years to reach your goal is a lot better than peaking and burning out before you can really make a difference.
Post Script: First up, thanks to Dyl for the interview.
Secondly, I have just skimmed over what I have written and feel it’s presented coaching in a clear-cut, linear, black-and-white type of framework when it has been anything but.
Coaching is messy. There are progressions & regressions. Fits and starts… And despite how this might read, or how coaching is presented on social media, the best coaches embrace the mess.
Enjoy the journey.
Thanks to Grant for contributing to the College Strength & Conditioning Blog. Follow Grant below: