Assessing the Assessment

Posted by Tom Barry

Introduction 

As a follow on from the last article written, I contacted over 30 professional strength coaches to engage in a conversation about the topic of assessment. While obtaining data, it was evident that content differed significantly from coach to coach, mostly in its definition and implementation. 

While differences were to be expected due to personality, education, demographics, methods used, etc. I did not foresee the gap between initial assessment and overall athletic outcome. Specifically the hole between accurate internal systems to streamline and optimize data to further athletic development. 

One unique finding that arose from all these conversations was that 71% of the coaches did not evaluate the assessment; or if they did perform an internal evaluation, there were no means in place to provide significant change. 

Another important factor to note is that the 29% who incorporated forms of self-assessment, staff assessment, training assessment, and overall systems assessment had lower injury rates, consistent positive performance outcomes, and had higher rates of achieving the end states that were set at the start. 

As smart as strength coaches are, and as quick as we are to jump on the latest technological advances or methods, we seemed to have lost touch with common sense. Charlie Francis was way ahead of the curve in many aspects especially with his quote: “Common sense is not so common anymore.” 

Nothing provided below is revolutionary or game-changing as people have published an abundance of detail material addressing each section. However, you will have to read outside your comfort zone to find them. This article was generated from years of practical experience, conversations with open-minded coaches and athletes, and reading only as much as I can comprehend. Everything within it is to evoke critical thinking towards one's methodologies. 

To all who took the time to talk and divulge information I sincerely thank you. 

Anyone who would like to send an email to talk about this in detail or to chat about what forms of assessment they have in place, please send with subject line "Lets Talk About Assessment" to training@westside-barbell.com 

 Tom

Assessment

Firstly, let us create a starting point on the definition of assessment. Why? An initial athlete assessment is the linchpin of an optimal training program. Thus, it is of the utmost importance to try and have a valid starting point to generate an educated epicenter to radiate more in-depth conversations. 

 Without an accurate starting point (i.e., Definition), it will be tough to reach goals. The below definition is my best initial attempt to define assessment contextually. 

Assessment - Creating a contextual hierarchy that generates an optimal increase in physical capacity, which in turn reduces the risk of injury. Thus giving an athlete the highest anatomical chance for success within their discipline/skill by dampening noise and strengthening signal.

The goal is now to try to unpack this definition going forward. Starting with Contextual Hierarchy.

Creating Contextual Hierarchy 

It is essential to have industry norms for each sport and position to give initial parameters. However, to compare initial assessment data to these norms will not always provide accurate reference points. A contextual hierarchy is obtaining objective data based on the physical demands one will find themselves within. 

This information is correlated with one's current physical capacity; generating a valid start point for accurate comparisons for future assessments. This paints a more accurate picture of measurable progress and gives the coach precise information of the athlete's strength(s). 

Before generating an accurate assessment, some areas of potential contamination need to be highlighted. There are many to talk about, but I will touch upon the "big two".

1 - Clarity of Purpose 

Strength Coaches are a pivotal cog of a bigger picture in the role of athletic development. Some coaches, especially those at a novice level, can get this crucial point wrong. To believe your opinion is of the utmost importance and needs immediate attention and action is the wrong outlook and attitude to have. 

To let your bias and ego take over means you will have subjective contamination and high levels of emotion in delivering data. Consequently creating negative reinforcement associated with the risk of being afraid to be wrong.

Developing a contextual hierarchy for an athlete has no room for it. It is ok to be wrong in the correct setting. Especially if this leads to the generation of something that is right. Our job is to put forward objective (honest) data for the interpreter, i.e., Head Coach, Athlete, Team, etc.; in order for them to make as an informed decision possible for the creation of a complete hierarchy of training necessary for optimal athletic output.

2 - Values dictate Perception

I have witnessed a strong correlation between the views of a strength coach and of the individual(s) they have interned and learned from. Any coach who values critical thinking will build the informed opinion of an intern. If you are only learning how to do and not how to think, well it's in your best interest to get out or pave your way through the internship and ask as many questions as possible.

 You need to be able to form an intelligent thought and rationale for what you are doing. An advantage you can give yourself over others is to think logically and deeply. The more you practice, the more competent you become, which raises the importance of hands-on experience. 

 Practical experience allows you to put theoretical knowledge into a real-world setting. Quickly you find out what works and what does not and about how much you have learned, or to your dismay, what you have not learned. Though this may seem counterintuitive, I have learned an abundance of valid information from working manual labor jobs, running a business, understanding the basics of manufacturing, and interacting with customers in both positive and negative situations. 

These experiences have greatly influenced and aided towards my strength and conditioning thought process. Manual labor has humbled many of us to no end. It made interning for 12-15 hours a day for little to no pay a welcome escape. It also taught us to be on time, necessary logistics and to never stand around with hands in our pockets! 

Sadly I think this foundational pillar of development is lost on some of the current student strength coaches who expect to walk into a paid internship and have never left cozy confinements of the weight room. To conclude, it is common to hear you have to “perfect the art” or “learn the trade” of Strength and Conditioning. 

Maybe a trade approach to the academic structure of strength and conditioning would not be such a bad idea? This topic may warrant a further article or at least a discussion, but there needs to be a stronger emphasis on practical elements in comparison to theory taught. 

 Now that we know of the existence of possible contamination we shall shift our spotlight to the execution of assessment itself.

Thoughts behind Assessment

There are many ways to asses. Some more efficient than others but they all lead to much better outcomes compared to those who don't assess accurately or at all. I have boiled down some of what I think the critical parts of an accurate assessment are in the below points. These are not all encompassing but at the very least will generate some conversations and maybe help you self-evaluate your current process.

1 - Micro to Macro

Without adequately functioning joints how can we expect an athlete not to get injured? As a strength coach, this should worry you. If you do not know the joint integrity of an athlete, they could be a walking injury time bomb. Injuries could occur within the sport, within a practice, in the weight room, or within recreational activities.

 Our core job is to reduce the perceived risk of athletic injury to its lowest level possible That's why we start an assessment from inside out or begin with the micro to determine the macro. 

An athlete should not touch a compound exercise until they have undergone a full intrinsic assessment. Non Negotiable. For an in-depth look into this, please read this article and everything else by John Quint.

2 - Context of Comparison

My goal was never to become the best athlete ever; it was simply to become the best athlete I could be.

~ Michael Phelps 

 Witnessing coaches obsessing overbroad data comparisons to the point of corruption still fascinates me. Please allow me to indulge in self-reflection for the next few paragraphs, as it might prevent you from falling for the same traps that I once naively leaped head first into. 

 During my greenhornS&C days, obsessing over irrelevant data was standard practice. For something that now goes against basic logic, systems, and common sense, was in the past standard procedure. Why? The answer is simple, I rushed. In a mad dash to become “the best strength coach” that ever lived, I was utterly oblivious to learning from the experience and interaction with the athlete.

 I picked a model athlete, researched EVERYTHING possible on their training, personality, and records. This was to be the athletic blueprint for every athlete that I coached within that specific demographic. One such data-driven episode of S&C malpractice that occurred was of my use of a tendo unit. 

The reading output showed an athlete was “slow” on the concentric portion of a lift compared to his teammates. No questions, no thoughts, and no common sense because the magic box told me what I wanted to see. The athlete is slow, so I must make the athlete fast. 

For three weeks I was fixated on increasing speed. That was the all-encompassing focus of training. Little did I know (nor did I ask), that they happened to be performing exceptionally well within their position up to that day of assessment. As you most likely guessed, after the gospel of the tendo had spoken, I had informed the athlete they were not as fast as others, and their performance took a nosedive. 

Psychologically the athlete's confidence had taken a considerable blow. The weight room training protocol was accurately answering to all the wrong questions, so inevitably that went backward. THANKFULLY! I realized that there was a significant malfunction in the system and it took the loss of a client and the work of four men to generate my paradigm shift from External to Internal comparisons. 

  1.  Louie Simmons 
  2.  Dan Pfaff 
  3. Charlie Francis 
  4.  Harvey Dorfman 
(There are common traits to be found between these pioneers so I encourage you to read, watch, and listen to anything you can from them. You owe this to yourself and your athletes.

 If I had a simple process of root cause analysis in place, I could have defined the parameters of “slow” by asking a few simple questions such as; 

  • Is this athlete slow compared to their previous assessment figures? 
  • Is this athlete slow at their given sport? Is a lack of strength speed impacting their athletic performance? 
  • If possible to increase speed strength, what is the trade-off? (Speed vs. Accuracy) (Energy System) (Other strengths) 

 Learning from this I began to put in a simple checklist to create four guidelines for a context of comparison:

  1.  1- Initial baseline data can be compared to “industry norms” as there is no other available frame of reference.
  2.  2- Athletes should be analyzed within the demographic they partake in. 
  3.  3- Future Assessments must compare the athlete to their previous data. Not others. 
  4. 4- Only use data for review and avoid using it as a method of athletic cartography. 

context of comparison checklist

Step One
Initial baseline data can be compared to “industry norms” as there is no other available frame of reference.

Step Two
 Athletes should be analyzed within the demographic they partake in. 

Step Three
Future Assessments must compare the athlete to their previous data. Not other.

Step Four
Only use data for review and avoid using it as a method of athletic cartography. 

Just as Mr. Phelps quotes at the top of this section, our goal is to become the best coach that we can be. We must never loose sight of that fact.

3 - Key Performance Indicators (K.P.I.s)

Think of KPI's as a tool to ask critical questions to obtain answers of contextual importance. The objective data is then stored within an athletes personal inventory of current athletic worth/output. So to say KPI's are critical is a considerable understatement.

Each athlete will present their KPI’s as their training evolves allowing you to create strong correlations from the weight room to performance. As experience grows the list of individual KPI’s in inventory becomes more and more valuable.

However, the above statement will only hold true if the system of assessment in place allows for fluid filtration. To take this one level deeper, you must have a method to filter and eliminate the faulty from valid information, (Subjective from Objective), on obtaining optimal athleticism.

Finally, I highly recommend anyone who can watch Chris Hatfield master class to do so. One of the many nuggets of knowledge from it was called creating a "One Pager." Having a single sheet of paper that gives you a summarized overview per athlete, per sport, per position, is a fantastic tool to have at your disposal.

4- Feedback Loops

Communication is critical. There must be a feedback loop between each of the elements of the athletes training (See Diagram 1.2)

Any breakdown in communication leads to a system error. The severity of the error(s) will be based on the importance of the information lost or not transmitted. Make sure there is a system in place that allows for information to flow freely between all parties.

 Everyone's information provides equal merit within the decision-making process. This process needs to be evaluated and tested monthly. It is necessary to have a basic understanding of what a feedback loop is. Even though there are many valid definitions, for the interest of simplicity we will use the following: 

A relationship between variables in a system where the consequences of an event feed back into the system as input, modifying the event in the future.

Lidwell 2010

When working to obtain optimal physical capacities, we will deal with two forms of feedback: Negative and Positive. Both provide specific streams of information. Thus, it is VITAL to understand the context of each feedback loop, as well as how they function independently and interdependently. 

For example, a feedback loop can be inverted; meaning that a negative loop can lead to positive outcomes and positive can lead to negative outcomes. Each sport, athlete, organization, is comprised of multiple intricate interacting loops of which system error within one no matter how small can (and usually does) have a butterfly effect on all, leading to catastrophe. 

In summary, it is not sufficient to understand that there are feedback loops. The context of each loop and its relationships to others on athletic development is critical as it provides holistic clarity of purpose to derive accurate feedback.

5 - Reassessment to Self Assessment

Reassessment 

 A head strength coach MUST have reassessment procedures in place to ensure optimal development to reduce chaos. Every stimulus provided via training can have very different outcomes on the individual athlete. Therefore it is of the utmost importance to evaluate the athlete, the system, equipment, and findings regularly.The frequency of evaluation will be case and context dependent. A sample of such frequency can be seen below; 

Micro Assessment 1 - 7 Days

  • Example - Internal Hip Rotation Example - Athlete feedback, Coaches feedback 
  • Example - Weekly review 

Macro Assessment 4 - 8 weeks 

  • Example Maximal Strength Development, Speed Strength Development, etc. 
  • Example - End state Assessment 

Finally, remember it is of no use to have reassessment procedures in place without strategies to implement change, if needed, from findings.

Self Assessment 

Take a simple idea, and take it seriously.

Charlie Munger

The pace at which we try to digest information from feedback while attempting to optimize athletic chaos is so rapid that we move onto the next task without giving ourselves a debriefing. This "time-out" would allow us to process and absorb all that has happened. Enter Reflection. 

One of the most significant improvements I have made to my personal and professional development is the process of self-reflection. Which is a non-negotiable designated time slot where you reflect on everything you have done over a short period (Usually 3 - 7 days). 

I usually try to do this while in a float tank as there are no distractions and maximal opportunities to think as deeply as needed. Reflexion must become a foundational rule for all. Implementing this straightforward aspect into one's current systems perspective will yield substantial investments of intellectual net worth. 

Some sample of simple questions to ask; 

  • How were my interactions with others? Staff, Athletes, Customers, Family, Spouse 
  • What did I Learn from my athletes? 
  • How could I Improve? 
  • How authentic are my actions and thoughts? 
  • Are my athletes getting this best training and information possible? 
  • How can improve the weight room experience to maximize athletic results Who in the industry is doing a great job and why? 
  • Are my methods objective and with minimal bias? 
  • How am I dealing with subjectivity in and how is information being stored and presented? 
  • What have my athletes and experiences taught me this week?

Final Thoughts

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman

An accurate assessment procedure takes time. Usually around four weeks to get specific insight into the athlete. However, after one day you begin to obtain a solid foundation and insight. The data collected will allow for the generation of optimal program development. 

Whichever method of training you subscribe with its objective is to deliver the minimal amount of stimulus that obtains maximal results. As Henk Kraaijenhof said, “Train as often as necessary, not as much as possible.” Finally, no matter how proper your assessment procedures, training programs, and recovery methods are, the sporting success will be the most sought after and accepted measure of assessment! (Connolly 2017)

To have objective data ready to show aims, progress made towards them, and protocols in place maintain order could be the difference between long-term employment/success and failure.

References

Lidwell, W., Holden, K., & Butler, J. (2010). Universal principles of design: 125 ways to enhance usability, influence perception, increase appeal, make better design decisions, and teach through design. Rockport.

Phelps, M., & Abrahamson, A. (2009). No limits: The will to succeed. Pocket. 

Kraaijenhof, Henk, et al. What We Need Is Speed: Scientific Practice of Getting Fast. Ultimate Athletic Concepts, 2016.

Connolly, F. (2017). Game Changer. Victory Belt Publishing.

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