Coaching trees and networks are often described by specific coaching philosophies that are shared. But it is important to discern that philosophies are much more than simply stating “we are an Olympic lifting program” or a “functional-based program.” In reality, these are descriptions of tactics, not philosophies. Our philosophies are built upon principles and beliefs that create the foundation for these different methodologies or tactics.
On the surface most philosophies are hardly controversial, but it is important to define the key principles of your philosophy that will guide your day to day and hold you accountable. At Sparta, we are best known as a technology platform, utilizing software, force plates, and aggregated data to provide insights into injury risk, performance, and intervention. The product was developed over many years, out of an alignment of health and performance. Perhaps less well known, is the concurrently developed Spartan philosophy.
What is a Philosophy?
Philosophies are an approach for making sense out of complexity. They attempt to explain why things are the way they are. Oftentimes a philosophy is based on principles or key “assumptions” that form the foundation of logic for explaining things. From there, logic provides the framework that can be used to organize the complexity. As a result, agreement or disagreement with a philosophy is based on the agreement with the key assumptions, and agreement with the logic that forms the framework of understanding. Disagreement can come fully or partially at any of these junctures. Therefore, when we begin to evaluate a philosophy, we have to be sure that we are starting from the beginning – evaluating the key assumptions, and following the framework of logic toward the conclusions.
Human survival is based on the ability to make quick judgments, and often we judge philosophies based on a particular perception of the framework without understanding the key assumptions and underlying logic. Furthermore, our nature is fraught with the bias that shapes the way we see the world around us and affects our interpretation of new philosophies. Our judgments and biases are not necessarily a bad thing; they are based on experience and are an important part of how we effectively navigate our world. However, it is important to be aware of their impact on how we think. If we want to learn and grow, then we need to be alert for new opportunities to expand our philosophy and challenge our biases.
Any philosophy is underpinned by a key set of principles (assumptions) and methods (framework). When evaluating any philosophy, it is important to approach with an open mind, a deep understanding of your own philosophy (biases/judgments), and a desire to learn.
Principles are fundamental beliefs that serve as the foundation for a line of reasoning. We can think of them as the assumptions that back the Sparta philosophy. In an environment where we are rapidly learning, growing, and changing, these principles are the things that are constant and provide context for everything else. Below we cover each of the principles of the Sparta philosophy: assessment, intent, and creating a systematic approach to health and performance. If you are familiar with the big rocks, pebbles, sand, and water analogy, these principles should be thought of as the “big rocks” of our philosophy. They create the foundation around which the pebbles, sand, and water need to fit.
Sparta Philosophy Principles:
The Value of Assessment
1. the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something.
The basic concept of assessment is hardly a contentious issue. However, once you dig into the details of what qualifies a valid assessment, many people start to disagree. Physical assessment is a good place to start since it forms the foundation for all technical skills and tactical execution. Physical preparation, readiness, and resilience are all key components of health and performance for all individuals.
When it comes to assessing physical capacity, force production is fundamental. The basis of all movement starts with our interaction with the ground. Because we all live on the Earth, we are all bound by the forces of gravity. Our ability to move is best described using physics and the fundamental laws derived by Sir Isaac Newton. We have often discussed how the muscles’ ability to produce force can explain all human movement, in sport and otherwise.
With assessment being one of the services we provide, countless previous articles have discussed the topics of reliability and validity. These concepts should be at the core of any assessment, yet many coaches and practitioners continue to overlook the importance of reliability and validity in testing and new technologies. The specific testing protocols we utilize are reliable and valid tests of force production and form the foundation of a comprehensive assessment of an individual's physical qualities. Robust assessment can be used to prioritize an individual's movement needs and prescribe treatments, as well as monitor progress and validate training.
The Quality-Quantity Paradox
Furthermore, the goal of force expression is to meet the demands of the task or sport, as well as maintain readiness and resilience. This requires not just an assessment of the quantity of force production, but quality as well. Quality of force production is related to movement efficiency which leads to less “drag” - wear and tear on the body and wasted energy. Less efficient movers will have to utilize much more energy for similar output and can often develop chronic issues because of these inefficiencies. Simply put, the cost of doing business for less efficient movers is much higher.
As strength and conditioning coaches, it is easy to get distracted by the biases within our realm of expertise and base assessment of athletes solely on their 1RM strength, lifting ability, or work capacity. These quantitative measures are often prioritized based on habit and simple interpretation. Sports reward outcomes and athletes are results-based. As a result, they find a way to “accomplish the task,” often at the cost of efficiency. They may move the weight or finish the drill in the short term, but accumulate significant wear and tear on their bodies and waste a lot of energy in the long term. Two different individuals may achieve the same results, utilizing two very different solutions to do so.
The prioritization of movement quality is a trend that has been growing in recent years, however clear definitions and objective measures have been lacking. The Sparta Scans are unique in their approach to objectively quantify the quality of force production as it relates to performance and health. This gives practitioners who really believe in the importance of movement quality and want to make it the goal of their program a way to quantify results.
Specificity of Movement
Of final importance for the assessment of force is specificity. Specificity refers to the velocity, vector, and range of motion required by the task at hand. Quality force production must be able to be applied according to these specific factors. This is where Movement Signatures become so valuable. The relationships between Load, Explode, and Drive represented by different Movement Signatures give insight into velocity, vector, and range of motion strengths and weaknesses for each individual. These can then be used to understand any individual’s unique abilities based on the demands of their position, sport, or task.
Assessment is principle. Force is fundamental. Consistent objective assessment of force production can be used to provide insight into not just physical capacity, but movement quality, efficiency, and specificity.
Creating a Culture of Intent
Intent is a word that has become popularized in the physical preparation world, as it helps hold us accountable to have a reason or a ‘why’ for everything that we prescribe. The intent should also refer to the overall intention of the program itself... what is the goal of training at all?
1. intention or purpose.
It is important that this intent relates back to the end goal, which in competitive sports should be winning. As practitioners, we need to understand that what we do is a means to an end, and the only true way to judge the effectiveness of these means, is to evaluate the ‘end.’ In athletics, and many other worlds as well, there is nothing more pertinent to the goal than availability. The best chances of winning are when the best players are healthy and ready to perform - this is known as availability, also often called readiness in military populations.
Health & Performance
With this in mind, many practitioners are conflicted by whether their program should focus on performance or injury prevention. However, with an intent of availability, performance IS injury prevention. Availability aligns these to goals with a common metric. Especially at higher levels of sport, most of the athletes are there because they have a strong history of performance. While there is certainly plenty of room to improve their performance, the first importance is availability.
Strengths & Weaknesses
This concept leads to the next layer of intent which is to prioritize addressing strengths or weaknesses. Some practitioners like to focus on strengths because “that's what got us this far.” Alternatively, others focus on addressing weaknesses because that is the limiting factor for performance. A key element of the Sparta philosophy is addressing weaknesses, as this relates back to the belief that movement efficiency is key and availability is the greatest ability. This can perhaps be best visualized as the "barbell strategy," where more time and effort is put into addressing weakness with less time and effort put into maintaining or improving strengths.
The goal is to keep the goal the goal: this intent to work towards the goal through maximizing availability by addressing weaknesses and limiting factors of inefficient movement is a fundamental principle of the Sparta philosophy.
A Systematic Approach to Health and Performance
The final principle of the Sparta philosophy is a systematic approach to human performance. This simply means a developed framework of “rules” that help guide decision making.
1. a set of connected things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole.
The value of a systematic approach is the honest evaluation of results. Especially in a complex discipline like human performance, it takes a consistent approach, using objective methods, evaluated over time to determine actual (rather than anecdotal) results. Our mission is to help as many people as possible to maximize their performance, and this requires systems that can be evaluated for success. This key part of this systematic approach is the built-in feedback loop that drives innovation, refinement, and development over time.
It is important to recognize that life is never truly objective. Even in a system that follows rules to make decisions, the parameters are set by humans who make subjective decisions based on the best available information (some of which are objective and some which are not). However, the most robust systems are founded on the steady input of objective, reliable, and valid data that is used to make decisions.
The aggregation of information for decision making is known as the diagnosis. Sparta’s diagnostic tests form the basis for treatment. Treatment is simply a detailed plan of action to address the needs identified through the diagnosis. The results of the treatment can then be evaluated by the same objective criteria that formed the diagnosis. This evaluation of results can then be used to adapt future treatment plans in order to achieve better results. A strong foundation of systems provides much better feedback that guides future learning and growth. The result is the unique combination of objective data and human decision making used to grow toward the development of “best practices”.
The reliance on technology to create systems that diagnose and treat individuals can seem like a cold and mechanistic approach that disregards the importance of human interaction and relationships. While it is understandable how some may interpret the systematic approach in this way, Sparta’s philosophy is based on using systems and technology to better engage individuals in the training process and provide more opportunities for emotional connection and interaction. There are three key elements of systems and technology that improve relationship-based coaching:
- Education: good technology simplifies the complex and helps convey the WHY behind training
- Results: good technology quantifies performance and both motivates toward a goal and validates training (working hard and smart).
- Trust: because good technology explains the WHY and validates results, the individual athletes, soldiers, and patients can trust the plan and fully engage in the process
Good systems and technology can also reduce the work that practitioners have to do performing extra assessments, managing data, writing new programs in excel, and tracking results of each training session. A system means that the programs are already written, and good technology helps apply the appropriate program to different individuals, manage their data, and track their results. The near-automation of all these processes means that practitioners can spend less time behind the computer screen and more time actually talking to their athletes! This is extremely valuable, especially in large team environments where the athletes, patients, and soldiers greatly outnumber the practitioners tasked with supporting them. Systems and technology, when used wisely, engage individuals and provide a feedback loop that accelerates development and results.
The Sparta philosophy is based on the principles (or assumptions) that human performance results from the execution of systems based on the assessment of needs and a focused intent on the ultimate goal.
The Take Home:
Systems and technology give practitioners the ability to build deeper relationships with those they care for and develop trust through a clear understanding and validation of the training process. Assessment forms the foundation for a feedback loop that helps practitioners get better and give individuals the best training through diagnosis, treatment, evaluation, and adaptation. The best ability is availability: addressing weaknesses in order to improve movement efficiency is the intent of the Sparta philosophy.
These principles are the basis of the Sparta philosophy. You don’t have to agree with all of them, but it is important to understand how your disagreement with these assumptions shapes your views.