Ask the expertYouth strength and conditioning

Ask the Expert – Tim Harper (Harper Performance)

1.   Give us a bit of background on yourself… (sporting career, qualifications, coaching experience)
I don’t bring a lot to the sports court or pitch beyond work-rate and my natural over-competitiveness so as an athlete I didn’t progress beyond the usual school and university sports teams. Rugby was my main sport; which I absolutely loved, mainly because I got to combine my love of fitness with endorsed levels of violence but my career was cut to very occasional turnouts these days because of a series of relatively serious head traumas.

After school, I went to Brunel University, graduating with a First Class BSc in Sports Science (Exercise Physiology) before joining Saracens Rugby Club where I stayed for the three seasons, working with both the senior team and the Academy set up. I then joined London Scottish during a really exciting time, budgets were high and we had an all-star cast of coaches on the rugby side of things; Mike Friday and James Buckland; a really great squad of players and the club dragged itself from relegation fighters to play-off contenders in just two short seasons. It was a lot of fun, a lot of hard work but a really rewarding experience. Some of the athletes in the Championship, people like Jamie Kilbane, David Lyons, Chevvy Pennycook, Ben Russell and Mark Irish (all since retired) are the very best resources out there for a developing coach; they know professional sport inside out and have an enviable level of perspective on the whole “world of sport”.
Since Scottish I’ve been consulting with various teams and organisations and recently set up my own business; Harper Performance. We’re a consultancy working primarily with athletes from disadvantage, or athletes and teams that are hamstrung by logistical, financial or socio-cultural barriers to performance. We’ve got some projects already running in Southern Africa and we’re working on getting some UK-based projects up and running in the next couple of months. We support that side of the business and maintain sustainability with our unique CPD events, which are targeting the whole performance-support MDT and the elite athlete side of the business where we’re working with some really interesting athletes and teams both here in the UK and abroad.
2.      What has been your biggest influence in your practice?
Honestly, life experience. I have a couple of mentors in and out of the sports world and they have been brilliant at guiding me technically, and I would highly recommend any coach to get themselves a couple of mentors that are better than them – it’s invaluable to have that sounding board – but do it in person, don’t just email a coach you like to get feedback, go have dinner, or have a coffee, do it regularly and take the world to rights – you’ll learn an awful lot.
But really, as a coach, life experience has had the biggest influence. We’re in the people-game and ultimately, whether we’re coaches, medical practitioners or some sort of performance-manager; we’re looking to positively influence people. You can’t influence people if you have the personal-depth of a puddle – so the biggest influence on my career have been the times when I’ve been blindsided by circumstance or smashed out of my comfort zone, its been when I’ve been struggling, trying to make ends meet on poor money and long hours and when I’ve embraced all that life has to offer; and that’s a hell of a lot more than what you can put in your Twitter bio.
3.      What is your particular area of interest in sport?
Difficult question. I love team sports; and I love racquet sports – the technical abilities of the top tennis players, both skilfully, but also athletically, are staggering; watch Andy Murray decelerate from full pelt, having been on the court for two hours, in the midst of a high-pressure tie-breaker – it’s so close to “perfect technique” its scary! Tennis players are SERIOUS athletes – I steal from their training methods all the time for athletes from other sports.
More generally, I think “High Performance” just fascinates me – I’m a pretty obsessive character and understanding what constitutes high performance in sport and in life, what feeds it and what detracts from it is as much a hobby as it is a professional interest. I will happily chew the ear of almost anyone if they are performing well in their particular job or industry to learn their particular how, why and what.
I really enjoy working with athletes who are just about post-pubescent but not quite adults yet; not everything you do with them works anymore like younger athletes and they are usually going through a really intense period of emotional growth at the same time – which is a pretty challenging time for anyone and can quite easily derail your efforts – if you can get good results with that kind of athlete, it doesn’t get much more rewarding.
From a technical perspective, I love the movement side of things, although think people can get totally carried away with it, and really enjoy getting people strong as it gives your athlete the most bang for their buck. As time goes on, my technical approach becomes more and more simple and minimalist and I put far more emphasis on the effective delivery of my programmes.
4.      How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes?
Absolutely! In my opinion, programme delivery is without question the most important aspect to coaching youth athletes. I’ve seen very average programmes deliver unbelievable results because they are delivered impeccably, and I’ve seen really, really good programmes achieve absolutely nothing because they’ve been delivered poorly.
Too many coaches agonise over the tiniest little technical details of their practice but often forget that taking your athlete out for a coffee, or having a chat whilst they wait to get picked up and getting to know them as a person and applying that knowledge to your coaching will have a far greater impact upon their performance.
We have to remember that first and foremost we’re coaches and not strictly; scientists. Our job is to apply the science. Therefore what we do is as much an art as it is a science. It baffles me that none of the major accreditations or certifications include serious modules on pedagogy or psychology with equal standing to the technical aspects. I’ve met plenty of coaches with unbelievable knowledge-bases but have about as much clue about how to coach, engage and interact with a fellow human being as I do solving nuclear fusion. Simon Nainby wrote a really clever tweet a few years back about the application of knowledge, so good that I’ve forgotten it, but if you’ve got the time, it might be worth digging up; but essentially it was saying; knowledge is useless unless you can apply it…. I agree.
5.      What is the best piece of advice you’ve received as an athlete or coach?
The best two pieces of advice I’ve ever received as a person are from my late father:
“I’ve rather be scared than bored” and “keep your circle small, run through walls for those in it, expect the same back and value loyalty over everything.”
I try pretty hard to live by them myself but I think the second is massively important for people in our industry – too many people pay lip service to the fact we’re in the “people business” and don’t live up to their word – don’t be one of them! Build relationships with people (your peers, your colleagues and your athletes) that mean something to you and pay it back, continuously. Genuine people are hard to come by, so if you find them, keep them close
As a coach, I think the best piece of advice was to just “enjoy yourself”… it wasn’t delivered in a particularly profound way or situation at all. I turned up to my very first training session with the Saracens Academy, fresh out of uni – a long time ago now and Ben Young, my boss at the time ran through what I had to do… “you’re working with these guys, they are on week two of learning various movements… enjoy yourself”… then he was off talking to someone else… so I did exactly that, I just enjoyed myself. And if you can’t have fun doing a job like coaching, then you need to find a new vocation! Darren Roberts talks about it all the time; Are you having fun? Are you making gains? … then everything is ok. I don’t think its that simple, but the point is very valid.
6.      What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes?
Be real with them – develop genuine relationships with your athletes, cultivate trust and loyalty and don’t let them down. If you don’t really, really care about your athletes as people first then you’re in the wrong game. I think an important part of that is teaching youth athletes the value of hard work; don’t be afraid to set and maintain incredibly high standards – not in a sergeant major kind of way, but set boundaries early on about respect, engagement and effort and stick to them. If you can do that, and your athletes can see you actually care about them, then you’ll be doing just fine.
Also – don’t forget the parents, and if you haven’t got kids yourself, don’t start bleating on about nutrition programmes they need to enforce at home or tell them how they need to bring up their child, you’ll alienate them and in turn mess up your programme – it’s amazing how an overheard comment between mother and father about a coach can completely destroy the image your athlete has of you  – develop real relationships with the parents of your athletes, know their names, the names of their spouse and the rest of the family and remember if they’ve just moved house or gone on holiday and ask about it, be interested and let them into your life as well – parents are key to the success of your programme, not least of all because they are often the glorified taxi-service bringing your youth athletes to training – but don’t collude with the parents in a way that creates a “me vs the world” kind of thing in the eyes of the athlete – stay honest and open to everyone but make sure your athlete knows that they can trust you implicitly.
Last thing – don’t overcomplicate things from a technical perspective. Have the humility and honesty to accept that if you do pretty much anything with a youth athlete, the heady cocktail of out-of-control hormones and natural physical development throughout puberty means it’s going to deliver results of some kind. Major in the majors, make sure anything you are doing is the nuts and bolts kind of athletic development, don’t do any harm and don’t sweat the little things – leave that to the internet gurus – focus on delivering your programme exceptionally well.
7.      Can you recommend any particular resources for personal/coaching development?
Yep – get out and do things, and not just things to do with your work. There is an increasing pressure on junior practitioners to become the same… read this book, do this mentorship, follow this coach on Twitter, read about this coaching cue here, complete this qualification etc etc and it’s really hard these days to find junior practitioners that have got something more to them than a boat load of letters after their name and the exact same professional trajectory post sixth-form college. All that stuff is important and if you’re not reading a lot of books and keeping on top of your technical know-how, you’re dead in the water, but for me, it’s not the most important thing. 
The most important thing is to, very deliberately, gain life experience by DOING THINGS… I’m always amazed at how few junior practitioners who live in major cities take advantage of the plethora of talks, lectures and seminars available where they can talk to real-life people – they might not always be DIRECTLY related to your current job or work but I can guarantee, listening to, interacting with and learning from people from a wide range of backgrounds and vocations is going to make you a better coach.
Similarly, get out and get some real life experience, travel to places, go on adventures, experience new things and bring back stories and memories – it’s not wasting time or stopping you becoming a better coach; it’s making you a more interesting person, and therefore a more engaging coach to work with. 
None of the coaches or people I admire have followed a well-trodden path to be where they end up, they carved their own and their career has often swung around the place and had some serious ups and downs, sidesteps and totally bizarre twists, but they are far superior practitioners in the long run because of it. Don’t be scared to be yourself, be a bit renegade and don’t feel you have to fit the formulaic and quite often, incredibly boring, “model-coach” that your university lecturers tell you that you need to be. You don’t! I mentor a few really great practitioners at the moment and each one of them is bringing something really exciting to the industry because they aren’t just another practitioner who’s read all the blogs and books on “how to get ahead in S&C” and have got real depth to them – they have opinions of their own and aren’t afraid to voice them, they have a life outside of training/coaching and they on the whole, they don’t religiously eat their perfectly balanced meals out of tupperware and sip on green tea!
8.      Where can people find out more about you and your work?
Well – Harper Performance has a website; where you can find out more about the three business units; HP Projects, HP Elite and HP Events – we’re also on Facebook and Twitter so give us a like or a follow if you feel inclined. And there are still a limited number of tickets available to our Performance Congress in September so be sure to check that out if you fancy hearing from two really great expert speakers and then having the opportunity to partake in some discussion, debate and networking with some really good people.
And I of course, if you want to get in touch with me directly, want to help Harper Performance out with our projects or want to have a chat, then you can reach me on
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