Youth strength and conditioning

What Jazz taught me about coaching…

Music was an integral part of my childhood. When I say integral, I mean when you could walk you got handed an instrument. At the age of 3 (yes you read that right) I was given a cornet (small trumpet) and inducted into whatever band was practicing at the time. This was totally normal in my family. The youngest of 5, we had a guitarist, singer, bass player/pianist, drummer and myself. Legend has it, before I could talk, I was humming a Charlie Parker solo in the back seat of the car to the amazement of an onlooker.

In my house, you didn’t see or hear much about athletes, but you did hear about Theolonius Monk, Billi Holiday, Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, to name a few (Apologies dad, but there just isn’t time to name everyone!). My dad, a long time Jazz aficionado (if you’ve ever come across him you’ll know what I mean) had been a professional musician for decades, touring Europe and continued to teach music in the basement of our house (To this day, at age 70 he is still gigging and recording). He can play the trumpet, guitar, saxophone, clarinet, flute, bass, piano. If it makes a noise, he can play it!

Image may contain: 1 person, playing a musical instrument
My Dad slaying it on the sax at 70.

I would regularly go to sleep listening to bands rehearsing, school holidays were spent practicing in the Jazz bands my dad ran and weekends were often spend playing gigs, here, there and everywhere. It was a foregone conclusion that like my 4 siblings before me, I would join the Conservatorium of Music to follow in their footsteps. To this day, my 3 brothers still make their living from music in some form or another. However, at the age of 10 I found sport and began to cut away from the family pattern, pouring myself into this rather than music. But, there were some very valuable lessons that I learnt in Jazz that transferred directly into my sporting participation and now, my coaching…
It was a foregone conclusion in my house that you practiced. It wasn’t uncommon for my siblings to practice for hours on end locked away in their room. Often my mum would have me go and knock on all the bedroom doors to get my siblings to stop for dinner. For me, I would wake up, practice the trumpet until it was time to go to school, come home and practice some more. It wasn’t a question, if you wanted to get better, you didn’t sit around and wait for divine intervention – you practiced til you got calluses on your fingers (if you played the guitar) or until your lips hurt (if you plated the trumpet). Practice was the only way and it was deliberate. I remember regularly drilling ‘So What?” by Miles Davis over, and over and over again. After stopping music, this transferred straight into football. I would practice for hours on end, wanting to get better. This served me well, seeing me progress from the C to the B team, then to the A team and on to state team trials. The same is true of coaching, it takes practice and a lot of it.
Jazz is a strange form of music. It’s a paradox. You rehearse a certain piece of music or song, only for an individual to then for a brief period of time, completely go off-piste, exploring the boundaries of range, tempo and sound, before coming back to planned song. It’s like a choose your own adventure novel. As such, you could see the same performers two nights in a wrong and witness a different performance. It’s carefully curated chaos. In the jazz bands of my youth, when my dad pointed at you (without prior warning) it was your time to solo. No time to prepare, or debate what might feel or sound right, time to go. This is exactly like sport. We may have a plan, strategy or specific set pieces that we have worked on, but in reality when the pressure is on, the conditions are different, injury strikes or a host of other variables change, it’s the ability to adapt and overcome that separated the best from the almost there. This is true in technical coaching and athletic development. Don’t be rigid and stuck in a plan that’s out of date, be fluid, improvise, adapt and overcome. The best coaches are the ones who can adapt to what they see in front of them.

“There’s no such thing as a wrong note”

This was a favourite saying of my dad. When encouraging kids to solo, he would take away their fear or apprehension by saying this, giving them the freedom to experiment with different notes and ranges. This fed creativity. I loved it. I would wait in every song, wishing my dad would give me the chance to show what I could do. It wasn’t scary, it was exciting and thrilling, it was the highlight of the performance. Great coaches do this too. They give young athletes freedom to experiment  and test their skills or strategies, without fear of failure of repercussions. To nurture creativity, their needs to be the comfort of knowing you won’t get shouted at or reprimanded when things don’t work. Otherwise you’ll just play it safe – stick to the notes that work, or the skills that work. Lump it up to the big centre forward. Pass it backwards. There’s not creativity to be found in boring, stifled play. It certainly isn’t where outstanding players are created.
“Keep It Simple Stupid”
This was another phrase my dad would often say. “Keep it simple stupid’… sometimes you weren’t sure if this was a command or an insult. I think I’m still not sure. What he was trying to say was – Don’t overcomplicate things unnecessarily. This is a message that has been drowned out in sport science and strength and conditioning. I think the wellness monitoring is a good example of this. We have ended up with protocols of 15-10 different tests to decipher the readiness of an athlete. How many pieces of data is enough? At some point, you have collected enough information to make a decision, additional data just clouds the process. In any case, make sure the data you are collecting is actually going to meaningful and used in the decision making process – otherwise you are just making more work for yourself! I’m starting to see a similar trend in youth training. Many well meaning coaches are creating highly complex and strategically constructed training programs, incorporating constraints based coaching, guided learning, attractors and detractors, external foci of attention etc. While these things all have merits, remember there is strength in simplicity. If athletes lack the basic movement quality to perform fundamentals well, then an extravagantly planned program is probably more of a hindrance than a help. I recently read an thought provoking statement, along the lines of  “The first time you introduce a stimulus, you will get the most powerful response” AKA don’t use all your tools at once! Keep something up your sleeve to progress to. Remember we are in this for the long term! Keep it simple stupid!
Lastly, not necessarily directly related to Jazz itself, but none the less important, the best piece of advice my dad has given me, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”. If you’re an S&C coach you might think he means you’ll never get a job (sarcasm intended) but in all seriousness we are privileged to get paid for our passion and many of us have actively turned down better paying jobs to pursue this passion. That being said, I’m a firm believer that if you wouldn’t do it for free, you should be doing it at all, because everyone will tell you at some point – you will have to do it for free anyway!
Well that’s it for this blog. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it and perhaps have even ventured curiously into the world of Jazz. I’d recommend Miles Davis, just don’t read his autobiography if your the sensitive type…
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