Ask the Expert: Dr Richard Blagrove (Birmingham City University)

Richard is the Course Leader for the BSc Sport and Exercise Science at Birmingham City University, previously working at St Mary’s University for eight years as Programme Director for the BSc Strength and Conditioning Science, and was Lead S&C Coach for Sport and Health Services. Richard is an Accredited S&C Coach and previously a Director of the UKSCA. He has provided S&C coaching to numerous athletes including several Olympic and Paralympic athletes. In 2015 he wrote ‘Strength and Conditioning for Endurance Running. Richards extensive work with endurance runners provided the inspiration for his doctoral research investigating the utility of strength training in post-pubertal adolescent middle- and long-distance runners.

Richard Blagrove.JPG

 

1)What has led you into youth sport?

I started my S&C career when I was teaching in a Further Education College in 2006 by supporting a youth football and basketball academy. After I achieved my UKSCA accreditation in 2007, I coached full time at Loughborough University, where I worked with a number of TASS athletes and the GB under-18 water polo academy. Between 2008-2015 I didn’t do a huge amount of coaching specifically with youth performers, but over the last three years my PhD research and coaching has largely been with post-pubertal adolescent endurance runners. I’ve always enjoyed working with young athletes; on one hand I often find them easy to coach, carry very few preconceptions about S&C, and are hungry to learn. However, on the other hand, rapidly changing physical characteristics, busy lifestyles, club/parental pressures and often high volumes of sports training make them a challenging and interesting population to coach.

2) What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport?

Although I thought long and hard about this question, I’m not sure who or what has been my single biggest influence! I think we are all products of the environments we have worked in, the people we interact with regularly, and the educational material we engage with. I’ve been fortunate over the years to learn from some very knowledgeable and experienced coaches, sport scientists, academics and also my students.

With some of the elite athletes I’ve coached, I’ve learnt a great deal from other practitioners within a multi-disciplinary support team, particularly specialists in running biomechanics and physios, which I think has influenced my practice more generally. I’ve also been lucky to work with some incredibly successful technical sports coaches, who have added valuable context to the role S&C plays in preparing athletes for their sport.

3) What is your particular area of interest?

I’ve (unintentionally!) specialised in S&C support for middle- and long-distance runners over the last ten years. I think this is mainly because I was a competitive middle-distance runner when I was younger, so I naturally enjoy working with runners. There also seems to be a large demand for advice around S&C training activities in the distance running community, and once you’ve coached a few runners who experience a high-level of success, you quickly become the ‘go-to’ man for advice! I think there is a perception in the S&C community that working with endurance athletes is easy, because they are typically non-strength trained, so it is fairly straightforward to make and endurance runner stronger and see performance benefits. However, injury rates among endurance runners are high, so keeping runners healthy for long periods can be very challenging and requires a much broader knowledge of other areas in sport science. Endurance coaches and runners also tend to be sceptical about the benefits of S&C, so fortunately my research seems to be having some decent impact, and the coaching experience I have with runners helps with this.

4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes? 

Outside of ‘the S&C bubble’, there are still many coaches, parents and athletes who still believe weight training stunts growth and is risky for children and adolescents. So trying to convince endurance runners of the benefits associated with strength training, perhaps isn’t too dissimilar to educating youth athletes on the importance of S&C!

More specifically, young endurance runners tend to specialise in the sport between age 14-16 years and quickly start racking up high volumes of running training, which obviously raises the risk of overuse injury. For the young female runner, a high mileage combined with insufficient energy intake can be more serious, and lead to the Female Athlete Triad. Strength training can certainly help increase bone mineral density in young female runners, however there are more important considerations for preventing and overcoming the Triad, such as appropriate nutrition, and managing training load and lifestyle stressors. How these factors interact really interests me and is an area I hope to pursue with my post-doctoral research.

5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Not so much advice here, but feedback I got from several parents whose children attended my evening S&C sessions. Similar to a lot of other S&C coaches I think in the past I’ve been guilty of obsessing a bit too much about movement mastery and how S&C can positively impact the sport performance of youth athletes. Although my sessions were achieving these outcomes, the changes the parents were seeing in their children were very different. I was getting thanked for things like improving the self-confidence of their son or daughter, providing an environment that was less serious than their running club for them to interact with their friends, and in one case, reducing anxiety levels. These were actually outcomes I hadn’t really considered! It made me realise the power of group S&C sessions with young athletes for developing more than just physical factors. Keeping it fun, enjoyable and providing young athletes with an environment to explore movement whilst interacting with their friends is an incredibly powerful way to enhance socio-emotional related characteristics of young athletes.

6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes? 

In a general sense, a few years ago, I came up with the ‘A-B-C’ of becoming a successful S&C coach, which I use with students and coaches I mentor. The ‘A’ is Attention to detail, not just when coaching athletes, but also in preparation for sessions, organising your time, writing emails and reports, and critiquing both your own practice and that of others. ‘B’ stands for mastering the Basics. We hear this a lot, but I think simply getting the basics of coaching, exercise selection and programming in place can go a long way, especially with young athletes. Basics for me also refers to ensuring you have a fundamental grasp of the science that underpins S&C (i.e. anatomy, biomechanics, physiology, psychology, research methods). This is important to be able to appreciate a number of different perspectives, and to allow you to work effectively with others who may specialise in these areas. Finally the ‘C’ stands for Continuous professional development. It is important for coaches to have the ability to self-reflect, find opportunities to learn, and step outside their comfort zone regularly. I think we are all guilty of remaining quite static in our own practice, so being pro-active with your learning and taking opportunities to get involved with new roles or projects when they arise, is incredibly important.

7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?

Because of my job, I try to stay on top of recent publications in the peer-reviewed literature as best I can, and would always recommend coaches try to do the same. Following the right people and organisations on Twitter helps! I don’t tend to read many books actually, but  The Sports Gene: Talent, Practice and the Truth About Success by David Epstein is a fascinating read for those interested in the nature vs nurture debate. There are some excellent resources posted on social media too. Jeremy Frisch, Joe Eisenmann and James Smith (at U-strength) post some great practical ideas, and there are often useful discussions on Facebook groups such as NSCA long-term athlete development and Youth Strength and Conditioning Coaches. I tend to listen to podcasts when I travel to and from work, and I would recommend: the Pacey Performance podcast, ‘All Things Strength and Wellness’ hosted by Robbie Bourke, and GAINcast with Vern Gambetta.

8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)

I am active on Twitter: @rich_blagrove.  My email address is richard.blagrove@bcu.ac.uk

You can read Rich’s most recent published journal article “Strength and Conditioning for Adolescent Endurance Runners.”

You can purchase Rich’s book by clicking the image below:

Thanks to Rich for giving his time and expertise for this interview!

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