By Gavin Pratt, Performance Manager at EXOS.

Working in China as a strength & conditioning coach is much like being a character in a Quinten Tarantino movie, the plot twists, story line and characters seem to make no sense at the beginning, but in the end, it somehow all comes together!

Over the past 18 months, I have encountered many situations that have challenged my communication skills, temperament and professionalism. Examples include athletes being told that “sweating is weakness”, being forced to run 10km as punishment on back to back days, and not having teams train strength for 2 weeks leading up to competition because they are fearful of becoming sore!

But that’s what life as a S&C coach is all about, right? Putting yourself into situations that are far removed from the standardised practices, as it will only help you develop as a professional, and, just as importantly, as a person.

It was for this reason that I decided to take up an offer to come to Shanghai and work with a range of teams to ready them for the Chinese National Games, the most important competition in China. It only happens every 4 years, but it pits numerous municipalities, provinces and autonomous regions against each other to gain bragging rights and national pride as the being the best sporting area in the country.

My role is as the Performance Manager/Coach for an EXOS-run team, who provide S&C and physiotherapy services to many sporting teams and individuals who make up part of the Shanghai team. Personally, I am responsible for coaching up to 100 athletes from a variety of sports, including; Handball, Fencing, Gymnastics and Modern Pentathlon.

This alone presents itself with a wide-range of challenges.

First of all, most athletes have been selected from a young age and literally told what sport they will be playing based on their body type and ‘testing’ (Photo).

potential young martial artists
Photo: An official test for potential young martial artists

It’s not a choice like western society and as a result many athletes have become robotic in their approach to their sport. If you’re going to be training skills for 6-8 hours every day, then putting in a 70% effort means you will be able to manage this load. Coaching will usually see drills repeated for hours on end to ensure skills are hammered into the back of their cranium! This seems to be part of the reason for success in technical sports like gymnastics and diving, but can be a large downfall in team-based sports where comradery and team tactics are also required.

What’s interesting is how I have been exposed to both the positives and negatives of what happens when a child is only exposed to a singular discipline sport. Many of these athletes are very inexperienced when it comes to strength work and on many occasions have very poor body awareness/motor control. However, when you actually see them compete in the only sport they’ve really applied themselves to, they are absolutely world class. The difference is quite incredible. So when we discuss multi-sport participation for kids, how important is it, really? I guess it depends on the goal. I’m certainly an advocate for multiple sports, but being in China has made me think…if the end goal is PURELY for sporting success, what is best? There’s so many factors.

Due to the vast majority of athletes being inexperienced in the gym setting, our team adopted a two-phase testing protocol to assess athletes. A Foundational Testing protocol (Figure 1.1) allowed us to test athletes who had minimal experience in resistance training, so we then had time to develop their movement and base-strength capacity and allow them to learn a new range of movement skills over the course of a few months.

Phase 1

Figure 1.1: An example of our Phase 1 testing battery for young or inexperienced athletes.

Once we felt these athletes had graduated to a level of more intense assessment (by improved test scores and a greater understanding of foundational movement patterns in the gym), we applied phase 2 of our testing battery (Figure 1.2), which focused more on maximal strength levels and more complex lifting movements, depending on the skill development of the team and their sporting requirements.

Phase 2
Figure 1.2: An example of our Phase 2 testing battery, that would vary depending on the team, coach, athlete, sport.

This is when I could also apply a more ‘complex’ approach to training prescriptions, such as percentage-based efforts, VBT and greater specificity in periodization.

I also like to use Hristo Hristov’s INOL method because it gives me an opportunity to ‘pre-program’ the training load/intensity I need my teams to use every session/week. Obviously, this is used mainly as a guide and as always, the coaches eye is essential to guiding the correct prescriptions of that day, but this type of method is essential for 2 main reasons:

1) The term ‘overtraining’ doesn’t exist here! And quite often we’re in the dark with what the head coaches have done with the athletes with regards to technical training loads
2) A majority of my teams only train S&C 1-2 times per week with me, so I need to make sure our sessions are going to be as effective as possible in the limited time I have with them.

This is of course all general discussion. Each team and athlete has specific requirements I need to consider before applying the appropriate program or training cycle.

A standard week for me would include 1-2 sessions before lunch and 1-3 sessions after lunch. Each session is a different sport and most days include at least one with multiple athletes from various sports training together, such as female handball, men’s diving and Wushu all together at once! (NB: If you haven’t seen Wushu performed, check it out here: Wushu Gold)

Individualize programs? Definitely. But sometimes, the situation makes it near-on impossible.

For example, I will have 24 girls in a gym (with 1 Squat rack and 1 bench press) for only 90 minutes per week. The Head Coach insists on circuit work because he wants them to be “tired”. Individualization is simply not going to happen to the level we would all prefer. BUT, this is where creativity as a coach comes in. I need to ask myself, “How can I make it LOOK like we are doing circuits so the coach is happy, but I can actually work them in a way that is going to be beneficial to performance?”. I worked a range of methods into numerous 3-4 week cycles including;
+Antagonistic super sets: This will allow minimal rest periods to look like a circuit & also help me to teach basic strength movement patterns. Working antagonistically or upper-lower body, also allows the working muscle to gain some sort of recovery while the other one works, so while it look like they are doing a circuit, we can get greater benefits completing it in this structure!
A1. DB Incline Bench Press 4 x 8
A2. KB Goblet Split Squat 4 x 8

+Timed sets: 30-40 seconds at the correct weight will usually garner 8-12 reps, small rest periods such as 20 seconds will allow for greater time under tension for a hypertrophic effect

+Barbell complexes: This has allowed me to not only add in an anaerobic/metabolic component, but I also use this as a progression towards Olympic lifting exercises in future programming, such as the competition phase to help limit soreness and increase neural performance. Eg: 5-4-3-2-1 x Jump Shrug-Muscle Clean-Push Press

+Contrast Training:
A1. BB Clean Pull x 5
A2. Reactive Drop Jump x 4

For strength programming with most groups, I also utilize a giant whiteboard to record all of their individual weights and then create a simple graph to highlight the team averages and individual changes of the 4-6 week cycle, which I can then show to the coach to highlight how they are improving each cycle (Figure 1.4).


Figure 1.3: Utilizing a whiteboard to record results with larger teams from each training session

4 week cycleFigure 1.4: Example layout of individual strength results from a team’s 4 week cycle

On the flipside, there are individual athletes who are lifting at an intensity and velocity that would impress most S&C coaches in the high-performance field and my programming could then reflect this level of trainability. Often, I will use Gym Aware to monitor Mean and/or Peak velocity for Olympic lifts in individual or small group training sessions. For larger groups, I tend to favour far less technological-based methods, such as 5 reps in 5 seconds, as this allows me to extract the right amount of velocity from the exercise, but it also means I waste less time…this is essential with our limited gym exposure!

In general, I have needed to simplify the overall process of periodization. This is because there often isn’t an actual plan of attack when it comes to the main training sessions of the coach. It’s just turn up on the day and do the volume of hours they feel is required. It’s often a frustrating, relentless pursuit, but if you can chip away at the small stuff and earn trust and friendship, then you begin to see some positive changes take place.

Basically to be most effective, I need to mold my work into what the teams do with their skills training because as a strength and conditioning coach in China, I am simply a ‘required accessory’ to the overall team performance. We need to be ok with this! What is the smallest worthwhile change we can make in the time we are given?  I like that challenge and I certainly think it’s a humbling reminder that we are part of a team and not the be-all end-all to performance that much of our profession is trying to pretend we are. Sport is skillful and we are just applying methods to improve some of that physiology, so simplifying the targets we are trying to achieve as a coach will make the goals much clearer.