“High Level Problem Solving” w/ Andy Galpin

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Dr. Andy Galpin, Director of the Center for Sport Performance at Cal State Fullerton

Key Takeaways:

  • “I don’t come on board to just do their nutrition, or just do their strength and conditioning. I come on board to coach human performance — and that means the whole human being.”
  • “People ask me all the time “hey can I come down to the center and get testing done? My first response is always: why?”
  • Before you even think about testing an athlete, or your team, you need to ask yourself, “What question are you trying to answer? What problem are you trying to solve?”
  • Once you have framed the goal, the next question is “What’s your Hope Solo?” In other words, what is preventing you from reaching your goal.What is preventing your team from creating more chances? What is the limiter to performance?
  • “We’re trying to deploy the thing that is going to solve the problem, not just give every single person a banana because banana’s are good.”
  • “Sometimes, you have to cut wayyy down on the things that athletes & teams do to give them real clarity.”
  • “It’s about trying to solve really complex problems. And it’s not always clear, or mathematical — there isn’t always a candlestick in the bedroom. Sometimes, I don’t know what the thing is — I don’t see the big hole in the game. Sometimes it’s really complicated, but that’s the enjoyable part.”

Zooming-in while Zooming Out:

  • Andy has a PhD in Human Bioenergetics and has engaged in the deep study of muscle physiology for most of his career. However, and this is a very important message for all coaches with a specialization (tactics, strength, fitness, etc.) “Yeah, I’m the muscle guy, but I deal with people.Athletes are real people too.”
  • “I don’t come on board to just do their nutrition, or just do their strength and conditioning. I come on board to coach human performance — and that means the whole human being.”
  • When Andy begins working with an athlete he almost never “zooms-in” to physiology as the problem and solution. “This is where understanding all of the facets of human performance comes in. I can come into a situation and say, “[you don’t have a physiology problem] this is a sports-psych issue, or a recovery issue, a nutrition issue, a volume issue, a sport tactic issue, etc.”
  • Physiology is important and it may be the most important factor for one particular athlete, or in one particular context, but it can’t be your only pair of glasses as a coach.

Physiology isn’t the starting point

  • As a fitness coach that transitioned into a coach, I have a unique perspective on diagnosing issues with a player or a team.
  • Too often, fitness coaches use physiology as their starting point instead of the sport itself. They will measure a variety of physiological constructs and then utilize methods to improve those constructs — completely missing the bigger objective — “improving the sport itself”
  • Andy puts it perfectly, “This is amplified in the fighting sports. For example, if the entire 8 weeks prior to a fight is perfect from a nutrition, strength and conditioning, physiological perspective, but in the first 10 seconds they get kicked in the liver — it just doesn’t matter anymore what your VO2 Max is — you’re gassed!”
  • In football (soccer), the sport itself is almost never considered when fitness coaches develop their intervention strategies. To put Andy’s example into a football context, you could have the best week of training, HIIT Intervals where every guy crushes the run relative to their individual Maximum Aerobic Speed (MAS), you could’ve planned an awesome Max Speed sprinting session, but if in the first 10 minutes of the match the opponent is creating superiority in your midfield and finding free players that can turn in front of your back 4…it’s going to be a long f*cking day.
  • How you define fitness determines how you train it; just like your definition of success determines how you live your life.
  • I define fitness as “maintaining our playing style for 90 minutes”. By defining fitness in the context of the game itself, it seriously changes how I view fitness problems and how I create fitness solutions.
  • Does your definition of fitness account for the “kick to the liver” moment?
  • Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean that fitness is always done “in the game”, it just means that we are going to have a much deeper conversation prior to deciding on what needs to be improved and how we plan to improve it.
  • Andy makes another great point. As coaches, we are prone to biased thinking and simplifying the relationship between cause and effect. We might see a fighter struggle to breath and say, “It’s his conditioning! He needs more work on the Assault Bike!”, but that is a jump-to-conclusion bias.
  • Andy continues, “The conditioning piece is so hard to predict because it will look like they gassed, but they may have just freaked out mentally (unprepared for the gravity of the moment), they may have gotten hit with some innocuous kick, or punch, that sucked their wind out for 3.5 minutes. Therefore, it’s no wonder they gassed out within 5 minutes.” The point is, if you arrive at the conclusion that they gassed out because they are not fit that is going to determine how you train for the next fight. And, because you are allowing your bias to dominate your conclusions and your interventions — your efforts are going to be aimed at improving the wrong thing.

Football (Soccer) Example:

  • Andy mentioned a variety of situations that may appear to be “fitness problems” at first glance, but upon further inspection may have very little to do with our traditional physiological understanding of fitness. Here are some examples:
  • Your team goes down a man in the first few minutes (anxiety)
  • A player making his professional debut (nerves)
  • Getting scored on early in the match (panic)
  • Tempo of the match exceeds expectations (perception of effort)
  • Bad Tactics (other team has advantages in various scenarios aiding their ability to build up, disturb your build up, or exploit transitions)

These all help contribute to what we may view as a “lack of fitness” usually defined by heavy breathing, slow tempo of play, minimum actions per minute, inability to continue making the appropriate football actions, complete loss of our playing style, and other tangible cues of exhaustion and lack of effort.

However, is it a fitness problem? Not always. Here is an example:

  • Let’s say that you want your team to press on horizontal passes. You play a 1–4–1–4–1 in the defensive phase and your opponent plays a 1–4–2–3–1. Let’s say you want your wingers to mark the opponent’s fullbacks in this particular game because of how good they are in the attacking phase for your opponent.
Pressing on horizontal passes
  • However, because of miscommunications between your striker and attacking midfielders — the attacking midfielders are not supporting the strikers pressing by squeezing the space behind him, letting the holding midfielder bounce the ball out to the other side
Attacking CM unclear on what to do — follow the holding mid? Stay in his zone?

Therefore, now the striker is totally out of the play and the opponent has an extra player in the midfield to create a 6v3 for them in the center.

Superiority in the midfield for the opponent

As you can see, the opponent is now able to build up quite easily given the miscommunications between your players and their lack of clarity on their roles and maybe even the efficacy of the tactic in general.

Therefore, after some time (maybe 10–20 minutes) the shape of your team will probably begin to look something like this.

Your team is now much deeper and the striker is no longer pressing on horizontal passes

At this point, your team will unconsciously sit deeper to regain some compactness and your striker will cease from executing his task because he isn’t an idiot. He will have learned that his pressing is basically useless. Now, this unconscious change in behavior of your team may actually help them disturb the build up better, but maybe you blame your fitness coach and decide that the team isn’t fit enough to press.

The question is, was this a fitness problem? Your team was unable to sustain their pressing, their defensive position high in the opponents half — that much can be agreed upon. But, depending on how you examine what actually happened can drastically alter your conclusions about why it happened. And, it is your conclusions about why it happened that determine how you make sure it doesn’t happen again.

I would say that in this situation, more interval runs, or sprinting exercises are the last thing the team needs.

When does Physiology matter?

The above example isn’t to say that problems are always tactical, or emotional, or cognitive, etc.

“If you were to look at somebody and their VO2 max is 25 — I don’t give a shit if you don’t have anxiety at all — you’re not fit enough to be on the pitch.”

In other words, we need to appreciate the context before drawing a conclusion. Sometimes it is obvious why a team or athlete is struggling, like when their VO2 max is 25, or the tactics are off. Other times, it is so complex that we might not ever be able to figure out why an athlete is struggling, or a team is performing poorly. In these moments, we need to think like Sherlock Holmes (See Section “Sherlock Holmes of Performance”)

Andy operates multiple performance labs aimed at uncovering the mechanisms that contribute to elite performance. You might assume given that condition that Andy’s first point of intervention is testing. But, that assumption would be incorrect.

“People ask me all the time “hey can I come down to the center and get testing done? My first response is always: why?”

Before you even think about testing an athlete, or your team, you need to ask yourself, “What question are you trying to answer? What problem are you trying to solve?”

What’s your Hope Solo?

In the spirit of asking why, Andy likes to use a simple analogy when working with athletes, coaches, and teams.

Think of a soccer goal as your actual goal. So, for an individual player it may be becoming a starter. For your team, it may be creating more chances.

Once you have framed the goal, the next question is “What’s your Hope Solo?”

In other words, what is preventing you from reaching your goal. What is preventing your team from creating more chances? What is the limiter to performance?

What’s your hope solo?

It could be your VO2 max, but that’s because you think conditioning is your problem. From here, Andy begins his intervention.

“If you think conditioning is your problem, then we need to figure out what type of conditioning is your problem. From there, we may ask ourselves what test we can employ to assess that type of conditioning and monitor it’s improvement.”

Another take-away from Andy’s analogy is this — “There is no point in using a VO2 max test for someone whose “Hope Solo” is not conditioning.”

“We’re trying to deploy the thing that is going to solve the problem, not just give every single person a banana because banana’s are good.”

Example:

Andy gave a great example of how this process may look.

Let’s say that you are looking to improve your strikers ability to continue to make pressing actions from the 70th minute to the end of the match (90 + stoppage).

The first thing we need to do is agree on the goal (improving the maintenance of pressing actions from minute 70 to 90)

Next, we can talk about the relevant potential Hope Solo’s — what is limiting/defending us from reaching that goal.

“Here is where we lay all of the plausible Hope Solo’s out on the table”

  • Maybe his VO2 max isn’t high enough
  • Maybe the communication with his teammates is poor (tactics)
  • Maybe he is pressing at the wrong moments (Decision making)
  • Maybe he lacks anaerobic capacity or repeat sprinting ability
  • Maybe he over-runs his press and get’s beat off the dribble making him more fatigued from having to recover back in his position more often
  • Maybe he didn’t eat enough carbohydrates before the game, or didn’t refuel at halftime
  • etc.

“Then, after we laid all of the plausible limiters on the table, we ask ourselves, “OK, which one is the farthest behind?”

For example, if the last time we tested their VO2 max it was at 71, but we think it should be at 74 — “OK great, there might be area to improve there, but that probably isn’t the single biggest explanation, especially if we find out they don’t eat on game-day, for example.”

Andy makes another great point. There are so many constructs, categories, and interventions that we could fit under the performance umbrella. But, it isn’t possible to add everything to an athletes program. “You have to actively choose what you’re not going to do.”

Meditation may help, but that’s not going to help right now. “Sometimes, you have to cut wayyy down on the things that athletes & teams do to give them real clarity.”

Sherlock Holmes of Performance:

Sherlock Holmes was a character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to represent an archetype of someone that exhibits anything other than what we would consider traditional thinking. Sherlock Holmes pays more attention to what didn’t occur as opposed to what did.

In one of Doyle’s most popular stories, Holmes comes to the conclusion that the crime being investigated had to be an inside job.

How did Holmes come to this conclusion? Upon hearing the story, Holmes paid close attention to a few known facts.

  • The business had a guard dog
  • The guard dog barked loudly upon police arrival
  • No witness testimony accounted for a dog barking

By paying close attention to what didn’t happen (the dog didn’t bark), Holmes was able to paint a picture of a reality no one else could see. By looking for the absence of something, over the presence of something, he kept an innocent man out of jail.

Conclusion: the dog didn’t bark because someone familiar with the dog (business owner) carried out the robbery.

In Sports, we often have to think like Sherlock Holmes to determine what is limiting the performance of an athlete or team.

“It’s about trying to solve really complex problems. And it’s not always clear, or mathematical — there isn’t always a candlestick in the bedroom. Sometimes, I don’t know what the thing is — I don’t see the big hole in the game. Sometimes it’s really complicated, but that’s the enjoyable part.”

Want More?

Andy will be presenting at the 2019 Seattle Sounders Sports Science Weekend taking place June 20–22 in Seattle, Washington. This is the premier Sports Science conference in the world.

If you are interested in learning from experts across all aspects of football performance, especially the integration of tactics, physiology, psychology, and sports science, then consider attending the 2019 iteration of the Seattle Sounders Sports Science Weekend.

Register Here

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