The end of a year is good time for reflection, and as 2016 came to a close I sat down and acknowledged what went well, and what didn’t go so well. I have followed the template set out by James Clear in his own annual review of the year. Initially, I thought that it had been a very blah kind of a year personally, until I went through iCal as a kind of formal assessment and had a good think about it.
What I take from the exercise is that reflection is worthwhile and that we should all do it all the time, as Leo Babauta will attest. Rather than ambling through life and repeating the same self-limiting behaviours year after year, we can learn from our mistakes and re-direct our efforts. If we pause for a moment and look back, that is. These days, people are generally too busy, over-stimulated and easily distracted by shiny screens and cute kitten videos to actually do this. We spend most of our days on autopilot and life can very easily pass us by, unless we wrestle back control. Don’t get me wrong, I am no zen master, but carrying out this process has made me more aware of how I spend my time and thus how I can better spend my time. Dan Millman, the Peaceful Warrior, says that lessons repeat themselves until we learn from them. They just tend to get more dramatic to get our attention.
This exercise has also helped me to see the value in acknowledging successes, even if they didn’t match up to lofty goals set in January. I realised that giving yourself a little bit of credit can actually inspire you to achieve more, as opposed to beating yourself up for not making the Forbes 30 under 30 list or whatever.
What went well in 2016?
Arsenal Ladies FC
I joined the Arsenal Ladies setup in January, and the year that followed was quite the journey, both tumultuous and rewarding. It was an opportunity to lead the Athletic Development program of a high performance organisation that has been growing as fast as the women’s game itself here in the UK. It certainly wasn’t without its challenges, with a small coaching staff and limited resources, spinning the many plates of professional football. Luckily, Des Ryan and the Academy S&C coaches and physios have been incredibly helpful and supportive, and I learnt a lot from them along the way.
From an S&C perspective, a consistent strength training program and real lifting resulted in all of our players getting stronger, while a focus on movement and mobility improved physical competency. Training load monitoring and managing made a difference, with session RPE’s, GPS, wellness questionnaire’s, body mass and groin squeeze monitoring, communication with the national team S&C coaches, all important parts of the cog. Underpinning the Athletic Development program has been an emphasis on building a culture of success with responsible athletes that hold each other accountable to the standards required at the top level.Overall, we did significantly reduce the incidence of injury in comparison to the previous season, and although one can never be sure, our data suggests that the Athletic Development program contributed to this.
During the year we had successful training camps in Seville and Seattle, in May we lifted the FA Cup in Wembley Stadium, and most enjoyably for me was meeting a lot of great and interesting people.
Now, as we kick into a new pre-season with the experience of 2016 under our belts, I am very excited to make further progress with the team 2017.
During the off-season in November I fulfilled a long time ambition by going backpacking to Peru for a few weeks. I met some great and inspiring people out there from many different countries, some travelling for a few months, and others who have been on the road for years. The backpacking world is seemingly full of very friendly and easy going people, who share a passion for travelling and exploring the world.
After spending a few days in Lima, Paracas, and Huacachina, I flew to Iquitos for a week long retreat in the Amazon jungle. This opened my eyes to another way of living, where consumerism, narcissism, and entitlement, is replaced by partnership, respect, and gratitude. For a week we lived with no wifi, no tv, no electricity, no central heating or running water. Just a big bucket of water from the river, a hammock, and some books.
I then had the pleasure of coaching Huanchaco FC, a group of amazingly dedicated and talented young footballers who gather to train from Monday to Friday without fail each week, and with big dreams of one day representing their country. As is often the case, kids, unbeknownst to themselves, can teach us more about living authentically with integrity and mutual respect than most of the adults that adorn our tv screens these days.
This time away was the perfect time for reflection and gaining some much needed perspective on life, and has lit the fire to see more of the world.
Throughout the past year I was exposed to more media-oriented work than I have been before. Some people are naturals in front of the camera and can just be themselves as if it wasn’t even there, and I’m not one of them. Usually, I find it difficult to articulate my thoughts and have a normal conversation on radio or tv, but with practice I started to get a bit more comfortable with it. I was involved in the recording of Súile Londain, an observational documentary series for TG4, that follows the lives of Irish people working and living in London. I enjoyed a monthly segment as Gaeilge ar an Bricfeasta Blasta, Raidió na Life, talking about health and fitness topics, and found that it helped improve how I arrange my thoughts and access my brain when asked a question.
In this impromptu interview, early on in this journey, I manage to say the word consistency three times in less than a minute. Interestingly, after spending five minutes talking about the Arsenal Ladies, they opted to instead air this excerpt about new years resolutions, in March.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
For a few years now I really really wanted to start Brazillian Jiu Jitsu. (I’m pretty sure I wanted to go before I heard of Conor McGregor, but I have no evidence to this). BJJ epitomises fluidity in movement, control of the mind and body, awareness, application of torque, expression of power. It is simply put, tremendous.
As we know, however, it’s one thing to want to do something and another thing entirely to step out of your comfort zone, start something new, and suck at it for a while. In 2016 I finally responded to an internal call for action and started training at the Eddie Kone Academy in Walthamstow, London. While I didn’t quite get that much needed consistency, I got started, and thoroughly enjoyed training with a great group of people under the masterful guidance of Professor Eddie Kone. Derailed by classic obstacles such as; work taking over, not getting enough sleep, and London traffic, I hope to overcome these in 2017 and get back on the martial arts buzz.
What didn’t go so well in 2016?
Working inordinate hours is a cultural phenomenon that is not confined to but definitely includes the Strength and Conditioning world. It is one which I have been sucked into over the past year. Of course, coaching athletes for a living is a privilege, and naturally, being committed to doing a good job will mean some late nights. However, the ‘badge of honour’ of putting in 10-12 hour shifts every day is misplaced, and one that I am trying, with some resistance, to shake.
In this excellent BBC Radio 4 series, Oliver Burkeman talks about the paradox of busyness. Historically, the symbol for achievement and social superiority was the freedom not to work, whereas now, busyness is the indicator of high status. Too often, we measure our worth not by the results we achieve, but by how much of our time we spend doing. Ultimately, as Burkeman points out, in this era of “knowledge work” there is always work coming in, and succumbing to the social pressure to “do it all” can be overwhelming and mathematically impossible anyway.
What I have learned is that shutting down the computer at 5 o’clock and going home is better for my effectiveness as a coach in the long-run than writing programs until 7 or 8 at night, going home exhausted, and starting the next day energy-less and empty. One must also contend with the modern-day hyper-connectivity of our phones that makes us available to our athletes 24/7, blurring the boundaries between office hours and leisure time, as Paul Gamble surmises.
He makes the point that maintaining key relationships with family and friends outside of work is critical to being effective as a practitioner. This is something I let slip last year. I had friends in London that I never got to hang out with. Quality time with my girlfriend mostly meant cooking dinner and going to sleep. A passion for playing and listening to music was mostly unfulfilled. Over time, I could feel the mental effects of not having time to switch off.
This year, I have committed to restoring balance in my life, not feeling bad for leaving work at a normal time when I can, and reconnecting with my friends, family, and hobbies.
Practitioner health has been a growing topic of discussion lately, with different guests on the Pacey Performance Podcast broaching the subject. Paul Gamble from InformedinSport.com also wrote a great article recently on the subject, raising some great points about the value of looking after yourself and your psycho-social wellbeing.
To paraphrase Mahatma Ghandi, to be credible when advocating certain healthy behaviours concerning sleep, dietary practices, and lifestyle in general with our athletes, the practitioner must be the change they wish to see. Paul Gamble
In my opinion, leading by example is important for a strength and conditioning coach. The quote above nails it on the head. How credible is it to be preaching about these things if you don’t live by them? It doesn’t mean that every coach must have experience as an elite athlete, but should be able to relate to their athletes. It’s easy to write out strength programs in excel if you don’t know what it’s like to actually follow one, every rep and every set, from start to finish. I can dish out Watt Bike conditioning programs, but what does it actually feel like to do 1000m repeats? (it hurts!). It’s easy to prescribe a clean diet with no junk food, drinks, or sugary snacks, but what are the mental challenges that come with changing eating habits?
Aside from making you a better coach, exercise and self-care is quite simply essential for your quality of life. Anybody reading this probably doesn’t need convincing about the benefits of strength and movement training. For me it’s pretty straightforward. When I train consistently, eat and sleep well, and manage stress, I look, perform, and feel better. When I don’t, everything is less better. I still surprise myself at how much mentally and physically healthier I feel after even one training session. What I have learned in 2016 is that nothing is worth sacrificing your own physical and mental wellbeing for in the long run, it’s all we’ve got!
Succesful people from all walks of life have certain traits in common, and having a daily routine is one of them. It sounds a bit restrictive and robotic, repeating the same thing every day, but anybody who follows a consistent daily routine will probably tell you that it allows them to get a lot more out of the day. The best times to have a ritual are in the morning when you wake up and at night before you go to bed. A morning routine built around your personal values means that you will automatically prioritise the actions that further your goals.
It sounds simple, but as with all these things, knowledge alone is not enough! My evenings last year were usually spent mindlessly, watching Netflix, pottering around on the computer. This usually meant going to sleep late, and this always meant waking up in the morning wrecked, scrapping my morning plans for an extra 15 minutes in bed, then rushing out to work.
I’ve had my ideal morning routine planned out on paper for a couple of years now, but just haven’t been putting it into practice as well as I should. This time I can’t blame work demands or anybody else. It’s just a case of getting one’s shit together, being disciplined and holding myself accountable to the commitment.
So far this year I have been been doing well, gradually building a daily routine and sticking to it. I start the morning off with The Five Minute Journal, which acts as a trigger for my Headspace session. The next step will be tagging 20 minutes of mobility work to that. Andreo Spina espouses the benefits of a morning movement routine consisting of Controlled Articular Rotations; purposefully, and systematically moving each and every articulation to their end-ranges of motion.
So that’s it. A few things that went well for me in 2016, and a look at a few things that didn’t go so well. I have found this process very useful, and highly recommend taking advantage of the power of reflection. Press pause for a moment, reflect on the year gone by, learn the lessons that are there to be learned, and make 2017 your best year yet.
Cairbre is the face behind Feed Me Strength. Currently the Head Strength and Conditioning coach for Arsenal Women FC. He has a passion for athletic performance and an endless curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind.
UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.