September 20, 2019

Continuing with USAW—Advanced Sports Performance Coaching Certification

This month, I once again returned to the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, Colorado to attend USA Weightlifting’s Advanced Sports certification.  From the USAW’s own materials:

Welcome to the second formalized education course within the USA Weightlifting Coaches Education Program.

This course accommodates the needs of those coaches who have successfully completed the USA Weightlifting and Sports Performance course but are looking to advance through the Coaches Rating System.

The emphasis is on deepening the coach’s knowledge of Program Design, Advanced Weightlifting Movements as well as the Role and Responsibility of the Coach as it relates to developing national and even international level athletes.

A comprehensive approach to biomechanics is included and a number of new topics are introduced such as anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, nutrition, strength and power principles and general physical preparation.

The expected outcomes of the course are to:

  • Allow the Coach to improve the performance of their athletes through proven practices and approaches
  • Assist the Coach in having the ability to work with athletes that are not their own both in a practice and competition setting
  • Have the ability to select exercises that can both correct flaws and bring about improved technique
  • Develop a practical understanding of competition strategies that will benefit the athlete and their performance.

While primarily lecture-based, this two-and-one-half day course provided a wealth of information that I hope to use in three specific ways: 1) advancing the ability of my personal training clients to incorporate the Olympic movements (remember, there are only two: the clean & jerk and the snatch) and their derivative movements into their programs to achieve their individual training goals, 2) learn the foundation information necessary to allow me to work with athletes who are looking to compete at both the national and international levels, and 3) improve the quality of my personal lifts—I realize that No. 3 is somewhat selfish; however, I am working deliberately to improve my Olympic lifting and build my own programing around the Olympic movements.

Taught by the extremely capable Paul Fleschler (both a former USA Olympian, ’92 and a Nat’l USAW Coach—Paul currently coaches a wide variety of athletes at his facility in Colorado Springs, Red Rocks Crossfit), this advanced course filled in many of the gaps left by the Level 1 certification—the earlier Sports Performance course devoted a significantly larger portion of the coursework to actual lifting.

I have set out the lecture topics below, along with some brief annotations and excerpts from my notes, in order to provide an idea of this course’s scope:

Principles of Coaching

The coach’s role is multifaceted.  Assigned with creating the athlete’s “vision and strategy,” “shap[ing] the environment,” “build[ing] relationships,” “conduct[ing] practice and structur[ing] competitions,” a coach must also “read and react to situations,” and “learn and reflect”—the coach should constantly be evaluating the program as a whole.  In addition, the coach should always be asking herself, “How can I make my athlete(s) better?”   Recognizing that coaching is both an art and a science, USAW emphasizes the development of the “Four C’s” of sports performance in athletes: Concentration, Confidence, Control, and Commitment.

Skill Acquisition

Athletes fall somewhere along a continuum of skill acquisition.  This continuum begins with the cognitive stage (a basic understanding of the objective of a particular exercise), progresses through the associative stage (a refinement stage, where the athlete focuses on efficiency and smoothness), and culminates with the autonomous stage (reserved for the advanced athlete, where movements have become automatic and the athlete can concentrate on utilizing the trained motor responses to accomplish specific tasks, i.e., the complete Olympic lifts).  I have, with the permission of USAW, reproduced the “quadrant model” that may be used to pinpoint where an athlete falls on the skill acquisition continuum:

The progression of an athlete's skill development—the pace of progression through the quadrants is unique to each athlete.

The progression of an athlete’s skill development—the pace of progression through the quadrants is unique to each athlete. Reprinted with permission of USAW, attributed to “Rigor and Relevance,” by the International Center for Leadership in Education, p. 16.

From a coaching perspective, Paul emphasized how it is of primary importance to avoid teaching dynamic movements like the snatch and clean & jerk at slow speeds; instead, it is necessary to teach from the “top down” and then feel the movement once the pieces can be successfully put together at speed.  As an aside, it is also important to note (and what I, at least in part, find so interesting about the Olympic movements) that no matter how many snatches and clean & jerks an athlete performs, invariably the athlete will almost always do something incorrectly—almost without exception on any given lift—there is almost always room for improvement.

As Michael Conroy suggested the USAW article on Zygmunt (see the embedded link, below), Smalcerz’s influence permeates the Advanced Sports Performance Coach course materials.  This is certainly the case when it comes to “verbal directions.”  The materials set out that proper verbal direction is a crucial aspect of effective coaching.  And, as emphasized by Paul, the coach should “only tell an athlete what they are to do, NOT WHAT THEY ARE DOING WRONG … keep it brief, a positive coach prevails”—this, above all else, is surely influenced by Zygmunt.

Physiology, Kinesiology, and Anatomy

The title fairly sums up this section.  With yet another look at the muscle fiber types (primarily the ever expanding definitions and differentiation of Type 1 and Type 2 fibers) and an emphasis on the energy systems continuums, the research makes it clear that an individual with a large percentage of Type II fibers “has a tremendous advantage in a sport such as weightlifting”—this is especially true if this same athlete has trained-up his phosphagen and glycolytic energy systems.

Biomechanical Principles in Weightlifting

Ah yes … the intersection of physics and biology.  Beyond the laws of physics that generally govern this sport  (i.e., Newton’s Laws of inertia, acceleration, and action/reaction), our course materials highlighted how speed and accuracy are of particular importance each athlete who works the Olympic lifts:  “These two qualities have a much greater relevance in weightlifting than previously thought.  In fact, the snatch and the clean & jerk, are two of the fastest, most explosive movements in sport.  Consequently, the speed of movement and accuracy of positioning the barbell are essential elements of weightlifting technique.”   However, coaches frequently have a tendency to overcomplicate and become too “cerebral” when coaching these fast and precise movements.  Paul’s words resonated with me as my mind wondered to the multitude of training techniques that I have been exposed to over the years, “[t]hese movements have been researched to death and it’s pretty simple, the “theoretical model” has been established: shoulders over the bar, bar touches high on the thigh, weight stays evenly distributed on the feet, etc., etc.”

A word about lifting shoes (agree or disagree, what follows is the current USAW position): Lifting shoes have an elevated heel and the purpose of this is to allow greater range of motion to occur at the ankle joint.  In turn, this enables the lifter to get a more upright position with the torso, which is critical for Olympic lifts and major training exercises such as the squat [see image below].  Sato et al. (2012) found that in the back squat, weightlifting shoes increased ankle flexion and decreased forward toss lean as compared to regular athletic shoes.  The authors attributed this to the heel life in the lifting shoes.  With the lifting shoes, the knees are able to travel forward over the toes, reducing the torque on the knees and hips and keeping the torso more vertical.  Lifting shoes are therefore essential to not only proper execution but to reducing the likelihood of injury [emphasis added].

Influence of lifting shoes on   squat position.  Image supplied by Michael Conroy, reprinted with permission of USAW (photo by Kenny Markwardt).

Influence of lifting shoes on squat position. Image supplied by Michael Conroy, reprinted with permission of USAW (photo by Kenny Markwardt).

Phases of Nutrition and Daily Regimen

With both a four- and five-year-old at home, I found the USAW’s paradigm for supporting athletic development extremely interesting—my wife and I have a bit more time in “Phase 1” … ha.  USAW divides development into six (6) phases: Phase 1 (<6 years old), emphasizing the introduction of a wide variety of foods at meals (I say, good luck!); Phase 2 (6-10 years old), introduces “good habits around training” (i.e., encouraging the consumption of water around activity as well as a post-activity snack); Phase 3 (pre-growth spurt), focusing on balanced nutrition and being to develop the concept of “food as fuel;” Phase 4 (during growth spurt), the emphasis remains on balanced nutrition with an increased awareness of meal timing both pre- and post- practice and training activities; Phase 5 (after growth spurt), it is in this phase where the focus shifts to developing individualized training and competition nutritional strategies—nutrition becomes tailored to the athlete’s particular body size and training load; and, finally Phase 6 (full maturation), here an athlete is fully nutritionally aware with highly-individualized prep, pre-competition, and competition nutrition regimens—although it is in this phase where both approved supplements and ergogenic aids may be introduced, the emphasis remains on individualized nutritional strategies.

The American Development Model: Long Term Athlete Development

The following LTAD (Long Term Athlete Development) model and ADM (American Development Model) serve as the basis for USAW, but also USA Hockey, USA Swimming, and USA Tennis. Developed by internationally renowned coaching educator Istvan Balyi, these programs provide the current basis for developing our country’s Olympic contenders.  In following text boxes, I have set out the core concepts of both the LTAD and ADM as they apply to Olympic weightlifting:

Play, Love, and Excel.  Play: is where young athletes learn that weightlifting is, in its simplest form, fun.  Love: once a young athlete learns the how of weightlifting and begins to develop skills and athleticism, weightlifting may start to take a priority amount other activities … the sport becomes more important and weightlifting in general becomes a bigger part of [the young athletes] lives.  Excel: now that they play and love weightlifting, a higher premium is placed on excelling at it.

“It takes 10,000 hours before you can accomplish the skill set” is frequently heard around the discussion of LTAD.  The USAW materials highlighted how the experts approach the 10,000 hours concept:

1.  Early participation, but late specialization

2.  Be patient, don’t rush development

3.  The only way to get 10,000 hours is to do other sports [emphasis original]

4.  Quality of training not just quantity

5.  As many activities as possible

6.  67% of the time should just be vigorous activity

7.  Find time to just play [emphasis original]

Compare the LTAD with the ADM:

i.  “It’s not sport, it’s culture”

ii.  Work together to drive this model

iii. Some things are transitory

a. mental development

b. emotional development

c. fundamental skills

iv. Age-appropriate development is showing results

v.  Do not get too organized

[formatting original to the USAW materials]


The above outlines of both the LTAD and ADM, reproduced and reprinted with permission of USAW, attributed to USOC/USA Hockey/USA Tennis/USA Swimming/USAW Advanced Weightlifting and Sports Performance Coaching Course Manual, pp. 47-48.

Theory of Athletic Power Production

Power production is the name of the game!  This is especially true when developing fitness (i.e. “fitness” is the ability to perform a task cf. “health” is the general condition of an individual’s body—the optimal performance of the internal organs and the body’s physiological systems).  Although I frequently stress that the primary purpose of all strength training is injury prevention, for the competitive athlete (assuming that he is not injured), increased power production should be the primary focus of his training.  From experience across a wide variety of athletic disciplines, I cannot agree more with the statement that “only athletic-type lifting (snatches, clean, pulls, and squats) has the capacity to effectively train your body’s power zone … [a] highly developed power zone offers the greatest opportunity for the transfer of weight trained power to your sport.”   Additionally, the USAW materials emphasize the role of this “athletic-type” strength training as follows:  “The primary purpose of athletic-type strength training is to increase maximum kinetic energy and increase maximum acceleration through a full range of multi-joint movements.”

Weightlifting Technique

USAW’s position is the same as my position: “[t]he most fundamental element of weightlifting is the training of technique.”  As Paul stressed in the technique lecture, the best ways to execute the snatch and clean & jerk have been researched to death—the methodology of moving weights on a barbell overhead is essentially settled (as the course materials make clear, “performance technique has not undergone radical changes in recent years.”  From a coaching perspective, it is the precise execution of the known movement patterns that drives the best performances.  According to Paul, “as long as the athlete’s movement is efficient, the athlete is making ongoing progress and avoiding injury … these are each indicators of positive technique, plus the ability to develop force and speed”—I concur.

Assistance Exercises

Although largely a matter of convenience, exercises designed to address technique concerns, improve work capacity, support injury prevention, and improve performance have been classified and ordered to support ongoing training.   Our USAW coursework divided assistance exercises into movements for the snatch, clean, and the jerk.  I have set the various assistance exercises below. (If you are not familiar with these movements, I will encourage you to locate a qualified USAW coach for instruction—the purpose of these movements is to correct errors, NOT introduce them!)  As an aside, now that USAW provides a video archive of both the competition lifts, as well as semi-competition, life related, and power and strength exercises that can be accessed here.

Snatch Movements:

Press in Snatch or “Sots” Press (see Viktor Sots)
Block Snatch Pull + Power Snatch + Overhead Squat
Snatch from the Low Blocks
Snatch without moving the feet
Snatch onto Low Blocks (boards)

Clean Exercises:

Clean Hip, Clean Above Knee, Clean Below Knee
Block Clean Pull + Power Clean + Front Squat
Clean from Low Blocks (boards)
Clean without moving the feet
Clean onto Low Blocks (boards)

Jerk Exercises:

Press in Split
Jerk Step
Split Clean from Blocks
Jerk Behind + Jerk

Regardless of the specific exercise selected, according to Paul, “[c]oaches should select assistance exercises that improve technique, increase work capacity, and strengthen body levers in both the pulling and receiving positions.”

Faults and Corrections

At least at the coaching level, this is where the wheat is separated from the chaff.  The ability for a coach to observe movement patterns and spot the faults is one thing, the ability to then provide the appropriate corrections is another thing entirely.  At a most basic level, the answer is always to reinforce proper technique, but that doesn’t provide sufficient guidance.  As mentioned earlier, almost every lift contains small errors—frequently, these errors would be almost imperceptible to all but the most accomplished coach.  I have set out a couple of the most common faults, as well as possible corrections offered by USAW, that I frequently encounter when instructing and executing the snatch and the clean (the foundation of the clean & jerk).  For the snatch, an athlete frequently exhibits a “press out” (i.e., not receiving the bar with arms fully locked out).  Whether the cause is insufficient force at the top of the pull, the athlete being sluggish getting under the bar, or a more general weakness in the receiving position, the result is the same … a press out and, consequently, at least for competitive purposes, a “no lift.”   The corrective exercises include those that “emphasize the pull and force application” and the USAW materials further suggest, “pulls, shrugs, and lifts from different positions, particularly from the blocks.”  Another suggested correction would be working  “3 stage snatches”  (high hang, above the knee, and finally, from below the knee).  For the clean, I have placed emphasis on what the USAW labels “excessive foot stomp.”  The oft-repeated saying, “Loud feet equal slow feet” comes immediately to mind.  Two potential causes are often working in tandem with this fault: 1) the lifter has his weight positioned too far forward at the start of the lift, and/or 2) the lifter is “overly anxious or aggressive.”  The USAW materials set out with precision why excessive foot stomp is not effective: “[i]t can lead to the barbell crashing [emphasis original] onto the lifter.  It slows the turnover of the barbell and hampers the timing of the lifter to push up against the barbell.”  The possible corrections include 1) practicing the clean in “with the feet in the land position” (this effectively slows the speed of the barbell, forcing the athlete to “hold their levers” and “keep the barbell close to the body”—the feet preset in the land position also encourages the lifter to “push up against the bar”).  Additionally, low blocks (boards) can be used to encourage both speed under the bar and a quick application of force up against the bar.  In this exercise, squares of  3/4″ plywood are placed outside the lifter’s feet prior to the start of the lift.  The lifter then completes the exercise while landing on the “boards”—landing on the elevated boards “forces the lifter to really react to the feet hitting the ‘platform’ quickly.

Competition Preparation

As part of the multifaceted duties and responsibilities of the coach, the scheduling, preparation, and logistics of competitive events requires attention to details that can make or break and individual athlete’s or even an entire team’s competitive performance.  In addition to travel concerns and specific venue considerations (i.e. think of the potential nutritional challenges attendant to certain international competitions), there is a sizable amount of “competition tactics” that a coach may use to attempt to get the completive edge over other athletes and place more of his athletes in the medals.  From counting attempts, to designing  the proper warm-up schemes, the coach is charged with much more than just getting his athletes to hit their opening lifts.  As the USAW materials make clear, while “Hit your opener!” is a good rule of thumb, the precise opening lift needs to be based both on training results and “objective reflection between both the coach and the athlete” (I would add this two way reflection should occur both during the training leading up to a competitive event and at the time of the event.)

Program Design

This is where the rubber met the road for me.  I am striving to improve programming for my athletes and my own progress as a lifter.  The opening paragraph of the chapter accurately describes the challenges in this area: “Training in weightlifting or [s]ports [p]erformance is a complicated task and does not respond to any theory without giving careful attention to the fundamental principles that govern it.  There must be collaboration between the factors of volume, intensity, frequency, and the selection of exercises [emphasis added].”  The goals of program set out below mirror, at least in part, Paul’s words concerning the use of assistance exercises: “Coaches should select assistance exercises that improve technique, increase work capacity, and strengthen body levers in both the pulling and receiving positions.”  The USAW’s program design model is consistent with Paul’s emphasis, see below:

Goals of Program Design

  • Improve Performance
  • Reduce Injury (both the rate and intensity)
  • Refine Technique
  • Increase Work Capacity

All training programs should contain the following qualities:

The view from my chair … for my clients out there, note the emphasis placed on recovery.

The view from my chair … for my clients out there, note the emphasis placed on recovery. Reprinted with permission of USAW, attributed to “Quantum Strength Fitness,” by Pat O’Shea, p. 15.

1.  Easy to understand and monitor

2.  Be of cyclic nature

3.  Have built in checks of progress

4.  Allow for individual creativity

5.  Allow for the inclusion of remedial movements for error correction


Reprinted with permission of USAW, attributed to “USAW Weightlifting Coaching Course Manual,” p. 106.

When one overlays these goals with an understanding of modern periodization, it becomes clear that most programs need to be highly individualized (this is most certainly the case when working with any athlete beyond a true novice).  The individual strengths and weakness of each athlete, the “athlete’s age, gender, somatotype, and skill level,” along with other important considerations like availability to train, nutrition, motivation, etc. each play a role in successful program design.

Sports Psychology, Gaining the Mental Advantage

Any time the topic of sports psychology comes up I immediately think of the “Flow” series of books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—pronounced (cheek-sent-me-high)—the positive psychology state of total absorption in an activity, characterized by intense concentration, a loss of self awareness, an optimal level of challenge (neither too great, nor too easy), and the sense that time is flying.  I frequently find the flow state (it’s akin to the colloquial “being in the zone”) when I am training.  The USAW materials capture a bit of “flow” via the inclusion of the “Triangle Model for Optimal Performance,” where optimal performance is set at the peak of the triangle and defined as “performing at the best of your ability (not simply winning).”   Both “optimal development” (the person influence of weightlifting on the individual, i.e., healthy self image, discipline, etc.) and “optimal experience” (this is the “learning” component, i.e., having fun, gaining personal fulfillment, feeling more competent and worthy, etc.) make up the base of the performance triangle.  USAW places special emphasis on mental skills.  The remaining course material in this area addressed goal setting, self-talk (both positive and negative self-talk can have tremendous impact on athletic performance), imagery training, arousal management, concentration, pre-performance routines, non-judgmental thinking, and confidence.  At its core, the material devoted to sports psychology is a recognition to the seemingly inescapable mind-body “inseparability.”

The optimal performance triangle, reprinted with permission of USAW, attributed to “Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology,” by Robert Weinberg (2011), p. 106.

While the majority of our time during the advanced course was spent in the classroom, Paul managed to incorporate two breakout sessions where we were able to focus on moving a real barbell around (primarily advanced techniques and assistance exercises, specifically those designed to address flaws in lifting technique).

Zygmunt & Paul

Zygmunt & Paul

While it is always interesting to learn from Paul (Paul taught my “Level 1” USAW course and set me on my path to begin training in the Olympic movements) and spend time at the OTC, I particularly enjoyed two moments over my most recent long weekend in Colorado Springs : 1) my opportunity to listen to Zygmunt Smalcerz both field questions from our group of students and observe him coach resident athletes, the 73-year-old USA Resident Team Coach (Zygmunt is also Olympian, earning a weightlifting gold medal in 1972) … I can still the echo of his words, albeit with his thick Polish accent—Zygmunt emphasized the need for “speed strength,” stressed the importance of dynamic warm-ups, core strength as a safety measure to protect an athlete from injury, and highlighted the importance of actual strength—i.e., given the choice, Zygmunt would elect to work with a strong athlete over a well conditioned athlete … in his words “strong takes a long time to develop,” and 2) during a break between lectures, a rare opportunity to swim a mile in the OTC pool (a really neat and unexpected treat).

I want to encourage weightlifting athletes to get involved with USAW and/or a USAW-certified coach.  Look for sanctioned clubs and coaches in your area and take advantage of the wealth of information that USAW offers.  For USAW coaches, take the next step and participate in the advanced course!

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