Monday, May 29, 2006

Club Sports: A Tale from the High School Front Lines

Vern's blog post today touched a nerve. He's right on target. I've written a bit about pushing athletes in weightlifting, but let me relate a story to you all about the power of club sports vs high school sports in my world. In this case, the club sport is swimming.

Back in 2003, a group of influential St. Louis parents lobbied the Missouri legislature to pass House Bill 920. This bill would bypass the Missouri State High School Activities Association and force high school swimming/diving programs to allow athletes to participate (practice and compete) for both their USS club AND high school teams during the high school competitive season. Missouri was one of a handful of states that did not allow dual participation in swimming, or any other sport for that matter.

These parents argued that the MSHSAA had no right to bar their kids from practicing as much as possible, in order to aspire to athletic--possibly Olympic--greatness. That, they said, was the decision of the parent (and we assume the club coach). The lack of dual participation did dilute MO high school swimming some, no doubt about it. Many, very talented young people chose not to compete for their high school teams; it seems their parents and club coaches felt the high school season and coaches could not provide their kids with the expertise (read: VOLUME) of training in order to excel in the USS ranks.

This happened with my husband's team in 2002. The best 17-18 y.o. 1500 m freestyler in the COUNTRY chose not to swim for DeSmet that year (he had in the past). Had to train HARD to get his college scholarship and keep working toward the 2004 Olympic Trials. His former teammates won the Missouri State Championship that year--his SENIOR year, in killer fashion, beating Parkway South (a team destined to THREE-PEAT) 215-211. I KNOW the kid missed being a part of that experience. He missed one of the best things, ever, about being a part of a high school team.

My husband Kevin was asked to be on the MSHSAA committee to explore the swimming issue. He was adamantly against the rule change. To make a long story short, the MSHSAA eventually relented and compromised with the USS parents. Swimming and diving athletes, and only swimming & diving athletes, are now allowed to participate in both settings during the high school season. The high school coach is supposed to have control during the high school season, but who knows what actually happens with each athlete/program.

The previous blog contains a letter Kevin wrote to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was never published. The sports editor was very much on the side of the club parents. The letter was posted on the MSHSAA web site for a while; then it was removed because it incensed the parents. I have posted it for you because I think it makes a wonderful argument for all that is good about high school sports. It also touches on the excess of the club environment--excesses we all know are leading to injury and burnout in young athletes. For the most part, high school coaches have the kids best interest at heart. Practice and competition and coach behavior are regulated by the state; and the whole experience is not just about winning at all costs or being Olympic champ.

In an ironic twist, I actually met the young lady who was at the heart of the club swimming ruckus. Her father had been the very vocal spearhead of HB 920. She was now a very good swimmer in a Big Ten program. Finished as high as 4th at Big Tens in the 200 fly. But she was no international star or Olympic medalist--probably much to her father's chagrin. Like Natalie Coughlin, her posture shouted butterfly and massive overuse of her anterior torso musculature. She was a very competitive athlete and loved swimming. But that didn't help her during her senior collegiate season. If you look at her bio on the team site it says the following:

Sat out the season due to injury. Attained All-Academic Big Ten Recognition.

All those years and yards and meters and two-a-days had taken their toll. She couldn't compete her senior year in college because she had terrible lumbar back pain. Months and months of physical therapy and evaluations from the best sports med doctors in the country could not solve her pain.

I wonder if her body would've appreciated taking 4 months of "down time" to swim high school? But hey, father knows best--and more is always better, right?

The Letter

To the Editor:

I would like to voice my strong opposition to HB 920 currently under discussion in the Missouri House Judiciary Committee. Having been an elite level swimmer in high school and college, and a swimming coach for 19 years (the last 9 at De Smet Jesuit High School), I feel that the public and the legislators of Missouri should look at this issue from a perspective other than a small minority of club swimmers and their parents. For several reasons, this bill is a bad idea and sends the wrong message to our young student athletes.

First, under the current situation, an elite level athlete and his or her parents have complete freedom to choose between either high school or club competition. Nothing in the Missouri State High School Activities Association by-laws prevents that athlete from training and competing seven days a week for five hours per day for twelve months a year if that is what they choose. Nothing in the MSHSAA by-laws prevents that athlete from seeking the finest outside coaching and competition available in the state of Missouri if that is what they choose. MSHSAA by-laws only govern an athlete who chooses to compete for their high school team. On the other hand, an athlete who chooses to compete for their high school team still has the option to train and compete with their club during the other nine months of the year. Moreover, MSHSAA has approved several outside “Olympic Development” competitions that a swimmer may participate in during the high school season.

Second, the passage of this bill would undermine the philosophical objectives of MSHSAA and high school sports. Interscholastic activities exist to complement the curricular program. These activities provide educational and social experiences for the student-athlete. High school sports promote school spirit, camaraderie, equitable competition, and individual sacrifice for the good of the team. High school sports do not exist to provide a training ground for Olympic athletes. I do not deny the fact that some of the “best athletes” forego the high school state swimming meet. But I would object to the suggestion that Missouri high school swimming doesn’t provide a positive, competitive and educational experience for all involved.

The very fact that Ms. XXXX and other elite level athletes wish to compete for their high school demonstrates that high school athletics must be doing something right. Despite the fact that club swimmers insist that they don’t receive proper training and instruction in high school, they are nevertheless willing to gut the philosophical objectives of MSHSAA for the opportunity to compete for their high school.

Finally, the passage of this bill would remove the educational authority that our schools and coaches have over student athletes and put the decision-making power in the hands of private clubs and the national governing bodies of our Olympic sports. MSHSAA would be powerless to enforce limits of any kind on athletes, regardless of the potential deleterious effects that might result. Coaches would be powerless to enforce team rules and regulations that might “infringe” on the “rights” of a student athlete. For example, I as a coach would be in violation of this law if I were to remove a swimmer from our team for skipping practice due to club participation.
In conclusion, I urge those who are interested and/or involved in high school athletics to read HB 920. I am confident that many of you will conclude that this bill is bad for Missouri high school athletics.

Respectfully submitted,

Kevin Fober,
Athletic Director and Swimming Coach,
De Smet Jesuit High School, 233 N. New Ballas Rd., St. Louis, MO 63141

Truman: A Gem of Applied Exercise Science Research

Nestled in the midst of northern Missouri farmland, Truman State University (formerly Northeast Missouri State) is a gem of liberal arts education for the citizens of Missouri. Despite the liberal arts label, Truman is also a powerhouse of applied exercise science research. Not the R1 research that drives the dog-eat-dog ivory towers of Washington University or St. Louis University, but the type of research that allows undergraduates--not graduate students or post-docs--to explore the foundations of scientific inquiry in an atmosphere of enthusiasm.

Applied exercise science is not a common feature on today's American university campuses. Most institutions go toward the money; and the money is in high-powered, sub-cellular or genetic research. These institutions and the people trapped in them, live and die by the NIH or NSF grant. Not so at Truman. Research is applied; it is directed at the human level. This type of work is challenging to do well. And although it is not directed at curing cancer or diabetes, or any other Holy Grail of medical research, the knowledge gleaned from such work has the potential to help coaches, athletes and anyone interested in physical education or public health issues.

These people tackle real-life questions for those interested in training for human performance.

Over the next few years, I look forward to working with Jerry Mayhew, Alex Koch, Michael Bird--the pillars of Truman's Exercise Science program--on some very cool projects. And I have to give a shout out to my hometown man (fellow native of Cape GarageDoor, MO), assistant volleyball coach Ben Briney, who has invited me to work on developing weightlifting/weight training materials for his athletes this summer.

Can you tell I'm very excited to work with these people? People who lift weights, exercise AND love science! Nirvana! Oh yeah, did I mention they have a competitive weightlifting team? Let's go, Iron Dogs!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Big Weights and Ultra Marathons: My Heroes

As athletes, Melanie Roach and Brendan Brazier don't have much in common. Melanie is an elite 53 kg (116 lb) US weightlifter and Brendan is a 76 kg (165 lb) Canadian triathlete and ultra-marathoner. Melanie is a petite (former gymnast) powerhouse, with several children, making a fabulous return to international competition after 6 years off. Brendan is a lanky, endurance machine, making waves in the health and fitness industry with his whole food philosophy (and products) for athletes.

In my world, these individuals are terrific role models for life and health.

Melanie is a fabulous example for all women and girls that strong, powerful woman can be smart, feminine and even a mom! She just captured the bronze medal for the US at the 2006 Pan American Championships--after 6 years away from her sport! Melanie is one of the few women in this country who has clean and jerked over twice her bodyweight; she can squat almost three times her bodyweight. Her bone density is off the scales. She keeps her back pain at bay with consistent, appropriate training and great mechanics.

No one has to train as hard as Melanie does; but few women are encouraged to truly learn and do ANY mildly intense weightbearing activities. Our culture has all sorts of negative stereotypes that discourage women and girls from participating in these activities. I'm out to change that.

Brendan is a great example of a high-caliber athlete who eats a whole-food, plant-based diet. May 12 he captured the Canadian 50 km Ultra-Marathon championship in 3:10, breaking his old record. He is living proof that a plant-based diet is compatible with very intense athletic endeavors. He is also working to help educate others through his books, talks and VEGA products. Check out his website here (you can find his blog under the NEWS heading). Brendan is thoughtful and not just out to make money. Earlier this month, he testified before a US Congressional panel on the importance of educating young people on making good food choices.

Again, no one has to eat just like Brendan to gain health or improve performance. But our culture has very negative stereotypes of vegans and vegetarians as pathetic, unathletic weaklings. We are discouraged from eating better by aggressive marketing and biased science (studies supported by various food industries) that feeds us false information. I'm out to help change that too.

There are no big secrets to outstanding physical health and athletic performance. It takes knowledge, discipline and hard work. Short cuts via pharmacology and technology (machines) are poor substitutes. Optimal physical health requires an understanding that we must work WITH nature to bring out our physical best--we stress the body and allow it to recover. Keep it simple and remember the body must always work within the context of the world it evolved.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Pilates Observation and Professional Collaboration

I have a new patient with a history of back and hip issues. As part of his recovery, he is taking Pilates lessons. At the request of the MD and the patient, I met with this man and his physician at his last appointment and we decided it would be a good idea if I observed the Pilates lesson, so everyone was on the same track and no one was doing anything counter-productive.

Lesson #1: It is optimal if the physical therapist and treating physician can meet with the patient together. This rarely or never happens in traditional orthopedic cases.

The Pilates lesson and instructor were fantastic! This woman used manual and verbal cues, in gravity-lessened situations, to teach this man body awareness and generate improved mobility and posture. My job, as physical therapist, is to build on this foundation she is creating by teaching him use his body more effectively in weight-bearing situations. Our last PT session focused on simply engaging his R hip extensors during a sit-to-stand activity. In just a few minutes, with one manual and verbal cue, I was able to completely change his physical strategy for standing up; he couldn't believe how much easier it was to move his body. He was no longer struggling just to stand up.

lesson #2: One-on-one instruction and time to reinforce new motor patterns are critical for many patients, if one is to truly move better and regain physical health and performance.

Between the Pilates lessons and my sessions, this guy is getting FOUR hours plus of instruction per week. I do not apply any modalities and he is under my watch the entire session; he never has to "ride the bike" or go off in a corner by himself to do his therapeutic exercise because I am juggling other patients. He experienced this in two other PT stints and refused to return after realizing his care was being compromised.

Why can this guy get individual attention? Because he and we (Pilates and PT provider) do not have to depend on third party payment. He is paying for our services out of his own pocket. Sound radical? It really isn't. It is just a matter of changing your attitude toward your health. You truly do get what you pay for.

So here you have an MD, a PT and a Pilates instructor all working in concert, with a very proactive patient, to address his issues. No egos; just communication, care and time. This is how it should work.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Back on Track

Took a little detour, but now back on track after a little ride to clear the mind on the Penrose Park Velodrome. It was a little cold today, but good to get on the bike after two years of road riding.

Track bike: no brakes, one gear, keep pedaling and turn left.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Fatmanwalking has advice for those looking to Dr. Atkins

Beware, all you high protein diet friends of mine....

If you haven't read about The Fatmanwalking yet, you should check out his website. Steve Vaught's May 3 journal entry has some good advice for you exercisers out there looking eat well, exercise and lose weight in a healthy manner. To bad Dr. Atkins couldn't stick around to see the results of this n=1 case study. Maybe I'll send him a link to Dr. Joel Fuhrman's DiseaseProof blog:

"After all the talk about not going in for crazy fad diets I wound up doing exactly that and I am paying the price. The following stuff is creepy and has to do with body functions, so if that is gross then skip to the next paragraph. About eight weeks ago I was really unhappy that the weight loss slowed down since returning to the road. To compensate for that I decided that I would change my diet a bit to help move things along and it worked. I reduced my carbohydrate intake significantly and increased protein. This was really helping for a while but then came the price to be paid for trying to shortcut nature. My body started to have problems digesting so much protein, my urine and sweat took on a strong ammonia smell and eventually I passed two kidney stones.

Ok gross part over—the end result of all this is that my Doctor told me that I would have to go back to a more balanced diet and stop being an idiot. (Maybe she didn’t use those words but I knew that was what she meant) So after weeks of abusing myself, I needed to revert back to the right way of eating and of course I gained back most of the weight that I had lost during the (Atkins time). I think that right now I am around 310 lbs. I have learned my lesson, unfortunately a lesson that I already knew, but I relearned it nonetheless. I am not stressing out over this though because I reminded myself that truly effective weightloss occurs a little bit at a time. Trying to force the body to lose weight is the same mania as is putting it on in the first place. I changed back to the proper way of eating and I increased the pace (out of scheduling necessity) and things seem to be heading back in the right direction now. "

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Zen of the Humble Garage

I enjoyed Vern's posts today and will have to pick up the book on Natalie Coughlin and the Outside Magazine. One thing that caught my attention was Vern's reference to his "high tech garage training center."

I am almost ready to begin research on a book dedicated to the wonderful work and knowledge generated by the numerous, legendary garage training centers and mentors in this country. It is my contention that the foundations of training technique and wisdom is generated in these humble facilities by those who prefer to be independent of the big gyms/sports performance companies. The gurus with the fancy, turf-laden sports performance emporiums simply repackage and resell that which has been developed in the trenches. They sell, sell, sell; they do not teach, teach, teach.

I'll admit is surprised me a bit to learn that Vern has a garage facility, but it makes total sense now. The weightlifting community is rife with such facilities, as commercial gyms tend to have no stomach or room for platforms, chalk and noise of dropped barbells. And commercial gyms have no space to teach people to move! They are full of useless machines and televisions (and escalators!) that provide mind-numbing distraction and assistance to the faithful masses who get their narcotic-like CNN, CNBC and Today fixes. This is exactly the environment that does not support the development of physical health--awareness, alignment, movement and strength. It creates dependence on machines and dumb's down the body's own proprioceptive abilities to move in the context of gravity.

I have finally managed to create my own little basement space (see top the picture) that allows me to lift, move, play and do Iron Maven research and development without mirrors or TV. And I can at least control the temperature a bit, which is nice. I've trained in the summer in a Florida garage and I can say that it can be brutal: the heat, mosquitoes and humidity are challenging. I salute Vern and all of the other garage-based people out there who chose the non-commercial , beautifully simple, functional path.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

OT: Beastie Boys Muzak

I really enjoy Frank Deford's commentary on NPR every Wednesday, and today was no exception. But did anyone catch the musical interlude just after it? I kept thinking "I know that song, but it is out of context."

And then I figured it out: it was a jazz instrumental rendition of the Beastie Boys' "Brass Monkey."

What does it all mean, Mr. Natural?

Monday, May 01, 2006

Confessions from the Core

Hi. My name is Tracy. I’m a recovering physical therapist. I used to teach people to draw in their lower abs; then I keyed in on the transverse abdominis. But now I know “core strength” is all about motor control, context, gravity and being upright. This is my story.

In 1995, I was accepted into Washington University Program in Physical Therapy, the number one program in the country at the time. I studied with some very bright, wonderful people. I took classes from and worked for Shirley Sahrmann. (She’s a great person and one of the sharpest people I’ve ever met. Her ideas continue to influence my practice every day.) I knew the lower ab progression like nobody’s business. I thought I knew it all. Then I graduated and went out into the real world.

Derrick Crass, (a PT and an ‘84 and ’88 Olympian) gave me the opportunity to put my Wash U smarty-pants self to work. I must’ve driven him crazy with my arrogant attitude. He persevered in spite of me. He even sent me to this guy Vern Gambetta’s seminar “Building and Rebuilding the Complete Athlete” in 1998. I came back eyes wide open, newly enthused and engaged in my work. We bought bands; we crossed over and touched; we lunged and reached. But I still taught people to draw in their lower abs; yet I felt something wasn’t right about my whole back/core treatment paradigm. Why wasn’t I simply teaching people to move better while keeping their torso stable? To perceive their lumbo-pelvic position while they were doing their work or sport movements? To achieve necessary lower extremity flexibility with torso stability? Why was I doing supine ab progressions and still doing straight leg sit ups?

Slowly my thoughts developed into a framework about “core strength and back training” and I was given the opportunity to write my ideas down for Harvey Newton and the now defunct online version of Strength and Health. These articles were well received. But they needed revision; that whole transverse abdominis thing was still lurking in the shadows. (You can check one of these articles out on my website:

Then Stuart McGill appeared. Here was someone speaking out against accepted practice—going against the tide. And he even collected data to back up his statements. Maybe I was on the right path—the functional path—after all.

So I am still recovering—working on and revising my thoughts about how best to educate my clients and patients on back health. I’ve found a support community in the blogosphere with Vern, Joe P. and GoAnimal. It has been a long road and one that puts me at odds with many of my fellow physical therapists. But that’s okay. I press, I squat, I lunge and I brace for action. Gravity, dumbbells, barbells, med balls and bodyweight are my partners in the journey of human movement and performance. I marvel at the complexity of the human body and do not attempt to reduce it to specific muscle groups; I focus on body awareness, alignment, movement (mobility) and then strength. The body is kept in the context of its environment.

Slowly but surely my revised thoughts on the core and back are being put into written form again for the world to critique. The public release of this work will be a true hallmark of my recovery.