Experienced sports conditioning and strength coach, Mr. Deckline Leitao, talks about the difference with generic fitness in a gym, and how his specialisation can be a challenging career move
“If an athlete’s body hurts in competition, it means s/he hasn’t trained right. We Indians wallow in tear-jerkers, about how an athlete overcame illness or pain during a match. Had the athlete been fit, his/her mind should have focussed on technical decisions, tactics, and on winning,” he says.
Deckline (CSCS, NASM-PES, CES, CPT) should know what he is talking about. He completed his Bachelor’s degree in Sports Science in South Africa and post-graduate Diploma (Sports) in London. He has worked with professional sportspersons in boxing, badminton, shot-put and swimming for the Rio Olympics.
He competed in district- and college-level power lifting and state-level Taekwondo early in his career before he turned to sports science. Past and present sportspersons training under him include those from the disciplines of archery, boxing, cricket, field events (hammer throw and shot put) golf, skating, swimming, table tennis – even motor racing (F3)!
In sports of all colours and hues, the contestant’s fitness is important. Even in purely skill-based sports – such as chess and shooting – body conditioning is a prerequisite to good health and pain prevention. In team sports, because the onus of winning is shared, overall team fitness and skills are important.
In archery and cricket, the demand for power is not that high; but strength coaching prepares the body and mind to greater muscle endurance and stability in order to better focus on skills. “The more fit you are the less you worry about extraneous things,” says Deckline, “You are free to concentrate on your sport-specific skills and focus on winning.”
In individual sports, however, the athlete’s fitness and strength have to be spot-on. The aim of body conditioning and strength training is to help the athlete achieve peak performance needed of his/her sport, and make it possible to repeat that performance for as long, or as frequently, as is required. That calls for a thorough knowledge of the sport
and its demands, as well as the athlete’s challenges.
A thorough knowledge of bio-mechanics comes in handy here! The transverse (rotational), saggital (forward-backward) and frontal (side-to-side) planes of body movements need to be seen in relation to the speed of movement (stop-start and change in direction at high speed, as in badminton or basketball, or open chain as in swimming or rowing), the types of muscle contraction (sprint versus endurance), static muscle control and contractions (as seen in archery), energy thrust in throws and lifts, and the type of energy system used: ATP PC, lactic acid system, or aerobic energy system, or a mix of them.
Training for competitive sports is essentially about the body’s capacity in a progressive and overloaded manner. It starts with muscle endurance and stability. It is characterised by low-weight-high-reps workouts, especially when an athlete is back from a layoff or has just recuperated.
In the strength phase the athlete graduates to a high-weight-low-reps workout, which must gain momentum. “Strength combined with speed brings us to the power phase; it is the ultimate expression of sports and athleticism,” says Deckline, pointing to the stand-out example of (women’s tennis star) Serena Williams, (football player) Christiano Ronaldo, or (former heavyweight boxer) Mike Tyson.
But not all athletes are ready for it. Many trainers also jump the gun by introducing explosive movements, plyometric jumps, etc. “It looks cool, its functional, but it leads to injuries and joint aches,” Deckline warns, “Instead, lead your client(s) through the Stability-Endurance-Strength-Power continuum for best results.”
The results of good strength coaching are easy to see in some measurable events: timing in races, weights in lifting, distance in discuss and shot put. In other sports, it is the athlete and the technical coach that can judge by an increase in flexibility, recovery from pain, better endurance and power output.
Generic fitness is about looking and feeling good: losing or adding weight, gaining or shedding fat or muscle. Over a period of time it runs the risk of being repetitive and boring. Being a trainer in a gym, or even a personal trainer, is all about getting the attention of your customers and keeping them motivated.
But for those seeking bigger challenges, sports specialisation is an unexplored avenue, says Deckline. “India has excellent and renowned orthopaedic surgeons and physiotherapists, but the field of sports-specific training is still evolving.”
With the popularity of cricket spawning a plethora of commercially viable tournaments, and with other sports gaining spectator appreciation and high television ratings (football, golf, kabaddi, futsal) the market for trained sports conditioning coaches is growing.
“Moreover,” Deckline notes, “as a gym instructor or personal trainer your career is age-barred. But as a trained and certified sports coach, you can work even beyond age 70. The monetary returns are also as good as or better than that of most personal trainers, but only if you prove yourself to be worthy of the sportsperson. This is a more secure career option.”
The foundation would be certification in fitness education and personal training. But a full-time degree in sports science (Deckline warns against part-time, short-duration courses) would give you an entirely different and helpful perspective on body conditioning, sports injuries and nutrition. This must be combined with an internship with a renowned practitioner or institute – even if it not a paid one.
One must remember that you cannot fool the athlete: his/her performance will determine whether or not your programme has worked. Of course, there is no question of using performance-inducing or anabolic steroids, since there are anti-doping checks at various stages of the competition, and even after!
“Because you will be responsible for your client’s fitness and some performance parameters, you need to be more knowledgeable, work smarter and set target-based programmes. These will differ from one sport to another, one athlete to another. Remember, even I don’t have a ‘Deckline Programme’ or ‘Deckline-style’ training regimen. If that were the case, we would have discovered the formula to factory-line production of winners!!”
Who is Boss?
But Deckline wants to clear any misconceptions that aspirants may have. He says athletes are generally well-versed with sports conditioning, have travelled the world and could be fitter than their conditioning coaches. “They pay for results, not for who you trained in the past,” Deckline says. “If you don’t deliver results, they can be ruthless and drop you like a hot potato.”
It must be remembered that the athlete is at the top of the team, not only because s/he pays the others, but because s/he has the skills and talent that have helped him/her reach a competitive or professional level. Next in importance is the Technical Coach, the expert in the relevant sporting discipline.
Two rungs down the ladder comes you: the aspiring strength and conditioning expert, because you and the technical coach will spend the most time with the athlete. The strength coach is usually supported by a nutritionist, physiotherapist and sports masseur. For those athletes/ teams that can afford it, a psychologist and video analyst round up the support structure.
It would serve us (fitness professionals) well to establish close working relations and ready referrals between the experts that make up the support structure. That builds trust in the athlete – but don’t destroy it by juggling roles, ever!
The athlete doesn’t only train in the gym – s/he also practices for hours on court or track or in the field. Don’t kill him/her with over-training. Discipline is only effective till it serves your training purpose: overdoing is counter-productive as it would amount to a drill for commandos!
Last, but not the least, says Deckline: “There is no 99% effort in competitive sports. Winning needs 100% performance.” In that sense, a career in sports conditioning and strength training has very well defined goals and lofty challenges.