“Measure what matters and what matters, you measure.”
Two or three years ago I was at a NSCA Coaches Conference and I can’t remember who the speaker was but I do remember the topic. The topic was around data collection and data application and the science and art of programming for sports performance. The speaker listed some good, wise and a practical steps for collecting data and defining what measurable data is necessary to collect. However, the teaching point that has stuck with me the most was stated in this way: “you measure what matters and what matters, you measure.”
In the world of strength and conditioning, fitness, and sports performance, data collection has always been a charged topic. Coaches love talking about the data they collect for all sorts of reasons. Further, coaches like to show the data. How they program certain intensities or loading patterns or any number of other particulars. For the most part, coaches just like to show that they do indeed collect data. It makes us feel validated and to some degree professional. I think in many of the fields of strength and conditioning data collection has been done very well and been very useful. This is especially seen in high level strength and conditioning programs at our top colleges and professional programs and many private performance facilities around the country and the world. Data collection has even managed to slowly drip it’s way into the sport of Olympic weightlifting.
However, the mere collection of data, even if it’s the right data, isn’t always the golden goose. There are multiple pros and cons to collecting and analyzing the data around loading patterns, relative intensity, and overall volume accumulation of your specific programs. I’d like to take a second in this blog and look at two specific pros of data collection and two specific cons. Having just finished up a really long cycle preparing Jourdan for the Senior World Championships, some of this is pretty fresh analysis for my own programming. We track a lot of really interesting metrics with all of our lifters and in doing that some of these pros and cons have become more and more apparent.
Pro #1: Concrete Facts
The biggest benefit of data collection is obvious. Stemming from that original quote from the coaches conference. If you’re not measuring it, it doesn’t matter. You can write all the blogs you want or site all be scholarly journals you desire but if you’re not measuring it you don’t really care about it. I know lots of coaches that understand the importance of measuring intensity and can vocalize why it’s critical to watch and mitigate total accumulation of tonnage but do nothing to measure it in their own programs. The biggest benefit of data collection is in those numbers. If we understand that we want a lifter squatting or pulling or lifting at certain percentages or certain intensity ranges during certain blocks or phases it must be measured. That’s not something we can just “leave up to feel.” We need to measure it and make sure our lifters are inside preset ranges each week. Guessing or going off intuition isn’t good enough when it comes down to these details. Measuring those numbers matter most as your lifter inches closer and closer to competition. Guessing or going off your gut is irresponsible and puts your lifter and program at risk.
Con #1: Paralysis
While there are many benefits to tracking and analyzing your programs, there are a few downsides often not considered. If you’re like me, you love the numbers. It’s probably my favorite thing about writing programs. I love spreadsheets, charts and hard, concrete facts. My tendency is far more the science of programming over the art. I love the data. However, one of my biggest tendencies in that love is paralysis by analysis. Often times, I will get so focused on making sure a program fits even within a one percentage point range of my desired outcome that I will forego some of the art and intuition that is involved in writing workouts. I learned this most effectively from Ursula and watching her program and coach over the last decade. She understands the sport and understands lifters and knows what needs to be accomplished with a specific movement or specific loading pattern. Her eye is trained enough to know if she is accomplishing the desired intent of the exercise. I have watched her change and shift weight jumps and working sets to achieve a desired outcome without ever looking at a spreadsheet. To some degree this has carried into my own coaching on the floor. Early in my career as a coach (which I still sort of consider myself to be in that early phase), I would be way too fearful of messing up my charts and spreadsheets and data to allow a lifter to shift or change from the program written for the day. I just couldn’t fathom moving away from the long-term plan I had set in stone on a spreadsheet. I was paralyzed by the numbers. Early on, I was unwilling to be flexible in the application of the day-to-day data out of fear of moving away from a bigger picture plan. The sport of weightlifting has way too much intuition and feel in it to be paralyzed by the numbers. The numbers are good for analysis and good for creating parameters for training but they can’t be hard and fast and limiting to a coach day-to-day. Let the numbers be good guides but numbers and data make really bad coaches.
Pro #2: Looking Backwards
A second benefit to data collection in your programming comes in retrospect. To some degree there are always things that are successful at the end of a training plan and always things that could’ve been better. The benefit of the data collected during that training plan comes in the ability to see what caused the good things and what caused the bad things at least in part. Looking back at overall averages and weekly and daily accumulation metrics allows a coach to see what worked and what didn’t work. If I know that a lifter didn’t seem to have the strength base necessary come competition time then I can look back at a strength block and look specifically at loading patterns, intensity, and volume and change those things next time. Further, if I know a lifter seems to peak really well and was really prepared for competition day then I can look back on how we prepped that lifter for the meet and duplicate it in cycles to come. The problem comes when I don’t have those metrics. It’s harder to duplicate a outcome when you don’t have the metrics to look at. Sure you can just copy and paste the program and hit rinse and repeat but we all know that drives lifters crazy, creates burn-out, and is just overall a very lazy thing to do. Knowing the parameters and metrics that created the outcome you desired allows for the flexibility to change and perpetuate variance within the parameters set for success. Having those metrics is critical to allow for post competition analysis and perpetuation of that which was successful.
Con #2: Choosing Good over Great
With each and every program or cycle written, I learn something about myself. Further, with each and every cycle written the data tells me more and more about myself as well. In the same way that your bank account is a clear insight to what you really love, the data of your programs is a clear insight to the type of programmer you really are. As you’ll see in the charts and numbers below I’m far more conservative than I think I am. Sometimes I feel really risky and sometimes I feel like I’m really pushing the edge of what the human body is capable of and I fear that sometimes I’m pushing lifters right up to the edge of injury, maybe too close. Then I look at the numbers. The numbers tell a very different story. They reveal the opposite. Most of you at this point are probably thinking this is a good thing. And it is. The numbers are clear insight into what type of coach I am. The problem comes when you’re successful as that type of coach. Jourdan is one of two lifters from the women’s side that hit a new personal record total on the platform at the World Championships. On the biggest stage of her career next to some of the best athletes in the world, she beat her best total. Further, she beat her best total that she put together only six weeks ago in a six for six performance. Topping that type of performance on a much bigger stage against much more competitive athletes is nearly impossible. But she did it. That gives me all kinds of supreme confidence and how we prepared her for the meet.
However there’s a downside. Now I know what works or at least worked to some degree. Allowing myself any sort of leeway or movement away from what I know has worked will be very very hard. What I don’t know and what data doesn’t do is tell me the benefit of what you didn’t do. I know what works and what worked well but what I don’t know is what could work better. Further, now I know the type of program that got her to a good performance but in my limited knowledge I may not know what would work to get her to a great performance. The greatest downside of data is the anxiety of moving away from what I know works. No wise coach makes big leaps away from what works but smart coaches give themselves the freedom to make small changes away from what has been good in an attempt to gain what will be great. You’ll see below that I was ultra conservative in the last six weeks preparing Jordan for competition. Having done enough reading and analysis of other programs I know her intensity average needed to be higher as she got closer and closer to competition. She went five for six with a PR total but what could have been? What if that intensity was a little higher and we had a little more confidence in her capabilities going into that competition? Could that PR total have been 5 kg instead of 1kg? What happens if we have her here at a higher intensity more often in the final prep phases for competition and she is crushing weights for multiple sets at 95%+? Who knows what happens on the platform then. On the flipside, what if we push it too much and she gets hurt? These are the questions that data lets us asks and gives us opportunity to work within.
My biggest struggle and one of the biggest reactions that coaches have is our own unwillingness to move away from what works. This has been the plague of strength and conditioning and especially Olympic weightlifting for a century. What worked 45 years ago may still work today and may work well but it may be the very governor preventing better growth. My own advice to myself looking at these numbers, let them be good guides and let them be good information but I have to consciously remind myself these numbers aren’t the coach. Most coaches know what would work better and I have to be careful to not let what has been good limit me from what could be great.
Just to give you an idea of what we track at Power & Grace here’s a couple screenshots of the final numbers from Jourdan’s six week Worlds Prep. You’ll notice that we track overall tonnage (we are modifying this a bit as we speak), relative intensity of the squats, pulls and lifts, average number of lifts in a week over the course of the total program and total number of lifts completed day by day and week by week. I know most of you are probably seeing my nerd coming out right now but as I mentioned above these numbers are good teachers for me. Terrible coaches, but really good teachers. If you’re in the sport of Olympic weightlifting and your coach can’t show you these numbers in preparation for cycle, in the middle of a cycle, and at the end of the cycle I would urge you to pressure coach to do better. This type of data collection, while it takes a little extra work, is one of the best practices for your coach and their own development. These statistics, furthermore, are major necessities for progressive growth over the long term course of your lifting career. If this isn’t something your coach is willing to do, in all due respect, I’d look for a new coach. This is a minimum requirement in most elite strength programs and in many programs this is just the base of what they are tracking. You deserve the same.