Doug Chapman's Thoughts on Virtuosity and Coaching

June 8, 2012

Doug Chapman

Coach Doug Chapman shares his thoughts on coaching competitive athletes.

Some CrossFit athletes peak in the Open, others at Regionals. A select few perform as though there is no difference between the two competitions.

But why? What has prepared the select few to be successful across qualifying competitions?

After several seasons of coaching and judging, I attempt to answer these questions. I’ve learned from coaching Games competitors Julie Foucher and CrossFit Ann Arbor, and witnessing movement as a judge at Regionals and the Games.

I believe these questions can be answered by observing movement, critiquing programming and looking for virtuosity in training and competition.  

The Exam

The Open programming was inclusive and let everyone participate. It is like the entrance exam to get into a college. Anyone can take the SAT, but with each extra point the students expose whether they have the potential to complete a degree. Similarly, anyone can do the Open, but with each extra rep, the competitors expose their raw potential to excel in the Games season.

In contrast to the Open, the Regionals programming was exclusionary. The Regionals are designed to cut down the 60 to just three -- such that only those who have a chance of being named the Fittest on Earth may advance to Carson, Calif.

In my opinion, the Regional workouts achieve this goal by punishing those with poor mechanics, lack of virtuosity in training, and insufficient programming depth.

No Rep vs. Virtuosity

A common sign of a lack of virtuosity in training is the, “No rep.” The range of motion among the highest level of CrossFit athletes is exceptional and consistent. Judging this sort of athlete is a welcome vacation when it compared to the rest of the field. With the best in the business, the hardest part of judging is keeping up with their rep count. The best athletes simply move well.

One of the things that separate the best from the rest is movement quality. Take for instance, proper the squat depth. For basically every CrossFit competition worldwide, the squat standard is hip crease below the knee at the bottom and ending with knees locked, hips open, and torso vertical at the top. We know the standard, so why do so many competitors get no reps for not meeting it?

Simple – they’re not rigorously meeting the standard in training. How an athlete competes reflects how they train on a daily basis. If a competitor isn’t trying for virtuosity everyday in the box, they’ll miss reps on the competition floor.

Virtuosity is gained through uncompromising attention to detail everyday. Athletes are nervous when they step into the arena at Regionals. Many times, their mind shuts off. Whatever they do on a daily basis comes out on the floor.

Not achieving squat depth in May is the direct result of what you were doing in December. Consistently practicing perfect movements hard wires good movement such that it becomes the default setting. Virtuosity is gained through persistent practice.

Practice the Standard

Some variations in squat technique do not serve the CrossFit competitor. Take for instance the low bar back squat versus the high bar back squat. Hip crease below the knee is the minimum standard in CrossFit competition and yet low bar tends to support limited or borderline depth.

The movement pattern supported by low bar if done without weight has been termed an "immature squat" with the torso leaning far forward. Often the excuse of "long femurs" is erroneously given as a cause of forward inclination when many times ankle/hip flexibly are the root cause. The low bar squat tends to hide mechanical faults with limited range of motion. The point that people can squat heavier with a low bar back squat is irrelevant if you are getting no rep calls for squat depth when it counts. The athletes who exclusively do high bar or mix the two seem to be getting less no rep calls and have better range of motion.

Coach Glassman said, "Don't let my eyes get used to your shitty technique." It is hard for a coach to be relentless every day in your box. People pay a premium for excellent coaching. Be that excellent coach. Push people to move better before they try and do things as prescribed. Constantly pushing people in your box to move better is a martyr’s task. But in the event that an athlete who has the work ethic and potential happens to walk in your door, you will be prepared to help them realize their potential.

Holes in programming

Take a look across the Regional Leaderboards. A single athlete will have exceptionally good and exceptionally bad scores.

In competitive regions, no competitor with a glaring weakness will make it to the podium. Those who qualify for the Games tend to have fairly consistent scores no matter the event.

To become a consistent competitor across varied events, take a look at your programming.

Many athletes bias toward time domains and loadings that they prefer. Some athletes like short and heavy, other like long and light. To be competitive at the highest levels of CrossFit competition, an athlete needs to be balanced. When you look at performance and there is a glaring hole, then consider re-mixing.

Program to minimize your weaknesses, and polish and expand your strengths. Coaches and athletes should take a systematic approach to fixing weaknesses. Regularity of exposure is key. Easier said than done.

The Coaching Prep Course has an excellent model for evaluating how you are programming: movements, time domains and loading.

Taking a look at how often you go beyond 20 minutes in a workout or how often you program complex skills will help you uncover biases in your programming.

Lastly, don’t let the pull of armchair quarterbacks on Facebook and YouTube bring you to the brink of Programming Schizophrenia. Make a plan, constantly test assumptions and results, and adapt as needed. Ignore the talkers on the sideline. They are on the sideline for a reason.

If you have an aspiring Games competitor in your box, do not let them slide on missed range of motion or bias their programming to their strengths. Push them to fight for virtuosity and work through their weaknesses. Do that, and you’ll help them reach their potential in 2013.