Dan Pfaff is widely regarded as one of the world’s top track and field coaches, having coached 33 Olympians to seven medals and 45 World Championships performers to ten medals – across sprints, jumps and throws. Most famously he coached Donovan Bailey to Gold and a World Record at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Recently his list of successes includes Brad Walker, the 2007 Osaka World Champion and now US record holder in the men’s pole vault (6.04m) and Suzy Powell-Roos who broke the US discus record with a 67.67m effort in 2007, a throw that saw her finish the season ranked second in the world. This year Dan’s group at Tri-Valley Athletics, in Stockton California will be sending nine athletes to the Beijing Olympics.
As well as a phenomenal understanding of the biomechanics and event specific requirements of all power speed disciplines, Dan is also know for his in depth scientific knowledge of human performance and his ability to bring athletes back from injury using his unique manual soft tissue treatment methods. In the first part of our exclusive interview Dan discusses the often overlooked importance of recovery and regeneration in performance, especially when dealing with the older athlete.
Briefly outline your route into coaching and your mentors?
Well growing up my college football coach was a real free spirit, hippy kind of guy. Back in those days coaches were traditionally very authoritarian and he was a breath of fresh air because he treated people with respect and dignity and showed me that there were ways of coaching other than the military, taskmaster, style.
Academically I was good at science and so I became a high school science teacher specialising in maths, physics and chemistry and this background made it easy for me to then move into areas such as biomechanics and motor behaviour when I started coaching.
In track and field specifically, Tom Tellez (Coach of Carl Lewis) was my greatest mentor. Then as my network of peers began to grow people like Loren Seagrave, Gary Winkler and Victor Lopez became very influential and helped form the philosophy I have today.
You are known for picking up mature or injured athletes and helping them to finally realise their potential. When a new athlete comes to you, how do set goals for that athlete in order to get them to where they want to be?
Well Athletes love to set goals but I have a problem with goal setting because people spend an inordinate amount of time setting primary goals and secondary goals but they always ignore the tertiary goals. That is “what do you have to do to reach those primary or secondary goals?” So you want to be an Olympic finalist but what do you have to do to be an Olympic finalist? How many years do you have to have a performance level of X before you get a performance level of Y? What are the entities that go into those little steps of the ladder? I think goal setting is nice and all the sports psychologists talk about it but there are inherent goals – everyone wants to jump higher and run faster, throw further and most people have a number in their head or a mark or a qualifying standard they want to achieve.
I have seen guys and gals with elaborate goal sheets with all this kind of stuff but they do not do the things that are necessary to reach them. So at the end of the day what did that goal sheet really accomplish? I do not mean to poo poo it but in order for it to be integral it has to be a pyramid where the primary and secondary goals are concretely specified and then the tertiary goals must be worked on in depth. These can then be split into subcategories such as what kind of therapy and how many sessions do I need? What do I have to do with my diet and my nutrition and my supplementation? What do I have to do with sleep? What do I have to do with my lifestyle to eliminate distractions? You can write a PhD on it but everyone gets caught up on the top end of the pyramid and forgets the bottom.
So rather than goals what priorities do you have as a coach?
The first priority is health! So we look at what entities can be addressed to increase the wellness of the athlete. Is it mechanical? Is it inappropriate training? Is it how training elements are being combined? Is it diet? Is it nutrition? Is it sleep? Is it a lack of co-ordination of the therapy groups and the therapy styles?
Our second priority is increased mechanical efficiency because statistics show that the more mechanically efficient you are, the less injuries you have, the higher the degree of performance and the less energy you expend so you then have more energy to spend on rehab and prehab.
Generally with most of the aging athletes that come to me just dealing with those two parameters is the whole deal! If you get those two things going the rest will take care of itself.
How do you go about ensuring athletes can stay healthy?
I think the major problem is that a lot of people are into a stimulus/adaptation motif when it comes to training and instead I feel there are four steps to improving performance. Once you have stimulated and the athlete adapts to that stimulus, then you have to spend a certain amount of time allowing that new performance level to stabilise. Then in the fourth step the athlete must learn to actualise it in any kind of environment and under any kind of stress, at any point in time. I think a lot of coaches fall into the trap of stimulating and adapting and as soon as the athlete looks like they have got things under control they then change something and push forwards for greater gains and in doing so compromise the adaptation process and set the scene for injury.
In addition to being careful with how you progress training, you are known for setting up excellent therapy programs for your athletes. Why do you spend so much time on therapy?
Unless you have integrated sports medicines, therapy, rehab and prehab you will indeed you must, reduce the overall efficacy, volume and density of your training. You simply cannot afford to do this at the elite level because it is a slow virus, you do not know how much you are loosing until it is too late. A top athlete is like a formula one car and have you seen how much fine tuning they do with those things?
What you learn from the therapy sessions also guides what you do in training. If an athlete is not getting regular therapy there are less checks and balances. The ability to run your hands over an athlete and know what is restricted gives you immense inside information into their functioning. You cannot expect the athlete to tell you either because they are terrible barometers when it comes to knowing what they are ready for. Just asking “are you ok for today’s workout?” is not enough because their motivation is so high athletes do not necessarily listen to what their own body is telling them.
Where does the coach fit into the therapy setup?
One of the analogies I use to describe my approach to sports medicine is that joints are pulleys; connective tissue (muscle, tendons, ligaments) are ropes; and this pulley system is driven by a computer. To achieve high performance you have to do correct therapy to rehab and prehab the ropes so they do not fray. You have to ensure the pulleys are clean so that everything can slide efficiently and then you have to clean up any viruses in the computer program to remove guarding or dysfunctional movement patterns.
If you get away from that trinity you are doomed to failure. Now I think there are some very good therapists that can fix pulleys, like chiropractors, but the most common thing you hear with a standard Chiropractor is that “Yeah I felt great but the next day it was back!” This happens because they fixed the pulley but forgot about the soft tissue (ropes) and it pulled the joint right back out of alignment again. Then there are therapists that are really advanced and they fix the joint and clear up the soft tissue pulling at it. However, even then they do not go in and fix the viruses that are controlling the whole thing. So injuries start to go away but do not have permanence because they have missed the role of the coach – to fix the computer.
And so the coach and therapy team must work closely together. After years of doing this I have come to understand sports medicine and soft tissue work myself and so now I can understand what needs to be done from all angles, co-ordinate the team and do some of the necessary treatment myself. If the coach knows and understands therapy they are in a better position to consistently get the improvements they want from their training programs.
You also seem to spend a lot of time talking about rest with your athletes.
That is a problem steeped in the authoritarian roots of coach as taskmaster. Rest and recovery are significantly under appreciated by coaches and athletes alike. We spend copious hours and tons of energy studying work. How do we do this workout? How do we do these activities? We research it to death and talk to our colleagues about it. If you had a microphone on and if you monitored how much time you and the athletes spend thinking and talking about work and you compared it to how much you spend on rest you would be shocked. It is probably less than 1%. As I have aged and coached aging athletes, I have come to appreciate that designing and implementing rest and types of rest is perhaps more important than work and the types of work.
I think that is why in some countries we see great youth programs, great junior programs and then when they get to the emerging and elite level it stops. The culprit is the work to rest balance and when that is not correct the injuries mount. If you do not have a great medical team then you are dead in the water; that athlete is out of the sport.
Despite your best efforts you cannot always prevent everything. When things do go bad how do you deal with it?
If things are not going well we move to plan B, and as a rule of thumb plan B is “try and stay as close to plan A as possible!” This means that we do not stop training just because we are injured. If we cannot run we do bike workouts to keep the chemistry going. If we cannot throw we look at what things we can do in the weight room to replace that. You can do more than you might expect with Plan B. I mean there was a time when Obadele Thompson had a nerve entrapment in his foot and did bike workouts for three weeks. He did a test sprint workout one day before he flew to Japan and then he did a lifetime best in the 200m – 19.9 something into a 1.80m/s headwind and he had not even run a step in three weeks!
Even for more serious injuries that require surgery it is important that you keep training going as much as possible before the operation so the athlete’s systems are amped up ready for recovery. At Tri Valley athletics I have a few masters athletes with cancer and one of the main aims of our training is to get their body into as good physical condition as possible before they go in for chemotherapy to minimise the functional decline that inevitably comes with the treatment.