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An Interview about Coaching, Powerlifting and Life Long Learning

I interviewed Thomas Powell on his experience as a power-lifter, 2X national champion in the UK and his experience as a coach of Olympic teams and some of the best athletes in the world. As well as insight into his motivation and key points he has learned on his journey which he shares with you.

How did you get into powerlifting?

I played rugby from about 10 years of age. I got injured and messed up a few discs in my lower back. I lost the feeling in part of my left leg. So I needed to get my strength back. My coach helped me build that up again. I started squatting, benching and dead-lifting. He was the one who said that I was quite strong and steered me towards powerlifting.

What was in it for you?

I have always been quite competitive. Playing Rugby, my coach was probably one of the biggest influences towards playing. But it was alot about having fun too.

How did you get into Coaching ?

I got into coaching when i was still playing rugby and through my coach who offered me the opportunity to start teaching the younger kids. I didn’t really excel but I really enjoyed it. For 3-4 years I coached next to working a full time job, really got into power-lifting and got my personal training qualifications, and went on to be 2X British champion in power-lifting.

But it was really just recreational coaching and just started to build and build and build. I got the opportunity of coaching the Chinese Olympic team, in the development team for skiing.

This is really where the challenges came in for the language barrier. It was very different. It really made me evaluate about my coaching style. I needed to do just the smaller touches rather than showing the whole movement. It was fantastic.

The gym I was in was Powerbase. I think it might be one of the best gyms out there. I use the white board to demonstrate. “Do you see the hips, the shoulders the ankle”? This is how I want you to look like. Alright now pair up and I am going to walk around and see how you look like while doing it. My objective was really to make the athletes self sufficient.

For them to self-diagnose and self-correct instead of them relying on me to be around all the time. Sometimes I would just leave them but watch them from far keeping them in my sight.

Did you feel that giving them this distance was making them perform better?

Some really like this. they want to come in, get done and get gone. They just want simple instructions like, keep your chin up, keep your hips in place. Some like the small talk.

You kind of have to wear very different hats. It’s about managing their expectations. When working with Olympic teams, you have many more different roles, you have a technician who focuses more on the technique. Some of them you have to just make them aware of what they are doing. When they start swinging on the bars. Like “Hey I see what you are doing, get back to it.”

What is the performance analysis all about?

We look it at from two different aspects.

1. What sport are we in.

2. What are the different needs for that specific sport.

Do you need to have a really big back or do you need other features for that specific sport. How do you align the two of them? Whats the need of the athlete and whats the need of the sport?

For example, with an athletic thrower it is part of their rehab to go on a rower. All of a sudden they are cranking out rowing metrics on the same level as a professional rowers and are up there with some of the best in the country.

You then send the performance data to their coaches and compare them. So you see this data and their coaches know that potentially they could be one of the best in the country. But then the coaches say, “I do not really want to let go of my athlete.”

This is when you see two sides of coaches. One says, “no they are my athlete, they are doing this sport and they are staying”. The other might have to admit that his/her athlete has been doing the wrong sport.

Australia does really well at avoiding this from happening.

They test kids at a certain age for, strength, power, endurance, speed etc. and tell them which are the nest sports for them according to the measurements. Then they tell them to go out and try different sports and see which one they enjoy. This is what the UK kind of misses out on.

I really hated PE as a kid actually.

Thomas Powell

If you have a newcomer as a coach, you do all kind of testing. How strong are they in general. Swimmers are tested for shoulder capacity as they use their shoulders a lot.

Would you like to travel again and work together with Olympic teams?

I would love to do it again. We love working with them. We have middle aged dads who just want to keep up with their kids playing football. But working with an Olympic team is different.

I have been really lucky with the coaches I have got to spend time around, they have been to world cups, been in Tokyo with the Olympic teams. But if you want to go to the Olympics its not like someone who you have been working with just says, I know a guy who is really good, why don’t you come around for the Olympics. You really need to prove yourself out there. They take care of all your expenses, it’s a real privilege.

But the big goal for me is to be there as an Olympic coach.

Integrity for me is very important. You can tell that I haven’t mentioned any of the names of my clients. I would never boast around and say that I have worked with this person and that person and so on. If we drop an athletes name on our social media pages with do it only with their permission.

I do not like coaches that brag about their achievements. When they say, yeah my client has been 2 times Olympic champion and has won 3 gold medals here and… I say congratulations, now do it with 40 other people.

We have a podium rate, such as our clients achieve 20% first place, 24% second place and 66% 3rd place as an example. But I would never get angry if an athlete would mess up and bring down those rankings. I would say, “dust it off and keep going.

From your experienced point of view, what advice you give people?

1. You got to be passionate about what you are doing.

Sometimes I started coaching at 4 a.m. and at midnight the same day I am on my laptop working. I have piles of paper that I must go through today, mostly analysis stuff.

2. You gotta commit to constant learning

I always try and spend time with people that are way smarter than me. Because then I can ask questions, why are we doing this? After the explanation i often have no idea what he just said.

3. Take notes

If you are volunteering with somebody, take a notebook with you. I see people just standing there without a notebook. No. Go and get a notebook. When someone says something and you think you know what they mean but you are not sure, either ask them or write it down.

I have a coach, he is one of my mentors, and one of the first things he said to me is to bring a notepad. I said i hae my ohone. But he said get a pen or pencil and make notes.

At this point Thomas pulls out his notbooks and says thats 3 of them and i got another pile of 7 notbooks right here and another 4 back there. He says, they look like shit but they are there for me to write notes in.

4. Find a mentor

Find someone who is not afraid to call you out on your bullshit. And thats the problem that so many people do not get real feedback. I got something form my mentors that i use in my feedback. He calls it a shit Sandwich: Pretty good, pretty bad, pretty good.

5. Find the stuff you are not good at

I have a lot of books. When somebody asks me about something that I do not know i admit it. But I learn. I got 3 degrees but i still go to seminars and read and take time out of my day and money out of the bank account to go and learn. I mark the whole book with pages that are important or where I have to look stuff up. My mentors tell me to think about a certain topic and then talk about it the next time we meet.

Image result for peak performance sports book
Example of Thomas’ readings

If you cant explain it to a 6 year old you can’t understand it yourself.

6. Give and take feedback from people in your field

What we do is that we have meetings with all kinds of different specialists, we sit down with nutritionists and biomchanist and exolain stuffto each other. We will also give each other feedback on the areas that we need to impprove on to point out each others flaws.

Being curious about what you are doing and what is going on around you. Some coaches are happy to share some might be a bit more protective about their stuff, but just ask. Coming back to seminars, when I am at the seminars I talk, to people. they might have the personality of a potato but are one of the smartest people in the industry and thats what counts.

What I do is, I turn and ask people, do you understand that? and they will say yes and I will ask if they want to have a coffee. As simple as that.

I went to a seminar last year and asked a guy, hey why did you do that exercise? and he said , yeah because it looks great on Instagram. So generally, don’t take stuff from social media.

7. Share your own knowledge

Finding people who are open to share their knowledge is what you need to do. Personally, I love sharing knowledge. Just recently my friend was in working on a velocity based training model and I shared everything I had on it.

When it comes to to training, 80% of what we teach is backed by science and proven. 15% works most of the time and 5% is stuff that you think is going to work, lets just try it. That’s how I try to coach and work.

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