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Practice Rhythm & Flow

Andreas Behm
Ellie Spain

Ellie Spain

ALTIS Director of Education

This week’s blog-post features an intriguing musical journey with Coach Andreas Behm – as he conducts an eclectic exploration into the effect of rhythm and flow, and the impact this has on coaching.

I am fascinated by rhythm. Rhythm surrounds us, is ingrained in us. Tides, seasons, magnetic-fields, heartbeats, breathing patterns, walking, dancing, stoplights, ceiling-fans. If you know this about me, it is easy to understand why two things I am extremely passionate about are track & field and rap music.

If Sanaa Lathan’s character from the movie Brown Sugar ever asked me when I fell in love with hip hop, I could trace it back to one singular moment: hearing The Roots’ Distortion to Static on TV back in Germany in the late 1990s.

If somebody (hopefully as attractive as Sanaa Lathan) ever asked me when I fell in love with track and field, I would have to say in 1999 at the University of Tennessee’s Tom Black Track. I was a 19 year old freshman studying Sport Management and interning with the LadyVols track team.

I was drawn to both hip hop and track for some of the same reasons. Both are diverse and versatile with multiple facets. Emceeing, DJing, Breaking and Graffiti. Sprints, Hurdles, Jumps, Vault and Throws. Both respectively express themselves through two of the most fundamental human elements: language and movement. What could be more basic and pure than the deft, precise delivery of words, or running, jumping and throwing? Both are part art, part skill-set that can be practiced and moulded as a craft. Lastly, both have underlying rhythms and flows that are inherent to that particular music genre and sport.

Rhythm in rap music is inherent from the various elements of the beat (drums, bassline, dubs and snips) to the vocal rhymes timed out in bars and creative delivery of syllables. In track, rhythm is present in such activities as acceleration, synchronous limb movements, hurdle step patterns, discus and hammer rotations … just to name a few.

Now I do have to admit that I like a good beat, but what especially drew me to rap music was the amazing and creative use of language. The coupling of rhymes, the way an artist could ride a track and make the words meld with the instrumental. A phenomenon known simply as flow.

As a coach I like flow too. I like practice. I particularly like practice flow. The ascension from warm-up to the main workout all the way to the descent through cool-down. When everything is progressing at its intended pace and purpose, it makes me happy (cue the overplayed Pharrell song in my head). I hate anything that interrupts flow, almost nothing is more enjoyable than a well thought out and sequenced training session. Trust me – athletes enjoy this too; especially sprinters. Fast event – they tend to have short attention spans and want to move from one thing to the next. So as a coach, I am constantly thinking of ways I can impact my practice from a lesson plan and efficiency standpoint. I have highlighted several here that I hope you find interesting and useful:

Design, Sequencing & Set Up

With the main objective of the practice day in mind, I always consider the training elements and sequencing I include every day. I also then consider how I am going to set up for these menu items to ensure that athletes can transition smoothly from one activity to the next. Don’t insert items that aren’t compatible with the rest of the things you are doing. Nothing irks me more than practice coming to a screeching halt. It is equally boring and aggravating. Like listening to a great track and mid-way through realizing they put Birdman on; it just ruins it for me.

Setting up can be tedious, but I still like doing it. It helps me mentally prepare for all the activities: what I want the athlete to do and how I am going to lead them through everything.

I would equate all this to planning out a music track. Setting the theme of the song; booking studio time and possibly a producer; choosing the samples, comprising the instrumental; selecting feature artists, and arranging in what order they will appear. If all of this is in place beforehand, this collaboration has a chance to sound great. If one just wings it, the end product could be a beat that doesn’t fit the artists, and verses that don’t align thematically.

Pre-Brief

Every practice I hold a pre-brief. We gather as one big group before warm-up and talk for 3-5 minutes. This helps remind athletes of the objective and tasks of training for the day. It sets the tone and the expectations. I explain what coach will be working with what group. This way no one is confused on what the plan is. Clarity allows for much smoother workflow among athletes, coaches and support staff.

Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic

Depending on what the objective is for the day, I try to adapt my energy level to match it. On days that intensity, focus and execution are paramount, I am a lot more vocal and more aggressive. This is to get the athlete in the right emotional framework for the work at hand. On days like this, I may sit in my car for a few extra minutes in the parking lot and blast music through my stereo, just to get in the right mind-frame. Turn Up!!! MOP – Ante Up

On regeneration and restoration days, I want the athlete to be more relaxed and not in a heightened state of arousal. Keep them parasympathetic as much as possible. I tend to be more chill and laid back, more lax during warm-ups, just letting the athletes take their time. Good vibes all around: Ice Cube – Today was a good day

Through temperament, one can influence the general mood of practice, controlling how the athletes approach training on a given day. The athlete will follow your emotional energy if you put it forth!

Rest Intervals

As mentioned earlier I am drawn to the use of language in rap. I love good lyrics – not just lyrics, but the presentation, expression and flow – the deft manipulation of language. It is amazing to me how rap artists can string words and rhymes together to ride a track.

A large part of what allows emcees to bend their words to any beat however is the unspoken. The pauses and stillness that surround all words. They are vital to the structure. These brief silences can be used for emphasis, or to add an unheard syllable to stay on beat. This distributed silence is the underrated portion that allows everything else to flow.

So I am fascinated by rappers who make good use of pauses in their deliveries. Common, Kanye, Drake, Mystical, Chuck D, Rakim, Andre3000 and Big Boi are all great examples of different rappers who know the value of a well-timed pause.

So what does this have to do with track?

Rest intervals are the underrated, undiscussed element of training. Everybody is interested in the work being done, but it is really these segments of non-activity that are the glue of the training session: the guardians of a crisp practice. Rest intervals help support and sustain intensity, rep duration, volume, mechanics, rhythms and workload of a session. They are the invisible framework that holds everything in place for speed/power training.

Now if you treat rest intervals like Twista or Busta Rhymes like most of their pauses between words, then I truly feel sorry for your athletes. This means you are getting broken off on the regular. Those guys can squeeze a lot of words into very little time, but even they take strategic rest here or there to inhale before another rapid-fire burst comes forth.

The selection of rest intervals will help determine the theme and emphasis for the day. As a very general rule of thumb I use less than complete recoveries for capacity and specific split run work, and give full recoveries for speed and speed endurance runs.

Feedback

I provide as much selective feedback as possible. I try not to overwhelm the athletes with constant chatter and long explanations. I give short, precise instructions and quick reminders as best I can. If an athlete is doing something wrong, I tell them what I would like them to do and then let them try and work through it. Give them a chance to figure it out. It is more powerful if they find out for themselves. No one likes to constantly hear what they are doing wrong, it gets old and frustrating. This is kind of akin to what NBA Coach Phil Jackson does
when his team is not playing well on the court. He doesn’t call a time-out. He lets them play through their slump and gives them responsibility to figure it out. If an athlete is doing great, I may not say much at all – just let them roll through and ingrain the motor habit without thinking about it too much. Practice can come to a crashing halt if athletes are constantly bombarded by long explanations and feedback. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes those things are necessary, but I try and pick my spots as best I can.

My feedback is oftentimes very rhythm-driven. Rhythm is the only variable coach and athlete can agree upon in terms of real time feedback. The coach can’t feel what the athlete feels. The athlete can’t see what the coach sees. But both coach and athlete can hear (and sometimes feel) the same rhythms and patterns. I am essentially choreographing with the help of cadences.

Improvisation and Ranges

Everything we have talked about up to this point is pro-active, pre-planned ways to keep practice running smoothly. But we all know how best-laid plans can unravel rather quickly. This is where the coach needs to be able to improvise and freestyle, just like an emcee when the beat switches up on them in the booth.

Andreas Behm
“We all know how best-laid plans can
unravel rather quickly … this is where the coach needs to be able to improvise and
freestyle”

I always write my training in ranges: sets, reps, durations, distances, intervals; you name it. This allows me to adjust on the fly to most given circumstances and keep the integrity, quality and pace of the workout going. If we are firing on all cylinders, we can gladly max out on the high end of reps. I am not bashful of adding some minutes to recovery – nor to shorten the distance of a rep to preserve intensity and mechanical quality. If technical proficiency is at a breaking point, I will shut athletes down, regardless of how deep into their training load
they are. I have no problem moving from the track to grass runs if athletes look tired and worn out. I would without hesitation switch to an alternative Plan B workout to prevent a potentially injurious situation. I would much rather have a well executed, slightly improvised workout, than a sloppy, drawn-out, ‘grind it out at all costs’ workout simply because it was scripted. It will not only be more practical for that specific day, but allow for better practices into the week.

I hope this blog-post provides you with some ideas on how to improve your practice efficiency. If anyone is interested in exchanging music ideas or knowing what I bump in my car before practice to get hype you can reach me at @CoachSanAndreas on twitter

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