About three weeks ago, Steph Curry unloaded a comically historical shooting display against Oklahoma City that ended in a nuclear launch from half court to win the game. My question is: did those 53 minutes of game-action make him a better basketball player? Or was it just a reflection of his recent practice habits? Or maybe both?

Before I ever knew about CrossFit, I played sports. In fact, it was in that playing of sports that motivated me to start CrossFit in the first place. So naturally my approach to CrossFit is similar to how I approached basketball, football, or track.

You don’t play a football game every single day. You would die. Instead you have practices at about a 5:1 ratio of games. At those practices you emphasize specific performance points that you might need for the game. There is little to no attention paid to passing yards, tackles, or even points scored because the habits developed in this frame are more important than measurable outcome they produce. When the game comes, the outcome typically reflects the habits you practice (unless you are Michigan’s punt team.) This is why I find it so irritating when I see coaches yelling at their players during a game about something they messed up, as if they’re going to correct it in front of a crowd of people and a scoreboard. That needs to be addressed in the controlled environment of practice.

Kelly Starrett has helped me come to realize that the weight room is practice. We exaggerate positions and conditioning demands that we might find in sport or real life so that when we do encounter them, we are more likely to succeed. CrossFit, in specific, serves as one of the world’s best diagnostic tools for movement dysfunction. It exposes us to so many domains of training that our weaknesses have no place to hide. It is the coach’s job to recognize them when they come to light and fix them; the gains an athlete makes in strength, coordination, conditioning, power, etc. all come as a byproduct.

The Champions Club has always been comprised of predominantly teenagers. In specific, teenagers who are not doing CrossFit as a sport, itself, but using it to help them in other sports. As I wrote about before, we have seen the training lead to a lot of success. But, again, we have come to view our athletes’ sports performance as a byproduct of their training, not their goal necessarily. After all: what’s the best way to improve shooting a basketball? Uh… practice shooting a basketball. One hundred push presses is not an equal substitution for one hundred pull-up jumpers.

Teaching develops perception, and perception allows you to be your own coach.

I evaluate my coaching based on how well our kids (or parents, for that matter) move without being coached. I realized that we weren’t doing the kids any good if they showed perfect movement in the gym, but were clueless when they worked out by themselves at college or with their football  team. If they need me there watching to have good form, then I have failed. So lately, we have been a little bit vaguer with our directions. One of our young coaches, Nicole Murley, put it best in an article last year: “Cues foster dependence. Teaching develops perception, and perception allows you to be your own coach.” This is where the Pose Concept has really helped us out.

All athletic movement is comprised of both strength and skill. Strength is the capacity to maintain a stable position, and skill involves the coordination of doing it correctly and is heavily dependent on perception. As I mentioned before, I believe the Pose Method for running is the best way to develop bodyweight perception. The effortless feeling in running should be able to be replicated in kipping pull- ups, cleans, and rope climbs. In fact, we often do Pose drills as a primer for Olympic lifts. Same skill (unweighing), just different poses.

In another attempt to help our athletes move well without coaching, we have simplified our teaching. Instead of having a million different exercises and rules, we have come to recognize a few underlying movements and standards that encapsulate everything we do in the weight room. In short, there are three movements that every kid in the Champions Club needs to perform:

  1. Push-up
  2. Jump/Land
  3. Run

That’s it. If you can do those three things, then you have a foundation for snatches, back squats, handstands, spiking a volleyball, throwing a baseball, or tackling a running back.

An overriding theme for those movements are three rules that must be obeyed at all times; regardless of what you are doing:

  1. Midline stability – No change in spine while moving
  2. Loading order – Prime movers (hip/shoulder) must move first
  3. Laws of Torque – Flexion = external rotation; Extension = internal rotation

In a weird way, it’s almost like the coach is working against the athlete. The athlete’s job is to obey the rules at all costs. The coach’s job is to make the athlete break them, then note where the breakdown occurs so it can be fixed. The coach can use things like speed, load, volume, change in orientation, fatigue, and range of motion to challenge a movement pattern, while the athlete can use perception, skill, blocking movement, and mobility drills to help their cause.

Coach Sinagoga working with one of his athletes. (Photo credit: Chris Sinagoga)

We kind of formalized this mindset about a year and a half ago, and it has drastically helped me when dealing with all of our teens. My biggest coaching fear used to be having an athlete fail right in front of me while I was coaching them. Or even worse: if they trained hard and did well in the gym, then performed poorly in their sport. But now seeing that it is actually my job to make them mess up helps me understand where they fall in the progression of that movement continuum. And if their sports are not going as planned, then it just exposes something that needs be addressed in the gym going forward.

The biggest challenge, for me at least, is adjusting to the different level of athlete. Beginner athletes tend to be completely dependent on a coach, and therefore the relationship works perfectly. With advanced athletes, the relationship is interdependent. Matt Fecht, who finished 50th at the recent U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, trains with us and we both bounce ideas off each other. Intermediate athletes, on the other hand, tend to be the most challenging because they are at that stage that awkward stage. Sometimes they feel too much time is spent on the basics they have already worked on ad nauseam, and sometimes I am too quick to label them “advanced.” And usually our sessions will be filled with variations of all three athlete types. Needless to say there are many entertaining days out here in Madison Heights.

Pairing the idea of working out with the emotion of fun is what ultimately leads to a lifetime of fitness

Finally, I think it is important for the kids to have fun. As the Jeff and Mikki Martin have always stressed, pairing the idea of working out with the emotion of fun is what ultimately leads to a lifetime of fitness. So we definitely do some weird stuff. We have theme workouts during the Summer when all the College Kids are back and on holidays. Some of the favorites are 80’s, Disney, Jurassic Park, and Shark Week (which has recently been blended with our Hawaiian Workout). As for most of the daily workouts, we have a warmup similar to the traditional CrossFit warmup (if anyone actually remembers that from the old days), then mobility work, and finally the workout of the day. I am usually lenient on the talking and messing around during warmup and mobility. Then when the time comes, they flip the switch and get their mind right for the workout. Sometimes the workout doesn’t go as well as planned, and then I get pissed and make an adjustment the next day. In the end, we let the movement quality dictate everything. It they are moving well, we let it roll. If not, we adjust.

We let the movement quality dictate everything

The great thing about coaching teens is that, in most cases, there is a wide margin for error. We experiment on them all the time because they can recover quickly if we mess up. In addition, their involvement in sports gives me a lot of feedback that I would not get otherwise. The habits they develop in the gym show up on the field for me, and the hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of spectators to see. There’s nothing like it.

Coaching track in high school might be the simplest job in all of sports – despite what “track people” make it out to be. There are no plays. There are no defenders standing in your lane. There are no pre-snap reads. There are no curveballs. And there is no contact.

Track is literally just Pose, Fall, Pull. Then practice at your race-speed to get a desired stimulus; unless you need to slow it down to focus on one particular area of the Pose, Fall, Pull continuum. And if possible, do CrossFit to support the foundation.

With this formula, Brian Hassler and I conducted an experiment over the course of four seasons: can lacrosse, softball, and CrossFit athletes be molded into good track runners? It soon became our job to find the best athletes in the school from other sports and bribe the hell out of them to run for us. We talked to parents, coaches, teachers, and students offering a Nike track bag, spikes, and three months of sunshine and daisies for anyone good who wanted to come out. This, as it turned out, was a horrible idea. Not only did the best athletes decline, but the ones who ended up joining carried a lovely aura of entitlement with them. Ugh, it’s not their fault though; I was desperate.

However there was another crowd we went after. And these kids were special. They were known around school as the Champions Club.

During our first season coaching in the spring of 2010, Brian and I had been asked by a few random students to run a CrossFit program during the summer. They saw us hitting WODs at school, started tagging along, and wanted to continue. After sending out some feelers to athletes from a few different sports, we wound up with a group of 22 kids that began training with us on June 14, 2010. Since we were not affiliated at the time, Brian took to calling our group the Champions Club. For nine months we had athletes coming to us anywhere from 2-6 days per week doing deadlifts, pull-ups, handstand push-ups, cleans, and box jumps. But Brian and I always kept our eyes open for standouts in the running workouts like “Kelly,” “Helen,” and “Michael.” Luckily, we found some. Among others, Renee Shelton, Nicole Murley, Sydni Golfin, Jake Cory, and Abby Lama all showed an ability to run reasonably well. By the time March rolled around we managed to convince all of them to run track for us. (Funny story about Renee: on the first day of spring sports she actually left her house thinking she was going to Soccer practice only to have Abby and her friend kidnap her and drag her to track.)

The end result: 10 state qualifiers.

This was the black box model at its finest. We had two control groups on our team – runners who did CrossFit and those who didn’t. The end result: 10 state qualifiers in 2011. Nine of them did CrossFit. In 2012 we had 11 runners qualify; 10 of which did CrossFit. In both cases, the non-CrossFit athletes were on relay teams with 3 other CrossFitters. I’m not saying CrossFit was the reason for the success, but it sure didn’t hurt. It gave the athletes perfect conditioning for the 200m dash through the 1-mile run and it provided a foundation of strength to support the pounding on the school’s asphalt track.

But what impressed me the most about these kids was none of them even wanted to run track in the first place; they were all doing CrossFit to help them at other sports. Yet they routinely beat local competition that considered track their primary sport, and managed to hold their own on a regional and sometimes state level. And nobody personified this model more than Emma Wonsil.

Emma Wonsil (Vid credit: Chris Sinagoga)

Emma is one of the original Summer 2010 kids still with us today. From 2010-2013 she was the best CrossFitter in our ranks. She played volleyball, basketball, and softball before adding track to her routine in 2011. As a sophomore she won regional championships in the individual 400m dash and the 4×1 relay, as well as a 2nd place 4×4 team. The next year, she repeated as 400m champion and also added the 4×4 relay to the 1st place list, while her 4×1 relay team took 2nd. Up to that point her success was more due to her hard work ethic than a technical prowess in Pose. This was about to change.

I thought I knew Pose because I watched video clips. But in September 2011, Brian and I attended a CrossFit Running seminar with Dr. Romanov, Severin, and Peter in Akron, OH. Watching the doctor operate in person was humbling to say the least, but I took a new understanding back to the Champions Club where I worked with Nicole Murley, who joined the Cross Country team during her swim season, and eventually saw her qualify for states. But there still seemed to be a disconnect with running and the rest of the movements in CrossFit – at least from a teaching perspective. It wasn’t until I began to study Kelly Starrett and Carl Paoli that I could make connections between the shapes in the gym and on the track. Carl showed me that things like kipping pull-ups, burpees, and pistols can exaggerate important shapes runners will go through, while Kelly gave me a method to optimize our position. Then the final piece of the puzzle was revealed to me on October 15, 2012 in the form of Dr. Romanov’s CFJ video on unweighing. It was a tease, but it gave me a springboard to connect the missing piece: body weight perception. Now the thing is, all of this knowledge is worthless without a subject to test it on. Thank God I had Emma.

I probably watched that video 15 times in the span of three months; each time I would catch something new.

I probably watched that video 15 times in the span of three months; each time I would catch something new and relay it to Emma to see if it made sense. Emma, who was a Salutatorian on top of all the sports, did not have a class during her last hour of the school day. So instead of sticking around the school, she drove around the corner to our gym (now CrossFit-affiliated) for one-on-one sessions every day from January-May. It was then I began to officially move away from the old method for teaching Olympic lifts (triple extension, pull under, etc.) to the new way we simply and uncreatively called “unweighing.” The method was simple: define key poses based on the movement (push jerk vs. clean, or hang vs. ground), drill the unweighing movement pattern, then change support when all of the body weight is removed.

It was her falling technique from the blocks that gave her an advantage.

On top of that, we also experimented with a lot of the new mobility stuff Kelly was coming out with, especially Voodoo bands on the hamstrings, front splits and shoulder internal rotation. As for the workouts: we kept with crossfit.com as we always have, only making sure to modify with in-season variations of the workouts. Emma, also an all-state softball player, was quickly becoming known more for her work on the track than the diamond. At Regionals, she concluded her 3-peat as 400m champion with a personal best time of 101.5. More impressive, however, was her sprinting. We used the 100m dash as a warmup for the 400, but she still ended up making it to the finals and ran a 13.08 – only .09 seconds off a state-qualifying time. It was her falling technique from the blocks that gave her an advantage; had I recognized this earlier, she could have been spared from the torture that came with every 400m run. Either way, it was clear that the extra connections we made to running were paying off.

Running is the most technically demanding skill in CrossFit.

Running is the most technically demanding skill in CrossFit. It requires the stable midline position, shoulder, hip, and foot mechanics covered by all other movements. However it includes a combination of challenges not found in any other movement. It adds load (3x – 6x body weight), removes connection (unilateral loading and airborne), challenges range of motion (shoulder/hip flexion and end-range extension, full ankle dorsiflexion), constantly changes orientation, and moves the fastest speed – which leads to the most extreme movement factor of all: volume. There are approx. 340 steps in a 400 meter run. That means 170 per foot. Imagine doing 340 cleans in a workout (just for the first round). For this reason, it is nearly impossible to address positional strength when teaching running. Instead, we focus on developing the most important skill an athlete can possess: perception. In specific, the Pose method for running is the most universal and applicable way to teach body weight perception.

Because so much perception is required to maintain Pose throughout all of the reps, we don’t talk about feet-straight or belly-tight. Instead, we rely on using other exercises in CrossFit (box jumps, pistols, kipping pull-ups, and handstands) as skill-transfer movements to help the positions in running. Carl Paoli helped us see that if you do them to fit your purpose in the gym, the principles will eventually translate to the track. In addition, we can also use some movements to help develop body weight perception. Take a rope climb for instance. If our purpose for doing it was to simply build upper-body strength, the kids would just grab on and climb for their lives. But if we want to teach body weight perception, we use the traditional Spanish-wrap, only in Pose language. Start with body weight on your feet and hands. Bring your hips to the rope and do a sit-up. When you feel your body weight leave the hands, release them and reach higher up the rope. Working with gravity has a much different feel than working against gravity, and is something that needs to be continually reinforced.