Building Resilient, Robust Athletes


USOC High Performance Summit Notes

USOC High Performance Summit Notes

Preface: One year ago, I attended one the best events of my career – the USOC High Performance Summit on the main campus in beautiful Colorado Springs. On the flight back to Indianapolis (at the time I was at USA Football), I wrote up my notes to share with coaches in a blog. Well, a year has come and gone and I still have not published them. So, here they are – I hope that you can find some nuggets of wisdom or inspiration from them.


I was honored to be selected as one of 100 attendees to the High Performance Summit at the USOC in Colorado Springs.  This was an intensive 3-day event (May 18-20, 2017) that consisted of presentations, small group breakouts, and much informal discussion during breaks, meals, and after-hours. The attendees were sport science and strength & conditioning professionals from around the World including individuals from other national governing bodies and professional and collegiate sport organizations such as the US Olympic Training Center, USA Volleyball, USA Field Hockey, Philadelphia 76ers, San Antonio Spurs, San Jose Quakes, St Louis Blues, Buffalo Sabres, Houston Texans, UConn basketball, Canadian Snowboarding, Hockey Canada, New Zealand Rugby, Australian Institute of Sports, the English Institute of Sport and many others.

For those not familiar with High Performance (or Integrated Sport Science) teams, think of the team behind the team.  High Performance teams usually consists of a mix of high performance director, strength & conditioning coaches, sports psychology, nutrition, analytics, and sports medicine staff. These professionals usually work within their area of expertise and collaborate amongst each other to deliver support services to the athlete and coaching staff to ensure optimal performance, player availability, and injury prevention and rehabilitation.

I wish that I could take sport coaches and their staff to such events, but since this is not possible I am going to summarize the experience here. I certainly cannot catalogue all of the presentations, breakout groups, side conversations, etc. but hopefully some key points.

Team building

The event started with great anticipation and excitement given the quality and experience of the attendees.  Many of us were familiar with each other either through published work, conference presentations, or social media. We all have growth mindsets and continually look for ways to improve the performance of the coaches and athletes that we serve.

To set the stage for the event, a team building activity was led by USOC head of sport psychology Dr. Haberl.  Attendees were led thru several excellent activities to begin building relationships and trust with each other.  This type of activity should definitely be adapted by teams on a yearly and seasonal basis and not only include the athletes but be done by the coaching staff as well.


This type of team building activity also lends to establishing culture, which was the focus of a great presentation by Donnie Maib of the University of Texas, and also mentioned several other times throughout the event. Currently, ‘culture’ is a big buzzword. Many coaches talk about culture but do they really understand it? – Culture is definitely more than than banners, slogans, etc  In many ways it can be considered as Behaviours – Symbols – Systems. It is key that the head coach set the culture and model it. Equally important is that the culture that you create, is what you allow. In other words, if there are standards then there must be penalties if these standards are not upheld. Several references were made to outstanding cultures in high performing organizations (including many that were represented at the event) and perhaps the New Zealand All Blacks culture may be the gold standard. The book ‘Legacy’ is a highly recommended read that spells out the All Blacks culture that has led to dominance in the sport of rugby at the international level.

I think it is also important to note that the strength and conditioning coach and the head sports coach and remaining staff need to be on the same page when it comes to culture. Separate cultures in the weight room and on the playing field results in mixed messages to the athletes.

Performance = a multi-disciplinary view

A central theme was that the high performance model should be athlete-centered and high performance requires a multi-disciplinary view.  As coaches and high performance specialists, we must first understand the demands of the sport. From there, we can work backwards to a preparation framework – what do we need to do to prepare these athletes for the demands of competition.  It should be understood that performance consists of tactical (X’s and O’s), technical (skills), physical (speed, strength, nutrition, sleep, etc.), and mental (mindset) aspects; thus, we need to take all aspects into consideration when evaluating and training athletes. I want to comment that outside of the U.S. ‘training’ means practice + fitness training or strength and conditioning. Thus, sport coaches and strength & conditioning coaches (or fitness coaches as they can be called in Europe) need to work together in preparing the athlete for competition. It should not be seen as practice and weight training. Strive for seamless integration.

Damaged goods: the injured athlete and reconditioning

It must also be acknowledged that athletes are going to get injured. Tracy Foyer of US Ski and Snowboarding presented on the topic of reconditioning. Tracy brings a unique background of being both a physical therapist and strength & conditioning coach which lends to her view that reconditioning and strength training are on a continuum. Many times, athletes can be ‘broken’ (injured or chronic rehabber). This is certainly the case in collegiate and pro athletes and as youth and high school coaches we can fix it by having our athletes participated in well-designed year-round training programs that considers teaches and trains proper movement patterns, proper loading and the overall volume of training, which flows nicely into the next topic of monitoring athletes.


One does not need a PhD sport scientist or fancy expensive gadgets to monitor athletes. Of course, many well-financed sport organizations utilize objective scientific instrumentation such as GPS trackers, force plates, and wearable technology to collect data that is analyzed with sophisticated analytics.  However, several of us agreed that simple paper & pencil methods can be sufficient. Two measures that take less than 2 min are the session rating of perceived exertion (sRPE) and Recovery-Wellness survey.  The sRPE is completed post-practice or training session by having the athlete rank how hard the session was on a 1-10 scale along with recording the duration of the session. sRPE is then calculated as RPE x duration. So, a 90 min practice with a rating of 5 = 450 training load units. This can then be used to monitor training load as described below in the next section. There are several recovery and wellness surveys that examine sleep, stress, mood, etc. For a quick peek, check out  Each of these surveys can be completed in the morning or prior to practice to give the coaching staff information about the perceived wellness and readiness of the athlete. So again, expensive equipment is not needed but it is important to monitor the training load, recovery and well-being of the athlete to ensure injury mitigation and optimal performance.

Training load

A very important concept related to the preparation of athletes in the pre-season and competitive season is training load. We need to know how much training has occurred
and what the relative physiological stress is on the body.  This is more than simply tallying the hours of practice and training per week!  (Johnny goes to practice for 2 hours per day but what is actually occurring? What is the intensity?) Again, the sRPE can be used as an indicator of training load.

 It was with great pleasure that Dr. Tim Gabbett spoke on this topic. One key point that coaches should consider is that large increases (>10%) in training load early in season leads to a spike in injury rates. In other words, be careful during the pre-season not to go from low training loads to ‘let’s see what they are made of’ sessions. Or in other words, high training loads are protective against injury as long as you get there safely (i.e., progressive overload). Remember, an injury in pre-season will often be a nagging injury throughout the season and perhaps for the athlete’s career.

Equally important is how player fitness is maintained or challenged during the competitive season. By not exposing athletes to game-like loads during practices can also place them at risk on game day. The key is to program and monitor training load.


Although much focus was on physical preparation, injury prevention and rehabilitation aspects of athlete preparation, an excellent presentation, along with practical exercises, was given on mindfulness by Dr Haberl. Mindfulness is defined as ‘a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique’. Teaching athletes these principles and skills is important because of the thoughts that go into the mind of the athlete.

Coaching is teaching

I have only mentioned a few of the presenters here but another one that deserves so is Dan Pfaff. I am getting to be one of those old, experienced coaches but Dan has been coaching nearly as long as I have been alive – 45 years - including coaching numerous track and field Olympians from around the world.  This guy is pure coaching.  He began by stating “I am a teacher.” Indeed, coaching is teaching!  And, part of teaching is having a lesson plan that consists of relevant activities that are based on evidence and practiced deliberately. In addition, there must be a flow of activities in this well-planned lesson. Sound familiar? This is a well-planned and executed practice that leads to mastery of techniques and tactics.

Recommended reading

I previously mentioned the growth mindset of this group, and they all are vivacious readers. A whiteboard was used as a “Book Board” where attendees could write their favorite and most influential reads. You are probably thinking that it was filled with sports science, sports medicine, training, and analytics books.  Wrong! Popular contemporary reads dominated the list.  Here are a few by title: Team of Teams, Undoing Project, The Obstacle is the Way, Focus, How Google Works, Bounce, Outliers, among several others.

“You win with people!” 

This conference was about the art and science of high performance, and it may best be summed up by NFL coach Joe Gibbs who was quoted by Michael Lepps, director of High Performance for Joe Gibbs Racing, as saying “You win with people!”  Thus, we need to get the right people on our team bus, get them in the right seats, establish trust and strong relationships based on respect and humility, motivate them, and collaborate within a culture of positive character and success. And put your ego aside!

Don’t wear ‘busyness’ like a badge of honor

Given that you have read this blog and continue to pursue the highest level of performance for your team and organization is a testament to your passion and work ethic that includes long days. Therefore, I want to end with the following thought: Don’t wear ‘busyness’ like a badge of honor. Enjoy life and the people, places, and things that you cherish most in life. Your quality of life, mood, and health are part of the performance puzzle.

Joe Eisenmann