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Reading list: From S&C Coach Petros Syrakolpoulos

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A question I am often asked by fellow coaches is what books one should read in order to become a better coach. Whether your coaching interests are wellness, fitness, athletic performance or injury rehabilitation, there is no doubt your would become a better professional and be able to provide a higher quality of service to your trainees by being well educated in the underlying science. So, if you’re interested in hearing my take on the subject, read on!

In many ways, physical training is kind of like an iceberg: the visible stuff (the exercises performed), while important in its own right, is but the tip. There is a much larger body of knowledge lying under the surface and the degree of understanding a coach has will hugely impact their ability to effectively help the people they train. If your goal is to become a good coach, you’ll need a good grasp of anatomy, biomechanics, physiology and an even wider array of topics, which I will attempt to describe and provide recommendations for

Anatomy

If you want to become a good coach, you need to have a good three-dimensional mental model of the musculoskeletal system. No ifs or buts. You need to understand the general structure of the human body, the structure of each joint, the muscles around it and their insertion points. The next step is to get a more detailed idea of the structure of each joint (the exact shape and the connective tissues around it), and the way the muscle-joint complex operates (ranges of motion, combinations of muscle action, etc.). Delving deeper, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the individual variations in joint structure and function (e.g. differences in orientations of the acetabulum, the glenoid fossa, the femoral neck or the acromion, and the impact these variations have on the range of motion of joints of different individuals), and with other anatomical structures (e.g. main nerves and fascial lines).

To achieve a good understanding of the general structure of the human body you need good quality visual aids and you need to spend a good amount of time exploring them. “Good quality visual aids” typically means a good anatomy atlas. I am stressing the term “good”, because good illustrations are hugely important. My favorite anatomy atlas is “Atlas of Anatomy”, with designs by Markus Voll and Karl Wesker. Having said that, I honestly haven’t come across an anatomy atlas I consider 100% complete and, in order to better understand specific structures, I often find myself searching for supplemental images, either by other artists, or cadaveric photos. In more recent years, there are digital 3D atlases available, and if you have access to a good one it can be an invaluable visual aid (the best digital atlas I’ve come across is “Complete Anatomy” by 3D4Medical). In my opinion, you really don’t need to memorize a lot of names, but you need to have a good mental model of the shape of the main bones, joints and muscles, and exactly where in this model the muscles insert: if you achieve this then you’ll be able to understand what happens when each muscle contracts pulling its insertion points closer together, which is the essence of “functional anatomy”

For the next step, I’d highly recommend Levangie & Norkin’s “Joint Structure and Function” (the title is self-explanatory), a book which I still find myself consulting. While on the subject of biomechanics, let me also note how a decent understanding of basic Newtonian mechanics (forces, levers, torques, vectors and the like) is also a must (I’m not recommending a book for this one, if you don’t have a good grasp of the subject I guess you’ll have to find one yourself). Myer’s “Anatomy Trains” is a good book to familiarize yourself with the concept of myofascial lines, which is usually ignored by anatomy books (however, if you read this book, keep in mind that many of the claims made by the author aren’t really supported by scientific evidence). Moving forward, if you want to acquire a better understanding of a particular anatomical structure, you can look into specialized scientific reviews (e.g. if you want to get a better idea about the structure and function of the foot, you could read McKeon et al.’s 2015 review “The foot core system”).

Sports Physiology

This is quite an expansive topic, but if you want to be a good coach you really need to have a good grasp of it. The main points of interest are tissue physiology, neuromuscular physiology, and metabolism. You should start with a general sports physiology book (I used Wilmore and Costill’s “Physiology of Sport and Exercise”) and, as before, subsequently proceed to dig deeper

When it comes to neuromuscular physiology, a beginner-level book I would highly recommend to all young coaches is Zatsiorsky’s “Science and Practice of Strength Training”; I really think that, if you want to engage in strength training, you should be familiar with all the concepts presented therein. Moving forward, an extremely informative book is “Strength and Power in Sport”, edited by Komi. It may seem daunting to a young coach, but I’d really recommend reading this one cover to cover (I know it was really hard for me to understand when I first read it, but this type of effort will pay dividends in the long run). It will also help to familiarize you with the scientific literature, as it is in a “scientific review anthology” format (i.e. each chapter is a different scientific review by different experts, that an editor compiles into a complete book on a particular subject) and it comes with the added bonus of some good chapters on tissue physiology. As before, to delve deeper into tissue physiology, you’ll need to hunt down specialized reviews (e.g. Solomonow’s 2009 review “Ligaments: A source of musculoskeletal disorders” provides an excellent description of the viscoelastic properties of collagenous tissues, which is an often overlooked but extremely important subject in both athletic performance and injury rehabilitation).

When it comes to metabolism, an excellent book is “Sports Nutrition: Energy Metabolism and Exercise”, a scientific review anthology edited by Wolinsky and Driskell (if you manage to read this and want to get a more complete picture, you could also read Driskell’s “Sports Nutrition: Fats and Proteins”). Another book I’d highly recommend is Maglischo’s “Swimming Fastest” (don’t let the title deceive you; the chapters on physiology, which amount to over 300 pages, offer an excellent description of the energetics of exercise). By the way, two very-beginner-lever articles you could look into are this and this.

Coaching Literature

What I call the “coaching literature” is what lies between the anatomy and sports physiology knowledge and the tip of the iceberg. This layer of the iceberg is less scientifically rigorous (“science-informed”, rather than actual science), more subjective, and open to debate and interpretation. Having said that, sports training is still an applied field and the body of anecdotal knowledge coaches have accumulated over many decades of experience in the trenches can be invaluable for us all. Due to its subjective nature, books of this category can have a wide range of merit (from excellent to garbage), and even the best book needs to be read with a skeptical mindset (a book could be 50% garbage – 50% gold, and you need to be able to distinguish between the two). The list of books here is endless, and it is really hard to make specific recommendations, but here are a few books that have helped me grow as a coach and I feel like I can recommend:

  • Starting Strength”, by Rippetoe: If you are inexperienced in max strength training and don’t have access to a knowledgeable mentor (as was the case for me some 10 years ago), the in-depth descriptions of technique of the main exercises this book contains can be very useful for you. Having said that, keep in mind that there are a lot of unscientific claims in this book, so take everything with a grain of salt.
  • Practical Programming for Strength Training”, by Rippetoe & Baker: This book offers an easy-to-understand description of stress and adaptation in strength training.
  • Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training”, by Bompa: A more in-depth description of stress and adaptation in athletic training. Coaches, and particularly ones who train athletes, should be aware of the information in this book.
  • Supertraining”, by Verkhoshansky: Verkhoshansky was a Russian sport scientist and track and field coach who pioneered many athletic training methods that are now considered fundamental (ever heard of “plyometric training”? this is the guy who invented it) and who has had a huge influence on modern athletic performance training. This book is a compilation of all his works (ranging from theoretical models of adaptation and periodization to practical training methods) and, while it’s admittedly hard to read, if you are interested in athletic performance training this book is highly recommended.
  • Triphasic Training”, by Dietz & Peterson: This book suggests an alternative kind of periodization, compared to more “traditional” kinds described in the books above and I liked some of its core concepts due to their compatibility with the physiology of connective tissue adaptations. There are many ways to skin a cat, and getting a glimpse of an alternative way of thinking can be beneficial to a coach’s growth.
  • High-Performance Training for Sports”, by Joyce and Lewindon: Each chapter of this book is written by a different strength & conditioning coach, covering the entire athletic performance training process from evaluation to recovery. A noteworthy fact about this book is that, at times, different chapters provide conflicting information. In my opinion this is not a bug, but rather an important feature of this book, since it exposes readers to differing opinions by different experts in the field, which can promote having an open mind while driving home the notion that you shouldn’t accept everything experts say as a concrete fact. You should instead work towards building a strong scientific basis, seek different opinions and always exercise critical thinking.

Epistemology

I understand that many people are unaware of this concept and that, upon reading the definition google provides, it may seem uninteresting or unimportant, but I really couldn’t exaggerate just how valuable it actually is. In a nutshell, this field encompasses logic and critical thinking, and the methodology of science (i.e. how the scientific process works). A fair grasp of this field will help you better understand and interpret studies, evaluate claims and synthesize data from different fields. This is the filter through which everything you read, hear or see should pass. I strongly believe this should be taught in school, as this is not only invaluable for coaches, but for every human being looking to make good decisions in their life. Two excellent books to get you started down this path is Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, and Novella’s “Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe: How To Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake”.

Expanding Circle of Knowledge

While all of the above constitute the required technical knowledge for one to become a good coach, what I’ve found for myself is that it’s honestly not enough. Nothing in this universe stands alone, everything is interconnected and, if we are to take a step back, we cannot evade the realization that sports science is but the bullseye in an ever-expanding circle of human understanding about the world. Now, it may be impossible to become an expert in everything, but investing time and effort in acquiring a basic degree of general knowledge and gradually expanding your circle of knowledge will help you gain a deeper understanding of your own field of expertise, where it stands in the big picture, and how much we still don’t understand about it and the world at large.

Taking just a step outside the bullseye we will enter the field of human physiology (training is but a part of this field, it’s just the part we as coaches focus on). The better understanding you get of the inner workings of the human body, its physiological mechanisms, and the mechanisms of injury and disease, the deeper you will be able to understand the information in the books previously mentioned. To get a general overview of this field, start with a beginner physiology (“Vander’s Human Physiology” is the one I have and can recommend), and eventually attempt to make your way ever deeper (Boron & Boulpaep’s “Medical Physiology” is quite a challenging read but really helped me get a deeper understanding of the chemical and molecular nature of physiological mechanisms).

In a close parallel to physiology lies psychology (ideally, psychology would really be a part of physiology, we just don’t understand the inner workings of the brain nearly well enough to be able to fully integrate the two fields). Now, I am in no way an expert in this field, but three books that have helped me build a very basic understanding of it is Cox’s “Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications” and Schmidt’s “Motor Learning and Performance: From Principles to Application”. Two outstanding books that helped me connect psychology and physiology and which I highly recommend are Pinker’s “How the Mind Works” and Sapolsky’s “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst“. While we’re at it, since sleep plays such a pivotal role to both physiology and psychology (as well as athletic performance and adaptation to exercise), another book I’d recommend to coaches is Walker’s “Why We Sleep”.

If you keep digging on this exact spot, going past physiology, you will encounter the field of the biology of life and the extremely interesting subject of its evolution on earth (an excellent book to read connecting the above to human physiology and psychology is Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”, and an excellent YouTube channel describing the process of the evolution of life on earth and its interaction with things from earth’s climate to plate tectonics to astronomical events is “PBS Eons” – yes, as unintuitive as this may sound, athletic performance is connected, albeit distantly, to plate tectonics), and eventually reach chemistry and then physics (a great read on how the human species gradually developed its understanding of these fields is Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”).

Personal Growth & Development

How are you guys doing? Anyone still reading?

Well, in the unlikely event any one of you still is, I’d take that as a sign you are deeply committed to becoming a good coach, and if you indeed are, then keep in mind that developing your personality is an integral part of the process. To be a good coach you not only need to have all the technical knowledge, or the general scientific understanding… you need to deeply care about your trainees, and be mindful about how you carry yourself around and communicate with them. Coaching is the art of helping others improve themselves and achieve their goals, and, in essence, to be a good coach you also need to be a good person. And if you are anything like me in this respect, then that will probably require a fair amount of working on yourself. I know this article is already way too long, and this section could be an entire book of its own (as a matter of fact, it could be a chaotic pile of books). I also know everybody has different needs and different aspects of their personality that they need to work on most. It’s also important to keep in mind that the “self-help” book genre is widely unreliable (as a matter of fact, most self-help books are full of misinformation and flimflam). All I can say here is that the books I personally feel I’ve most benefited from was Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence”, Blanton’s “Radical Honesty” and “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius.

Epilogue

Yeah, that’s a list of over 30 books right there. I can fully appreciate how this can seem daunting. It may be helpful for you to know that just a bit over 10 years ago I had read exactly zero books out of this list. So I’ll attempt to offer a few words of advice.

Building an education is a very gradual process. Even if you made reading your number one priority, and even if you were a super-fast reader (I am an extremely slow reader myself), and even if your motivation was always sky high (I know mine isn’t), it would still take you years to digest so many books that are so heavily laden with new information. Sometimes books may be hard to understand. They were, and still are, for me too. I’ve had to read some of these books twice, and some of the chapters or paragraphs three or more times to understand the concepts they described. And oftentimes, new and complicated information is hard to memorize (I sometimes find myself rereading a chapter and feeling like this is the first time I’ve come across the information contained therein). But the more you keep on reading and the more you are putting actual effort into comprehending what you are reading (taking notes, going through a concept in your mind some hours or days after reading it, revisiting a difficult chapter – or even book! – at a later time in order to refresh your memory and attempt to understand it better), the more things will fall in place. Even something as “simple” as developing a mental 3D model of the anatomy of the human body can be an ongoing process for years and may require revisiting the same information over and over, gradually adding in more details. I always start with the goal of building a general overview of a subject and don’t stress about remembering details. Then I focus on the things I consider most important, or on things that tend to come up in my practice. If one of my trainees has a shoulder injury I’ll take that as an opportunity to refresh and deepen my knowledge of shoulder anatomy and function, go back to the anatomy atlas, go back to reviews on shoulder pathophysiology and specific rehab protocols, and so on. The more years you stay in the coaching profession the more you’ll keep coming across certain things, and the more familiar they will be to you (and every time will be a new opportunity to improve your understanding, as it still is for me). When I have the time, I’ll pick up a new book, either because someone I trust suggested it to me, or because I feel it will fill a vacuum in my knowledge, or because I just find it interesting (I did, of course, spend a few years meticulously making my way through the basic academic textbooks in order to build a basic scientific understanding of the field, there’s no avoiding that). As the ancients used to stress: repetitio est mater studiorum (I know you don’t understand Latin, just look it up 😛).

On the other hand, there being so much we don’t know also means there is so much for us to discover. Isn’t that exciting?

Petros Syrakopoulos has worked as the strength coach for basketball clubs participating in the Greek Basket League (Iraklis BC, Trikala BC and Arkadikos BC), for the national basketball team of Ukraine (participating in FIBA’s EuroBasket 2017) and for Greece’s under-19 and under-20 national basketball teams (participating in European and Word FIBA championships), and has served as the head performance specialist in the athletic development and sports rehab center Performance 22 Lab in Athens, Greece. He graduated from the Physical Education and Sports Science department of Athens University with the highest GPA in the department’s 30-year history and frequently presents in educational seminars on athletic development and therapeutic exercise.

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