This is my first interview done by Robbie Bourke from October 2010. I wanted to reprint it over here because I think it is pretty good (thanks Robbie).
1. Mladen thank for your time. Could you give my readers your background, and how you came to be a strength and conditioning coach?
First of all, thank you for the interview Robbie. It makes me really proud that there are people that are interested in what I do, say and think.
In short, I decided to enter the Faculty of Sports and Physical Education at University of Belgrade, Serbia after I did years of computer programming and after I finished Technical High School in Pula, Croatia. I wanted a 180 degree turn. Somehow, I was always kind an athletic, but I never pursued athletic career in any sport, mostly for the fact that I got my glasses at age of 12 or 13. I had, and I still have huge interest in martial arts, although weightlifting and strength training in general are catching up lately. I am still trying to find out what motivated me to do a jump from IT to coaching. I guess I always wanted to see people improve and I always wanted to understand what are the factors and causes of being really good at something. Having a good background in problem solving while being a young programmer and being athletic for some reason strange to me and without any real in-depth specific knowledge of any sport in particular (both about-sport and in-sport), I decided that more ‘general’ career of strength and conditioning coach is right for me. Since we lacked a strength and conditioning program at my Faculty, couple of us students at the time started collecting signatures and interests and demanding such a program. Finally, the Faculty opened the strength and conditioning program. Since we were among the first students to enter it and also a generation of students that was there during changing times at the Faculty, the strength and conditioning program was a disaster.
Then I decided that in order to learn I need to trust myself in acquiring the knowledge and not wait for the knowledge to be served to my table. I decided to learn English and read all the books I could get my hands on (and back at that time, ordering books and DVDs from USA was really complex and expensive). The first ones I read were “Life Science Physics” and “Neuromechanics of human movements” by Enoka . The former is an old book on mechanics and physics in general for students of biology, medicine and life sciences in general. I read it with the glossary and it was painful. But, those particular books gave me a lot of scientific background and I started learning English. I remember reading “Low Back Disorders” by Stuart McGill, in which he referenced “Supertraining” by late Mel Siff. I somehow acquired a copy of Supertraining and started lifting while reading it. I guess the book imprinted a critical thinking in me, although it wasn’t a very practical book. Afterwards I started reading everything and practicing on my own and with other students and friends.I remember entering late Charlie Francis’ forum by a recommendation of my really good friend Jovan Buha and the rest is history. As I already mentioned, getting books and DVDs to Serbia was really problematic, so couple of coaches sent me their material for free, and I just wanted to say thanks because they helped me a lot. Some of them include Charlie Francis, Mike Boyle, Tim Noakes and Martin Rooney. I have also got a free copy of the new book by Keith Davids and I wanted to thank him one more time using this opportunity.
That was about theory. My first practical experience came with Partizan Basketball Club. I was doing an internship with cadet’s part of the club while still studying . Our supervisor was Professor Vladimir Koprivica, a former student of the legendary Dr. Leonid Matveyev, who did his best to educate the “lost” students from the strength and conditioning department.
My first professional job was a head strength and conditioning coach for Football Club RAD from Belgrade. That was a real awakening from student dreams. Afterwards I went to tennis, soccer again and finally volleyball where I was working with some of the best volleyball players in the world, one of whom was famous Serbian volleyball player Vladimir Grbić who is my very close friend and was actually my boss during the last season in volleyball club Klek from Zrenjanin, Serbia.
I am currently residing in Cambridge, MA after I finished my summer internship at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning facility in Woburn, MA.
2. What, in your opinion, is the biggest problem you see in the strength and conditioning industry?
First, it is the name. This is not an industry.
Second, it is the ideological dogmatic methodology, where everyone is jumping from band wagons every couple of years. German philosopher Hegel explained this by thesis-antithesis-synthesis triad. There is nothing new under the Sun and some methods are known from since Ancient Greece and longer. So, instead of trying to sell certain method or new exercise or coaching gimmick, strength and conditioning coaches should spend more time understanding the context under which certain methods, loads and exercises produce results for a specific individual under specific circumstances. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing bad in trying to make a living, but I guess we are doing it in a very superficial and a wrong way. Instead of being fascinated with *new* methods, revolutionary exercises and gimmicks, one should try to see the big picture and don’t get lost in the details. We are working with people (says a guy who spend a lot of time programming), and trying to understand them and their motivation, goals and circumstances, developing your own coaching philosophy and personal skills can yield more results than getting TRX, kettlebell or whatever certification.
Third, it depends on the country and sport I guess. Certain environmental constraints, like culture, economics and politics can have great impact on overall sporting problems including strength and conditioning.
And as a side note, I was just talking with my roommate and friend Cem Kantarci, a wise Turkish guy and my common-sense advisor, about the curse of strength and conditioning. The curse is very simple: we, strength and conditioning coaches, or the term I love more – physical preparation specialists, are not stand-alone coaches. We need to be part of the coaching staff. We need to have huge general knowledge about all aspects of sporting preparation and specific knowledge in physical preparation, but our work is only being assistant and advisor (unless you train personal clients). We are always going to be ‘second’ and we are always going to work in the shadow of the head coach. Thus, a great deal in being a good physical preparation specialist is having a good coaching staff environment and being a part of really good coaching team. For being unable to be the “main man”, strength and conditioning coaches bitch about how important we are and stuff. Well, we are not and that is the curse. I wish one day I become a head coach in one sport so I could make all the decisions and stuff, but till then we need to suck it up, improve our communication skills and accept our multi-disciplinary role and stop selling gimmicks to show the world how smart and important we are, because we are not.
3. You are a very well read individual on periodization for strength training and conditioning. What in your opinion is the optimal periodization scheme for an experience field or court player?
There is none. It depends on the three constraints: athlete level, goals and context. People are forgetting about the importance of the context and trying to analyze certain methods taken out of it. This is why I said it is more important to understand those constraints and the solutions they demand, than trying to say what better or worse method is taken out of context. For sure, every method has its pros and cons, yet those three constraints I mentioned will demand specific solutions. Everyone is trying to find out whether complex-parallel periodizazion is better than block periodization and such. Well, here is the truth – when we stop using either/or logic and starting thinking more both/and and using more critical, pragmatic, and complementary thinking we are going to understand that there is no good and bad. There are only optimal solutions for certain problems under certain contexts.
Periodization can get so complex. Get it simple!
4. Who has had the biggest influence on you as a coach?
Charlie Francis. I feel very sorry for not ever being able to meet him in person, since he died in May this year.
The late Charlie Francis
5. What are you all-time favorite books in the following areas:
Uh-oh. Hard question. As the saying goes, it is not so much important what to read, but what not to read. There is an abundance of information these days and we need to develop certain ‘filters’ for all the info out there and really select good sources out of a lot of mediocre or wrong ones. I could probably type a bunch of books, but I will try to keep the number of them to minimum.
– Strength Training: Well, this is hard. For theory I would suggest Supertraining by Siff, Strength and power in sport by Komi and Science and Practice of Strength Training by Zatsiorky. Practical books would probably be Practical Programming by Rippetoe, The Coach’s Strength Training Playbook by Joe Kenn and books and articles by Christian Thibaudeau, Charles Poliquin and other. I said it is really hard.
– Physical Therapy Rehabilitation: Clinical Sports Medicine by Brukner and Khan. A must have handbook for strength and conditioning coaches. We need to stop thinking we need and can do other people’s work, yet we need a general overview and this book is a great choice.
-Nutrition: Everything by Lyle McDonald. His free articles are real gems and far better than expensive books out there. You can check his materials at www.bodyrecomposition.com
-Business: I am starting to learn more about this field. Mark Young recommended me E-Myth. Haven’t checked this one yet, to be honest.
-Random: I just read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Although some of the critiques say he cherry picked his examples I think he is onto something.
6. We have often heard Coach Boyle ask “How strong is strong?” How strong is strong in your opinion?
Again it depends. I agree that athletes need to be athletes first and then basketball players, soccer players, etc second. This is why they need a certain general level of strength to begin with. Anyway, even from this general strength level we expect certain transfer to the field and injury prevention, yet the forces experienced in the event demands different levels of general strength levels and different levels of general and specific strength training. Compare table tennis and volleyball. Do they need same general strength levels? But do they need certain amount of general physical preparedness and athleticism? For sure!
Also, if we check the real world strength levels of the team sport athletes, for example rugby players provided by Dan Baker’s research papers we can see that they are not that high, at least not as high as you can see on YouTube videos. This doesn’t mean that we need to stop working on this, it just means that some other things are more important, like team work, technical skill, decision making, etc. I kind of follow basic strength recommendations by Kelly Baggett and I cannot wait for his new version of Vertical Jump Bible.
Some numbers I am personally aiming at as a good strength levels (not in the case of ordinary team athletes) are:
Clean: 1.5 x BW
ATG Squat: 2.0-2.5 x BW
Dead Lift: 2.5 – 3.0 x BW
Bench Press: 1.5 x BW
Chin-Ups: 1.5 x BW x 5reps
7. Sometimes there seems to be a huge gap between some physical therapists and strength and conditioning coaches. How in your opinion can this gap be bridged?
In my opinion strength coaches should do their job and stop putting their nose in other people’s work. We do need to know the basics, but for the pure lack of time, we cannot know everything in enough depth to be experts at everything. This is why I said earlier that strength and conditioning coaches are part of the coaching staff, and providing a good coaching team with the head coach in charge, good communication and good recruitment of coaches that work as a team is a way to bridge this gap. It is not what you know, but who you know in this case. We need to appreciate other peoples work and they need to appreciate our work.
8. Theres has been a lot of talk lately about doing some ‘aerobic’ type circuits to elicit certain hypertrophy adaptations to the left ventricle of the heart to help improve cardic output during certain activities, and to help recovery in between high intensity bouts. What in your opinion would be the most ideal to incorporate this idea into a strength and power athletes program?
My opinion on this is that this lately CO discussions, although a nice breath of fresh air (or just a phase in thesis-antithesis-synthesis triad) are reductionistic in it’s nature. The question is what is the best method of improving CO and whether it is improving only this factor. Old training wisdom suggested that long duration low intensity training improve oxygen uptake in skeletal muscle and intervals improved oxygen transport (heart stroke volume). During the ‘80s the ideas reversed, but the new research is showing that older ideas are correct. You can check more on this in Lyle McDonald series of articles on endurance:
So, instead of using reductionistic approach, my quest is to find a nice fit between organism~environment. We do need to understand basic functioning of the parts of the system, but knowing where the certain bolt in the car is will not teach us how to drive the same car in the traffic. In this sense, we need to figure out what the types of demands are placed from the environment to the organism (athlete) and vice versa.
Incorporating some of those ideas in strength and power program would demand analysis of the organism~environment. Also, this comes to importance of low intensity work (both specific and non-specific) with the aim at improving specific and general work capacity of the lifter. In more practical term, this would mean smart planning and utilization of low intensity modalities in a certain days or certain parts of the year. If I remember correctly Mike Tuchscherer provided some nice example in his Reactive Training Manual regarding planning strategies for improving work capacity. This may also include low intensity specific work, or general work like jogging, swimming, etc. Again, it depends.
9. Could you give my readers a basic summary of what your methodology on strength training is (eg. how do you assess, design, and periodize programs)?
I try to fit the training to the individual needs, his level and context at hand. Also, I am experimenting with using auto-regulatory training to allow and teach athletes to modify their own training, make decisions and be responsible and partly in charge of their own training. In my opinion, allowing athletes to chose/modify training will promote autonomy, increase opportunities to feel competent and hence lead to enhanced intrinsic motivation. Autonomy, complexity/mastery and purpose; three things that make ‘work’ or training enjoyable. For this sole reason, I am interested into individualization in team settings, and using RPE and other subjective indicators in planning and monitoring training.
For further info on this I suggest interested readers to check some of my articles that are available on-line soon at my blog: complementarytraining.net
10. If you could chose one exercise and on exercise only, what would it be and why?
Squats. Probably because they have the biggest carry-over to sporting activities. And because I like them
Back squats baby!
11. Last question, what advice would you give to young coaches getting into the field?
Get the basics first. Learn about mechanics, physiology and psychology. Basics are basics. Start doing internships and coaching soon and start training (walk the walk, talk the talk – practice what you preach). Also, continue pursuing coaching skills in the sport of your choice at the same time because you may not like the career path of strength and conditioning. Be selective about what you read and try to develop critical thinking.