Gurus, Trainers, and Coaches

The headline on CNNSI read, “Malzahn forbids QB guru work.” I clicked on the short article, and Auburn University football coach Gus Malzahn was prohibiting his second-year quarterback Nick Marshall from working in the off-season with QB guru George Whitfield. Because Marshall retains college eligibility, these situations obviously involve questions about payment for the guru, as well as whether or not the guru is as good as advertised. I have no answers for those questions. 

However, assuming it is arranged and paid for properly, should a college athlete be able to train with an outside trainer in the off-season when time with his or her coach is limited by NCAA rules or should the university’s head coach be able to dictate what the player does outside of regular team activities? Respected athletic development coach Vern Gambetta shared his opinion via Twitter:


At first, especially since I am coaching currently, I nodded my head slightly in agreement. This is a sensible argument, and an argument that I have made about trainers previously:

Trainers, however, do not have to worry about game performance. If a player underperforms in the game compared to his performance in training, the trainer can criticize the coach or blame the player or simply assure the player that he needs more time in his training sessions to master the skills. I have never heard a trainer explain the lack of transfer because of the low CI in his sessions.

This season, I have worked with a player on his shot. Occasionally, I see other people in the club talking to the player or showing him something, and it is frustrating to me. I know that they mean well, but I also know that they do not know as much about shooting, and more importantly, learning as I do. I don’t want him over-thinking or changing too much about his shot at once, as he has to remain confident shooting the ball during the competitive season, as he has been the first guard off the bench at times this season. Therefore, I understand Malzahn’s perspective and Gambetta’s point.

However, that is the coach’s perspective. What about the player? Sure, the coach’s job is on the line, but the player’s career is also on the line. Malzahn is known as a great coach, and especially as an offensive coach, but what if another trainer can offer something else? As a player, why shouldn’t you be able to seek out that extra expertise? The coach does not own the player (well, let that debate ensue). Whitfield has worked with Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck; if he can help them, maybe he has something to offer Marshall.

I wrote about this side of the argument last spring when a junior college coach prohibited her player from working with me:

A player has Division 1 dreams, yet her coach is telling her that working out two days per week is enough. She has D1 aspirations, but her coach feels a couple ladder drills is sufficient strength and conditioning preparation for the D1 level. Is that fair to the player? Does a coach have the power to prevent a player from paying to work with an outside trainer? Is two workouts a week enough for a player with D1 goals?

Whereas I understand the coach perspective, and I often question the skills of many skills trainers because many are marketing hype more than training, I do not believe that a coach should be able to dictate a player’s off-season.

The argument, to me, centers on the short-term versus long-term athlete development question. Malzahn, and other coaches, are concerned with immediate results to further their careers. The player, however, is concerned with long-term development to continue his or her career. Whereas these interests often align – improved performance by a player likely enhances the team’s opportunity to win and the player’s opportunity to move to the next level – there are situations when the coach and trainer may do things differently or use different cues or terms.

With regards to shooting (since I know very little about quarterback play), a coach might be happy to return a 35% three-point shooter, whereas the player may want to tinker with her shot to shoot from a higher release point or to shoot quicker. There is some risk involved in making these changes, as a 35% three-point shooter is already pretty good. However, for a player who wants to play at the Division 1 level, not making the changes could be a risk too. The player could be deemed too short or too slow to get off her shot at the next level. An improved (quicker, higher) shot with similar percentages could be seen as more transferable to a higher level. If the coach is not invested in assisting the player with these changes or improvements, should the coach also prohibit the player from finding someone outside the program to help her? If the coach does not believe strongly in strength and conditioning, should the coach prohibit the player from finding a S&C coach outside the program to help her improve her strength and quickness?

Trust me, I know that many skills trainers are hype. Many are former players who do what they did and expect it to work for everyone. There are many who ignore the N=1 problem in skill/talent development. However, there are also many coaches who make the same mistakes. There are many coaches invested solely in team concepts, and not individual development. There are many coaches who remain stuck in the 1980s in terms of their understanding of strength and conditioning. Just having a job as a coach does not make one a great coach, just as calling oneself a skills trainer does not mean that one knows how to develop skills.

A player has to be smart about who he or she seeks as a trainer. A smart coach, especially at levels and in areas where there are restrictions placed upon the time that a coach can spend with players during the off-season, will help the player find an outside skills trainer or strength coach that will help the player. Whereas I can sympathize with the coach, the player has to own his or her career, even if that upsets the coach. The coach does not own the player, and provided that the player meets all the team requirements, the player should be able to seek outside help during his or her free time.

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