THE SHAPE of THINGS, and GOODBYE to GERARD

Recently, the word ‘shape’ has crept into the everyday language of coach-coach and coach-athlete interactions. It has done so in such a way that people outside of sport might be confused as to the meaning.  Yet, on public television, a commentator was using the term ‘shape’ repeatedly in reference to athlete movements during a world championship event. Clearly, this was not ‘shape’ as it used to be used. Previously ‘shape’ was used in reference to fitness, as in ‘she appears to be in good shape’.

Decades ago, I experienced a similar sense of confusion in regards to word use when I first encountered Gerard Mach at a workshop. He had recently arrived from Poland and was introducing his system of sprint development to a large number of Canadian coaches. I recall being fascinated by the programming structure and suddenly realised just how poorly conditioned athletes were in situations I was familiar with. If you read Gerard’s book or notes, the programming was quite detailed and well designed. However, he is primarily remembered for the sprint related drills that he also systematised. The A’s and B’s as they became known, seemed to fly into everyone’s coaching tool box within a couple of years. While many coaches and athletes embraced the drills, some did not, preferring their own drills. Regardless, Gerard emphasised that the purpose of the drills was for the development of ‘sprint posture’.

This notion was very confusing to me. I heard him repeat the word ‘posture’ and always had images of vertebral columns and degenerative conditions pop into my head. After all, this was the decade where lower back pain and the various treatments or surgeries exploded into the health and medical worlds. Everyone seemed to develop a back problem. That too was called ‘posture’.

Of course, what I missed in my listening were the differentiations between static posture, dynamic posture, and the more specific sprint posture. In Gerard’s view the quality of performance and injury prevention were linked to the ability to maintain precise sprinting posture in all phases of running. If that posture was not developed, faulty or faltered then quality eroded. The runner would likely make it to the finish line, but do so with inefficient movements and higher injury risks. Simple.

What I witnessed within a very short time was the corruption of his system and the drills. The A’s and B’s became part of warmup phases, light footwork variations and something to do when you were waiting for your race. In no way did the drills resemble the precise, dynamic exercises that were to enhance style. The notion of sprint posture seemed to evaporate. Even the book published in 1980 showed illustrations of an overly muscled, white male lightly touching down with pointed toes and paddling arms. I can see why Gerard and his family resisted efforts to have the book re-printed…

 Now I hear the word ‘shape’ being used to describe dynamic posture as the athlete moves within prescribed space. ‘You held your shape through the curve’ is a phrase I recently heard. Perhaps this is a better term. Time will tell. My lesson learned from listening to Gerard and seeing how words and phrases can become misused has left me with a touch of scepticism.

As a final note, the recent passing of Gerard Mach has brought his name and legacy back into view. I can say that I was heavily influenced by his viewpoints and system; not so much for the drills, but for the combination of precision and quality that weaves its way through the programming and never leaves.

Coaching language and the notions of what works or doesn’t work is constantly evolving. Like the current use of the word ‘shape’ we are in constant pursuit of effective communication. Each new athlete discovery, each scientific finding, and every wave of technological advance leaves us with that unending dilemma of just what to say and how to say it.

J. Erik Little

TAKEOFF COACHING