Track Coach

Interview With Dan Pfaff

By Russ Ebbets

Forty questions for coaching guru Dan Pfaff. Pfaff has had a long distinguished career in coaching at all levels. As his website indicates, he has coached 49 Olympians (including 1996 100 champion Donovan Bailey), five world record holders, and 29 NCAA champions. He is currently the head coach of the Altis coaching education organization.

1. What have you been up to lately?

Semi-retirement finds me busier than ever. Advising dozens of athletes and high performance (HP) staffs on running, COD issues, return-to-play (RTP) programming along with the normal workloads with the Altis group. Doing some really cool work on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning for kinematic analysis, the Vuemotion Project.

2. Who have been some of the greatest influences in your life in terms of developing your coaching thoughts, innovations and philosophies?

I am a product of various coaching education programs and layers of diverse mentorships. Dozens of coaches in a variety of sports around the world have had major influences in all of the above. Mentorships and networks have evolved into layers of influence.

My father was a farmer and construction crew lead so he was first and most powerful mentor. Generalist background critical in those occupations along with the need to build expert networks. Tom Tellez was my main athletics mentor. I stalked him for years on the speaker circuit and eventually spent two years as a graduate student under him. Consummate educator, biomechanist and programming genius.

Victor Lopez was a fellow grad student and he exposed me to European and Caribbean methodologies along with the art of coaching.

Bjorn Bloomberg from Sweden was another pillar exposing me to Eastern Bloc ideologies and the history of sports training.

3. Altis—what are some of the fundamental principles you are trying to impart to your coaches?

For me it begins with an ergonomic analysis of the sport, truly gasping all components that influence wellness and sporting excellence, a deep dive into the history of what has been tried before and a curious mindset with limited ego.

4. What role does artificial intelligence play in coaching and how do you foresee this changing in the coming years?

I think it is early days and we must always understand garbage in, garbage out issues with any AI or machine learning. For example we ran over 10,000 athletes through our matrix to just define ground support dynamics and then challenged these findings against various other gold standard methods.

5. What kind of testing do you use? Are these tests basic for all disciplines in track & field athletes?

Early in my career I did a lot of testing but noticed results were not supporting desires and often struggled with reliability indices and stat analysis. So now I test in situ so to speak. We measure various menu items during the training process at various times and with a variety of tasks. In general, we use various running tests, jumping tests, throwing tests and some weight room exercises. Fatigue tests are sport specific and require a lot deeper exploration.

6. Do you do much with nutritional profiles? Is this done with “pencil and paper” surveys or do you have blood drawn to look for nutritional deficiencies? If so, who does the draw? And what markers do you look for?

It depends on financials, needs of the athlete, expert support and compliance skills of the athlete. My question is always how granular do we need to get to make an informed decision? If one doesn’t eat breakfast, eats fast foods for lunch and then overeats at dinner, I don’t think lab profiles will give you much insight for corrections. I often ask athletes to record a complete fluid/food diary over 3-5 days to see if there is any first principle items we can tackle.

7. Individual sport athletes are notorious for overtraining. How do you monitor this?

It is a recording, debrief and educational process. One must have metrics for all training menu items and recovery methods to make first layer decisions on this. Volumes, intensities, density of items in a time frame are first layer metrics in the main. Often, we are a bit locked in with volume and intensity, so density is really the main tool for modulating loads. We also must look at outside load factors for these often hamper recovery. Load management is a complex topic and the more we try to monitor and adjust, the more confusing the variables become.

8. Again, do you use blood work to monitor this? And if not, how is this monitored—with an athlete’s visual presentation or something as simple as a vertical jump?

If an athlete has finances and a support system, then we use all sorts of blood, urine, stool, follicle and saliva markers for a variety of neurotransmitters, immune/hormonal relationships and catabolic waste markers. For those with limited resources, we have norms on every menu item in the training plan and watch for trends on output measures within those items. We have maps for how these change during the training year and with stages of development. If we see a sharp change in these metrics, then [it’s] time to adjust load factors.

9. How much credence do you put in the thought that the athletic genius (a world record holder or someone at the top of his game) “knows” what training is best for them? As a coach, when and how do you intervene? Do you have a real life example of this?

I sincerely doubt any athlete we identify as genius has not had folks guide, advise and educate on the journey. Once at the top, if the educational process was sound, the athlete has then earned the right to influence programming. I have always looked at my role as that of a gate keeper, a director of the team around the athlete. All parties are heard and valued but that said, one must have the chops to contribute.

10. With Donovan Bailey—what was his week before the Olympics in Atlanta (1996) like?

It was not great, he injured four adductors in a race a few weeks before the Games so we spent the last 14 days of prep doing around-the-clock therapy interventions and plan B training.

11. I read somewhere that Bailey was unaware of Linford Christie’s disqualification due to two false starts—was this true?

No, but we had planned and rehearsed strategies for dealing with unexpected distractions. He was prepared for chaos.

12. What was your coaching mindset through the rounds? What advice or observations did you share with DB?

With the injury we were managing, running mechanics were paramount. DB had to control his front side mechanics and ground dynamics or we were going home empty. I spent most of the time directing therapy inputs and pushing mental skills for coping with the situation. Another puzzle was what to do in warmups for each round for normal schemes were deemed too risky.

13. What type of recovery did he do? Canada generally has an excellent healthcare support system – did you use their services or your “own people?”

We had a very good outside team around DB, the group had been with him for almost two years then. The federation gave grudgingly us support. Various soft tissue, acupuncture and diet strategies were used. Sleep was huge also. We had a private house so controlled things well in my opinion.

14. With Altis you do much in the way of coach training and preparation. What are some basic fundamentals you’d recommend a young coach master at the start of a career?

Developing a background in training theory, biomechanics, physiology, kinesiology, RTP concepts, psychology, pedagogy, motor learning, management skills, communication skills, self-care, career development concepts, just to name a few……..

15. As far as long-term career development goes—is there a series of stages you’d recommend one plan for? Are there any practices you’d warn against?

My biggest recommendation is build networks and mentors, diverse and layered on both. Avoid bubbles and binary thinking. Continuous auditing by key folks you trust.

Donovan Bailey (No. 2)

16. For the older coach with 10+ years of experience—what are some mistakes or areas of neglect you see repeated again and again and think a coach should pay more attention to?

Bias to ideas or beliefs and a cessation of seeking deeper understanding of first principles for the event at hand.

17. I think it is fair to say you have taken an eclectic approach to training and sport. Who are some of the authors or thinkers, related or unrelated to the sport, that have influenced your approach to coaching?

I have always been enchanted by folks who took the other fork in the road. I read volumes of history, biographies, research, etc. looking for common denominators for success and failures. Military, government, institutions, and cultures are main buckets of inquiry.

18. Are there any areas you wish you had looked into or studied earlier in your career?

For sure the tech side of things, I didn’t use mobile phones or computers until the late 90s. As technology has evolved, the understanding and role of fluid dynamics and fascial systems would have made my life a lot easier on the RTP side of coaching.

19. How much have you worked with younger athletes (high school and below)? What are some things we do well in the “American System?” And what are some areas you see that we are deficient?

I have always worked with youth my entire career. I was a HS coach and club coach the first six years of my career. I currently help six local athletes on a weekly basis. I think we do a great job from primary school to university level sport but after that, it is a challenging landscape. I think the demise of physical education in schools has created a lot of issues that coaches now have to deal with. I think early specialization is also a major iceberg we have to surf nowadays.

20. How would you define the American System of track and field development?

Volunteer based in the main until university level. No real plan for post graduate athletes in this country.

21. Athletic longevity is the result of multiple factors. In your experience where is that concept on the radar screen of the world class athlete?

I realize this may be an idiosyncratic concern (or not a concern at all). Sports medicine support and methodology is the major factor in longevity.

22. Do you use any strategies to extend the functional life of the Golgi tendon organs? Are you of the opinion that an aging GTO dampens the effectiveness of the body’s stretch reflexes?

Age is a factor in all physiological decay. I think research and methods for all proprioceptor factors are lacking at this stage of science exploration. One must also factor in fascial contributors to any elastic response mechanism. Tendon management is a current buzzword but to be honest, folks are going down rabbit holes in a lot of their strategies.

23. What do you see as the most difficult psychological quality for an elite athlete to adopt and to master? How do you help them master this?

Mental resilience skills and toolbox are my first layer of development. Closely related to this is emotional skills and agility.

24. What role does involvement with social media play for your athletes? Is this something you encourage or leave to the discretion of the athlete? At what point with social media to you feel the need to intervene and have a coach-athlete discussion?

Depends on how it used and the effects upon the athlete from said use.

25. The pitfalls of early special-ization are apparent to most coaches. How do you get this point across to a parent who is dead set on having their son/daughter forsake all other activities to become the next superstar in sport X, Y or Z?

I collect data on these issues and present examples to the contrary. It is imperative we educate parents. Most are not aware of the risks.

26. What is your mindset or steps as you approach the planning for the next coaching session?

Review the plan, analyze the results from previous days, review the debriefs obtained during and after the previous sessions and double-check with the athlete on key items.

27. How do you handle one-on-one technique corrections during a training session?

Depends on level of athlete, time spent together, needs, time of year, etc. I think in general we do too much on the intervention side of things or try to manage too many variables at once.

28. Charlie Francis told me his greatest challenge was getting his athletes to confidently take the “next step” past being satisfied with being a “finalist” to being a “medalist” or even a champion. How do you approach this potential roadblock or concern?

Education and systematic ex-posures.

29. What are your feelings on the recent shoe innovations and the slew of record breaking performances from this past year?

Lord Coe has opened Pandora’s box with his rulings. We now have no way to compare results historically and the injury fallout is epidemic.

30. What are some of the injuries or injury patterns you are seeing with the new shoes? Are they bone, soft tissue or both? Knee problems? Inside (meniscus or ligament) or outside (patella, collateral ligaments)? Any pro-blems with the hamstrings?

I advise a dozen elite middle distance runners and a handful of coaches on RTP programming. We are seeing a rise in foot bone stress injuries both stress and fracture level diagnoses. A large increase in Achilles tendinopathy is also growing amongst all levels of performance. A concerning trend is in knee cartilage surgeries, rare in this sport discipline in the past. Lastly hip labrum issues also on the rise. We are also seeing a trend whereby certain injuries are occurring all over the training calendar when normally we would see them at a particular part of the season. Carbon fiber transmits forces faster, more powerfully and at unique vectors compared to old model shoes. The foam R&D is creating new foot challenges for runners at touchdown, mid-stance and at toe-off. Put those two buckets together and we have a storm ahead.

31. How do you monitor an athlete’s day-to-day recovery? What about between events or rounds in a larger competition?

We use a variety of methods depending on the team around the athlete, their expertise and of course budgets to do so. The old how are you doing survey still out-performs a lot of the tech out there. The warmup and lead-in activities also can provide a window to readiness.

32. One of the old challenges of training high-end sprinters was to “manage” the speed of the nervous system. How do you approach this process? Is it more of a clarification of the nervous system through drill work? Do you strive to improve the coordination of eccentric and concentric contractions within the body? What methods do you use to accomplish this?

I don’t think there is any one bucket that influences this factor. We analyze and monitor a variety of output measures and look for trend analysis to determine central nervous system (CNS) readiness. I am not a fan of drill work for physiological influence. Recovery methods are huge on the management side of things as is programming. Density control is very critical at key stages of the training year.

33. To what extent do you use assisted training? If so, in what form­downhill running, towing, elastic cords, etc.

One of my weak spots and biases. The ROI on this were not key performance indicators (KPI) factors for me. I had more pressing issues in development.

34. What about resisted running? And if so, again, what methods?

I have used hills and graduated resistance. Unfortunately, during most of my career, access to these tools were limited so not much experimentation with it. The coaches at Altis are doing landmark work on this area but the jury is still out on the ROI.

35. For both assisted and resisted running—what times of the year or within a yearly training cycle are these methods employed—how do you quantify the efforts? By visual presentation, times or repetitions?

With my limited use, it was early in the training year and output measures combined with kinematic measures governed the use and designs.

36. How much video analysis do you use? There are numerous apps available for cell phones that can produce instantaneous, in-depth analysis. Is that feedback used immediately or do you set aside time to make a deeper analysis?

I was mentored by Coach Tellez, a pioneer in applied biomechanics and film use. It has been a pillar for my work my entire career. Methodology of use is dependent on the environments I work in. I think there is a bad trend to overuse currently within training sessions and a huge bias on what folks are looking at.

37. Long ago Obadele Thompson ran a wind-aided 9.69 when the 100m world record was in the 9.8s. I heard that he was “exhausted” in the days following that effort. To me it was a classic example of the 10-Day Rule. Bompa talked about the nervous system requiring as long as 7x as much time to recover as the muscular system. What has always puzzled me is what gets “exhausted” within the nervous system. Is it something with the axoplasm? A depletion of the neurotransmitters? Or something else?

I think there are a variety of insults to the biologics in a very fast run. CNS/neurotransmitters are one area for sure but also tissue/structural damage must be explored. The stressors on the immune/ hormonal systems are just now being deeply reviewed.

38. Thompson’s 100/200m performances at the Sydney Olympics are seen as one of the great drug-free doubles in modern times. What preparation and recovery methods were employed to prepare him for the “next” round of competition?

Sleep was the biggest variable. Jet lag issues, media demands and the Olympic village were huge challenges on this front. His diet was below average and not a tool we could lean on. He had a great medical team around him at that meeting also. I think the medical team did a fantastic job on the recovery side of things. Sadly, we fell short in the 200 and I think that was due mainly to the lack of high level racing in that event that season. Nothing can replace competition stressors on biological tolerance abilities.

39. There always seems to be a wrinkle that pops up in coaching that is promoted to “revolutionize” the sport, but at the end of the day it still comes down to the athlete’s ability to produce on the track or the road, the runway or the circle. How have you balanced the really true innovations versus the new distraction of the month?

In 50 years of coaching, I have seen hundreds of magic bullets proposed. In my experience, first principles win. Ninety percent of innovation is finding ways to do the basics better.

40. Is there any resources you’d recommend? Books, apps or websites that you look to for ideas and information you trust?

I encourage folks to build a history library on key areas of use in their craft, study the masters. I have a lot of mentors and experts on speed dial so I use them as filters on who, what and when to explore things.