Archive for September, 2015

The Magic Pill

Posted: September 29, 2015 in From my vantage point

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Morpheus


That was a famous line from the 1999 movie “The Matrix”. In real life, what if you were given a medicine that when taken regularly, would reduce the negative effects of aging, would you take it? If you plan to enjoy your retirement years, remain independent, and most of all healthy, you should. It is your decision but I am here to influence you.

But it is not a pill that you swallow. It is something you have to do. It is called regular physical activity- exercise in short. Given the consumer mindset of most people in our society today, something has to be bought, and has to be expensive, for it to be given importance. It also has to be convenient and packaged colorfully. Exercise is no different.

Depending on its presentation, people would either love it or hate it. In the fitness industry, there are all sorts of hype to promote the business of fitness. Sometimes, the information in the advertisement is misleading but then, for some people, it is what gets them to exercise. It would be better not to wait for something wrong to happen to you before you start exercising. I am not working for a commercial gym and in my current situation, I do not have to sell my services. I get paid the same amount if I train a hundred or just one athlete. It is not a joke, it does happen. I just find it helpful for me to write a blog where I can channel some of my thoughts which can be easily shared since a lot of people ask for information. So I just have to write the facts and my own personal observation. No sugarcoating. No fancy packaging. It may not be attractive, but it should be useful. It is even free. That could be the worst part. If it is free, people won’t take notice. The message may not be absorbed. Well, it still won’t change the fact that a regular physical activity is a worthwhile endeavor. It improves the quality of life. It is like a fountain of youth. When I was a Strength Coach in the Philippine Center for Sports Medicine, I was lucky to have chatted with John Baylon, an outstanding athlete and Judoka in South East Asia. He started late in the sport of Judo but he loved the sport so much that he is able to withstand tremendous challenges and was he become an unbeaten Champion in South East Asia. He said something like “A day without Judo is like a day without sunshine.”

People would have a particular activity that they would love. It is never too late to do something. You may try walking or cycling and it may lead you to what you want to do. The bottom line is do a physical activity you love that it makes you look forward to doing it. That is  way better than choosing to swallow a handful of pills everyday just to be alive. So if you ask me would I choose the Blue Pill or the Red Pill. My answer is I would also take the green, orange, and yellow. Those are M&M’s! I see them as trail food! Train Better! Live Better!


Thinking back, I am very grateful to have been given the privilege to coach special kids. Special here means Mentally Handicapped. Honestly, I was not looking forward to it. Majority of Strength Coaches only work with “regular” athletes. I was thinking I would rather be decked with a very large team, but I guess I am not with the majority now. The weights room is not a playroom and being a non-Chinese speaker, I knew relaying instructions to special kids in Hong Kong would be a big challenge. To minimize injury risk, some degree of discipline and attention is required and instructions have to be understood well,  things which seem not to be on my side. Even with a background as a Physical Therapist who had some experience working with kids who have cerebral palsy, I was still apprehensive when I was asked to coach the Hong Kong Sports Association for the Mentally Handicapped athletics team. And due to my chinky eyes, people usually mistake me for a local, so when they talk to me in Chinese and I say I can’t understand, sometimes they think I am being aloof. I was worried that the kids might think I am just discriminating. It seems a challenging task,  but then again, challenges makes us better! 

From the seas to the gym

Just before working in Hong Kong, I served my country thru the Coast Guard. In the Coast Guard, applicants have to go through a series of tests. Only those who have the wits, physical abilities and mental resiliency to face tough challenges can be accepted. And during training, a trainee who cannot cope will be expelled. I still carried some of this rigidness when I ventured back into civilian life as a Strength Coach. After all, if we are to produce the best athletes, we have to weed out the less desirable ones. Only the best of the best should remain and those who remain can have the chance to develop themselves. I try to use this standard for the athletes and for myself. Like what we say in the Coastguard “Do first before you complain.” In the Sports Institute, many teams avail of Strength and Conditioning services and I was assigned 4 teams (so much for wishing for it!) including the SAM Athletics team B (Sports Association for the Mentally Handicapped) as well as a few individuals. I told myself “I have been thru a lot worst and survived. If I cannot handle this I should not stay here.”

Kids and coaches with big hearts

Going back into being a Strength Coach, I found myself standing in front of a group of special kids whose ages range from 14 to late teens but with developmental age of around 8 to 12 year olds. It is not very reassuring to know that their coach and assistant coach do not speak English. At least two of the kids understand a bit. They are lucky to be in this part of the world because there is a program that lets them participate in sports and be given the chance to avail of the services of a Strength & Conditioning Coach.

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The SAM Athletics Kids doing a circuit training as the assistant coach keeps a watchful eye.

The kids are so innocent. They listened when I spoke but some cannot maintain eye contact. What I remember on our first session is that it was only me talking since they were just looking at me. I  related my words to the actions then demonstrated body weight squats. I realized their coach and assistant coach were good because the kids know that after instruction and demonstration, they follow. This is a big ray of hope! Thanks to their coach, there is a way to connect to them. Most cannot do the movements as smoothly as expected nor as controlled. But I can see that they are trying their best. That is what separates winners from losers. These kids have big hearts and for me, that is the most important quality. After demonstrating some exercises, I arranged them into a “circuit”. Their coach instructed them taking my cue. Then we started. A quick glance at them doing the movements tells me there is a lot of work to be done. Not only on them but also on me. This is a big chance to develop myself further as a Strength Coach. I have to dig deep into what I learned many years ago to distinguish if their inability to perform the prescribed exercises is due to an inherent physical limitation, weakness, assymetrical limb length, coexisting poor motor control, or simply due to poor instructions.

Their Sports coach and Assistant coach are two of the most dedicated coaches I have worked with. We may not talk but we communicate. They are always there every training session. They instilled discipline among the kids and it helps them big time. The athletes show up for training on time, and train together. No time is wasted making excuses. Their discipline is commendable and this is where they are a lot better than “regular” athletes. The coaches would watch me demonstrate, and I emphasize something by repeating the part and using simple hand gestures. The coach then relays to the kids if there is a new instruction. We keep it simple. She wants her athletes to be better athletes by improving their strength, power, quickness, and general fitness. That is my specialty and she lets me do my job. She is like a mother and the assistant coach is the big sister for the kids. Under their watchful eyes the kids are doing very well and they must have developed their good attitude because of their hardworking coaches.

A peek into their training

They train twice a week and the very first week was used to assess what exercises they can do as well as to structure their training sessions. Even if they are special, they are not treated as weaklings. As weeks turned to months, the exercises became more complex and the load is getting heavier. We progressed from establishing a training structure & mode of instruction to teaching exercises and now to making them stronger and more powerful. The “Set system” is used for the main training and we finish with a circuit. They exert a lot of effort and they do not complain. In fact they enjoy and look forward to it. Their bodies responded to training by becoming stronger and more powerful. They seemed to have improved their motor control as well.

I let the kids use the Olympic weightlifting set as one tool. Lifting just the standard bar, which is 20kg., can be a training by itself. It is classified as a “free weight” equipment. The whole body has to cooperate to lift, to stabilize, and to control the bar. The set of olympic plates that we use is color coded. Plates below 10kg are smaller. Starting from, 10kg, plates are 45cm in diameter. 10kg is green, 15kg is yellow, 20kg is blue, and 25kg is red. A Strength Coach can have a quick look at a loaded olympic bar and know how heavy it is just by the number of plates and the colors. For example, a standard bar (20kg) and one big green plate on each end (10kg each) would be 40kg in total. Relatively stronger athletes would usually be lifting 45cm plates and warm up sets are usually green plates. I remember the first time that the kids used green plates- this means they lift a total of 40kg. Their faces showed a mixture of emotions all at once. They were scared, excited, and amazed- almost in disbelief. After they did a successful set of the lift, you can see triumph in their faces. It is like they got “promoted” to a higher rank. They realized that they improved well and that they can do what the “stronger” and bigger athletes are doing. It is a magical moment that is worth all the effort. One of the moments that I would not exchange.

Watching from afar

On days when they do not train in the gym, they are trained by their track coach in sprints. Some in long jump. The gym has glass walls that allow a great view of the running track. I know all the scholarship athletes by face. I would watch the “regular” athletes practice on the rack from the gym when I am not busy. Then I saw one guy who sprinted past as I was watching from afar. I did not recognize him so I stayed and waited for his next set. When I looked closely, it was one of the special kids! When he is not running, he looks like a thin kid. But when he sprints, he transforms. So free, so powerful, his thin, sinewy muscles suddenly bristling.  That is why I mistook him as a “regular” sprinter. It is just beautiful watching them run and be at their best. It is a moment when their handicaps disappear and they shine through.

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SAM Athletics Team B Coach and Assistant Coach training the kids on the track.

Their development

They do compete outside of Hong Kong. They went to China in 2014 and were successfull. They also represented Hong Kong in the Special Olympics World Games 2015 in L.A., USA and they brought home medals. They need those achievements to be able to avail of their scholarship at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. The way I see it, those are just by products of their hard work. The best reward is that they are happy and are developing near their maximum potential and experiencing trying moments as well as victories.

sam medal 8 Aug 2015 Special Olympics World Games LA 2015 (3)

The coach of team A also asked me to coach his special athletes. This means team A and team B will have to split the twice a week training sessions. Each team will train once a week only. That is a 50% reduction in training volume but we just have to make the most of what we have. Due to a good foundation, we were still able to progress with the complexity of exercise. Team A has more experienced athletes and are physically more powerful. After a year, four of the best athletes in Team B got promoted to Team A. They were excited, and scared at the same time. But their training prepared them for that of the Team A. The guys in Team A were like big brothers to them who welcomed them just as excited.

It is a great feeling to see their development, and also influence it positively. Among all the teams I have ever worked with, their team is one of the best and most memorable. The chance to coach them is a gift. The kids are giving me the chance to give back. They are making me appreciate things which are taken for granted. I would say taught me well and are still teaching me. They Train Better! Live Better!


China 2014


Los Angeles 2015


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The SAM Athletics kid cooling down after a training session. Their coach (5th from left) and assistant coach (7th from left) watch over them.

Lessons learned

Posted: September 15, 2015 in From my vantage point

When I was younger, I told myself that being a Strength and Conditioning coach is my dream job. While most would pay to train in a gym for 1 hour, I could be in the gym all day and get paid for it! But that got me bored after a few years. I shifted career and enjoyed new adventures. I experienced working conditions far from the comforts of a gym but was still able to apply knowledge and skills about training to myself and to my unit. Then, as if by fate, I found myself working again as a Strength Coach. This time it is not a dream job, but a real job.

the thinker

Shifting careers and going back made me appreciate a lot of things. Working for different countries also made me see some realities. Here are some of my thoughts:

  1. The Strength and Conditioning Coach is relatively unknown in Asia. Even after the Beijing Olympics, many sports coaches and athletes in Asia do not know that there is a coach whose job is to improve the athleticism of athletes so that the sports coach can focus on their sports skills and strategies. The hiring managers sometimes confuse a strength coach with a personal trainer, an athletic trainer, a group exercise instructor, and so on. Obviously there are mismatches between the job title and responsibilities. When people ask me what my job is, I always get a puzzled look after I tell them.
  1. It is  relatively less stressful than other jobs. It depends on one’s expectations, the management, colleagues, and general attitude of athletes and sports coaches. But it is up to the Strength Coach to find fulfillment in what he or she does. Being in a position to compare it to other jobs, I say it is relatively less stressful. Well, sometimes…
  1. It is a thankless job.  The Strength Coach takes pride in being able to influence an athlete positively but should not expect medals being hung on his neck. It is the athlete’s job to receive medals. The Strength Coach is just one of the many support staff working in a Sports Institution. Most of the time, other support staff always want to have a say about the athlete’s strength training. Mostly it is being wrongly blamed for injuries, causing too much gain in body weight for a growing boy, not enough “cardio”, “core”, and “stabilization” work, not enough supervision, training is not fun, tires the athletes, and so on. Most of the accusations are just plain BS and if the Strength coach just wants to please everyone of the “experts”, the result is a useless training program. But when it comes to giving credit to the strength gains and power improvement, no one remembers the Strength and Conditioning Coach. Other “experts” always attribute it to their “excellent” advice. And no one also remembers the janitors and maintenance guys who work to make things run smoothly. They deserve credit for their efforts too.
  1. Strength and Conditioning is a piece of a big puzzle, just like all others. To be honest, so many factors affect performance. It is not possible to give an accurate numeric rating on how much it has contributed to an athlete’s success. But this is also true for all other interventions like nutrition, psychology, & rehabilitation. Studies which measure the contribution of Strength and Conditioning to a certain activity is very specific to the subjects in that particular study. In the real world, everything contributes to performance- both positively and negatively. It is impractical to try to measure accurately how one factor contributed to a given outcome. We can just infer intelligently. Keep it simple. Will the athlete be better if he or she is stronger, faster, more powerful, and injury resistant? What would make the athlete stronger and more powerful?
  1. The Strength and Conditioning Coach is an easy target. The Strength Coach is easily targeted as an escape goat for poor performance but rarely thanked for his or her positive contributions. Imagine removing strength training. This would affect all other support staff: injury risks increase, strength drops which lowers power, speed, and endurance. Athletes won’t be as confident compared to a well trained and more athletic opponent, more work for sports coaches to get their athletes into competition fitness, & no escape goat for other staff who do not know what they are doing.
  2. Learning never ends. There are basic principles that do not change, and there are new concepts. Situations and conditions are very dynamic. A Strength and Conditioning coach has to keep learning to keep up with the developments while differentiating fads from useful concepts. Sports rules change and this has implications on Strength Training. As sports rules change, strategies and tactics need to change. Physical preparation enhances the most effective winning strategies  and as rules modify strategies, so would physical preparation. And a lot of physical preparation is done by the Strength and Conditioning Coach.
  1. Play politics if you want to be famous. Office politics plays a big role in everyone’s career. Some Strength Coaches “choose” the athletes he or she works with. Some choose to work with already famous athletes and then suddenly take credit for the athlete’s success. Some patiently coach and work for a year or two with athletes who may not seem talented. But when the athlete starts to improve and becomes famous, others would take credit. That always happens. Shit happens.

These personal observations are shared so that any aspiring Strength and Conditioning Coach knows what to expect from the real world. It is not always smooth sailing yet it can be rewarding. The pay is just enough but if money is not your ultimate goal, it is a great job to show others how to Train Better! Live Better!

Hong Kong is a great place to live in, whether you agree or not. Cost of living here is high, that is just how it is. Rent increases a lot faster than the increase of a lifter’s load. The way around it is to look for cheaper rents. With a lot of patience and luck, you can find one. As of the writing of this post, I have been here in Hong Kong for 6 years and already moved to four different locations. Moving from one flat to another every few years is quite common in Hong Kong and an industry is built to support this necessity. Many companies specialize in moving an entire household to a new location. Being a Strength and Conditioning coach and moving to another house are not in the same type of business but there are similarities between them.

      1. Specialize, it is worth it.

The moving companies provide a much needed special service.  They encounter different conditions in their line of work that they developed and refined methods to solve problems. They keep improving and it shows in their speed and efficiency. A Strength and Conditioning coach is a specialized coach. Specialization allows more exposure to your selected area which encourages development of knowledge, and skills essential for efficient task completion. Going further, subspecialization makes task execution almost perfect. A Strength and Conditioning Coach is a specialist whose target population is the athletic population. They focus on the strength & conditioning aspect of training and they do it very well because it is their main focus. Some Strength coaches work with specific sports and it makes them more efficient for that sport.

  1.  You can’t do it alone.

In the Philippines, we have a word- “Bayanihan”. It describes the community helping a family to move house- literally move house. The traditional house is made out of light materials. The men of the community would lift the entire house & move it to the desired location since the land is owned by the whole community. Bayanihan entails teamwork. At present, house designs are permanent and it is not possible to lift an entire house. The word then evolved to mean helping each other. 

Bayanihan. Image from google.

Bayanihan. Image from google.

At present, it would be time consuming to move all the stuff alone. Some items require two men to safely carry down the stairs. It can be done by one man but the end result would be a broken furniture, a landlord complaining of walls full of scratches, and the lifter with a sore back. A moving company makes use of a team to make the task faster, easier and safer.

Working in a team requires members with their own specialization who work to achieve a common goal in mind. A wise Sports Coach would use the services of a Strength and Conditioning Coach for his/her athletes. This frees him/her from the stress of designing and implementing a Strength training program and gives her/him time and energy to focus on Sports coaching. The end result would be better Sports coaching and better Strength and Conditioning.

  1.  Learn to let go.

Moving to another place may be seen as bothersome but behind the hassle is a new chance to make it right. You get to unload unnecessary baggages. We have the habit of buying and keeping things that we like even if we don’t use them. Now is the time to let them go. Give them away or just leave them in the garbage bins for recycling. Same with other aspects of life, we need to let go of our frustrations. We should also be open to other ideas which seem “small” but are actually more efficient than previous ideas. Sports coaches should also learn to listen to the point of view of experienced support staff and let them do their job instead of trying to compete with them. Strength and Conditioning coaches should also accept the fact that athletes move on in different aspects of life. One of the best feeling that I have which makes me enjoy work is the thought that I am given the chance to make positive contributions in the life of athletes be it young kids to master athletes nearing sixties. They move on and if they look back to say a simple “Thanks!”, it makes you feel great. If they don’t, you should not expect it anyway. Let it go…

  1.  Look forward to the positive.

There will always be “bad” and “good” aspects of everything. It would be hard to find a suitable place if we always look at the “bad” aspects. We moved to a place even farther than where we used to stay. It may seem inconvenient. But it is a very good way to learn discipline and time management. We are learning to sleep on time, wake up early as well as getting things done quick. In the same manner, inserting a Strength and Conditioning training program in the sports training takes up valuable time. But if used very well, it is time very well invested. Return of investment is seen in performance improvement as well as reduced injury risks. Look forward to the positive results. In the same way, it seems that the Strength Coach’s schedule is already full, but he or she is asked to coach another team with a senior and junior squad plus the Elite guys. Just thinking about it makes one tired. But sometimes, thinking of the excited faces of new athletes eager to learn makes you look forward to training.

  1. Physical strength is always an asset.

Our society relies a lot on laborers who earn an honest living by working under the hot sun, carrying heavy stuff, and doing physically demanding work. We complain a lot yet all the dirty work is being done by other people who may not have a lot of option. The guys who carried the heavy stuff are 1 to 2 decades older than me. And they rely on their strength to make a living. I respect them since they make an honest living and have real functional strength as compared to a lot of vain young men who may have 6 pack abs and big arms but who cannot even lift a bag full of groceries.
Life is full of parallels and fantasies. We can learn from them only if we see them and see through the illusions. Training is like a mini- life story. We undergo some challenges. These challenges make us stronger. Learn training lessons from life and vice versa. That way, we Train Better, Live Better!