I GOT SKILLS
It is widely accepted that strength and conditioning follow a progression. You cannot squat 350 until you've squatted 300, nor row a 5k in 17:30 before rowing it in 18:00. Most strength or conditioning programs are designed accordingly. But skills, the third major functional domain of our sport, rarely merits the same consideration. Lots of coaches and programs rely heavily, if not exclusively, on MetCons or EMOM-style training for skill work. We think this is misguided. MetCons are tests: they test an athlete's ability to synthesize their strength, skills and conditioning. But MetCons are not the optimal forum for their development.
In other sports, skills are trained and refined off the clock. Baseball players from little league to the pros take batting practice; most major leaguers take batting practice before every game. Pro basketball players have morning shoot-arounds. These are the best in the world, and they regularly do untimed skills practice. There's a lesson here.
Our own experience developing athletes mirrors this idea. When the clock starts, an athlete's mind switches from doing it right to getting the job done. This is not the shortest path to virtuosity. Pairing a skill like muscle ups with the assault bike or the jump rope for an EMOM creates a barrier to excellence, not a stairway.
Every training includes untimed skills work, so athletes and coaches can zero in on the refinements and adjustments they need. Just as most baseball players use batting practice to work on specific aspects of hitting (rather than just trying to crank home runs), untimed skills work in our sport is for tweaks and modifications on the long road to virtuosity. This is the time to fix early arm bends, lack of core engagement, "broken" positions and all the little things that eat energy and subtract reps in MetCons.
We've divided the skills common to our sport into three categories: hanging, pressing and miscellaneous. Hanging skills, such as toes to bar and muscle ups, require the athlete to hang from an apparatus. Pressing skills, such as ring dips or HSPU, reward powerful pressing, and miscellaneous skills don't belong to either group. The grouping is more than just mere organization; the movement patterns within a category, such as between pullups and toes to bar, are substantially similar. The chart illustrates the skill categories. We also use a progression for skills to define athlete readiness for higher-intensity work. Our athletes progress through proficiency, mastery and ownership. We've developed a numerical estimate for the boundaries of each category based on our experience as athletes and coaches. The chart below lists some of the common skills of our sport and the number of reps required to enter each category. The explanations of each step in the progression are as follows:
Proficiency: Until an athlete reaches proficiency, the skill cannot be included in MetCons. The frequent "breaks" will undermine the intensity of the MetCon and diminish the stimulus. For example, if an athlete cannot reliably do 25 double-unders, including them in a WOD will mean lots of missed reps and unintended pauses. Skills in which the athlete is not yet proficient are only practiced off the clock.
Mastery: An athlete who has mastered a skill is able to do it at any time and in any state of fatigue. Mastery is developed with lots of reps on and off the clock; in general, an even balance between MetCon reps and untimed reps is the path to mastery.
Ownership: This is the ability to execute the skill with perfect or near perfect technique at any time, under any conditions. Ownership is virtuosity combined with capacity, and takes years of dedicated practice. Ownership occurs when an athlete who has mastered a skill decides to go back to the basics and perfect them.
The numbers are estimates based on our experience and observation over the years. The list is incomplete and imperfect; we have no idea at all what proficiency, mastery or ownership would look like on something like the Low Banger. Instead, we focus on the bread-and-butter skills of our sport. For advanced athletes, these principles can be extended to any skill, but we've found that the best way to become an advanced athlete is by becoming excellent at these fundamental skills.
The advanced athlete paradox
In Open WOD 13.5, Jason Khalipa faced off against Rich Froning in a contest of thrusters and pullups. Rich won convincingly. Why?
Conditioning? Probably not. At the 2013 Games, Jason won the 2k row and the half marathon; he had arguably the best engine in the field.
Strength? Unlikely. Jason hit 335 in the C&J ladder at the Games. (Rich: 345). With a 95lb barbell, this difference is negligible.
Size advantage? Doubtful. Rich and Jason are within 10 - 15 lbs. of each other and close in height.
Instead, we believe the difference in 13.5 was the difference between mastery and ownership; Rich's fanatical devotion to excellent movement was the difference. Despite near-exhaustion, Rich Froning's 100th thruster is nearly as smooth as his first. Meanwhile, Jason's movement degrades; he loses his balance a bit and comes up on his toes repeatedly, imposing an additional energy cost that Rich avoids. We believe this was the difference-maker in this WOD between two otherwise closely matched elite athletes.
What about the rest of us?
There is a tendency to think of skills practice as an activity for newer athletes until they can "do the workouts RX". Many competitors become reasonably proficient in skills and then file those skills away until they're needed in a WOD. (Those same competitors diligently pursue standalone strength and/or conditioning programs.) Many coaches help propagate this misguided approach by relegating skills practice to virtuosity-impeding EMOMs and MetCons.
The advanced athlete paradox tells us that as an athlete gets more advanced, their need for skills work increases. When every athlete in the field is strong and well-conditioned, the seemingly "little things" become enormous. It is admittedly unlikely that many of us will demonstrate an Open WOD for HQ, or stand on the podium at the Games. The principles don't change. There is no 100th flawless thruster until there are 10 flawless thrusters. The path to 50 excellent reps of anything doesn't lead you through 50 mediocre reps, unless you're taking the long way.
Whether you want to be atop the podium, atop your gym's leaderboard, or just better than you were yesterday, your training should include a progression through proficiency, mastery, and ownership of skills, rather than simply doing enough to fight through a MetCon. Untimed skills work is indispensable in this progression. Our Total Domination programs identify the skills you need to improve, and focus on them regularly. Click here to check it out.