Updated: Oct 13, 2021
Welcome to another episode of Fresh Perspective. Thank you for joining us. Today I have a very special guest, a friend that I made a few years ago, and a guy who spent some time trying to get me to be faster, run faster. But he gave up after only 18 months (laughs). He saw that I won’t be able to beat the Usain Bolt record, so he let it go. Llewellyn Morkel, thank you for joining me.
Thank you for having me, Francois.
So my first question is an easy one. What is it that you do?
I am a strength and conditioning coach. I work at Stellenbosch University, at their HP unit. It’s a new role that I started on the first of April in lock-down. It’s been an interesting start to a new job, but new perspective, new challenge. I like to think of myself as a facilitator. I facilitate human performance.
I like that. Why do you put it that way?
Because I’m not creating performance. It’s something that’s there, you’re helping the person to find it within themselves. You’re just giving them tools that they can use, and trying to guide them and help them use these tools, skill sets, develop these practices, in order to fully utilise what they have.
Maybe for people who don’t know what a strength and conditioning coach is at all, maybe just tell us what that is.
A strength and conditioning coach is the person that’s responsible for developing the most general physical attributes for an athlete participating in sports. So if you are a rugby player, the S&C coach is the person who does the gym work. The fitness. And now in modern-day sport, it’s also managing training loads. So, seeing how much the athlete or group of athletes are training, and managing that so that we can have optimal performance or minimise an injury. Just developing that peak level of performance and working towards the targets for the team or the competition.
And why do you do this? What made you choose this career path? What do you love about doing this kind of work? Working with athletes, and facilitating that performance, as you put it?
I like problem-solving, for one. Strength and conditioning at its most complex level is problem-solving. You have an athlete with a certain set of attributes, and they are working towards a competition. We are trying to figure out what is the best way to reach the highest level of performance with the least amount of risk so that the athlete can perform. And there’s a lot of variables that you have to take into account, that makes things challenging. Also, the fact that there’s so many variables makes things very interesting. That’s the one side of it. The other part is, I’ve always loved training. So I’ve been obsessed about training as long as I can remember. From watching Dragon Ball Z when I was a kid, and seeing those little training montages in the scenes which lasts like four weeks, because five minutes in the show’s time passes in a week. So that’s always been interesting - training in general, and how to improve yourself, get fitter, stronger. For me it started out as - I was a fairly small kid, and I wanted to gain weight and size. Then it was: well, how do you get bigger? Just weights. And then, according to that, I found the standard bodybuilding magazines. The Men’s Healths, and did the four sets of twelve, and tried to get biceps in twenty months. Didn’t work. Still working on those biceps.
No gun show yet?
No (laughs). Then it was that, combined with a martial arts background. And martial arts has this constant - it’s a growth mindset. It’s inherent in most martial arts, that you’re always struggling to improve. It’s practice to get better, to sharpen up a technique. And there’s not a lot of separation between fitness, strength, and speed and power. The skill and the strength is almost the same thing. And it’s different to that mindset of bodybuilding where you’re kind of lifting weights for an outside purpose, an aesthetic goal. It’s more performance orientated. And that point of view gelled with me. I think that’s why the whole biceps thing never worked out. Because I never really cared about big biceps, I just cared about performing.
I just want to make sure I got you on that. So strength and conditioning coaching is about the performance. It’s not about looking a certain way physically. That’s not why you train. You train, because you want to achieve certain goals. Am I with you on that?
Yes. So you kind of get this with lifting weights and gym culture: you get tons of influences. And I think the biggest influence in lifting weights has been Arnold Schwarzenegger in that era of bodybuilders. I mean, in modern culture, that has been the most popular representation of lifting weights and gym. That’s kind of what we see for the most part. Up until now, where crossfit is kind of taking over that path. So up to now, lifting weights has been associated with bodybuilding. And then, in strength and conditioning, lifting weights has been associated more with power-lifting and weight-lifting. So, your strength sports. And then bodybuilding kind of influences it there. What’s the best way to build muscle? It’s bodybuilding. But with the caveat of, you need to build muscle in order to perform a task. Where bodybuilding’s purpose is, you build muscle to look a certain way. And it kind of goes all the way back to old-time strongman where it was a contest of performing a feat of strength, or being able to do something astounding like lifting a weight. But also, how you look was part of it. So there wasn’t really the separation between bodybuilding and weight-lifting. It was one thing. Or two parts of one thing. And then it kind of separated. You’ve got your people who are interested in bodybuilding, and your people who are interested in lifting weights. And the most popular culture of bodybuilding is now weight training. Where your sport area is more - gym is a tool to achieve on the field of play. So we have to keep that in mind.
Is that the difference between a personal trainer, which is about looking a certain way, and strength and conditioning, which is about performance?
You also mentioned the growth mindset, Llewellyn. What do you mean by that?
There’s a book by Angela Duckworth called Grit. And it talks a lot about having a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is, you believe you have an ability. So you almost feel like that skill set is innate to you. You are good at math. And if you’re not good at something, you won’t ever become good at that. Your mindset in terms of that is fixed. Where a growth mindset is more focused on - say, if you are not good at math, it’s not that you attach yourself to that, it’s a skill set that you can improve. So there’s growth within that. I’m kind of oversimplifying and butchering the book a little bit, it’s definitely a worthwhile read.
That sounds like Mindset from Carol Dweck. Are they kind of similar?
Ah, yes. I am confusing books. It is the Carol Dweck book, but they talk about it in Grit as well.
Okay. Got you.
After reading that book, I realised - like, you kind of take this reflective look at things that you did. And with martial arts, it’s always that you’re striving to improve something, a skill or a skill set. But it’s not that you are just good at this and bad at this. Like in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, you can’t be bad at defending a choke. Because then you’re just never gonna be good at Jiu Jitsu. It’s a skill set. So you can work on it. What’s the components of developing defense, and you can work on these components and string them together. Over time, you’ll grow into the skill set. That’s kind of inherent in the belt process of your promotion from white belt up through the ranks. So this growth mindset is the thread that’s in martial arts. It’s a system or way of thinking that kind of broadly applies to a lot of things.
Meaning the belief that you can actually improve a skill, instead of the fixed mindset where you have it or you don’t.
Yeah. I think the thing that you can learn from doing a martial art is very applicable to a lot of things in life. You learn to transfer skills. I’ve realised a lot of times that things that we’ve learned in training in martial arts didn’t make sense when we were doing it. Now, ten years after doing it, I’m like, oh, that’s what he meant. That makes so much sense. If only twenty-two year old me made sense of that. It’s this path and skill, and it’s almost all-encompassing. And a growth mindset is a massive part of it.
You obviously work quite closely with athletes. Because you are right there training them to be able to either perform on the field, or help them in their recovery process. Am I right? Is that also part of strength and conditioning? How do you recover from an injury, and how do you help players do that? Or athletes.
So the recovery from the injury, it’s always a process, but depending on the injury, the duration and how the process operates changes. So it starts with your medical professionals, your doctors, your physios, and then goes on to your biokineticist. But during all of this, the rest of the body is still there. The athlete still needs to train. So the other part of my role is working around the injury. So - how can we still operate as close to the level as we did when the athlete was healthy and fully-functioning and training normally? What can we do around the injury? Because athletes are resources. They’re used to operating at a certain level of intensity, a work rate. Now when you’re injured, this drops off. And it affects your state of mind and all of these things. So how can we stay as close to the normal that we’ve had, and keep that training process running? What are the work-arounds that we can do, and what are things that we can improve? How can we take advantage of this situation? Yes, it’s a negative that the athlete’s injured, but what’s the positives that we can take from it? It means you are not on the field. If it’s a low-body injury, we can work on certain upper-body strength elements. If you have issues with your shoulders, we can work on improving your shoulders. Just dedicate time to things that we wouldn’t be able to do in a normal season. Basically the same mindset that we have in the current condition of Covid(19). It’s like, what can we use in this situation?