“…….Master of None”


There is an old saying that one should have one’s own house in order before commenting on another. So, I invest my time in managing my own affairs as best as I can – continuing my own development and that of my Taekwon-Do students. That being said, there comes a point when everyone must stand up and speak out when a pinnacle is reached. Last year, I attended a tournament which was notable, to me, not for the Masters present, but for the Masters and instructors that were ABSENT. The tournament, in my opinion, was clearly being boycotted by senior grades who should have been there. Since that moment I have been mulling over my 30 odd years of experiencing the behaviour and attitudes of Instructors, Masters, & Grandmasters.

This article will discuss what the standards of a Sahyun/Master could or should be, and how easy it is to fall short. Meeting high standards is a challenge Taekwon-Do Masters MUST strive to meet, lest we fail to continually deserve the belt we wear. This article is NOT intended to disparage anyone, but merely share my thoughts on where we senior instructors could improve. Hopefully, it will also serve as food for thought for instructors who aim to reach VII dan someday.

Master or Sahyun?

Let’s start with defining the term, Sahyun. Dr. Sanko Lewis, in his essay, titled “Instructor, Master, Grandmaster: An Explanation of the Terms Used in ITF Taekwon-Do,” and which appeared in Totally TKD Issue 16, describes Sahyun as follows:

“At master’s level (7th-8th Dan) in ITF Taekwon-Do the term sahyeon is used. Again, “sa-” means teacher. The syllable “-hyeon” / –현 / 賢 is related to virtue, wisdom, prudence, or good sense. A wise mother, for instance, is called “hyeonmo.” The implication is that the Taekwon-Do master is not merely a technical teacher, but also a teacher of morality or virtue. Hyeon can also mean “the present” / . Understood philosophically, the Taekwon-Do master is a teacher of the moment. This might suggest a Zen understanding where the master teaches their practitioners to “be in the moment” or to bring the principles taught in Taekwon-Do into their everyday lives. While a sabeom could literally mean coach and be restricted to mere physical training, the sahyeon is definitely more than a coach. The sahyeon—master—nurtures both the body and mind of his or her students.”

Dr. Lewis goes on to write:

“General Choi Hong-Hi created these terms and included them into the ITF system to indicate that Taekwon-Do is not merely a combat sport and Taekwon-Do teachers are not merely sport coaches. The terms “sahyeon” (moral-teacher) and “saseong” (sage-teacher) suggest that Taekwon-Do is an ascetic activity; an activity that ought to lead to moral and intellectual improvement. The idea that Taekwon-Do is a means towards character development places a great responsibility on Taekwon-Do teachers. Hopefully instructors, masters, and grandmasters will live up to the implied responsibility imbedded in their titles.”

So, as can be seen, the translation of Sahyun (as it is often spelled), encapsulates a lot more than just the word Master. A true Master, or Sahyun must teach not only physical skill, but also educate on Moral Culture which is the backbone of Taekwon-Do. Without the “Do”, i.e. Moral Culture, we are just teaching Taekwon, i.e. kicking and punching. But what is Moral Culture, and is this term even broad enough?

Moral Culture or Spiritual Discipline?

General Choi left the five Tenets of Taekwon-Do: Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control, & Indomitable Spirit, as keystones for what he called Moral Culture. But how much is lost in translation?

Dr. John Johnson, PhD, in his article “ITF Moral Culture: It’s Not What You Think”, published in Taekwon-Do Times in November 2017 discusses this topic, as follows:

“….moral culture is central to General Choi’s teachings, but that term is translated rather oddly in his Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do. The English version of the Encyclopedia translates JungShin SooYang (정신 수양; McCune-Reischauer Romanization: chŏngshin suyang) as moral culture, but a more precise translation may be spiritual discipline. General Choi translated JungShin (정신) as moral, but it can also imply the mind, spirit, and soul. As an adjective, JungShin can also be spiritual.

 General Choi translated SooYang (수양) as culture, but it can also be defined as a discipline, as in a branch of knowledge studied in higher education. When used as a verb (수양을 쌓다; suyangŭl ssat’a), SooYang can also mean to develop, cultivate, or improve, implying Taekwon-Do offers more than self-defense skills. SooYang can therefore be interpreted as something learned in a stratified pedagogy. We can infer that JungShin SooYang is learned only after one acquires a base knowledge of Taekwon-Do techniques.

Dr. Johnson goes on to say…

“While spiritual discipline is a more direct translation of JungShin SooYang, it may carry unwanted connotations. Moral culture does not interfere with practitioners’ existing belief systems whereas spiritual discipline may be misunderstood by some as religious in nature. As such, General Choi may have wanted to avoid those religious undertones by using moral instead of spirit when translating JungShin SooYang. In doing so, he facilitated the concept of character self-cultivation to a larger audience.

As the founder of Taekwon-Do and a person bilingual in English and Korean, it was General Choi’s prerogative to translate JungShin SooYang as he saw fit. Nevertheless, once practitioners realize Taekwon-Do is more than just a means of pummeling another human being, they will question the martial art’s true purpose. The concepts in General Choi’s Moral Culture, which can now be better known as spiritual discipline, provides the path toward Taekwon-Do’s primary educational goal, namely self-cultivation for the purpose of establishing a better, and hopefully more peaceful, world.”

Possibly General Choi needn’t have worried about students confusing Religion with Spirituality, as they are not the same thing. “Religion is a set belief system, whereas Spirituality, is more to do with Consciousness”, A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle. It is possible to be Spiritual without being religious, and it is equally possible to be religious without being spiritual. Now, the key question is coming, and I want you, the reader, to bear with me on this journey.

If Taekwon-Do is “A way of Life”, then shouldn’t a Taekwon-Do Master have Mastered Life?

Of course, very few Humans will MASTER life, but it’s the journey, and not the destination that matters.

The Student Oath

  • I shall observe the tenets of Taekwon-Do
  • I shall respect the instructor and seniors
  • I shall never misuse Taekwon-Do
  • I shall be a champion of freedom and justice
  • I shall build a more peaceful world

Every ITF Taekwon-Do student should have learnt the Student Oath as a matter of course. It seems clear that General Choi’s Philosophy is heavily influenced by Confucianism. When you look at the Students Oath, you can see its evolution, from the tenets, through to “build a more peaceful world, each line, building on the one before. These covenants epitomise The General’s philosophy of Moral Culture (or Spiritual Way). By the time a Taekwon-Do student attains the level of Sahyun, they have had enough time (30+ years) to internalise the student oath.

Consider the line, “I shall respect the instructor and seniors.” It embodies the Confucian social values of being obedient and deferential to those in seniority, whether in family or in general society. What isn’t obvious from the student oath, however, is that a key part of this Confucian teaching, is the obligation of the senior to also show respect to subordinates. In other words, we are expected to respect seniors and juniors alike in Taekwon-Do culture.

The EGO is the Enemy

Ryan Holiday speaks about the ego in his book, The EGO is the Enemy. The ego, he speaks about, however, is not the Freudian ego referred to in contemporary psychology. Nor is it the simplistic “full of himself” notion. There are entire books written about Ego, but I’ll try to convey the concept in a paragraph.

The Ego is, in its most simplistic description, your own story of your life, i.e. an illusion. When you feel superior to someone, that’s ego. When you feel inferior to someone, that’s also ego. Flattery, resentment, jealousy, anger; these are all emotions of Ego. In general terms, you could define ego as “pride about oneself.” Thoughts such as my body, my intellect, my life, my wealth, my rights, my happiness, etc. all arise from ego. One of the biggest components of Ego is assigning blame.

To truly be a Master of Life and Taekwon-Do, we must learn and practice the art of setting aside the Ego. One of the first steps, is to realise:

“Master may a title, but the role is that of a teacher”

It has broken my heart over the years to see instructors succumb to the “God-complex” after receiving those cherished VII dan numerals. Let’s not forget that our role is to teach, i.e. to serve our students and members in our organisations. They do not serve us. Yes, of course, there is a hierarchy. I’m not suggesting it be abandoned. However, seniority is not licence to exploit or to degrade. I once saw a Master (now a Grandmaster) behave very poorly toward a former student of mine. The student approached the Master during a break in a seminar to pay respect. The Master took a look at the student’s belt, saw the junior degree, and turned away without a word. What impression, of Sahyun, do you think was left with that student?

Areas where we can clearly see instructors succumbing to ego include attempting to attain grades and/or titles that are not yet deserved.

One area involves students attempting to move up the degrees sooner than they should, whether by moving from one organisation to another, or self-promoting. In other instances promotions have been simply “bought”. This only serves to erode the credibility of Taekwon-Do. The promotion of instructors to VII dan, just because “it’s their time”, but who lack sufficient improvement in skills and knowledge, also undermines the title for all who genuinely earned and deserved it.

The title of Master/Sahyun accompanies the rank of 7th dan, according to General Choi’s Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do. Some instructors position themselves outside of the larger ITF groups and become independent. This is every instructor’s prerogative, and is my own position, currently. However, when ego prompts “independent” instructors to proclaim themselves “Master” at 4th, 5th or 6th degree, it damages ALL Taekwon-Do instructors, in my opinion. Consider that a student can become a 4th degree in their 20s. It is scientifically shown that the brain isn’t fully developed until approximately 25 year of age. For someone in their twenties to call themselves Master seems ludicrous. An instructor who hasn’t the patience to wait until 7th degree to use the title, Master, perhaps demonstrates a lack of readiness to shoulder the burden of responsibility.

Focus on the Journey, not the Destination!

The following are areas, I suggest, all instructors will want to develop at various stages of their journey. The focus may shift from one to the other at different times.


Meditation has become popular in recent years in Western cultures. Yet, it has been practiced for thousands of years in Easter cultures.

Meditation is sometimes misunderstand as concentrating on something, e.g. breathing. In truth meditation is about raising one’s awareness, about finding that state of peace. The benefits of regular meditation make it truly, including:

  • Stress relief via reduced stress hormones
  • Increased parasympathetic activity
  • Greater clarity of mind, as a result of calming the noise in the mind
  • Health benefits such as lowered blood pressure, and all the knock-on benefits that go with it.
  • The opportunity to reach that level of higher awareness needed to achieve our full potential.

There are numerous methods that can be tried, so I’ll leave that to the reader to investigate. However, the ability to guide a Taekwon-Do class in basic meditation is something every instructor should aspire to. Once exposed to the benefits, at least students can then decide whether or not to develop this part of training, individually. Taekwon-Do requires intensive physical and MENTAL training. Mental tenacity and resilience must be tempered by peacefulness and calmness.

Master Fitzgibbon introducing his youngest students to the concept of meditation. It is simply sitting still, eyes closed, and focusing on the breathing. They call it “Kubz Quiet Time”

 Work at grassroots level

It is vitally important that, Masters not become complacent with regard to who they teach. It’s not uncommon to see Masters reserve their instruction for the black belts, preferring to let the junior dan grades teach the colour belts. However, in the spirit of Aristotle, who said…

“Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.”

…. Masters can have the greatest influence on the development of the beginner, and younger students, than the black belts. Yes, it is harder work, and maybe not as prestigious, but there is no more rewarding experience for any instructor than seeing a new student flourish and develop.


As a Master Instructor, I completely believe I should look the part of a “fit for purpose” martial arts practitioner. To look the part, I must TRAIN and maintain my tools. A martial artist is only as proficient as how he/she trains. Barring a disability, or acute illness, is there any reason why a Taekwon-Do Master shouldn’t practice what we preach and stay in shape?  This may well annoy some of you, but I don’t approve of an instructor’s waist size increasing in line with their dan grade. Yes, we all get older, but maintaining our health and fitness is important not only for our own lives, but also in setting an example to students.

It can only inspire students, for the instructor to get down on the mats and show students you can do much of what you ask them to do….

Communication Skills

In this Society of ever-increasing social media and gadgets, a clear link is being shown between increased screen time and deteriorating social skills. Any good Taekwon-Do instructor will cover the rudiments of good communication skills, such as; eye contact, body language, annunciation, voice projection, timbre, etc… with their students.

As a Sahyun, chances are you are either responsible for your own group of schools, or have to work with other instructors/Masters in an organisation. In these situations, good communication becomes even more important. In his TedEd Talk “How to speak so that people want to listen,” Julian Treasure offers using the acronym HAIL to underscore quality communication:

H             Honesty              (be clear and straight)

A             Authenticity       (be yourself)

I               Integrity              (be your word)

L              Love                     (wish them well)


Let us not be hypocrites – too many people in the World preach one thing, and practice another. There are many wonderful Masters and Grandmasters in the World, who continually set and meet high standards. Personally, I aim to follow their example. I have fallen short, at times, as I am fallible, and will no doubt, fall short in the future. But I always endeavour to do better. This is part of the challenge…. the responsibility of Sahyun. We must learn the physical skills, AND learn the philosophy of Taekwon-Do to truly build a more peaceful world. These lessons should begin from the very first Taekwon-Do class.

Set your sights on becoming a teacher of more than just the “physical” of Taekwon-Do, lest you become a Jack of all “grades”, and master of none.


Master Fitzgibbon is the head instructor of Connacht Taekwon-Do Schools, in Ireland. Based in Galway, he is a full-time instructor and also a Strength & Conditioning coach. He can be reached at info@connacht-taekwondo.ie or +353-87-2070577,

Further information at www.connacht-taekwondo.ie and www.shanefitzgibbon.ie

Beyond The Sporting Arena (Coaching the Complete Young Athlete)


I’ve read many wonderful articles, books by some of the World’s top coaches.  Between them, they cover the coaching all of the physical attributes needed by athletes in any sport. One area of coaching that I less-often come across, however, is that of the relationship between coach and young athlete and how it can relate to turning a young athlete into a well-rounded person. And that is the key word – “person”. It’s so vital for us, coaches, to remember that when all is said and done, sport is only a single portion of one’s life. It may provide a passionate hobby, or, even a career, but it is still only a portion. What shapes the person’s life is; personal attitudes, belief-systems, ability to take responsibility, personality, and more. The coach can play a huge part in contributing to so much more of an athletes’ life than merely his/her sporting performance. So, here is my philosophy.

First, just a little background on my coaching practice – I have worked with teams, small groups, and individuals, as well as adult general population, and young athletes. The Sports vary – Soccer, Gaelic Football, Hurling, Rugby, Irish Dancing, etc… Currently I am focusing largely on small groups, and one-to-one sessions with young athletes. All of these are at amateur level, and have many ambitions to become elite performers in the future. It is my job to help them, as best, I can, reach their various short and long-term goals. However, no matter their sporting achievements in the future, if I haven’t helped that athlete learn to contribute to society in a much wider scope than playing sports, I consider myself a failure as a coach.

Now, you may be thinking, “that’s what parents are for”. True. But how many of us, as teenagers, or younger, actually listened to our parents? Or took in the lessons about accepting responsibility? Very few. But the power of the “third party” influence is considerable. My athletes take on board lessons from me, which they may not take from their parents. Just like I took them from other adults, when I was their age. I’ve also been a Martial Arts (Taekwon-Do) instructor for 24 years. Because Taekwon-Do training is as much mental, as it is physical, no doubt the ethos I promote, in that, filters in to my S&C coaching also.


Begin at the beginning

As coaches we all typically start with the assessment of the athlete – posture, gait, etc… as soon as they walk in the door. But there’s more, so much more, right there. What’s the eye contact like? Posture is more than just “posture” – what about “walking tall with confidence?” How do they interact with their parent, with me? Do they speak clearly, or mumble? All of this speaks volumes about their “spirit.” Throughout the assessment I interact with my new young client as much as possible carefully observing how they interact with me. This serves as a good indicator for social skills I will integrate into the coaching sessions.

I also carefully watch any interaction with the parent before, during and after the session to see how respectfully they treat their parent. This is something that may need to be addressed, if necessary, and at the appropriate time.



Parents are typically chuffed, if a little surprised, when I ask what their young teenager does at home to help out. Things I am looking for are: making their own bed, putting clothes away, keeping their own space tidy – stuff like that. If the parents are surprised, you should see the look on the kids’ faces. But to me it’s fairly simple – team sports require leaders, especially in important, game-changing moments. Coaches need to try to develop leaders. How can a person expect to take responsibility for a team’s performance, if they can’t take responsibility for looking after their own stuff? Additionally, I remind the young athlete that their parent is paying a lot of money for the privilege of coming to me for coaching. The least they can do is pull their weight at home, and do their best at school.

Sometimes during a Taekwon-Do class, I will do a quick check on presentation by my young students. This includes checking for clean and ironed uniforms. Now, can we expect a ten-year-old child to wash and iron his uniform? Of course not. But we can certainly expect them to put the uniform in the laundry after class, to make sure it is washed. And it is not a big deal to check with a parent if it was ironed, a couple of days before the next class, instead of 5 minutes before they are due to leave. All it requires is taking some responsibility. These are things us coaches can pass along. I learnt how to sew a patch on my uniform, when I was a teenager, from my own instructor, at the time, Master Don Dalton. It was a bloodbath, but I got better with a needle and thread.


Talent or Presentation?

A current mentor of mine Master Mark Hutton, from Glasgow constantly reminds people that it is often not the most talented people who get the best jobs and opportunities in life, but usually those with the best communication skills. Talented people who cannot step outside of their comfort zone, and stake claim to opportunities when they arise do, indeed, often miss out. Helping our athletes with eye contact, speaking clearly, etc.… can transform their lives inside and outside of Sport.


Only a percentage of the athletes we coach will ever make it really big in sports. That is just a fact of life. But that doesn’t mean they cannot be winners in life, and reach their full potential at whatever level they play at. As well as coaching all the physical attributes they need to reach that potential, we have a responsibility, in my opinion, to instil attributes, such as self-belief and self-esteem as well. Missing team selections, match losses, these are all opportunities to learn and grow. The coach that will be remembered, for all that person’s life, is one that can put these disappointments and challenges in perspective, and show that self-image is more than what you achieve.



So how can a coach manage all this? Well, it really boils down to the type of relationship that you develop with your athlete. What is a coach? A friend? A mentor? Maybe a combination of both? This is an important factor because they are not the same. After all, a friend tells you what you WANT to hear, whereas a mentor tells you what you NEED to hear. In my opinion, there’s a place for both, in the right circumstances. Experience and judgement will tell you what those circumstances are.


Basically, you have to give a damn about your athletes beyond how they perform, especially when it’s young athletes you coach. That means getting to know them – age, school year, pets, other interests, so you can connect and use analogies that they can relate to.

I am now teaching the child of one of my former students. I can think of no greater honour than making an impression on your athlete so great that they return years later wanting their own child to learn from you.

Strength Training for Women


Irish boxer, Katie Taylor, has just launched her professional boxing career with a win. She trains as any athlete should – for strength, power, conditioning, etc… In my opinion, she epitomises what all sports should be about – and particularly, athleticism.

It seems to me that the biggest challenge with regard to women doing strength training is that there are too few doing it! There are many reasons for this. A US study1 illustrated a few reasons why women shy away from strength training:

  • Both the female athletes and the coaches saw strength training as less vital for the female athletes than the male athletes.
  • The females were not as confident with regard to weight training as the men.
  • The females saw weight training as a masculine activity.

Other reasons may be:

  • Women are self-conscious about entering the weight section of a gym.
  • They associate weight training with becoming larger and heavier.
  • They believe females should not lift heavy weights.

I will attempt to dispel these notions, and also address certain female-only factors in fitness such as menstruation, use of oral contraceptive pill (OCP), etc…

Few have done more to illustrate the benefits of strength and power training in women’s sport than the Williams sisters in Tennis. The sheer athleticism and power they display when playing is testimony to their scientific and balanced training regime. Some major benefits of strength training for women are:

  • Increase bone mineral density (BMD): Women are prone to this disease as they age. In fact, research2 has shown that women are seven times more likely to suffer from low BMD if they haven’t partaken in sporting activities when younger.
  • Reduced risk of injury: By doing rational strength training, females can strengthen connective tissue such as ligaments and tendons, thereby improving joint stability.
  • Improved performance in sport: Once the key areas such as maximum strength and power are attended to, there is tremendous potential for increased physicality and performance in sport.
  • Improved body composition: Body fat decreases as a result of increased muscle tissue development. Because muscle tissue is more compact, but also heavier than fat, it would not be unusual for a lady to fit better in her clothes yet her weight stay the same or even slightly increase, due to strength training.

Key Factors

PEAI conference 2015 1

  • Women can match men proportionately in terms of lower body strength. However, there is a disparity between male and female upper body strength. This also means that women have the greater potential for improvement and can demonstrate this if they lift enough weight, the right way.
  • Women have a smaller cross-section of muscle fibres resulting in less demonstrable strength. Because so many sports require powerful movements, females participating in these need to work extra hard at developing power in the weights room by stimulating the development of as many fast twitch, type II fibres as possible.
  • Women need to abandon their fear of looking like men as a result of doing strength training; otherwise, the quality of their strength training may suffer. The major factor resulting in hypertrophy in men is the high levels of testosterone they produce since puberty. These levels may be as high as ten or twenty times women’s levels3. Therefore, women need not fear building huge muscles unless they are ingesting testosterone or anabolic steroids. It seems women have higher resting levels of Growth Hormone (GH), on average, than men which may compensate for the low levels of testosterone and allow women to undergo strength training adaptations.
  • The use of OCP by women can provide certain advantages for female athletes. While there may be a small increased risk of breast cancer (if using OCP for 10+ years without having children) and reduced aerobic capacity, some training benefits of using OCP are4:
  1. Can reduce the natural fluctuations in strength throughout the menstrual cycle
  2. Seems to reduce carbohydrate usage in prolonged training
  3. Reduced menstrual blood loss
  4. May reduce premenstrual symptoms, so will have less effect on training and competitions

All women taking OCP should educate themselves fully on the pros and cons of usage.

  • Observations indicate that the menstrual cycle need not have any major bearing on performance. It is not unusual for highly trained females to experience secondary amenorrhea (cessation of periods). Careful attention to nutrition and healthy lifestyle are all key factors in minimising menstrual disruption. In any case, menstrual symptoms can be highly individual to the particular athlete. (Zatisiorsky and W. Kraemer, 2006)
  • Women need not stop strength training when they become pregnant, but adjustments in the program may need to be made, specifically:
  1. Avoid introducing any new exercises to a programme.
  2. Eliminate sit-ups from the program.
  3. Due to hormonal changes which soften connective tissue and increase risk of injury, pregnant women should reduce intensity of strength exercises.

It is strongly advisable for a female athlete to communicate with her doctor regarding her training programme.

Training Tips for Female Athletes

  • Learn the correct technique of the strength exercises before loading up.
  • Women undergo the same type of adaptations as men, so should use similar programmes, exercises and relative resistance as men.
  • To increase bone mineral density, and reduce risk of osteoporosis, use multi-joint exercises that stress the skeleton, e.g squats, deadlifts, standing barbell press, etc…
  • To compensate for less relative upper body strength, women need to do extra work for development of these muscles.


  1. Peak Performance Resistance Special report, Chapter “Women and Young Athletes,”, by Paul Gamble, page 58
  2. Peak Performance Resistance Special report, Chapter “Women and Young Athletes,”, by Paul Gamble, page 61
  3. Science and Practice of Strength Training. 2nd Edition, (Human Kinetics 2006), by V. Zatisiorsky and W. Kraemer, page 183
  4. Peak Performance, Female Athletes (Training for Success), Chapter – Performance and the Pill, pages 26-27, by Andrew Harrison.

Athletic Development for Children Versus Adults

This blog is probably going to be a mix between a rant, and an educational piece for parents of young athletes. It is motivated by the developing situation of fitness coaches taking on junior clientele for athletic development, without necessarily having the requisite qualifications and/or experience. Let me be clear: having, for example, a dancing background, no matter how prestigious, does not of itself qualify one to coach strength and conditioning to young dancers. Nor does having a “Fitness qualification” automatically mean one is ready to coach young athletes, who are considered children until the age of eighteen.

To elaborate, coaching young people is quite a bit more involved than coaching adults. If children are coached as mini-adults, it can have detrimental results. It requires specific expertise and study.

On a personal note, when I realised I wanted to specialise in coaching children, I researched and sourced educational material. I qualified as a Youth Fitness Specialist Level 1, 2 & 3 as well as High School Strength & Conditioning Coach via the International Youth Conditioning Association. I made it my business (and still do) to attend conferences geared towards coaching children, where I learnt best practices from the coaching-World’s best, e.g. Dr. Ian Jeffries, Kelvin Giles, Gary Schofield, Paudie Roche, Loren Landow, Dr. Mike Martino, Dr. Dale Canavan, Sergio Lara-Bercial, and many more, too numerous to list…

Youth Athletic Development is a growing and exciting development in Ireland. Interestingly, it comes at a time when Physical Literacy is at its lowest, and competence at Fundamental Movement Skills is quickly deteriorating, so many more youth fitness specialists are needed. As coaches of young athletes, we must have the expertise to regress exercises as far back as necessary, and coach, literally from the ground up.

My fellow coaches who wish to delve into this growing field of youth athletic development, I welcome you, and wish you well. But, for the sake of the child’s well-being and your reputation, do your homework and learn how to coach a child. For the parents of young, ambitious athletes looking to gain a physical advantage, please make sure the coach you choose understands the many differences between a developing body, and a fully matured one. Most fitness or S&C coaches will be first-aid qualified. However, if coaching your children, find out if the coach is:

  1. Garda-vetted
  2. has taken the “Code of Ethics and Good Practice in Children’s Sport” course run by the local Sports Partnership, and,
  3. crucially, is operating from a Child Protection Policy that the coach can actually show you.

Craughwell GAA

Some considerations for coaches:

  • A one-size-fits –all approach does not work. Consider the various personalities (D.I.S.C.) and learning modalities of children.
  • Approaches will vary from pre-pubescent to teenager – form-based V outcome-based coaching
  • Coaching is part Science, part Art
  • Praising success-alone, leads to avoidance of failure, and failure is a key stepping-stone to bigger success.
  • What should you teach first – landing mechanics or jumping mechanics? Deceleration or acceleration?
  • Young athletes can tolerate high volume but not intensity? Or is it the reverse?
  • Coaching young athletes cannot be about physical training alone – how do you factor in social and cognitive development?
  • How do growth spurts affect progress?
  • The development of strength in young athletes is usually due to more efficient neuromuscular coordination, rather than muscle size.
  • Do you know the speed increases teenagers will gain, annually, just from natural maturing, whether being trained or not? This is crucial to knowing if your coaching is eliciting true gains, or if it is due to growth.
  • How do girls differ to boys with regard to hormonal influence, aerobic endurance, upper/lower body strength, fat-free-mass, etc..? Before and after puberty?
  • Is high intensity interval training recommended or contraindicated for young athletes? Pre or post puberty? Why?

These are just some of the numerous variables Youth coaches must consider. For outstanding quality in youth athletic development, I can be reached at 087-2070577 or via the website www.shanefitzgibbon.ie

Shane Fitzgibbon, B.Sc. NCSC, YFS, HDAP.

IYCA International Youth Coach of the Year 2015

The importance of quality Sleep


Whether you want optimal health and/or optimal recovery from exercise, sleep is one of the best tools you have. AND….. it’s free!

Sleep involves more than just getting some much needed rest after a busy day. It is the period when the body performs essential maintenance, rebuilding of tissue, etc… The amount of sleep a person needs can vary from five to nine hours, however it seems the average adult needs approximately eight hours of quality sleep. The majority of functions that take place when asleep seem to be generally controlled by hormonal function, e.g. melatonin, testosterone, cortisol and growth hormone. The latter two are of particular interest to the athlete, because if these are out of kilter it can result in much waste of training effort. Before these are discussed we should examine what sleep actually is.

Sleep Stages


Sleep occurs in five stages (Ref 1) that recycle many times during the rest period.

Stage 1 involves the muscles beginning to relax and breathing becomes shallower. It can last from ten seconds to ten minutes. It almost seems like a transition period between full wakefulness and falling asleep.

Stage 2 may last up to twenty minutes and sees the body’s temperature drop and the heart rate slow down. The body is now ready for deep sleep.

Stage 3 is the transitional period between light sleep and deep sleep.

Stage 4 is when a person is completely immersed in the deep sleep state and can last up to thirty minutes.

Stage 5 (also known as REM or Rapid Eye Movement) is the stage when dreaming can take place. REM sleep is characterized by eye movement, increased respiration rate and increased brain activity. 1 Interestingly, the major muscle groups are paralysed despite the increased brain activity during REM sleep.

After stage 4, the sleep cycle reverts back to stages 3 and 2 before progressing to stage 5. The normal sleep cycle will then look like this: 1→2→3→4→3→2→5 and it is repeated many times during the night.

Reasons to get Quality Sleep

The negative health implications of not getting enough quality sleep are:

  • Impaired memory, reduced learning of sports skills, increased reaction time, lower attention span, less ability to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances. (Ref 2)
  • Compromised immune system. (Ref 3) Not getting enough sleep can make a person more susceptible to everyday, nuisance infections like cold and flu, but also vulnerable to cancer and diabetes.
  • Less able to deal with stress. (Ref 4) Aggression and irritability can be increased which makes handling difficult situations even more challenging. This can even lead to a chain reaction of stress leading to sleep disruption, leading to more mental anxiety, and so on.
  • Cardiovascular risk (Ref 5) – Studies have shown that people who get too little sleep may wake up with higher resting heart rates and increased blood pressure. This can put the cardiovascular system under strain over a long period.
  • Weight gain: Studies (Ref 6) have shown that sleep deprivation exhibits signs of glucose intolerance, which is an early indicator of insulin resistance and diabetes (Type II). Other studies (Ref 7) have shown that major hormonal disruption associated with increased appetite occurs with lack of sleep.
  • Serious hormonal disruption associated with increased ageing, reduced weight control and impeded body tissue rebuilding.

Tips for a good night’s sleep

  • Avoid eating within two hours of going to sleep, particularly carbohydrates. As the carbohydrates can be broken down into glucose, the spike in blood sugar levels can stimulate wakefulness. (Ref 8)
  • Avoid alcohol. The commonly taken “nightcap” can seem to relax one and help prepare for sleep. However, alcohol lightens sleep, particularly in stage 4 which is the key recovery stage after physical activity.
  • Minimise stimulating activity, e.g. television before sleep as this can delay falling off to sleep.
  • Try to have a bedtime routine. Having regular “going to bed and getting up” times and sticking to them can help to regulate and normalise sleeping patterns.
  • Sleep in complete darkness. Use heavy curtains to block out all street light and face an electric alarm clock down to hide its light.
  • The temperature and ventilation of the bedroom is important. Cool (not cold) usually is best.
  • A protein drink containing a slow-releasing protein e.g. casein, can be helpful in inducing sleep as it contains the amino acid tryptophan. It may also help in recovery and rebuilding of muscle tissue. (Ref 9)

To read more about the importance of sleep, and the implications of lack of sleep, check out, “Training and Optimal Health for Sports.”


  1. http://psychology.about.com/od/statesofconsciousness/a/SleepStages.htm
  2. Science of Sports Training, Tom Kurz page 122
  1. Optimal Muscle Performance and Recovery, by Edmund R. Burke, page 226
  2. http://psychology.about.com/od/statesofconsciousness/tp/reasons-to-sleep.htm
  3. Take Control of your Health, by Dr. Joseph Mercola, page 193
  4. Spiegel, K. Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. The Lancet. October 23, 1999. 354:1435-1439.
  5. Spiegel, K. et al. Brief Communication: Sleep Curtailment in Healthy Young Men Is Associated with Decreased Leptin Levels, Elevated Ghrelin Levels, and Increased Hunger and Appetite. Annals of Internal Medicine. December 7, 2004. 141:846-851.
  6. Take Control of your Health, by Dr. Joseph Mercola, page 197
  7. http://www.umm.edu/sleep/sleep_hyg.htm#e
  8. Exercise Physiology, Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. McArdle, Katch & Katch, fifth Ed, p.g. 42

New Year’s Fitness Fads, Diets and other Bullsh*t!

As we go into January, the inevitable launch of the latest fashionable diet and exercise fad is upon us. With this, heralds masses of inactive people looking to get fitter, and lose inches in 3-4 weeks that probably took them years of inactivity and poor nutrition to put on. If you are one of these, the end result, more often than not, is one of the following:

  • Twelve-month gym membership abandoned after one month.
  • Injury or pain leads you to give you up wha
  • Diet given up after a couple of weeks because you went gung-ho and asked too much of yourself, too soon.
  • Injury or pain leads you to give you up whatever exercise form you took up, and resort to “wait til you’re a bit fitter” before resuming.

All of these outcomes can be avoided with a little bit of rational thought and consultation with an educated, professional exercise/nutrition coach. [Side note: Why did I say educated? Surely any professional personal trainer is educated. Not necessarily… I am a certified strength and conditioning coach and learned very valuable information, but some of the most important coaching knowledge I have learnt came from sources other than my certification, i.e. books, DVDs and workshops attended year in, year out. So choose your coach wisely]

Anyway, back to the topic at hand – why do so many people looking to become healthier in the New Year fail? Usually, it’s because despite the best of intentions, they make the following mistakes. By alerting you to these, I hope to save you frustration, lack of progress, and most importantly, injury.

Typical Fallacies of New Year Health Fanatics

  1. Number one on my list is taking up a sport or exercise class without a proper assessment/movement screen. The simple truth is, many people are not ready to jump into an exercise programme without some kind of intervention to correct movement dysfunction, poor core stability, etc… You can read more on the importance of assessment here.
  2. Taking up running. What??? Taking up running is bad? Well… let’s just say that for many, taking up running, or jogging, or whatever you want to call it, is ill-advised. Oftentimes, it comes back to the lack of assessment. You may be too overweight and/or have too little muscle tissue for your joints to support the stresses of running. Running places loads of 3-5 times your body weight on your joints  every step. I realise joining a running club has many incentives: it’s group-based therefore offers motivation, it’s cheaper than joining a gym or a class, very little equipment needed. However, there is much more to increasing fitness than cardio work, which is where running falls. And, crucially, you never see orthopaedic surgeons running along the road. Why do you think that is?
  3. The dreaded detox diet – ok let’s get this straight: there are health risks to following any detox diets you read in magazines, newspapers or social media. Many people undergo a detox diet in January in a bid to rid the body of toxins that may have accumulated in the previous weeks, months or even years of unhealthy eating. One thing I always tell my weight-loss clients is, “you didn’t TRY to gain weight, so don’t TRY to lose it.” Make small, manageable, incremental changes to your lifestyle that are sustainable over the LONGTERM. For example, reduce sugar in your diet one week, and then reduce caffeine the following week, and so on…. By hitting your body with a cold-turkey detox diet you risk toxic shock, days of feeling miserable with numerous side effects. Anyone with health issues shouldn’t go on detox diets, e.g. diabetes, heart disease, or other chronic medical conditions. Teenagers and pregnant women should also avoid detox diets. Just eat healthily – plenty of vegetables, lean protein, gradually eliminate or at least reduce, sugar, caffeine, alcohol. Drink plenty of water and your body will detoxify itself.
  4. HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training: A popular method of getting rapid fat loss results, High Intensity Interval Training is both effective and time-efficient. The downside is that the associated elevation of heart-rate to quite high levels can be risky for several of the population. HIIT involves exercising intensely in short bursts with intermittent recovery periods. If you are not very aerobically fit, then HIIT can put quite a stress on you that you may not be quite ready for. It would be much more advisable to build up a base level of aerobic fitness before tackling HIIT. Strength training will lead to similar weight reduction and has the added benefit of enhancing your physique.
  5. Another factor to consider is that many of us are leading increasingly stressed lives. Whether it’s financial, physical or emotional is irrelevant. It still takes its toll on the body. Adding more excessive physical stress is inadvisable. To elaborate: the central nervous system consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic system is used for “flight or fight” in stressful situations, but is not meant to be in use for long. Problems occur when we cannot disengage from the sympathetic nervous system and relax, thereby engaging the parasympathetic (or peaceful) nervous system. Exercising in the aerobic zone of 120-140 bpm heart-rate once/twice per week will help you to reduce stress levels, improve digestion and sleep better. This can be done running (if appropriate) or biking, or many other ways. Here is a great article on the subject: http://robertsontrainingsystems.com/blog/long-duration-low-intensity-cardio/

To wrap up, please take some key points on board:

  • If you are currently sedentary, get a good coach who can thoroughly assess you, including a movement screen.
  • Don’t skimp paying for quality coaching. Saving money now can cost you far more later, in terms of pain and finances. You have one body – take care of it.
  • Take it handy on the nutrition improvements. Make small, consistent changes. Think long-term lifestyle changes, not short-term all-or-nothing fad diets.
  • Running may not be good for you. Get an assessment.
  • Strength training is essential, but you may not be ready yet. Get an assessment.
  • HIIT is effective for quick fat loss, but it may bring on more stress than your body needs right now. Get an assessment.

Wishing you all the best for 2016,

Shane Fitzgibbon

Want to learn more about rational training and nutrition, while you have time to spare over the holidays? Check out my book, “Training and Optimal Health for Sports.” Free shipping this week. Digital version is also available. See www.trainingandoptimalhealth.com


Why Children NEED structured Strength & Conditioning

This blog post is being written as I reflect on all the recent articles I have read about youth obesity spiralling out of control in Ireland, as well as the reports on young athletes being burnt out at ever increasing rates from exhaustion and/or injury. While these are opposite extremes of the scale, I believe they are opposite sides of the same coin. The issue is lack of education (or perhaps even lack of caring) on what exercise professionals can offer. While both are pressing issues, this feature is aimed at why active children need some amount of professional attention, even in amateur/hobby sports if they are to minimise injury risk.

While it is essential that children engage in regular exercise for numerous health benefits, it is also important to recognise that exercise and sport is not necessarily the same thing. One key difference is that sport is, by its very nature, competitive and therefore more demanding and rigorous than exercise for its own sake. It is also not realistic to expect a local, unpaid, volunteer, amateur coach (no matter how well-meaning) to be an expert in nutrition, injury prevention, injury rehabilitation, strength, speed & agility, etc… His/her expertise is in the game, not in determining the physical capabilities or limitations of the players (unless they also happen to be a professional trainer). Let’s consider the benefits of children participating in structured strength & conditioning, should their local clubs or parents be forward-thinking enough to provide it.

Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS)

Children are entering sports with less physical literacy than ever before due, amongst other reasons, to the amount of time spent indoors instead of out playing and the massive reduction of P.E. and free-play in schools. This has huge implications on children’s competency of fundamental movement skills, such as object manipulation, hopping, jumping, squatting, etc… not to mention hand-eye coordination and more. When a child joins a new sport lacking competence in essential FMS, is it asking far too much of the child to develop competency of intrinsic sport-specific skills?


Take a good look at the image above… This is the situation coaches have to deal with due to the increased amount of time children are spending sitting at school, watching TV, commuting, etc… Humans aren’t designed to spend long hours in the seated position. It drastically alters the tone of our muscles – shortening and tightening some, while lengthening and weakening others, to the detriment of posture. Ask someone to run or jump with poor posture and he/she will certainly make an attempt, but will lack efficiency due to the inability of certain muscles to fire in the correct sequence, if at all. At best, performance is reduced. At worst, the child eventually gets injured. A professional S&C coach recognises these issues with the squad and is able to intervene with appropriate corrective exercises, thereby dramatically reducing the risk of injury.

ONE CHANCE to get it right….

Prior to puberty is the best time for children to develop many of their fundamental movement skills, such as locomotion. Given that these FMS are the building blocks for athletic skills, then the strength of this foundation is linked to athletic success later in life. You may think that they have plenty of time to learn this… WRONG! If a child is not exposed to various movements in the early developmental stages, the brain undergoes a process of synaptic pruning, whereby apparently unneeded motor pathways in the brain are trimmed away. Exposing the child to these movement patterns later in life provides no guarantee of learning them, as it means that all new motor pathways need to be created in the brain. Children literally have ONE CHANCE to effectively learn fundamental movement skills well. “Parents – you have one chance to do this right” Dr. Greg Rose, Functional Movement Systems

Resistance Training


“Conceivably, if a child is ready to engage in sport activities, then he or she is ready to participate in resistance training,” Rhodri S. Lloyd, PhD & Jon L. Oliver, PhD. The benefits of resistance training are numerous. These have been documented extensively in my free eBook on Youth Conditioning, so I won’t revisit them here. If you want to pick up a copy use this link: http://www.connachtfitnessandperformance.com/enquiry.html Knowing that resistance training for children is both beneficial and, indeed, recommended, then why should parents or sports coaches seek a strength coach to teach the children? The answer is because children should not be treated like adults when it comes to ANY kind of training. A suitably knowledgeable coach understands what various modalities of resistance training, e.g. body weight, resistance bands, dumbbells, etc… are appropriate for a child depending on experience, age, etc… The Youth fitness coach understands that there are differences in approach needed for boys versus girls, and that a growth spurt changes the rules.

A special note for parents of teenage boys: boys involved in sports will eventually join a gym and lift weights. You must decide if you want them to learn good technique that will stand to them for life, or if you want them copying friends or other members of the gym, who may not be qualified to teach. A coach can help ensure that the ego never outweighs common sense. The younger they learn to lift correctly, the better.

Injury reduction

One of the most important roles a strength and conditioning coach performs is that of the assessment. Poor posture, previous injuries all affect the readiness of young athletes to participate in sport, often leading to injury. An assessment early on can identify risk factors which can be mitigated by intervention from the coach. Experienced S&C coaches are also adept at spotting fatigue and overtraining symptoms in young athletes. Frequently children get overtrained from participating in multiple sports, each one with a coach who may fail to realise that the child has little left to give. And naturally, every coach expects the best from each child in the squad. One area requiring particular mention is anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries in field and court sports. Teenage girls suffer five times more ACL surgeries than boys (Kelvin Giles, Movement Dynamics). There a few potential reasons for this, e.g. weak hip stability, quadriceps muscle dominance, etc… It takes a specialist to know these risks, to identify them in players, and intervene to reduce the likelihood of such injuries occurring.

Longterm development

I hear from many parents about the fitness activities that their children are doing as part of their particular sport. Frequently these are random, inappropriate and sometimes just make no sense whatsoever. They may be age inappropriate, and have no bearing on what was done the previous years, or to be done in the following years. A youth S&C coach plans for the future, and designs age-appropriate and experience-appropriate programmes for the young players, with a plan for where they are going and need to be.

A child’s age isn’t necessarily his or her age

Children should be prescribed exercise and have expectations based not on their chronological age (age since birth), but on their biological age (developmental or maturation age).

Case study: John and Michael both join the U12 soccer team. John is 11 and is an early bloomer. Michael is 10 and is a late bloomer. Because children can seem up to three years younger or older depending on whether they are early or late bloomers, John can have a biological age of 13, with Michael having a biological age of only 8. In this scenario you have two boys with biological ages of 13 and 8 on the same team. Should they be expected to have comparable levels of strength? Speed? Cognitive awareness? Of course not. Specialist youth S&C coaches will have a whole sequence of progressions and regressions that are suitable for the more or less advanced child.

Any team fitness activities must take into account the difference between biological and chronological ages. To determine your child’s biological age, visit http://www.growmetry.com/app_v3/index.asp?lng=2


Should I take protein powder?


This is the question I was asked this week by one of my teenage clients. As a GAA player with inter-county ambitions, functional muscle size is important to him.

There are many possible reasons why a male athlete may not be gaining his desired muscle size increases. Let’s go through the key factors in increasing muscle strength and size, before spending money on products not necessarily needed. They fall into four categories – genetics, training habits, age, and nutrition.


Have you ever noticed how some people have that enviable washboard stomach, that no matter how hard they try, others can’t seem to achieve? The fact is that we are all genetically predisposed to certain body shapes and sizes. Our athletic prowess is limited by our DNA. Does this mean that we cannot improve how we look? Absolutely not! We can all strive to make the best of what we have. Genetic types are usually divided into ectomorphs (thin, hard gainers), mesomorphs (muscular, easy gainers), and endomorphs (fat, easy gainers). Pure types are rare. Most men are an ecto-meso mix, and can expect to gain about 15% of muscle weight after a year of excellent nutrition and training. – Dr Michael Colgan (Optimum Sports Nutrition

Training for strength and hypertrophy:

  1.  Generally when doing strength training, people want to see the results in the mirror as well as gaining functional strength. This article is not so much for bodybuilders, however, who will do specific exercises to isolate muscles, but for the regular gym-goer who just wants to develop functional strength and look good. Some factors that affect muscle growth and strength:
  2. The amount of weight you lift is a key factor if you desire muscle growth (hypertrophy). In each set the number of repetitions largely determines the result, whether it is to develop maximal strength or improve muscular appearance and general strength. For example, lifting extremely heavy weights that permit only 1-2 repetitions is not the way to go for hypertrophy. According to Thomas Kurz (Science of Sport training, 2001) “strength training with maximal and close to maximal resistance causes very little hypertrophy because the number of repetitions with such great resistance is very small and does not cause sufficient breakdown of muscle proteins to stimulate rebuilding them in excess after work.”  However, lifting weights that permits 6-8 repetitions does produce the desired neuromuscular effect. Also performing the exercises at a slow pace “increases” the resistance by eliminating the momentum of the weight and thus developing hypertrophy (Pawluk1985). Generally, strength gains arise as a result of hypertrophy.
  3. Muscle is built during rest periods, not during workouts. In fact, during a workout you are breaking muscle down, stimulating it to grow bigger and stronger. But this actual growth is done in the interim period between workouts. Exercisers who fail to take adequate rest are constantly breaking down muscle tissue, not allowing adequate time for recuperation and growth. Some athletes activities lead to overtraining, e.g. by going to the gym 4-5 days a week, especially if each workout is identical. To avoid this trap, concentrate on certain exercises for specific days, allowing enough time to rest before repeating the same workout and it is usually advised to not train more than four days in a row.
  4. Change your workout at the first signs of plateau. The human body is highly adaptable and will quickly learn to become resilient to your efforts. Thomas Kurz recommends changing your workout program every 2-6 weeks. However there is no need to change if a program is continuously giving you improvements.

Developmental Age:

A young athlete may have a developmental age different ho his chronological age, i.e. be an early-bloomer or late-bloomer. For boys, one of the key factors in adolescence is the increased amount of testosterone being produced. Testosterone is like “rocket fuel” to young men and facilitates increases in muscle size and strength. Similarly, lack of it in a late-bloomer may frustrate him if gains are less than expected. Patience is required here.


Before rushing out to buy protein supplements, it is worth looking at what you are doing with your diet currently, first. The traditionally recommended ratio of carbohydrates:protein:fats is 40:30:20. Generally, according to nutrition guides, you need 15-25% of good quality protein in your diet. People who are doing plenty of training obviously need to lean toward the higher end of this scale. However you should check that you are getting enough low-GI carbohydrates into your diet to fuel your workouts. If you are not, then the protein in your diet may be broken down and used for energy instead of being used to power muscle growth, and other metabolic reactions.
According to Dr Colgan, the ideal protein intake for weight training lies somewhere between 1.7 and 2.4grams/kg of bodyweight. This is supported by various other studies, e.g. Dr Peter Lennon et al at Kent State University, U.S. concluded that daily protein intake should be 1.7 grams/Kg of bodyweight.

In summary, look at the various factors that affect your training results and make changes where necessary. It is worth your while spending time reading up on sports nutrition, as this is one of the greatest investments you can make if you are serious about optimum health. You may well benefit from adding extra protein into your diet by eating more lean meat, fish, eggs, etc… If you really feel you need a protein powder to supplement your diet, then please read the ingredient list carefully. Many brands are loaded with potentially toxic ingredients like MSG, aspartame, etc… As a general rule, when it comes to ingredients: if you can’t pronounce it, avoid it.

Want to learn more about rational training and nutrition, while you have time to spare over the holidays? Check out my book, “Training and Optimal Health for Sports.” Digital version is also available. See www.trainingandoptimalhealth.com