Athletic Evolution

Ask the Expert: Tim Stevenson (School of Calisthenics)

Tim has been a professional strength and conditioning coach working with elite athletes since 2008. He was part of the Paralympics GB team at the Rio 2016 games and throughout his career he has supported athletes to win major medals at European, Commonwealth, World and Paralympic championships. He is a UKSCA Accredited coach and has a Masters of Research in Exercise Physiology. In addition to training athletes on a daily basis he also lectures in Sport Science at Nottingham Trent University, is a qualified sports massage therapist and the Physical Preparation and Strength and Conditioning Consultant for the British Para Swimming team.

1) What has led you into starting the school of Calisthenics?

The main starting point was a thought experiment. I’d had 2 shoulder surgeries after multiple dislocations and the standard rehabilitation programmes weren’t working as I was continuing to have instability issues. As an S + C coach I’ve generally used my own training as a learning opportunity to see how different programmes feel, which then helps me to better implement training techniques with athletes. So the reason for starting calisthenics was two-fold, 

1) If I can learn to do a handstand that would be give me some confidence that my shoulder was stable

2) How can I utilise more advanced bodyweight training in an athletes programme. 

It started with Jacko and I literally playing around with calisthenics as part of our own training sessions and having fun trying to learn some new movement skills. We were rubbish when we started as both of us had played rugby since we were kids and had no previous experience in gymnastics or anything related. I was also not sure if my shoulder would be able to take it so the fear of another dislocation was real. We however very quickly found a real passion for it and it ignited a new enjoyment of training. We were having fun, learning new skills and getting strong at the same time which felt a long way from the monotony we had both found in the standard bench, row, squat gym sessions. 

We’d used our experience of training Paralympic athletes to adapt the training environment for ourselves and broken things like the human flag, back lever, handstand and muscle up down into the composite parts to really understand what you needed to do from a physical perspective. We then designed the training programme around those key principles and designed our own movement and exercise progressions. It meant our approach was really accessible and made it open to anyone else who wanted to start learning pretty complex movements. As we improved, people in the gym asked us to put a workshop on so we did. And that was the start of the School of Calisthenics.

2) What has been your biggest influence in your coaching practice?

My first certifications in the industry were with the National Academy of Sports Medicine whose methodology I feel really respects the fundamental kinetic chain principles and the complexity of human movement, but this is supported with a logical and effective training approach. I was also mentored and supported by Ian and Gareth Hall at Sport981 who really helped instil a rounded and integrated understanding of movement and training. 

I’ve trained athletes from over 30 different sports through my time at Nottingham Trent University but my first private client was a double leg amputee marathon runner. This was the starting point for developing a specialism in Paralympic strength and conditioning which has had a huge impact on my coaching practice. There are few resources that tell you how to train an amputee, someone with cerebral palsy or visual impairment so you have to become extremely dynamic with your understanding of human movement, programme design and the training environment. Being successful with this athlete group requires you to innovate, not be afraid to get it wrong and to develop an effective working partnership with the athlete as they need to input into the process too. I still love the complexity of working with Para athletes and I think in many ways this has had a big influence on how we have approached calisthenics.

3) What is your particular area of interest?

My real passion at the moment is the role that progressive calisthenics has in enhancing shoulder robustness and upper limb performance in sport. Given my history of shoulder injury and the fact that since starting calisthenics my shoulders can do things I would never believed were possible, I’m really excited about sharing this information with other coaches. The exciting thing is that many other people who have started training calisthenics have realised the benefits as well and it’s certainly something that is gaining some attention and momentum as we have now presented specific workshops for the UKSCA and Scottish Rugby Union. 

More broadly speaking my areas of interest is directed to training calisthenics and how it represents a beautiful combination of movement and strength. I really enjoy the skill acquisition process and embracing the complexity of coaching people to move in new ways. I still do some consultancy work in Paralympic Sport with a few individual wheelchair racers and as the lead strength and conditioning coach for British Para Swimming. 

I can also get quite passionate about strength and conditioning in the private sector as I’ve been self employed for the entirety of my 11 year career to date. It’s not an easy road so I want to share some of what I have learnt and hopefully help others with that too.

4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes? 

Calisthenics is a tool to help develop physical literacy, particularly in a way that respects the design of the kinetic chain. In my opinion we need to give youth athletes movement options and teach them to move well. It’s as simple as that. There are many benefits of broadening their movement catalogue, especially around the upper body ,but calisthenics spans further than that. It engages them in play which is so important in developing movement and social skills. It can support growth mindset, it allows them to achieve tangible goals, makes them more coachable and enhances robustness through embracing the complexity of human movement. I don’t think you get this powerful combination of benefits if programmes are focused on compound lifts and numbers. 

It’s easy to get someone strong if they move well and have good kinaesthetic awareness and the best place to do this is with young athletes where we have more freedom and flexibility, and less pressure to perform.

5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Don’t think that you have to have all your ducks in a row before you start. 

This applies to so many situations but specifically for me I think it has relevance for coaching and business. As a coach fresh out of an internship I remember a time when I started working with my first disabled athlete Richard Whitehead who is a double leg amputee. I had a moment when I was sat there with the information I had gathered from a screening, some textbooks and an empty training programme and I didn’t think I could do it. I couldn’t work out the functional anatomy or how to adapt the standard exercises we would use with an able bodied athlete. My wife said to me, ‘just start’. So I did and rocked up at the next session with a loose plan, a lot of questions, an openness to try new things and a realisation that I was probably going to get some of it wrong. 8 years later I was at the Rio Paralympic Games leading the Holding Camp for ParalympicsGB and the physical prep for British Swimming at the main competition. 

6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes? 

Increase the amount of time dedicated to play. We like to structure training programmes with reps and sets but there is so much value in the freedom play provides. Be creative and let it flow. Let young athletes have fun with movement. Play is the original exercise.

7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?

If you want to start using some progressive bodyweight training with youth athletes then we have a free 8 week beginners programme on our website (classroom.schoolofcalisthenics.com). It will give you an introduction to basic movements including handstands, muscle ups, human flags and back levers. From there we have movement specific courses with full training programmes and exercise videos if you want to learn more. 

We also put out a lot of free content on social media so check out our channels. 

8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)

www.schoolofcalisthenics.com

Instagram: @Schoolofcalisthenics

Twitter: @Schoolofcali

YouTube: School of Calisthenics

Email: tim@schoolofcalisthenics.com

Thanks to Tim for his time and expertise!!

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