The Strength & Conditioning Compass – Developing Your Philosophy

Yesterday I posted the following quote to facebook:

If you are a strength coach and you are more worried about learning RT1 (for those that don’t know what RT1 means HERE is a video) than you are about learning how to develop the overall physiological capacity of your athletes, you are probably doing something wrong. Don’t be a back door rehab professional, trying to “fix” people. Embrace the strength coach profession and learn how to develop athletes. Just my opinion.

This created quite a lengthy discussion from folks regarding the role of strength and conditioning, scope of practice, etc. I think many people missed the point of the post, which was more about the state of strength and conditioning in this country and how most strength coaches are so focused on being pseudo-physical therapists than they are developing the athlete’s physiological abilities, which should be their goal – physiological development and injury prevention.

Within the discussion I explained that a big issue is that people tend to get swept away with all of the courses that are so focused on the movement aspects of things (mobility, “corrective exercise”, etc). They forget that there is a whole other side to athletic development. Part of the reason I think this happens is that folks lack a true professional compass. Something that helps guide their path and keep them centered. What I’m referring to here is a philosophy. Most strength coaches, when asked about their philosophy end up either explaining their weekly template (“We use a Westside BB type template with max effort dynamic effort, and repetitive effort work” or, “We do a high-low training program like Charlie Francis”) or they begin listing exercises (“We are a bench, squat, chin up type program” or, “We like Olympic lifting and single leg work”). Of course all of these things are just fine but they don’t answer the question, “What is your philosophy?” Don’t tell me what you do. Tell me how you think! Tell me what is important to you and then tell me how you go about evaluating, monitoring, and improving it.

Several years ago I wrote down my strength and conditioning philosophy. Basically, it was a document that explained the things that are important to me as a strength coach. It articulated why I feel these things are important and how I go about quantifying them. Of course, as I grow and learn more, the philosophy changes and grows as well, but the big rocks stay the same.  I would hope that every strength and conditioning coach takes the time to write down their philosophy. In fact, no matter what you do in this profession, it makes sense to sit down and write out your philosophy. If you are an athletic trainer, physical therapist, or chiropractor, what is your rehab philosophy? How do you go about your work? This process is critical because it allows you to focus your compass, understand what you believe in, and understand where you may need to get better and improve. Oftentimes we tend to be so focused on one or two things that we forget about all the other stuff that we can be studying to make ourselves better (hence the reason for my facebook post). Additionally, people who don’t have a compass usually attend continuing education courses and leave saying, “I knew that. I already do that stuff.” But when you see what they are doing they aren’t doing ANYTHING LIKE THAT!! They may know the information but they have not built it into a system that allows them to use it in a very specific manner. They tend to be all over the map. Having a philosophy will keep you focused and, more importantly, guarantee you a certain level of success with all of the athletes you work with.

My Philosophy

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The three big rocks of my philosophy are movement, stress, and fitness. I can’t say that any one component is more important than the other. However, I do put stress at the top of the pyramid because if the athlete lacks the ability to tolerate and adapt to stress in a positive way it will drastically impact their movement capabilities and their overall fitness level. Basically, they wont be able to tolerate the stress of training.

Unpacking each of these components:

  • Movement –  This refers to the athlete’s ability to produce movement that satisfies the needs and demands of their sport. Do they have adequate joint ranges of motion? Can they move freely in all three planes of motion? Can they move effortlessly or are they always fighting against themselves (IE, are they stiff, tight, and bound up)? Movement is tested in a variety of ways. We evaluate it with joint range of motion testing, Functional Movement Screen (I know that it is a polarizing topic. Of course, you can use any movement screen or movement evaluation that you want here), and sports tasks (evaluation of sprinting, jumping, landing, cutting, etc).
  • Fitness – This represents the athlete’s overall fitness level. Do they have a basic fitness level that has been developed over the years by being exposed to various modes of training, various sports and sporting movements, etc? Do they have the fitness capacity to satisfy the needs and demands of the sport and/or their position within that sport? Are they lacking in some area of fitness (strength, power, conditioning, etc) that needs to be improved?
  • Stress – Finally, stress refers to the athletes ability to tolerate and resist stress. How well does the athlete adapt? How much training can the athlete tolerate? How well does the athlete thrive in the chaotic nature of sport? Stress is measured in a variety of different ways. We can look at their overall wellness, nutrition program, sleep habits, heart rate variability, etc.

To sum the rocks of my philosophy up:

“I don’t like to prescribe exercises if I don’t know how someone moves. I don’t like to prescribe training methods if I don’t know someone’s initial fitness level, where they are at, and where they need to go. And I don’t like to prescribe a training program without having an understanding of how the person adapts to it.”

Taking this approach has allowed me to build a system that focuses on these big rocks, the things I feel are most important, so that I can develop ways of testing, monitoring, and training them.

Wrapping Up

Don’t just focus on one component – sort of like we tell our young athletes to not specialize. I don’t think there is anything wrong with spending time studying movement approaches. I have gotten a ton out of Functional Movement Systems, PRI, DNS, and various massage therapy courses. They have allowed me to look at the body and recognize patterns that I can then focus on within the training program via exercise selection and specifically scripted warm ups. But please remember, these are only one piece of the pie. There is a whole other world out there in the realm of physiology and athletic development. The courses I listed above are relatively accessible and popular and thus make them easier for people to wrap their heads around. The other stuff is not. I get emails weekly from people saying they take all these courses, and the courses form the basis of their training approach, but they want to learn more about energy system development, they aren’t sure where to start to learn about it, and they don’t know how it will fit into their training approach. Honestly, a good exercise physiology book and pubmed would be a great place to start! There is so much information out there on this topic. You just need to be committed to spending time and learning it. The individual recognizes a gap in their learning but they have not created a philosophy that allows them to fill that gap and figure out where this stuff will fit in.  Weekend courses are helpful because we are force fed information. But why rely on other people to tell you how to think? Get to work writing your own philosophy down and perhaps you can come up with something interesting that embraces a bunch of different concepts that others have not thought about.

Random Thoughts On Coming Back From Injury

Injury is a part of sport and one of the most difficult times in an athlete’s career is often when they are trying to return from injury and regain function to allow them to perform at the highest level. A lot goes into preparing an athlete who is coming back from injury from all parties involved – rehab professional, strength coach, sport coach, and the athlete themselves. I thought I’d record a few of my random thoughts on this topic from the standpoint of strength and conditioning. I am not a rehab professional; however, a strength coach should be instrumental in assisting athletes who are rehabbing and should work with the rehab professional to make some of the thoughts below build into a solid program:

1. Don’t get out of shape

The best way to get in shape for your sport is to not allow yourself to get out of shape. Too often, when an athlete gets injured, there is this feeling that they must be “shut down” from all activity. This ends up being problematic because not only is the athlete being put into a state where, psychologically they feel like are “broken”, but the athlete is also losing valuable time that they could spend training around their injury (while it is being treated) to not lose fitness or potentially improve in other capacities.

2. There needs to be a plan

Oftentimes the strength coach doesn’t feel comfortable dealing with an athlete that is injured and thus provides a substandard program, which doesn’t adequately achieve the needed training stimulus. Additionally, the medical staff may not be knowledgeable about training means and methods to construct a proper training program for the athlete. Thus, the athlete is put into a position where they are unable to succeed. Having a plan leads to success. Knowing where to go with the training process comes from everyone being on the same page and addressing the athlete’s needs as an individual. This is where I firmly believe that Charlie Weingroff’s Training = Rehab makes the most sense. It isn’t about exercises, it is about principles. If you understand how to lateralize and/or regress your best program via a principle based system the athlete never loses out. The athlete will achieve what they need while rehab is taking place. In essence, training never stops for the athlete.

3. Rehab needs to progress and not be soft

Much of the training approaches being marketed to both clinicians and trainers these days are centered around what I would refer to as “soft”. The exercises are typically done in a very safe environment (on the ground), at a slow and controlled speed, and limit the intensity being placed on the body. I am all for progressions and simple to complex, slow to fast, and low intensity to high intensity, definitely makes sense. However, it is important to make sure those progressions actually take place. Too often I see people trying to return an athlete back to sport doing very slow and passive exercises and the clinician is often happy that the athlete can perform these movements pain free. The only issue with this is that those movements have very little carryover to the athlete running down the field/court/track at full speed!! To return someone back to sport you must first start by understanding the sport and the physical demands the athlete must be able to tolerate. Having a well constructed needs analysis is the first step that all strength coaches should make when they start working with a sport. Write it down, refine it as you learn more, and use it to help develop programs that properly address the needs of the sport. If the idea of rehab/training stops at clam shells, x-band walks, crawling patterns, and planks, there is probably going to be problems later on down the road when the athlete is going to have to do something more dynamic. Those exercises sound more like a starting point to me. In fact, those exercises are probably best served as a staring point in the warm up, as they do not reflect the necessary loading that needs to take place for an athlete to return to play. The tissue needs to go through the proper stress and strain in order to adapt and allow for continued progress.

4. Assess & Monitor

I purposely left out eval here because I believe that all rehab professionals do a proper evaluation of the athlete when they are injured. Assessment really has more to do with assessing where the athlete is physically as well as assessing what the demands of the sport are, and how the athlete should be trained to meet those demands. Monitoring is a key aspect often overlooked in the rehabilitation of an athlete. The only way to know whether or not the athlete is improving is to monitor them. This doesn’t just mean auditing painful patterns or movement dysfunction. Monitoring should go a step further and be inclusive of other physiological systems, in addition to the musculoskeletal system, to ensure that the athlete is not losing fitness during their injured period. This will allow you to make informed decisions about how the athlete is progressing (or not progressing).


These are just some random thoughts I put down based on reading various discussions on social media about training and rehab. At times, I feel like our profession has lost its way as discussions often shift towards the rehab side of things or “fixing” people. Movement is only one capacity and, while important, should not be emphasized over any other capacity. All physical capacities should be taken into consideration, particularly when an athlete is returning to play from an injury. The strength coach should develop a principle based approach that is specific to the needs of the sport and should work with the rehab professional in order to ensure that the athlete is provided the proper training stimulus at the right time.


Comparing Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith

Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith are arguably two of the greatest running backs of all time. They dominated the 90s with their running styles and were both eventually enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame. Fans and media folk have often debated “Who was better as a running back”. It is a bit of a tough question to answer. First, stating the obvious, Emmitt played an extra 5 years than Barry. Emmitt played 15 seasons while Barry retired after just ten seasons, most people feeling he cut his career short. Secondly, Emmitt was on some exceptional Cowboys teams and had a supporting cast of great offensive linemen, a solid blocking fullback, and a hall of fame quarterback with great receivers, which set him up for opportunities that weren’t always present for Barry (the Lions only finished first in the, what was then referred to as the NFC Central, twice during Barry’s ten year career).

But what if Barry had played the extra 5 years that Emmitt did? Barry ended his career with 15,269 yards to Emmitt’s 18,355 career yards. How many more could Barry have gotten?

Side Note: I removed receiving yards from this analysis as I only wanted to look at rushing yards. Barry had 2,921 career receiver yards while Emmitt had 3,224 career receiving yards, most of those coming in his first nine seasons with the Cowboys.

First, let’s look at some visualizations of the career both of these superstars had. We will look at their yards per season, their average yards per attempt each season, and their average yards per game each season.

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Looking at the graphs, it seems like Barry was a more consistent runner than Emmitt and, after the age of 27, Emmitt’s production began to dip a little bit, while Barry stayed relatively consistent. During Barry’s 10 year career, he averaged 4.98 +/- 0.6 yards per attempt,  99.9 +/- 14.2 yards per game, and 1,526.9 +/- 270.8 yards per season. Looking at the first 10 years of Emmitt’s career, he averaged 4.3 +/- .46 yards per attempt, 90.3 +/- 17.6 yards per game, and 1,396.3 +/- 267 yards per season.

In the last 5 years of his career, Emmit averaged 3.62 +/- 0.5 yards per attempt, 59.42 +/- 19.9 yards per game, and 878.4 +/- 362.6 yards per season. It is important to remember that Emmitt missed six games during the 2003 season due to a fractured shoulder blade, causing him to only get 90 attempts that year (a far cry from his average of 269 attempts per year that he got during that time period, after removing the 2003 season from the data set).

Equivalence Coefficient

So, how much better would Barry have been had he played the same amount of games that Emmitt played – what amounts to 73 extra career games (since Emmitt missed 6 games in 2003, 2 in 2001, and 1 in 2004)?

In baseball, Sabermetricians will sometimes use the Equivalence Coefficient (EC) as a means of projecting out performance in specific metrics given an equivalent scenario.

First, we determine that, had Barry been given 73 extra games in his career, he would have had approximately 1461 total attempts (based off his previous career numbers). This allows us to calculate Barry’s EC:

1+(1461/3061)*1.00 = 1.477295

By multiplying this coefficient by Barry’s career total yards, 15,269 yards, we project that, given 73 extra games (or 1461 extra attempts) Barry would have rushed for a career total of 22,557 yards (4202 yards more than Emmitt).

Of course this assumes that during these extra 73 games Barry is 100% of the player he was in the past. Oftentimes, people will talk about the the magic age of 27 representing a “cliff” for running backs where their performance begins to drastically decline (it seems like Emmitt may have started to decline around this age). Looking at Barry’s charts above, it certainly doesn’t look like he was showing signs of decreased performance at the age of 27 and there is no reason to believe that he wasn’t going to be the same player in those next 73 games that he was in the previous 153 games. However, let’s assume that perhaps Barry is not the same player in those next 73 games. Looking at Emmitt’s production in his final 4 seasons (I took out the injury plagued 2003 season where he only had 90 attempts in 10 games), Emmitt saw a 16% decrease in average yards per season, a 6% decrease in average yards per attempt, and a 15% decrease in average yards per game. So, let’s say, hypothetically, that during the next 73 games, Barry would be 10% less of the player that he was in the first 10 years of his career (a 10% decline in his overall performance). If this is the case, Barry’s new EC is calculated to be 1.429566 and his projected total for career yards would have been 21,828. That is 3,473 more yards than Emmitt Smith had in his career.

What does it all mean?

It is fun to play with projections like this. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Barry was a better running back (remember, I didn’t factor in receiving yards) but it certainly does show the incredible skills that Barry had and what he was able to accomplish in a career that he ended too soon (in the opinion of many). From a sports science/strength & conditioning perspective, projecting out performance allows us to understand the potential that our athletes have and what their projected performance may look like given a decrease in their overall output. This is important in a team sport as the chaotic nature of performance is difficult to tie back to the S&C coach (it certainly is not as easy to make the connection as it is with an individual athlete sport, such as track and field, swimming, or cycling). With this information we can begin to grasp the value that our programs may have on prolonging an athlete’s career by keeping them healthy and on the field/court where they can perform at the highest level, helping them to maintain their performance without seeing as large a decline with age as other athletes may see.

NBA Super Teams – “They Just Need to Learn To Play Together”

Being a life long Cavs fan, I was excited to see LeBron return to Cleveland to try and make a run at a championship. I’ll admit, in 2010, when he made the decision to leave for Miami, I was pretty upset; but, I don’t fault players for going to different teams if it means more money and better opportunities to win championships. Additionally, how can you fault a guy for wanting to play on a super team with athletes like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh? What makes LeBron’s second stint in Cleveland so exciting is the possibility of another super team, this time with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Of course, when these teams get together and don’t automatically win 20 straight right out of the gate, fans tend to get a bit unruly and start to jump ship.

Similar to LeBron’s first year in Miami, it took some time for things to click between the players on the team. The media pundits always like to bring it back to the fact that the players need to, “Learn to play together”,  because, as some point out, they have such similar games and are all three such dominant players on the court that they have to figure out who is going to play which role (which might actually change from game to game).

With that in mind, I decided to look at some of the data of these players on the super teams to see how similar they are and, perhaps, try and understand how similar LeBron’s current super team, the Cavs, is to his former super team, the Heat.

The Data

Since I don’t have access to a ton of NBA data, I took whatever I could get a hold of from I compiled the player data for all of the years LeBron was at the Miami Heat, all of the years Kevin Love was at the Minnesota Timberwolves (his entire career), and all of the years Kyrie Irving has been at the Cleveland Cavs (his entire career).

Only players who participated in more than 30 games per season where included (NOTE: Doing this removes Kevin Loves 2012-2013, as he only played in 18 games that season do to several hand injuries).

I then created a cluster analysis to evaluate how similar or dissimilar players in the data set were (you can click on the picture to make it larger).

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.14.50 PM As we see, LeBron lies on a node all to himself, and rightfully so! LeBron is a truly unique player, who can play every position on the court and is both a significant defensive and offensive threat. To the right of Lebron, we see a second node, which then breaks down into two more nodes. It is in this cluster on the tree that we see the main players we care about – those that make up LeBron’s former and current super team. Kevin Love and Chris Bosh are clustered close together while Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving are clustered close together, owing to the similarities in their game.

LeBron’s Supporting Cast

We see that the supporting cast for LeBron have some similarities when we evaluate their performance metrics within the data set of these three teams (Cavs, Heat, and Timberwolves). Looking deeper at LeBron’s supporting cast in both Miami and Cleveland allows us to see how each of these players compare to each other.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 6.07.04 PMLooking at Field Goal Percentage, we see that LeBron’s former teammates are a clear favorite when it comes to making shots. However, it is important to remember that this data is showing us the years that Wade and Bosh also played with LeBron. Perhaps having LeBron on the team created new opportunities for Wade and Bosh to score, opportunities that Irving and Love did not have given the weaker teams they were on?

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When it comes to rebounds we see that Kevin Love has had more success in this category than the other four players, while we see that Bosh is roughly equal with James.

Below is some comparison of the four players against each other for a few of the other metrics in the data set (all graphs are showing mean +/- SD).

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It is interesting to compare these players against each other. I am a bit surprised to see Bosh with such a low number of assists compared to the rest of the group. Additionally, it is interesting to see how many blocks Wade and Bosh had in comparison to Irving and Love. The Heat were definitely a defensive juggernaut, while also being a huge offensive threat, making them one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA. While it appears, from the cluster analysis, that Love and Irving play similar games to Bosh and Wade, it seems like Bosh and Wade are slightly better in some of the statistical categories.

Wade was already a great player (one of the best ever) before LeBron, and Bosh was no slouch himself. I wonder if “figuring out how to play together” allowed them to improve different aspects of their game, as having a unique player like LeBron on the court tends to draw a lot of interest from the opponents defense, opening up new opportunities for Wade and Bosh. One way to evaluate that might be to look at their individual statistics during their career before LeBron and then after LeBron. Additionally, it might be interesting to compare how much LeBron’s game changed from his first years with the Cavs and then his years with the Heat, where he “figured out how to play” with the other superstars on the court.

It will be interesting watch James, Love, and Irving, figure it out over the next few seasons. They have potential to turn this into another big three and hopefully dominate the NBA. With the similarities between Bosh and Love, and Wade and Irving, perhaps LeBron can put his new teammates into a good position to elevate their game and take things to the next level.

Minimum Effective Training Dose

You hear the phrase all the time, “I’m a real minimum effective dose guy”, or, “We train only as much as we need and then no more”.

Everyone says these things, but what do they really mean? What is a “minimum effective dose”? Is the minimum effective dose different for different people? Do some people need more training and some less? While the phrases sound good on paper or when uttered at a training conference, how do we take the theory of the minimum effective dose and turn it into practice?

To be fair, these are great ideas and statements that really do resonate with me in my approach to program design. Why expend physical resources (energy) on training that are unnecessary and potentially limiting your recovery from the previous session, thus diminishing your ability to train harder the next time around? As I like to say, “There is always a cost of doing business. All training comes at a cost and in order to reap the benefits you need to make sure you pay that cost and then replenish the checking account before paying again.”

Recently, I had a great discussion with two colleagues I respect – Sam Leahey and Nate Brookreson. We were discussing concepts around an individualized training approach, and the main discussion points began with us first reading and talking over two papers by Kiviniemi, et al., Endurance Training Guided Individually by Daily Heart Rate Variability Measurements (Eur J Appl Physiol, 2007) and Daily Exercise Prescription on the Basis of HR Variability Among Men and Women (Med Sci Sports Exer, 2010).

Both studies utilized a similar type of training approach for the two training groups. One group performed a standard, predetermined training program – just like a coach would write for an athlete, dictating what should be done each day of the week (exercises, load/intensity, sets, reps, etc). The other group performed their training based on their HRV readings taken first thing in the morning, upon waking. The mode of exercise in the studies was endurance training, and days were broken into high intensity (40min at > 85% of maxHR) or low intensity (40min at 65-70% maxHR) or complete rest.

The way it worked for the HRV-dictated training group was that they would take their HRV, and based on the outcome, compared to a rolling average, they would alter their training for the day performing either a high intensity session, a low intensity session, or taking a rest day. Thus, training was guided by what the body was prepared to do.

Interestingly, the HRV-dictated training groups improved their fitness while training high intensity sessions less frequently during the study period than the predetermined training group (More is not better. Better is better). Basically, on days when their body was ready for a high intensity training session they went for it, and when their body was not ready they backed off and allowed the body time to replenish the checking out, so to speak, before repaying the cost. They gave the body what it needed.

Some of my thoughts

Heart Rate Variability is not the be-all-end-all of athlete monitoring, as some make it out to be. It is one small piece (a small piece with rather noisy data, mind you) in a much larger puzzle. That being said, I do believe it can have a role in athlete monitoring if you understand its limitations, standardize the collection process, and couple it with other methods of monitoring the athlete and evaluating their capability and capacity on a given day.

These studies seem to move us closer to understanding the concept of a minimal effective dose and perhaps offer a newer approach to program design and periodization – similar to the concept of auto-regulation. Earlier this year I put together a decision tree for training, similar to the one shown in one of the studies mentioned above, where a few factors were taken into consideration and put into the tree, and the results of those factors allowed the athlete to alter their training program based on the input they plugged in. This allowed us to adjust the program up or down on a given day based on how the athlete was responding. Instead of writing training programs that told the athlete to do “x” on Monday, “y” on Wednesday”, and “z” on Friday, the athlete was given different workouts with different training targets (2 workouts reflecting the main physiological targets of the training block, 1-2 workouts reflecting the secondary, or maintenance, physiological targets of the training block, and 1 recovery based work).

Depending on how the athlete was reporting that day, we would choose which workout to do. This would end up sometimes pushing our training week out longer than 7 days (sometimes it would take 10 days to get through the training cycle). This was apparent, particularly, in older athletes whose bodies took longer to recover from the training session or athletes who were out of shape and lacked fitness and needed the extra time to make appropriate adaptations to the training stimulus imposed upon them. If we were working on a timeline and had a set duration of time to perform a block of training (for example the athlete would only be able to train 10 weeks in an offseason), we would adjust the workout on a given day by lowering either training volume or training intensity (which of those we lowered was dependent on the physiological targets of that phase of training and what the main objective was).

What was also interesting in the studies above was that if the subject had recovered the following day from a high intensity training day they would then perform another high intensity session (although after two successive high intensity sessions they were asked to take a rest day). The high-low training concept of organizing high intensity stressors on one day and low intensity stressors on another day is a great one and one that I have used for many years; however, there are times when the athlete needs to be able to put together back-to-back days of high intensity work due to competition (i.e., basketball or hockey) or hard practices (i.e., NFL training camp) being stacked together. By using a training approach driven by monitoring the athlete’s response and adjusting the workout to suit their needs and abilities on a given day, we can slowly build up the athlete’s resilience to tolerate high intensity work to a level that allows them to train hard, recover quickly, and then train hard again. This is a key piece that ties together the stress resistance/stress tolerance and fitness components of my Physiological Buffer Zone methodology, which I discussed in THIS interview.

What it basically boils down to is that each athlete is an individual. Each athlete has a different way of responding and adapting to the training stress you apply to them (and even to the treatment stress if you are using soft tissue work!). The time it takes to recover and make favorable adaptations to a training session may differ from one athlete to the next, and an individualized approach, based on monitoring various qualities, is essential to understanding what the athlete needs. Too often coaches try and force fit an athlete into their training program without respecting these laws of individualization. Hopefully the future will allow for better methods to test athletes, monitor/evaluate athletes, and adjust training for athletes to ensure that their body receives the type of training it needs – the correct amount at the correct time.