How Team Leaders Affect Strength & Conditioning Programs

I had an excellent conversation this week with a mentor of mine who is the head strength & conditioning coach in the NBA.  One of the things that we talked about was how the attitude of team leaders impacts the effectiveness of a strength & conditioning program.  He gave the example that most NBA athletes fall in the middle area of a bell shaped curve in a graph as far as their attitude and effort with strength & conditioning goes, or in other words, they respect it and put the necessary effort into it.  He went on to say that there are usually a couple of guys at each end of that graph, the ones who go above and beyond, and those at the other end of the spectrum.  From there we talked about the huge impact the team leaders have on the team based on where they’re found on the bell shaped curve of attitudes toward strength & conditioning.  If a team leader is one of those top few who go above and beyond, the rest of the athletes for the most part will fall in line.  Conversely, if the team leaders are at the other end of the spectrum as far as their attitude and effort towards strength & conditioning, it’s going make it all the harder to get the rest of the team to buy in and give the program the effort necessary for it to be successful.  From my experience, I have found this to be an extremely accurate assessment.  The following experience with one of my teams is a good demonstration of the concept.

With our offseason football workouts we had two lifting groups.  There were a couple of very defined and obvious leaders/stars in each group.  Group one’s leaders were on the extreme positive end of the graph, as they always were ready to give maximum effort, encourage their teammates to do the same, and go above and beyond the minimum/expected.  This attitude permeated to the rest of the group as they consistently gave exceptional effort as a group, obviously adding to the effectiveness of the program.  Group two’s couple of leaders would be classified more as being right in the middle of the bell curve.  It’s not that they didn’t work hard, but their attitude towards the program and their work ethic didn’t compare to that of the exceptional leaders of the first group, and they definitely didn’t stand out as the hardest workers and best attitudes of group two.  Group two did have a couple of guys who were at the extreme positive end of the bell curve when it came to their attitude and effort towards strength & conditioning.  However, they weren’t the natural leaders/stars of the group, so it was harder for their attitude and effort to transfer to the rest of the group.  Instead, the less than desirable attitude of the leaders permeated to the group. 

So, what can we do as strength & conditioning coaches when we encounter a situation like group two?  Something I did that made a difference was partway through the semester I met individually with both of the leaders of group two to discuss with them how important they were in the weight room, during conditioning sessions, etc., and let them know that I and more importantly their teammates needed more out of them in that regard.  By helping them realize the power of their attitudes and how their attitudes impacted their teammates, I started to see a positive change in these leaders that started to have a positive impact on the group as well.  Our approach may need to be different depending on the leader that we are dealing with, but if we know our athletes as we should, we should be able to recognize what some successful approaches could be.  This is the type of conversation we should probably have with leaders before the start of a program, or at least after the very first sign of trouble, to help them know that we (both their coaches and their teammates) need and expect them to be at the top of the group with their attitude and effort.  This obviously may not always work, but it’s a preemptive action that I feel could make a big difference in a lot of situations. 

These examples bring back the importance of developing leadership skills and qualities in our athletes.  Also, even though we don’t have a heck of a lot of control over this part, it’s extremely important that high character athletes with a great work ethic are recruited and brought on board.  It will not only make our strength & conditioning programs more effective, but the work ethic and attitude of athletes in the weight room will often be the same in practice, the film room, etc.  We can never underestimate the importance of the attitude and work ethic of the leaders/stars of our teams and how it affects the rest of the team.  Just talent is not going to create champions.

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Gaining Respect for Strength & Conditioning Coaches as Professionals

We as strength & conditioning coaches play vital roles in the development and well-being of our athletes.  Being effective professionals for the benefit of the athletes we work with should be our number one priority.  This requires constant personal development for us as coaches or we will not be as effective as we could/should be and we will be doing a disservice to the athletes we work with and their sport coaches who have trusted us to work with their teams.  If we do what’s necessary to develop ourselves as coaches, we will be a great asset to the teams that we work with.  A common misconception is that just anyone can do our job effectively.  As it says on the CSCCA website while discussing the SCCC Certification,

“A full-time Strength and Conditioning position is extremely important and should be provided at every institution with an athletic program. The various positions of strength and conditioning coach, sport coach, athletic trainer, physical therapist, teacher/researcher, personal trainer, etc., are each so broad and vast in scope that it is impossible to be effective and competent in more than one of these professions simultaneously.”

If we constantly develop and improve ourselves we will help strength & conditioning professionals everywhere gain more respect for the professionals we are and what we are capable of doing with athletes.  With the vast responsibilities and roles of a strength & conditioning coach, just as it would be impossible for me to be a completely effective basketball coach AND strength coach, it would be impossible for an athletic trainer, sport coach, personal trainer or physical therapist to be a fully effective strength coach.  Having established that our job/profession is very unique and important by itself, it is our job as strength & conditioning coaches to gain the trust of the sport coaches to the extent that they will utilize us as the professionals we are.  I know that I’ve talked some about this in past entries, but I’d like to list some simple ideas of how we as strength & conditioning coaches can gain the trust of the sport coaches that we work with so that we are able to effectively work with their athletes and give them the best chance for success in their sport. 

1)      There needs to be constant communication between us as strength coaches and the sport coach.  “Constant” may be different with different coaches.  However, communication needs to be consistent enough that both the strength coach and sport coach are comfortable that they are on the same page at all times.  Communication is key!

2)      Kind of a continuation from #1 is to make sure the coaches know that there is an open door policy and that they can feel comfortable coming to us with any question or concern they might ever have.  They should know that we are willing to discuss anything with them and that we will do anything possible to help with anything or work through any issue that might come up.  Even if they don’t completely trust us from the very beginning to do this, if they know from the very start that this is how we would like it to be, it will make them more likely to come to us with anything knowing that we are both comfortable with and welcome that type of interaction.

3)      Another key to a successful relationship with sport coaches is to help them understand and communicate to them the reasons why behind anything we do as a strength staff with their team.  Different coaches will want or be comfortable with different degrees of understanding.  Some coaches will just want a very simple, watered down version of what we will be doing and why, whereas some coaches will want in depth explanations and discussions.  Neither is right or wrong!  The important part is that we spend whatever time is necessary to satisfy their want to know so as to help them feel 100% comfortable with what we are doing. 

4)      It is very effective to just drop by and have casual conversations about anything (not just the coach’s sport/team) as frequently as possible, so as to improve the general relationship with that coach.  Doesn’t have to be a scheduled meeting or anything, just a quick hello and chat about anything.  This will make them more comfortable with us, will help us get to know each coach better personally, and will help us know what buttons to press with them when developing plans and ideas that will not only be effective for their teams, but will appeal to them. 

5)      A strength coach should attend as many practices and competitions as possible.  Depending on the responsibilities and size of a strength staff this may be difficult.  However, as the lone full time strength coach at Dixie State with as many as 10 groups/teams coming into the weight room in a single day, I have learned something important.  Even if I’m only able to catch a few minutes of a practice or a competition in between groups, that act of getting out and supporting and showing interest in the team pays huge dividends with both the sport coach and the athletes.  They notice and appreciate the effort!  We should absolutely make attending practices and competitions as often as we can a high priority.  This will not only help with our relationship with the coaches and athletes and how they view us, but it will be a very effective way for us to assess the physical needs and progress of the athletes.

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Slow Cook Process

One of my favorite descriptions that I’ve heard of what a strength & conditioning program should be is that it should be a “slow cook process.”  In other words, an athlete is not going to make all the progress they can potentially make in a short time, and it’s important to look at their athletic career and the progress they make both physically and mentally as a whole.  Looking at things this way will give us real perspective on just how far our athletes have come, how far they can really go, and will also help keep us realistic in our expectations of our athletes.  It’s natural for our coaches to want the athletes to be right where they would like them to be physically in a short time.  However, this is not a realistic expectation with many of our athletes.  It’s definitely our responsibility to help the sport coaches recognize the progress being made and help them to realize that it’s a long, “slow cook” process and that consistent progress and improvement is the most important thing.  It oftentimes amazes me to look at how far some kids come physically during their careers as they put in the necessary hard work and dedication to the program.  It’s also important for the coaches to look at the progress an athlete has made compared to where they personally were before, rather than compare them with other athletes who may genetically be blessed with more physical ability, but may actually not be working as hard or progressing as much as their less physically blessed teammate.  I told our volleyball girls this last week when we tested that it’s about progression, not comparisons. 

Something that often happens for young athletes is when they first start a program, no matter the program, they make large and fast physical gains.  It’s the sign of a well designed program and motivated/dedicated athlete if those athletes continue to make progress in the strength & conditioning program throughout their entire playing careers, without plateauing or taking steps backwards after that initial jump.  So, it’s extremely important for us as we assess our programs to make sure that slow cook, consistent progress is being made for our athletes over the years they are with us.

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The Most Important Part Of Making A Program Successful

One of the best and most exciting parts of strength & conditioning coaching is the fact that there are so many different ways of doing things and constant opportunities for us as coaches to learn and develop our programming philosophies.  There is no one best way to do things and success can be found with myriad of different programming philosophies.  So what makes some programs yield better results than others?  Obviously there are a lot of variables involved in responding to that question.  However, I would like to talk just a bit about what I feel is the most important factor in making a strength & conditioning program successful, and it’s not whether we are doing olympic lifting, powerlifting, functional training, etc. 

First an example.  In football you see the spread offense, option offense, west coast offense and the list could go on.  There have been a lot of great and bad teams that run every type of offense that exists.  Obviously, talent is important.  However, talent being equal, what separates the success of one team from the success of another team offensively, as there are many talented teams that don’t achieve maximum results.  Is it the offense they run?  I don’t believe so.  I would argue that the most important factor is the team’s motivation to give phenomenal effort and their commitment to the offense being run.  There is no doubt that a team that buys into what they’re doing offensively and gives 100% effort with what they’re doing will be much more successful than a team that is not motivated and committed to what they’re doing.  It’s getting the members of the team to buy into the plan, the process and the program that makes a team as successful as they can be.  There are many football coaches that are amazing with x’s and o’s, but they lack the ability to motivate their teams to buy into the system and give the necessary effort.  That’s why you see teams that run different types of offenses winning national championships in college or the super bowl, because the system they run is not the most important factor in the team’s success.  Again, talent is huge.  But there are often less talented teams that come out on top because of the effort and commitment they have to the team and how things are being done. 

It’s the same with our strength & conditioning programs.  We as strength & conditioning coaches could put together an absolutely incredible program on paper that in theory would produce great results.  As with football, many different types of programming philosophies have the potential to yield excellent results.  However, how successful will any program be if the athletes don’t buy in and give phenomenal effort in everything that’s outlined in the program?  The answer is obvious that the results will not be what we would want them to be.  So, we as strength & conditioning coaches should absolutely spend time trying to develop our programming philosophy.  However, I feel like it’s at least as important for us to also constantly develop ourselves as motivators and leaders so that we are capable of getting our athletes to buy into our programs and put forth the type of phenomenal effort that’s necessary to get maximum results from whatever program we put them through.   Just as there are countless different types of programs, there are many different ways that we can motivate and help our teams and athletes to buy into and be committed to what we are trying to accomplish.  Different teams and athletes will often require different motivational techniques.  It’s up to us as strength coaches to find strategies that work for us and that work with the specific teams we work with.

Great blog entry written by Coach Sean Skahan, Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Anaheim Ducks, that talks about this same subject.  Great Stuff!  “Getting Athletes On Board Your Bus” –

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Be Sport Specific Without Overtraining Specific Movements

There’s a lot of evidence out there that shows that we as strength & conditioning coaches need to try to be as sport specific as possible with the movements and exercises we choose to develop strength and athleticism in our athletes.  Some of us have more flexibility in what we have available to us to be able to train in a sport specific manner.  But regardless of restrictions when it comes to available equipment, space, staff, etc., we should do our very best to be as sport specific as possible in our training methods with our athletes.  I think that for most of us, this is a very well understood concept that we are always trying to improve on.  I’m just wanting to discuss some thoughts and ideas that I’ve had in regards to being sport specific in our programs in an intelligent manner.  

I feel like it’s extremely important that while we need to put an emphasis on sport specific movements, it’s equally important for us to not train a specific movement in a specific way so much that it leads to overtraining and chronic issues.  The regimen that our collegiate athletes are put through can be extremely taxing on their bodies.  They are constantly practicing, competing, etc.  Even in the offseason, they will still be practicing their sport, whether it be on their own or with the team in offseason practices.  With all that being considered, they are going to be doing those sport specific movements almost constantly, year round.  For this reason, I like to make sure we train sport specifically with our athletes, but also find different variations of the sport specific movements, or similar movements that will contribute to the improvement of those sport specific movements, so that their bodies(muscles, joints, etc) don’t suffer from overtraining and an increased likelihood of injury.  In other words, while we should be sport specific, I think it’s important that we are not constantly TOO specific.  Also, I feel like it’s extremely important that we train those sport specific movements hard and effectively, but also give the athletes necessary recovery time from those movements, also considering the frequency that those movements are performed by the athletes in their actual sport training.  This will help the muscles involved have time to physiologically adapt to the training we are putting them through, and will also help to avoid the chronic over training that could lead to injury. 

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.  A movement that is extremely important for a basketball player is their vertical jump.  I know that our basketball players here at Dixie are constantly playing throughout the year, whether it’s their regular games during the season, practices, open gyms, training on their own, etc.  Least to say, they are constantly jumping, which can really take a toll on their bodies.  Having said that, we know that the basketball coaches are always wanting their kids to be able to jump higher, and rightfully so with how important a movement it is to their success on the court.  It’s obviously a sport specific movement that it’s our responsibility to develop and improve in the athletes during their time training with us.  When considering our program design for our basketball players, we will absolutely incorporate just some simple vertical jumps.  That’s as specific as you can get as it is the exact same movement.  However, we will also add variations to it by doing some high box jumps, hurdle jumps, depth jumps, squat jumps, broad jumps, etc.  These variations will definitely transfer over to their vertical jump on the court, but are different enough that it will work the muscles a little bit differently, helping to avoid overtraining.  Other training examples that will absolutely transfer over to our basketball player’s vertical jump capability are basic strength exercises such as squats and box squats done in a variety of ways(different weights, reps, etc.).  So here’s a very general example of what we would do in the weight room for our basketball team during a two week period of the offseason to help develop their vertical jump if we had a split routine of doing two lower body lifting days and two upper body lifting days.

Week 1
Day 1 – Medium weight/repetition box squat accompanied by some auxiliary lower body exercises
Day 2 – Upper Body
Day 3 – Off
Day 4 – Fairly light box squat focused on the speed/explosiveness of the upward movement from the box accompanied by some hurdle jumps.
Day 5 – Upper Body
Week 2
Day 1 – Heavy free squat accompanied by some auxiliary lower body exercises
Day 2 – Upper body
Day 3 – Off
Day 4 – Fairly light box squat(slightly different weight and/or sets/reps from the day 3 the week before) focused on the speed/explosiveness of the upward movement from the box accompanied by some high box jumps. 
Day 5 – Upper Body

This is just a very general idea of what I’m talking about.  During these two weeks we would definitely be developing the power necessary to improve specifically the vertical jump of these basketball players.  However, we would not be overworking one specific movement and the athletes would have plenty of time to recover and adapt to the training we are putting them through.  There are definitely other exercises that could be incoporated such as power cleans, leg press, etc.  I just wanted to give an example of the idea that I’m talking about.  Now obviously we need to cycle through different movements/exercises we use so as to be able to accomplish and track progressive overload, but that’s a totally different subject.

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Strength & Conditioning Coaches Are Not Magicians

Today I just wanted to talk a little bit about an oft-misunderstood concept that we often have to deal with as strength & conditioning coaches.  Obviously the coaches we work with want their athletes to be faster, be able to jump higher, get bigger, etc.  We want the same thing for their athletes.  However, it must be understood that not all athletes have the potential to become physically what coaches want them to be.  Recently I had a meeting with one of our coaches.  This coach spoke specifically of one of the athletes on the team and exclaimed that this athlete NEEDED to jump higher or they will never play or amount to anything on the team.  The ironic part of the situation is that this athlete is one of the harder workers on the team and has made HUGE progress on their jumping and physical abilities in their time here.  The problem is, this athlete is also probably one of the least gifted athletes on the team physically, so even though they have made a ton of progress from where they started, they still are way off what they would need to be to be a successful athlete at this level.  They started at a lower level than a lot of the other athletes on the team and have a lower genetic potential than most.  Of course this coach either didn’t recognize or didn’t want to recognize that this athlete had already made a ton of progress, just that they are not at the level the coach wants.  The concept that this coach needs to understand is that things like speed and explosiveness(jumping) are to a large degree pre-determined genetically. 

I loved how several of the presenters at the Michigan State University Strength Clinic I attended recently alluded to the importance of good genetics in helping athletes develop their speed, explosiveness, strength and such.  As they said, it doesn’t matter what we do with them if they don’t have the genetic potential to get to where they need to be to be successful.  We as strength coaches can absolutely help athletes progress towards and hopefully reach their genetic potential.  However, we are not magicians and are not able to alter that genetic potential much if at all.  Or in other words, we are not going to be able to turn an athlete that runs a 5.5 forty into an athlete that runs a 4.5 forty just because the sport coach wants and needs an athlete that can run a 4.5 forty.  However, we could probably get an athlete to improve by a couple to several tenths of a second.  We COULD probably help develop an athlete who comes in running a 4.6 or 4.7 forty into an athlete that can run a 4.5 forty.  This is extremely important for the sport coaches to understand so that they don’t have unrealistic expectations of us, and also so that they realize the importance of recruiting athletes that are gifted in the physical areas they feel are important for their sport.  However, not only is it important for the sport coaches to understand this, but it’s important for all of us to understand it as well.  We set ourselves up for problems if we promise unrealistic goals to athletes or sport coaches when genetically those goals may not be possible.  We are not going to do any favors for ourselves if we make promises to sport coaches that we are not going to be able to make happen.  When a sport coach does not understand this concept it is important for us to tactfully, professionally and respectfully help them to learn and understand it.  There may be a different way to do this with every coach, and it is up to us as strength coaches to make sure we have the type of relationship with our coaches that we know how to go about helping clear up such a confusion in an effective manner.

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Michigan State University Strength & Conditioning Clinic

I had the great opportunity this past weekend to attend the annual Michigan State University Strength & Conditioning Clinic.  The MSU Strength & Conditioning Staff put together a heck of a clinic and it was an excellent experience.  The clinic featured presenters such as Dr. Ken Leistner, Mike Joseph(West Virginia), Dan Riley(Former NFL Strength Coach), Jason Arapoff(Detroit Lions), the Michigan State Strength & Conditioning Staff and many others. 

I loved how Coach Ken Mannie, Head Strength Coach for Michigan State, pointed out at the end of the clinic that many of the of the presentations contradicted and disagreed with other presentations in the clinic, and that’s a good thing!  Both Coach Mannie and many of the presenters pointed out that there is not just one way to do things and that we should always be open to learning new things and learning from the ideas of others so as to continually develop into the best strength & conditioning coaches that we can be.  For this reason, clinics such as this one are perfect opportunities for us as coaches to be exposed to different ideas and philosophies that can help us to develop.  I can honestly say that even though I didn’t agree with every little thing that each presenter shared, I absolutely took at least a couple of things from every single one of the more than a dozen presenters and came back excited to try some new ideas with my athletes.  We should absolutely make it a priority to attend similar events to help contribute to our personal development as coaches and to share with others.  However, we need to be careful of something as we attend such events.  One of the presenters pointed out(I believe it was Dan Riley) that too many coaches will go to clinics and conferences not being open to other philosophies and ideas, but more just to have their ideas and philosophies reinforced.  Truthfully, it was nice to have the presenters back up things that we do with our program, and that’s natural I think.  However, Riley pointed out that it is equally if not more important for us to attend such events to be exposed to new ideas and that we need to put our guard down and be open those ideas, even ideas that challenge what we think and believe. 

Coach Mannie shared something else both at the beginning and the end of the conference that was impactful.  He reminded all of us that we are really there to influence young people and to help them to develop into better human beings and to have them more prepared for whatever they decide to do with their lives after their college careers are finished.  It’s having that opportunity to make a positive and lasting impression on the lives of young people that makes it all worth it.  I put up an article by Coach Mannie in the Resources section of the website that talks about how we can develop our athletes through “tough love” as he put it. 

Lastly, I was extremely lucky to spend some extra time with Coach Tim ‘Red’ Wakeham, the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for Olympic Sports at Michigan State.  He was gracious enough to share some excellent insight and advice with me which I am very grateful for.  I hope that we can all strive to be coaches that are willing to help other coaches as Coach Wakeham was willing to do with me.  It’s that type of attitude that makes our industry better.  Again, it was an excellent experience and I would recommend this clinic to any coach who could possibly make it in future years.  Thanks again to the Michigan State Strength & Conditioning Staff for putting on such a wonderful clinic!

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