Dual Threat

April 22, 2015

At Mississippi State University, an offseason focused on both physical and mental preparation primed the football team for a record-setting 2014 campaign.

The following article appears in the April 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.

By Rick Court

Rick Court, MS, SCCC, is Head Football Strength and Conditioning Coach at Mississippi State University. He can be reached at: RCourt@athletics.msstate.edu.

Anyone watching an offseason workout of the Mississippi State University football team last year would have noticed frequent mention of “juice.” The word was stamped on the backs of the players’ shirts, and strength coaches typically greeted athletes with, “Are you juiced up and ready to go?”

The coaches weren’t referring to the pickle juice players drank after a long conditioning session in the hot Mississippi sun, and they certainly weren’t talking about any kind of illicit performance enhancement. For us, juice means energy, and it’s the lifeblood of our offseason training program.

When you’re new to a team, you never know how your program will be accepted. But since I became Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Mississippi State football in January 2014, the juice has been flowing. From day one, the football players have wholeheartedly bought in and taken ownership of the offseason training regimen. In addition, I am fortunate to work with a great head coach in Dan Mullen and an administration that fully supports what I’m trying to accomplish with the team.

My first offseason with the Bulldogs was high-energy and high-intensity. We hit the ground running in the winter by preaching toughness, accountability, and competitiveness and carried that momentum through to spring ball and training camp.

Our offseason strength and conditioning program is simple, yet effective. Like many programs, we address the whole body with our lifts and emphasize speed in our conditioning work. Where we differ from others, however, is in the details. We demand precise execution in all movements and pay close attention to each athlete’s individual needs in the weightroom. This attention to detail goes a long way when it comes to making gains.

By the time the 2014 campaign rolled around, the players were juiced up and firing on all cylinders. As a result, the team had its best season ever. Its 10 wins tied a program record, and the Bulldogs spent five weeks ranked number one in the country. With another offseason like the one we had last year, I see no reason why the team can’t reach even higher in 2015.

CORE PRINCIPLES

The goal of Mississippi State’s offseason strength and conditioning program is standard: to physically and mentally prepare the players for the upcoming season. Of course, there are many different ways to accomplish this. While work in the weightroom is crucial, I felt it was important to start my first offseason as a Bulldog by defining my philosophy. I established five attributes as the foundation for what we wanted to accomplish—attitude, effort, accountability, toughness, and performance—and instilled them on a daily basis.

Our weightroom at Mississippi State features a giant board with “Bulldog Strength and Conditioning” etched across the top. Each player’s name runs along the side of the board, and there are five columns to reflect our program attributes. The players receive a score in each of these columns on a weekly basis, depending on how well they meet our standards.

This assessment feeds a program-wide competition that runs the duration of the offseason. Players are split into teams and gain or lose points based on their actions and behavior in and out of the weightroom. (See “Fueling the Fire” below to learn more about the competition.) Here’s a closer look at our five attributes and how we evaluate each one:

Attitude: Next to the Bulldog Strength and Conditioning board is a separate board dedicated exclusively to attitude. It also lists every player’s name but has different column headers: Committed, Compliant, and Resistant.

On Mondays, everyone starts as Compliant. During the week, my staff and I take daily notes on players’ attitudes in the weightroom and meet on Fridays to re-categorize them. To be classified as Committed, an individual must have gone above and beyond what was expected of him that week. Athletes stay at Compliant when they do what the strength staff asks but nothing more. And a player will move down to Resistant if he lets a bad day affect him in the weightroom.

If an athlete moves up to Committed, he earns a point for his team. If he drops down to Resistant, his team loses a point. Those who stay at Compliant neither gain nor lose points.

When our strength staff decides to move a player up or down, we do so for specific reasons. We then provide the player with examples of his behavior so he understands what caused his new standing.

Effort: This has nothing to do with talent. Even the best player on a team must be constantly trying to improve.

We get players to put forth effort by being honest about what we see from them on a daily basis. At the end of team meetings, Coach Mullen always asks me if I have anything to add. If I noticed a specific player giving 100 percent that day, I’ll mention it. Similarly, if someone has been slacking off in his training, I’ll say so. This way, his teammates know, so they can lift him up and help him improve the following week.

Accountability: We hold our players to high standards. The strength staff expects them to take ownership of the offseason program and evaluate their performance daily by asking themselves:

• Am I identifying my weaknesses and turning them into strengths?

• Am I determined to improve?

• Am I embracing the process, being coachable, and getting help when I need it?

• Am I exhausting all the resources provided to me?

• Do I have a daily plan of attack in all that I do?

• Am I making the sacrifices to be the best?

• Am I staying disciplined?

• Am I giving everything I have to increase my value to the team?

The players have plenty of opportunities to answer these questions, both to themselves and us. For instance, we hold extra offseason workouts on Saturdays where players can complete additional conditioning, mixed martial arts, and flexibility work.

Players gain or lose points for their team depending on whether or not they are being accountable. For example, they can earn points for receiving extra treatment in the athletic training room. But they get docked points for offenses like being late for lifts or treatment. Points are also deducted for errors in execution, such as knocking down a cone during a drill or missing a line during sprints.

Toughness: We emphasize both physical and mental toughness in our offseason program, in part by coaching the players very hard. In almost every workout, there comes a time when the athletes are pushed to the limit physically and mentally, but we still ask for more. We challenge them to drive through that difficult rep or set with perfect form, no matter how tired they are. That’s what will take the athlete to a higher level.

Our approach backs the athletes into a figurative corner. At that point, they have to make a decision: fight or flight. The players who push themselves to fight through adversity are the ones who thrive in our program.

Performance: I’m a big proponent of having the athletes see the results of their offseason training. It helps with buy-in when players know their hard work is paying off. We take pictures of the athletes at the beginning of our winter session and at the end of the summer so they can see their physical transformation. In addition, we measure their arm and neck circumference every six weeks to provide more regular updates on their progress.

We’re also quick to reward improved performance. Often, we’ll ask the players to do as many reps as they can during the last set of an exercise. If the last set calls for three reps and an athlete does four or more, he earns a point for his team.

BUILDING STRENGTH

The basic tenets of our offseason strength program aren’t very complicated. We take a comprehensive total-body approach and place a premium on developing strength, power, and explosiveness. In all of our lifts, we emphasize precise repetition execution to ensure all players perform each exercise at the highest level every time.

Our offseason strength training program alternates between four-day and three-day weekly splits. This is done to help keep things fresh. The offseason is long, and players can lose focus if they do identical workouts for several months.

During our four-day split, we tackle upper-body training on Mondays and Thursdays with a mix of pushing and pulling motions. We also emphasize building players’ hand and grip strength, which is important for securing the football, tackling, and setting a good block. On Tuesdays and Fridays, we do lower-body training, highlighted by squats and trap bar dead lifts. During three-day splits, we complete a total body lift on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. (See “Training Trio” below for a sample three-day split schedule.)

Exercises in our strength program are easy to perform and allow players to see improvement, such as bench press variations, shrugs, trap bar dead lifts, squats, hip presses, pull-ups, rows, and pulldowns. We keep detailed progress reports on these lifts throughout the year to build our athletes’ confidence. Many players are novice weightlifters when they join our program. As they move through the offseason, it gives them a boost to see themselves getting stronger.

In the weightroom, we typically split our team into three to five groups per day, with between 15 to 30 players in each group. This breaks down to about five or six athletes for each of our full-time strength coaches. I insist on working with smaller groups during offseason lifts because it allows our strength coaches to have hands-on interactions with the players, train them hard, and tailor exercises to an individual’s needs. For example, a coach might modify an exercise based on an athlete’s injury history, year in the program, or level of development. This attention to detail is what separates our program from others.

Small groups in the weightroom also allow our strength coaches to establish each athlete’s load separately. We use one-rep percentages to determine the weights our players lift, but these numbers aren’t rigid. A strength coach must watch each set to make sure the weight is correct for that day. As the sets progress, coaches can increase or decrease the weight for the last set. Because our coaches are so in tune with every athlete and every lift, we can get the most out of them. Depending on how the athlete responds, we might adjust their percentages the following week.

When it comes to agility and conditioning work, we hold a “speed school” once a week during both four-day and three-day splits. We split the team up into eight groups, with Group 1 being the fastest and Group 8 the slowest. On agility days, each athlete matches up with a teammate from his position group, and the pairs compete through an agility circuit. A strength coach calls out who wins at each station, and players earn points for their team with each victory. We complete a “four quarters circuit” as a finisher on Fridays. The circuit is made up of battle ropes, ground-and-pound drills, low-box plyos, and bike sprints.

Fridays are a special day in our offseason plan. We call them the “Best Fridays in Football.” The workouts are very taxing, as we push the players to total exhaustion. It’s during these sessions that we pressure the players to live up to our program’s five attributes. To the strength coaches, these Friday sessions are the complete package of both mental and physical training.

FINAL PIECES

As crucial as our offseason strength and conditioning program was to the team’s success last fall, we wouldn’t have done as well without two significant offseason acquisitions. First, Mississippi State athletics hired a full-time Sports Dietitian, Kelly White, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, who made a significant impact on the football players.

Much of White’s influence could be seen in our post-practice nutrition. She set up a refueling table immediately after practices stocked with fresh fruit, pickles, pickle juice, fruit smoothies, and a variety of sports drink products. The players had to eat or drink from the table before they were allowed off the field. White also placed fueling stations in the locker room and weightroom to ensure players were properly hydrated and getting all the nutrients they needed to replenish their bodies.

Players who required additional nutritional support met with White during the week, and she occasionally accompanied them to training table meals. Since we’ve started working with White, the team’s issues with body composition and weight management have decreased.

Besides adding White to our program, the athletic department also hired Dan Jacobi, MA, ATC, to be our new Head Football Athletic Trainer. He made an impact from the start with the addition of pre-practice hydration testing using a refractometer.

Before every practice, our players had to check their hydration levels, and a colored magnet indicating their result was placed next to their name on a board in the locker room. Green magnets meant the player was hydrated, yellow was “caution” or slightly dehydrated, and red meant he was dehydrated, or what we called in the “danger zone.”

Jacobi and I gave final hydration readings to each position coach prior to each practice. They made sure that any player in yellow drank a sports drink, and that players in red had several, along with a salt tablet to help retain fluids.

The five attributes of our program, combined with our strength and conditioning work, pushed our players to be the best they could be, give relentless effort, do everything with a passion, and reach their potential every day. When a whole team comes together in the offseason to achieve these goals, positive results will follow, as they did during my first season at Mississippi State. If we can stick to this same formula in years to come, I believe our success on and off the field will continue.

 

SIDEBAR: FUELING THE FIRE

It can be a challenge to keep players motivated throughout a long offseason strength and conditioning program. For Mississippi State University football, we like to keep the athletes fired up with a team-wide offseason competition. During the first week of our winter session, our players vote for 10 leadership committee members. These athletes serve as captains of teams that will compete against each other.

The next week, we have a draft for teams. The leadership members are given a sheet on which the strength staff has scored each player on variables such as accountability, attitude, and performance. We try to give the leadership members as much information as possible going into the draft so they can have complete ownership of their picks.

Once the teams are chosen, a football coach is assigned to mentor each squad. This is designed so the coaches can coach more players, not just those in their position group.

Then, the competition begins. The strength staff scores a host of variables for each player. We keep track of daily and weekly point totals for each squad.

Every two weeks, we compile the points to calculate a winner and a loser. The winning team gets massages, while the losing team has to come in at 7 a.m. for a 30-minute metabolic workout.

 

SIDEBAR: TRAINING TRIO

Here is a sample three-day split from the Mississippi State University football team’s offseason strength
and conditioning program:

Monday  

Shrugs 5x5  

Rotator cuff pies x10  

Band face pull x10  

TRX strap “I” x10  

TRX strap “Y” x10  

Four-way neck x10 ea.  

Dead lift 5x5  

Pendulum SL seated squat 3x5  

Band hip flexion 2x15  

Incline bench press 4x4  

Pull-ups (weighted) 4x5  

Dumbbell hi incline 3x8  

Underhand pulldown 3x8 

Fat bar bicep curl 2x10  

Gripper x20  

Manual resistance ankle  

Calf x15  

Hand expand x30  

Power walk x12  

Log sit-ups 

Hay baler cleans

 

Wednesday

Shrugs 5x5

Rotator cuff pies x10

Band face pull x10

TRX strap “I” x10

Band side delt x10

Drop set neck 5x10

Pit shark belt squat 4x8

Box step-ups 3x5

Standing band hip flexion 2x12

Bench press 4x4

TRX strap row 3x10

Dumbbell low incline 3x8

Underhand pulldown 3x8

Fat bar bicep curl 3x10

Dips 3x10

Gripper x20

Wrist roller x3

Prowler drive

Calf x15

Speed incline

 

Friday

Back squat 4x4

Pendulum hip press 3x10

Box step-ups 3x5

Standing band hip flexion 2x12

Glute/ham 2x6

Romanian dead lift 2x6

Push-ups 4x15

Pull-ups 4x6

Weighted dips 3x10

Row machine 3x10

Four-way neck x10 ea.

Manual resistance ankle x12

Calf x15

FINISHER:

Battle ropes

Ground and pound x12

Low-box plyos

Manual resistance ankle

Board push

Sand pit

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