Striking a Balance

November 2, 2018

 

How far is too far when it comes to pushing athletes in training? In this roundtable, five strength coaches discuss how to find the middle ground.

These days, strength coaches do much more than instruct athletes to lift weights and run sprints. In some programs, they also serve as the “culture coach.” In others, they take charge of developing mental toughness. Many have even added data analysis to their resumes.

But no matter how many roles strength coaches fill, one responsibility they all embrace is finding a balance with training—pushing players hard enough to make gains but not so far that they cause harm. If they don’t find this middle ground, the consequences can be severe.

“Head football coaches and strength coaches at every level have seen the rhabdomyolysis, heat illness, and sports conditioning-related student-athlete deaths all over the news in recent years,” says Justin Lovett, MS, CSCS, SCCC, PES, CES, Director of Football Strength and Conditioning at Purdue University. “Nearly all of us in the football coaching world and performance field have been touched by these unfortunate and tragic stories.”

Yet, these instances have heightened the level of awareness around player safety. “Some great coaches have made some bad mistakes over the last few years and garnered national media attention,” says John Garrish, MS, CSCS, RSCC, Director of Athletic Development and Performance at North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek, Fla. “The unfortunate circumstances and even more unfortunate outcomes have led to a new conversation in our profession about keeping our young men and women safe, especially under our watch.”

This roundtable furthers that discussion (See Our Panel below.) Five strength and conditioning experts from several levels of competition share how they walk the fine line between pushing players too hard and not hard enough.

 

 

OUR PANEL

Brett Crossland, MS, CSCS, SCCC, is Head Sports Performance Coach at Texas Woman’s University. Before TWU, Crossland was a Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the U.S. Army Special Forces.

John Garrish, MS, CSCS, RSCC, is the Director of Athletic Development and Performance at North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek, Fla. He is also a Region 1 Board Member for the National High School Strength Coaches Association.

Joe Lopez, CSCS, RSCC, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach and Health and Physical Education Department Chair at Pope John High School in Sparta, N.J. In addition, he serves as the New Jersey State Director for the NSCA and is a member of the NSCA High School Special Interest Group.

Justin Lovett, MS, CSCS, SCCC, PES, CES, is Director of Football Strength and Conditioning at Purdue University. He came to Purdue in 2016 after three seasons in a similar role at Western Kentucky University.

Rusty Whitt, MS, CSCS, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Texas Tech University football. He is a former Senior Special Forces Communication Sergeant in the 10th Special Forces Group for the U.S. Army.

 

What is your overall philosophy on achieving this training balance?

Garrish: It’s better to be cautious than overly ambitious. Think big picture—student-athletes have their entire lives ahead of them. You can do more harm than good in a day, but you will always do more good than harm in the long term with a progressive development program. The less pressure I put on an individual session, game outcome, or heat of the moment “lesson,” the clearer I’ll see the big picture and the further I’ll steer our students away from danger.

Whitt: We must mitigate risk during training of collegiate and high school athletes. Our training must mimic the stressors of the contest. Anything more than that in today’s environment will not be accepted.

Lovett: Evolving your training systems in an effort to keep players safe is not an option—it’s an absolute must. What a strength coach did five or 10 years ago to help their team win is irrelevant now because it’s a different time.

Lopez: It can be difficult, especially when sport coaches monitor what you do, and many of them grew up in a time where the “run until you puke” mentality was prevalent. Most sport coaches don’t understand energy systems and how they work, so part of my job is to inform and educate. As a CSCS, I tell them my programs are based in science and that the athletes will eventually get to where they need to be.

Crossland: We err on the side of reducing intensity as opposed to volume in order to maintain a proper training balance. Depending on the training cycle, we generally design our programs with a set amount of volume that we feel is necessary for the day. The intensity is very fluid, and we adjust it based on the needs and readiness of our athletes at any given time.

 

How do you decide when to push players more in training?

Lovett: Objectively, we collect data on bar speed, power output, and successfully completed sprint and conditioning times to determine if we can go harder. Depending on what week of training we are in, we will program in chances for players to blow the lid off of what we have scheduled. I want them to destroy the plan and still have a little left in the tank. If players do beat the workout, training intensities should be adjusted accordingly before the next lift or run.

Whitt: We keep detailed records of each player’s load on a weekly basis. If they are managing the assigned weights in their workout easily, we will boost their training maxes. Other signs we look for are consistent, large jumps in load moved week to week or completing assigned run times with ease.

Crossland: This decision is often based on the training session and training cycle goals. In addition, we take into account general fatigue from practice and academics.

At the beginning of each conditioning session, we put athletes through a routine warm-up that includes a sport-specific, 10- to 20-second hard effort. Individual performances of this task enable us to better identify any unplanned or excessive fatigue. If all signs indicate athletes will be able to handle and recover from a difficult training session, we push them as prescribed in our training plan. We generally use familiar exercises or conditioning drills when pushing athletes so they know the standard they are trying to beat.

Garrish: A tough area to navigate in training high school student-athletes is they often show signs that they can handle more. I could give one of our well-trained 17-year-old boys a workout that would take me a week to recover from, and he’d be back the next day asking for more. Athletes at this age are often malleable, receptive to coaching, and want to impress, so they’ll do just about anything you tell them and might not feel any ill effects—at least not now. Ask them again in 20 years, and you might get a different answer. When I keep the individual’s future in perspective, I tend to think with better clarity.

What are the signs that it’s time to reduce training intensity?

Garrish: Every morning, we check basic measures, such as resting heart rate, soreness, fatigue, illness, quality and quantity of sleep, emotional stress, hydration, and bodyweight. All but the student-athletes’ bodyweight is self-reported. There is the potential they miscalculate or misidentify a stressor, but young people have a pretty good grasp on how they feel nine times out of 10. If we see a high stressor, we’ll reduce that athlete’s workload for the day.

You also have to know which questions to ask. This requires creating a climate of trust and engagement that’s both inclusive and specific to your athletes. For example, I don’t need to know what a young lady’s favorite color of nail polish is, but if I show the interest to ask, my questions about her academic stress and hydration status are no longer a reach.

Similarly, if I ask a young student-athlete how they feel, usually they’ll respond, “Good,” and that’ll be that. But when I ask that same person how classes are going, they’ll quickly tell me how stressful their week is. A few more questions in, they’ll share something that’s going on at home. It’s important to remember that stress is stress, no matter who the individual is, how old he or she is, or what kind of stress is being applied.

Crossland: Feedback from the athletes is gathered with data from wellness questionnaires, heart rate variability scores, and responses to the warm-up. In addition, we consider input from the coaches or athletic trainers, then look for an abnormal amount of fatigue based off the prior training load. Plan as we may, it seems factors that are outside of our control tend to interfere with training most often—whether its travel, academic load, illness, or general stress.

Whitt: We certainly do not use overuse injuries as an indicator—you cannot get to that point. From a sports science perspective, we use velocity-based training and can determine a player’s status by bar speed and assigned load. If a player is moving weight slower than they have in the past, it’s an indicator that we need to switch things up.

Lovett: Our strength staff and athletic trainers take a proactive approach by subjectively evaluating and observing breathing, rate of recovery, exercise technique, efficiency of movement, and body language in our athletes to get in front of any potential problems that may arise. We operate within the law of diminishing returns. That means if an athlete reaches a point where each continued rep or set elicits a worsening technique or increases the risk of injury, it’s time to lighten the load or simply shut the workout down.

Lopez: Being at a high school, I have very little time and a limited budget. I wish I had access to things like Tendo units, GPS systems, and heart rate monitors, but without concrete data from those tools, I have to use my experience and my coach’s eye.

If the athletes are generally happy and talkative during a warm-up, I know their energy levels are where I want them to be. But if I sense a dead atmosphere where players aren’t talking or paying attention to the details, I know I need to adjust the training session. Other signs that it might be time for a break include athletes skipping steps in the weightroom, asking a lot of questions about the training session, or asking if they can foam roll or stretch. To adjust, instead of the planned lift, I might work on mobility or give them options for volume.

For example, I might say we are doing five sets of five reps on back squats. If players feel good, they can go for all five sets. If their bodies are stiff, they can stop at three sets. Giving the athletes options lets them know you have their best interests in mind.

How do you account for individual tolerances among athletes?

Lovett: Meet them where they are. We do not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach, so we give everyone what they need as an individual. Some athletes may enter training camp needing only conditioning, while others may come in at a lower training age and require more motor skill development, kinesthetic awareness, and/or strength and power.

Garrish: We auto-regulate our training volume and allow for a great amount of autonomy in the weightroom. Athletes are provided a “rep-range zone” to shoot for rather than a predetermined set and rep percentage system. If a student-athlete reports alarming stress levels or worrisome biomarkers, a coach should find a way to “back off” without alienating the individual or disrupting the group session.

The important thing when working with a team is to focus on trends. It can be a real challenge to customize every single student-athlete’s session day after day based on what they’ve reported. Instead, we ask questions, retrieve data, identify trends, and make general training adjustments according to what we find.

What about when working with athletes for the first time?

Lovett: We start early-enrollee freshmen and transfers with basic teaching progressions during the first few weeks of weightroom and field work. Then, we slowly acclimate them to our volume and pace over the next five to six weeks before introducing them to our veteran lift and run groups. This approach gives our staff time to learn about each newcomer without having to focus on veterans within the same workout. It also helps us avoid assumptions that can place inappropriate expectations on an athlete based on unfair or biased comparisons.

Whitt: We break our players into three training groups—rookie, mid-level, and advanced. Rookies will not run the same volume as advanced athletes at the beginning of a training period. Instead, we conduct a three-to-four week acclimatization period to account for their tolerances. Plus, we get a full rundown of each player’s medical history. If someone has a medical issue—such as sickle cell trait, a previous heat-related illness, or they are returning from an injury—they run under the supervision of our athletic training staff.

When resuming workouts after a period of inactivity, how do you ensure players progress safely?

Whitt: We find the right balance by organizing, planning, and using periodization to devise and implement our program, realizing that we will initially be dealing with untrained and detrained athletes. So, in a seven-week offseason or preseason training program, we determine where players should be by week seven and plan backwards. The “push” occurs gradually, but noticeably, in weeks four through seven. At this point, the athletes have had proper acclimatization time and can handle the various stressors without issues.

Lopez: By constantly monitoring volume and rest. I have a stopwatch with me at all times, and I track how long an activity lasts and how much rest players get. I also only aim for about a 10 percent increase in volume per week.

Garrish: We implement an adaptation period that involves a somewhat recapitulated progression through our fundamental movements. This enables us to hone in on technique while still training under significant volume.

Do you think attitudes are changing about “run until you puke” or other similarly styled workouts? If so, why?

Lovett: I would sure hope so. Even 10 or 12 years ago, if your program wasn’t piling up two hours in the weightroom and 3,000 to 6,000 yards of field conditioning each day, it was considered too easy or soft. Those types of programs still exist now but to a much lesser extent.

Whitt: Absolutely. A major reason for this is the advancements in technology and education that have reached collegiate and high school conditioning professionals. Most strength coaches and athletic trainers know that heat casualties and other complications occur early in a training cycle, so you just have to use common sense. The players do not have to be game ready week one, day one.

For instance, wide receivers in the Big 12 Conference must be prepared to run 21 miles per hour for three-and-a-half hours in a game. The training to get to this point must be intense and will be difficult. However, if you use a solid periodization plan, you can get them ready without the “ambush” workout that may have been prevalent in the past.

Garrish: I believe so. In addition to the safety concerns, we have empirical research that shows “run until you puke” and “no pain, no gain” are inefficient training strategies to enhance performance. There’s a wealth of evidence that more is not necessarily better, and there are more formidable ways to train and develop athletes’ systems without pushing them to the edge.

Crossland: I definitely think attitudes are changing in regard to that style of workouts, especially at higher levels of competition. We as coaches should always have the athletes’ best interest at heart when making training decisions.

Plus, those types of workouts often use conditioning as punishment, which seems contradictory to many of the goals and results that we are trying to achieve. Conditioning should be a means for athletes to perform their sport at a high level, and when it becomes punishment, they are less likely to be invested in developing consistent habits.

What should strength coaches know about rhabdomyolysis?

Lovett: It can occur quickly, within the first 20 to 30 minutes of very intense work. But symptoms may not present until the next day. For this reason, strength coaches or athletic trainers should check in with athletes to see how they are feeling later in the day after hard sessions or before the next workout. This is especially important when following up with younger or newer athletes who may have struggled during the training. It’s also important for strength coaches to know that genetics, prescribed medications, heat and humidity, hydration status, and current training state can all be contributing factors.

Exercise-induced rhabdo should scare any strength coach, which is why it’s better to err on the side of “less is more” rather than doing too much too soon. There is no shame in leaving performance gains on the table for your athletes to achieve in the next training session.

Whitt: Coaches should know that a player developing rhabdo is a career-altering event for both the athlete and the coach. You can control whether or not players get that condition by how you organize the initial weeks of training following a period of inactivity. On the other hand, players must be educated on how to avoid rhabdo with proper hydration, nutrition, and staying in shape.

Garrish: Rhabdo can easily be prevented. Typically, it occurs after a session that goes “off script,” whether it’s for the sake of discipline or “mental toughness.” Workouts like these can be dangerous because coaches haven’t thought through the repercussions of the session’s increased training intensity or duration, nor did they modify previous sessions to account for it.

How would you advise other strength coaches on finding a balance with training?

Lovett: Stay in the moment. Try not to plan too many specifics too far ahead of your current week. For years, I planned out entire offseason and in-season cycles, then adjusted them as I saw fit. But by doing this, I found that there were times we inadvertently forced the program in the wrong direction. By staying in the moment, coaches can truly evaluate how players are responding to coaching and what results are being produced by current progressions. The team should tell you where they need to go and at what rate, not the other way around.

Lopez: Have a practice plan each day rather than just winging it. When you wing it, you are more likely to react emotionally during conditioning drills if the athletes are not giving the effort needed.

One of my favorite sayings is: “Anyone can make you tired. A good coach will make you better.” It is so easy to just run athletes forever—you don’t need any credentials for that. However, under that kind of volume, players become severely fatigued, so all you are doing is getting them used to running slowly.

Garrish: Make a plan and stick to it. The minimal effective dosage will suffice for high school student-athletes. Prepare them for the stresses of their sport and avoid applying any stimulus that’s intended for any other purpose.

Additionally, always have open communication with athletes, which requires building trust throughout their career. They need to be able to tell you when something’s not right, and we need to be able to listen.

This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of Training & Conditioning.

 

Sidebar:

LEARNING EXPERIENCE

In August 2016, eight volleyball players at Texas Woman’s University received treatment for rhabdomyolysis following a preseason fitness test designed by an assistant volleyball coach. According to the investigation report of the incident, the workout included a total of 45 burpees, 60 squat jumps, and 75 triceps push-ups.

Current TWU Head Sports Performance Coach Brett Crossland, MS, CSCS, SCCC, was a graduate assistant strength coach for the school at the time. Prior to the session, he expressed concerns to the assistant coach about the intensity of the training.

Looking back, although Crossland didn’t plan or supervise the workout, the experience left an impact on him. “This was a huge learning experience individually, as well as for our student-athletes in every sport,” Crossland explains. “The main things I learned were to pay close attention to the athletes’ training status, have a systematic incremental plan for athletes returning from a break, and take special caution when using unfamiliar training modalities.”

Crossland encourages other strength coaches to speak up when a sport coach designs a potentially detrimental workout. “I would advise all strength coaches to trust their instincts and knowledge,” he says. “Do everything you can to communicate the potential dangers of pushing athletes too far. In situations like this, I feel it is better to err on the side of caution than risk the health of student-athletes.

“Know that rhabdo is a very real possibility if certain training factors are not taken into careful consideration,” Crossland continues. “Rhabdo has real physical and mental effects on your athletes and can be very harmful to your program.”