Jan 29, 2015
A Primary Focus

By Rich Jacobs, MS, SCCC, CSCS

A common trend for strength and conditioning coaches in college athletics is specializing in a particular sport and working primarily with one team. As competition continues to become fiercer, coaches are always looking for an edge to win, and one of their first requests is to have their own strength coach to help push their team to the next level. This trend is great for creating new jobs and helps solidify the importance of having a strength coach. But what are the trade-offs when a strength coach spends most of their time with one team?

Specializing in a sport has many advantages and challenges. Although the day-to-day operation may not be as stressful as a strength coach with five to ten teams, there are other pressures that come with training a single team. Therefore, philosophy and tactics may have to be modified compared to past experiences working with a large number of athletes. At the University of Florida, my primary focus is working with the women’s basketball team. However, my responsibilities also include helping out with our national champion women’s tennis team and highly ranked golf team.

Advantages of working primarily with one team include the ability to personalize training needs, which result in greater gains. If you are a strength coach working with 100 athletes from five different teams, the probability of you designing an individual workout for each athlete based on their performance and injury needs is near zero. Even though designing specific workouts for 100 athletes is a great plan, it is an unreasonable option. You are basically in a M.A.S.H. unit trying to get kids through effectively and efficiently.

If you have only one team as your main focus, more individual attention becomes very realistic, and both athletes and coaches appreciate it greatly. Athletes are more likely to see improved performance and increased strength and power gains, while coaches feel there is a higher level of dedication to their program.

Since arriving at Florida, I have been able to train the women’s basketball program more efficiently by dividing them into small groups. I use our interns to assist in training the women, which results in a one-on-one training opportunity for the athletes. As most coaches know, athletes will work harder with someone taking them through compared to a single coach running the room. As a result, we have seen many of those athletes dropping fat mass and gaining lean tissue to levels that the team has never experienced, and all of the girls are lifting weights they have never used before.

My mentor, Tim “Red” Wakeham, taught me a very obvious lesson. Giving athletes perceived competence and control will motivate them to work harder for the leader. Given my current environment, I exploited this by soliciting input from athletes and finding out what they feel is needed to improve their individual performance.

This method may not be the best option for some strength coaches because it is giving the athlete a lot of control. Remember that the strength coach is designing the workout and thus the philosophy will not change. However, if the athlete feels that your program is designed for them specifically and they had input, the chances of that athlete “buying in” is much greater. This “buy in” is like paying it forward by allowing the coach to easily implement new philosophies in the future. As a result, I have had total commitment by the basketball team from strength training to the rigorous conditioning sessions that were implemented.

There are always disadvantages–or challenges as I like to call them–when working with primarily one team. For example, there is less variety in program design and personalities. Designing and implementing programs for many different sports can be very engaging and add variety to the day-to-day flow. This piece is obviously missing when dedicated to one or two teams.

My limited time spent training our women’s tennis team and women’s golf team adds some variety. However, the level of responsibility outside of strength and conditioning is much less when compared to basketball. Like most basketball strength coaches, I travel with the team and attend all practices, amongst other responsibilities. The same is not true with our tennis and golf teams. To add training variety to my day-to-day routine, I have implemented the same training strategies for basketball to tennis and golf by individualizing programs.

Another minor disadvantage is if you enjoy working with both males and females. By specializing with primarily one team, you may be limited to one or the other depending on how the program is structured. Currently I focus on the women’s side of basketball, tennis, and golf, and at times I do miss the differences in personalities that I get when working with men.

In previous articles, I have talked about partner coaching as an aspect to fuel the environment. When training small groups, that aspect is not as influential because there are only three or four athletes training at a time. The athletes are still required to coach each other, but the effect is not as intense compared to having twelve athletes yelling at one another. The trade-off is the results gained as explained earlier, so I am willing to sacrifice that aspect of my philosophy.

A disadvantage that carries more impact is more responsibility and risk being tied in with one sport. If the team is unsuccessful and the coaching staff is fired, there is a possibility the strength coach will be following them out the door as well. This is very true with basketball in many cases. However, you are also a part of the successes. So, it can be a matter of risks versus rewards because the rewards can be great!

No matter which path is taken, working with a single team or many, the journey is great and there are always advantages and disadvantages. In the end, the result is the athletes have been helped by making them stronger and putting them in the best position to be successful.

Rich Jacobs, MS, SCCC, CSCS, is an Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach at the University of Florida where he works primarily with the women’s basketball team. He also works with the school’s women’s tennis and golf teams.

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