Jan 29, 2015Aiming Higher
When athletes are interested in using an outside facility for strength training, how should you respond?
By P.J. Gardner
P.J. Gardner, MS, ATC, CSCS, PES, is an Athletic Trainer and one of the strength coaches at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs, Colo. He has 25 years of experience designing and implementing resistance training programs for athletes and can be reached at: [email protected].
A high school volleyball player looking to make an elite club team, a college football player preparing for the NFL combine. A professional athlete working on specific areas that need improvement during their off-season. With a growing number of sports training facilities opening around the country, athletes in a variety of sports are becoming increasingly aware of how these centers can help them develop speed, agility, and power.
Both national franchises and smaller, privately owned centers have been marketing their services to youth, high school, collegiate, club, professional, and Olympic athletes for years. They generally offer research-based training programs created around specific sports, positions, and ages. And they all promise results.
So what should you say when an athlete asks you about using a local facility? If you are a school’s strength coach, you may immediately balk at the idea. If you are the athletic trainer and there is no strength coach at the school, you may quickly give the athlete the go-ahead. But in either scenario, you might want to give your response some deeper thought.
THE PLUS SIDE
If you or someone else serves as a school’s strength coach, why would an athlete even consider an outside facility? One reason is the facility may simply be better than the school’s because it can afford to be.
An athlete can often make greater gains at a newer facility that has more modern equipment their school may not have access to. In addition, professional facilities sometimes have an indoor turf area for conditioning work during the winter, while the school gymnasium is unavailable to off-season athletes due to basketball practices and games.
A lot of outside facilities also have great systems in place for monitoring progress, so athletes can see how they are improving. Few high schools and small colleges have access to electronic timing, vertical jump mats, or leg press units that measure torque, but this technology is commonplace at training facilities. Athletes can also use this equipment to easily compare their scores in the vertical jump, broad jump, T-drill, 40-yard run, and various lifts to age group norms and other local athletes who use the facility. Seeing that a rival team’s running back has a better 40-yard time can be a great motivator.
There is often better access to new programs at these facilities as well. Maybe vision training is an option, or one of the coaches is certified in a specialty area like kettlebells or suspension training. Some facilities even hold combines and sponsor select athletes who use their center.
Outside facilities also employ entire staffs to develop programming and coach athletes through workouts. When compared to a typical high school or small college, an outside facility can offer more personalized, individual attention during workouts–a plus for both performance gains and athlete safety.
Finally, it can be generally refreshing for athletes to get out of their usual routine and enjoy a change of scenery, both literally and by changing up their training methods. In the end, this results in reduced boredom and a fresh mental attitude.
Of course there are question marks. Will the coaches at the facility do a good job? How will the athletes respond to the coaches? Will the facility’s programming mesh with the school’s strength and conditioning program?
The first step to figuring out whether a facility is a good fit for your athletes is to find out more about how it operates. If there are several options in your area, check them all out so you can contrast and compare. Open houses can be a great way to learn about a facility, but any type of visit will do. The key is to focus on the following areas:
Take a close look at the facility. Is the equipment new or well maintained and regularly inspected? Are the free weights, plyo boxes, and platforms in good shape? Look at the bungee cords, resistance bands, and other pieces of specialized equipment for excessive wear, and ask how often they’re replaced. Make sure the treadmills are in good working condition and all safety features work properly.
In addition, look at the facility itself. Is there enough space between platforms and weight machines? If there is indoor turf, examine it for wear and tear. Some facilities use adjacent outside areas for running and/or agility drills. Be sure the surfaces are sufficient. If an entire team is considering going to the facility, make sure there’s enough room for everyone.
Observe a workout. Watch the warmup drills, order of exercises, rest periods, and cooldown to make sure they combine to make a sound and efficient session. Look to see if the athletes are getting good instruction and if they respond to the staff. Often, a free training session is offered. Take advantage of it to see how your athlete(s) respond to the staff and if it seems like a good fit.
Learn about the staff. You don’t want to turn your athletes over to anyone who has not shown they are competent in the principles of strength and conditioning, so inquire about their background and experience. While some facilities require their coaches to have certain education and/or credentials, some may not, so it is especially important to check this. At minimum, the facility’s coaches should each have an exercise physiology degree and certifications by the NSCA, NASM, and/or ACSM.
Finally, all staff members should carry some type of liability insurance. Most facilities require this, but it’s a good idea to double-check for your athletes’ sake.
Ask about overall program implementation. Find out about the different programs and training packages the facility offers. Look for overall training programs that last four to six weeks with the athlete training two to four days a week–two or three days for treadmill/speed work and one or two days for plyometric, agility, or resistance training.
If everything at the facility checks out, ask about teaming up. If they truly want to help develop athletes to their fullest potential, the coaches should be open to collaborating with you. There are several areas you can work together on:
Developing the training program. The programs at larger franchises are generally set and there isn’t a lot of room for discussion with the school strength coach about changing them. However, at smaller facilities that do not use pre-established programs, there may be more flexibility. Regardless of the situation, there is no harm in telling the facility’s coach about the athlete’s goals or his or her team’s goals.
In the end, program design is a big part of a professional facility’s business, and they will implement the programming they feel is best for the athlete(s). As long as staff members are educated and experienced in designing and implementing research-based training programs tailored to the specific energy systems and physical demands of a given sport, the program should be safe and effective.
Committing to ongoing communication. Ask the staff to call you or the athlete’s sport coach weekly to report progress and participation. You will want to know if your players are showing up or not, and you should get updates on the intensity and duration of workouts. You will also want to be alerted to any problems or concerns–especially any injuries that occur. Ongoing communication is also a key to avoiding overtraining (or undertraining) athletes.
Transitioning the athlete back to in-season practices and training sessions. Athletes usually go to an outside facility during the off-season, so when their program is close to its conclusion, you should work with the facility’s coach to make sure the transition is seamless. If you have established a rapport, you already know what the athlete has been doing. Ask the facility coach for their advice on the transition to in-season workouts.
I can tell you from personal experience that partnering with an outside facility can work. Although the programs here at our school are sound and effective, some athletes have made further gains in their speed and agility by using outside facilities. In all of my experiences, the facility coaches told me they wanted to work with me and our other coaches, not take our places.
Several of our girls’ lacrosse players have gone to a facility for individualized training help over the summers, and two of our teams have participated in team training sessions at a professional facility. For team training, a squad of 10 to 15 players can be trained all at once in about an hour, with two coaches running the workout and supervising.
After a full group warmup, a typical session has each athlete rotate through treadmill training at specific speeds and grades, while the rest of the athletes separate into groups to perform plyometric drills based on their playing position and age. There is also a strength training component, again based on position and age. Rest periods are monitored for efficiency and everyone gets through all of the stations in an hour.
I have also had the pleasure of assisting the staff at a facility here in Colorado Springs on a couple of occasions. When our football team partnered with an outside facility, the staff traveled to our campus for two mornings, and I was able to assist them in running a speed camp. Athletes were timed in the 10- and 40-yard runs and the T-drill. The staff also went over running mechanics and showed the coaching staff and players a variety of drills that would help them improve their speed.
Both of these examples were positive experiences for our athletes, sport coaches, and myself. We are fortunate to work with facilities that are willing to partner with us. The key to our success was doing our homework and making sure that maintaining effective communication was going to be a possibility ahead of time.
Sidebar: Cost Considerations
The cost of training at an outside facility is something a lot of athletic departments and parents wonder about. Individualized sport training packages generally vary from $400 to $750, depending on length and number of sessions. A team training package usually requires a minimum number of athletes, but typically costs less per athlete.
If you have athletes who are interested, get a specific quote from a local facility. Can they offer a great price for a full team? Would they be willing to give student-athletes who are economically disadvantaged a break? The facility may also give seasonal discounts to teams or individual athletes at various times of the year.
Sometimes the facility is willing to provide a free team training package if the school reciprocates in some way, possibly through advertising opportunities in its arena or game program. Or the facility’s staff could come to campus to do occasional training sessions as we have done here at my school. It’s convenient for the school teams and also helps the facility create some buzz about what they have to offer.