Jan 29, 2015Camping Season
A summer strength and conditioning camp can give high school athletes in all sports a constructive activity for their months off and a competitive edge for the coming year.
By Jeff Decker & Tim McClellan
Jeff Decker, MEd, CSCS, is Strength and Conditioning Coach at Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, Ariz. He can be reached at: [email protected]. Tim McClellan, MS, CSCS, is Director of Performance Enhancement for Makeplays.com and author of the book Inner Strength Inner Peace. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Mountain Pointe High School in the Tempe (Ariz.) Union High School District has enjoyed a tradition of achievement both academically and athletically since it first opened its doors in 1992. With 31 state championships, 26 state runner-up finishes, and 125 regional titles in less than two decades, the school has a lot to be proud of.
Last year, in an effort to continue this level of success, Principal Bruce Kipper adopted the mantra of the International Center for Education Leadership: “Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships.” For the athletic programs, this meant it would be a year of new ideas and expanding horizons.
Among the changes was a new head coach taking over the football program. Kipper and Athletic Director Ian Moses wanted an experienced coach with a proven track record in all aspects of coaching who would also serve as an educational leader. They found Norris Vaughan, who brought with him a team-building philosophy that had achieved impressive success at other schools. Vaughan looked forward to turning around a program that had struggled through a 2-8 season the previous year, and a major part of his rebuilding philosophy involved a renewed emphasis on strength and conditioning.
As part of this renewal, we worked with him to create the 2009 Mountain Pointe High School Summer Strength and Conditioning Camp. Participating in a summer program is an outstanding way for high school athletes to gain a leg up in the coming year’s sports and to do something constructive during their time off. When planned properly, a summer strength camp can be productive, educational, and a lot of fun for everyone involved.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
For us, the first step in building a successful summer program was getting the school’s sport coaches on board with the new vision. We spent hours in intensive brainstorming sessions with the members of several sports’ coaching staffs, and feedback from these sessions was key to making the summer program as beneficial as possible for all types of athletes.
We also relied on the sport coaches to convince athletes to buy into summer workouts. They communicated their expectations to their teams before the end of the school year, and stressed the importance of personal accountability during a time when many high school students choose to take it easy.
Another early step was consulting with MPHS Team Physician Rodger McCoy, MD, who has worked with high-profile teams and programs including the Arizona Diamondbacks and Arizona State University. His knowledge of recent trends in injury prevention proved to be an invaluable resource to the program.
For example, Dr. McCoy told us we would decrease the athletes’ injury risk if the summer program stressed lower-body multi-planar exercises, such as diagonal lunges and multi-planar single-leg Romanian deadlifts. He also provided advice on advanced rehab protocols for individual athletes who were struggling with injuries, and recommended some specific strengthening exercises for high-priority areas, such as the glutes and vastus medialis obliques (VMO). Having input from a trusted medical professional was a key step in making our strength camp a success.
Many high school summer training programs have an “open gym” atmosphere–everyone doing their own thing, with little coordination or forethought. We wanted to create a much different experience for our athletes. Working together with sport coaches, we formulated seven specific objectives around which our camp would be built.
Injury prevention. There are countless exercises and workout philosophies that promise injury prevention benefits, some more credibly than others. We decided to identify a few specific areas in which high school athletes are most vulnerable to injury and dedicate time in each session to addressing them.
For example, to prevent shoulder injuries, particularly those involving the rotator cuff, each day’s workout contained external rotation and scapular stabilization and mobilization work. We used shoulder external rotations, Kelso rows with isometric shrug holding on an incline bench, and inverted rows using suspension straps.
To help prevent back injuries, our athletes performed innovative Swiss ball and Bosu ball exercises for spinal stabilization. Some of our favorites were single-arm chest pressing using a rotational component, push-ups on a Bosu ball, and push-ups using Swiss balls under the hands and feet.
One of the most dreaded injuries among high school athletes is an ACL tear. To help protect this important ligament and strengthen the surrounding musculature, we used exercises such as single-leg Romanian deadlifts, Nordic leg curls, glute/ham raises, and rotational lunges in different planes. For hip mobility and balance development, the athletes did rotational touches using 10-pound weights and RDLs on an unstable surface, such as a Dyna Disc or an Airex pad. To teach landing in an athletic and ACL-safe position, which is especially important for female athletes, we employed low box depth jumps with a static hold in the landing position.
Rehabilitation. For athletes who were recovering from injuries, we took a highly individualized approach in designing their workout regimens. When necessary, we consulted their personal physician or physical therapist, along with the school’s athletic training staff, to determine the best possible systematic progression. Rehabbing athletes are often very eager to dive back into normal training habits, particularly when working alongside healthy teammates, so it’s essential to structure their workouts to gradually increase the difficulty and account for any limitations they may have.
Lean body mass. We wanted camp participants to get the boost in confidence that comes from visible muscle growth, so part of our strength training protocol involved bodybuilding exercises. But we wanted hypertrophy that was much more than aesthetic–it needed to be as functional as possible, so it would translate into sport-specific force production when the athletes began their team seasons.
To achieve both those goals, we placed a great emphasis on multi-joint, total-body strength and power exercises. We relied heavily on staples such as squats, bench presses, and deadlifts. Hang cleans and power shrugs were used to promote triple extension and explosiveness, and the push press was incorporated to develop upper-body and vertical explosiveness.
Power. Strength has limited value if it’s not accompanied by explosive power, so we incorporated a variety of horizontal and vertical plyometric exercises in different planes. These included lateral hops with resistance and assistance cords, box jumps at differing heights, lateral and single-leg hops over agility bags, slide board exercises, and progression hops using a rope at varying heights. We also prioritized explosive lifts such as cleans, high pulls, power shrugs, and dumbbell squat jumps. These are excellent choices for increasing the rate of force production, which translates directly into improved performance in most sports.
Functional movement. While the major focus of our summer training was to build a foundation of strength, power, and fitness that athletes could further develop as their sport seasons approached, we also included some sport-specific functional activities. Using resisted cord drills, assisted cord movements, slideboard work, and multi-planar movements, we attempted to mimic the joint angles, rotations, accelerations, decelerations, and other demands inherent in each athlete’s sport.
Mental training. An overall philosophy of challenging athletes to meet higher and higher expectations governed all camp activities. The coaches and strength personnel reinforced this message on a daily basis, establishing a set of guidelines for action and effort in each task and using different motivational strategies to reach individual athletes when necessary.
Cutting corners was never allowed–we required the athletes to start all drills fully behind the starting lines and to finish past (not at) the finish lines. Rewards were given to the winners of competitive drills, which helped instill a “competitor’s heart” in our camp participants.
Fun! While our goals were serious, we also wanted the athletes to enjoy themselves at our strength camp–this was, after all, their summer vacation. We scheduled many team-building drills, from competitive relay races to various forms of tag and other games. Activities like these are great motivators–especially when there are rewards for winning and consequences for losing.
Winners received things like first dibs on getting water, which is more valuable than gold on an Arizona summer day. None of the consequences for losers were severe–they’d do a few push- ups or extra reps of an exercise–but high school athletes almost always work harder when something is “on the line.” Plus, simple games like tag help develop important skills such as fast change of direction and reactive quickness in pursuit. We sometimes added an extra challenge by confining the five or six tag players to a 15-yard circle.
Before the first athlete set foot in our facility for the start of camp, we had hammered out everything from the number of days per week each sport would train to the time each team would commit per workout. Attention to a few specific details helped us make sure the camp would be memorable for everyone involved.
We solicited the manager of a local nutritional supplement company and he offered to support the program by providing T-shirts for all the participants–his logo appeared on the back, and we designed a camp logo for the front. This allowed us to provide a nice perk for the athletes and a way they could proudly show off what they did over the summer, without adding any cost to the program.
In addition, through various connections we reached out to a few pro athletes living in the area and enticed them to train at the facility and help out with coaching and motivational talks. At various times during the camp we had Oakland Raiders quarterback Charlie Frye, Carolina Panthers long snapper J.J. Jansen, and New York Mets pitcher Pat Misch. J.J. turned out to be one of our biggest helpers–he would perform a lifting and running workout with a group of athletes, then stay an extra hour to help anyone who was interested in learning to long snap. Needless to say, interacting with pro athletes was an incredible experience for our high school kids.
Even if you don’t have access to pro athletes, special guests are a great way to add extra benefits to a summer strength camp. We invited Phoenix Police Sergeant Jim Cope, who also happens to be a former junior world champion powerlifter and world record holder in the deadlift, to speak to the athletes about commitment, teamwork, selflessness, and character. The athletes were highly receptive and clearly inspired–we could see a difference in their workout motivation after the talk.
As another added touch, to supplement the education athletes received at the camp itself, we organized an evening presentation covering basic sports nutrition. It was open to all students at the school, and because nutrition is an important topic for parents to understand, they were invited as well. We charged two dollars for admission, and donated the proceeds to the school’s general athletic fund.
The great strides we saw athletes making throughout the summer, along with the positive feedback we received from participants and coaches during and after the camp, made us proud of what we had created. But the best objective measure of our summer program came on the fields and courts in the 2009-10 athletic year.
Using football as our yardstick, the camp was a huge success. Bouncing back from its 2-8 record in 2008, the team finished the 2009 regular season at 10-0. While Coach Vaughan deserves much of the credit for that outstanding turnaround, I have no doubt our summer program helped the athletes immensely. Beyond the physical gains they made–which were many–the summer workouts also helped instill a culture of higher expectations, more consistent hard work, and new levels of dedication to team and individual progress.
There’s one more measure that shows how well our camp turned out. By the fall, when next summer was on the distant horizon, athletes were already coming to us to talk about reserving their spot in the camp for 2010.