Jan 29, 2015Dominating the Competition
The football off-season at Valdosta State University isn’t just about physical development. It’s also about teaching athletes how to be competitors.
By Michael Doscher
Michael Doscher, MS, CSCS-CP, MSCC, SCCC, has been the Head Speed/Strength and Conditioning Coach at Valdosta State University for 15 years, where he is also an Instructor in the school’s Kinesiology and Physical Education departments. He can be reached at: [email protected].
The off-season. This is the time for strength coaches to build the foundation of next year’s team. No matter how the previous season ended, the slate is wiped clean and we concentrate on setting the players up to perform even better next year.
The athletes are challenged physically by the strength and conditioning staff and team coaches. We also look for strengths and weaknesses–and figure out how to improve both. A lot of coaches even hold boot camp-style training sessions to set a tone that demands hard work.
Here at Valdosta State University, I like to add one more thing to our football team’s off-season to-do list: develop competitiveness. Any strength coach can make athletes bigger, faster, and stronger, but our job descriptions don’t need to stop there. Does gaining a physical edge matter if the athletes don’t know how to compete while handling the stresses of competition?
I’ve seen a lot of great players and teams not live up to their true potential due to an inability to compete under pressure. I’d rather not have that happen on my watch so I’ve made competition a big focus of our team’s off-season strength program. Stoking a competitive fire in training drills and games builds confidence and prepares athletes for future success. It also adds a little more fun to off-season workouts.
There are many ways a strength coach can inject competition into a traditional training plan. For example, early on in the off-season, our athletes compete in head-to-head competitions and then separate into position groups or as offense and defense for team competitions. After spring ball is over, we continue using these formats, but the entire squad also separates into small groups for team-wide competitive drills to keep the juices flowing strong the last six weeks of the semester. Here’s a breakdown of the different structures we use:
Head-to-head. Twice a week at the end of the team lifting session, I select an exercise and let the athletes challenge each other in a race or conditioning drill. The player who loses has to “pay” the athlete who won. For example, a set of 25 burpees is often used as a method of payment. These competitions only take a few minutes, and are a fun way to end our sessions.
In this type of setting, I use competitions like who can do the most pushups or pull-ups in a set amount of time, or who can hold a plank or wall sit the longest. Any type of agility drill or sprint that can be completed side by side also works well when matching up two athletes.
The head-to-head format allows you to see whether there are certain athletes who seek out a teammate they know they can beat, as well as which athletes choose to challenge a teammate who might be faster or stronger in hopes of seeing how they stack up. These competitions reveal the different types of athletes you have on the team and if you might need to push or challenge some of them individually.
Since my goal is to bring out the inner competitiveness of the athletes, I challenge those who need it by not hesitating to match players up. If I see that one athlete is constantly challenging his weaker teammates, I’ll pair him up with someone stronger than he is to see how he’ll perform when he is the underdog.
Position vs. position. For these matchups, we follow the same format as above. One position group calls out another, then the athletes are paired off and go head-to-head. Each two-person competition is tallied as a win or loss and the position group with the most wins gets to watch their competitors perform burpees. It takes a little longer to tally everything up, but these competitions generally take less than 10 minutes.
We’ve also tweaked this format a bit so that instead of facing off in pairs, players compete as a large group and the last man standing wins it for their position. Another option is to hold an obstacle course race, then combine everybody’s times and whichever position group has the fastest total time wins.
This type of competition allows you to see which position is the most competitive and which groups of athletes are good at motivating each other to perform–and which are not. It’s also a great way to develop leaders and build cohesiveness within position groups.
Offense vs. defense. Similar to position vs. position competitions, these are group challenges, so any type of head-to-head drill or exercise works, as do various games. Strongman competitions are fun alternatives with a group of this size. For these games, I allow for up to half an hour of time at the end of our lifting sessions. The most important thing is to remind the athletes that it is the team that wins or loses, not an individual.
I’ve found that this type of competition fosters pride and creates a sense of identity for the offensive and defensive units. Bonded units are those that know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and can pull together to overcome adversity. These drills also spotlight natural leaders. I allow the upperclassmen to pick who will compete against whom if it’s a head-to-head competition, and watch to see how they organize their teammates in a team game.
Sub teams. The final type of contest we use involves splitting the team up into random groups of 10 to 12 players. There is no offensive and defensive identity, and no position versus another.
I set aside one day a week as our competition day. It’s part of our regular conditioning program and classified as a recovery day. So if the team is training on a four-day split schedule of Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, then Wednesday will be our competition day. If we’re on a three-day split with work on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, then either Tuesday or Thursday will be the competition day.
This format builds team unity across position lines. It also highlights true leaders who have the ability to lead large groups of players with different personalities. Closer to the start of the season, it’s invaluable for the coaching staff to be able to see what each athlete thinks of his teammates. Who do they respect? How do they respond when a fellow teammate is telling them what to do? When it’s crunch time in the first game of the season and the head coach has to call a play, they will know who they can count on to lead the way and execute their plan.
I’ve been tweaking our sub team competitions for many years, and there are lots of different options for personalization, depending on the size of the team you’re working with and your facility and equipment. Here is how I do things, along with some possible modifications:
Competition games. You can make just about anything work. We’ve done various strongman events, a 225-pound chest press rep test, sprints, an obstacle course, individual or team tug of war, towel wrestling, relay races, a steeple chase, wheel barrow race, and even dodge ball.
I try to pick events that cater to all types of athletes. If we’re always sprinting, the running backs definitely have a huge advantage over the offensive line. And if we’re always doing a strongman competition like a van push, the tables are turned.
Size of teams. This is largely dependent on the number of players on the squad. We generally have anywhere from six to 10 teams made up of 10 to 12 players. I’ve found this size to be pretty manageable. With larger teams, head-to-head heats can turn into a marathon. And if the teams are too small, you won’t have the option to play some group games like ultimate Frisbee.
Team captains. Each sub team is assigned two captains–one offensive and one defensive player. Athletes who were team captains in the fall are automatically sub team captains for our off-season competitions. And to fill the remaining spots, the sport coaches and strength and conditioning staff chooses players we think show good leadership skills.
We look for players who hold themselves accountable, are competitive, show initiative, are good all-around athletes, and are respected by their peers. We take seniority into account, but also look at underclassmen who have the ability to be groomed into leaders.
Captains play a big role in our team competitions. They are in charge of pretty much everything, including taking attendance, deciding who will compete against whom in the various events, and acting as the team spokesperson. They are expected to coach their team while also competing. It’s made clear early on that the captains are the leaders and the rest of the players are expected to listen and fall in place behind them.
Picking teams. We hold a draft to choose teams. It quickly becomes very obvious what the players all think of each other. As the teams grow and the athletes discuss who they’re going to pick next, you can see who really wants to win and who just wants to pick their friends for their team. To keep things fair, the coaching staff does not tell the captains what the events will be ahead of time.
Keeping score. You certainly don’t have to keep score, but I’ve found that doing so is an extra motivator for the athletes to compete hard the entire time. I also keep score during the entire off-season, not just the final six weeks when we’ve introduced the sub team competitions.
I set it up so each event is worth a certain number of points. Each head-to-head challenge might be worth 10 points, and a team competition might be worth 100 points for the win, while the second place team gets 80, third gets 60, and so on. Or if you’re playing a tournament-style game like ultimate Frisbee, you could use a bracket system and award points to the top 10 finishers.
I keep a scoreboard displayed in the weightroom, and the winning teams and individuals get their pictures on the wall and take home various prizes like a team T-shirt or wind suit. And of course, they get bragging rights.
A final idea is to carry the competition over to other aspects of the program. For example, a team might score bonus points for doing community service. And to make things really interesting, you can add in deductions when an athlete misses a class, training session, or competition day, or breaks a team rule.
I have seen some amazing things happen during our competition days, including physically weaker athletes beating stronger teammates, underclassmen beating upperclassmen, and units coming together to pull off a huge comeback win. These examples reinforce to me how important breeding competitiveness really is. The resulting team cohesiveness and desire to win is a combination that can’t be beat.