Jan 29, 2015
Focused for Football

At Washington State University, both mental and physical strength is taught during the team’s offseason training program.

By Rob Oviatt

Rob Oviatt, ME, SCCC, MSCC, is the Assistant Athletic Director of Physical Development at Washington State University and President of the Collegiate Strength & Conditioning Coaches Association.

Preparing athletes for the game of football is an exciting challenge for a strength and conditioning coach. In my mind, football is one of the toughest sports there is. It also involves the largest number of athletes we deal with, and the needs of players varies greatly among the different positions.

At Washington State University, we start with sound principles, develop efficient workout routines, and concentrate on mental toughness. We also insist that players work out in structured groups, just like they do during football practices.

In developing our program, we concentrate on what will best motivate our football athletes to work as hard as they can. To accomplish this, we appeal to their competitiveness and teamwork, and we work with them to develop and maintain focus during their lifting and conditioning routines.

Start With Principles

When designing a strength and conditioning program, it’s important to start with principles. Here are four important rules I keep in mind when developing our football strength training program.

Tap into correct energy systems: Be careful to develop the kind of energy football players use. The average time between plays on the field is approximately 35 seconds. In a “no huddle” offense, this can drop to 20 seconds. Your athletes must be trained to recover accordingly.

Except for players who need to lose body fat, there is little rationale for extended pure aerobic running. In excess, aerobic running can actually slow players down and compromise explosive power output.

Be sport specific: It’s best to practice the way you play, so during sprint drills, linemen should start in three- or four-point stances, receivers should be on their toes, and so on. In addition, your start cues should match those used in a game. For offensive players, a quarterback or coach should call out a snap count. For defensive players, a coach can station himself in front of the group and move his hand or a towel.

We also are sport-specific with regards to protective equipment. Because players will be carrying several pounds of equipment on their bodies with shoulder pads, hip pads, helmets, etc., we give them weighted vests to wear during conditioning drills. They begin with eight-pound vests and work up to 12-pound vests.

Be team specific: One of the factors we use in designing each year’s program is the depth of our team. When we have less depth, we put more emphasis on conditioning. This is especially important for defensive players, who are pursuing the ball on every play regardless of their position.

Motivation matters: The last principle is the most important, and that’s morale. I believe that it’s not really a matter of motivating people, as much as it is getting people to motivate themselves. This is the only way for individuals to sustain the desire to get better over the long haul.

Johnny Parker, Strength and Conditioning Coach of the San Francisco 49ers, whom I consider my mentor in this profession, taught me over 20 years ago at Ole Miss two things that will motivate young people to work hard. The first is caring: Your players must know you care about them as people, and that you are fair, consistent, and honest in dealing with them—no deals and no favorites! If players know you care about them, they will trust you. The second is results: Your players must see positive physical results from their training. When they do, they will believe in your program and philosophy.

The Workouts

In this section, I’ll describe our summer program, which provides workouts Monday through Friday and is voluntary. It is voluntary, as specified by NCAA rules.

Stretching: We start each day’s session with stretch and warm up, and the seniors in each group lead this activity. Stretches consist of reaches, slides, and hangs, and warm up includes strides, shuffles, high knees, and backpedaling. The whole routine takes about 15 minutes. Our number-one requirement for stretching is quiet. The day’s workout begins the minute we start stretching.

Strength: The strength program I design is basic and simple on paper. Our primary focus instead is on attitude, effort, and technique. (See “Summer Lifting”.)

Conditioning: The ability to sustain effort is critical both on the field and in the weightroom. Thus, we emphasize building work capacity in both areas. It doesn’t matter how strong or fast a player is if he can’t sustain that effort play after play.

Our summer conditioning program lasts eight weeks. We start Week One with five agility stations and add one station each week. In Weeks Four through Eight, we stay at eight stations, but add reps at each station. Players wear weighted vests after Week One.

Our program includes half-gassers, form runs, core work, plyometrics, quick-feet drills, balance drills, tempo 100s, and agility circuits. The core program, designed by WSU Associate Director of Physical Development David Lang, features many different drills, from crunches to supermans. Our agility circuit includes figure-eight sprints around hoops, pro agility shuttles, 45/90-degree plant and cuts, running ropes, four-square drills, triangle sprints, mirror drills, 60-yard shuttles, bag drills, and speed ladder.

After the main part of each conditioning workout, we have a daily overtime challenge. These challenges can include almost anything, but we typically use grass drills, gassers, or jingle-jangles. In order to simulate the unknowns facing players when a game goes into overtime, we never tell the athletes in advance what the activity will be or how long it will last. This also gives me the flexibility to make the overtime activity a little easier or harder should a session go particularly well or poorly.

On all agility and speed drills it is important to allow proper recovery time between stations. A common mistake I’ve seen and made is turning conditioning circuits into endurance workouts. Without full recovery, movements will slow down, compromising potential speed and quickness improvement. Remember, agility is simply controlled quickness.

Here is what our five-day summer schedule looks like:

Monday: On Mondays we start our first voluntary lifting group at 1:30 p.m., which is a time convenient to the greatest number of athletes. We are normally finished with our last group by 5 p.m.

The afternoon lifting session on Monday also allows some extra recovery time after the previous Friday’s early morning sessions. Having a three-plus day recovery window every week ensures the players’ bodies are rejuvenated and ready for the next week.

We then do our conditioning as an entire team at 5:30 p.m. Monday’s routine involves half-gassers, form runs, and an overtime challenge. Then, we also do core work on the field, followed by stretching and cooling down.

Tuesday: On this day (and also on Thursday and Friday), athletes work out in the early a.m. Our first group starts at 5:30 a.m., and our entire team is finished by 10 a.m. Our conditioning consists of plyos/quick feet drills, agility circuit, an overtime challenge, core work, and balance drills. All leg work from the strength workout is saved until after we have finished our conditioning so that athletes can perform the agility circuit at full speed. We do heavy cleans and plyometrics before our agility circuit.

Wednesday: This is a day off.

Thursday: Similar in structure to Tuesday, our conditioning consists of plyos/quick feet drills, agility circuit, an overtime challenge, and core work.

Friday: The top priority on Fridays is our heavy squat and leg work, which requires maximum effort and focus. Our conditioning includes tempo 100s, form runs, an overtime challenge, core work, and balance drills.

Another important element of our workouts is that we run them like a sport practice—every group starts and finishes together. I learned this concept many years ago from Jeff Connors, the current Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of North Carolina. We do not believe in buffet style lifting. The strength coaches control the workout pace and rotate players through each station in groups according to the schedule. This helps develop work capacity, as work and rest ratio intervals are controlled, and allows us to make the best use of our time in the weightroom. It also helps my peace of mind as it ensures that the entire workout has been completed by everyone at the intensity needed to improve.

Mental Toughness

A strong point of our program is that we don’t concentrate solely on exercise choice and sets and reps. We also focus on how to make our football athletes mentally tough. Our football coaches preach discipline and we follow suit in the weightroom.

We start by allowing no excuses. Everyone does their best every single day, no complaints. Our athletes don’t use the words, “I’ll try.” That gives themselves an out. They say, “I’ll do it.” This also applies to me as a coach.

Our players must overcome the urge to quit. As I tell them, “It’s natural to think about quitting, because we have all been in some adverse situation in our lives where we considered doing it.” But, if you quit once, there is a strong possibility you will do it again.

At WSU, we have a mandatory “stand tall” rule. That means athletes do not bend over, touch their knees, take a knee, sit down, or lean against anyone or anything for physical support when they are fatigued—ever. The only time they are allowed to sit down is when performing specific seated exercises. We believe that if you bend over physically, you are bending over mentally.

Just as in an actual game, if one athlete in the group makes a mistake, everyone faces the consequences. If any player in the group knocks over cones, jumps offside, misses a line, does not follow directions, fails to “stand tall,” or shows a lack of effort, everyone in the group will do five up-downs at the end of practice for each mistake. These up-downs are led by the athletes who made the mistakes.

We have found that this group accountability creates a daily sense of urgency, develops leadership, and builds camaraderie. We remind the athletes that this is their team and they have to take ownership of it at their level.

Another way we get athletes to help each other stay strong is through competition. In almost all drills, players compete against each other, a stopwatch, or a particular goal. For example, in our agility circuit, players are paired with those they are competing against for playing time. This brings out competition in a big way.

In some years, we have combined both the teamwork and competitive elements through a team “Superstars” competition at the end of winter training. Players compete against each other in a variety of events, such as three-point shooting, basketball dunks, and swimming relays. The seniors draft their own squads, and it really bonds our team. It is also a lot of fun for both players and coaches.

We have a dress code that requires athletes to wear workout gear issued by our equipment department—no T-shirts with beer logos or shorts with other schools’ names are allowed. This is a cougar pride issue. No music is played during workouts, either. It is very difficult to focus or communicate when music is blaring, and it leads to too many disagreements and distractions over selection and volume.

The last factor in keeping their mental focus is coaching. I continually remind myself that my athletes will only accomplish what our staff demands—nothing more. We teach our athletes to always finish strong, whether they’re lifting or running. Learning to finish drills is paramount to optimum physical conditioning.

Sidebar: Summer Lifting

Monday Tuesday Thursday Friday
Heavy bench press

DB incline


Shoulder complex

Push ups (1 min.)

Body Blade


Lying DB Tricep


Bumper hold (grip)

Calf raises

Heavy power clean (f)

Single-leg squat

Glute/ham raises

DB row/chin circuit


Int/ext rotation

Hip flexion

Bar shrug



Hang clean/push press

Close grip pause

Side/back shoulder raises

Lying bar triceps

Body Blade

Straight arm pulldown

Int/ext rotation


Bar hang (grip)

Int/ext rotation

Heavy back squats

Lat pulldown

DB stiff leg dead lift

Hip flexion


T-bar row

Leg curl/extension

DB shrug/biceps

Box step up/lunge with bar Calf raises

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