Jan 29, 2015
Making Progress

How can you push upperclassmen to keep improving once they’ve plateaued? This article answers the five most important questions on motivation in the weightroom.

By Dr. Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson, PhD, CSCS, SCCC, is Assistant Professor of Physical Education at the Virginia Military Institute. He has also spent 12 years as a strength and conditioning coach at Radford University, Virginia Tech, and VMI. He can be reached at: [email protected].

It’s been said by sports coaches–usually after a rookie mistake has cost their team dearly–that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. For strength coaches, that progression from inexperienced newcomer to seasoned veteran brings both challenges and opportunities.

Although there are exceptions, most freshmen are not ready to jump into a full-fledged college strength-training program their first day on campus. Even if they have the requisite physical ability, they usually have to learn proper technique and weightroom procedures before they can even think of working out with the rest of the team. Add in the challenges of adapting to college life, and many freshmen have their hands full just making it through each day.

By the time they’re sophomores, though, athletes are usually ready to accept any challenge and make great gains in strength and power. As they age and progress through the program, some athletes can begin to plateau as juniors or seniors if proper steps aren’t taken to keep them improving. Athletes’ needs and abilities change during the course of their college career. What works for a wide-eyed freshman may not yield the same results for a three-year starter.

For the past 12 years, I have been fortunate to work with some very insightful and successful strength and conditioning coaches, including Sonny Sano, now at Ohio University; Mike Gentry at Virginia Tech; and Jim Whitten at the Virginia Military Institute. They have taught me there is more to strength coaching than sets, reps, and yelling. It is a combination of science and art that requires constant care and adjustment. In this article, I will explore five common questions faced by strength and conditioning coaches as their athletes progress from rookies to seniors.

How do you keep athletes motivated over an extended period of time?

Motivating athletes is one of the most challenging duties college strength and conditioning coaches face. In a perfect world, every athlete would always be eager and motivated to work hard in the weightroom. However, in the real world, athletes require varying degrees of motivational support at different times.

I feel motivation starts with trust between athletes and coaches. If an athlete believes the strength coach is looking out for his or her best interests and that coach uses sound judgment in designing a program, then both parties have a chance for true success. The best motivator for almost any athlete is playing time, so if we can show them how hard work in the weightroom can pay off on the field, half the battle is already won.

But trust doesn’t happen overnight. Developing it takes time and effort. This starts with an enthusiastic coach who is energized about the strength-training program that he or she has developed. It also requires working hands-on with the athletes. Simply developing and overseeing workout routines isn’t enough–you must actually coach the athletes during each workout, making sure they’re using the right technique.

At the same time, you must concentrate on maintaining high energy levels. Coach Gentry always stressed that the upcoming workout had to be the most important thing in my world for that hour. If you don’t enjoy working with the athletes, it’s going to be hard to motivate them because they will quickly see that.

Successful strength coaches also create expectations for hard work and accountability. This can be as straightforward as enforcing each rule the same way for every athlete from the senior All-American to the freshman redshirt. It can also be as simple as requiring every lift or drill to be performed perfectly before moving on to the next.

One very effective way to motivate returning athletes is goal planning. I believe this is one of the most important elements Coach Gentry instituted at Virginia Tech. Near the end of each spring semester, the strength coaches met individually with each player on the football team. The meetings typically lasted five to 10 minutes, although some went as long as 30 minutes.

We’d go over the player’s season max and previous best in the bench press, back squat, power clean, push jerk, 40-yard dash, 10-yard dash, vertical jump, and shuttle drill. By looking at both the season max and previous best, we could see if they were improving year to year or if there was a specific area that needed more work.

To provide each athlete a voice in the strength and conditioning program, we asked them what their goals were for the following season. A number of athletes wanted to set very ambitious, but unrealistic, goals. In these cases, we redirected the athletes to a more realistic range for success.

For example, if a player had recently maxed out at 600 pounds on the back squat, he might think the next step should be 675–even if he had barely cleared 600. We listed 675 as his goal, but we also wrote down that our goal for him was 625. That way we weren’t telling him he couldn’t achieve his goal, but we still made sure he could have success by meeting our goal for him.

In addition, the meetings provided an opportunity for athletes to ask questions about the program and discuss their performance within it. We also learned a little more about what motivated each athlete, challenged those who weren’t doing well, and praised the ones who were having success. This is important because it’s easy to get caught up in the negatives and forget the positive effects than can come from praising athletes.

We also held meetings with individual players at other times during the year when necessary. These extra meetings were typically called if the player became injured, saw a change in playing time, exceeded previous goals and needed new ones, was missing workouts, or was not putting forth the proper effort.

Recognition and incentives are another way to help motivate athletes. Commemorative awards such as plaques and T-shirts for reaching certain goals can motivate athletes to keep working hard. It’s also a great idea for individual and team records to be posted in the strength facility.

How can healthy competition keep upperclassmen motivated?

Competition makes training sessions more intense and focuses players’ energy in a positive manner. Successful athletes feed off competition and can push each other to higher levels than they would have reached alone.

Specially constructed competitive drills are a great way to keep things lively. At Virginia Tech, we ended each football conditioning session with a competitive drill. One of our favorites was a simple game called “Sharks and Minnows,” where two or three players stood in the middle of a 20-yard circle or square and filled the role of sharks. We then sent other players into the ring who acted as minnows. The sharks tried to tag the minnows. With all the cuts, spins, acceleration, and deceleration involved, this drill closely mimics what players are called to do on the football field.

Another simple drill for acceleration involved five players starting in different positions such as on their back with their hands straight up or on their stomach with their arms underneath them. We’d blow a whistle, and they’d have to stand up and sprint 10 yards, with the person finishing last repeating the drill.

One way to inject some life into your offseason program is to hold a strongman competition, using events such as a tractor-tire flip, truck push, stadium stair run, sumo wrestling, and tug-of-war. Once a week, we’d conduct one event after our lifting session and keep track of scores throughout the summer. The events broke up the monotony of the offseason program and gave the athletes another avenue to enhance their performance outside of typical resistance training.

Should you conduct separate workout programs for freshmen and upperclassmen?

The quick answer is you usually don’t have to because they’ll typically end up divided by other types of groupings. First, most freshmen are not able to step into a full-fledged strength program. Second, many freshmen, especially in football, are being redshirted and don’t have to worry about being ready for competition. Having redshirted athletes in a separate program capitalizes on a window of opportunity for young athletes to make significant gains, which in turn helps keep them motivated. However, if a freshman works his or her way into a starting position and has mastered the lifts, there’s no reason to keep him or her from working with upperclassmen.

There are plenty of other factors more important than age that should be considered when grouping athletes for lifting. For example, it’s common to break teams into groups based on position. Some athletes will need to work on losing weight, even at the expense of passing up potential strength gains. Backups can work a little harder during the week than starters who need to be fresh for each game.

So it’s usually not necessary to deliberately segregate upperclassmen from freshmen. Conversely, there’s no reason to be concerned if this occurs naturally.

How do injuries, which can accumulate over the course of a career, affect strength and conditioning programs?

By the time athletes reach their junior and senior years they should have a good knowledge and understanding of exercise performance. Their fitness levels should allow them to do more specialized work that enhances their performance and helps prevent injury. Each year, they should build on the gains made in the previous season.

However, many upperclassmen still have injuries from previous seasons that need to be considered. Depending on the exact nature of the injury, a strength coach may need to avoid overworking an area that has suffered from chronic problems, or conversely, adjust the program to build up an area that is seeing injuries due to weakness. In either case, the athletic trainer should be consulted to determine the proper course of action.

When athletes are dealing with a recent injury, the focus often shifts to rehabilitation rather than strength and power development, but this doesn’t mean those areas should be forgotten. In a game during the 2000 football season, Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick suffered a severe high ankle sprain. Despite the injury, he was in the weightroom the next day. Although he was wearing a brace on his ankle, he completed most of his upper-body work and was ready to play in the next game.

When athletes are injured, the challenge is finding out what exercises they can still safely do. If it’s a lower-body injury, they can probably do a lot of upper-body work. If the injury is in the upper body, you’ll probably have to skip the bench press and Olympic lifts.

At Virginia Tech, we developed specialized workouts for athletes with shoulder injuries, back injuries, wrist injuries, knee injuries, ankle injuries, and just about any other kind of injury we could think of. The idea was to have a workout ready for someone to use so they could continue as much strength training as possible during their rehab.

How do you assess whether your strength and conditioning program is working?

There is some controversy over the testing of athletes while in a strength and conditioning program, but I believe that it is one of the best ways to measure a program’s success. Without testing, we do not have a quantitative baseline to evaluate, making it difficult to measure performance gains. Without that baseline, it’s hard to tell whether an athlete lifts well or plays well because he or she is naturally strong or because of gains made during a strength program.

Testing offers other benefits as well. It’s a key part of the goal-setting process described in the first question. It provides concrete evidence for the athletes that their efforts in the weightroom are making a difference. Testing also motivates athletes by serving as a constant reminder that their performances are being evaluated.

It’s best to test the full range of qualities needed for successful on-the-field performance. TestingExercises.gif

Typically, two tests a year are sufficient–one before the start of the season and one during the offseason–although a third test for redshirt players at the conclusion of the regular season can also be helpful.

While it may appear that the ultimate assessment of a strength and conditioning program comes from on-field success, these results can be misleading. There are many great strength coaches who have implemented very successful programs, yet their teams do not fare well in wins and losses. Multiple factors have to come together for there to be success on the field–many of which are outside the strength coach’s control, such as the quality of athletes, financial support from the institution, scheduling, and strategy. Any strength program will appear to work when a team has superior athletes. At the same time, a team that is outmanned in terms of athletic talent will struggle regardless of how well its players are trained.

For a strength coach, the bottom line comes down to how hard your athletes work. Are you providing a sound and effective program that helps them progress from session to session and season to season? Are you pushing them to be the best athletes they can be? These are the factors that we can, and should, control as strength coaches.


Baechle, T. and R. Earle, Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 2nd ed. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 2000.

Bompa, T. and M. Carrera. Periodization Training For Sports. 2nd ed. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 2005.

Fleck, S. and W. Kraemer. Designing Resistance Training Programs. 3rd ed. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 2004.

Gentry, M. and T. Caterisano. A Chance To Win: A Complete Guide to Physical Training for Football. Champaign, Ill.: Sports Publishing L.L.C., 2005.

Stone, M.H., M. Stone, and W. Sands. Principles and Practice of Resistance Training. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 2007.

Siff, M.C. Supertraining. 6th ed. Denver: Supertraining Institute, 2003.

Zatsiorsky, V. and W. Kraemer. Science and Practice of Strength Training. 2nd ed. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 2006.

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