Jan 29, 2015
Motivating and Building Champions

richjacobs-head.jpgBy Rich Jacobs, MS, SCCC, CSCS

An inside look at the strength and conditioning program that has driven the Xavier University women’s basketball team to three consecutive Atlantic 10 Conference championships.

Following the success of the past three years, expectations for this year’s Xavier University women’s basketball team are high. As three-time Atlantic 10 champions, there is a large target on our backs, and we needed to enter this season stronger and more prepared than ever before. The goal for every championship team is to repeat, so to repeat four consecutive years will obviously be our greatest challenge to date.

As a strength coach, I control the aspects of the program that fall into my arena: goals of the team’s strength and conditioning program, environment in the weightroom, and motivation. Each of these pillars can be divided into subparts to specifically address the needs of our individual athletes.

Before developing a strength and conditioning program, it is important to meet with the head coach and discuss what he or she would like to accomplish. This step is vital because the strength coach is an extension of the head coach. What’s important to the head coach should become the strength coach’s priority. Xavier Head Coach Kevin McGuff’s goals for the strength and conditioning program this year are: to keep the players healthy (injury prevention), increase court strength, improve conditioning, and emphasize teamwork.

Injury Prevention

The best way to improve basketball skills is to play more basketball. So if an athlete is on the sideline due to an injury, they cannot engage in skill improvement. Based on research performed by the NCAA Injury Surveillance System and information supplied by Xavier Head Athletic Trainer, Jody Jenike, MEd, LAT, ATC, the major injury sites that need to be addressed in women’s basketball players are the knees (including the ACL), ankles, and shoulders.

Injury prevention programs are useful for specifically targeting areas of the body that need special attention–specifically the ACL–when addressing female athletes. In the fast-paced environment of college athletics, it is challenging to find time to work on injury prevention as a separate entity. However, it should be a priority because according to a study done by Erik Adams in 2002, one out of every 10 collegiate female athletes will suffer an ACL injury. Therefore, I incorporate preventative measures into our warmups and strength programs.

There are studies by Hewett, Paterno, Noyes, and Caraffa showing that improved multi-planar movement, flexibility, proprioception, and strength may help to decrease the chance of an ACL injury. As a result, we do multi-planar lunges in our warmups. Variations include closing one eye and raising the hands above the head to increase proprioceptive stimulation. Emphasis on staying low and keeping the feet under the hip for control is constantly coached. The warmup also includes dynamic flexibility focusing on hamstrings, glutes, and the quadriceps group.

In the weightroom, the hips, hamstrings, and calves are emphasized to protect the joints that these muscles surround. Leg curls, leg presses, lateral lunges, walking lunges, and step-ups are all included to engage the major muscle groups surrounding the knee and ankle and are a part of each player’s weekly workout program.

The gluteus medius is also a primary target because it is commonly found to be weak in female athletes. To address this muscle weakness, our players perform lateral bounds with a mini band around their knees. The result is two-fold because the gluteus medius is firing and the players are required to balance on one leg, which is another form of proprioceptive control. Lateral monster walks with ankle cuffs provide another stimulus for the gluteus medius in the frontal plane as they stay in a low, athletic position.

The shoulder is a very mobile joint and has an increased opportunity for injury if the proper implementation of a prehab program is not in place. Most athletes are weak on the posterior side of the shoulder, including the muscles that support the shoulder: posterior deltoid, rhomboids, mid and lower trapezious, supraspinatus, teres minor, infraspinatus, and subscapularis. As a result, every day the team comes to lift, progressive shoulder exercises with the goal of injury prevention are performed.

The focus is strengthening the muscles of the rotator cuff and the large muscles surrounding the shoulder joint. Two of our staple exercises are the I’s, Y’s, T’s, and a multi-planar shoulder circuit. Both require scapular stabilization and precise movements to elicit improvement.

Court Strength

Basketball is a physical sport and strength plays a large role in a variety of sport-specific movements such as driving to the basket or setting a pick. Players need to be strong in all three planes so they can attack or defend from anywhere on the court.

Being a strong and solid player is important, but they also need to be agile and light on their feet. To accomplish the goals of the preseason program of strength and power, we use super sets combining a strength exercise such as the leg press with foot reaction drills.

We also use the Vertimax to help increase vertical power. Every two weeks, we increase the tension so the players’ bodies are required to produce more force and velocity off of the ground. The players are instructed to jump 10 times with a pause between each repetition. They then take one minute to recover and perform a second set. We give players a longer recovery time when our goal is to improve maximum force output per jump.

In basketball, upper body strength and power is just as important as that of the lower body. To improve power in the shoulders and back, we have players perform medicine ball slams. The players are coached to attack the ground with the ball and use their entire body during the slam to produce a forceful upper body movement.

We also perform lateral throws and chest passes against a wall using medicine balls. I have not found any studies supporting or disproving medicine ball work, however, there are studies proving that power is a component of nerve activation. Therefore, if the athletes are coached to perform such movements with the intent to throw the ball hard and fast, there may be a positive adaptation.

I try to encompass purposeful movements that are multi-joint and challenge the athlete to use their body as a whole. For example, in an effort to improve strength and power, our players perform a squat and press with dumbbells. This exercise will primarily activate the glutes and shoulders in a movement that is common for basketball players.

To increase overall muscle strength, the program does consist of basic movements such as leg presses, incline presses, dead lifts, and lat pull downs. I believe that big and basic movements have a purpose for increasing absolute muscle strength. A combination of the sport-specific movements and basic exercises keeps the athletes engaged so that I can see strength progressions and they buy into a basketball-specific program.


The most dominant teams in basketball are able to play just as hard at the end of the game as they did at tip-off. This is the result of progressive conditioning that prepares the athletes to perform at game speed for every minute that is played. At Xavier, our goal is to outlast and outplay the opponent from start to finish.

Preseason conditioning is structured to be very competitive and sport-specific. Most of the time, every sprint is a race. Whether it is a three-cone agility pattern or a full court down and back, each drill has a winner. We want each player’s effort to mimic game speed, which is key to having productive conditioning sessions.

Different starts are used to incorporate basketball specific movements such as drop steps, crossovers, and shuffle to sprint. Basketball is not a linear sport, so races also consist of shuffles, backpedals, and cariocas in multi-planar patterns. Practicing these starts in conjunction with agility patterns at a game speed effort may help to increase first-step quickness and lateral movement.

Once a week, the team supplements its workouts with what two of our seniors, April Philips and Alesia Barringer, have labeled “the hardest conditioning session I have ever done.” Every sport can be broken down into energy systems percentages (ATP, LA, and O2). For basketball, the breakdown is 60 percent ATP, 20 percent LA, and 20 percent O2. We use these percentages to create a 30- to 45-minute conditioning session that consists of linear sprinting using different starts. We also include backpedals and shuffles for shorter time intervals. Sprints and rest periods are timed to replicate the energy system that is used on game day.

For example, the ATP system is used during the first 15 seconds of sprinting and a 1:3 work-to-rest ratio is used to give ample recovery. So, a sprint targeting the ATP system could be 10 seconds in length with a 30 second recovery. The O2 system’s work-to-rest ratio is 1:2 and the sprints are longer. Therefore, a sprint could be 60 seconds long with a 120-second recovery. Depending on the conditioning of the team, rest times may be longer or shorter. To progress, the recovery times are slightly decreased each week.

Environment and Motivation

I’ve found that working with women’s basketball imposes extra demands that are not always present with other teams. For example, practice, travel, and scheduling commitments are typically more demanding in basketball. A byproduct of these demands is that I am with the team for almost everything they do, which necessitates that I create an environment where athletes feel comfortable around me and that they have confidence in my training techniques.

To facilitate this, before the preseason began I set up one-on-one meetings with each of the players. We talked about their personal goals and the team goals for the season, as well as their expectations of me. We also discussed their career goals and what they want to do after college. The non-athletic information gives me a better sense of who they are and lets them know that I care about them as people, not just athletes. Knowing that I have a vested interest in their improvement creates a more personal atmosphere and an environment conducive to optimal performance enhancement.

Every athlete reacts differently to coaching. Some players respond better to yelling while others are better with calm talking. To create an efficient learning environment, I ask each girl how they prefer to be coached and I try to implement that style when addressing individuals. This does require extra time and thinking when addressing athletes, but I’ve found the results are worth the effort.

Motivation is aided when an athlete feels a sense of competence and control. One way to promote this is to give them choices. If the team is physically drained, I may give them the option to take one or two sets out of the workout for that day. I have a few different warmups for conditioning, and I often let them choose which one they will perform. A little giving can go a long way in having them take some ownership over their training. The choices they are given are win-win from my perspective. They have the perception that the control is theirs and will be more compliant to the activity.

Part of my job while coaching the weightroom is giving the athletes an opportunity to coach each other without me always looking over their shoulders. This also gives them a sense of competence and ownership. The returning players, for example, know what I am looking for during the workout, so I allow them to help the newcomers. This gives them an opportunity to be a leader and sense a feeling of accomplishment. By giving the team a chance to work together without me taking control or ordering everyone around, the result is an engaging learning environment where athletes are helping each other improve. The buy-in factor is always a key component when implementing a program. Today’s athlete needs to feel assured that the plan is right for them and there will be a positive outcome if they follow it. Before performing the first workout, I explain to each player the purpose behind my training methods and how they will progress as the season moves forward. Most athletes are going to be more apt to trust the leader if there are no surprises and everyone is on the same page.

The environment that I am creating is intense and free of outside influences to focus the players on one goal: improving. Every time they enter the weightroom, our players slap the door to symbolize the importance of focusing on the task at hand and ignoring outside influences while they’re working out. I use this same technique during conditioning. For example, before starting a conditioning drill, I yell out, “On the line!” which symbolizes hitting the door to the weightroom and shifting their focus to the drill in front of them.

Teamwork is important on and off the court. To emphasize it, I put the responsibility and pressure on the spotters to push their partners. So, if I see Amber not performing a repetition to the standard I set, it’s her partner who receives a reprimand. I do this to keep everyone engaged and attentive to their teammates. The result is a group of people helping each other to achieve a common goal.

At a basketball-driven school such as Xavier, expectations for success are high. When creating a strength program and an environment to execute the program in, it is important to get results that the players can see and that meet our coaches’ expectations.

Providing the athletes with the information they need to be successful is a small portion of the pie. Getting them to believe in the program is when real results happen. Showing your athletes that you care about their success in life and in sport helps them build trust in you and your program. When all of the pieces come together you will find yourself coaching a team that is ready anytime, anywhere.

Rich Jacobs, MS, SCCC, CSCS is an Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach at Xavier University. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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