Jan 29, 2015
On the Same Page

How do you deal with sport coaches who question your workouts, want to try all the new fads, and are always looking for an edge? By getting on the same page with them.

By Tim Wakeham

Tim “Red” Wakeham, MS, SCCC, CSCS, is Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports at Michigan State University, where he has worked since 1996. He can be reached at: [email protected].

If you’re a strength and conditioning coach who works with ambitious sport coaches, you’ve heard these requests: “That school won a national title after doing this type of training–I’d like our team to try it”… “I just read about a new type of strength equipment–let’s get it for our program”… “An expert I know says we should incorporate this latest trend into our workouts–why aren’t we?”

Your first response may be to tell the sport coach to back off. You are the strength coach and you know what you’re doing. You know what’s best for the athletes. Or you may quickly do as the sport coach asks, pulling your hair out in frustration.

In my 16 years as a strength and conditioning coach, I’ve worked with a diverse array of sport coaches and heard every request you could think of. One coach wanted to prescribe 30 as the repetition target for every weight training set. I’ve seen a superstitious hatred of the bench press. Another coach asked whether athletes really need to lift their legs.

What I’ve learned along the way is how to get these coaches–no matter their philosophy or style–to work with me. If I had to name my greatest accomplishment at Michigan State, it would not be titles won or individual athlete’s achievements. It would be the strategies I’ve created that elicit unyielding trust, loyalty, and faith from the sport coaches, instead of turf wars.

Working successfully with sport coaches takes communication, an open mind, and professionalism in everything you do. It means being a leader, a negotiator, and a great strength coach. It takes time and effort. But it’s all worth it because your athletes will be the winners in the long run.

Being A Leader

While the head sport coaches at your school may want to have power over every aspect of their program, that doesn’t mean you can’t be in command of the strength and conditioning program. In fact, one of the most important elements of garnering support from coaches is showing strong leadership of your department.

Many people think being a leader means being tough and having strong opinions. But I’ve found that it has more to do with being a consummate professional. Someone who has well thought-out plans and goals, has done his or her homework, and can articulate the pros and cons of arguments in the field will be seen as a trusted leader.

Here at Michigan State, we begin with a clear mission, which is “to create and lead a safe, engaging, purposeful training environment and experience.” Why focus on the environment and experience? We have seen that an engaging environment makes athletes want to come to the weightroom. Most of our athletes like coming to train with us–yes, even the females. Don’t get me wrong, hard work is still hard work, but in between the nausea-inducing efforts is designed engagement and even fun.

The overall experience my staff and I sell is purposeful, gratifying, and seriously intense. The tools that we use are caring, “wow” factor, science, and challenge. The results are increased concentration, competitiveness, confidence, and dominant team performances. I sell these outcomes on a daily basis. To me, that is part of being a leader.

My philosophy for strength improvement is progressive overload using mostly multi-joint, multi-set, multi-mode exercises and moving through multiple planes. To improve power, I use maximum effort to develop force as quickly as possible, using sport movements with optimal efficiency and precision. For conditioning enhancement, I believe in progressive overload of sport-specific energy systems using sport- and position-specific movement patterns. I use an average of five modes of equipment in each workout along with various speeds, repetitions, and set schemes, including timed circuits. These philosophical underpinnings never change, even as their applications constantly change to fit individual situations or provide engagement.

Full Menu

Our weightroom contains a little less than 7,000 square feet of space, so we do not have a lot of each type of equipment. But I make sure to have some of each type. The best Olympic strength coaches are like master chefs, who can provide a menu from which all the different sport coaches can confidently order. In my opinion, everything should be on the menu. If the volleyball players, rowers, gymnasts, wrestlers, swimmers, and baseball players are all following the same HIT or Olympic lifting program, it will be hard to convince the athletes and coaches that you’re prescribing something that is ideal for and specific to their sport.

Our “menu” is placed in a large red binder that sits on the front desk in our weightroom. It contains each team’s strength/power workouts, 38 sport-specific conditioning workouts, mini workouts that we use to correct neural inhibition and flexibility problems, pictures of our yoga poses, and myofascial release exercises.

We use Swiss ball exercises for the gymnasts, timed circuits for the wrestlers, platform lifts for track and field, and Keiser power jumping exercises for the volleyball players. There are weighted pulley sprints for the field hockey players, tri-planar shoulder movements for the swimmers, acceleration wall and band exercises for the soccer players, Frankenberg suspension exercises for the rowers, and ground based push-pull rotation exercises for the baseball and softball players.

Each conditioning workout is coded to give athletes a variety to choose from. Our athletes have fun with such choices as the King of Kings, Iron Man, Everest Champions Prepare, Top Gun, the Ultimate, Le Tour de East Lansing, and the Determinator, to name a few.

As a result of our menu approach, athletes perform purposeful workouts and take ownership of their choices. The sport coaches see us as professionals because we design programs for different teams and make the work engaging. A huge binder of prescriptions makes it clear that my staff and I have done our homework and are prepared for whatever needs they have.

A Step Ahead

Being a leader also means you are a step ahead of the competition. And in our world, that means having the latest, cutting edge equipment. We have Woodway treadmills, Scifit bikes, StairMaster steppers, FreeMotion and Keiser pulley machines, Power Lift platforms, racks, and glute/hams, and Hammer, Prostar, and Nautilus machines. We have a two-lane 25-yard running area, three band stations, ropes, chains, slide boards, sandbags, hurdles, bungee cords, Bulgarian bags, bullet belts, foam rollers, BOSU balls, Swiss balls, and medicine balls.

I choose new equipment based on whether its implementation falls in line with our mission: Will it help us create and lead a safe, engaging, purposeful training environment and experience? A new piece of equipment may not train the athlete better than the old piece of equipment. But if it allows the perception of gaining an edge over the competition and engages the athlete in a new way, it has value.

By the time a coach or group of athletes hears about what the Joneses are doing, we’ve already been doing it for months. That shows we are a step ahead. Additionally, I pay attention to what the gurus and self-proclaimed experts come out with each year and implement some of their suggestions. I think it’s important to embrace some of the guru knowledge if you can make it safe and purposeful within your framework, especially if you have a sport coach who’s bought into it.

Being on the cutting edge also means incorporating new techniques that may not be on a coach’s radar screen. For example, we have a goal of decreasing non-contact ACL injuries in our female athletes through a prevention program that I designed while researching and writing a book chapter on the subject.

Another idea we’ve put into place is assimilating our incoming freshmen faster. We created a password-protected Web site, through which Spartans from around the world have access to all our strength, power, and conditioning workouts, nutrition slides, training guidelines, movies of exercises, and video clips of our athletes training. Our incoming freshmen who have signed a National Letter of Intent have access to training the Spartan way months before they get to campus.

Negotiate Well

When sport coaches see you as a professional, it goes a long way toward getting them to listen to your views. The next step in gaining their support is to be an expert negotiator.

My formula for success is to first and foremost know who you serve. Strength coaches serve the sport coaches. The first rule of negotiation is to get the other party what they want. The days of responding to sport coaches with, “This is my philosophy. I don’t tell you how to coach so don’t tell me how to train,” are over.

In fact, I’ve come to realize that the “let’s implement the latest trend” visits should be expected. In their quest to gain a competitive edge, more and more sport coaches are being influenced by the latest testimonial or marketing gimmick. It’s their job to be a step ahead of the competition. And if they don’t think your program is working, it’s their right to question you about it.

Strength coaches should be loyal confidants and trusted colleagues to sport coaches. The way to establish trust is to hear coaches out, understand them, and empathize with their reality. While there are still times when a sport coach’s ideas make me think to myself, “Are you serious?!” I have learned to take a deep breath and say to myself, “If I’m going to be as good as I aspire to be, I have to be able to make the right plan but also make any plan right, no matter how crazy I might believe it is at first glance.” To this end, I am open to all ideas and embrace most of the crazy new trends, as long as I can bracket them with my philosophies.

When I first started at Michigan State, our women’s gymnastics program consisted of free weight and machine exercises. The gymnastics coaches and athletes asked for the inclusion of Swiss ball and band exercises, and I was hesitant at the time. Most strength coaches I knew were staying big and basic with the usual multi-joint exercises. However, the first step in negotiation is getting the other party what they want. I threw in a couple of Swiss ball and band exercises. To ensure purposefulness, I bracketed them with our overload system.

The result? I witnessed magic. The women were much more engaged. The simple addition of two new modes added fun, which made it easier for me to inspire them to work hard on the free weight exercises. Everybody won.

Meeting with new sport coaches is a critical task. I ask them for the specific results they would like to see, and after listening closely, I state that I can get the outcomes they want. I mention that it has worked well for us in the past when the sport coach allows me to have control over the steps needed to accomplish our goals. I add that if the results aren’t achieved after a reasonable period of time, I will welcome and embrace any and all changes that the head coach wants to make.

Overall, I am striving to build a trusting and cooperative relationship with each sport coach. With that in mind, I drop by and share conversations one or two times every week with the coaching staffs that fully embrace our services. I make sure to listen, as well as empathize with them.

I am also boldly honest on all issues–whether they relate to strength and conditioning or not–and so are the coaches. Behind closed doors I may not always agree with my coaches’ perception of an issue. However, I make sure to be respectful and then always support the coaches’ final decision. When the door opens from our meetings, nobody backs the head coaches more than I do.

I have only had one coach over the last 16 years hire an outside consultant, and that was for Pilates. Our coaches don’t feel the need to look beyond our weightroom, because by the time they stop by to discuss the newest flavor of the month, we’ve usually already implemented it. But even if my sport coaches wanted to hire an outside consultant for a service that I wasn’t offering, I wouldn’t be offended. I have far too much to do to fight a turf war. I welcome all the outside expertise I can get, as long as we continue to work as a team.

Appealing to Athletes

Another huge part of getting coaches on your side comes through implementing a strength training program that appeals to athletes. If your athletes trust, support, and believe in you, their coaches will, too. That’s why we expend a lot of effort implementing what I call “front stage” elements that elicit a “wow” response from athletes and keep them coming back for more. My staff and I work to push every motivational button an athlete has.

Many of these elements are visual. Upon entering the Spartan weightroom, you walk over a six-by-four foot Spartan block “S” that is carved into the rubber flooring. Directly behind our front work station is an immense eight-by-four foot presentation of a Big Ten championship ring with large raised silver letters alongside it that spell out “ONE FOCUS.” I want to make sure our athletes know that we don’t train because we love training–we train because we love winning. Additionally, we have a large eight-by-six foot “Strength and Power” banner and team pictures of our athletes dominating in their particular sports.

To the left of each exit, I added a large raised and polished silver block “S” that every Spartan touches on their way out after their work has been accomplished. The purpose was to help develop a Spartan tradition of team cohesiveness and school camaraderie.

On another wall we have an enormous eight-by-four foot signature strength board. I created this to provide clarity regarding how I hope Spartan teams will overcome obstacles and ultimately win. We use conditioning levels as our signature strength because conditioning affects body composition, injury rate, skill execution, and overall performance, and it can be measured. Athletes can achieve three different levels: Warrior, Hall of Fame, and Legend. A majority of team slots are filled with proud and confident Spartans.

I also wanted a “neck-up” standard for our athletes to strive for, so I wrote a story about what I call the “House of Sparta.” On one of our pillars, in a four-by-four foot frame under polished glass, is a magnificently presented old scroll. On the scroll is the faded picture of an immense castle on a hill. Printed in an old-fashioned typeface is the story of the House of Sparta and the standards needed to gain entrance, such as focus, embracing pressure and responsibility, sacrifice, and commitment.

If I judge that an athlete consistently demonstrates these attributes, they are awarded an antique polished silver key sculpted into the Spartan helmet on one end and our block S on the other. It is a beautiful symbol that can be put on a key chain or worn as a charm, and it is highly coveted.

The Navy Seals have a bell that is traditionally rung when someone drops out of a training class. I turned the idea around 180 degrees. We bought a 13-inch polished silver bell engraved with the Navy Seal quote, “It Pays To Be A Winner,” and hung it in the middle of our weightroom. When an athlete does the ordinary exceptionally well and in accordance with our standards and goals, they are bestowed with the honor of ringing the bell. The standards are high but the honor is lasting, and so is the engagement derived from the bell ringing.

We have four 32-inch flat screen monitors that hang down into our training environment, displaying messages on nutrition education and some general sports psych suggestions and quotes. This is a new and fun way to provide our athletes with information, and it seems to be working. Last week when I was getting in my car to drive home, an athlete rode her bike past me and said, “I’m going home to eat a rainbow.” One of our slides suggests eating a rainbow of colors to increase nutrient density. The athletes can mock me all they want, as long as I know they’re learning the information.

The monitors also include informational slides regarding my philosophy. It is my belief that people buy into the leader before they buy into the leader’s vision. These slides let everyone clearly know what I stand for and the vision I have for our training environment.

Taking on the Challenge

Leading a strength and conditioning program today is a challenge. The sport coaches are under pressure to win now. The marketers and gurus are constantly trying to sell their latest and greatest approach or equipment. The strength and conditioning coaches are under pressure to craft a happy experience while magically creating athleticism. I admire all strength coaches who take up the battle.

Creating unyielding trust and enthusiastic loyalty for strength and conditioning requires many strategies. Showing your sport coaches you are a professional and a leader, learning to negotiate with them, and making the experience engaging for athletes are all parts of the challenge. If we can accomplish these goals, we will go a long way toward establishing our credibility and value in the world of competitive athletics.

To read the story of the “House of Sparta,” please visit: http://www.training-conditioning.com/sparta.html

Sidebar: Staff Support

For those of us fortunate enough to have a staff (or some graduate assistants to help), it is important that these people follow our lead in working with sport coaches. That means part of our leadership role is being an effective supervisor, often without a lot of time for staff training.

Here at Michigan State, I coordinate the training of 17 teams with one full-time assistant, one intern that turns over every year and one graduate assistant that turns over every two years, so there is a lot of pressure on my staff members to learn the system quickly. To ease the learning curve, we have an employee manual that contains the following: • my mission statement • my leadership, management, coaching, and training philosophies • my standards and boundaries • scripts and checklists of how to provide each and every service.

The scripts can be immensely helpful for new hires. Some of our scripts include: • opening and closing procedures • how to train an athlete one-on-one • how to coach the room • how to lead a conditioning session • what to say to recruits • how to discipline • how to handle an emergency.

I believe that what you value you measure and what gets measured gets done. Based on this, I have an accomplishment board for my staff. On the board I tally the number of athletes each staff member personally brings through their workout. My staff is also assessed on how many times they consult with their sport coaches.


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