Aug 17, 2016Raising the Bar
By creating a successful strength and conditioning program at the University of Mary Washington, this author has set an example for other small schools to follow.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Training & Conditioning.
Until recently, it was rare for an NCAA Division III athletic department to have a full-time strength and conditioning coach on staff. Fortunately, that’s changing. With positions being created around the country, it’s evident that smaller colleges are seeing the demand for-and benefits of-hiring strength and conditioning coaches.
I became the first full-time strength and conditioning coach at the University of Mary Washington in July 2014. Since then, I’ve felt tremendous pride building our program from scratch and watching athletes thrive within its framework. However, I’ve also faced challenges implementing new ideas and having fewer resources than larger schools.
As I’ve learned, starting a strength and conditioning program at a small school requires culture building, creative thinking, developing relationships, and lots of problem solving. But with dedication and a willingness to think outside the box, I have achieved full support and buy-in from UMW’s 22 varsity sports programs.
BUILDING A FOUNDATION
My first priority when I began at UMW was getting sport coaches, administrators, and athletes to trust and believe in what I wanted to accomplish. I knew this wouldn’t happen until I developed relationships with them. Fortunately, since I arrived in the summer, I had time to meet with coaches and administrators before school started. I also made an effort to get to know athletes who stayed on campus over the break.
D-III sport coaches generally have had to run their own strength and conditioning programs for years, so some can be a little skeptical about what we bring to the table at first. I’ve learned that communication is the key to gaining their trust.
It can be tempting to walk into the coach’s office, slap your program on their desk, and say, “This is what we’re going to do.” But you have to check your ego at the door. Listen first. Ask them about the strengths and weaknesses of their team, past injury problems, and individual athletes. Then, let them talk about what they hope to get out of strength and conditioning. Most of the time, what you’re planning to do will line up with what they want.
Once you understand the sport coach’s wishes, discuss how your program will address them. Speak in terms the coach will understand. For example, if a basketball coach wants their athletes to be more explosive, make sure to explain how your exercises will enhance this trait.
Another way that I have built relationships with coaches is by including them in their team’s workouts. At the beginning of the fall 2015 semester, we added the “Iron Eagle” Competition to our program, which we named after our school mascot. I got this idea from an article written by Scott Charland, MS, CSCS, SCCC, who was then the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Temple University. The Iron Eagle is a semester-long contest, and athletes can accumulate points through a variety of exercises. Any athlete who earns 50 or more points is classified as an Iron Eagle, and the top male and female point-earners are commemorated with a framed certificate.
Sport coaches are welcome to jump into the competition and compare their scores to athletes’. We had several coaches participate last fall, and we awarded UMW strength and conditioning T-shirts to those who tallied at least 50 points. Involving coaches in this way helped me deepen my connection with them.
Building relationships with coaches-and athletic administrators, for that matter-doesn’t have to be all business, either. One of the beauties of the small school setting is that the campus community is more close-knit. If you work out on campus, invite coaches and administrators to join you. In the hour or two they are in your weightroom, you will get to know them as people and develop friendships.
Even if it’s not feasible for administrators to work out at the same time you do, try to get them into the weightroom a few times a week. My athletic director works out in our facility every morning alongside many athletes. I firmly believe he values our strength and conditioning program because he sees firsthand the positive environment we’ve created.
In addition, he sees some of my logistical struggles. We can then have honest discussions on equipment needs, scheduling issues, and other concerns. Having him understand what I do on a daily basis has been very helpful.
Of course, no strength coach is ever successful without getting the support and buy-in of athletes. I focused on education when I first started at UMW. Through conversations and sharing articles, I was able to inform them about the benefits of strength and conditioning.
I didn’t get them fully on board, though, until I gained the respect of team leaders. I educated these key athletes on my philosophy, shared the science behind my program, and pushed them to new levels. Once they started seeing results both in the weightroom and on the court, field, or in the pool, they bought into strength and conditioning. After the team leaders supported me, their teammates followed.
Lastly, if you want to build trust with athletes, you need to hold yourself to the highest standards. Don’t expect them to automatically hold loyalty to you when you are the new coach on the block-you have to earn their respect. I always try to go above and beyond for my athletes. That might mean training a team on a holiday when school is closed or staying late so an injured athlete can work out after practice. Actions like these add up and show athletes that I am part of their team.
Once you have earned the trust and respect of athletes, you can start building your culture. From day one, I made it clear that having a strength and conditioning program at the D-III level was a special privilege. This ensured the athletes would value their work in the weightroom.
Setting three major weightroom rules helped reinforce this mindset and held athletes accountable. The first relates to workout gear. To create a culture of school pride, athletes aren’t allowed to wear any other school’s logos in our weightroom. During my first month here, I probably sent 20 athletes to the locker room to turn their shirts inside out after they showed up in another school’s gear. Now, two years later, this rarely happens, and when it does, the upperclassmen resolve the issue themselves.
The second rule deals with tardiness. Athletes should never be late to class, practice, or their job. Therefore, if they arrive late for a workout without a valid excuse, they are asked to leave for the day and can’t return-it doesn’t matter if they are the best player on the team or a walk-on. This reinforces that the use of the weightroom is a privilege they can lose.
The third rule says athletes must always have their workout sheets with them when using the weightroom. I find that this creates a mentality where they associate the strength and conditioning facility with a place to get to business and follow directions.
Another important factor for building a culture at a small school is surrounding your program with a high level of energy and excitement. Especially with D-III’s greater emphasis on student-athlete life balance, I try to make it so athletes want to come train with me rather than feeling like they have to.
Creating a competitive environment has helped with this. One of the first additions I made at UMW was installing a record board in the weightroom that displays our top performances in the power clean, bench press, squat, pro agility drill, pull-ups, and vertical jump. There’s tremendous value in providing athletes with goals to shoot for, and posting records for their peers to see increases their external motivation.
When a record is broken, athletes and coaches post it on social media, and when testing comes around, everyone looks on the board to see what they have to beat. The bar is raised every semester, and some of our alumni have come back to see if their record has survived.
The Iron Eagle contest is another part of our competitive culture. I am a firm believer that little things can add up to big success. So if an athlete grabs the 80-pound dumbbells instead of the 60s to try to earn points for the Iron Eagle, I know I’ve done my job to motivate them.
A final piece of our culture is the appearance and organization of the weightroom. When a team walks into the facility, it is organized and clean. I expect it to be returned to this state when the session is over. Again, this ties into the idea that working in the weightroom is a privilege in D-III, and athletes should have respect for the space.
When working in a small school setting, chances are you’ll be the only strength coach for more than 20 teams and hundreds of athletes. That’s why it is crucial to focus on what is possible, not what is optimal, when designing your program. Strength coaches can get too caught up in writing “perfect” programs that incorporate all the latest scientific findings. Although compiling a research-based regimen is important, what will work best for your athletes and your setup should take precedence.
Start by assessing the space you have to work with. D-III weightrooms are typically much smaller than those in larger schools, so it can take some creativity to optimize the space.
At UMW, we currently have six half racks, and the room gets pretty crowded when our larger squads are lifting. We adapt by splitting those teams into two groups. One group completes speed and agility work in a separate area while the other group lifts. Then, they switch.
Another way we maximize space in our weightroom is by setting up barbells in between our racks, giving us six more workstations. This allows us to set up “push/pull” programs in which athletes alternate between bench presses or squats on the racks and Romanian dead lifts or bent-over rows at the barbell stations.
Since UMW athletes have varying degrees of weightlifting experience, I have to factor that into my exercise selection. I accommodate their varied skill levels with exercise progressions and regressions. Our lifts are grouped into different categories, and each category consists of multiple exercises to fit a range of abilities. For example, if an athlete cannot properly perform a back squat, we’ll have them do a front squat instead.
My approach for Olympic lifts is a little different. I love them and have used them throughout my career, but they aren’t ideal for large teams without the right equipment and supervision. Certain lifts take a long time to teach, can be dangerous when done incorrectly, and take up a lot of space. So when a team of 50 inexperienced lifters walked into the UMW weightroom early in my tenure, and I only had six platforms, I reconsidered my plan to add power cleans to the program. Instead, I have athletes from larger teams perform high pulls or dumbbell cleans.
The last thing to consider when developing a strength program at a small school is scheduling your weightroom. With 22 varsity sports and three club teams at UMW, equal time in the weightroom is hard to come by. I accommodate everyone by having teams train in one-hour slots, with a new group starting every 45 minutes. When the athletes walk in, they spend their first 10 minutes in the warm-up area, then spend 30 minutes at the racks, 10 minutes in the dumbbell/auxiliary area, and finish with 10 minutes in the cool-down, core/flexibility area. I call out the start of each new set so athletes are forced to stay within the timeframe at each station. This keeps the flow of the room moving and allows me to see the room better.
Time management is critical for this scheduling method to work. When I first start a new training program, I go through the lifts myself to see about how long they should take to complete. There is nothing worse than a team running 10 minutes behind schedule in the weightroom when another is warmed up and ready to lift. It makes you look unorganized and messes up the flow of your room.
We do our best to schedule teams around class and practice times, but there are always some unavoidable conflicts. For this reason, we block out two hours in the weightroom each day for open lifting that athletes can attend if they have to miss their team’s session.
It can be a little overwhelming to oversee the strength and conditioning program at a small school by yourself and could easily lead to burnout. If getting a paid assistant coach is not in the budget, you need to think outside the box to lighten your load.
Interns and volunteer students can turn a good program into a great one. However, you need to be proactive in locating them. Start your search by connecting with the exercise science department at your school or local colleges.
UMW doesn’t have an exercise science program, so I reached out to nearby Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University when I started here. Many of their exercise science students were planning on applying for internships at larger schools. I convinced some of them to try the small school environment instead by promising real-world, hands-on college strength program experience. This approach helped me line up two interns before my first school year even began. (See “Intern Program” below for more insight on this topic.)
Just because UMW doesn’t have an exercise science department doesn’t mean I haven’t utilized any on-campus resources. On the contrary, I found a number of interns through our school’s work-study program. I called the office on a Friday, and by Monday, I had a position created and 30 resumes on my desk. I got this idea from another strength coach at a small school-Josh Bullock, MA, CSCS*D, RSCC, Strength and Conditioning Coach at Emory & Henry College.
Beyond work study, it can help to tap into students who love the weightroom even if they don’t want to pursue strength and conditioning as a career. For example, I currently have a UMW marketing major as an intern who manages our social media pages and uploads videos to our YouTube account.
Other avenues on campus can provide assistance in unexpected ways. I was fortunate this past year to receive an e-mail from a professor in our computer science department. She was looking for people who needed custom software developed, and I jumped at the opportunity. Students in her class created software for me to manage our training programs, readiness questionnaires, exercise videos, and testing data. When the semester ended, I got to use the finished product with my teams. It saved us a ton of time and money and was a great addition to our program.
Lastly, in addition to on-campus resources, don’t be afraid to reach out to peers for help. Ninety-nine percent of them are willing to share their ideas with you. The strength coaches I mentioned in this article are just a few who I have learned from over the years.
BIGGER & BETTER
Since the UMW strength and conditioning program started in July 2014, it has grown significantly. We now average 90 percent attendance at workouts, and we’ve added several new pieces of equipment, including plyo boxes, battle ropes, sleds, jungle gym straps, and bands to add variety to our training.
Furthermore, we’ve embarked on a weightroom renovation this summer. I proposed adding six more racks and platforms in our facility to accommodate our larger teams and make it easier to train two squads at once. To get funding, each of our sport coaches contributed from their budgets, and athletic administration covered the rest. I am very fortunate to work with great administrators and coaches who value what we do in the weightroom. Currently, I’m in the process of removing our old equipment and reorganizing the strength and conditioning facility to make room for our new racks and platforms.
Every small school is different when it comes to the level of strength and conditioning program it can provide. When starting from scratch, take a look at what your school can offer and what areas you’d like to improve. You might be surprised at what you can do.
When I started as the Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Mary Washington two years ago, I had three interns. Now, I have nine. However, the numbers mean little if I don’t utilize them correctly to maximize their personal growth as well as their impact on our strength program.
At the beginning of each semester, I meet with the new crop of interns to go through our exercises and explain the expectations of the position. Their responsibilities will vary as the semester progresses and can include helping me with specific teams in the weightroom, staffing open lift periods, running warm-ups or post-lift stretches, or watching a rack or station during a workout. These duties are assigned based on experience and level of competency. I supervise all of their work, and interns are never left in the facility unattended.
I take a lot of pride in the mentoring aspect of having strength and conditioning interns. As I get to know them, I learn about their strengths and weaknesses, and I provide opportunities to optimize and address them. For example, if an intern is good at working with individual athletes, yet struggles with large groups, I have them address a team by running the warm-up, explaining the workout, or calling out sets so they get better at their weakness.
In addition, it’s my goal to make sure any intern with aspirations to become a strength coach leaves UMW prepared for the next step in their career. I spend a lot of time explaining the reasons behind what we do in our program and our different training phases for the year. Along with that, I share relevant articles about strength and conditioning. At the end of the semester, the interns must demonstrate what they’ve learned by designing their own annual plan.
In order to successfully manage the training of 22 varsity sports and three club teams at the University of Mary Washington, I must have a game plan for every day of the week. I follow a schedule from the moment I get up until I go to sleep to ensure I check every box I need to on any given day.
A helpful time management strategy is blocking out chunks of my day to perform certain tasks. For example, I’d never get anything done if I dropped what I was doing every time my phone or computer went off with an e-mail notification. To avoid this, I only check my e-mail in the early morning and around noon. Twice a day, the weightroom is used for a class, so I use these times to work out, eat lunch, and catch up on any office work. Ron McKeefery, MA, MSCC, CSCS*D, Director of Sports Performance at Eastern Michigan University and author of CEO Strength Coach, has talked about “batching” tasks together to improve efficiency, which has been a helpful strategy for me, as well.
Furthermore, it’s easier to manage all of my responsibilities when I plan ahead. I take care of everything I can control well in advance. Testing is a good example of this. By printing out rosters, walking my interns through protocols, and setting up the facility in advance, we are well prepared when teams come in for testing.
During the school year things do get hectic, but this comes with the territory of running a strength and conditioning program single-handedly. As we add new equipment and staff at UMW, the time demands will lessen for me. However, I love what I do, which makes working 12 to 14 hour days go by a lot faster.