Apr 22, 2015Staying Power
In 1995, an up-and-coming young strength coach at the University of Oregon wrote an article for T&C on training football players. Through working with thousands of athletes, adjusting to new coaches, and facing national championship triumphs and heartbreaks, Jim Radcliffe is now a veteran whose ideas have stood the test of time. As part of our 25th anniversary, we asked him to again share thoughts with us, this time on how to adapt to the changing strength and conditioning field.
The following article appears in the April 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.
Like any other profession, strength and conditioning has evolved over the past two decades. Some might say it has changed dramatically in that time.
What was once a job centered on supervising a weightroom has expanded to be the hub of the wheel for most successful athletic departments. Putting athletes through a lifting program has evolved to incorporate many styles of coordinated lifting, plyometrics, and movement skill complexes and combinations. Conditioning is no longer about how hard the athletes are breathing or how nauseated they become but now includes an evaluation of best protocols for complete biomechanical movement efficiency. Smart, hard work has taken the place of hard work.
But how do you keep up with all the changes? How do you evaluate new ideas and decide whether to use them?
All of us have seen countless trends come and go. Over time, we have developed progressive strategies, enabling us to wade through new products and techniques and identify those that would best help our athletes reach peak performance. It’s not easy staying on the cutting edge, and there is a lot of trial and error involved, but it’s a necessary skill in the ever-evolving field of strength and conditioning.
There are a number of ways the strength and conditioning coach can ensure their teams stay on the cutting edge. At Oregon, we take a three-fold approach.
First, we seek our sport coaches’ insight on the keys to success in their sport. There has to be a combination of knowledge from each side, enabling both coaches to work from a confident point of reference. If the strength coach’s version of staying on the cutting edge clashes with the sport coach’s overarching goals for the team, it might cause conflict down the line.
For example, our track and field team has had more than a dozen sprint coaches over the last three decades. None of them approached athlete development in exactly the same way, so it was necessary for us to use knowledge and experience to accommodate and adjust to their training preferences each time.
Second, it is helpful to discuss new practices and ideas with a group of peers from a variety of fields, including high school coaches and teachers, physical therapists, professors, and fellow strength and conditioning coaches. These colleagues can serve as a sounding board to bounce ideas off of. On more than one occasion, the guidance of these professionals has helped us when evaluating the latest and greatest trend, as well as reconsidering activities that had long been shelved in favor of more progressive practices.
The third, and perhaps most important, strategy for staying current in strength and conditioning is defining what “cutting edge” means to our program and how it applies to our situation and sport training protocol. Is it the newness or stylishness of a program, product, or method? Is it the fact that a tool is extremely popular with the next generation of incoming athletes? For us, the answer to both questions is, “No.”
At Oregon, defining and staying on the cutting edge is about trusting our guts as strength coaches and not getting caught up in the latest fad just because it’s new and exciting. Evolving in the field of strength and conditioning means being able to decipher and effectively use the plethora of advances at our fingertips while remaining a little “old school” at the same time.
The experienced strength coach has an eye for things. They can determine whether what they see in training will transfer to competition before a sheet of data can quantify, clarify, or confuse it. Adhering to this vision of what athletic development should look like needs to guide the process of keeping up with the cutting edge. This task can certainly be aided by wonderful new technology and quantifiable feedback, but a strength coach’s vision–both external and internal–is what truly drives a sports performance program.
EYE ON EVALUATION
With an established idea of what cutting edge means to our program, we can use this knowledge to review trends as they arise. Our overall approach to analysis is to think technically and biomechanically.
For each new development, we ask ourselves: “Does this progress the biomechanical advantage of performance?” We look for products that help develop the execution of sport-specific movement from a posture, balance, stability, and mobility standpoint. If a tool or method makes athletes work hard without enhancing their ability to perform on a field, court, mat, or track, it’s not for us.
Another part of deciding whether a trend will work for our team is evaluating the practical science behind it. New products or methods of training are often supported by large quantities of clinical evidence, but we must examine whether these lab results will transfer to training and ultimately, the playing field. We always want to be able to answer why we choose the trends that we do.
Going hand in hand with science is simplicity. Can we break down a product or training method so that athletes can progress using it? As strength coaches, we might spend a great deal of time learning the essence of a trend, but this won’t benefit our athletes unless we can simplify it and efficiently relay the ability to execute this trend to them.
It’s also important to assess whether the trend has staying power. We ask ourselves: Can or will this stand the test of time? A major issue with chasing the latest trend in training isn’t just whether or not it will work–it’s whether or not it will last.
Finally, many trends nowadays incorporate or require some sort of technology. Our program has observed many new and improved ways to monitor and assess athletes’ progress, meaning we now have access to a vast amount of data.
The challenge becomes finding a way to filter that data into easy-to-understand, useful bits of information that can be incorporated into training. A technological trend isn’t worth pursuing if it will bury us with unintelligible information. However, developments that shed light on whether or not our athletes are meeting performance objectives can lead to enhancement.
Keeping these parameters in mind, we’ve adopted a great number of trends over the past three decades. One that has proven particularly beneficial is complex training. This approach assists the timing, execution, and training systems we progress into and out of from offseason to in-season. It also allows us to blend strength and speed in a weightroom setting, use our time optimally, and improve our athletes’ overall functionality.
Another trend we’ve embraced is coordinated or synchronized lifting complexes–such as pulls into squats, squats into pushes, or pushes into squats and lunges. These movements challenge athletes to use the strength, speed, and agility that their sport requires. Sporting actions are typically a blend of flexing, extending, and rotating in a synchronized manner, and this method of training reflects and enhances these demands.
On a more practical side, we’ve welcomed coordinated lifts because they require no new equipment and can be used with a large group and in multiple types of facilities. Athletes can work through these challenging exercises efficiently, and there is a direct correlation to improved performance. For example, our staff can give great explanations about proper acceleration mechanics over and over again, but we often have to put the athletes on an incline or load their hips with a sled before their mechanics improve.
We’ve also made major gains by adopting a couple of trends involving biomechanics. The first is barefoot movement mechanics. This is an inexpensive way of getting athletes to understand proper ground negotiation during acceleration, deceleration, change of direction, and re-acceleration. We incorporate barefoot movement mechanics into workouts for all of our athletes using grass, turf, and court surfaces. Beginning with moderate movement speeds and efforts, we progress as the athletes’ comfort and technique improves.
The same holds true for sports-specific interval training. Rather than spending time training each energy system individually, we attack the biomechanics within the athlete’s sport and position by having them move at game speeds for short distances. We start with short (5 to 15 yard) accelerations from multiple standing starts before building toward higher reps of longer speed and agility work. This practice gives us a more efficient method of progressing athletes from acceleration to speed to speed endurance in their respective sport.
If the past 25 years can teach us anything, it’s that strength coaches have to be prepared to evolve along with the strength and conditioning field. Keeping a careful eye on trends and evaluating them based on what’s best for your athletes will help keep your program on the cutting edge of improved efficiency and competitive performance.
Jim Radcliffe’s June 1995 article, “Focused Downfield,” was his first but not his last contribution to T&C. He’s also co-authored a piece on improving athletes’ vertical jumps with Vern Gambetta, offered his thoughts on devloping explosiveness in a roundtable, and shared how he trains football linemen in a feature. You can find all of these articles by searching “Radcliffe” on our website: www.Training-Conditioning.com.
SIDEBAR: THEN… AND NOW
Author Jim Radcliffe’s June 1995 article for Training & Conditioning, titled “Focused Downfield,” was accompanied by this photo of the University of Oregon football team competing in the 1995 Rose Bowl (below, left). At the time, the team was heralded, but their uniforms certainly were not. Flash forward to today, and the Oregon football team has become as known for its unique uniform fashion as its competitive success. In 2014, Oregon wore a different look every week, like the black and yellow ensemble the players sported in a September contest against Washington State University, below right.
While the 1995 uniforms were drab, Radcliffe’s strength and conditioning program was not. In the article, he detailed how he planned and carried out a training regimen that was focused on building strength, speed, and agility. Each period of the year had a different emphasis and was broken down into five phases. Workouts were carefully prescribed within each phase to allow for recovery, and here are the four “restoration rules” Radcliffe applied for that 1995 squad:
1. Maintain core warmth throughout. A general warm-up is followed by a core warming to strengthen and enhance mobility in the trunk. A specific warming effect is then performed by doing modified versions of the pulling, squatting, pushing, running, jumping, and/or throwing activities to come next.
2. Focus on mechanics and functional performance. We don’t ask “how much weight” or “how fast was the performance” if those questions aren’t in accordance with our goals and objectives. If the weight lifted is immense yet the performance is not functional, we will not emphasize the movement.
3. Workouts must be short, concise, intense, and coordinated. In order to maintain core warmth and be efficient, a one-hour comprehensive menu is suggested for workouts, and the athletes must move through the workout efficiently.
4. Maintain variety. Varying the types of exercises and stimuli is a good way of cycling workout stress and maintaining work intensity. It also allows the athletes to approach their workouts with vigor and intensity.
– Mary Kate Murphy
As trends come and go and regardless of how many gadgets or devices infiltrate the field, strength and conditioning seems to always come down to one major factor–the importance of quality coaching. In the past few years, it seems like strength and conditioning has been recognized more. From junior high schools to professional organizations, whether for competitive prowess or therapeutic enhancement, athletes and institutions are more frequently seeking knowledgeable people in the sports performance field.
Yet I’ve noticed a disconnect between the value placed on strength and conditioning and new strength professionals’ willingness to coach where they are needed most. Many are interested in working only at the professional or NCAA Division I level.
To those individuals, ask this question: Is this where the true coaching takes place on a daily basis, or is more achieved with other populations? Perhaps our knowledge might best be of use in elementary schools, where the ability to move in a multitude of directions with mobility, rhythm, and coordination is at a premium. Our skills can make the biggest difference in a youth setting, creating training habits to improve their overall health and movement skills that will last long into adulthood.
Good coaches coach, no matter the setting or prestige level of the clientele. They coach youth soccer, junior high basketball, and weight training at the local community college. It is not just where and what they do, it is who they are–the coach, the teacher. Passion is what makes these strength coaches great at what they do, rather than the level they are at.