Jan 29, 2015Sticking To It
Following a plan that features sport-specific agility and conditioning drills helps the University of Maryland men’s lacrosse team maintain its status as one of the nation’s elite programs.
By Michael Szemborski
Michael Szemborski, CSCS, is the Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports at the University of Maryland, where he serves as the Head Strength Coach for the men’s lacrosse team as well as the women’s lacrosse and field hockey squads. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Sometimes called “the fastest sport on two feet,” lacrosse is also one of the fastest growing sports in the country. Long viewed as a predominantly East Coast activity, the game is spreading to new areas, especially in the Midwest, Mountain West, and South, winning followers with its blend of strength, skill, and speed.
Yet, the sport remains strong in its traditional hotbeds, and here at the University of Maryland, I am fortunate to work with one of the most storied programs in men’s lacrosse. The Terrapins have won 11 national titles since their debut as a varsity squad in 1924, and have played in the NCAA Division I tournament for 11 consecutive seasons, the nation’s longest active streak, while reaching the title game in two of the last three seasons.
Building on that kind of legacy requires a year-round commitment from players and coaches. The season runs from February to May, but it’s only through hard work and dedication during the off-season that teams will be able to reach the NCAA tournament.
Lacrosse mixes the athletic demands of several sports, including soccer, basketball, and ice hockey, but it also presents some unique challenges for strength and conditioning coaches. The need to design a safe, sensible, and systematic program guided by the basic principles of strength and conditioning is still paramount. However, the physical demands of lacrosse change by position, as do many of its sport-specific skills, especially those related to stick-handling. In our training program here at Maryland, I try to combine sound and proven strength-training techniques with conditioning and agility drills designed to transfer directly to the lacrosse field.
PLANNING FOR SUCCESS
Creating the annual training plan for our men’s lacrosse team requires balancing several factors. Some of these are part of the training process for all sports, such as assessing and considering the physical demands of the sport and meshing the training principles with the style of the team’s coaching staff. Others are specific to lacrosse, such as examining whether the team uses an up-tempo transition style or a more patient approach that looks to score mostly off settled half-field situations. When I prepare for a season, I start by reviewing the previous year to determine which areas are in need of improvement and whether there are any weaknesses that require attention. I also check to see if modifications we made the previous year were successful. Then, I meet with the coaching staff to ask if they are planning any changes that might impact our training plan. For example, do they anticipate having a shorter rotation at midfield or relying more on the transition game? Whatever changes they may have in store, it’s important that I adjust my program to provide the proper training stimulus.
I also ask the coaches for information on the practice plans and drills they plan on utilizing during the season. I use all of this information to devise the schedule for the training program and choose agility and footwork drills that will enhance individual and team practice sessions. Our workouts have three focus areas–leg strength, hip power, and core stability. Concentrating on these areas allows us to directly address the primary muscles involved in most lacrosse movements. Squats are ideal for our base strength training because they’re full-body lifts that engage the entire lower region, posterior chain, and abs. This builds the strength players need to perform the quick starts and stops that are a big part of lacrosse. Plus, there are a number of squat variations we can use to target specific areas and add some variety to workouts.
In addition to squats, we do some unilateral assistance work, mostly lunges and single-leg lifts, to help develop leg strength. Lunges are particularly effective because they mimic the end of the shooting motion, where a player extends on one leg while hurling the ball toward the goal.
We use cleans and clean variations for a lot of our hip power work because the triple extension of the hips, knees, and ankles makes them ideal for developing explosiveness. The transfer of power required for a clean is also similar to many lacrosse movements. For example, power is transferred from the back of the legs through the abs and arms when a player shoots or delivers a powerful body check. Since cleans are integral to our strength regimen, we put a great deal of emphasis on teaching our athletes to always use great form and technique when performing them. When they first come in as freshmen, we put players through a focused training program that includes clean progressions so they can master the various movement patterns associated with the exercise. Core stability is a big part of our preparation because of the key role it plays in numerous lacrosse skills, including shooting, passing, dodging, and defending. We do some sort of core training in every workout, varying between weighted, unweighted, isometric, and explosive movements. I especially like explosive core training exercises that feature medballs, because they match up well with movements on the playing field. To get ideas for explosive medball core movements to add to the program, I often speak with the coaching staff about their teaching cues for shooting, passing, and defending. For example, we use rotational medball throws against a wall in order to mimic the transfer of energy from the lower body and “whip” motion players use when shooting.
While the work done in the weightroom is very important, the value of conditioning and movement training cannot be underestimated. Even the strongest players are of little use on the lacrosse field if they can’t move well. During the off-season, it is essential for players to get a good mix of conditioning, speed work, agility training, footwork drills, and plyometric movements. The energy systems used in lacrosse can make conditioning challenging at times. Different positions have significantly different fitness needs, so training each athlete to be in peak condition requires both team and position-specific conditioning. For example, when we do 100-yard sprints or gassers for general team conditioning, I’ll assign different goal times based on position. I’ll expect our attackmen and midfielders to complete them in 15 seconds, since they are often charged with carrying the offensive play. Defensemen will have 16 seconds to cover 100 yards, since they don’t have as many long sprints, and goaltenders will have 18 seconds. Rest times vary from 25 to 40 seconds depending on the time of year and the intensity of the rest of the workout.
However, since midfielders have both offensive and defensive duties, I’ll often have them do 150-yard shuttles from the goal line to midfield and back instead of running gassers. These shuttles better simulate the transition they regularly have to make from offense to defense.
To account for competitions, practices, and the school calendar, I break our annual training program into smaller phases. These phases are the postseason (June-July), off-season (August-September), fall practice (October-November), preseason (December-January), and in-season (February-May). Postseason: Since the NCAA lacrosse championships are held Memorial Day weekend, we start the summer with our postseason phase. During this time, we give the players a chance to recover from the long season, and then begin strength work on the legs, hips, and core with moderate volumes at high intensity. Off-season: The off-season phase includes a focus on teaching newcomers the proper lifting techniques. For returning players, the emphasis remains on strength with power work added, increasing volume.
Fall practice: During the fall training phase, we continue to focus on leg strength, hip power, and core stability in the weightroom, while reducing the volume to help the athletes handle the physical demands they experience during team practices. We also shift more of our attention to conditioning, speed, and agility. We typically have 40 to 50 workouts depending on the coach’s practice plans and scrimmage schedule, and I try to get in 15 to 18 speed workouts, 15 to 18 agility/footwork workouts, and 8 to 10 pure conditioning or combination days. This mix gives us sufficient time to teach our drills and obtain the training effects we are looking for before the student-athletes leave for winter break. Preseason: Our preseason is fairly brief, with the team starting practices once they return to campus in January and the first game usually occurring in mid-February. We focus most of our workouts on developing our in-season fitness standards. We keep the weightroom volumes low, but raise the intensity to the highest levels of the year.
In-season: In-season training is one of the most vital aspects of preparing a team to peak at the right time of the season. Our in-season program is structured to avoid overloading the starters and backups who see substantial playing time while still keeping their strength and conditioning levels up, so loads are moderate but intensity is high. Conference tournaments are usually held in late April, with the NCAA tournament occupying most of May. It’s important to work back from these key dates to ensure players will be at their best when the postseason begins. At the same time, I’m always cognizant that the demands placed on the players during the regular season can vary greatly. After a triple-overtime game or particularly intense practice, I may have to go a little easier on the players than I’d originally planned. The key is to monitor the players closely and be prepared to adjust the volume and intensity of workouts when necessary.
While most of our weightroom work is similar to that used in other sports, I try to get as sport- and even position-specific as I can in our conditioning and agility sessions. We still use agility drills that train universal traits, but designing drills that reflect the movement patterns and demands of each position is a key aspect of our program. These movements include the different dodging techniques midfielders and attackmen use to avoid defenders, and the footwork defenders employ to counter these dodges. They also include specific skills coaches expect the players to master, such as different ways to avoid running into the crease while attacking the net.
An example of a skill-specific agility drill I developed to work on defending dodges is the “martini drill.” Cones are placed in the shape of a martini glass and defenders backpedal through them while opening their hips to defend diagonally. Once they reach the final cone, they shuffle laterally and finish with a sprint. I have them finish with a sprint because it simulates the quick transition opportunity that can open up after getting a turnover or recovering a loose ball. Our coaches teach the players to push the transition game from anywhere on the field, and this drill helps to reinforce that concept. It also combines many aspects of the athleticism required of our defenders and helps identify any areas in their transitioning movements that need improvement.
An important teaching point for this drill is to emphasize opening the hips when coming out of the backpedal and into the diagonal defensive movement. Players often get their feet mixed up doing this movement, so I stress initiating from the hips and driving off the back foot. During the lateral shuffle, I make sure they keep their hips low and push off their back leg to prevent “heel clicking” and maintain a good defensive position.
For our attackmen and midfielders, we try to simulate dodging as much as possible by focusing on footwork and shifting their bodyweight during agility drills. One of my favorite agility drills involves placing a cone five yards ahead of a starting point, then staggering a series of three or four cones, each two feet back and diagonal from the previous cone. The athlete sprints from the starting point to the front cone, and then, using their left foot to plant, takes two quick lateral shuffle steps towards the staggered cone. Once they take their second step, they push off their back foot and accelerate straight forward, toward the next cone, and repeat the movements until they reach the final cone. This drill does a great job of teaching the athletes to shift their body weight and practice the footwork needed to dodge effectively. Going straight from a sprint to a move and then immediately accelerating out of it is an important sequence in any good dodge. There are many variations of this drill, including changing the lateral shuffle into a backpedal, or increasing the distance of the staggered cone to give players more time to shift their body weight.
A common problem during this drill is difficulty shifting the body weight while planting off the back leg when coming out of the second lateral shuffle step. I encourage struggling players to shift their weight from their back foot to their lead hip to help them accelerate their body weight forward and gather momentum toward their next sprint.
Our face-off men are put under unique physical demands as they regularly fight for possession of the ball. To prepare for these physical battles, I have them perform bear crawls while pushing against a mat, with someone supplying resistance from the opposite side. They also benefit from wrist and forearm-strengthening exercises, including weighted curls.
While lacrosse-specific agility and conditioning drills are no substitute for the skill work players perform during practices, they maximize the effects of our workouts. After all, results achieved in training sessions ultimately have to transfer to the lacrosse field if they are going to be valuable in the quest to continue the long, winning tradition of Maryland men’s lacrosse.
Sidebar: IN THE NET
The challenges faced by goalies in any sport are unique compared to their teammates, so training them can present its own challenges. In lacrosse, footwork and agility are important qualities for any player, but they take on added value between the pipes, where most movements need to be quick and explosive. Thus, it’s vital to train their hips, core, and legs to be strong and powerful. Goalies make saves not only through hand-eye coordination, but also by quickly shifting their weight when positioning their body or stick. This transfer of body weight and energy is directly correlated to core strength and stability.
I use various lunge movements to help the goalies work on pushing off their back leg and being strong with each leg independent from the other. Lateral, diagonal, and backwards lunges, along with Bulgarian squats, are some of my favorite exercises for goalies. Another key to the development of goalies is flexibility. Many saves are made in awkward positions that require a great deal of flexibility to perform without injury. We use a variety of stretching techniques with our goalies focusing on hip mobility, hamstring flexibility, and posterior chain strength. We also utilize stretch ropes along with PNF stretching and hurdles to help with hip mobility.