Oct 27, 2020Strength Coach Roundtable Discussion
For so many strength coaches across the country, the fall season has brought a sense of familiarity to what was a very unfamiliar summer as the athletic industry — and everyone else — reacted to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Remote sessions, finding offbeat tools to train with and far less group training has become the norm for strength coaches at all levels. But just like they ask their student-athletes to do on a daily basis, they must rise in the face of a challenge. Training & Conditioning magazine spoke with three strength coaches about the current state of strength coaches in both high school and collegiate athletics.
Jimmy Prendergast is in his 11th year on the strength and conditioning staff and his fifth as head strength and conditioning coach at Hofstra University, working currently with the Pride men’s lacrosse, men’s basketball, volleyball, and wrestling teams. In his day-to-day work, Prendergast — an NSCA Certified Strength & Conditioning Coach and certified by USA Weightlifting — administers drills for speed, agility and flexibility in addition to instructing the student-athletes on proper technique and form during weight training.
Allan Johnson is an assistant on the East Tennessee State University football team in charge of strength and conditioning. He has more than 25 years of experience on the high school, collegiate, and professional levels as a strength and conditioning coach — including stops at Northwestern, Ohio State, and the Baltimore Orioles. Of the thousands of athletes he’s trained, 118 football players, 25 men’s and women’s basketball players, and 51 baseball players have gone on to be professionally drafted. He also is certified as a Master Strength Coach by the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Association. Johnson was recognized as one of the first 10 Master Strength & Conditioning Coaches in the World, by the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Association in 2002.
Micah Kurtz was named the 2016 National Strength Coach of the Year by the NSCA. In 2018, he was named a Top 40 under 40 Sports Professional by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association. Kurtz serves as the Strength and Conditioning Consultant Coach to Oak Hill Academy. He was also named the South Carolina Strength Coach of the Year in 2013 and 2014 by the state coaches association. Kurtz has consulted with the NFL, USA Basketball, USA Football and Nike Football on youth athletic development education. He is an active speaker at strength and fitness conferences across the U.S. and has delivered presentations in Mexico, China, and Hong Kong
Training & Conditioning: Can you describe your training philosophy? Generally speaking, what do you hope a student-athlete learns from his or her time with you?
Micah Kurtz: My training philosophy is based on our five core values. Those values are: protect, move well, move strong, move fast, and thrive.
Generally speaking, it is my goal to teach my student-athletes to set goals, overcome obstacles and instill them with the self-confidence to know they can conquer challenges in any area of their life, now and in the future. Additionally, I want to use my position and program to help improve their mental health, reduce anxiety, improve cognitive abilities, strengthen their immune systems and prepare them to be leaders in their school and community now and in the future.
Jimmy Prendergast: The training philosophy of our department strives to maximize athletic performance, strength, speed, endurance, power, agility, mobility, and injury prevention. This will be accomplished through well-planned and well-executed training programs, research-based periodization, sports performance testing, and ground-based tri-planar multi-joint movements that cater to the demands of each individual sport.
I believe in showing your student-athletes that you truly care about them on and off the field of play. Once the athlete knows that you have their best interest in mind, they will run through a wall for you. Without the trust and buy-in, it doesn’t matter what you do from an exercise selection standpoint. Science will support the program, but buy-in will drive the results.
Allan Johnson: My training philosophy is to train athletes to maximize their genetic potential, prevent injuries and train them to be ready to play the game using sound scientific and practical training methods. I believe in a phased periodization approach to training that allows athletes to progress utilizing multi-joint and ground-based movements, prehab, speed, acceleration, deceleration and agility training. The goal is to develop the total athleticism of each athlete using variations of Pulls, Squats and Pressing variations along with improving explosive power, increased flexibility and a mix of powerlifting, old-school strength training and high-intensity training. The training is intense, demanding and the intent is for the preparation to be tougher than the game. Training the mind and developing self-discipline are important components of our training. My hope is that each athlete I train will be confident and believe they have out prepared their competition.
T&C: What are some of the biggest challenges facing strength coaches currently? How are you approaching those challenges?
MK: Well I think at the high school level many people in education and academia don’t really know what we as strength coaches do and they do not place much value in it. They still think of us as “weights” coaches. So it’s one of my goals to try to educate everyone about high school strength coaches and how they can help make some of the biggest positive impacts in our schools and communities. The things people learn by being involved in a strength and conditioning program are skills that will propel them to conquer challenges in any area now and for the entirety of their lives. They learn how to overcome obstacles, overcome fear and failure, set lofty goals, work together, encourage those around them and, last but not least, embrace the process of becoming the best at getting better. They can then take those skills and apply them to every area of life, whether that is being a better employee or future boss or being a better son or daughter or future husband or wife or future father or mother. On top of that, we all know that working out and being fit will help to reduce obesity rates in youth and adults and improve cognitive abilities and mental health. It’s one of my goals to show all educators, administrators and decision-makers that strength and conditioning coaches operate in one of the purest forms of teaching and we have an unbelievable opportunity to empower our students with the education, skills, and confidence to maximize their potential. There is no better place to enable young people with the tools to be successful in life than in the weight room and going through a comprehensive long term athletic development program.
JP: COVID-19 has created challenges for everyone. One of the biggest challenges for strength coaches is the unknown of when and if seasons are being played. When designing a training program, you always have to look at dates and schedules in order to plan training programs throughout the year. Strength and conditioning coaches need to be adaptable to change.
AJ: A big challenge I see is that today’s athletes are very skilled and blessed in their sport but some lack the proper mental approach and mental preparation to fight through the adversity they experience in practice, games and in strength training. Athletes coming into college in some instances have not been pressed or held accountable enough to match their skill levels. Consequently, once they arrive in college they have to be taught how to respond sometimes to tough and adverse situations in training and competition. To change attitudes and effort, we as coaches need to be as patient as possible in teaching and guiding today’s athlete.
DON’T LOWER THE BAR – KEEP EXPECTATIONS HIGH!
I believe one of the biggest challenges coaches are facing is today’s generation of athletes. This generation of 18-22 year olds have grown up with social media, the internet and technology. This presents several challenges for today’s athletes, who have communicated primarily through social media and texts. If an athlete is not performing to their ability or to the expectations of people out in the world, they will let them know on social media instantly and it can really affect the athlete. The worst thing that the athletes can also have is five different things going on and they don’t know whether they are coming or going because they’ve got different messages from different areas. The message from us as coaches has to be consistent and the entire staff is saying the same thing to our athletes. All of these outside influences in the world on athletes today can impair their mental preparation and mental health. The pressures of being a college athlete are immense and being able to refer them to a mental health professional has become standard protocol.
The last big challenge I see is that very few athletes want to be leaders. Some will lead when there is no adversity but not when it is really needed. In order to cultivate leadership we must identify those athletes and put them in a position to lead and develop their confidence. Leaders must not be afraid of what their peers think and should lead with a positive attitude. Attitude is a reflection of leadership — the team will only go as far as the leaders will take them.
T&C: Are there any myths or misconceptions surrounding strength training/general fitness that you’d like to set straight?
MK: Well, especially with me dealing with young people and as we’ve expanded our program to involve student-athletes all the way down to 5th grade, there is still that stigma that strength training is dangerous and if started too early it can “stunt a person’s growth.” So I try to explain to everyone that there is a major difference between Olympic weightlifting and strength training. I think many people when they think of a strength and conditioning program they automatically think of their child putting a barbell on their back or doing some type of highly complex barbell exercise. I always explain that our core values are, first, to protect the athlete and, secondly, to move well. That means they need to have good bodyweight fundamental movement patterns, strong stability, and good mobility before they ever even touch a weight.
Then they will progress through our program with a variety of pieces of equipment, like dumbbells, medicine balls, kettlebells, etc. And they can and will get stronger at a young age without ever even using a barbell. However, I am in no way saying that it is unsafe or detrimental for a young person to do barbell movements and some of our young athletes do progress at an early age to using a barbell. Nonetheless, my main goal is to educate vested parties on how we will progress a young person through our program.
Finally, there is that myth that weightlifting is dangerous. I like to address that by adding that anything done incorrectly is dangerous, so yes if done incorrectly, weightlifting can be dangerous. However, it’s our mission to provide the highest quality teaching and coaching for all our movements and progressions.
JP: A lot of people think they need fad diets or the newest training program. Simple movements executed consistently over time will always work.
AJ: Athletes today don’t work as hard as they used to. Athletes today will work hard if you hold them accountable and create a positive culture and energetic environment to improve. If your expectation/standards are low then the athlete will not rise above that level.
Strength and Conditioning coaches’ purpose is to only improve the athlete’s performance in the weight room. Today’s strength and conditioning coach wears many hats and must be a combination of a coach, mentor, male role model, psychologist, and friend. The strength coach spends more time with the athletes than the sport coaches do and knows more about the personality and mental makeup of each athlete. Trust and building relationships are two of the keys in my opinion to be a successful coach. How does that saying go, “You can’t cross the river ‘til you build a bridge?” That entails getting to know the backgrounds, family situations of your athletes and developing strong relationships with them. It has been said that athletes spend 82.5% (Jones,B. HFC, Univ. of Tenn. 2015) of their time in college with their strength coaches and the remaining 17.5% with their sport coaches.
T&C: How have you altered your approach to building strength in student-athletes, if at all, during this COVID-19 pandemic? With the potential for less access to gyms, weight rooms, athletic facilities, have you guided your student-athletes to other forms of training like H.I.I.T. or plyometric training? If so, how can that transition be beneficial on the field? Can it be detrimental?
MK: Definitely. In our previous programming, we would have multiple athletes at each rack and they would be sharing equipment and spotting each other. The athletes would share a barbell or dumbbell and alternate the use of it during their tier of exercises. In order to maintain social distancing, the program has now been designed for an athlete to only use their own set of dumbbells or barbell throughout the entire 3-4 set tier. So they have their own rack or their own area in the weight room where they are only using that barbell or equipment for their entire set of exercises. After they finish all the lifts for that tier they wipe all the equipment down before another athlete ever touches it.
On top of that our current programming is designed so that the only movements we program are ones that do not need the use of a spotter. For example, with our older athletes, we’ve increased some of our Olympic weightlifting exercises and their derivatives. We’ve also implemented front squats more frequently because exercises like these do not necessarily need a spotter. An athlete can safely “miss” these lifts without a spotter.
We have also reduced capacity in our weight room, maximized our outdoor training options, incorporated daily temperature checks, and have athletes fill out daily wellness questionnaires.
JP: My assistants Ashley Christy and Justin Bentivegna were an integral part of the communication and programming with our athletes throughout the pandemic. We reached out to all of our teams individually and created programs based on the equipment they had access to.
When returning back to training and sport we have followed the NSCA and CSCCa recommendations of the five-week progression. The goal of our department is to have the safest and most effective transition back to athletics as possible. We are taking a slow progression back to keep our athletes safe and healthy.
AJ: We have had until recently only been able to have 16 student-athletes in the weight room at once. Consequently, with not being able to have a partner spot and with social distancing on Benches, Presses, and Squats we have had to reduce the load that the athlete could lift. It’s been a big adjustment but the players understand the limitations due to COVID-19. Now we have expanded to 26 athletes and everyone wearing masks, it’s been awesome to finally put some weight on the bar.
During the four months, our kids were away from us we sent them weekly workouts based on what they had available to train with — whether it would be using objects around their home such as milk jugs, backpacks, tree limbs, furniture, logs, bricks, chin-up bar, etc or weight equipment at home, school or gym. We incorporated H.I.I.T., hypertrophy, circuit training, jump training during this time. Our kids did the best they could do under the circumstances but without really being able to get much of a true overload it was tough to build any measurable strength. Overall, training away from us was the best we had available but obviously not the same as training back on campus. We stayed in contact with them via Zoom, Facetime, calls and texts to keep them motivated and keep them engaged.
T&C: How do you combat the potential for soft-tissue injuries among student-athletes if and when sports resume with the possibility of athletes not being in their typical game-shape?
MK: The biggest thing, as always, is constant communication with all of the sports coaches and all of the athletes during this time and the whole quarantine. I explained to the athletes that as long as they continue to do some type of strength training, whether it via bodyweight or with any equipment they have at their home, they will not lose much of their strength during quarantine. However, speed and power gains can be diminished very quickly so I made sure to encourage them to take advantage of being outside and to go sprint, jump, bound, and leap. That enabled them to maintain their speed and power gains. I didn’t want them to stress out too much about not being able to be in a weight room.
For the fall coaches especially, we communicated about multiple pre-season practice and conditioning plans. None of us had any idea when the actual date would be for fall sports practice. So we worked together to make a timeline from the worst-case scenario to the best-case scenario of when practices, workouts, and conditioning would resume. From there we were able to come up with the best plan to keep our athletes healthy and reduce injuries when they officially were cleared to start practices.
JP: Communication is key. Strength and conditioning coaches need to be on the same page with sports coaches, team physicians, athletic trainers, and physical therapists. There needs to be a proper overload of stress over time to ensure a safe return.
AJ: We utilized the CSCCa and NSCA Joint Consensus Guidelines for Transition Periods: Safe Return To Training Following Inactivity Protocol. It gave guidelines for a 4-Week Safe Return to Training Template with 50% / 30% / 20% / 10% Conditioning and Testing Training Rule. Strength & Conditioning Journal 41(3)1-23. Managing the Conditioning Volume and using recovery modes with Ice baths, Foam Rolling, Stretching and Sticking helps to prevent soft-tissue injuries.
T&C: How do you incorporate mental training with physical regimens to produce a well-balanced athlete?
MK: In our strength training programs, we operate on the philosophy of span of control. This allows the individual to focus all of their energy on what they can control and not waste it on things that are out of their control. The destination is a continuous byproduct of the work they put in daily. When you operate under this philosophy it can improve mental health and mental training state immensely.
» ALSO SEE: Training Outside the Box
Span of control during a pandemic, like the one we are in with COVID-19, is critical for not only athletes but for everyone. In our strength and conditioning program, we encourage everyone to set big goals, but also to only focus on what they can control. This is extremely important in today’s uncertain world. The information we have been receiving about the potential health risks of coronavirus changes daily and sometimes hourly. With 24-hour news networks and endless information being shared on social media people can become overwhelmed and feel helpless. We need to educate and empower all with the ability to recognize and focus on what they can control.
JP: We create a lot of leadership opportunities through team competitions or team activities. This allows athletes to critically think and solve problems while training. Our goal is to create leaders on and off the playing field.
AJ: We use weight room competitions, finishers to take the athletes out of their comfort zone at the end of each week. Team exercises at the end of the workout with everyone doing the same thing and everyone counting together to the finish. Little things such as being on time, dressed in the same team gear, foot behind the line, E’s on the plates put back straight up on storage pegs, cleaning now in these COVID-19 times and counting and finishing together. Emphasizing details is also a form of mental training in any workout.
T&C: How do you balance the wide range of player profiles for a given program and/or athletics department?
MK: Throughout my career that has been an evolving process. I think that programming at the high school level can be one of the most challenging levels because you have to deal with a wide range of ages, athletic development levels, movement competencies, and maturity levels. Obviously, you cannot train a 14-year-old freshman like an 18-year-old senior that has been training with you for five years.
So as my programming has evolved I’ve implemented a block system of training our students. We have a unified program but not a uniform. We are unified meaning all the athletes in our program are training towards the same long-term athletic development goals and same movement skills. Those goals are: protect, move well, move strong, move fast, and thrive.
It’s a unified program and not a uniform program meaning that not all athletes are on the exact same program, doing the exact same exercises, and do not have the same loads or volumes. My athletes are broken down by the season of the sport they play. They can be Fall, Winter, or Spring athletes. Or if they are multi-sport athletes, they could be Fall/Winter athletes or Fall/ Spring athletes.
Then they are additionally broken down according to their training blocks which is decided on a number of factors like their age, their movement competency, and their relative strength levels. So they become grouped in training blocks 0, 1,2, 3, or 4 according to a variety of factors and in those blocks, they have movement progressions or regressions according to where they are in their training block and where they are in their off-season or in-season training.
JP: We perform an in-depth player profile in conjunction with Hofstra University’s Exercise Science, Physical Therapy and Athletic Training departments. This is all executed through our sports performance testing that allows us to individualize injury prevention programs based on the data that we receive from that testing.
AJ: Hold every athlete to the same standard of accountability. Find out as much as you can about each athlete so it gives you the best insight in how to motivate each individual. One of the biggest mistakes we can make as strength coaches is to try and motivate every athlete the same. Everyone is different and needs to be motivated individually. Our goal is to find every athlete’s “hot button” and once we can do that we’ve got them.
T&C: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to your younger self just starting out in the field?
MK: First is to be an extrovert and reach out to as many people in the profession as possible. That’s the best thing about our profession is the legendary coaches in our industry that are willing to share their knowledge and experience. Don’t be like I was for like the first five or six years of my career where I would go to conferences and just sit in the back and take notes and not introduce myself to anyone. I thought I was doing a good job of learning but all I was doing was taking notes. For the past five years, as I’ve gotten more involved in the NHSSCA and NSCA, and going to conferences and networking and creating relationships with coaches of every level I’ve become an immensely better coach.
Our profession is a job built on relationships and helping others so the majority of the good coaches in this industry are ready and willing to help. Gary Schofield and Jeremy Boone are huge mentors of mine who I have learned so much from and stole so much from. They are some of the best and most knowledgeable coaches at any level. Coach Bill Foran of the Miami Heat is someone that I now can call a mentor and a friend. He’s probably the most accomplished NBA strength coach of all time. He also was the football strength coach for the Miami Hurricanes in the early 90s and won two national championships with them. I reached out to him about five years ago out of the blue when I was visiting my brother in South Florida. He didn’t know me or need to meet with me but he did for hours and he’s been someone I’ve leaned on for advice over and over for the last four to five years. I wish I had begun making those connections a lot earlier in my career!
JP: The same piece of advice I will be giving my children when they get older. Mistakes are part of the process but make sure you learn something from it. Success is built on a foundation of multiple failures. Lastly; you are never truly ready for anything but that can’t stop you.
AJ: Find balance in your life. My first 7-8 years in the profession I never took a vacation with my family. Prioritize what’s important and what really matters. Develop hobbies away from work to give you peace.