Jan 29, 2015
Strong Views

Leading college strength coaches join in a roundtable discussion on the latest trends in conditioning, where their profession is headed, and how they help their athletes reach the next level.

By R.J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected]

Today’s strength and conditioning coach is a key player in every athletic department. From performance development and rehab coordination to serving as a sounding board for athletes and a liaison to sport coaches, being a strength coach is hardly a 9-to-5 job. It’s a position that requires strong motivational and communication skills, as well as a deep understanding of science and sport.

Successful strength coaches are constantly looking to learn from others in the field. With that in mind, T&C gathered a panel of highly respected NCAA Division I, II, and III strength coaches for a roundtable discussion on the state of the profession and its future. Here, they talk about trends of today, dealing with hype, and their approaches to motivating athletes.

OUR PANEL: Jake Anderson, CSCS, MEd, is Head Strength Coach at Central College (Iowa).

Michael Doscher, MS, CSCC, CSCS-CP, is Head Speed/Strength & Conditioning Coach and Instructor at Valdosta State University.

Jeff Madden, MSCC, NASE, is Director of Athletic Performance at the University of Texas and President of the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Association.

Heather Mason, MSCC, MEd, SCCC, is Assistant Athletics Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Tennessee.

Josh Stoner, MS, CSCS, SCCC, is Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Missouri

T&C: What recent research in the strength and conditioning field are you watching closely?

Heather Mason: Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about mental training–creating competitive situations and a belief system for athletes in everything they do. It’s more neck-up training than neck-down.

I infuse competition into all of our activities. There’s always a goal, and the team has to develop a strategy to win the game. For instance, I never go into our conditioning workouts with just a docket of sprints. There’s a game associated with them, which allows the athletes to take more ownership so it isn’t just mindless running. And they love it. Things like that allow us to get our work done while training leaders and developing team commitment.

Jeff Madden: I’m always interested in literature on the dangers of heat illness and dehydration. We’ve had too many athletes across the country die from heat stroke in the last five or six years, so we’re paying closer attention than ever to preventive strategies–especially for those who have elevated risk, such as kids with sickle cell trait.

We’re using core temperature pills to monitor guys with sickle cell trait, and we also keep a close eye on our heavy sweaters. We make sure fluids are readily available at all times. If you’re watching closely enough, you can see when something isn’t right with a player, and when we do, we pull them out of drills immediately so they can get the attention they need.

Jake Anderson: We’ve been watching and getting into studies that look at Gray Cook’s Functional Movement Screen. We’ve always done biomechanical analysis of each athlete prior to designing their program, taking a specific look at each area of the body one at a time. But, the Functional Movement Screen looks at the body more globally to see how it moves in space, how everything is coordinated, and where dysfunction is rooted.

Josh Stoner: We’re focusing on making sure our players understand proper recovery and regeneration strategies. They work hard practicing, lifting, and running, so we want them to do anything they can to optimize recovery. That ensures they get maximum benefit for all the effort they put in.

Michael Doscher: I’m interested in seeing the speed of the bar in tendo units–how to measure it and how it translates into power and strength. Also, the new rep and percentage schemes coming out for power and strength are pretty interesting.

Science justifies everything we do. When we have a new idea, we try it on ourselves first, then on the athletes. Everything that’s published is usually a couple of months or even years old because of publishing cycles, so we try to stay ahead of the curve by talking to people and seeing what they’re doing.

What do you see as the “next big thing” in strength training?

Stoner: I think the next step is enhancing our focus on incorporating solid, well-rounded nutrition programs to complement what we do on the field and in the weightroom. That’s a huge part of regeneration and recovery. We’re seeing more and more athletic programs with sports nutrition departments that make plans and help steer athletes toward better food choices.

Mason: We’re seeing some schools develop a position called Director of Olympic Sports, or having a basketball- or softball-only strength coach. With more and more head strength coaches tied to the football coach, when a football coach is let go, you often see the entire strength and conditioning staff turn over. But why should a coaching change in football affect strength and conditioning in baseball or soccer? Having strength coaches who aren’t tied to the football program is a way to keep the entire department more stable when change does occur.

Doscher: I think we’ll see more true strength and conditioning coaches at the high school level. You won’t just have an offensive line coach doubling as your strength coach–you’ll have certified strength coaches handling those duties.

Anderson: It seems like we always come back to the same ground-based, three-dimensional, multi-joint movements: modifications of Olympic lifts, squatting, and so on. Trends come and go, and over the long term we keep what is beneficial and the rest falls by the wayside–sometimes only to return 15 or 20 years later, when it comes out as the next big thing.

How do you separate the legitimate ideas from hype when you observe a trend?

Stoner: The more experienced you are, the better you’re able to do that. One thing that really helps is if the people on your staff are actively strength training themselves. Our staff all trains. So when we design workouts, we collaborate and consider input from many different training backgrounds and approaches. It’s a think tank mentality, and we test everything on ourselves first.

Doscher: Time usually weeds out the hype. I try new things, but I still hold fast to many old school methods. I believe in the KISS philosophy: Keep It Simple, Stupid. For instance, when choosing exercises that will transfer to the playing field, you have to use common sense–when are athletes ever going to do something that mimics squats on a stability ball? I look at the athlete’s sport and decide if an exercise will truly make them better. Sometimes it just comes down to trial and error.

Madden: You have to be like a sponge, soaking up as much knowledge as possible, but you don’t have to retain it all. You may just take one technique or exercise from another coach and use it in your programs. I mostly stick with the proven things that got us where we are. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

How much emphasis do you place on analyzing athletes’ body composition?

Stoner: We’re fortunate to have a dual energy x-ray absorptiometry machine to test our athletes. It was designed to provide bone mineral density measurements for at-risk populations in the medical field, but for us it provides immediate feedback on how much lean mass an athlete has. Our football players are on it at least four times a year, and some guys even more often. It’s helpful because it accurately tells us who is losing lean mass during a season. Then we can intervene early, whether that means improving their nutrition, adjusting their workouts, or both.

Doscher: We measure body composition using computerized Skyndex calipers three times a year for football players: before camp, after the season, and right after winter training. It provides a barometer for how we’ve done as coaches and gives us tangible information to help athletes adjust their eating habits if need be. Our school’s exercise science department has a Bod Pod, but it’s brand new and they’re still working out the kinks. Once they become proficient with it, we’ll use it on all our athletes.

Anderson: Body composition is one of the first things we measure when an athlete joins our program. We track it twice a year and address nutritional and lifestyle factors while setting body weight goals and monitoring them weekly. At the NCAA Division III level, we don’t have access to as much high tech stuff, so we use underwater testing with help from our exercise science department or an old-fashioned skin caliper test.

Mason: With the Lady Vols, we have an athletic department policy that prohibits weigh-ins and body composition tests. Every body is different, and I do see the merits of testing body composition, but looking at the psychological side, especially with female athletes, we want to take the focus off those numbers and put it on performance-based numbers that gauge whether that athlete is ready to compete and practice.

What is your philosophy on optimizing regeneration and recovery?

Madden: We do everything we can to promote recovery. We use ice tubs after practice, work on post-practice flexibility, and offer specialized sessions in things like power Pilates and power yoga.

Mason: We teach our athletes that it’s not only what they do in their hour with us that determines what kind of athlete they’ll be, but also what they do to recover. We can’t be there with them every time they visit the store or dining hall. So we want them to understand the importance of optimal fuel sources, whether it’s getting enough carbohydrates in their body after a workout, or letting them know we want a protein source in their body within an hour or so after a lifting session. We also do a lot of dynamic flexibility training at the beginning and end of workouts to promote muscle recovery.

Anderson: Balancing training parameters with recovery strategies is essential if we want athletes to stay healthy and get the most out of strength training. We educate our athletes on the importance of nutrition and sleep, in addition to specifics such as when and how to take contrast showers, the effects of massage, ice baths, and things like that.

Stoner: We teach recovery methods such as foam rolling and how to use contrast showers. We have 20 foam rollers in our weightroom and a vibration platform that we utilize as a massage tool and for short recovery workouts such as doing push-ups and body weight squats.

What strikes you the most about athletes coming out of high school today?

Doscher: How much better trained they are. When I was in high school, I played football, but I trained like a bodybuilder–I didn’t know it then, but that didn’t do much to make me a better football player. Now, a lot of high school coaches emphasize weight training and they really stress technique and understand the importance of it.

Mason: Moving to the college level is a big eye-opener for most athletes. The majority of them didn’t train consistently with a personal trainer or strength coach in high school, so we have to spend a lot of time teaching them technique. That may mean some variations to exercises, but it’s mostly the intensity at which they need to train here.

Madden: The pace and tempo at this level is a whole lot faster, so it takes them a while to adjust to that. But kids are better prepared than they used to be because there are strength coaches at the high school level who take their jobs seriously and attend conferences and seminars and ask all the right questions to properly educate themselves.

Stoner: You still get those kids who don’t know much about strength training, and you have to be thoughtful with your approach. With our freshman football players, more are coming to work out in the summer, so we have special programming for the first three weeks to get them up to speed. They warm up and get ready with the team, then we separate them and they work with coaches on basic movement skills.

Anderson: There are three different types of athletes: those who come from very good high school teams with strong strength and conditioning programs, for whom the transition is smooth and easy; those who come from a very poor strength and conditioning background where technique was not preached or there was a “more is better” philosophy–that’s the most dangerous; and a smaller population of athletes who have not participated in any serious strength training before. Those athletes are less of a challenge because it’s easier to instill a good new motor habit than it is to improve a poor one.

How have sport coaches’ expectations changed with regard to strength and conditioning?

Madden: At this level, we are now truly members of our coaching staffs and an extension of the head coach. We’re the athletes’ big brothers and sisters and we do everything we can to make them better–both physically and mentally. We’re also the liaison between the athlete and their position coach or head coach, and we teach lessons about leadership and toughness. We do everything from speed and strength development to prehab. We’re the third phase of rehabilitation after the doctors and athletic trainers. That’s all expected of us now.

Doscher: When I first got here, of our 11 sports, only five used me. Now, all 11 sports are doing strength and conditioning work all the time. Athletes’ demand for it has greatly increased, because they’re all looking for a competitive edge. They’re constantly asking what they can do to get better.

Anderson: Each coach sees strength and conditioning as a different piece of athlete development. Some buy into it as a 12-months-a-year thing, while others still try to compartmentalize it by saying the off-season is their strength and conditioning time but in-season isn’t.

Stoner: Coaches have become a bigger part of the process and want to know more about it. We have to be able to answer their questions on the spot. We also need to be better than ever at asking the right questions and finding out their expectations for athletes and how we can complement their coaching philosophies.

What are the keys to gaining the trust of sport coaches?

Madden: Results. I have built up a pretty good resume so the coaches here trust that I know what I’m talking about. For younger people just starting out, I think you need to share the same mission statement as the coaches and sell them on the fact that you’re trying to obtain the same goal they are: to get the best athlete possible out on the field.

Anderson: The number one thing is letting the coach know we are training athletes to be better at their sport, not to be strongmen or Olympic power lifters. If it’s a tennis player, we want them to be a better tennis player, not a better weightlifter. This means sitting down with the coach and asking him or her what they want us to address with each athlete. That’s how you get them to buy in. They need to see what we’re doing is a piece of their puzzle and not a separate entity.

Doscher: Be confident in yourself and your program. Coaches don’t like dealing with strength coaches who don’t seem sure of what they’re doing.

Stoner: Sometimes, your agenda has to change to fulfill the coach’s needs and put you both on the same page. You have to be creative and intelligent, and realize that the results weigh more on the coach than on you–his or her job may depend on it every season. Communicate as much as you can. Sometimes it takes a couple of years to gain a coach’s trust, and it only happens if you invest heavily in communication and selling your ideas and your value to the program.

Mason: First and foremost is face time. With technology like texting and e-mailing, getting in touch with someone is quick and easy, but so much is lost with those methods and it’s important to spend one-on-one time with them and let them know you’re listening. Sport coaches are inundated with those types of messages, so our rule is no two texts or e-mails in a row: After one, you go find that coach and have a face-to-face conversation.

How has your approach to motivating athletes changed during your career?

Doscher: I don’t yell as much. I’ve realized yelling causes more problems than it solves. My athletes know I’m going to be aggressive in my coaching, and that I’ll respect them as long as they respect their coaches, each other, and the program. I don’t even bother talking to kids who don’t bust their butts, because they distract the people who want to work, and they distract me.

Stoner: When I first started out, I was more of an intense, in-your-face coach. After gaining experience, I’ve learned the importance of really getting to know each athlete. It is important for them to have a support system away from home, and we are part of that. I build trust with them and they tell me about things that cause them to struggle, whether it’s a girlfriend breaking up with them or having to stay up late to study for a test. It’s always been about effort and commitment, but my approach to getting that effort has changed. Before, it was “just do it” and now it’s more about education and understanding.

Anderson: Too many times we apply the golden rule of training: Whatever motivates me, motivates the athlete. I’ve learned that’s not necessarily true. We have to motivate athletes in the way that works for them. Are they intrinsically or extrinsically motivated? What different methods can we use on an individual basis? We individualize our strength programs, so shouldn’t we individualize our motivational tactics?

Mason: I make greater use of competitions. I’ve learned that every athlete is motivated differently. Even though most drills and exercises we do are competitive or have specific goals, I realize there are some athletes who want to sit back and be followers. So I ask them to be a captain for certain drills, which forces them to lead.

Madden: Motivation is such a big key. If your program is always the same, it gets stale and the athletes won’t give 100 percent. You might have 120 football players and need to figure out what makes each one of them tick. You have to know them as people first and foremost, and then get to know them as athletes. That’s a difficult task, but it’s essential to creating a successful program.


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