Jan 29, 2015
Team Effort

Sometimes, the toughest part of a strength coach’s job is getting on the same page as the sport coach. At Tennessee, this author has found solutions through sharing goals and communicating constantly.

By Heather Mason

Heather Mason, SCCC, MEd, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the University of Tennessee women’s athletic department. She is a former Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Notre Dame.

Strength and conditioning coaches have been a part of the collegiate athletic landscape for 35 years now, ever since the position was introduced at the University of Nebraska in 1969. However, many schools still struggle with meshing the role of the strength and conditioning coach with that of the sport coach. What the strength and conditioning coach does with athletes must always complement what the sport coach does, and vice versa. But that doesn’t always happen.

Most sports coaches have at least some background in sport-specific strength and conditioning. But as a strength and conditioning coach, you need to control the strength program to ensure athletes follow a safe, progressive plan. This can often lead to sport coaches and strength and conditioning coaches not being on the same page. The solution is communication—and more communication.

This means talking about goals and philosophies, updating each other on a regular basis, and showing the sport coach the results of your efforts. In this article, I’ll explain how I work with sport coaches in the University of Tennessee women’s athletic department to achieve team goals.

Beginning Communication

The first step to communicating well with a sport coach is understanding each person’s role. It’s important to remember that the sport coach must answer for the success or failure of the team. The strength and conditioning coach is charged with alleviating some of the sport coach’s burden of preparing the athletes for competition by overseeing the process of enhancing performance and minimizing injuries.

Some coaches will want you to set up the entire strength and conditioning plan with little input of their own. Others will want to work closely with you in developing a plan. And still others may disagree with your methods and want to use their own ideas. A successful strength and conditioning coach has to be able to work with all three types of coaches.

To start, you must discuss overall periodization plans with sport coaches to ensure you are both on the same page. Because most sport coaches do not have an educational background in muscle development, energy systems, and biomechanics, this can be a complicated and frustrating process. The best solution is to tailor your explanations to the particular coach’s level of understanding.

I’ve found that the use of analogies can be very beneficial. For example, if I want to discuss the importance of carbohydrates in an athlete’s diet, I might say that carbohydrates are to the body as premium gas is to a Ferrari. Without premium gas, the expensive car does not run as effectively as it should.

What about coaches who come from different strength and conditioning backgrounds and disagree with my philosophies? First, I prepare research and articles for the coaches to read. If they are still hesitant about my ideas, I try to find common ground and compromise on some issues.

For example, if a coach has some specific drills and exercises that he or she strongly believes in, I find a place to use them, unless they are dangerous. I’ve found that when I listen and offer to compromise, sport coaches are willing to compromise, too.

However, the philosophy and integrity of your program should not deteriorate as a result of compromises. A “flavor of the month” approach to strength and conditioning will not help your athletes. Both the strength and conditioning coach and sport coach are charged with ensuring a safe training environment, which includes a consistent training program.

If you find a sport coach is not giving you the trust and respect you need, you still need to stick with your philosophies and overall plan. If your philosophy is a good one, it will bear good results. To build that, be sure to show the coach the physical results of your plan.

You might need to explain that something that works at one school might not work at another. But don’t let that diminish what you can do with the athletes in your program.

Advanced Communication

Beyond establishing a basic understanding about the elements of a successful strength and conditioning program, further communication should explore the nuances of the team’s needs. Before the start of each school year, I meet with each sport coach to reiterate the philosophy of the strength department and discuss team and individual athlete goals for the year. All concerns from the previous season are addressed, and we usually tweak the periodized plan based on next year’s goals.

Once a general approach is agreed on, the communication continues. First, I make sure to ask what the coaches are doing in practice every day and impress on them the importance of letting me know when their plans change. If I am at all unclear on their plans, I will ask specific questions, such as, “How many pitches will your pitchers be throwing in practice today?” or “Exactly how many court sprints will the volleyball team be doing tomorrow?”

I also attend practices in order to monitor the athletes’ work. Even with constant communication, there are misunderstandings on volume and intensity that can only be discovered by seeing practices myself. If the volume and intensity levels are higher than I thought, I will adjust training levels to avoid injuring the athletes as a result of fatigue.

For example, if I notice at soccer practice that athletes do not have “punch” in the knee, I know that they are tired and are not getting much hip flexion. So I will decrease the volume of the exercises involving the hips in the weight room during the after-practice workout.

Just as important, I provide regular updates to coaches on all the players. Reports detail the athlete’s strength and power improvements, work intensity and attitude, and intangibles, such as leadership, discipline, and accountability. Each report is given to the coach in person.

In fact, I make a conscious effort to spend as much “face time” with the players and coaches as possible. When athletes see the strength and conditioning coach and sport coach talking on a regular basis, there’s an unspoken message of increased accountability sent to athletes. Although the strength and conditioning coach does not submit the starting line-ups for the team, the players need to know that their playing time could potentially be affected by the information the strength and conditioning coach shares with the sport coach. Few things will motivate an athlete more than the possibility of losing playing time.

I also try to attend as many sport practices as possible to improve my knowledge of the sport and the ways the sport coach teaches the nuances of the game. For example, by going to basketball practices, I have improved my understanding of how our coaches teach the defensive stance and the close-out (from helpside defense). I also try to pick up the specific vocabulary the coaches use. Then, in my agility drills containing defensive slides and close-outs, I can use the same phrases their coach uses in her teaching. This way, consistency with coaching cues is established.

By attending practices and closely communicating with the coach, I can also come up with contingencies for when a coach wants to cancel a workout session. When a sport coach thinks his or her athletes are too tired for a full workout, I can create an alternate that will achieve some of the desired results with fewer demands on the team.

For example, if the soccer coach complains that several athletes have tight backs and sore knees, and she wants to cut the day’s conditioning workout, I might ask her to have the athletes come in for a pool workout or cardiovascular work. Although my original plan called for on-field conditioning through a designated volume of sprints, I can come up with another way to work the anaerobic systems. Inevitably, an extra practice session or overtime game will throw off your periodization plan, so it’s important to have alternative workouts ready.

Challenge the Court

Another key to making the communication process work is to implement the team’s goals into your strength program. Don’t think that just because a goal is not directly related to developing strength or increasing conditioning, you can’t make a difference.

For example, after the 2003-04 basketball season, Coach Pat Summitt and I discussed several needs for the following season. One was for the athletes to consistently play more than four continuous minutes during a game. The coaching staff also wanted the athletes to visually react quicker, sit lower in a defensive stance, and close-out with low hips and high hands. Third, the coaches wanted to place the players into an environment that would physically and mentally challenge the team and reveal team leaders. The conditioning program was designed to contain all of these components, even though they weren’t all traditional strength and conditioning goals.

The preseason plan followed our usual pattern for increasing strength and power, but also included new exercises to strengthen the muscles involved in lowering the hips lower in a defensive stance. To improve our anaerobic conditioning base and sport-specific skill development, the conditioning workout included standard dynamic flexibility, balance and coordination drills, agility drills, and a conditioning game.

The agility drills were designed to accomplish four of the teams’ goals: to be conditioned to play for more than a four-minute stretch, to work on close-outs and seals, to combine a physical and mental challenge, and to find team leaders. Here’s how it works:

  • Drills are divided into five-minute segments.
  • Two drills are run at the same time at opposite ends of the basketball court. Guards complete a close-out drill and posts complete a seal drill. (“Seal” is the term we use when offensive players post up and have to keep the defensive player behind them.)
  • After two and a half minutes, the players sprint to the opposite end of the court and perform the other agility drill.
  • After the second two and a half minutes, the whistle blows indicating the end of the five-minute period.
  • Next, the players sit in a row, like they do during a time-out, for two minutes as I diagram the next five-minute set of agility drills, which again focus on close-outs and seals, but differ from the previous drills. The whistle blows to signify the end of the “time-out.”

  • This pattern of five-minute agility drills and two-minute time-outs repeats for five cycles.

Following the agility drill sequence, a conditioning game, using interval training with a one-to-one work-to-rest ratio, is played. Here’s how it works:

  • The goal is to beat the (absent) opponent. We usually pick a rival team as our opponent. This opponent begins the game with 20 points. Tennessee begins with zero points. The first team to reach 24 points wins.
  • Players form two lines (one group is guards, the other group is posts).
  • Six different sprints are listed on the dry erase board. Each group takes turns doing the sprints listed.
  • The opponent receives a point when any Tennessee player misses a line touch with her foot, does not run hard through the finish line, puts her hands on her knees (showing fatigue), or misses her goal time.
  • Tennessee receives points when goal times are achieved and each player proves herself accountable for the details of the drill.
  • If the opponent wins the game, we play again with adjusted goal times that are longer than the original ones.
  • If all six sprints are run and neither team reaches 24 points, then we run the drills again.

Along with conditioning, another element of the drill is teaching leadership. One player is named a captain for the drill and is given additional responsibilities. She is allowed to call two time-outs and one halftime (rest times). Thus, she needs to listen to her teammates and understand the strategy behind winning the game.

This conditioning game creates an amazing team atmosphere. Because two lines of athletes are running separately for points, each is cheering the other on. The game places ownership in the players’ hands. And the idea of doing it right the first time definitely hits home, as does a “do whatever it takes” mentality.

The basketball coaching staff asked for physical and mental challenges, leadership breakthroughs, accountable and disciplined athletes, and improved skill development. All became apparent through the conditioning workouts. The drill fits my needs as a strength and conditioning coach too, as I’m getting quality runs out of the athletes. They are motivated to have great mechanics and intensity in every run.

Soccer Survivors

Another example of how I communicate with coaches involves the soccer team. During the previous off-season, the coach told me her goal was to make the team more competitive and boost their level of strength and conditioning. This particular group of athletes was not very interested in weightroom work and needed extra motivation to break mental and physical barriers.

In response, I wanted to create an environment in the weightroom that would motivate them to work harder. So after conducting typical (but hard) workouts their first four weeks of training, we dubbed the fifth week, “Survivor Week.”

The idea was to mimic the popular television show and also give the athletes an intense environment. We split the soccer athletes into three teams, each with its own name and team color (orange, blue, and white), and gave each athlete an identifying bandana that they were required to have on their person at all times that week.

During Survivor Week workouts, we inserted one to three competitions every day. Whichever team won that competition would be granted immunity from the Superfinish of that competition. We tallied points for each team and the team with the most points for the day was dubbed “Queen Tribe.” The competition activities ran the gamut from tug-of-war to wall sits with 135-pound weights to George of the Jungles (flexed-arm hang from bar for maximum amount of time). The team with the most points at the end of the week were the Survivors.

To make the week as intense as possible, we made sure to add all the right nuances. We began the week with an opening ceremony—we played music from the television show, lit torches, and made the athletes walk across a fake bridge. During the week, whenever a member of the athletic department saw a soccer athlete around campus, he or she would check the athlete for her bandana.

The athletes responded very well. They showed higher levels of intensity and competitiveness within strength workouts that we hadn’t seen from them before. They called me at night to make sure I had all the scores correct and ask me questions. And so far this season, all of their hard work is showing on the field, with the team ranking sixth in the nation at the midseason mark.

Through these examples, it’s apparent how strength and conditioning plans can fulfill the varied needs of a sport coach as well as the strength and conditioning coach. When all involved are speaking the same language and committed to excellence, a consistent, intense training environment can be created.

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