Jan 29, 2015
Total Package

Beyond physical training, many schools are investing in total performance programs for their athletes, offering everything from sport psychology to massage therapy. We asked a roundtable of experts for their ideas on the topic.

By R.J. Anderson

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

More than just a trendy way to describe today’s strength and conditioning approaches, “total performance training” has taken on a life of its own in recent years. For athletic programs across the country, the term has accompanied a new era, one that addresses an athlete’s nutritional, recovery, and emotional needs–in addition to training their muscles and movements to create a competitive advantage.

As the world of strength and conditioning has continued to evolve, a number of college and high school athletic departments are rebuilding, rearranging, and rebranding their facilities to focus on developing the complete athlete. By consolidating their athlete development toolbox, schools are able to streamline services and provide cutting-edge care for players.

With this trend showing no signs of slowing down, we asked a diverse group of performance training experts (See “Our Panel” below) to share their ideas on optimizing a multidiscipline, holistic approach. Though their strategies and resources vary, one thread remained consistent: the importance of constant innovation in order to get the most out of student-athletes on and off the field.

What is your strategy for enhancing total athlete performance? Shannon Singletary: My background in physical therapy, athletic training, and strength and conditioning has led me to implement a comprehensive approach that goes beyond physical training to also include emotional health and nutrition. When I began the University of Mississippi’s Health and Sports Performance department in 2004, I brought all of our physical therapists, athletic trainers, and strength and conditioning coaches together. From there, we added a primary care sports medicine physician, a sports psychologist, and, most recently, two sports nutritionists.

Our department’s goal is to use all of our resources and technology to improve our athletes’ performance levels during their time at Ole Miss, which includes decreasing the number of injuries, illnesses, and eating disorders we see. Ultimately, we want our athletes leaving here physically and emotionally healthier than when they arrived.

Brad Potts: Everything Lafayette College’s Peak Performance team does is intended to help our squads win–that’s how we all keep our jobs. We accomplish this by developing athletes into the smartest, mentally and physically toughest, and most relentless competitors possible. If you train those aspects, the wins will take care of themselves.

But we’re also looking to mold our athletes into well-rounded people who will be productive members of society when they graduate. Our tactical approach to meeting this goal began by studying how our athletes move through their school days and examining the logistical challenges presented by our campus setup. We then developed individualized programs that work within those parameters to help each player reach his or her potential academically, athletically, and emotionally.

For example, the academic day at Lafayette goes from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and we decided to schedule all individual workouts, skill work, treatment, and film study within that eight-and-a-half-hour period. This allows us to give each athlete an organized schedule that serves as a road map for his or her day-to-day life.

We’ve also begun putting even more focus on using our sports medicine department to prevent injuries, improve return-to-play outcomes, and boost our recovery strategies. This entails building in optimal rest and recovery for our athletes and opening up better lines of communication among our sports medicine, coaching, and performance staffs.

John Dettman: At the University of Wisconsin, we’ve always had great strength and conditioning personnel who do a fantastic job with physical performance training. Recently, we’ve started emphasizing recovery through nutrition products and educational programming to help our athletes take their development to an even higher level.

Matt Smith: For me, total athlete performance goes well beyond strength and conditioning. I educate my athletes here at St. John’s College High School [in Washington, D.C.] on nutrition, recovery, mental conditioning, as well as physical training. When I was at IMG Academy [in Bradenton, Fla.], I took advantage of every opportunity to sit in on sessions with its sports psychologists and pick the brains of staff nutritionists, which gave me a great base of knowledge that I try to pass on to our athletes as they aim to improve their performance.

At the end of the day, we’re about teaching athletes to have a hard-working, productive mindset that will translate to the real world. For example, I tell athletes to show effort and enthusiasm during workouts even when they don’t feel like training, because in the real world, they aren’t always going to feel like working, but they have to. Through our holistic approach, I strive to teach our athletes how to train effectively, but I also want them to leave St. John’s as well-rounded young adults who can make an impact on the world.

What are some of the advantages of having an all-inclusive performance department? Potts: We view the strength and conditioning facility as our central command for athlete services, because all of the players use the space in some way each week. This allows the Peak Performance staff to communicate messages from various departments to all of our athletes. Whether through bulletin boards, signage, or interpersonal communication, we’re able to pass along information on new athletic department policies or best practices for training and recovery to our student-athlete population.

Singletary: In the past, the student-athletes had to rely on themselves to seek out certain services like mental health support. For example, if a player was feeling depressed, they would have to take it upon themselves to make an appointment with a counselor on campus. Now, with everybody on the same team, the key members of the Health and Sports Performance department–the strength coaches, athletic trainers, sports psychologist, and sports nutritionists–are able to meet on a regular basis and identify an athlete who may be having trouble. Then the group can find out what’s going on with that individual and work together to give them the kind of help they need, which will ultimately bring out the best in the athlete.

In addition, when an injury occurs in the weightroom, no matter how minor, it is immediately reported to our athletic trainers. Before, if an athlete tweaked something, we might take a wait-and-see approach before reporting it. Now, our department policy dictates an automatic report. I don’t think we did a bad job with safety before, but we have a better awareness and specific policies in place now.

Dettman: In designing our new athletic facilities, especially the Student-Athlete Performance Center, one of our priorities was consolidating our student-athlete services. We know if something is convenient and accessible, such as an on-the-go nutrition bar, our players are more likely to follow through and use it. If they have to go out of their way to find or do something, they usually won’t.

What is your role within your total performance department? Dettman: My job is best defined as someone who brings things to our staff that helps make them–and our athletes–better. Every time we take on a new project, whether it is a nutritional product or a training tool, I ask myself, “Does it help our staff get better and allow our athletes to improve?” Then it comes down to asking our strength coaches and other personnel, “If we added this to our program, would it benefit you and your athletes? If you had this versus that, which would help make you more effective at servicing your athletes?”

Singletary: I’m a resource, organizer, and sounding board. I’m not there to tell Paul Jackson [Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Football] how to write his training program. Instead, my role is to put him, the rest of our strength coaches, and all of our other staff members in the best position to succeed by giving them all of the resources they require. As a leader, I need to be on-site walking around to find out what everybody needs. Then, I serve as a conductor that keeps everybody in tune and on the same beat.

Potts: Being in an administrative position in addition to my duties as a strength and conditioning coach allows me to reach beyond our facility to have sit-downs with everyone from our sports medicine staff to the registrars who schedule our student-athletes’ classes. It also gives me a greater platform for continual communication with our players, and I work with our student life administrators to help make our student-athlete experience the best it can be.

How does an emphasis on total performance pay off when it comes to strength and conditioning?

Singletary: Having a comprehensive department helps ensure each athlete is treated according to the needs of their sport. When you have experts from several fields weighing in on each team, it makes it easier to devise specific plans for the volleyball or baseball players rather than approaching everyone like the football players. In addition, our strength coaches are now looking more closely at what motivates each individual athlete, instead of what gets the group going. They’ve learned from the sports psychologist that we should treat our athletes as individuals. The Health and Sports Performance department is kind of like a think tank that can assess needs for each sport.

Smith: Having a broader approach to performance allows me to treat everyone like an athlete, which I think is important at the high school level. For example, in football, I don’t do position-specific strength and conditioning. I’ll train a backup offensive lineman the same way I train a five-star running back because both players need to be able to move fluidly and athletically. So I analyze and evaluate our athletes’ weaknesses and help them build from the ground up.

How have you stepped up your commitment to fueling your athletes? Dettman: Over the last few years, we’ve really gone after the product and educational programming aspects of performance nutrition. Like a lot of other schools, we conduct cooking classes for our athletes. But ours are unique because we put a lot of effort into making them fun, interactive, and competitive. We add music and do things to encourage cooperation and camaraderie.

Athletes don’t have a lot of money or time, and they don’t want to be inundated with information because they already have plenty of homework, so we take the complexity out of cooking and make our lessons interesting. For example, in a nutrition seminar we held for our men’s basketball team last summer, we taught a few recipes using videos of our players doing the cooking. The year before, we had videos of the coaches putting the recipes together. We’ve done the same thing for football, too. It’s a great way to get the athletes engaged.

From a product standpoint, the first step was learning about the foods we were putting in front of our athletes. From there, we began partnerships with a number of local whey protein companies to create energy bars and powders that were nutrient-dense and tailor-made to our specifications. We’ve also worked with our food and beverage providers to give our athletes the type of healthy food choices that appeal to their tastes and lifestyles.

Singletary: When I looked at our program from a medical perspective, one of the things I felt we needed to attack first was nutrition. We already had great strength coaches, but we needed to step up our efforts to fuel our athletes before and after workouts and contests. Through the educational efforts of our two sports nutritionists, we have cut down tremendously on hydration and cramping issues. Our strength coaches are reporting that our athletes are doing a better job of reaching and maintaining weight goals, both in and out of season. Focusing on nutrition seven days a week has benefited Ole Miss’s teams in the weightroom and on the field.

We’ve been aided tremendously in these efforts by the construction of a new, full-fledged sports nutrition-based cafeteria where all of our student-athletes eat. Our sports nutritionists are always there working with the food prep staff and writing up meal plans for our athletes.

Smith: When I came to St. John’s, I convinced our athletic director to bring in a sports nutritionist who put together a 25-page informational packet for students. It is very in-depth but uses a lot of pictures and basic analogies our athletes can relate to. Then he did parent workshops with every team where he talked about the importance of hydration for recovery and performance and gave PowerPoint presentations on the nutrition packet.

Potts: At Lafayette, we don’t have the luxury of a training table, so we follow the mindset of: “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.” This means educating our athletes on proper fueling and recovery strategies from day one. When our freshman football players arrived for camp last summer, they had 30-minute seminars every morning that covered the hows and whys behind optimal fueling tactics. Our biggest emphasis is the importance of eating breakfast every day, and we also encourage the athletes to carry around a container of water to maintain optimal hydration levels.

How would you advise schools with tight budgets that want to copy elements of your total performance program? Dettman: You don’t have to replicate everything that other athletic departments are doing. Instead, just take one or two aspects and do them well. If I were at a high school, I would ask myself, “Of all the concepts and enhancement programs I’ve read about, what one little thing can I add to my program that will move the needle even a bit?” Don’t be afraid to make small changes.

Singletary: Although Ole Miss is in the Southeastern Conference, we have a much smaller budget than other schools in the league. Those in a similar position would do well to get away from the concept of the athletic department as an island and develop relationships with others on their campus. For example, we went to our counseling center and asked if they would split the salary of a sports psychologist with the athletic department. We did the same thing with the school’s nutrition department. We said, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could develop a sports nutrition degree offering? We can help fund a full-time instructor for that.” Now we have two sports nutritionists who work in the athletic department and also teach classes.

Potts: Any performance coach worth their weight has to be a great critical thinker–that means sitting down, evaluating your program’s challenges and resources, and forming a clear-cut mission to improve its weaknesses. When I did that here, I developed a cost-effective strategy for creating a realistic competitive advantage for our teams. From there, I drew up a tactical approach that addressed the lack of organization in our athletes’ days–that didn’t take any money, just teamwork.

In addition, play to your strengths. At Lafayette, we have smart kids and over-achievers, so I know that if I show the athletes how to use the tools for improvement, they’ll buy in–especially after they start seeing results. Finally, it’s not just saying it, you have to walk the walk. A lot of people talk about these ideas but don’t follow through. A total performance program takes time and effort. You’re going to hit roadblocks, and things aren’t always going to work out. But you have to stick with it and keep on tweaking and communicating. Once people see you working hard at a comprehensive approach, it’s not difficult to get the buy in you need to make it work.

Smith: A lot of high school strength and conditioning coaches are doing phenomenal work with limited resources. Reach out to them. From my experience, performance coaches are always willing to answer questions and help.

What do you feel is the next frontier for performance training and athlete development? Potts: One thing we’re using more and more is the Polar Team 2 monitoring system. It allows us to provide coaches with hard data on how an athlete is performing and who might be at greater risk of injury if we push them too hard physically. Our sports medicine staff now has the ammo to recommend taking a kid out for a day to let them rest and recover.

Singletary: Using GPS data and other devices that gather physiological information is definitely the next frontier. At Ole Miss, we’re looking at what we can do with data like an athlete’s working heart rate, calories burned, speed, acceleration, and applied forces.

For example, one day I anticipate using this information to design programs throughout the year to make sure our athletes are training and working during the specific times of the day that best suit their optimal growth process. Or on the practice field, I can foresee strength coaches and athletic trainers delivering data to the sport coaches and saying, “This is the optimal work a player can do before they start to lose concentration or their performance drops off.”

Dettman: In addition to expanding the role of performance nutrition, I think we’ll concentrate more on sleep optimization and its role in recovery and regeneration. We’re just starting to dip our toes in it, but I’m always looking for research on sleep, and we’re constantly talking to athletes about getting more rest. Total performance training has to tie everything together–how the athletes fuel, train, rest, and recover is really one model.


John Dettman, SCCC, is Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Wisconsin, where he oversees the athletic department’s strength and conditioning program. In 2010, he stepped aside as the Badgers’s Head Football Strength Coach, a position he held for 20 years, to focus more attention on total athlete development. For the past five years, Dettman’s emphasis has been performance nutrition for Wisconsin’s 800 student-athletes.

Brad Potts, MS, CSCS, USA-W, RSCS, was promoted to Assistant Director of Athletics for Peak Performance at Lafayette College in July. He is charged with establishing a creative, realistic, holistic approach to student-athlete performance by coordinating the school’s sports medicine, strength and conditioning, mental performance, and sports nutrition efforts. Previously, he spent seven years as Director of Sports Performance and Head Strength Coach for the Leopards’s 23 teams.

Shannon Singletary, DPT, ATC, CSCS, is Senior Associate Athletics Director for Health and Sports Performance at the University of Mississippi. Launched in 2004 by Singletary, the 35-member Health and Sports Performance Department houses Ole Miss’s sports medicine, strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, and sports psychology units.

Matt Smith, MS, USAT, is Head of Performance Training at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C. Smith is responsible for the academic, spiritual, and physical development of the school’s student-athletes. Prior to his time at St. John’s, Smith spent two years at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

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