Jan 29, 2015
Views From The Top

Five veteran strength and conditioning coaches share their thoughts on getting the most out of athletes, stretching, periodization, and the future of the profession.

By R.J. Anderson

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

In the world of strength and conditioning, it’s widely accepted that experience is the best teacher. However, experience doesn’t always have to come from within–it can also be gleaned from those who have already traveled a similar path. Fortunately for today’s strength and conditioning coaches, there are a number of veterans who are more than willing to share some of the wisdom they’ve picked up along the way.

With that in mind, T&C asked five highly respected strength and conditioning professionals for their thoughts on a number of topics, including training philosophies, industry trends, and their specific methods for developing athletes. Their answers are presented below. (Bios on our panel of experts can be found by scrolling to the bottom of this page.)

T&C: What are the most important factors in developing a successful strength and conditioning program?

Michael Boyle: Number one is attention to detail and number two is technique–which goes hand-in-hand with attention to detail. The ability to get athletes to do things well is what separates good programs from bad programs. We all have access to the same information. The coaches who do a better job are those who make sure it’s done right.

Mickey Marotti: You need unconditional support from your head sport coaches and school administrators. That means sport coaches will discipline athletes who don’t show up for workouts, and they believe in what you’re doing. Everybody needs to be on the same page, and that starts at the top.

Stacey Torman: With so many different kinds of athletes at this level, it’s critical to diversify your coaching style. Some kids are less motivated than others and some need to be reined in from time to time. Being able to adapt to the different personalities and levels of commitment is key.

Allan Johnson: The program needs to be multifaceted and comprehensive, encompassing strength, flexibility, agility, speed, balance, nutrition, prehab, and explosion. It also needs to be simplified for both the coaches and athletes. Sometimes we overcomplicate simple tasks and the athletes have no idea what we’re talking about. The athletes need us to break it down so they understand what we want them to do.

Chris Carlisle: A good program is one that meets the goals you’re training for. It has to be right for you. You can’t take somebody else’s ideas and try to apply them to your program unless you completely understand how those ideas were developed.

What are the keys to getting the most out of each athlete?

Torman: Daily goals are a must. Each athlete needs to have short-term goals–for instance, to achieve a certain number of reps or amount of weight. If each workout doesn’t have a specific purpose, the entire cycle will drag on.

Carlisle: There needs to be a social contract between you and the athlete. The athlete can’t be afraid of you, but there has to be respect. Respect is born from trusting you and believing that you know what you’re doing. They have to trust that you will not put them in situations that could cause injury and keep them from playing. They have to trust that you’ll push them hard enough so they’ll become better than they were before they started your program.

Boyle: The number one factor is convincing athletes to compete only with themselves. I don’t do any results boards or clubs in my weightroom because that stuff only rewards the guys with the most fast-twitch muscle fiber. If you say, “You need to get on the ‘300 Board’ for bench pressing 300 pounds,” athletes end up doing whatever it takes to get their name on the board instead of obtaining technical mastery of the exercise.

Strength levels are largely pre-determined by how much fast-twitch muscle fiber an athlete has, and you need to work with that. So I say, “Here’s what you did last time. Here’s what we think you’re capable of doing. Here’s what we’re going to do to get you there.”

Johnson: Developing a relationship with the athlete and discovering his or her hot button is the key. The more you know about the athlete’s background and what makes them tick, the better you’ll understand how to motivate them. That might mean talking to their sport coach, their academic advisor, or even their parents. It also means really listening to your athletes. A big mistake we sometimes make as coaches is talking too much and not listening enough. You’d be amazed how much you can learn by not saying anything and just listening.

Marotti: There have to be results and changes they can plainly see in the weightroom and on the playing field. So we communicate how much they’re improving on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. Athletes also need to know how much you care about them and how hard you’re working to help them get better. If you’re a passionate, intense person who embraces the job, athletes feed off it.

What is your philosophy on stretching? Johnson: I’m more into an active dynamic warmup with minimal flexibility work. Recent research has shown that if you incorporate static stretching into your pre-workout or pre-game routine, there’s a 19-percent reduction in power output as far as vertical and horizontal speed. I’m a big proponent of PNF or assistive stretching post activity.

Torman: I’ve really gotten away from a lot of static stretching at the beginning of a session. But I do build in some stretches because I think psychologically some of our athletes need it–they’re used to stretching as part of their warmup, so it makes them feel prepared.

Marotti: We’re more focused on using a dynamic warmup pre-practice and pre-workout. Then we do some traditional PNF stretching, partner stretching, and band work post-practice and post-workout.

Carlisle: We do a dynamic warmup followed by a static stretching routine. I don’t think all of the information is in, even though it’s sort of a fad to say static stretching is bad. When I see our physical therapists–who are on the cutting edge of all this stuff–stretching athletes through a range of motion, I’ve got to believe stretching is still a good idea.

Boyle: In the last couple years we’ve actually gone back to more traditional stretching. I think a lack of flexibility is at the root of many overuse problems we see. After five minutes of foam rolling, we spend five minutes on static stretching before doing a dynamic warmup. I think nearly everyone can benefit from a good dose of static stretching.

What is your philosophy on periodization?

Johnson: I think periodization is good as a basic guide for taking an athlete through a systematic program. But what looks good on paper doesn’t always work in day-to-day practice because it’s based on a number derived prior to cycle assessment, not on the individual athlete.

Boyle: I think periodization is incredibly overrated. Conventional periodization was designed for athletes in individual sports, not team sport athletes, so it really isn’t applicable in the collegiate setting. For most college team sports, there is no isolated peak period or time we can set aside for hypertrophy. In NCAA Division I college football, the peak has to last from mid-August until January. For our ice hockey season, the athletes need to peak from mid-October until April.

Carlisle: I think it worked well in the Eastern Bloc when they had year-round conditioning and supervision with set periods of competition and training. But it doesn’t work in our model because there’s not enough time to go through hypertrophy and all the other stages with the NCAA limits on training time. I don’t know of any Russian periodizations that allowed for eight weeks of discretionary time between January and the beginning of summer workouts.

Do you believe in correcting agility mechanics, or letting athletes find their own form?

Boyle: I believe mechanics should be taught, just as linear speed is taught.

Torman: We break it down and address it individually. There are always fast and not-so-fast kids, but I think every kid can get faster if you correct small mechanical issues.

Marotti: We do a little bit of both. Teaching the mechanics of agility and running is important. However, every athlete is different and they have to learn a lot of it on their own.

Johnson: In the initial stages of working with young athletes, I would definitely attempt to correct poor agility mechanics. But when an athlete gets older, I might let them find their own mechanics as they mature. A lot of it also has to do with how successful the athlete is–we’ve all seen extremely quick, fast athletes with terrible form and technique. I had a kid at West Virginia who ran the 40-yard dash in under 4.3 seconds with the worst running technique you’ve ever seen. We tried to improve his technique and it was a hindrance for him–he couldn’t run as fast.

Carlisle: Our All-American nose guard Sedrick Ellis, who is a senior this year, has toes that turn out to three o’clock and nine o’clock. If you correct that pattern and try to get his toes back to normal, you’re going to throw off the way his body moves. I know people talk a lot about gait analysis, but when this kid gets into fight or flight, how long do you think the new gait training is going to stick? As soon as the ball is snapped, he’s probably not going to concentrate on keeping his toes straight, and will revert back to how he’s run for 20 years. However, if an athlete has mechanical issues that are causing an injury, you need to correct them.

How do you avoid lower back problems with athletes who are lifting a lot?

Boyle: I believe you avoid back injuries primarily by doing a good job in teaching lifting technique. But I also believe you can’t put square pegs into round holes. You have to accept the fact that not everybody was meant to squat. As strength coaches, we’ve been very dogmatic in using the philosophy that everybody has to squat and do the core lifts, when in actuality some of those exercises probably put 20 percent of the population at risk and should be avoided by those people.

Marotti: First, we make sure they’re doing the exercises properly. We also make sure our athletes’ cores are strong and stable. Another component is a smart, common sense progression. Sometimes, coaches follow a periodized routine that calls for too much weight at a certain time for a particular athlete. Everyone progresses at different rates and you can’t hold each athlete to the same standard.

Carlisle: Before we load a kid with any weight, we work on technique. Some kids come out of high school with very good technique, while others are train wrecks. Once we get great technique, we work on speed of movement. Only then do we start worrying about the amount of weight. Once technique breaks down, we lower the weight. Problems arise when we are too focused on how much guys are lifting and technique becomes secondary.

Torman: We try to strengthen the core, improve their hip flexor flexibility, and get them to fire their glutes and hamstrings at the appropriate times. We ask our athletic trainers to come up with a good overall flexibility and strengthening program for those particular areas and muscles.

Do you dissuade athletes from doing “bodybuilding” exercises that aren’t considered integral to performance enhancement for their sport?

Boyle: For the most part, I tell my athletes to avoid those exercises. But occasionally I let them do some isolated arm work as filler, if they want to.

Johnson: Those exercises can be good as a mental pick-me-up and during recovery phases, especially in the off-season. However, we need to educate the athletes that we’re training for explosiveness and speed, and bodybuilding does not really contribute to that development.

Carlisle: We use an apple pie approach. Let’s say we do a regular workout with plyometrics, med ball, core, squats, and bench, and I’m getting all my work in. We’ll put the apple pie at the end of the workout by incorporating some bodybuilding stuff that gets them all yoked up with big arms. Does that make them better football players? Maybe a little, but the big thing is when they look in the mirror they feel good about themselves. Even football coaches see the results from those exercises and tell them how good they look. That’s brain candy. And it’s just from working five minutes on their arms. If you don’t give them something they want, you can’t be sure they’re going to come back and work hard tomorrow. And tomorrow is the most important day.

What advice do you give athletes about taking nutritional supplements?

Boyle: I’m a big believer in supplements. We would like everybody to use a post-workout supplement like a protein-carbohydrate mix. Also, I would ideally like all my athletes to take fish oil and some kind of multivitamin.

Johnson: I’m not a big proponent of supplementing with anything other than protein, carbohydrate, or a multivitamin. Many kids are looking for a quick fix and what we as coaches need to do is educate them on how to build a body one block at a time. One question I ask athletes right off the bat is, “Do you eat breakfast?” I think breakfast is the key to any nutrition program.

Torman: I never recommend anything and our athletic department doesn’t provide anything, but I tell them that supplement means “in addition to what you’re eating”–not meal replacement.

Carlisle: We’re not a big supplement group. I think if you eat a balanced diet, you don’t need supplements. For guys who want to gain or lose weight, we have specific guidelines about what they should eat and when they should eat it. Supplements are too often used as a substitute for a good meal, which is what athletes should really be focusing on.

What trends in strength training do you see gaining steam?

Boyle: Machines that can accurately measure power will be big. I think more people are going to see the value of training at high speeds and effectively training for power.

Johnson: We are seeing a lot of strength and conditioning tools that were relevant 15 to 20 years ago making comebacks–somebody puts a little twist on it and it’s relevant again. For instance, the old leather medicine ball was something used by boxers and wrestlers 25 years ago. Recently a couple of companies put rubber on it and now it bounces–it’s the same tool, but with additional benefits. I think we’ll see more of that.

Torman: I believe more and more schools will start incorporating their physiology departments into their strength and conditioning programs. As a result, there will be more monitoring of VO2 maxes and heart rates in our training and conditioning facilities as performance tools, not just as experimental testing done in a lab.

How do you keep up with advances in the field?

Boyle: You have to attend seminars. You should go to at least one per year in which you are going to sit and listen. A lot of times, people go to these big seminars to network and hang out. I like to hang out as much as anybody, but I think you also have to really sit and listen and find out what the best people in the field are coming up with.

Torman: I’m always reading journals and looking at research and articles online. I also watch videos about a lot of methods and exercises, which is much more helpful than just reading descriptions.

Johnson: I read as many strength and conditioning journals and magazines as possible. I attend a lot of clinics and conferences and visit a lot of different experts to watch them work in their setting. I try to spend at least 60 to 90 minutes a day four or five days a week reading about the profession.

Marotti: I attend conferences, clinics, and symposiums as often as possible. I try to gather as much information as I can. I also spend a lot of time talking to peers I trust in the field.

Where do you see the profession of strength training heading?

Marotti: I think there will be a lot of effort dedicated to addressing an athlete’s psyche as it relates to training and competition. Corrective exercise is another subject that’s becoming a big deal.

Johnson: I think our profession is exploding and the opportunities for strength and conditioning professionals will continue to grow. Society is starting to get a better grasp of what we do and how important we are for developing athletes.

Boyle: I think we’ll see more people getting out of the profession due to burnout. Particularly in the collegiate setting, strength and conditioning coaches have more demand on them than anybody else in the athletic department because they are in-season all year round. Many coaches are expected to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. If we don’t revamp the profession and make the hours more realistic, most of us will be out of it by the time we’re 50.

Torman: I’d like to see our profession have a seat on an NCAA committee of some kind and have a voice in legislation. Without input from athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coaches, I don’t think the NCAA gets a complete picture of what’s best for the athletes.

What are the biggest challenges facing today’s strength and conditioning professionals?

Torman: Getting done what the coaches want us to do within a limited time frame.

Carlisle: There are too many gurus out there with get-big-quick ideas. Our profession is watered down by fly-by-night, weekend trainers who don’t operate with the complete picture in mind–that’s especially true here in California. There are plenty of guys who don’t have the background, but are still able to get in athletes’ ears and say, “I can make you this or that …”

Marotti: Athletes who have a false sense of how good they really are athletically. There is so much media attention on today’s athletes that it’s easy for it to go to their heads and make them forget that being great takes a lot of hard work.

Johnson: Today’s athlete is getting harder and harder to motivate. At all levels, there are so many people telling them, “Do this or do that.” If kids don’t find motivation from you, they’ll go elsewhere to find it. Complacency is also a hurdle–athletes are never as good as they think they are and they’re never as bad as they think they are.

THE PANEL Michael Boyle, MEd, ATC, is a strength and conditioning coach and consultant based in Boston and co-founder of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning. He has been training athletes, from amateurs to Olympians and professionals, for 25 years and is the author of Functional Training for Sports.

Chris Carlisle, MA, CSCC, is beginning his seventh season as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Southern California and works with the Trojans football team.

Allan Johnson, MS, CSCS, MSCC, is Director of Sports Performance at Velocity Sports Performance in Charleston, S.C. He has headed strength and conditioning programs for Ohio State University, West Virginia University, and the Baltimore Orioles.

Mickey Marotti, MS, MA, MSCC, is Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Florida and works with the Gators football team.

Stacey Torman, CSCS, MSCC, is Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and works primarily with the school’s Olympic sports teams.

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