1. Plan with a purpose: When planning your macro and micro cycles of the training period, whether it be a winter, spring, summer, or in-season program, take the time to plan it out. Meet with the sport coach, the strength staff, and the sports medicine staff and plan out what you want accomplished. Then take your time, write it out, and make your plan. I usually work backward from test week (the last week of the program) to the first week. I figure out my intensity, volume, and down load weeks with the purpose of peaking at the right time. Finally, base your testing protocol off your initial assessment. If you want to test 40s and agilities, train your athletes to succeed in the test. The same goes for the strength tests. So many times, I see programs that decline the speed and agility portion of the program and then test the 40 and wonder why the running tests suffered. It all comes down to training for a goal and then planning tests to evaluate your training progress.
2. Stress the little things: We try to do this every day. It is as simple as attention to detail. Pay attention to the little things like perfect arm swing, dorsi-flexion in the foot, elbows up in the catch phase of the clean, depth in the squat, touching the line, and finishing the drill. Be meticulous with the little things and the big things will benefit. For me, in a team setting with football, little things tend to get forgotten because athletes want to train hard. My main coaching points are usually the little things. This helps with injury prevention as the weights get heavier, the athletes get tired, and their running form tends to go. If you can get your athletes to focus, you can kill two birds with one stone as they get tired—great technique and mental toughness by working perfectly through fatigue.
3. Know your facility: This goes hand in hand with planning your program. I’m a big believer in continuing education in the form of conferences for certification credits or personal growth by making phone calls to other coaches and doing onsite visits. I get great ideas and always want to add things into my program within our facilities parameters. Knowing your facility and incorporating things you can do and taking out things you can’t due to space is huge in a successful plan. For example, hill running is great, but in New York City, there aren’t too many hills. We run with sleds and harnesses in place of hills. Also, with a small facility, we utilize all the space possible by supersetting barbell movements with dumbbell movements to maximize work capacity and space efficiency.
4. Be efficient: Set up the field prior to running portions of the workout, have the weight room ready to go when your athletes come in to train, and even do a trial run of the workout yourself to manage time spent at each portion of the workout. This is a huge factor for me with a small facility, a smaller staff, and class schedules at a demanding academic school. Also, within the workout, pairing up opposing muscle groups works well in cutting down the time between primary movements and auxiliary movements. As a result, work capacity is increased. Running an efficient program gives the athletes a feeling of importance. They will notice how much time you have put into a smooth transition from portions of the workout and feel as though they are at a top-notch place.
5. You get what you emphasize: This goes hand in hand with number one—plan with a purpose. If you want your athletes to be fast and explosive, perform Olympic lifts and dynamic variations of strength movements and work on speed mechanics. If your sport coaches want your athletes to gain weight, you may have to find alternate ways of training energy systems besides running 110s and sweating off pounds from your linemen. This is also where specificity of training comes into play.
I try to split up my athletes by position when conditioning and doing agilities in the summer. This way linemen aren’t always running the same distances as receivers, defensive backs can work on back pedaling, quarterbacks can work on drops, and so on. In the year long plan, this also allows us to put emphasis on different things in trying to peak for the season. Our running programs works from two days a week in the winter to four days a week in the summer, and our lifting shifts from a four-day upper body/lower body split to a four-day power/strength split.
6. Trust your periodization, but know your athletes: I try to lay out my periodization for the entire macro cycle before we start training. However, I closely monitor our athletes to gauge how they feel with the amount of volume throughout the workout. My general philosophy is to try and keep the intensity up but make sure the volume isn’t negatively working against our athletes. If the program calls for a final set of five at 85 percent and an athlete looks tired, we may knock reps off the sets leading up to the final set to ensure that we hit all our reps on the last set at the highest intensity. Other times, when volume is our goal, we may split a set of eight into two sets of four to hit those reps with quality form or, even simpler, give the athletes a certain number of reps to hit at a percentage of their one rep max in a set amount of time. Make the stipulation that every rep is done with perfect form and not done to failure.
On the flip side of that, if the team in the weight room is having a great day, we may add a bonus set or “money” set to the session where the athlete can go over the weight on his program and hit a PR for that day. There will always be times to push your kids, but for the success of the program, you must also try to prevent overtraining through day to day maintenance.
7. Be a organized: Organization should be one of your top priorities in running any successful program, whether it’s a business, sports team, or strength department. You need to have all your ducks in a row. With regards to a successful strength program, this means having your past workouts, past test results, and training schedules accessible and available at all times. When you test your athletes, show the sport coaches the progression throughout the year and the athletes’ careers. Have everything in folders whether it be on your computer or in a file cabinet labeled by sport, year/season, training cycle, and even athlete if needed. We have the luxury here of having a great sports information director who updates all our information on the school’s website. We can post workout videos, exercise descriptions, take-home workouts, nutritional information, facility pictures, NCAA banned substances, and test results. This allows our information to be easily accessible to any of our sport coaches, athletes, and potential recruits. It takes a little legwork to be organized, but in the long run, it saves you time and stress and it shows good administrative skills to the powers that be.
8. Make it competitive: I’m a true believer in competing, whether it is throwing a piece of paper in the trash in my office or trying to outrun someone to the practice field. Competition makes all of us better. As student athletes, these kids only have true “competitions” during their respective sports season. After that, their life is dedicated to practice and training.
We try to make our workouts competitive in nature. It may be drafting teams and having a Strongman or wrestling competition with football or it may be a rep total with a certain percentage of your one rep max with water polo. It might also be something as simple as making core training a competition by having a “plank off” for time. You’ll find out two great attributes about your athletes in a competition event—who steps up under pressure and who cracks and who’s a team player and gets after his teammates to be better. As a coach, you can make a competition out of anything. The options are endless. With the right marketing skills to your athletes, you can make the off-season competition something everyone look forward to.
9. Don’t live or die by the numbers crunch: So many times, I have people ask me about our test numbers. Believe me, I’m a guy who loves to have strong, fast teams. That being said, at times strength coaches sacrifice the long-term goal of on field performance for having big numbers. I believe you have to ‘know when to say when’ when it comes to testing. The big weight isn’t better than the perfect rep. There are only two reasons an athlete will miss a weight—malfunction in form or deficiency in strength.
In my experiences, the form usually breaks down first. Some would argue that when the strength fails, the form follows. Either way, grinding out a better one rep max on the back squat to hit 450 lbs with poor form is worse to me than hitting 435 lbs with rock solid form. Your periodization is thrown off because you’re training at a higher percentage of your true max. This will cause the next training cycle to be less successful. Your form could continually get worse and it could lead to overtraining or injury. Any of those factors will cause you to hit the ceiling much faster and plateau your gains. To me, test numbers go back to number one on this list—plan with a purpose. If you’re going to shoot for one rep maxes, make sure you train singles leading up to the test day. If you’re going to use a rep max, train in that set rep range and be prepared to adjust your projected max for an exercise if your training percentages seem to high. At times, a projected max is a bit off and can lead to issues with certain athletes. The main goal as a strength coach is to prevent injury and increase performance. Use your test data to gauge the improvement of your athletes, but don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. They may be using different tests, different spotting techniques, or have different parameters for what a “good rep” is.
10. Be excited: If you aren’t excited, don’t expect your athletes to be. This is probably the most important factor in running a successful program of any kind. Be excited and be passionate about your work! Believe me, it’s contagious. I never want to hear about how the hours are too long, the pay is too little, or the school you are at isn’t at a high enough level.
Every day when I drive into work at 5:00 a.m., I see hundreds of cars on the road, dozens of people waiting for the train or bus, and people walking the streets. And they’re probably going to a job they hate. You should be excited to go to a job you love. You owe it to your athletes to be dialed into their workout as they owe it to you and their teammates. If you aren’t passionate about coaching, get out immediately. Ii isn’t worth the stress, time, or demands on you and your family.
I once heard a Lou Holtz quote that said something to the effect of “When you can live without coaching, it’s time to stop.” To me, this means that when it isn’t important enough in your life and you aren’t fired up to turn the lights on in the office every day, it’s time to pack up and start doing something else.