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Developing Your Program

By: Brett Bueker

Although I am new to the profession of strength and conditioning, I have learned a few fundamental core values one should have in his/her program in order to become a successful strength and conditioning coach. I have had the privilege of learning these core values from the best in my mentors Coach Yancy McKnight (Director of Strength and Conditioning for football at Iowa State University), Clayton Oyester (Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning for football at Iowa State University), and Erich Anthony (Assistant Strength Coach for football at Iowa State University). These coaches are a prime example of practicing what they preach each and every day. In order to be successful in this profession, one must do exactly that; practice what you preach, day in and day out.

A successful strength and conditioning coach must establish the foundational core values of their program. Some strength coaches have a laundry list of rules that players must follow, while others may have just a few. That is the beauty of the profession; there is no, one right way to set up a foundation of a strength and conditioning program. A strength coach must establish a value system that works for them, on an individual basis rather than following the same values of another coach. No two coaches are alike. You have to establish foundations that you feel will set up your athletes for the best success.

In my young career, I have found these core foundational pillars to be successful in building your program upon. They are as follows:

  1. Be on time
  2. Have a great attitude
  3. Give great effort

That’s it for me. I don’t have a long list of rules that lay out what the athletes need to follow. Why? For one, in my opinion, the athletes will not remember them; two, I feel like these three simple pillars encompass everything that a strength coach is trying to portray to their athletes. These pillars must be established from day one, and enforced each and every day, no matter what. No exceptions. These pillars must also have some sort of a consequence if they are not followed to a “T”. If an exception is made, even once, the athletes will take advantage of it. Consistency from athletes as well as the coaching staff is vital to developing a program that portrays the desired culture. Now, let’s discuss each of these pillars in a little more depth.

1.       Be on time

In order to have a successful workout, the athlete must be on time and show up when they are supposed to. This shows the athlete cares about the training they are about to endure, and that it is important to them and to their team’s success. You can determine an athlete’s dedication and commitment level to the program and the team solely on being on time each and every day. If an athlete has problems making it to workouts on time, or is always rushing in at the last minute, they obviously are not committed to bettering their team and program. This demonstrates accountability and trust. Each time the athletes go through a workout together, they are developing an unbreakable bond of trust and accountability with each other that will carry over come game day.  If an athlete can’t be trusted to show up on time to workouts, how are they expected to be trusted by their sport coaches and teammates to execute and perform when their number is called upon in the game, match, or meet?

2.       Have a great attitude

3.       Give great effort

“There are two things in life you can control, your attitude and your effort.”

                                                                                                -Coach Yancy McKnight

Life is hard. Life is uncontrollable. Do you know someone that has life by the horns and can control each and every move in their favor? Neither do I. There is no way around it. Being a successful person in life requires one to be able to adapt and react to adversity. How one reacts and responds to adversity defines their character. Developing a positive attitude and effort in the face of adversity is a unique trait that only the best of the best possess. Training, just as in life, will present athletes with various grueling, painful, and adverse situations that may be the hardest physical and mental work an athlete has ever completed. It’s going to push them out of their comfort zones. If you want athletes to grow both physically and mentally, they must be pushed harder than they ever have. You must demand greatness out of each and every athlete on the team, from the All-American, to the walk-on that is a lifetime scout team player. You must show every single athlete the exact same respect, regardless of talent level, age, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background.  How can you as a strength and conditioning coach help develop this mentality in your athletes? By demanding great attitude and great effort from your athletes every single day.

These two pillars of attitude and effort go hand in hand. It takes all of the guesswork away from the athletes. It is our job as strength coaches to set up a program that corresponds to the specific demands of practice/competition to help develop each individual into the best possible athlete in their specific sport. The only thing the athletes should be focused on going into the workout is executing the given plan. This can be accomplished when each training session is approached with the appropriate mindset.  The key to this mindset is a great attitude and great effort. These are the two things each and every athlete can control that can greatly affect how much the athletes will get out of the workout.

In my opinion, there are two types of people in this world. The “got to’s” and the “get to’s”. What type of person you are is solely based on your daily attitude and effort. The “got to’s” are the people that wake up each morning with the mindset and approach of “I HAVE to do this, this, and this today.” Usually, this type of person is someone who just checks the box to get something done, not concerned with the quality of work they are putting out. They do things just to get them done. They usually do not get the most out of each and every situation/task. Everything seems like a bother to them. The “get to’s” on the other hand, wake up each morning with the mindset of each task ahead of them is an opportunity to master their craft. They attack each and every task with a great attitude and great effort, allowing them to focus on the details, therefore putting out their best product on each and every task. When life gives the “get to’s” lemons, they make lemonade. No matter what the “get to’s” are presented with, they will take it in stride and give nothing but their absolute best. They will not quit until the job is done.

The progress your athletes make can be greatly affected, positively or negatively, by their daily attitude and effort.  It all begins with the proper positive mindset. The brain is the most powerful “muscle” in the body. You can either talk yourself into something, or talk yourself out of it. In a perfect world, our teams would be filled with a bunch of athletes with the “get to” mindset. Obviously we will never have a team full of “get to’s”, so it is our job as strength coaches to help sculpt, chisel, and mold our athletes. In my mind we are not just strength coaches, we are life coaches, as we are preparing our athletes for life and adversity well beyond athletics.

BEING PROFESSIONAL

Strength and conditioning coaches have the opportunity to make a tremendous impact on the student athletes. In order to accomplish this, a strength and conditioning coach must maintain a professional relationship with their athletes at all times. You are with your athletes year-round; winter off-season, spring ball, summer development, and in-season. You are a role model for your athletes. Maintaining a professional relationship with your athletes is crucial when it comes to respect and trust. We must maintain professionalism at all times, in our appearance and actions. Just as we want our athletes to abide by the foundational pillars of our program, we must be a living, breathing example of those pillars. We must always be on time and we must bring an unmatched positive attitude and effort to the facility every single day. The athletes will feed off our energy and enthusiasm. We must develop a winning culture and mentality in our verbal and non-verbal actions. Be the coach you have always wanted to have.

ORGANIZATION

Organization is the key to developing a well-oiled strength and conditioning program. Creating an organized and well thought out program will help produce better results for your athletes, therefore setting them up for a better chance for success in their particular sport. A strength coach must first sit down with the head coach and understand what the players need to improve upon. The head coach’s wants, metabolic demands of the sport, and particular individualized movement patters of the sport are a few of the key points your program must be designed around. Based on these factors, a strength coach can then sit down and write out a plan that allows for progression throughout the time period of training. This plan must have reasoning behind each particular movement, sets and rep schemes, as well as work to rest intervals. A successful strength and conditioning program must mimic the particular tempo/demands that the athlete will experience in practice and competition.

A great way a strength and conditioning coach can accomplish a well thought out, organized plan of attack is to create and annual plan. This annual plan will layout what you plan on doing with the athletes for the entire calendar year. Creating an annual plan will help you better understand when your athletes need to peak for competition, allowing you to work backward and forward from that particular point in time. This annual plan should include competition dates, percentage undulation schemes for lifting, and speed, agility, and conditioning plans. All of these factors are taken into consideration to avoid the symptom of overtraining, staleness, and/or plateauing, by implementing variation into your program. The following figure is an example of an annual plan I created following the previously stated guidelines. 

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CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT

A strength and conditioning coach should develop an positive work environment that demands greatness out of each and every individual that steps foot into the weight room. The weight room should be an escape for the athletes. That is, they need to know and understand to leave all of their “baggage” at the door. All social, relationship, academic, and sport issues should be left at the door, allowing them to have a clear mind to train. You as a strength coach should never hold any of these issues against them, and never allow them to bring those issues to a training session. They should have a clean slate each and every day. This environment should be present at all times. The athlete should know and understand what is expected of him/her each and every training session. The role of a strength coach is to motivate and push their athletes beyond their comfort zones. You must teach your athletes to become comfortable being uncomfortable. If an athlete can become comfortable being in uncomfortable situations, they can stare adversity right in the face and overcome any obstacle that is presented to them. This will cause their growth potential to skyrocket through the roof. You must teach the athletes how to develop that winning edge and mentality. Here are a few traits of the best of the best that are great traits to teach your athletes.

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SHOW THEM YOU CARE

“They don’t care how much you know, until you show them how much you care.”

                                                                                                                -John C. Maxwell

This quote could not be truer. In my own personal experiences as a player and coach at the Division 1 level, the athletes will never get as much out of the program until you earn their trust. They must know that you genuinely care about molding them into the best athlete and human being they can be.  You could have the best strength coaching philosophy, but if you can’t get the athletes to buy into your program, your program will never become as effective as it could be. How might you accomplish this? A wide variety of ways will earn the players trust. One of the best ways to earn the athletes’ trust is to be the same coach each and every day. Don’t be a chameleon and change your coaching style. Hold each guy to the same standard. Be demanding of them, push them out of their comfort zones, teach them attention to detail, teach them mental toughness, teach them how to finish. Doing this day in and day out will help earn that trust and respect. Listen to them; take into consideration how their bodies feel each and every day and use that information to help improve your speed, strength, conditioning, agility, and mobility program. Once this is developed, the athletes will run through a wall for you. Having this type of attitude towards daily training sessions will add up day after day after day, setting up the athletes for success in competition.

MAKE THEM BETTER ATHLETES

A strength coach should never believe he has things figured out. If you think you know it all in this profession, you indeed know nothing at all. You should constantly be evaluating your strength and conditioning program and researching ways to tweak and improve your program. This will help you grow as a coach. Constantly learning new methods and training philosophies will push you outside your comfort zone and cause outside of the box thinking. This type of thinking could lead to a new and improved method/philosophy of strength and conditioning that may produce even better results than seen in your programs of the past.

There are a vast array of training modules out there; the Tier System, Triphasic, 5-3-1 method, Powerlifting, Bodybuilding, West Side method, Olympic lifting, Canadian Ascending/Descending method, French Contrast, Tabata training, the list goes on and on. As a coach you must pick and choose which programs will work best for YOUR athletes. Just because a module of training works for one strength coach doesn’t mean it will produce the same results for another. No two athletes are the same. Each athlete’s genetic makeup and genetic potential is completely different. Therefore, it is hard for me to believe that the exact same protocols for a program will show the same results for two completely different athletes.

You must know and understand the type of athletes you are coaching all the way from their physical attributes, to their nutrition habits, to their bodyweight and bodyweight goals, to their lean body mass/fat ratio, to their hydration levels, to their weekend activity, to the specific metabolic demands of the sport. Each training protocol has a completely different end result. For example, if you are trying to put mass, size, and strength on an athlete, the 5-3-1 protocol and the Tabata training protocol will elicit completely different physiological demands on the body, therefore producing different results. You must know the end product you are looking for before implementing a strength and conditioning philosophy.  Think of it this way; would you train a shot put thrower the same as a 3,000 m distance runner? Or a 200 lb. wide receiver the same as a 300 lbs. defensive lineman? It is critical for a strength coach to continue their professional development in the field of strength and conditioning to be able to help the athletes try and reach their highest genetic potential that translates to better performance in their particular sport.

TECHNIQUE FIRST, WEIGHT LATER

Technique. Technique. Technique. I can’t stress that enough. The number one goal of your strength and conditioning program should be keeping the athletes healthy. A large portion of this is proper technique. As a strength coach you have no control over what type of athletes you will be coaching. That is the job of the sport coaches to recruit the best athletes possible. You may be getting athletes that have major deficiencies in certain areas of the body, predisposing them to injury. One of the many roles of the strength coach is to properly identify these deficiencies and help implement a program that touches on strength, mobility, flexibility, joint stabilization, and symmetry to decrease that predisposed risk of injury.

One of the most efficient ways to avoid injury in the weight room is the teaching of proper movement patterns and techniques. This must be done right away when the athletes come in as freshman or transfer in from a junior college. You as a strength coach must know and understand each of the movement patterns/techniques that you will be implementing with your athletes. You should never implement a movement that you haven’t tried out yourself/do not know how to fully coach. That is just asking for an injury to happen. In order to get the opportunity to coach the proper technique in a setting most conducive for learning and understanding, I would suggest putting the newcomers to your program in a separate group for the first few weeks. Have them in their own group so you can have more time to properly explain the techniques of the movements in detail without the distraction of other athletes. Lots of incoming freshman/junior college transfers have had little to no experience lifting weights, let alone the knowledge of proper technique/adequate strength levels to be put in with the veteran athletes in your program. Take your time with them. This is crucial for their development in the years to come.

Learning proper techniques/movement patterns will help train the proper musculature the movement is intended to work, help increase flexibility, and help strengthen the musculature/tendons/ligaments involved in joint stabilization. This will help produce a shield of armor for your athletes in practice and in competitions, helping them hold up to the rigors of their sport. When you feel like your newcomers have a great knowledge and understanding of the proper movement patterns, as well as adequate strength levels, go ahead and put them in with the rest of the team during training sessions. Strength levels of newcomers with little to no experience of weight training will increase dramatically within the first few weeks to months due to a combination of better neurological adaptation of movement patters, along with hypertrophy of the muscle fibers within the muscle due to strength training.

DEVELOPING A STAFF

 There is a lot of time, energy, and effort that goes into organizing, planning, and implementing a successful strength and conditioning program. Although I am a young coach in the profession, I know it takes all five strength coaches working together as one cohesive unit to accomplish this. Surrounding yourself with coaches that have a similar passion and mindset will help push the entire staff to greater heights. The most successful strength and conditioning programs I have seen in my short career are ones composed of coaches that all bring something different to the table. In order to do this, you must put your ego on the back burner. Accept the fact that there is someone out there that knows more about certain topics than you. When you can accept that, you will compose a staff that is a well-oiled machine producing the desired results. You will constantly be bouncing ideas off of each other and learning from each other. Compose a staff that enjoys being in the weight room and enjoys training. At the same time, I believe it is healthy for the staff to get out of the office and be away from each other. Don’t just be in the office to be in the office. Be productive with the time you are there, get done what you need to get done, and get out, go home, and be with your family. This will help the staff stay fresh and looking forward to coming to work each day.

A great strength and conditioning staff will be composed of members that have their own unique coaching styles. Maybe one coach is the guy that is loud and will rip into athletes when it needs to be done to get a point across. Another might be more of a mild mannered coach that communicates with athletes by putting their arm around them and calmly getting the point across to them. Now these are the two complete opposite ends of the spectrum of coaching styles, but each athlete is different and responds best to different styles of coaching. A great staff will know and understand this and have a wide spectrum of coaching styles to ensure proper communication with all the athletes.

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