Broadly speaking, when we enter a collegiate weight room in the U.S. while a team is training, it is abundantly clear who the strength coach is. For the most part, this is how it should be—we should ensure our athletes adhere to the program we have written, that they perform these movements safely, and that they give great effort in the training session. The longer I spend in this profession, however, the more I’ve come to believe that the weight room should also be a place of culture development and safeguarding by the players themselves more than any coach.I’ve come to believe that the weight room should also be a place of culture development and safeguarding by the players themselves more than any coach, says @SCoach_Aldo. Click To Tweet
I am a 32-year-old Englishman who has played football (the real football) all my life: I have no college eligibility, every time I shoot a basketball it looks different, I never practice with the team, and I certainly never get any game time. The weight room should never be ME focused, it should be team focused. Accordingly, I want to give my guys the wheel, give them ownership of that space and their development, and be like a driving instructor sitting in the passenger seat ensuring they stay on the right track and are safe while doing so.
This is where autonomy in the weight room comes in for me—giving the athletes a say in their own development. My coaching style is democratic, not dictatorial: to get to where we want to go as a program—winning championships—the players MUST lead the way.
Simple Ways to Develop Autonomy
I have promoted autonomy with the team at various points in my career as an S&C coach in men’s basketball at Furman, incorporating it into my program through:
- Gameday lifts with the development group (low-minute guys) – “Do what will make you feel great for the game tonight.”
- Gameday lifts with the walk-ons – “Let me see you guys put together a body comp workout.”
- No set warm-up protocol in the time before a lift starts. Guys report 10 minutes before we start the session—autonomy here with stretching, foam rolling, bike, etc.
- Week of the conference tournament—whiteboard lifting options:
- “Choose your A1 and A2 exercises” – low reps (prescribed by me, specific to the exercise chosen).
- A1 – heels-elevated back/front squat, KB goblet squat, or trap bar deadlift.
- A2 – GHR, leg curl, or RDL.
This last example was an idea I got from Travis Knight at Gonzaga—arguably the best holistic development program in the country. He has really encouraged me to explore autonomy with my guys, and I am very grateful to him for that.
At the end of last season, I wanted to get a better idea of what the players valued about the weight room, how I could improve in my coaching provision for the team, and what their goals were for the upcoming off-season. So, at the end of April and start of May, I had player meetings with them all and asked them seven questions. For this article, I will just highlight the question that is relevant to this topic: What do you like doing in the weight room that you feel transfers best to on-court performance?
Here are a few of the answers:
- Prowler races: “Gives me confidence, feeling the pump in my legs and getting into my wind.”
- Cable woodchopper: “Love doing rotation work in here.”
- Power clean and hang clean.
- Chain Squats: “Feel bouncy afterward.”
- Prowler: “Competitive aspect.”
- Single leg work + SL power: “Quick burst off the ground.”
- Add a resistance band to all roller work to make it harder.
- Back squat: “Feel most springy.”
- Raptor conditioning: “Train conditioning more in the summer.”
- Medicine ball complex: “Conditioning and pump.”
My initial response was to think how cool it was that each athlete valued different things in the weight room. I certainly don’t want to become robotic with my programming, and I believe variety is important to optimally progress an athlete throughout an extended training period. Seeing the responses also made me reflect on how little I do of certain exercises, how some of these have been new concepts we’ve tried out, and how much value prowlers can have for development (and not just seen as a consequence for being late!).
Now that I’ve given you some background information, I want to share four specific ways I feel autonomy in the weight room can be a game-changer for your program:
- Buy into training.
- Weight room culture.
- The weight room as a learning environment.
- New training buckets.
1. Buy into Training
I just finished my third off-season with the Furman men’s basketball team, and we recently completed an intense, eight-week block of training during which I trained my guys in the weight room anywhere from 4-6 times each week. We had four mandatory lifting days: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, plus I was available for optional lifts on Wednesday and Saturday. In previous years, I would send the team a group text informing them when I would be around if they wanted to get some optional extra work in.This summer I let the players come to me if they wanted to get some extra work in. I was curious to see who really WANTED to get extra work in rather than feeling they HAD to come. Click To Tweet
This summer I did it differently—I didn’t send out the group text; instead, I took a step back and let the players come to me if they wanted to get some extra work in. I was curious to see who really wanted to get extra work in rather than feeling they had to come.
Below is a breakdown of the participation numbers for the optional lifts this summer. As you can see from the table, the numbers grew to the point at the end of the summer where I had 90% of the team lifting 5-6 times a week.
For the first few sessions, I told the guys to come in with an idea of what they wanted to focus on. The first few weeks, they had a conditioning improvement goal, which I programmed accordingly for them. After that, however, I had the whiteboard out there and asked them each to come up and write what they wanted to do that day.
It got to the point with these optional lifts where some guys saw the whiteboard and said, “Oh we got autonomy today. Sweet!”
The energy and intensity in the sessions were excellent, the guys were self-sufficient and attacked their sessions with focus, and I even jumped in on the Saturday sessions by doing an exercise from each of their individual sessions. The weight room became a place of development where they wanted to go and train, not a place they had to.
I feel there is a misconception with giving athletes autonomy and the thinking that they would just abuse that freedom and sit on a foam roller for 45 minutes. From my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Take for example my “bigs” this summer: I had them on a high-volume 6-12-25 program for the last two weeks of the semester. Not one time during this method did they come in and “recover” for 30 minutes. Instead, they choose to train how they wanted to train: some did power cleans and box jumps, some did barbell squat jumps, some did DB bench and military press.I can’t encourage you enough to give athletes a say in their own development. Let them write their own workout and see what they value, says @SCoach_Aldo. Click To Tweet
I can’t encourage you enough to give athletes a say in their development. Let them write their own workout and see what they value. I guarantee, some will surprise you with the exercises they choose and what they see as being important to their own development.
Video 1. Athletes taking ownership of their development with exercises they’ve selected to perform in the weight room during off-season training.
Earlier, when I mentioned that this has been my third season with the team, I did so to highlight that I have trained these guys for a while and know what our team leadership looks like. We want the old to teach the new, and we want recruits coming here and feeling something different about our team. As much as I love coaching, if I can program a lift and let my older guys run it with the high standards and the deliberate improvement now mentality that I expect, then I am all for that. We seek to be a player-led program, and I take this development model seriously; as an extension of the coaching staff, I am a culture carrier and enforcer for my head coach.
These extra lifts are a great time for me to put this model of leadership to the test and let them run with it. From the outside looking in, one of these autonomy sessions would seem as if there is no coach in the room, with the players running it themselves and encouraging each other. Hear me out here. I am there in the room coaching up what I need to and ensuring safety at all times, but I am consciously taking steps back to let the guys own the room and take the wheel.
If we all want athletes who take ownership of their craft and are responsible for their development, we need to provide an environment where they can actually be exposed to building these qualities, where they can experience trial and error, and where they feel like they are the ones in charge. I want to use the weight room to expose them to this stimulus, to problem-solve, and to take charge of their strength and conditioning for a moment and show a deep care in their personal growth. Trust me, when you see the whole team in there getting after it through player-led leadership and not through your own means as a coach, that’s an incredible feeling.Trust me, when you see the whole team in the weight room, getting after it through player-led leadership and not through your own means as a coach, that’s an incredible feeling, says @SCoach_Aldo. Click To Tweet
Younger guys partnered up with older guys, different position groups did core work together, I let them choose the music they wanted. The older guys decided how long they would all train for (which was generally 25-40 minutes of work), and they called everyone in at their discretion. We had partnered raptor work, prowler races, guys wearing weight vests. I did all I could to encourage ownership of their development by creating an environment where they would enjoy being in the weight room.
As for the actual training sessions they wrote up and performed, our culture appeared strongly with this too, which was obviously pleasing to see. The guys didn’t come up and just write a ton of bi’s and tri’s (Muscle Beach)—they thought about what they wanted to do but also what they needed to do. My post players generally focused on more hypertrophy work while my guards did additional lower leg stiffness exercises and barbell/MB complex work. My freshman either joined in with older guys or asked can we keep doing what we’ve been doing? I presented them with some options, but it was always their choice what exercise they performed. They wrote it down on the whiteboard, and off they went to set up and get after it.
3. The Weight Room as a Learning Environment
When a student-athlete leaves college, my main aim is for them to at least be able to cook for themselves and know what a healthy diet looks like. Yes, I know I’m not a registered dietician, but please come work at the mid-major level as a strength coach and tell me you’re not leaned on for nutrition advice every day. On this same train of thought, I don’t expect them to be able to write out a six-week diet the same way I don’t expect them to be able to create a six-week training program. However, from a training perspective, I would love for them to have a baseline understanding ingrained in them of the importance of full range of motion and tempo when training.
The use of the whiteboard and the guys writing down their own programs has been a great learning experience for them. The wide array of questions when they physically have to write down and run their own session gives me a good picture of how well (or how poorly) I have taught them so far in their career. Questions such as:
- Can I do box jumps after my power cleans?
- How many reps do you think I should do on each?
- What goes well with lat pulldown?
- Should I do 20/40 on the bike?
- How can I make this exercise harder?
All of these questions were normally answered by a question from me, back to them, beginning with what do you think…?
It was interesting to hear their thoughts and push them cognitively to reflect on what we’ve done in the past. Some of our guys have gone on to play professional basketball in Europe: some of these teams had optional lifts with a local trainer, and some of them didn’t offer even that supervision. In order to best prepare our athletes to play at some pro level—or at the very least, to continue healthy habits of training and exercising after their college careers are done—the education piece of what we do as strength and conditioning professionals cannot be undervalued.
I want my athletes to see the weight room as a place of learning and development, a place where they can improve, get better at their sport, and be challenged physically and mentally every time they train. If they see it as a place of pain and a space where I try and break them off every session, then I have done something seriously wrong!
4. New Training Buckets
Another crucial element of giving athletes autonomy in the weight room is it reflects their desire to train in ways that perhaps I haven’t programmed for. In looking back at the list of exercises my guys felt best improved their on-court performance, one of my starters loves to do power cleans and other Olympic lifting derivatives. I’m not a fan of power cleans for power development with my athletes, and it’s never been a training method I like doing personally or with my teams. I wasn’t going to now give this player Olympic lifting derivatives four days a week in his A series; I did, however, make a note of this, and whenever the player came in for optional lifts and wanted to do power cleans and box jumps, I fully endorsed it and coached him up.
I was really encouraged by doing this, as the autonomy in these sessions gave the athletes variation in their programming from what they usually do. Some exercises were, of course, repeated in the program I had them on, but some weren’t, and it was cool to see them filling other training buckets with their choices.
Another example of this was the use of barbell and medicine ball complexes, combined with bike/ski machine/jump rope/rower/prowler to improve their conditioning. In my eyes, the summer strength and conditioning program is about growth and development; it’s about changing their bodies, and it definitely prioritizes strength. The pre-season period for me is about speed development and getting them conditioned to start full team practices, prioritizing the conditioning element more. So, to have guys want to do some weight room conditioning work was great, as again it filled a bucket that is required for high performance but isn’t emphasized as much in the June-July training period within my programming.
My final example is from my last Saturday lift with the team, when three of the guards decided they wanted to do a 1RM bench press to see what they could get up to. The team camaraderie at the end of that optional session was as good as any coach-led weight session we had all summer. The whole team was hyped and even jumped in for a rep or two themselves. Optional sessions don’t equal lazy sessions, optional sessions showcase where your strength and conditioning program is at, what the culture of it is, and whether your athletes want to push themselves because they want to improve or because a coach is making them push.
From Motivation to Action
Every strength and conditioning coach wants a healthy, high-performing team that wins championships, but the ways we all reach those end goals are different. Our training philosophies mixed with our personality and coaching style are so individual and unique—I thrive on the creativity of this job and having a blank canvas to choose what road I want to go down with all aspects of the role. The key is to listen to your athletes, to really listen, then guide them and take a step back to oversee what they are doing. Let them take the wheel in their development, let them use intrinsic—not extrinsic—motivation to guide their growth. Allow them to take ownership of optional training, then sit back and observe some high-level training sessions that you facilitated.Guide your athletes to see the weight room as a place of development—a place that keeps them healthy and performing their best, says @SCoach_Aldo. Click To Tweet
Guide your athletes to see the weight room as a place of development—a place that keeps them healthy and performing their best. They are at this level for a reason: they are physically gifted and they know their bodies better than we do, so find some sessions in your schedule to let them train how they want to train.
If I was presenting at a strength and conditioning seminar and asked the audience who likes always being told what to do?, would anyone raise their hand? Our athletes have the same perspective. My hope is that after reading this article, you experiment with at least one thing in your program centered on giving athletes autonomy in the weight room. Remember who is actually playing the sport—it isn’t us, it’s our athletes. We can all learn a lot from them if we give them an opportunity to show us.
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