Bryant Harper serves as Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for football and Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for men’s soccer with Naval Academy Athletics. Prior to Navy, he was the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Southeastern Louisiana University and an intern with the University of Florida Gators football team. Harper played football at Penn State University as well as at California University of Pennsylvania, where he got his master’s degree. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES) and Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) with the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Freelap USA: The modern strength coach is now more important than ever for reducing injuries. How do you see the role of the strength coach with injuries when many of the practices are designed for athlete tactical performance and may not have ideal conditions for athlete health? Often, team coaches think about plays and skills rather than body load. Any ideas on educating team coaches on the importance of periodizing load?
Bryant Harper: I totally agree with the statement that the modern strength coach is now more important than ever for reducing injuries, which is one of the primary reasons I chose to study injury prevention and rehabilitation science during my graduate studies. The strength and conditioning staff is the first line of defense in identifying deviations in an athlete’s “normal” movement signature, speed metrics, mobility, reaching levels of fatigue sooner, inability to recover from a standardized workload, etc. Sports-related injuries are ordinary in athletics, whether they are triggered by contact or the result of non-contact caused by improper biomechanics or neuromuscular inefficiency.
I feel that it is our duty as strength and conditioning professionals to understand the mechanisms of injury for each segment of the musculoskeletal system, which are muscular and neural fatigue. These segments include the foot and ankle, knee, low back, and shoulder. Furthermore, we must recognize common risk factors that can lead to injury of each segment. For example, excessive foot and ankle pronation, knee valgus, excessive lumbar extension, and upper crossed syndrome.It is our duty as strength and conditioning professionals to understand the mechanisms of injury for each segment of the musculoskeletal system, which are muscular and neural fatigue. Click To Tweet
The exercise prescription is the area where the strength and conditioning professional has the ability to impact injuries. By incorporating exercises into the athlete’s program, we help reduce the risk of injury and enhance reconditioning; for example, resisted ankle dorsiflexion, terminal knee extension, resisted hip flexion, and internal/external rotation. Prevention strategies to prepare athletes for the demands of competition are vital to health and career longevity.
The majority of injuries can be traced to the influence of poor biomechanics, neuromuscular inefficiencies, overtraining, undertraining (COVID-19), and a lack of mobility in terms of optimal range of motion. I feel it is important for exercise prescriptions to include numerous preventative methods such as flexibility/mobility/stability training, proprioceptive training, and proper biomechanics during cutting and jumping, as well as the implementation of progressive plyometric and strength intervention strategies.
It is imperative that sport coaches understand that any type of training and/or practice must be cycled through different stages that increase the load placed on the athlete and also allow for adequate rest and recovery. It is our job to provide sport coaches with a basic knowledge of all areas associated with performance enhancement, especially periodization. This was specifically important this year due to the restrictions of COVID-19, which caused modified and/or condensed pre-season schedules, mixed levels of conditioning preparation among athletes following the extended time off, changes to body composition, and interrupted progress with individual rehabilitation programs.
I have found that the best way to educate team coaches on the importance of periodizing load is to provide them with a summary of information to encourage safe and appropriate practices with the team, as a whole. Ultimately, sport coaches have the final decision in terms of practice activities and duration. If the strength coach has access to sports technology, the data puts the load into numerical reference in terms of statistics, which makes it more quantitative so that the coach can develop a better understanding of the demand placed on athletes on a day-to-day basis.
Freelap USA: The weight room can be a perfect place to teach, but with time constraints, sometimes exercises can’t be polished to perfection. When you decide what is acceptable to add load, what are the criteria in your mind that allow an athlete to increase weight? Nobody is perfect but adding load without mechanics is a big problem. How do you find that sweet spot?
Bryant Harper: From a big-picture perspective, the athletes must understand what a “good rep” looks and feels like. If they do not, how do they understand what a “bad rep” is? A rep completed without technical proficiency is dangerous and produces inefficient movement. The inefficient movement increases the residual load and stress that never gets accounted for in load management, which leads to injury and a decrease in the intended transfer of training.
In order to decide what is acceptable in terms of adding load to a prescribed exercise, there are specific criteria in my mind that the individual athlete must meet. These criteria include four basic concepts:
- The mobility to achieve correct positioning to perform the exercise.
- The muscle stability to load in correct position to perform the exercise.
- The proper intent of the movement.
- The technical proficiency of the exercise.
Personally, I feel that it is my duty to teach the best movement patterns and correct faulty movement patterns to create proficient movers before we begin adding weight. Ensuring that the athlete is mobile, stable, and confident from an exercise standpoint to perform the exercise will allow us to build a foundation that will lead to longevity in the athlete’s career in the weight room and in competition. The development of core components of the body’s mobility and stability systems will allow the athlete to have better control of their movement. Additionally, this development will help the body to process energy and stress exerted during exercise, which leads to improved exercise proficiency when large muscle groups are involved.
I like to incorporate mobility exercises into our movement preparation to help elongate the muscles that surround the joints used in a specific exercise, thus helping the athlete move through their full range of motion. In my experience, the ability to ensure and progress an athlete’s mobility will help to reduce the risk of injury and improve the prescribed exercise by moving joints through a full range of motion.
In terms of stability, there are two components on which I focus when training athletes: active and passive stability. Active stability involves the brain sending signals to the body (muscles) to perform a particular movement, which works with our bones and joints that enable the movement. The body’s overall muscle structure is highly involved, since our muscles allow us to actually move our bones and joints. Active stability gives the athlete muscular strength and stamina to perform an exercise longer while applying more force.
Passive stability is the athlete’s ability to perform movement without restriction. This involves the foundation of the body itself (bones and tissues) that controls physical ability to perform a movement. More concisely, when you perform a bicep curl, the active stabilizers work to execute the actual rep in a smooth manner, while the passive stabilizers are involved with the actual moving of the elbow, wrist, etc. to ensure they function properly. I like to superset stabilizing exercises such as Paloff presses, pelvic tilts, or glute bridges depending on the focus of the training day.
In terms of proper intent of the movement, how the athlete approaches the exercise is integral. The brain uses previous experience to calculate how much effort the body should use to perform a task. Ultimately, speed and power are outputs of the athlete’s brain. I believe that training the athlete to focus on the intention of the exercise movement can improve the nervous system’s pathways to active muscle fibers and the rate coding of action potentials and increase motor unit synchronization to aid in the execution of movement.The brain uses previous experience to calculate how much effort the body should use to perform a task. Ultimately, speed & power are outputs of the athlete’s brain, says @coachharp2018. Click To Tweet
As a coach, I understand that technical proficiency is a phenomenon that athletes can only achieve over time. My motto is that perfect practice makes perfect technique. Obviously, I have a checklist depending on the exercise, but I understand that training is a continual process. My job as a professional is to constantly seek better ways for improving the athlete and my personal coaching cues. Essentially, I like to make my athletes earn additional weight while developing their body and brain to handle the weight with proper exercise prescription.
Freelap USA: Speed matters but so does conditioning. Have you ever felt that coaches compromise speed in order to appease the head or team coach too much? Perhaps a better question is how do you create goals for fitness and speed when they are sometimes a conflict of interest?
Bryant Harper: In some cases, yes, I have felt that coaches compromise speed in order to appease the head or team coach too much. I am also not oblivious to the fact that, in most cases, the head coach has final say. I believe that it is our duty as strength and conditioning professionals to cultivate a positive relationship with the sport coach, so that we can communicate our expert opinion in a respectful manner. In order to generate goals for fitness and speed simultaneously, I believe it is important to analyze the speed and conditioning requirements of the sport.
As a strength and conditioning specialist, I am tasked with developing speed and conditioning training programs to advance sprint and conditioning ability within the context of several sports, including football, soccer, and tennis. I pride myself on having an understanding of the physical demands and differences between playing positions within the sports I coach. There are numerous activities that takes place in the course of play within field and team sports that must be accounted for, as well.
The checklist that I use to set the standard for my teams in terms of speed and fitness includes:
- The duration of activity within the sport.
- The approximate total distance covered within the sport.
- The direction of movement that typically occurs.
- Starting positions.
- Specific stimuli that produce and control movement.
- How speed and conditioning relate to sport-specific skills and the requirements of the athlete.
These criteria help me to provide a structure on which to construct a comprehensive speed and conditioning program consisting of exercises and drills that maximize the transfer of basic qualities into the field of play. Additionally, they help me to target the specific energy system used during competition through the formulation of proper work-to-rest ratios.
Freelap USA: Training athletes in the early morning or after practice has its pros and cons. Some coaches like to have athletes fresh for practice, and some like to get the work in before training. What are your thoughts?
Bryant Harper: At the collegiate and professional levels, athletes typically have a routine set up that changes between strength training/conditioning and practice. It is essential that the coaching staff, strength and conditioning staff, and sports nutritionist work together to decide on the best time frame for athletes to train. At the collegiate level, the staff must consider the demands of an academic schedule as well.
In an ideal situation, I believe that it is vital to address three questions when planning time of training. These questions are:
- What is the optimal recovery time from the previous workout, based on type, volume, intensity, density, and the central nervous system?
- What time of day will allow for optimal and practical nutrition?
- What time of day are testosterone, growth hormone, and synovial fluids highest to take full advantage of the exercise prescription?
Rest and recovery are an integral aspect of an exercise program because they allow the body to adapt to the stress associated with exercise, replenish energy stores, and repair tissues. The staff should plan for immediate recovery in the form of a “cool down” phase (low-intensity exercise or mobility), nutritional intake, and sleep.
Sleep is perhaps the most important aspect of recovery in terms of sports performance. Athletes who suffer from sleep deprivation can experience subtle fluctuations in hormone levels. These fluctuations may lead to a decrease in the production of human growth hormone, which is essential to tissue repair.
A combination of training, recovery, and nutrition is essential for athletes striving for optimal performance. A well-planned diet can help to improve energy availability and promote recovery. The timing of training should allow for adequate pre-exercise, during exercise, and post exercise nutrition. Although it may be difficult at the collegiate level, staff should try to adhere to a regimen that allows for optimal nutrition practices.
In terms of biological factors that allow the athlete to take full advantage of exercise, testosterone is highest in the morning and may vary throughout the duration of the day. Growth hormone is released at its highest level during sleep, but there are small amounts released in the early morning. Synovial fluid levels are highest when the body produces movement. Since we don’t move much when we sleep, the body produces less synovial fluid, which can cause soreness and/or stiffness early in the morning.
In consideration of the above information, I prefer to train athletes early in the morning prior to practice. I feel that training early can aid in injury prevention as long as we adhere to rest and recovery protocols. Athletes are able to perform exercises with technical proficiency when their central nervous system and overall musculature are most fresh.I prefer to train athletes early in the morning prior to practice. I feel that training early can aid in injury prevention as long as we adhere to rest & recovery protocols, says @coachharp2018. Click To Tweet
As mentioned in the earlier question, the active and passive stabilizing muscles play a crucial role in enabling movement during exercise. When athletes train after practice, the overall musculature may become fatigued, leading to the inability to recruit muscle fibers in an efficient manner. I believe that this lack of recruitment leads to an increased risk of injury due to a lack of technical proficiency.
Furthermore, I prefer to train before practice because athletes can become mentally fatigued, which may impair the accuracy and speed of exercise-specific decision-making. This mental fatigue is a direct result of sustained periods of demanding cognitive activity, which can reduce the time it takes to reach exhaustion during exercise. The demanding cognitive activity of student-athletes can be enormous when you take into account a rigorous course schedule, sleep deprivation, video games, social problems, tasks deemed unfamiliar or difficult (e.g., interviews), and practice.
In that context, it is easy to understand how mental fatigue may develop before a training session and subsequently decrease performance. Scheduling can be difficult depending on academic requirements and other responsibilities. Although I prefer to train athletes in the morning, it is up to the staff as a whole to decide on an appropriate training time that maximizes the aforementioned suggestions and fits the overall schedule.
Freelap USA: What area in training are you studying now? What encouraged you to dig deeper with your education in this area?
Bryant Harper: The area of training that has my primary focus in terms of studying is team sport speed performance. More importantly, the quality of proper posture and quality of stiffness in sprinting. I am learning that proper posture is an ideal platform for applying force, and poor posture leads to a waste of force. A proper posture augments a level of stiffness at ground contact to apply an ideal impulse.
I look forward to expanding my knowledge to incorporate drills that help my athletes explode from proper joint angles throughout training phases. I was encouraged to dig deeper with my education on this topic by one of my mentors, Bryan Miller, who continually pushes me to learn about concepts that define individual and team sport speed performance.
Additionally, I am reading the Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements by the International Society of Sports Nutrition to develop scientific-based ideas and conclusions about sports nutrition. I was encouraged to study the topic of nutrition and supplementation because I understand that training and nutritional behaviors are inseparable factors in an athlete’s overall progress.