By Mark Hoover
“The gods love to toy with people who use absolutes.”—Josephine Angelini
This quote sums up exactly my sentiment about most things in life, but particularly about the field of sports performance and especially when it comes to working at the high school level. I write a lot about the “growth mindset” and how important I believe it is to attack life from an “I don’t know what I don’t know” perspective. If you believe in that concept, especially as strongly as I do, it becomes unthinkable to place much of what we do in the category of absolute.
One buzzword phrase that has caught my attention recently is game-day lifting. While it’s obviously not a very scientific way of polling, according to what I’ve been reading in the “Twitter-verse,” most coaches are on board with at least some form of weight training on competition days. A smaller but often vocal group seem to be dyed in the wool anti-game-day lifting proponents. They are absolutely sure it’s detrimental to performance later in the day. While I could dive into a rant about how this is a set mindset and is much more detrimental to the athletes those particular coaches work with, I won’t because I’ve already done my rant article for the year.
I could also write a comprehensive article about the pros and cons, but Coach Bob Alejo wrote a fabulous one, which I used as a reference when programming what we do on game days. Instead, I’ll focus on the anti-absolutes that influence how we plan and implement our game-day lifting at York Comprehensive High School (YCHS). I’ll discuss what variables go into our decision-making process and how combinations of these are reflected in our approach. I will also outline our general programming and review why we do what we do and when. Although I focus on football, the concepts hold true for all our school sports.
Using an Evidence-Based Approach
At YCHS, part of the mission statement for our sports performance program is “use an evidence-based approach.” Webster defines evidence as “an outward sign” or “one who bears witness.” It doesn’t say anything about “must come from extensive research and written in a journal.” So while I am not anti-research, we are not tied to that as the only way to use an evidence-based approach.
One of my favorite parts of the book The System is the author’s discussion about why American strength coaches initially found it so hard to communicate with the Eastern Block coaches. Paraphrasing, the author said the Eastern coaches used the term coach’s eye repeatedly. When asked a question by the American coaches, instead of quoting research, they replied “use your coach’s eye.” In the East, sports scientists and coaches worked as a symbiotic unit. Unlike in the West where those relationships were often at odds. So the Eastern Block coaches used research as a base to jump from, but ultimately the evidential proof came from actual real-time outcomes as judged by seasoned professionals.
That struck me as a very growth-minded approach. Because of that, I rely much more on our data collection and outcomes from the athletes I have in front of me than the ones the sports scientist or doctoral students studied and eventually wrote about. Coaching and the coach’s eye is a large part of our evidence.
Recently, I posted a 24-second video on Twitter of one of our football game-day lifts. I was shocked at the response. At the time of this writing, it’s been 36 hours, and I’m at over 600 likes. I also had one coach who replied that by doing what I was doing, our players would be fatigued and give our opponents an advantage. When I scoffed at the idea, this person replied “show me how I am wrong.” He pointed out that he had read over 40 articles to come up with his point of view. My direct answer to that challenge was simple, “I watched our players PLAY tonight with the same energy level they trained with this morning. They were not fatigued and played very fast.”What drives change in our program? Data collected from our athletes & what my coach’s eye tells me is effective, says @YorkStrength17. #GameDayLifting Click To Tweet
Now, many variables that led me to this conclusion (which I will discuss), but in the most simplistic terms possible: my coach’s eye told me we had done the right thing that day. It won’t be a research article or an opinion of a person with more letters behind their name than mine that will induce most changes to our program. It will be the data I collect from our athletes and what my coach’s eye tells me is effective. The minute I see that our athletes are sluggish or sore and it causes a drop in their ability to perform, we’ll adjust to make it the best it can be.
Variable One: Program Needs vs. Brain Candy
Two of the very first—and most macro—variables that go into our decisions about game-day programming are: What are the needs of the program and the wants of the head coach? Our job as high school strength coaches is not to set the culture for each sport. Our job is to support the culture of the overall athletic program and the individual teams within it. Clearly we must own our universe inside our facility, but ultimately the sport coach sets the tone for program culture.
I’m now in my second football season at YCHS (although I’ve had three off-seasons here), and the two years have been vastly different from the standpoints of culture, wants, and needs. In 2018, our head coach did not emphasize game-day lifts. Our football class was during the last block of the day, primarily so film and practice time could be earlier in the day. I was given Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday for 30-35 minutes with our players. Friday, I had basically zero contact until our pre-game activation stretch and movement period following the pre-game meal.
This season we have a new head coach. One of his only requests for me was that we lift hard on Friday. He has an amazing win-loss record with multiple state championship game appearances with this philosophy. His goal was to establish a culture of no excuses for not working hard. He also had our class moved to the start of the day. I was given 45-50 minutes (if needed) 3-4 days a week with Thursday being the only day I’m not with the players. Our culture changed, and it is now my job to support that change. Coach wants us working hard on game day? It’s time to make the plan.Coach wants us working hard on game day? It's my job to support the culture change and make the plan, says @YorkStrength17. #GameDayLifting Click To Tweet
A second major difference from a program-needs perspective is the training age of our athletes. In 2018, the vast majority of our varsity contributors were juniors and seniors who had reached at least Block 3 in our layering program. By the time an athlete graduates to Block 3, their strength levels are approaching levels that we’re comfortable with. They’ve also become very proficient in technique and bar speed. By the time they graduate to Block 4, most of our athletes are no longer working off a 1RM but instead are using lower intensities with velocity based training.
Most of our guys were strong enough. This allowed me to get what we needed to be done in the weight room by training twice a week and using the third day as our mobility and recovery day. From a programming standpoint, our volume was kept very low, but we pushed intensity in those two days. By the time the bye week before the first round of the playoffs rolled around, we were hitting a couple warm-up sets and then a single at our pre-season 1RM in both trap bar deadlift and flat bench press and 91% on back squats.
Jump ahead to this season. We have a total of nine seniors on our roster. Most of our contributors are underclassmen. Well, once again, there are no absolutes. While most of our juniors last year had graduated to Block 3, this year was different. Our JV players were not in the class last season. They were scheduled to lift after school. The week before Labor Day was the last time they lifted as a team (football decision). I didn’t see them in mass until January when our second semester began!
So now most of our varsity roster is a full five months behind the previous year. Using the same training methods would not be the best practice for this particular group. Our team is in the development phase. In Coach Alejo’s game day article, he pointed out:
“With younger, typically less experienced lifters, there’s a greater margin for error when attempting this type of training. In other words, less can go wrong; they are more resilient to volume-based error and injury. So much so that you can program the intent of the game-day lift to add to the development. Perhaps, for example, small gains in hypertrophy and, of course, strength and power, which would not be your typical in-season program goal. Fatigue is unlikely given a common sense approach to the training.”
We needed to get three good lifts in with these guys. Friday would be our day. Our program needs analysis told me that our game-day programming needed to reflect this.
Variable Two: Year-Round Programming and Development
One huge advantage we have at YCHS is that we have a football class for our players both semesters. Essentially, I can be with them 180 times during the school year for 90 minutes per day. We also train six and a half of the eight weeks during the summer before the first official day of practice (three more days a week of lifting plus a fourth dedicated to speed and quickness), which brings me up to 206 days with them. Add in the three weeks between the start of camp and the first day of school, and I have access to our football athletes 224 days a year.
This allows me to program a true year-round calendar not just for lifting volume and intensity but also periodization of our conditioning, speed, quickness, and jumping. We wave our volume and use a monthly count of reps for our six major movements to increase volume by no more than 10% per four-week cycle.
As we get into spring, practice volume drops and then picks back up until we begin a decline at the end of July, which continues through the end of the season. Then after a 3-4 week work capacity cycle that runs us through the holidays, our athletes graduate a level (most of the time) and begin the process over with a little bit higher volume total goal as they age. This continues until they graduate.By the time our athletes are lifting on game day, they've moved well past the point of anatomical adaptation, says @YorkStrength17. #GameDayLifting Click To Tweet
By the time we’re asking our athletes to lift on game day (when they reach the varsity level in football; we do things slightly different with other sports), they’ve moved well past the point of anatomical adaptation. They’re used to a higher level of volume and working hard and fast-paced. This is imperative in this process; our whole goal is to improve long-term performance.
However, we don’t want to put a younger athlete in a situation where they may get sore or stiff from a lift. Once again, this is where experience and the coach’s eye come in. If I’ve not seen our volleyball players for two weeks and we have a game, we adjust our programming to compensate. Once they are in the flow, we begin to adjust again. When programming for multiple sports as we do, we need to be very flexible and understand the culture and fluidity of every individual situation.
Variable Three: Timing Nutrition and Reality
Another advantage was our switch from classes at the end of the day to the start of the day. I have our football guys from about 8:50 am to 10 am on game day. That’s almost 10 hours before game time. This gives me lots of time to not only lift but also get our mobility and recovery work done.
On Friday, our football players warm up and then get a 25- to 30-minute lift in. We spend the last 15 minutes of class doing meditation and recovery breathing. For many, this turns into a nice catnap. Following this, our players receive a bagged lunch and milk to eat before they change and go off to class. This is an enormous positive variable and one big reason we feel comfortable doing what we do with them in the weight room. Counting lunch and the pre-game meal, our kids have three full meals between lifting and competition. We also give them a second meditation and recovery breathing session for 30-35 minutes after the pre-game meal and before we do any warm-up or activations pre-game.Our players are fully recovered and not fatigued when we step on the field at 7:30 pm, says @YorkStrength17. #GameDayLifting Click To Tweet
Although I started this post preaching no absolutes, I can say with certainty that our players are fully recovered and not fatigued when we step on the field at 7:30 pm (despite the claims of my Twitter adversary and his absolute doctrines). Our non-football athletes don’t have the same timing and often don’t have the same nutritional advantages. They also don’t have as much time for recovery protocols on game days. That’s the variable for them that causes a variation in programming for me as the strength coach. Each team is programmed differently based on these variables. Once again, no absolutes.
Variable Four: Coach’s Eye and Athlete Feedback
This is possibly the most vital and also the most difficult. Not only do I watch how our athletes move, but I also talk to them. My athletes have no problem letting me know how they feel. We’ve built trust, and they know I will adjust for them individually as needed. There are no absolutes while lifting on game day. I may have 90% of the team lifting while the other 10% do a modified program or even recovery and mobility, depending on the needs of each player.#GameDayLifting has no absolutes. 90% of the team may lift while the other 10% do a modified program or recovery & mobility, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
I also have them fill out monitoring forms where they color in the areas of the body that are sore or fatigued. They can write any issue on the sheet, and we also use it to monitor sleep. When we tumble and warm up, I watch bar speed and how they move. If they seem fatigued, we have a conversation.
On Friday nights, I’m with them from 6:40 pm to the end of the game. During the game, I don’t have any real duties, so I’m able to watch our guys play. It’s my time to view them as a team and informally assess how they look. I’ve not seen anything yet that indicates we need to make any adjustments. The second I do, we’ll figure out what tweaks we need and will make them.
To go back to my Twitter debate with the other coach, he said his study proved that fatigue was a near-absolute. My study of our team proved there were no absolutes. I watched our players, I stretched our players, and I talked to our players, and they presented no residual fatigue. That’s not to say that another coach may find a different result. I can only speak for my “study,” which is very fluid and adjustable.
I won’t spend much time on this topic. The in-season program we use this year will likely become an article of its own. Our general game-day program, though, looks like this:
8:50-9:00 Mobility and Athletic Development Warm-up
- 1A Elevated Trap Bar Power Shrugs (timed 1 second per rep)
- 1B Jammers (using gymnastic rings and bars as homemade jammers)
- 2A Bench Press
- 2B Unilateral Bent Over Rows
- 2C Scap Retractions
- 3A Neck
- 3B Band Pull Aparts
9:40-9:55 Recovery Breathing (no lights, laying down, meditation music)
9:55-10:14 Get food, shower, and change
Intensity for Tier 1 is pretty simple. I preload the bars for the team, and we group by trap bar deadlift max: groups with guys over 450 use 140 pounds, 350 use 120 pounds, and under 350 use 100 pounds. We time them with the goal of one second per rep. Every time we drop volume, we add 5 pounds per group.
For the bench press, we work up to 70% for 6 reps, 80% for 5 reps, 85% for 4 reps, 88% for the rest with a bar speed focus. We program our pulls to be +2 above the volume of the bench press for the day. As you can see, the volume starts moderately low and moves to very low by the post-season; it has an inverse relationship with intensity moving through the season.
No Absolutes: Just Play the Cards that Are Dealt
The theme of this article is that there are few absolutes in our profession. There are only variables that need to be adjusted to produce the desired adaptations. Again, I focused on football, but the ideas apply to all our sports at YCHS. I have been and will continue to plug these variables for each program to help keep our athletes strong and healthy.
Game-day lifting could absolutely become detrimental to performance if we do not stay focused. A cookie-cutter program in which one size fits all is just a bad idea. The variables I presented here are not only not the only ones I see (just the ones I had room to write about) but also will not be the same as you may have. Would we do something different if we had them on Saturday? Very likely we would. How about only after school? Yes, there is no way we would do the same if we trained four hours or less before the game. Must you train on game day? Nope, not at all. Why? Because maybe your situation prevents you from doing so.
Bottom line is you do you. Just make sure it’s the most efficient and effective process you can do for your kids. Last but not least, please do not listen or put stock in people preaching that the way they believe is right is the only right. It’s probably pretty absolute that’s not the case. Have a growth mindset. Chase knowledge but always see it through the perspective of the variables of your situation and strive to present your athletes with whatever practices get the closest to meeting them where they are at, not where your opinion says they should be.