I first gained experience in the university sporting environment during my time at a college in Oregon. Playing basketball there, I learned what a great opportunity it was to train, develop, and compete on a daily basis. While the university environment in the United Kingdom (UK) can be a bit different from the United States (US) regarding facilities and funding, there are still some excellent athletes, and the demands of a season can be equally—if not more—challenging.
With the investment in scholarship athletes becoming more prevalent in the UK (beginning about ten years ago), universities also began to employ strength and conditioning (S&C) coaches to work with these few select individuals. Having worked in professional and international sport with large teams and witnessed the US collegiate environment, I wanted to do something similar in the UK and deliver a comprehensive S&C service to as many student-athletes as possible. These are my insights from a decade within UK university sport.
Develop a Vision and Mission
Having a clear vision is essential. It gives you an overarching philosophy that you can aim everything toward. You can link any decisions to your philosophy and understand and assess whether you’re progressing toward your ultimate goal or not.University athlete health and wellbeing is the priority while performance is a related goal. Click To Tweet
In the university environment, athlete health and wellbeing should be the ultimate priority, with performance treated as a related goal. You’ll usually have at least three years in the UK to develop an athlete, sometimes longer. These are almost always young athletes, who are growing, developing, and learning, and this is the ideal environment and opportunityto develop them physically.
If you get this right, you can improve their strength, power, speed, and endurance, which should have a lasting impact on their sporting performance. You can also create robust athletes who have reduced injury risk and can enjoy life in sport.
The long-term impact of injury in collegiate athletes is clear. There’s a negative effect on long-term health and wellbeing as well as reduced participation in sport.1Knowing that well-implemented S&C support can help reduce this risk,2our priority in an S&C setting is to help guard against injuries. The university administration should also take this risk seriously. The university has a duty of care to look after its athletes competing for the university, and they should understand how sport influences long-term health and wellbeing.
Understand the Unique Constraints and Opportunities of the University Environment
In university sport, and indeed in any large organization or professional club, there are a variety of priorities. As S&C coaches, we like to think that we’re the most important aspect and that our influence is vital. While there is no doubt that well-implemented S&C can have a great lasting impact on student-athletes, it’s not always the case that management or people in other departments instantly and instinctively understand this.
For example, there could be financial implications. At my previous university, the sport department sat within the commercial services department. While there was some understanding that sport was important, it was difficult to clarify what fell in the profit and loss columns. When I first arrived, the S&C facility had a fairly large number of external members, who were non-students and did not need a sports-specific S&C training environment. I soon discovered that this conflicted with our vision to enhance student-athlete health, wellbeing, and performance.Making a case for a student-athlete only space was easy; covering the cost took an innovative plan. Click To Tweet
The arguments to create a student-athlete only environment were easy to make. We could support training for many teams and athletes, using evidence-based methodologies, in a controlled and professional environment. The issue was that this could result in a large reduction in income if we discontinued the external membership.
I proposed engaging a large number of teams and athletes who would pay for the service. I had no previous examples to give as evidence that it would work, but my experiences within the American university system led me to believe that we could develop a service that teams and athletes would buy into. Luckily, the management agreed and took the risk.
Within the first year, we doubled the student-athlete membership and went from working with three performance teams (who received free services) to nine teams. Five years down the line, we now work with 35 sports in 65 team sessions, supporting over 1,000 student-athletes. The incredible thing, from a sustainability perspective, is that close to 900 of these athletes pay for the service.
Match Facility Design to Meet Your Mission
Designing a facility that can cater to your aims is important. After I was in the department for a year, we looked at redeveloping our facility. At the time, we had four racks, a few platforms, and some dumbbells and other bits of equipment dotted around the room. During the tender process, which was linked to the regular fitness gym facility, five companies competed for the bid. Most of the companies offered some great equipment, but the designs and layouts would not cater to the team and athlete delivery that I envisioned.
I drew up a proposal based on what I’d seen at universities in America. The team training area was a priority. It had six racks (three opposite each other) with a good amount of space and platforms in between. I thought this could easily cater to a total of 18 athletes. In the rest of the facility, I figured we could fit five more racks and then squeeze in some dumbbells, spin bikes, and a leg press.
That’s pretty much it: 11 racks, 5 benches, 3 bench pull attachments, some dumbbells, spin bikes, and a leg press. Simple but incredibly effective. Absolute Performance provided the equipment to match this design and did a great job installing it.
Another key factor was the integrated flooring. We went for 40mm rubber floor tiles that we could use for any type of lifting, eliminating the need for separate platforms. It made the area a great multi-purpose facility.
Tailor Your Communication for the Desired Effect
The value of your communication is judged by its outcome. You may have the best intentions and make a lot of valid points, but if the outcome is that the athlete does not buy-in or you don’t get the desired investment, your communication failed. It’s easy to try and shift the blame and say they did not understand you or they just didn’t get it. And there may even be some truth in these statements, but that’s not the point. The point is that your communication was unsuccessful, so you should try to figure out how to do it better.7
There are difficult decisions to make when coaching. Some people say they never tell athletes the truth about what they’re doing. Instead, they lie to the athletes, making bolder claims than they know are likely. I feel somewhat uneasy about this as an empiricist.
I prefer to try and sell the truth as effectively as possible. Research has shown that the same information can be delivered in different ways to have greatly differing effects. The work by Kahneman and colleagues has shown that we are all subject to bias in many ways.8Therefore, it might be beneficial to communicate in ways that enhance the likelihood of a positive outcome. Confidence is one of the obvious examples of this: if you deliver something with confidence and clarity, it’s more likely to be accepted as true.
The research on bias and heuristics gives us further rationale to embrace scientific thinking and methodologies. We are prone to confirmation bias and are likely to attribute errors elsewhere. Therefore, we should always be open to the fact that we may make mistakes, prepare to review our programs and testing results carefully, and then be willing to admit when we are wrong. It is, in fact, one of the main virtues of scientists—to be skeptical, to question, and to be objective rather than subjective.While a person's thoughts can be interesting, their anecdotes can never overrule empirical evidence. Click To Tweet
In some ways, there seems to have been an increase in the value of subjective reasoning and personal evidence. While the thoughts of one person can be interesting, anecdotes can never overrule empirical evidence. I would advise all coaches and S&C professionals to consider these factors when reviewing evidence, designing programs, and communicating with stakeholders.
Foster a Team Culture that Reflects Your Vision
Of course, a department like this can only be successful if the teams and athletes turn up and are willing to buy-in. To do that, you need to ensure a quality service that’s engaging and effective. We must find a difficult balance between giving the teams and athletes what they think they want and ensuring that what we do for them is impactful.
I’ve found the best way to accomplish this is to engage teams by helping instill good team culture. The term culture is often thrown around without really explaining what it is or how to achieve it. For me, good overall team culture involves everyone working toward a common shared goal. It means every individual is accountable for their actions in every situation, all based on whether they’re helping or hindering the common goal.A strong culture and team spirit can emerge once everyone buys-in and believes team goals. Click To Tweet
Attending S&C and working hard should impact athletic performance and be part of the common goal of a serious team. All the players should be accountable for this. You can enforce it through team rules and behaviors, which is where athlete leadership fits in. Successful teams tend to have a strong leadership group, consisting of key players who help hold others accountable for their actions. Once everyone buys-in and believes in the team’s goals, a strong culture and team spirit can emerge.9
Respect the Fundamentals of Science
Much of my programming and the philosophy I try to instill in the S&C department is to use “real training” and stay away from gimmicks and trends. We try to stick to the basics and develop all physical qualities in a simple way. A saying that always sticks in my mind from science education is Occam’s razor—always try to answer a question with the most simple answer possible.3
As a biology graduate, I’m passionate about science and the scientific method. I often view topics in S&C a little differently than what’s currently in vogue. An example is the common use of categorical thinking in S&C textbooks. Stemming from the ideas of Aristotle and Plato, categorical thinking aims to put everything into discrete groupings so we can consider them easily.4 It’s a common heuristic people use that can be very practical in certain circumstances.
For example, the electromagnetic spectrum is exactly that—a spectrum. However, we conveniently put groupings and names to different wavelengths of light and call them colors. Despite there being no actual boundaries between the wavelengths in the spectrum, we easily depict them as separate colors. But just as the distinction between red and orange can be useful, there can also be a blurring of these categories where the distinction is not so easy, and the colors become ambiguous.
In an S&C context, we see the same ambiguity when dealing with the changing force and velocity of muscle contraction. We often struggle with ambiguity, and viewing things in categories doesn’t help. The strength-speed continuum of muscle action is an example.
Muscle contraction occurs on a continuum from slow to fast; there are no actual separate categories of mechanism (obviously there is the increased recruitment of high threshold motor units, but this is not important for the point I’m making here) despite our insistence on saying “at this percentage we’re training max strength, and at this percentage we’re training strength-speed,” etc. With this thinking, as we approach the boundary between categories, a 1% change suggests a larger difference than is actually present.
This also opens questions about the physiological rationale for our training methods and philosophies. The mechanism of muscle contraction is an obvious area that informs program design. When a muscle contracts, we need the actin-myosin cross-bridge formation to impart a force. This force directly dictates all other outcomes.
While people say something like Power = Force x Velocity, which is true, we must understand that the velocity we measure only occurs due to the force imparted. They are not mutually exclusive. As we approach 1RM, actin-myosin binding sites are mostly occupied at any one time, meaning that velocity has to be slow. As the load decreases, the number of actin-myosin binding sites occupied can lower, meaning that cycling is quicker and the velocity of contraction increases.5
Being able to view physiological phenomena as continuous variables greatly helps our understanding and appreciation of program design and exercise selection. It’s useful to have simple rules-of-thumb when designing programs quickly and when we’re trying to get our heads around an idea, but we should always be mindful of the traps we can fall into.
There’s also often confusion with science: people might say there is no exact scientific research showing that something works in a particular environment, so you can’t say what is right or wrong. Well, that’s absolute nonsense. Science is not just a set of facts and theories that we know about the world. It’s also the process of scientific thinking, clear thinking, or critical thinking. It’s using evidence and what we do know to make informed decisions with logic, rationality, and reason.6By understanding physiology, we make informed judgments & predictions about behaviors, adaptations. Click To Tweet
By understanding basic physiology, we can make informed judgments and predictions about behaviors and adaptations. If we keep this simple and closely analyze the outcomes, we can determine whether our inferences were correct or whether we need to adjust things and try something different. Again, simplicity is key because then we can be clear in our analysis of what works or doesn’t work. When we overcomplicate things with many variables and principles, we can’t possibly have a good grasp of what actually caused an outcome.
Create Programs that Build Resilient Athletes
To look at some of the programs I’ve found successful in the university environment, I present my full season of programs for the Men’s Hockey team. To give some context, the team plays in the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) Premier Division and National League 1. This means that most players have matches on Wednesday and Saturday/Sunday, with hockey training on Monday and Thursday.
It’s a fairly demanding and fatiguing sporting schedule, which is similar across most top-level teams at British universities. Alongside these hockey commitments, all the players are full-time students with different courses and timetables. We’ve found the best overall schedule for them is two S&C sessions each week on Monday and Friday.
The pre-season period is the optimal time to get a large volume of training completed. It allows us to build a solid foundation and work on areas that may be prone to injury. At the start of every session, players will complete a warm-up and prehab routine. After taking them through this for the first couple of sessions, I let them get on with it themselves for the rest of the season. This helps to develop some accountability among the players. It also gives me an opportunity to talk to the players individually to see how they’re feeling and understand their current wellness.
Once the players finish their warm-up, they perform a 5-repeated jump monitoring test, which can track neuromuscular outputs throughout a whole season. This is an adapted version of the 10/5 Repeated Jump Test.12
As you can see from Table 1, the volume of the sessions is fairly high. We aim to develop some work capacity and structural adaptation. I like to use a slow tempo: 3-second eccentrics and a pause on the bottom of the squat. This helps to ensure that we develop good movement patterns and lifting techniques and also places sufficient stress on the body.
The development of the hamstrings and soleus are key areas for injury patterns that we see in hockey.
At the end of this period, we carry out some 1RM prediction testing using GymAware to help track progress and to assign some estimates to work from each week. I’m very mindful that the players have different abilities, workloads, and schedules, so I only use percentages as guidelines.
Bryan Mann’s work has demonstrated the benefits of autoregulatory training.13When someone easily hits their numbers for a given week, I encourage them to lift a little heavier. If someone is struggling, we may reduce the load slightly or reduce the number of sets, which is my usual preference. Having a close working relationship with the players and an understanding of their needs helps with this daily monitoring and adjustment strategy.
In-Season Phase 1
The program for the first in-season phase is very similar. Percentages on the bench press are higher than squats because there are less potential performance impact and injury risk from overloading the horizontal press.
Our player availability rate is more than 99.5% because we built robust athletes using overload. Click To Tweet
The overall volume is still fairly high, particularly since they’re now competing in fixtures and train on Monday night after having S&C in the morning. On paper, that might be a risk. However, we’ve built this through experience and analyzing the impact of my sessions over several years. I’m pleased to say that our injury rate is extremely low. During the past three years, players in total have missed only five games out of a total of 960. That’s an availability rate of over 99.5%.
While injuries can be due to luck, programming and management inevitably have an impact. There’s also what I like to call the “spiral of fragility.” Athletes are often treated as highly fragile, and coaches believe they must do everything to protect them. The concept is epitomized in an elite sport such as the English Premier League (football/soccer).
The approach is understandable in some respects, as we’re dealing with huge commodities regarding the players’ value. If they get injured, that’s a loss of money, so everything possible will be done to protect them and wrap them in cotton wool. However, this may prove to be an ineffective approach and actually have the opposite effect than what we hoped for.
The data clearly suggests that developing robust athletes, who are resistant to injury, requires a constant loading and developing of a good foundation. If we don’t overload, and therefore create a positive structural adaptation, then the muscles, tendons, and ligaments will be weaker and at higher risk of injury. The reversibility effect ensures that if we don’t train, then we lose any physical qualities that we developed. A proverb that sums this up well is: “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”14University athletes are more robust than often thought and can withstand a good amount of loading. Click To Tweet
I’ve found that university athletes are more robust than we like to think. They are anti-fragile and can withstand a good amount of loading and adaptation. If you train them well from the beginning and continue loading them through the year, you can be hopeful for strong and injury-free athletes for the whole season.
In-Season Phase 2
In this block, we increase intensities and add a few more dynamic movements.
The squats include a “pop” out of the bottom, and the reverse lunges and step-ups are as quick as possible on the way up.
In-Season Phase 3
Phase 3 is the last phase before the Christmas break when we add power exercises such as jump squats and trap bar jumps.
When progressing to power training, I first train through all of the larger ranges of motion, looking at the concentric action (no countermovement) and a controlled landing (eccentric).
In-Season Phase 4
Phase 4 is the first block back after the Christmas break. Typically, we lose the athletes for around four weeks over the break, and it’s difficult to guarantee that they’ve done much training during that time.
I use a taper block to get them back to where we left off before Christmas. We also add in the next progressions in power training, using countermovement jump squats and trap bar jumps.
In-Season Phase 5
In phase 5, we look at repeated jumps and contacts, aiming to improve the reactivity of the muscles.
We include some loaded back squats and bench presses using bands to overload the top portion and allow acceleration through the whole movement.
In-Season Phase 6
Phase 6 is the final block of training leading into playoffs and championship games.
We add some multi-directional power work and continue with some squats, RDLs, split squats, and calf raises. This training format leads to some natural peaking as we’ve progressed from higher volumes at lower intensities to high intensity and power work with reduced volume.
With today’s trend of daily undulating methods, this block periodization method might not be the most popular, but I’ve found it the most successful in making progressions over a full season. Daily undulating methods might be good for experienced professionals who have many years of training background behind them and who are looking to stay fresh for every game.The block periodization makes successful progressions over a full season. Click To Tweet
But for these young athletes, who don’t have a great training background, undulating methods would be largely wasted on them. They don’t have the foundational qualities to just “top-up” and develop every couple of weeks. The best way to cause real adaptation and physical change is to overload a quality for a good block of training and then move on to another focus after that.10, 11
Review Relevant Data to Evaluate Results
S&C is a field where we hope to have a real impact and see results, and our best evidence that we’ve done a good job and were successful is to review our data and test results. Physical outputs like strength and power are useful as well as injury data and feedback from coaches and athletes.
|Back Squat 1RM (Kg)||125||143||14.4|
|Bench Press 1RM (Kg)||63||76||20.6|
|Bench Pull 1RM (Kg)||55||68||23.6|
The graph covers the whole of the season. You can see the changes in power output throughout the year, with sharp fluctuations when we adjusted the emphasis of training. There was a large spike toward the end of the year when we focussed on the power and speed aspects of training to prepare for major competitions.
The university environment in the UK offers an excellent opportunity to develop young athletes over several years of engagement. My methods and examples demonstrate that you can set up an S&C department to be both sustainable and effective. I hope that other universities and administrations see the advantages and opportunities available to them and recognize the duty of care they have to their student-athletes.
For coaches and aspiring S&C professionals, I hope that this shows that using principles of science and scientific thinking can help develop effective programs, structures, and entire departments. From this, it would be progressive for the university S&C industry if other coaches and practitioners share their experiences and philosophies, helping develop standards and expectations, which in turn could be adopted by organizations such as BUCS.
- Hootman, Jennifer & Randall, Dick & Agel, Julie. (2007). Epidemiology of Collegiate Injuries for 15 Sports: Summary and Recommendations for Injury Prevention Initiatives. Journal of Athletic Training. 42. 311-319.
- Talpey, Scott & Siesmaa, Emma. (2017). Sports Injury Prevention: The Role of the Strength and Conditioning Coach. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 39(3). 14-19.DOI: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000301.
- Rasmussen, C. E., & Ghahramani, Z. (2001). Occam’s Razor. In Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems (pp. 294-300).
- Mullainathan, S. (2002). Thinking through categories. NBER working paper.
- Jaric, S. (2015). Force-velocity Relationship of Muscles Performing Multi-joint Maximum Performance Tasks. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 36(9). 699-704.
- Russell, B. (2013). An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth. Routledge.
- Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence (Vol. 3). Port Harcourt: A. Michel.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow (Vol. 1). New York: Farrar, Straus, andGiroux.
- Fletcher, D., & Arnold, R. (2011). A Qualitative Study of Performance Leadership and Management in Elite Sport. Journal of Applied SportPsychology. 23(2). 223-242.
- Haff, G. G. (2016). The Essentials of Periodization. Strength and Conditioning for Sports Performance. 404.
- Painter, K. B., et al. (2012). Strength Gains: Block Versus Daily Undulating Periodization Weight Training Among Track and Field Athletes. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 7(2). 161-169.
- Harper, Damian & Hobbs, Sarah & Moore, Jason. (2011). The Ten to Five Repeated Jump Test: A New Test for Evaluation of Reactive Strength. BASES Student Conference.
- Mann, Bryan, et al. (2010). The Effect of Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise vs. Linear Periodization on Strength Improvement in College Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24(17). 1718-1723.
- Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Penguin Press.