Kevin Speer is a strength & conditioning coach for the Cologne Centurions and the owner of Develop Athletes, a coaching business in Germany. By the time he began his studies at German Sport University Cologne—where he received a Master of Science in Performance, Training and Coaching in Elite Sports—he had already started his own business. Before his current positions, he worked with the Florida Gators in 2018. He and his team have coached more than 300 athletes from 12 countries and several clubs from different sports. In addition to remote coaching, Kevin’s company specializes in preparing young European athletes for college in the U.S.
Freelap USA: You’re currently working as a strength and conditioning coach for the Cologne Centurions, an American football team in the European League of Football (ELF). The ELF is in the second season now, so it’s quite a new format and semi-professional. How do you approach S&C support in this setting, and what are the main challenges?
Kevin Speer: Working in such a new league brings some challenges. Even though football is becoming more and more professional in Europe, very few teams have their own practice facilities, let alone their own gym. In addition, the players are only employed during the season, so in our off-season, they train on a “voluntary basis.” While we have managed to have a large number of players at practice on a regular basis for most of the off-season, other commitments, travel times of over two hours, and other hindrances prevent us from counting on the same number of players each week.
So, our program had to be flexible in structure and implementation. Players with barely any training experience had to train at the same time as players with 10 years of training experience. Through our partnership with a local gym, we were able to train twice a week under professional conditions, but the number of participants varied from 10 to 40 players each session from October through March. In addition, players who had to travel too far were provided with training programs, and some of the players prepared with their own private trainers.
On the other hand, the biggest challenges in-season start where athletes leave off: during the season, training already takes place three times a week on the field, plus one game a week. There are no times or opportunities for further organized, joint strength training in this semi-professional setting. The players do receive training plans for 2–3 additional strength training sessions per week, but they have to do these on their own.
Only once a week do we have another chance to do exercises with the players without equipment for 5–10 minutes outside of warm-up. Truly professionalizing the league would require players to have to play the sport full time, and thus they’d be able to approach their training professionally outside of football practice. All of these hurdles mean a tremendous amount of organization will need to be addressed as professionalization increases.
Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that many players are giving their all to advance this profession and become role models for young, up-and-coming players.
Freelap USA: European players don’t play football in high school or college like in the U.S. Many only start playing when they are already adults. What impact does that have on your programming and physical preparation?
Kevin Speer: From a physical as well as a tactical perspective, we see huge differences between the U.S. and Europe. Similar to how the pace of soccer in Germany is most likely overwhelming for American athletes, for Americans the game of football in Europe is almost in slow motion.
It is important for us to start by figuring out what the “lowest-hanging fruits” are for these athletes and which training elements still evoke any significant change. Especially in European football, the physical component can outweigh the playful elements. This is why a solid strength foundation—for example, we strive for about 1.6x BW in the squat—is at least a starting point in our work.The challenge of creating meaningful training sessions even under the most difficult conditions can ultimately result in the training sessions that give you the most pleasure as a coach. Click To Tweet
Of course, we also try to work on elements of our athletes’ speed and ability to change direction, but we must keep reminding ourselves of the conditions that are available when we work with them. This influences our work more than any objective. In my career, I have done physical training without equipment on a semi-pitch with 120 athletes at a time, just as I have with 30 athletes in a fully equipped gym with eight racks. In European football, conditions dictate our work first, and only then can we worry about specific content. But the challenge of creating meaningful training sessions even under the most difficult conditions can ultimately result in the training sessions that give you the most pleasure as a coach.
Freelap USA: You have prepared European players for college scholarships in the U.S. What do you focus on in your program design, and what does the preparation look like? Can you share an example with us?
Kevin Speer: One of the biggest distinctions is that athletes in the U.S. start early with all-around sports training year-round and also get early access to resistance training. Players who go from Europe to high school for two years at 16/17 years old usually come back completely changed in terms of their physical attributes.
College recruiting is a complicated business, but ultimately our job is to fulfill a whole checklist of requirements and requests from coaches. Starting with the first impression, the look of the athlete is crucial. Unfortunately, we can’t influence their height, but body mass or muscle mass is very clear. When there are 15 athletes in a group at a camp, you want to attract attention with your appearance. After that, for the vast majority of positions, speed or Combine numbers (especially the 40-yard dash) are the ticket for coaches to even talk to somebody. Strength values and similar, as important as they once seemed to us as S&C coaches, are of no interest to anyone at the camps.
So, depending on how much time we have available, we try to provide a good mix of LTAD and successful preparation for the camps. In the case of Alexander Ehrensberger, Re-So Defensive End at the University of Notre Dame, we had a total of 1.5 years to prepare him for the challenges of college. For example, he already stood out in height at 6’7” but didn’t even weigh in at 200 pounds (today: 255 pounds). In addition to gaining weight, it was important to make sure he continued to maintain his outstanding athletic ability.
Even though he was still playing his senior season in Germany during this period, we focused on long-term development. The total of five to six sessions we had together per week consisted of a fairly undulating approach that changed in priority depending on the time for preparation. After six months, we roughly reached his target weight of 235–240 pounds, and from there we focused only on athletic development and physical preparation.
Even though he has a few years of college ahead of him as a freshman, he will have to play every day in training against much older juniors and seniors who can bring a lot more physical training experience to the table. The goal was to be able to keep up with this competition and build up the appropriate resilience to practice as continuously and injury-free as possible. Alex was rewarded for all his hard work when he showed dominance with a quarterback sack against South Florida on his very first play in college football.
Freelap USA: Many football players who train with you are from different countries, and you coach them remotely. How do you make it work, and what is required from the player’s side to make remote coaching for football players successful?
Kevin Speer: Actually, more than 80% of the athletes we work with we hardly ever see, or if we do, it’s at most 1–2 times a year. I think working remotely can work wonderfully, it just has to meet one or two requirements. First, it is important from our side as coaches to make the collaboration as efficient and easy as possible for the athlete. App-based solutions with videos and analysis for training programming are widely available, and they replace page-long emails and PDF documents (the easier accessibility has its pitfalls, though).Keeping the barrier to communication low is one of the most important fundamentals for successful remote coaching, says @devathletes. Click To Tweet
Communication, of course, remains a key element of coaching (the more I know, the better I can customize training plans)—but again, this starts from the coach’s side with access to communication tools that I provide to the athlete. For this, my coaches and I work with a second cell phone on which we can receive and send messages and technique videos at any time via WhatsApp. Keeping the barrier to communication low is one of the most important fundamentals for successful remote coaching.
This does not mean that I must be available 24/7, but that the athlete can quickly and easily share their thoughts and questions at any time. If these won’t be answered immediately, then that is a matter of honest and open communication at the beginning to clarify expectations and implementation. If all these things are met, remote coaching is worth as much as the athlete invests in it!
Freelap USA: Testing and monitoring play an important role in your coaching approach, and you also offer performance diagnostics for teams and individual athletes. How do you monitor remote players during pre- and in-season?
Kevin Speer: There are two primary options for this. Either the club itself offers regular performance diagnostics that can be used, or we have to resort to app-based solutions in this case as well. In the first instance, depending on the design and conditions, we must decide whether this data is valid and reliable enough to make a decision based on it. If these conditions are not met or the data we want is not measured, we have to turn to our own solutions.
Jump diagnostics can be implemented extensively with just a few instructions, thanks to the MyJump app. Even for sprinting, we can get sprint times, ground contact times, stride lengths, and more using the Binary App with a solidly filmed cell phone video and a tape measure. For example, working with Niklas Gustav (formerly of Morningside College, now Swarco Raiders Tirol) in preparation for the CFL Draft, I was able to perform extensive diagnostics even though we were thousands of miles apart. Videos and instructions in advance are just as sufficient to get a good assessment of strength values.Of course, these solutions are not perfect, but with the help of today’s technical possibilities, distances are no longer an obstacle to us offering good coaching, says @devathletes. Click To Tweet
Of course, these solutions are not perfect, but with the help of today’s technical possibilities, distances are no longer an obstacle to us offering good coaching from our point of view.
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