Self-reflection is always a valuable process. In fact, for growth it is an invaluable one. Not too long ago I hopped off a phone call with another coach one evening. I do my best to limit my coaching conversations at home, but sometimes it just happens. I don’t actually remember who I was speaking with or what the topic was during this particular call. What stuck in my mind was the comment my wife made to me after I hung up. While she was sitting in another part of my house, she (to her dismay) often overhears my conversations. Following this particular one she said to me, “You know a lot more than you did five years ago.”
While that statement isn’t groundbreaking, anyone with a growth mindset and a desire to be the best version of themselves knows a lot more after five years. What that statement inspired in me was to really sit down and reflect on that time period. I’ve always been a coach who looked for value in every opportunity possible. If I see something that I think can make our program better, I will grab it and give it a try. If it doesn’t work out? We move on. One thing is for sure though: that process has ultimately led to a list of things that have changed our program for the better. Things that have allowed me to maximize my abilities to help our student-athletes reach their promised land.I’ve always been a coach who looked for value in every opportunity possible, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Anyone who knows me knows I have traveled the path of athlete to sport coach to sport coach/weight room guy, finally to strength coach. Taking that route ends up putting coaches on a little bit of a reverse path compared to many of those coaches that begin their journey with a formal education and work forward to a position coaching athletes. Indeed, my journey began over 20 years ago when step one was, “You lift weights, run the weight room.” It progressed to many stages and both my formal and informal education, while ongoing, began after I had the responsibility of training athletes.
This is a path that isn’t the traditional one but is more and more common as the demand for qualified coaches whose primary role is strength and conditioning grows at the high school level. I embrace the opportunity to share my experiences on that path with those looking to follow it. So when I sat down to reflect on what my wife had said and on the last five years, the list inspired me to start typing.
This isn’t a comprehensive list obviously. It actually probably represents more of a ten-year learning curve. Ten topics, however, seemed a few too many. Instead, I’ve narrowed it down to include the five most impactful topics that I’ve made part of my process over the last five- to ten-year period of my career.
You may agree or disagree and that’s ok. This was my process and yours may differ. If that’s the case I encourage you to submit your article sharing your list! Some of these may be things that seem like no brainers. I want us to remember we all come from a different starting place. My intention with this article is to give examples of things that changed my way of thinking dramatically during that time.
1. Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands
One area that I strived to master in this time period is the pursuit of the adaptation needed to achieve the outcomes I desire from a training stimulus. What exactly does that mean to me? Simple: know what monster you need to feed to get what you want and make sure you feed it the right food, also known as Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID). In my opinion it is one of those most basic principles in strength and conditioning that is also not fully embraced, particularly in the high school space in general.
Over the last five to ten years, I was in the beginning of understanding and really grasping this principle, but I was still over-feeding the max strength monster. Please, please, please don’t take this to mean that I don’t believe in lifting heavy weights. We will discuss that later. What I do believe in is making sure we measure and evaluate the needs of our athletes. If max strength was the single deciding factor in who was the best player…then why are the strongest people in the world not all playing in the NFL?What I do believe in is making sure we measure and evaluate the needs of our athletes, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
“The training loads must have specific aims from a physiological, energy system or functional capability standpoint” (Verkhoshansky). You notice he didn’t say constant chasing of max strength adaptation was the best way to elicit transfer. Training loads must be specific applications based on desired outcomes. While it is imperative to add strength to our athletes, it’s a mistake to pile strength adaptations on athletes who would benefit more in their sport from pursuing other areas.
There is certainly a point in every athlete’s life where increasing max strength will increase speed and power. It’s also a certainty that at some point many athletes are pushed past the point of strength being the limiting factor in performance and need to shift focus. Pushing any athlete past the point that they need to be better at their sport is wasted opportunity. If we buy a car and pay it off in 48 payments, we own the car. If we keep paying after it’s paid off, we still own the car but now we are spending money we could be using on other needs/expenses.
Until they begin to decide overtime of a high school football game by setting up a power rack in the endzone and having a lift off to decide who wins the game…then I’m not going to chase max strength numbers any further than I need to. I’m going to chase strength adaptations that get each athlete to a solid base that can be used to maximize transfer to the arena they choose to compete in. That being said, I wouldn’t advise against continuing to push the strength adaptation once they hit that base. Absolutely not.
As long as speed, power output, skill, and other KPIs are not being limited, I have no problem with it. What I am saying is that once we get to a certain level, it’s time to begin to pull opportunity resources (time, effort, etc.) from chasing that adaptation and put them into feeding the other attributes. Stop chasing record board strength and chase transfer. Maybe that transfer comes from strength. Maybe it doesn’t. Every athlete is different and has different needs. I’m saying we need to measure and evaluate each athlete to provide the specific training stimulus that will drive the adaptation that will transfer to sport.I’m saying we need to measure and evaluate each athlete to provide the specific training stimulus that will drive the adaptation that will transfer to sport, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
While my mistake was obsession with feeding strength, there will be others who ignore strength and feed only speed development without individualizing the needs of each athlete. That is the same level of mistake in my opinion. My ninth grade athlete who weighs 115 pounds and bench presses 95 pounds, and my junior who weighs 180 and totals 1400 pounds in bench, squat, and deadlift are in need of different “diets.”
Will adding strength and muscle make a bigger impact on the performance of the ninth grader than spending time with ranged squats and French Contrast? Yes. Will adding 100 pounds to the junior’s total make him a better athlete than shifting to those things and getting more powerful? No. Bottom line: don’t start with a 1RM as the end goal, start with best possible athlete they can be in the arena they choose to compete in.
2. Strong Enough is Strong Enough
Along a very similar thought process is my second area of growth in the last five years. In fact, this is probably more point 1B than 2, but I felt I needed to address it because it’s an area of growth for me that has had a great effect on how I coach. I used to say, “No one has ever gone to the doctor and been told they were too strong.” I still agree with that statement, but with the caveat that we are talking about being human, not being the best at your sport (unless that sport is powerlifting or weightlifting, etc.).
Less than a week ago, I had one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached come to me and ask why his sprint times were down as he is preparing for his senior track season. It was pretty simple: since the end of football season, he had been doing his own training. The guy was doing reps with over 500 pounds on the back squat deep. He had gone from 185 to 198 pounds since the end of football and looked like a bodybuilder. He was so far past strong enough that it had become a serious detriment to his ability to move.
My advice to him? Train for the 100m, not a football game or a powerlifting meet. His training had developed attributes to his body that are not optimal for the sport he needs to excel in. Again, as I stated above, I am most definitely not anti-lifting heavy. I do however 100% stand by what I said earlier in this article: “Until they begin to decide overtime of a high school football game by setting up a power rack in the endzone and having a lift off to decide who wins the game…then I’m not going to chase max strength numbers any further than I need to.”
What I’m chasing with our athletes (from a strength adaptation perspective) is strong enough. Strong enough to what? Strong enough to do what they need to do in the sport they play. Verkhoshansky said, “Sport first, weight room second,” and I am not sure I subscribed to that philosophy as much as I should have in the past. In the book The Process, the authors point out that the most basic aspect of most team sports revolves around the team with the ball being able to create open space to move the ball and score while the team without the ball attempts to eliminate space for the ball to move in. Our pursuit of strength is only one aspect of that primal aspect of team sports.
It must not be the focus but work as part of the overall athletic development plan for our athletes. In an earlier article, I described the process we use based on sport, position, and body frame/weight to set a strong enough floor for our athletes. That system recognizes that our offensive linemen have needs in that area that far exceed that of our small skilled athletes in football. The more space an athlete needs to play in, the more time we spend developing other areas.
Our goal is no longer to just get as strong as we can and see what happens. Our goals are to get strong enough to do what we need to do in our sport and then shift focus to building the other attributes that will help our offensive units get the ball into space and our defensive units cut down the space our opponents have with the ball.Our goal is no longer to just get as strong as we can and see what happens, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
3. It All Starts With the Brain
This is one area that is even more new to my process than most other things. In fact, I have not even begun to master this one: harnessing the power of the brain and the autonomic nervous system. What I mean by that is taking a perspective in everything we do that attempts to optimize the athlete’s performance by giving the brain the best possible information about the body and external environment. So many things we do fall under this category that it would be too much to put into detail in this article.
Primal movements such as rocking, neck nods, diaphragmatic breathing, and crawling help remind our bodies that we are born with an efficient operating system to help us optimize athletic movement. We use Reflexive Performance Reset to mitigate compensation patterns and get our athletes out of fight or flight mode and into a calm performance state. It also comes into play when we are looking at fatigue and recovery. Instead of getting in depth into our process I will link an earlier article about our athlete monitoring program.
Another example is how we approach our movements from a pairing or tier standpoint; also when we are doing a high load, bilateral movement which by nature happens at a lower bar speed. Our goal with the movements we pair with that will be to have an antagonist movement followed by a high-speed dynamic movement that keeps the message of speed traveling down that neuromuscular pathway.
What we have moved to is an approach to everything we do coming from how it will affect the athlete from a CNS cost analysis and how it will affect future workouts from a recovery standpoint. The next step in this process (that I am still working to master) is finding drills and protocols that increase perception and skill acquisition (such as the Cal Dietz’s “Goat” drill/infinity run, Square1, and the content being put out by coaches such as Chris Korfsit and Dan Fichter). This one is a serious rabbit hole and can consume your time—I have found it to be time well spent.
My suggestion is at the very least take some time to look into these things. At a minimum, it will widen your lens. It also could do for you what it has done for me and inspire you to reset your compass and really seek out things that may seem like “voodoo,” but always seem to bring results. I can’t remember the exact source, but on one of the most recent TFC virtual presentations it was said that “voodoo is only voodoo until you figure out why it works, then it’s science.”
4. The Body Doesn’t Know or Care
This is a particular area that some may take issue with. That is absolutely fine, and it is ok to agree to disagree. I had a hard time with this one as well when I first began to really look at it. The body doesn’t know or care what exercise or implement you are using. It only understands stress and that it needs to adapt to allow the body to cope with that level of stress. “The magnitude of these adaptations is directly proportional to the demands placed on the body by the volume (quantity), frequency, and intensity (load) of training, as well as the body’s capability to adapt to such demands” was what Dr. Tudor Bompa wrote in his book Periodization Training for Sports to describe this process. He doesn’t say anything about the body understanding what exercise or implementation the volume, frequency, or intensity come from.
Ten years ago I would have been the guy saying that back squats are the king of strength and we have to use power cleans to develop power so we need to get these athletes doing them as fast as we can. Now I look back on that statement and roll my eyes while I shake my head. When I say I started off as a “meathead sports coach”…that’s the kind of stuff I mean. That statement makes no sense when we are attempting to align it with the adaptation process.
I’m not downplaying the importance of those movements nor saying we don’t use those at points in an athlete’s development. I’m saying those are tools that need to be seen as such. Pushing an athlete into using those tools because we believe they are somehow the only possible way to develop strength and power is the common error. If we use a power clean to develop power but the athlete can’t properly execute the movement to maximize that adaptation, then why are we using that tool?
“Well, we will practice it so we have better technique” is what I have heard in response. Ok, also a way to go. If it takes two or six or 20 workouts to gain a proficient level, then we just lost those sessions. If power development is the adaptation we are pursuing and we can get that immediately using other tools at our disposal, why wait?
Loaded jumps, hang pulls, high pulls, hang cleans—the toolbox is full of tools and the body doesn’t really know or care which tool you use. There is no one “king” of exercises or “best lift for football.” There are only tools that best get the job done at that moment in time. In our program we use complexes from a young training age to microdose the “practice” we need for the more complex movements that we hope to progress to over several years. In our training however, we individualize the tool as best we can to maximize our desired adaptation at that moment.
“Sport first, weight room second” is our motto to live by. A room full of excellent squatters and top-notch power cleaners is only a great thing if you got to that point while also optimizing the athlete’s ability to take what we did and optimally and efficiently transfer that to their performance in their sport. That was a tough pill for me to swallow, but it’s one that has made me significantly better at giving the athlete what they need and not what my ego says is right.*Sport first, weight room second* is our motto to live by, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
5. Instruction With Sprint Training
Obviously I didn’t just learn that our athletes need to sprint! What I mean by this is that when I look back over just the last three to four years I’m literally shocked by what I didn’t know about the basics of coaching speed. I think that many coaches, particularly those that come from a sport coaching background, tend to live and die by the weight room. For many years I spent a great amount of time and effort learning how to plan and program the smallest detail of the strength development phase of our program. Meanwhile, I put very little thought into coaching speed development.
We ran sprints and did canned drills because that was what I thought would make us better. The “why” just wasn’t as important as it was for what we were doing in the weight room. When I finally decided to take the deep dive, I realized how badly I had been missing the boat. Learning the biomechanics of speed is a difficult (and ongoing) process that has taken me down some pretty deep rabbit holes for sure. To say it was worth it would be a great understatement.Learning the biomechanics of speed is a difficult (and ongoing) process that has taken me down some pretty deep rabbit holes, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Team sport coaches can really do themselves a favor and begin to learn from track coaches. There is no doubt about that. I will do you a favor right now and tell you that Joel Smith and Just Fly Sports is a must read/follow in this area. I’ve engulfed myself in Joel’s podcast. I’m 200+ episodes in and every episode has either directly made me better or led me to questions, topics, or coaches who have. Joel’s book Speed Strength has also been a powerful tool.
One more suggestion I would make for those wanting to follow this path would be to begin using video. I personally use Dartfish but there are many ways to skin that cat. I wrote an article on that topic and will link it here. Last but not least, I urge you to use a timing system. Yes, you can get them sprinting without one. Yes, they will run fast with a stopwatch. But if you want your speed program to become “cultural,” get a timing system and use it often.
Just one example of how we use it for analysis is time splits. I set up a Dashr gate at the goal line, the 10-, the 30-, and the 40-yard line. In one rep we get our 10-yard start, a 20-yard acceleration zone, a fly 10, and a 40-yard dash. I won’t go in depth here as to how we use all that data, but I can assure you that those KPI’s play important roles in everything else we do, from speed to the weight room to our jumping program.
This article is just a snippet of things I have discovered along my journey. It’s not a comprehensive, detailed list nor is it a final draft. The coolest thing about this article for me is that I know in five years I will need to write another one just like it. My goal here is not to brag or show anyone how growth-minded I am, etc. It’s also not to be critical of anyone who does things differently from me.
My stated goal for all the articles I write is to hopefully add value and help guide other coaches who are at various stages of this same journey to be able to optimize their time. My journey would have not been possible if coaches who have come before me had not developed a usable roadmap to help me achieve my goals. My hope is that one reader will be able to take one item from this article and use it to make themselves better. Anything above and beyond that is just gravy! I hope my reflection process can help you in some small way.
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