Zac Harris is the Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of South Carolina – Upstate, where he works with men’s basketball and several other sports directly, oversees all sports, teaches in an adjunct capacity, and helps conduct research. He arrived at Upstate after spending time at Grand Canyon University, Santa Clara University, Real Salt Lake, and the University of Utah.
Freelap USA: A lot of coaches talk about time management for being efficient, but for coaching a bunch of teams, a lot of what we do is energy management. Can you share your workday and how you distribute your energy throughout the period?
Zac Harris: What a great question! Short answer: I generally arrive around 5:15 a.m. to prepare for first teams of the day at 6:00 a.m. At Upstate, we have groups every hour on the hour until we close at 6:00 p.m.
Long answer: Let me paint a picture that, unfortunately, isn’t unique. At USC Upstate, we have a performance staff comprised of two coaches. We have 15 sports and approximately 300 athletes. Excluding practices and games, each sport demands our time for two to five training sessions per week. This demand does not account for individual training or rehab sessions.
In addition to all the sessions that occur during a given week, we are also trying to improve the quality of the product we offer to the student-athletes at Upstate. Wellness questionnaires, session RPE evaluations, and menstrual cycle questionnaires are all completed in an effort to gain insight into the individual athletes, so we can improve their training prescription.Considering this kind of load or demand on a miniscule staff and the pervasiveness of this kind of situation, it becomes abundantly clear: There is a significant problem in our profession. Click To Tweet
When considering this kind of load or demand on a miniscule staff and the pervasiveness of this kind of situation, one thing becomes abundantly clear: There is a significant problem in our profession. This load has a negative impact on all involved—coaches, athletes, teams, and departments.
As performance practitioners, we are highly invested in the development and success of those we work with. Because of this focus and dedication, we are apt to sacrifice other aspects of our lives to be available for the institution, coaches, and athletes we work with. Individual athletes and teams suffer as well. When performance staffs are stretched thin, athletes don’t always get the attention required, programming gets more generic and less individualized, performance practitioners’ approaches become less progressive over time, innovation is stymied, etc. As a result, potential performance development is unrealized.
Because of the clash of these two situations—dedicated coaches and a demand that exceeds their available time and ability—all of us have to tackle the “time management” issue, otherwise it will continue to use up and spit out exceptional people. This is why, at Upstate, we are looking at another way to address the demand.
Freelap USA: Speaking of time management, automation with workout design is growing based on logic and decision-making trees. Can you share how you use FYTT in a program so you can customize the workouts more?
Zac Harris: To better manage our athletes and our time, we need a massive paradigm shift. We are addressing this obstacle at Upstate by shifting from a sports specificity model to one of adaptive specificity. Using needs analysis, we have started to categorize our sports by athletic characteristics or attributes consequential to competitive success. We then build programs focused on stimulating those adaptions.To better manage our athletes and our time, we need a massive paradigm shift. We are addressing this obstacle by shifting from a sports specificity model to one of adaptive specificity, says @zz_Harris. Click To Tweet
This is a nuanced shift from the traditional way things are currently done, but it is an important shift. We are trying to get away from looking at a basketball two guard, a volleyball libero, or a soccer outside back and instead seeing the athletes as an amalgamation of physical qualities and athletic attributes. As we continue this process, we have begun to use FYTT to categorize each athlete based on their needed adaptations. FYTT offers user-defined logic that lets us automate training program group assignment based on different combinations of individual attributes. We are using that tool to build the logic that will allow us to automate which training programs each athlete receives, and then deliver them on a flexible and individual basis.
We thought, “Why have four sessions a day, four days a week stimulating the same adaptation? Why not consolidate those sessions?”
For example, power and explosiveness are athletic characteristics that improve the effectiveness of athletes competing in sports like volleyball, softball, baseball, golf, and certain track and field events. Instead of having a session designed to elicit adaptations that improve an athlete’s power for each of those respective sports separately, why not have more than one session and allow the athletes to attend the one that fits in their schedule? Furthermore, basketball, soccer, and volleyball all have a significant change of direction component. Rather than have separate sessions for each team to improve that ability, have one session and in effect save two hours.
Athletes with a similar need for a particular stimulus to develop certain adaptations train together. During our summer training programs, we made an effort to offer one or two sessions a day designed to elicit a specific adaptation. In addition to believing that this can yield a similar training outcome for our athletes, we as strength and conditioning coaches hope this will allow us to take some of our lives and free time back for a better career-life balance.
This is not possible without FYTT.
An additional note: FYTT has been exceptional so far, and we’ve really just started to scratch the surface. I’ve used several other platforms during my career thus far. One thing that really separates FYTT from the others is I’ve actually been able to shift fully to the platform. With many of the other platforms, I still ran my programming on Excel and used the platform as a delivery service. With FYTT, I still get the customizability, the versatility, and the familiarity of Excel on the platform with the addition of seamless diffusion and collection of actionable data.
We can house all our data—from testing to daily training data—in a single place, generate reports to provide coaches and sports med with information, and audit our training processes. Lastly, perhaps the greatest fringe benefit of working with FYTT is that they genuinely care about our fulfillment and happiness as professionals. The spirit and willingness to share expertise makes an amazing software so much more valuable.
Freelap USA: Plyometrics seem to be scattered in a program and progress during the season based on either intensity or complexity. How do you progress jump training over an athlete’s career?
Zac Harris: The first step is to talk with the athletes. One of the worst sins performance practitioners commit is assuming. To address athletic development globally in the athlete, there needs to be a holistic approach. During talks with athletes, the idea is to get a better picture of what their development was like up to the point when they arrive at Upstate. Were they an active child? What kinds of things did they enjoy doing? What sports did they play? Things like that. After watching my own two young children develop, I realized how much information I didn’t have about my athletes’ development.
With more information about their development, I generally find that less time is required for landing mechanics, kinematics of jumping, force absorption, and other early-phase plyometric work. A combination of play and sport taught them these movements. That is not to say that we don’t incorporate them; we just do not invest a lot of time in them unless there is an indication that an individual athlete needs it. These types of movements are most suited for part of a warm-up or GPP phase of a program. Giving the athlete small and repeated exposure to the foundational characteristics of plyometrics yields short- and long-term benefits.With more information about athlete’s development, I generally find we require less time on landing mechanics, kinematics of jumping, force absorption, and other early-phase plyometric work, says @zz_Harris. Click To Tweet
As far as more in-depth plyometric training, it makes sense to work backward from the demand of the sport and build out a digression from the most important movements in the sport until we land within the existing skill set of the athlete. Once a progression/digression model is created, move the athlete through progressively. Some foundational and simple movements require a high-volume stimulus (e.g., bilateral and unilateral pogo hops), and more complex and demanding movements require a low-volume stimulus (e.g., unilateral depth drop to lateral bound).
A focus on the quality of movement is imperative. Most people begin with too much volume for the more intense plyometrics. If there is a degradation of movement, then the volume has exceeded ability and the ROI stops being in favor of the athlete.
Something that is important to mention is the lack of evidence-informed methodologies to be able to evaluate plyometric load accurately and practically. The dearth of evidence on the topic makes it difficult to have an evidenced-based progression/digression model to work from. This means that we coaches need to build our own models from our understanding of physiological and mechanical characteristics of different plyometric exercises as well as our logic and experience. These models will look different, and that is great. Our models are built for our athletes here at Upstate and tailored to their particular sports.
Freelap USA: Conditioning is more than just repeated sprints. What do you do that stimulates the deeper aerobic capacity that isn’t high intensity? Do you just let practice take care of fitness or do you do something else?
Zac Harris: This is an area that does not get the attention it deserves. One very real reason is the ever-present challenge of maintaining sufficient staffing, which makes it almost impossible to have weight room sessions and field sessions on a sport-by-sport basis. An egalitarian system cannot exist under these conditions. Someone ends up getting the short end of the stick, often more than one someone.
I heavily utilize tempo runs and have increasingly been prescribing Zone 2 work to build aerobic capacity outside of the context of the athlete’s sport. However, we do rely on practice to a degree for energy system development. We work with coaches to build practices to focus on particular energy systems or augment practice sessions with conditioning to get the individually required stimulus for adaptation. We program and prescribe, but it is often left to coaching staffs or the athletes themselves to execute.
Freelap USA: Can you share what you learned from your mentors that you do differently? Obviously, coaches take things they like, but in doing so they also discard what they do not see fit. What did you get taught that you found not to be as useful?
Zac Harris: I have been especially lucky to have many amazing people who have generously invested in my development as a coach. As a result, there hasn’t been much that I deliberately have wanted to leave behind. I do things differently largely because I’ve taken pieces from all of them and added my own learning, preferences, and personality to it.
I see a spectrum on which coaches exist. On one side of the spectrum is science, data, analytics, etc. On the other side is relationships, soft skills, etc. I have been influenced by coaches falling all along that spectrum. I see value in both sides.
I know that may seem like a pandering response, but it is sincere. There are things I’ve seen coaches do that I don’t like, but it is largely because they don’t mesh with my personality—they aren’t inherently wrong.
*Editor’s Note: Last spring, shortly after participating in this interview, Coach Harris and his family suffered a tragic loss. A GoFundMe has been set up to help with the family’s medical expenses, which you can donate to here.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF