By Bob Alejo
People often ask me, “What do you like better: college or the pros?” My answer is that I like coaching, and I don’t prefer one of these levels over the other. Whether pros or college, the fundamental goals are essentially the same: win games, reduce the incidence/risk/severity of injury, and keep players on the field competing at the highest level. The strategies for these goals are quite different, but training athletes and watching them compete and win is the best! Really, I think a better question is: “What’s the difference between the pros and college?”
As far as which one I preferred, my answer might have wavered back and forth a bit depending on when you asked me that question, but I don’t think it would be different than any other coach. In the middle of my stint at UCLA, rings, watches, and national championships were flowing and I was younger. I’d have thought you were crazy suggesting that the professional ranks would be better.
What?! And, miss sunny southern California, the beaches, the malls, the atmosphere (Pauley Pavilion, the sidelines at the Rose Bowl for home games, Laker games, Hollywood), and winning all the time?! It wasn’t until 1993 (I arrived at UCLA in 1984 just after the Olympic Games in L.A.) that I entertained the idea of looking into professional sports and found myself with the Oakland A’s. The conditions had changed in my mind. I thought I had done what I came to do given my age and status, and it was time to move on.
In 1999, after six years with the Oakland Athletics, being under .500 each of those seasons, and still having what I considered the best job in baseball, if someone would have asked what I’d prefer, I would have said, “I prefer to be left alone!” It was the beginning of the Moneyball era and no one would doubt me if I said it was the most fantastic time!
The next three years consisted of a second-place finish, Western Division Championship, and Wild Card berth. After losing nearly 100 games twice in previous years, it was pretty novel to win. No different than someone stringing together Super Bowls, NBA playoffs, or DI, II, and III conference championships—you want to stay with that feeling, the comfort of winning, and the environment that goes with it. And it was still early in my career (the 17th year or so).
This is a particularly important point for all of you looking to change jobs and wanting a promotion either in title or salary—it will all probably mean having to pack up and move. This statement will put it all into perspective: “The criteria for professional movement and change is always part of a personal evolution, so what looked great a year ago might not be so attractive today, or vice versa.”Like the mechanisms for injury, job movement has many variables over the course of a career. Click To Tweet
What I’m saying is that the criteria for looking to move on changes as the years go by. Single, married, babies, middle school/high school/college-aged kids, life-changing incidents (divorce, ailing or deceased family members, etc.) or frankly, the job you thought was awesome now sucks. All of these will change the way you look at job openings and it is absolutely natural. Don’t wonder why someone left a job when you are not proverbially walking in their shoes. Like the mechanisms for injury, job movement has too many variables over the course of a career to pin it down to one thing over time.
What Was the Difference Between College and the Pros?
Now this is the big question! What was the difference between college and the pros? There’s a big difference. The two biggest and most important differences for me as a strength and conditioning coach were:
- Dealing with adults vs. kids.
- In the pros, unlike the collegiate setting, the primary concern is injury management (keeping players on the field) versus physical development.
I’ll speak first to my professional experience, which had different criteria than most teams at the time. There was an evolution involved for me for a few reasons and, given the team I was with, time of my career, and where our profession was, I need to tell a story to give readers a perspective.
At the time, the challenge of being a strength and conditioning coach in MLB was exactly that—being a strength and conditioning coach in MLB! First of all, I was the first strength coach in the Oakland A’s history. To add to that challenge, not all the teams in MLB had strength and conditioning coaches and some of them were not full-time positions. Immediately, credibility was an issue, not only for me. I’m thankful that I came from UCLA, a university with tons of athletic exposure, but also for the strength and conditioning world in baseball.
This is where I have to pause for a moment and let everyone who reads this or is curious at all about my career know that, although I was 36 years old in my first year in the big leagues, I was “raised” by a village with the A’s, beginning with Barry Weinberg, the head athletic trainer. Let’s put it this way—after my interview the second day, I was sitting in the Oakland Airport, waiting to fly back to L.A. While pondering how it all went and what would happen if they offered me or didn’t offer me the job, a voice behind me asked: “Aren’t you the strength and conditioning coach of the Oakland A’s?”
From that moment on, Barry was in front of me with a machete, clearing the way through all the crap that came with the environment, dictated by what I mentioned earlier. I am gratefully and forever indebted to him.
It sure didn’t hurt that Dave McKay, who was the unofficial strength coach at the time (his real job was first base coach, and it still is, but with the Diamondbacks now), also graciously paved the way for me with the coaching staff and, most importantly, with the players. How cool was he? He would completely deny what I just said, even 25 years later.
Lastly, Tony LaRussa (A’s manager—no introduction needed) and Dave Duncan (arguably the best pitching coach in baseball during his time) were priceless for me. Two stories, then I’ll move on. I was on the back field (behind the main field in spring training) hitting fungoes to a short stop for extra work at the end of one of those long spring training days. I saw Tony about 30-40 feet away, watching the kid getting his work in, so I just kept hitting ground balls. He stepped up just out of bat-swing range to deliver a message. “Don’t turn around and don’t stop hitting ground balls. I’m going to tell you something. And, don’t say anything when I finish.”
In short, he proceeded to tell me what a good job I had done, including my involvement in the baseball activities and how helpful that was. (I threw batting practice and caught in the bullpen; I had played up through college as a catcher.) At the end of this one-sided conversation, he said, “You’re a pro. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.” He thanked me and walked away.
On the other hand, Dave Duncan had even fewer words. Not once did he ever question what I was doing with his pitchers. And keep in mind they included Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, Rick Honeycutt, Storm Davis, Ron Darling, Bob Welch…you get the picture.
Back to the original thought: Could you imagine if I came to the ball club trying to implement the plyos, Olympic lifting regimens, and agility drills I had been using at UCLA without first listening and observing? It would have been a disaster, not received well, and I subsequently would have lost the players. Instead, the ball club made it so I would not fail.
Difference Lesson #1: Go to the pros, or any job for that matter, where you know the staff and administration are 100% behind you and want to make you successful. Where they don’t just let you do your job, but help you do your job because it makes everyone better! I’m grateful to the Oakland A’s for providing that very environment. Believe me—and we see it today within performance teams, organizations, and institutions— a shared goal and a common goal can be two distinctly different things.Shared goals born out of results-based trust are essential to fully functioning units. Click To Tweet
Shared goals (you help me do my job and I’ll help you do yours; only subject matter experts make decisions in their areas) born out of results-based trust are essential to fully functioning units. This is far from typical or ordinary; less than it should be and less than we think it is.
Knowing how much they wanted the strength and conditioning program to succeed motivated me that much more to make it flourish, but more importantly, not to let them down.
The first thing I did, and have done on my first day wherever I’ve landed, was watch. As pros, (the highest compliment a player could receive, at least in baseball) their first question for me was “What do you want me to do?” That’s pretty rare these days. To which I replied, “Just do what you’ve been doing and let me see it.” It would have been a mistake to come in and wipe everything out in the pro setting. I came to find out there were a lot of similarities between what they were doing and what I wanted them to do. It cuts down on teaching (re-education) time when there’s stuff you don’t have to teach.
Secondly, in most cases, these guys make their living on their health, strength, speed, and power. And that living supports a family and perhaps other relatives, endorsements, and charities. If they are comfortable with their existing program, that counts for something, especially if they are comfortable and performing. The last thing you want to do is swing your ego all around the room and make wholesale changes. As Bob Ward, the legendary Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning coach and a mentor of mine, told me once, “If you had a program that guaranteed a 600lb bench press and the athlete did not believe in it, then it is worthless.”
Difference Lesson #2: The pros are not a set, rep, logo-on-the-wall, my-way-or-the-highway proposition. A strength and conditioning program at the pro level is not all about physiology or psychology. It includes earning power, legacies, and family security. If athletes embark on or are forced into something they don’t believe in, there will be more problems than you can imagine, especially if you have not been exposed to this level.
Training emphasis is the biggest philosophical difference between the pros and college. From where I sit, I say there is very little focus on physical development at the professional level. After all, if a player needed more physical development they wouldn’t be in the big leagues! In other words, a player would not get called up to increase size and strength to become a home run hitter if he averaged seven home runs per year over four years. Nor would a slow player be expected to be a base-stealer by going to the big leagues and embarking on a speed improvement program.Training emphasis is the biggest philosophical difference between the pro and college levels. Click To Tweet
Get my point? The focus is on injury management; keeping players on the field. Strictly speaking, you can’t get your “numbers” if you’re not on the field. Up to this point, I had only been in the business of development (acquiring strength, speed, speed-endurance, agility, and hypertrophy, where applicable) but quickly—in a day’s time—my philosophy changed because of the environment. Now I had to create and add an additional philosophy to my repertoire.
Difference Lesson #3: Increasing vertical jumps, speed, and deadlift maxes is not the focus, although they could be a by-product of the training. Professional sports—baseball, in my experience—is about emphasizing a career of resiliency and defense against injury and eliminating any clear risks associated with physical development, and not long-term development plans. Keep in mind that in-season is where you have the most contact with an MLB team. Collegiately, it’s nearly year-round.
From there, I relied on strength physiology, fatigue affects, and mechanism of injury as it related to baseball. It’s in baseball where I created my in-season training philosophy and methodology. From mid-February to (hopefully) well into October, players are stretching, throwing, hitting, running, and fielding. Immediately, I knew repetition (volume) was the last thing I needed to implement in any part of training—the professional baseball season was all volume. So, fatigue from training and the game was an issue. Any volume at all could affect skill levels because games were played every day; meaning, we would be playing and training on the same day, which was something I had not done yet.
Strength, fatigue, and injury were really rolled into one big ball when I thought of these three questions:
- What’s the best way to stay as strong as possible in-season for 162 games?
- What training regimen would result in the least amount of fatigue?
- What is the best way to resist injury in baseball?
- Years and years of overwhelming evidence show that very low volume (one to five repetitions) is the most effective way to gain strength. Then, very low volume would be the most effective way to stay as strong as possible. Athletes can’t retain strength with a program that does not create strength!
- Fatigue is volume-based. A program of low to very low volume will result in the least amount of fatigue. Also, duration would need to be shorter. Less frequency would necessitate longer training, and that was out of the question—we would be training after games to get the highest intensity and games would finish at 10:00 p.m., which would be too late for sessions to last longer than 30 minutes.
- Injury rarely, if at all, occurs at low-moderate contraction or effort levels. Teaching the muscle to contract at 100% should be the best way to resist an injury mechanism. Higher intensity lifting will teach the muscle to contract immediately versus lower intensity weight training where 100% effort isn’t reached until later in a set. Fatigue has also been thought to cause injury and this will be taken care of with low-very low volume training (conditioning and lifting).
Difference Lesson #4: Even though this type of in-season training should be implemented for all sports, I’m not sure I would have adapted and determined hard guidelines had I not been in pro baseball. Playing a repetitive activity sport every day (different than college), training on the day of games (also different than college), travel, and a better understanding of pattern overload and the effect of fatigue all led to my philosophy in this area, which I still vehemently hold today.
You want your athletes to follow your training and be consistent with effort and compliance, all of which should lead to good results. Results from consistency and training with intent can make for valid and reliable analysis. In contrast to the professional setting, there are few reasons for missing a workout in the college arena…period!Results from consistency and training with intent can make for valid and reliable analysis. Click To Tweet
As I alluded to earlier, the professional strength and conditioning program I administered with the A’s was affected by more than reps and sets (but certainly not by exams) and I have no problem with that. Professional adult athletes have a lot more “life instances” than college athletes, in my opinion. They have spouses (disagreements, anniversaries, familial commitments), children (school issues and commitments, sicknesses), mortgages, current and future earning responsibilities, endorsements, and, of course, their own struggles with their performance. Not being able to lift after the game is sometimes the result of: “My son has the flu and I need to relieve my wife,” “It’s our anniversary today and we have a dinner planned,” or “I don’t want to lift today,” which can be a result of all the aforementioned nuances, including an 0-3 day with two strikeouts and a loss!
Readiness is a big deal these days—it was then and always has been. It was my job to facilitate those lifting changes of plan because my guys weren’t ready mentally, physically, or both.
Difference Lesson #5: Things come up in an adult’s life that are unforeseen or unchangeable.
An athlete may be ready to compete after staying up with a sick child all night or a big argument with a spouse, but that might be all they can do. Instead of a day-of-the-week format (Monday, Wednesday, Friday), I scheduled Day 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. The inflexibility of a MWF sort of schedule doesn’t provide the best-case scenario for all that is important in and from physical preparation. Plus, with a six-month, every day, travel day, night game to day game season, a few unscheduled missed days weren’t going to cost us the World Series.
For example: Day 1 – lift; Day 2 – lift, Day 3 – off; Day 4 – lift; Day 5 – lift; Day 6 and 7 – off; Repeat cycle. If Day 1 is Monday, and lifting on Tuesday and Wednesday are not options, then Thursday becomes Day 2 and Friday becomes a day off (Day 3). This makes the next available workout day Day 4, and so on….
Being a Baseball Guy, How Was It Going Back to the College Ranks?
I wasn’t, and never really have been, a “baseball guy.” I just happened to be a strength and conditioning coach who was in baseball. I spent less than half of my career in professional baseball. Again, a better phrased question is: “How was it going from the pros to college coaching?”
That answer is easy—I didn’t even blink. I had already done that once and could do it again at some point. It’s just one job to a different job in our profession. I will say this, though—both times that I went from professional baseball to the college setting, coaches for several sports ran their “organizations” differently than what I’m used to and in a manner with which our profession can’t have the best impact. In other words, the strength and conditioning influence was not a priority, or efforts were to have strength and conditioning driven by someone without a qualified background in that area.
We don’t often get the treatment that LaRussa, Beane, and Sandy Alderson gave me. So, the paragraph here is short—it was no big deal; no real transition. All I had to do was adapt to the different environment, which was not new for me.
As far as differences, in this article I gave my biggest personal takes on the pro game and those differences arose out of “opposites” in a few instances. It’s true that adults whose careers, legacies, and livelihoods are on the line, while supporting families and all the nuances that come with that dynamic, are definitely not like 18-22-year-old college kids. But that doesn’t mean that college kids don’t have a unique profile of their own.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had conversations and differences of opinions with adults that were less than grown up. On the other hand, I’ve learned a lot from freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors about the hurdles they must overcome these days sociologically, psychologically, and academically. And also about the tremendous opportunities that are available to them now like never before. At the same time, part of their commitment to athletics is a commitment to abide by athletic department and team rules, one of which is usually compliance to physical training.
So, there are very few misses in that category. But working with college kids gives you something that you will not find in the adult world: a marvelous opportunity to be on the ground floor of their lives and influence the way they go about their business, physically and mentally. You get to meet the moms and dads, brothers and sisters, boyfriends and girlfriends of student-athletes, and play some small role in their development as human beings, responsible adults, and—even better—doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, moms, and dads!
It’s not because I’m older and can reflect but because it’s true: My physiology, my day, and my outlook immediately change when I receive a text, phone call, or email from a student-athlete showing gratitude for our interaction 5, 10, 20, 30 years ago. While I’m a proud coach who hears from his former athletes, it’s a different feeling hearing from someone you knew when they were 18 years old.
Difference Lesson #6: When working with college student-athletes, you become a chapter of their lives that has some impact—great or small—on who they become, because their lives are still being created when they arrive in your program.
Having said I don’t prefer one job to another, I’m writing this paragraph in response to the one before this because it triggered something I have mentioned many times but forgot. I’m not recanting, but merely speaking to what I think my skill sets are. What I did miss in the pros was the opportunity to develop athletes.In the pros, I missed the opportunity to develop athletes from the ground up. Click To Tweet
I think anyone who knows me would not be surprised to hear me say I think I’m a pretty good coach in nearly every area of performance. But if I was to say what I think I do best, it’s developing athletes. From day one assessments, to the first training cycle of bench press/Olympic-style deadlifts/squats, to snatches/bench press lockouts/clean high pulls/bounding, and all the measurements and analysis in between, making young athletes run faster and jump higher is what I do best. This sort of four-year developmental sequence and the glory of big gains is not a part of professional sports, for some of the reasons I have already mentioned.
Difference Lesson #7: While I acquired a skill I did not previously have (a yearly focus on training for resiliency though training on the days of competition) during my time in the big leagues, it became clearer that ground-up development was probably my best suit. I added more to my coaching repertoire, yet I always wished I could reach deeper into my skill set. It’s no one’s fault—just due to the performance criteria for MLB.
It’s not that someone couldn’t say that they like college coaching better than the professional ranks, and many coaches switch for that very reason. I just don’t happen to be one of them. Granted, although I worked in the U.S. Olympic Team setting and a little bit in the Major League Soccer environment, I only worked professionally with one team. Lucky for me, it was damn good!It’s not about preferring college or the pros: It’s about doing a great job right where you sit. Click To Tweet
However, it wasn’t the team, but rather the sport that dictated my philosophy. Consequently, for me, the story is not about a preference. It’s about doing a great job right where you sit. And, if you need to change seats to get to a great job, by all means, DO IT!