By Carmen Pata
Let me ask you a simple question: Are you writing programs, or are you running a program? Yes, it’s a basic question, but it’s not an easy one to answer. I asked this same question of a coach I met at the NSCA Coaches Conference this past January, and like many of the other coaches I’ve talked to over the years, this particular coach responded with the same puzzled look everyone else had.
I like asking this deceptively innocent question because I want to see people thrive. There are so many things that are out of our control but still have such a huge impact on every training session that it would drive anyone crazy to try to plan for all those contingencies. A better approach is to spend time developing your ideas for what you can control. By my own trial and error, I’ve found that if you let athletes treat their training session like an “open house,” not only will their training results be mediocre at best, but you will spend more time dealing with petty issues than actually coaching.Spend time developing ideas for the things you can control, and don’t drive yourself crazy trying to plan for every contingency, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
Instead, if you invest the time to make your expectations clear and start with those ideas, well, that changes things completely. Some people call that establishing your culture, but to me it’s more than that. Culture, to me, is how one group operates both inside and outside of a training session.
At my school, we have 19 sports and each of them has their own way of doing things, which is their culture. When each and every one of those teams and their athletes come into a training session, their culture is evident, but it also takes a back seat to something else—the athletic performance program. Because everyone experiences the same thing, it means that they have entered a brother and sisterhood together, which makes them a family.
Returning to the coach at the NSCA conference, our conversation started in the typical way. After leaving one of the presentations, we started talking about some of the ideas that were introduced and naturally asked about each other’s program. His story sounded all too familiar: multiple teams, more athletes needing help, and no assistants to provide greater coverage.
A few minutes into our conversation, he pulled out his computer and his mood changed. After initially looking defeated—shoulders slumped, head down—now he spoke with evident pride. There was a big smile on his face, his head and shoulders were up, and he was ready to show off everything he’d built on his laptop. To give credit where credit’s due—it was amazing. He had built a dynamic macrocycle for every team he worked with. I say dynamic because, with the click of a button, the program scrolled through each and every athlete on the team, adjusting their training load, and changing multiple charts and graphs on the spreadsheet with each person. I can only imagine the amount of work it took to develop this system.
As we kept talking, I let this coach detail everything he had programmed. His macrocycle laid out on an Excel sheet was a thing of beauty. Ever factor that could be accounted for was: set and rep schemes, running sessions, and monitoring systems were all set up perfectly for each team’s in-season and off-season work. I was a little jealous of his layout. All of this looked amazing on the computer, and if I was teaching a class on periodization, he would have gotten an “A.” After looking at all of this for a few minutes and hearing his rationale for why he was doing this and that with his athletes, I asked the next logical question: “How is this going?”
From the change in his body language, I could tell it wasn’t going well. He talked about how the athletes were not buying into his programs, the coaches were demanding things he couldn’t deliver on, and no one was taking him seriously. I felt his pain, because I’ve been there. When I landed my first job, it was all about programming the best workouts possible, reading every book or article on periodization, and researching what the top athletes around the world were doing. At that time, I didn’t understand that before you can work magic manipulating the acute and chronic responses to training, you first have to be able to run a program.Before you can work magic manipulating the acute and chronic responses to training, you first have to be able to run a program, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
This was the exact same issue this coach was running into, except he hadn’t recognized it yet.
Let me explain. Being a strength coach is a tough job and, while I’m in charge of what happens at each and every training session, I ultimately don’t have the final say on many things outside of what happens in the gym. While it’s common for me to be referred to as the head coach of the off-season—which I do appreciate—that title carries very little weight, as I will almost always lose an argument to a team’s actual head coach.
In moments like this, where the views that I have conflict with the views of the head coach, I don’t hold any grudges. The head coach and I are both trying to protect the integrity of our programs. Yes, strength coaches have to be able to apply the right amount of stress at the right time in order to force adaptations to the body—but, if you are the head coach, your duty is much greater than that. Protecting the integrity of the program is the ultimate job of the head (strength or sport) coach.
This is what the coach I was speaking to at the NSCA clinic didn’t understand yet. He was so concerned about programming the right exercises for the athletes that he lost perspective on how to run his program. By perspective, I’m not talking about his set or rep scheme, or style of program (like Westside, Triphasic, H.I.I.T., weightlifting-based, or any other style), because those ideas will always be in a state of change depending on the trends and research in our industry.
You don’t have to look too far for examples. It feels like if you still catch or receive a bar in a clean or a snatch, then you are “old school” in your training programs. If that hits too close to the heart, think about all the balance or unstable surface training tools that were “must-have” equipment and in vogue about a decade ago. Both of those examples are part of the overreaction and under-reaction cycles that we all experience, but the integrity of a program is something completely different.
The integrity of a program consists of those founding ideas that never go out of style and give your program substance over the years. While the ideas that are central to my program may not be the same ideas you find important, they are the things that make my program different than those of other coaches. Sure, like every program in the world, we do some sort of variation of the bench, squat, and clean; we run; and we perform all sorts of different jumps.A program’s integrity consists of those founding ideas that never go out of style and give your program substance over the years, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
Unlike many programs, the principles of how we expect athletes to behave are not up for debate: It is simply the way that we do things. If athletes don’t do things correctly, there will be a consequence. Being consistent with those consequences is the key to all of this. Whether they are an All-American or a walk-on, it doesn’t matter to our coaches. The message to the athletes is the same: If you mess up, be a man or woman and admit it. Suck it up and accept the consequences. Then put it behind you and move on.
If you walk into our gym at any given time, you will notice a uniform look for all of the athletes. It doesn’t matter the team: every athlete wears a grey workout shirt and full-length black shorts. There is not a cutoff or a hat to be found. Everyone has their shoes tied and their socks on. Male or female. It doesn’t matter who you are or what team you are on, everyone wears the same uniform.
This is another layer of our athlete readiness screen, making sure that the athletes haven’t merely shown up for their lift, but have actually thought (no matter how briefly) about being ready for it. I admit that this idea was taken from the military and how they handle their recruits. Much to my dismay, we can’t have a standardized haircut, but since everyone looks the same with the way they dress, it helps reinforce the idea that they are all part of the same program, no matter what sport they play.
Have you ever been watching a game and you just knew one side had given up? How could you tell? Most likely their heads were down, their shoulders slumped, and there was an overall lack of energy. Body language, either positive or negative, doesn’t whisper—it screams. Since body language is on the list of traits people can control, it is something that we can train and improve. In order to do that, people must be aware of what their body language says.
We call out people that display poor body language in the middle of their workout. If that doesn’t help fix the issue, using a camera usually does. We take pictures of the person and ask them: Do you look like you are adding energy to the room? Do you look like what you’re doing is important? What would happen if your entire team acted like this? Being confronted with the cold, hard evidence that pictures or videos can provide usually fixes their bad body language.
The book by legendary football coach Woody Hayes, Hotline to Victory, contains a line that was one of the most impactful phrases in my coaching and personal life. “Any time you give a man something they haven’t earned, you cheapen them as a person.” Once I really understood what that line meant, it immediately changed the way we coached our athletes. From calling depth on their squats to getting a compliment or a “good job” from me or my staff, it doesn’t happen unless that feedback is actually earned.
Needless to say, some of our athletes have a hard time getting used to this idea. They have been given simple but unearned compliments by coaches who, when they don’t know what else to say, will throw out a default “good job.” Don’t get me wrong, we encourage our athletes all the time. We are the biggest fans and supporters of everyone that walks through the door. However, if they want to pick a song to play, to catch a clean or snatch, or even to receive a compliment, first they have to earn it.
There is a flip side to demanding that athletes earn their privileges: When they do earn the right to move on to something new or they set a new personal record, you have to celebrate with them. Take a moment and put yourself in the mind of a young athlete. They have tried and tried and been stuck in what they’ve been doing. Day after day, they have remained more or less the same—until, one day, something changes. All of a sudden, what was impossible yesterday is now something they can do today.When our athletes achieve a breakthrough or personal record, everyone in the gym celebrates it with them, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
Some people call it a miracle, some people call it a breakthrough, some people call it a personal record. I call it the result of hard work. In the gym, we have an old bell mounted on the wall and any time an athlete sets a new personal record, they ring the bell and everyone in the gym celebrates with them. The bell ringing signifies all the hard work the athletes have put in to earn these breakthroughs. It’s an amazing moment, and one that needs to be celebrated.
If I had to narrow down the most important part of our program to one word, it would be this: Accountability. Everyone is accountable for their own actions. Of everything that we teach in the weight room, getting people to understand that they are responsible for everything they do is by far the hardest part of our job. It takes time, but we start by having the athletes stop making excuses by showing them how ridiculous they sound.We always go back to the idea that you are accountable for your own actions and for your response to what happens around you, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
It’s difficult, because the excuse always sounds good to the person making it. For example, when an athlete oversleeps and misses a morning workout, we usually hear “My alarm didn’t go off, Coach.” No, no it didn’t. You didn’t check to make sure it was on or the volume was turned up before you went to bed, or you didn’t ask a teammate to call you to make sure you were up. Some people grasp this faster than others, but we always go back to the idea that you are accountable both for your own actions and for how you respond to what is happening around you.
Certain Concepts Never Go out of Style
After I laid out these ideas, that other coach and I sat in silence for a few moments. I could tell that his brain was spinning, trying to unwrap everything that I had just talked about. I’m sure he was expecting that our conversation would be about the specific training programs that we use, not the broader coaching points that we talked about instead.
If you stick around strength and conditioning for long enough, you will notice that many things that were once popular fade away for a while, only to come back again in the future. You don’t have to look too far for examples. Consider the debate about carbohydrates. First, they were good for people. Then, they were bad. Wait, are they good again now? You see what I mean.
Depending on scientific research and overall popularity, people can have their opinions swayed about all sorts of things, including the best type of programming you can do for athletes. That’s why I’m not particularly attached to one set or style of workouts—it will most likely change sometime in the future. I am, on the other hand, always attached to running the best program I can.While I’m not particularly attached to one set or style of workouts, I’m always attached to running the best program I can, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
In order to run that program, there are things we put in place that help guarantee everyone has the same experience. These ideas—which you’ve read—are the right ones for me, but they might not be the right fit for everyone, depending on their coaching situation. If these aren’t right for you, use them as a starting point for a conversation about which important ideas you will hold your athletes accountable to.
The ideas that you come up with are more important than any sort of set and rep scheme, or whether or not you are going to catch a power clean. I’ll leave you with the same final question I asked the coach I was talking to at the NSCA conference: Are you running a program, or simply just programming?