NSCA Clinic Recap: Programming Strength and Conditioning for Team Sports

Thank you to everyone who attended the Wisconsin State NSCA Clinic this past weekend. If you missed the presentation, or are looking for clarity on any points, below is a brief recap of topics covered.

To me, it is really exciting to see beautiful coaching and intentional strength training implemented in the weight room. Can we take a step back from sport-specific training and instead focus on getting our athletes as strong and powerful as possible? The same general program can be used for everyone - from girls’ lacrosse to football - and especially with less seasoned weight trainers. The goal is the same: get athletes strong, powerful and moving beautifully. Leave the specific energy systems and sports-specific coaching for the field, court or track. It is not our job to improve an athlete’s football, basketball, wrestling etc. skills. Our job as strength coaches and trainers is to make these athletes great weightlifters.

To that end, are we truly personal trainers, or just people that do workout stuff? I see a lot of folks that are just training, just doing workouts. Anyone can get someone’s heart rate up and make them hot and sweaty for an hour. With that in mind, here are some do’s and don’ts with training.

  • Don’t do the “goat rodeo.” Do make training a deliberate practice. Getting a heart rate up and a body sweating is easy. We are here to do better. To achieve the results we and they are after, it’s important to set specific goals for our athletes and provide them with expert instruction. Through focused, deliberate practice that is followed up by feedback (hands on, visual, video, verbal etc) and adaptation goals can be reached.  This is not a haphazard business.

  • Do no harm, Don’t mistake “cool” for “good.” Our job is to deliver the safest exercise possible to get athletes as strong as possible. Just because a clinic we attended taught power snatches doesn’t mean every athlete in our program is ready or capable of performing this lift, especially right away.

  • Do the safest lift possible to get your athlete as strong as possible. For example, why perform deadlifts with a straight bar when a trap bar provides easier adaptation by the athlete to proper technique? Is it because we’ve always done it that way? Because we like scraped shins? You’ll get a fuller, safer range of motion from the athletes using a trap bar,  while still building an incredible amount of power. Unless you are training olympic lifters, consider modified lifts.

As trainers - and not just people that do workout stuff - our mantra should be perfect is good enough. It pains me to walk into a weight room and see ugly mechanics, partly because it’s ugly, but mostly because it’s uncomfortable for the athlete and potentially dangerous. This raises an important question: Should we be putting external loads on immature athletes that move poorly under load?

  • If an athlete cannot squat to parallel or better without a bar, why put any external load on their back? We get caught up wanting athletes to build strength, so we back squat them. Instead, try the goblet squat with them (heels lifted or bands around knees to activate their glutes) for weeks and weeks and weeks until their form is perfect. Then they can back squat.  Train beautiful movement patterns, then add external loads.

  • Why do we have kids bench pressing when they cannot perform 10 perfect pushups?

  • Let’s shift the culture in the weight room to focus on building beautiful, perfect movement patterns first. That’s how true strength and power are built and achieved.

This brings us to another point: If it is ugly, fix it. Plain and simple. You don’t need a Ph.D. in biomechanics to recognize ugly form. I think many coaches just don’t trust themselves, but we all know what beautiful movement patterns look like. I refuse to believe there is a coach out there who sees a kid perform a humpback deadlift and thinks, “that looks good.” I don’t want to believe that. Coaches, you know it isn’t good form. You do not necessarily need to know why it isn’t good, just recognize that it isn’t and then call in the exercise science folks for specific correctives.

For athletes - and more so for high school athletes - bad form can be attributed to too much time sitting. They become desk jockeys. We talk about desk jockey syndrome a lot with adults, but it should be addressed in youth too. In high school, these kids live the perfect storm for a growing body. They sit in a desk all day, then go home and probably sit some more - all while growing inches each year. Their frames become kyphotic. They have no glute recruitment and tight hips. Why externally load that vulnerable frame? Some of this form can be corrected on the fly; however, more often we should stop for corrective exercises, or assign some training homework to these athletes. There is certainly a "dance" we need to do as strength coaches. Certainly to keep athletes engaged we have to move them forward, but let's choose to err on the side of demanding perfect form.

Considering all this - remember our role is as trainers, not “goat rodeo” masters, our responsibility is to fix the ugly and demand perfect form - how do we effectively (and efficiently) train large groups of athletes? This is where access to an online program is useful for several reasons:

  • Instructional video: Without a doubt, hands-on training is still the way to go in the weight room, but incorporate some video into your program. Send it out to your athletes ahead of time to show your best practice for the lifts you plan to perform that week. This way, they can watch a deadlift video Tuesday, and come into the weight room Thursday knowing the mechanics, ready to go.  

  • Effective large group training: Programming removes the guesswork for athletes. If you give a group of guys percentages of a 1 RM, what are they going to do, calculate their respective weights? No, they are going to have a “close enough is good enough” mentality and "guess" at the weight they should be warming up with. Now, is the guy who should be lifting 245x8 for his first set hurting himself by only doing 215x8? No, but he just wasted 3 minutes.

  • Time efficient: By providing athletes with personally prescribed programs, you maximize efficiency for their time in the weight room. It should not take more than 45 minutes to an hour, warmup included. Get rid of this standing around and lifting inefficiently for an hour and a half. Everyone’s time is precious.

  • Competition breeds improvement: Competition goes a long way in helping athletes set goals and create excitement in the gym. Make leaderboards a part of workouts and base rankings on absolute and relative strength so that everyone has the potential to be on top. Incorporate finishers for time to focus on speed and get blood pumping.

  • Bottom line, if athletes aren’t doing what is prescribed and your weight room is run by guessing, you’re wasting time and teaching your athletes bad practices. Coaches demand precision on the field, the same should be expected in the weight room. We are more than just lifeguards who “show up and let the kids do their thing.”

Our job is to take average athletes and get the most God-given juice out of their bodies so that they can have an incredible (and oftentimes their only) experience in athletics. This is their moment to participate in team sports and we can give them a spectacular experience and teach great practices as they grow into adulthood. When people talk about lifetime sports, they think tennis and golf. They forget weightlifting - possibly the best lifetime sport of all.


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