Life At The Top

In a departure from this author’s usual articles, the following Q & A provides timely advice on heading a strength and conditioning program at a top NCAA Division I school.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning and can be reached through his Web site at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 12.4, May/June 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1204/lifeattop.htm

A shot at the national championship in football, a trip to the Elite Eight in men’s basketball, and an NIT title in women’s basketball all in the last six months show that the University of Oregon athletic program is one to be reckoned with. One major force behind that success is James Radcliffe, MS, who has been the Ducks’ Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the past 15 years.

During my professional career, I’ve conferred with Radcliffe on topics such as strength, conditioning, plyometrics, and coaching. For this article, I spoke with him about many of the other aspects of his job, particularly what he considers as the keys to being a successful NCAA Division I head strength and conditioning coach.

We talked about philosophies, relationships with coaches, working with a diverse group of athletes, and future goals. We also brought his assistant coaches, Geoff Ginther, CSCS, USWF, and Jeremy Pick, CSCS, USWF, into the discussion. I think you’ll find their answers and insights into the profession helpful in your own positions.

Gambetta: What is your overall philosophy of coaching?

Radcliffe: It is very fundamental. If you can execute the right technique and do it at high speed and with functional strength, then you are going to be successful in any athletic endeavor. So fundamentals, technique, and progressions are key.

Whether we work with great athletes or not, my job is to make them better than they were when they entered our program. My philosophy has always been to take [the athletes] from point A to point B, and then from point B to point C, and from point C to point D, in progressions.

Gambetta: How do your philosophies relate to a Division I setting?

Radcliffe: For Division I, our long-term objective encompasses the two, three, four, or five years that an athlete is with us. Our main goal is to make them better athletes, to take their athleticism to another level. We achieve that by making them more explosive and more powerful. This is accomplished in terms of physics: in power (force times distance over time), and in the components of strength, speed, and agility (distance transition). We break the job down even further to include functional strength, directional speed, and transitional agility.

Functional strength is important because we don’t want to build strength that cannot be used on the field, on the court, on the mat, or on the track. Directional speed is important because, with the exception of some track and field athletes, everybody’s improvement in speed needs to be in multiple directions, not just straight ahead. Transitional agility is key because making transitions and changing directions is essential to success, whether those transitions are from hash mark to hash mark, from the middle of the key to the outside of the court, or from one side of the tennis court to the other.

When we talk about transitions, we also mean the transitions that a person makes within his or her own body, such as flexion to extension to rotation. If they’re not able to make those internal transitions, then they won’t be very effective making transitions on the court, mat, or field.

The short-term objectives of our program are the strength and conditioning goals during various training periods of the year. Within those training periods, we want to take power and make it more durable. Some people call this speed endurance; we call it power endurance.

We don’t do a whole lot of just pure endurance training. Instead, we do powerful, explosive-type training that has a great work-capacity emphasis. We’ll work hard to build up greater stamina, which is essentially the ability to recover, so that we’re not only improving athleticism, we’re building durability and stamina to go along with that athleticism.

Gambetta: Describe your relationship with the athletic training staff.

Radcliffe: One word: awesome! The best thing they do is communicate with me and my staff. The best thing that my staff and myself do is communicate with them.

Not that we don’t have disagreements once in a while, especially when new staff members come into the athletic training room or the weight room. But those transitions are easy because the powers that be, the head athletic trainer and his full-time staff, as well as myself and my full time staff, have worked with each other for 15 years. So we almost feel each other in terms of our movements and where we’re going, when a person is not supposed to be doing too much rehab or too much mainstream training versus rehab and things like that. It’s just an awesome relationship, and I’m very, very thankful for that.

Gambetta: What sports do you work with directly, and which ones do you delegate to assistants?

Radcliffe: The head strength and conditioning coach is in charge of all the sports. The buck stops with me. My main responsibilities are football, men’s and women’s track and field, plus men’s basketball.

One of my full-time assistants is in charge of volleyball and women’s basketball, and he assists me with football and oversees programs manned by graduate assistants.

My other full-time assistant is in charge of wrestling, softball, the rally squad, and assists with football. There are also two graduate assistant coaches. One of the graduate assistants handles men’s and women’s tennis, soccer, and assists with football. The other assistant handles men’s and women’s golf, club sports, crew, rugby, and baseball, and assists with football.

Gambetta: Do you have full control over every team’s strength and conditioning program or does the sport coach have the final word at Oregon?

Radcliffe: The sport coaches have the main say and the final word, simply because they’re the people who recruit these athletes, bring them in, and pay their scholarships. Our job is to help the coaches get the most out of those student-athletes. To accomplish that, strength and conditioning professionals need to work with the coaches as well as for them. However, a good head coach won’t think of it as working for them as much as with them, especially when you’re doing your best to coordinate, organize, teach, and train the athletes to be better for them on the field, the court, or the mat.

Gambetta: What are the biggest challenges you face?

Radcliffe: Probably the biggest is determining when everybody is going to work out and train, and how to best organize and segment that time. At the University of Oregon, our campus is completely on the other side of a river from our training facility. The walk to our facility takes about 20 minutes, so workouts don’t happen between classes.

Also, if you take a survey of when coaches would prefer their people to come and train in the strength and conditioning realm, it’s always at three o’clock in the afternoon. That is also the time that the professors prefer to teach classes. So we do our best to try and segment workouts throughout the day, with most of the workouts scheduled late in the afternoon or early in the morning.

Probably the second biggest challenge is being able to educate and have a rapport with all of the people we deal with. Everybody has certain opinions about strength and conditioning, especially when it applies to their athletes. Some of them are archaic and some are pretty advanced. Which brings up another challenge for me: keeping up to date on knowledge, literature, and research.

Another major challenge is coordinating our philosophies and education in the strength and conditioning realm and determining how that fits with the coaches, the athletic trainers, and the medical professionals.

Gambetta: How do you implement your concepts in large-group settings?

Radcliffe: We try to keep all of our groups small. Even if we have a hundred-plus athletes in a sport like football, we try to group them in segments, either by position or by event. For example, in track and field, the sprinters and the jumpers will be one group, the throwers will be another group. That way, we can still do all the things we need to do in terms of warm-up, technical work, developmental work, and transitional work. We can teach them and train within the same time frame without having too much confusion.

Gambetta: Does everyone do the same program?

Radcliffe: Yes and no. When we bring our groups in, regardless of sport, event, or position, they do the same general warmup, which includes a lot of dynamic movements and stretching routines. Within that warmup, we also do a lot of core training. We have four or five core-training routines that address different types of flexion, extension, and rotation.

In addition, everybody has to do a specific type of warmup involving exercises for better posture, balance, and flexibility in terms of lower-back development, hamstrings, mobility, and those types of things. So the first part of every workout that all athletes do is the same.

For the main part of the workout, everybody is going to do some type of form movement in forward, lateral, and backward directions. Even track athletes who just go straight ahead will do form and technique movements. Also, everybody is going to do some type of plyometric training at some point, and everybody is going to do some type of sprint training. All athletes are going to do some form of body building at some point, some form of Olympic lifting, some form of power lifting.

So, yes, everybody follows the same overall philosophy of a program, but no, the track athletes are not going to be doing the exact same thing that the football players are doing, especially at different times of the year.

Gambetta: How do you analyze an athlete’s individual qualities when you have so many to work with?

Radcliffe: It is not easy and it makes for long days, because we bring in small groups in order to meet individual needs. Also, most of our coaches are involved in those small groups in order to maintain a one-to-five or a one-to-eight ratio of strength-and-conditioning coaches to athletes. That way, you can assess people who are having problems, who are starting to get a little burned out, tired, or starting to regress in their training development. If you just bring in large groups and there’s one coach for 50 people, you can’t assess all those things.

We like to take people through the workout, observe all their reps, see how they’re handling them, see how they’re progressing, or see why they aren’t progressing. And, if they are progressing, we can see what’s really helping them as a technique. We can also see if they’re really feeling good, and whether they are getting enough sleep, rest, and that type of thing.

Gambetta: Are there any ideas you simply cannot implement because of the large team structure?

Radcliffe: No, I don’t think we limit ourselves because of the size of a team. I just think it takes more organization and maybe more preparation, set-up time, and similar considerations. But we’ve always been able to implement anything we wanted to, even when we didn’t have as nice a facility.

Gambetta: How do you work with so many different sport coaches who must have different ideas on strength training?

Radcliffe: We’ve always had a policy that we have to make the move. We go to the coach’s office. They won’t come to us unless something is wrong. I will let my assistant coaches comment on that even more:

Ginther: When there are problems, about 99 percent of the time it’s due to a lack of communication or miscommunication. Every time new coaches come in, they have ideas on strength training. Other times, coaches who have been here for a while might change their ideas of strength training. Some coaches really want to know everything that we do and other coaches aren’t really that interested. So we really try to identify with our coaches and find out where they’re going and how we can help them get there.

Pick: Sometimes, you have to agree to disagree. I’ve always tried to keep in mind that I am an assistant to that sport coach and my job is to help a sport coach implement what he or she feels is best for the team in as safe and effective manner as possible. So in that situation, I’ve looked at my role as trying to help the coach implement plans in a manner that keeps the kids healthy and still getting an effective workout.

I feel very fortunate that the coaches I work with have a great deal of trust in the goals and methods we utilize. This support means a great deal of coaching freedom for us.

Gambetta: How much testing do you do with your athletes, and what tests work best in your setting?

Radcliffe: We test two to four times a year depending on the sport. Generally, we will test at the end of a major off-season period, and again somewhere toward the end of a pre-season period, but not too close to the start of actual practices and competitions.

There’s an upper-body, a lower-body, and a total-body evaluation. The tests that work best in our setting are strength tests such as squat or press movements. A squat doesn’t necessarily need to be a back squat. We’ll test in a number of different squats, as long as they’re able to be spotted and safe.

We always test for power, since that is our main goal in training. So we do jumping tests, either standing long jumps, vertical jumps, or repetitive-jump tests for elasticity. We will also test some types of Olympic-style lifts, such as the clean or the snatch, to indicate whether the athlete’s power is improving.

Muscular endurance tests are also included. These consist of body-weight pull-ups and dips where they’re able to handle their own body weight. This is especially applicable in situations where we’re not working with people whose goal is to be heavier athletes, such as throwers or offensive and defensive linemen, but just to handle their body weight.

We always do speed tests, such as a 10-yard sprint, 20-yard sprint, 40-yard sprint. Most of our athletes’ speed requirements can be assessed within those ranges. We also do agility tests, such as the 20-yard shuttle run to test the athletes’ ability to change direction off both feet. A test we really like is a three-cone L run. My reason for using the L run is that it tests the kind of speed cuts and power cuts that you use in games. In an L run, you have to be able to execute a couple of different power cuts and a couple of speed cuts off each leg.

Gambetta: How do you deal with over-training and burnout?

Radcliffe: We do worry quite a bit with college-age athletes because they’re not just athletes, they’re also students and they have a social life. A lot of our athletes are very driven and very dedicated and they will try to do extra work and try to train harder.

Probably the best thing we can do is to monitor them with testing. In essence, we observe each athlete as best we can, which is hard when we have a lot of athletes. But that’s why we have a fairly large staff that includes strength and conditioning coaches, athletic trainers, nutritionists, doctors, and other sports-medicine professionals.

Gambetta: How much does nutrition play a role in your program?

Radcliffe: I would say quite a bit. We have a full-time nutritionist who educates the athletes. She takes them to the stores and shows them how to get the best deals for their money—the most food and the best food. She also helps them plan meals when they’re traveling.

Gambetta: Progressions are a big part of your program. Can you elaborate on that?

Radcliffe: Sometimes, the best teaching is not the coach teaching the athletes, but the athletes teaching themselves by going through the movements and feeling it. The only way you achieve that type of learning is by using simple progressions. Everything is a progression. In the weight room, progressions mean learning how to do a jerk that starts first with a press and then a push press, and then a push jerk, and then a jerk. Out on the field, think of progressions in terms of learning how to accelerate better, and then going from acceleration to transitions into high speed, or from deceleration into changes of direction.

Gambetta: How do you integrate speed development and conditioning with strength training?

Radcliffe: We integrate most of our speed development into conditioning programs. So in a conditioning session, our main objective is to work on acceleration, speed, agility, and change of direction, not necessarily in that order.

Conditioning is not trying to turn all athletes into marathon runners. Instead, conditioning is the development of speed, agility, acceleration, and good starting skills. That’s why we use plyometrics in a conditioning setting rather than a weight room setting, because most of it has to do with how well we project our hips down the field or court. So we do a lot of plyometric training on the field, court, or track.

At the same time, we don’t confuse training with conditioning in a traditional sense. There are drills that develop speed and the proper technique for being faster. There are drills that develop explosive power, such as plyometrics. If they are truly designed to be explosive power exercises or speed and acceleration exercises, then they shouldn’t be done in a manner that is repetitive and so short in rest time that technique falls apart or performance falls apart.

Probably my best example of the distinction between conditioning and training is how we use a sand pit or hills to train for sprint development. The sand pit and the hills are excellent tools for developing hip projection, stride length, and power in the running stride. But we don’t use a sand pit or hills as a conditioner. We’re not going to say you have to do ten sand pit sprints in the next three minutes. We’re not going to confuse a training protocol with a conditioning protocol, if we do, then we’re not implementing speed development.

Gambetta: Are female athlete training programs different from those of males?

Radcliffe: We don’t break it down too much by gender unless the sports are different. Do we train male basketball players and female basketball players differently? Only if the two coaches have different goals and objectives. If they have similar goals and objectives, then we’re going to try to keep the same training protocols.

Maybe we’ll take different progressions to get there because of the sizes, the shapes, and styles of the athletes. But for the most part, if the goals and objectives are the same, then we’re going to train them the same.

Ginther: Compared to male athletes, most female athletes have a little less experience with weight training when they arrive here, and that is reflected in where we start them in terms of the specifics of the lifts. But generally, that’s not that big of a problem because, again, we start with some more general exercises at the beginning.

Sometimes, our female athletes are a little less upper-body oriented in terms of their training. So we also have to be aware of that.

Gambetta: How can you make your program better?

Radcliffe: The best way that I can improve this program is to be a better educator, not only of myself, but of the coaches I work with. I’m not necessarily talking about my immediate staff, but all of the head sport coaches and assistant coaches I work with on a day-to-day basis. If I can be a better educator to them as well as to myself, and if we can educate each other to the needs and the benefits of training for that, then I think that’s a huge step toward where we want to go.

Ultimately, winning is the mark of whether your program is getting things done—winning across all of your sports programs, not just a selected one or two.

Pick: I don’t think we necessarily need to have more time with our athletes. We need to improve the quality of our workouts, and that should start with us. We have to make sure everybody’s on the same page, make sure everybody understands what our philosophy is, and what our goals are. We need to set good goals that can be accomplished, and set goals that are relevant to the program and to the individual athletes.

Ginther: I want to keep improving my ability to coach, the way I communicate, my knowledge of the sports I work with. I think we need to continue to experiment and be aware of new things that are out there. Strength and conditioning is an evolving field, and so I think it demands that you have a certain interest, and how else would you have that interest if you weren’t willing to experiment and really try out new methods of training? I think it will continue to evolve.