Top Dogs

The Georgia Bulldogs had one of their best football seasons ever last fall, thanks in part to the arrival of Strength and Conditioning Coach Dave Van Halanger two years ago. In this article, he and other top coaches share the secrets of their success.

By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 13.2, March 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1302/topdogs.htm

For many, it’s the dream job. Working with football coaches like Mark Richt and Bobby Bowden and training some of the best collegiate athletes in the nation. Having the resources to hire a large staff. Coaching in spacious facilities with the latest and greatest equipment.

That’s the life of Dave Van Halanger, CSCS, MSCC, Head of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Georgia, and he loves it. But it’s no piece of cake, and it doesn’t mean he’s stopped learning or working hard to be an even better coach. Head strength and conditioning coaches at NCAA Division I schools don’t get there by accident. They have skills that go far outside the ability to put together a great workout plan.

So what does it take to advance to this place in the profession? What qualities do these coaches possess that enable them to keep high-profile teams winning? We talked to six head strength and conditioning coaches at a variety of NCAA Division I schools to provide some insight into what young coaches need to know to climb the ladder.

A Student Forever
Even when they’re well established, top strength coaches never stop educating themselves. And that is the first key to moving ahead.

“I’ve always been very open-minded,” says Dave Armstrong, MS, CSCS, SCCC, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Xavier University. “I’m quick to adopt things that work and fit my style and quick to eliminate things that don’t. My programs constantly evolve over time.”

“It’s tough to do sometimes, but I try to set aside time every day to sit down and read,” says Dan McGettigan, MS, CSCS, Head Strength Coach for Football at Iowa State University. “It can be technical, it can be motivational—as long as it’s something that could help present a better program to our players. And if I can watch something on tape or talk to other strength coaches, I try to do that. It’s part of my job to find those things.”

Robert Lindsey, CSCS, Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at Illinois State University, makes education a departmental effort by incorporating it into regular strength and conditioning staff meetings. “During our staff meetings we’ll have a topic of the month,” he says. “We may choose something like supplements and each of us will do some research on that. Then, when we get together again, we’ll have eight different views on that topic. It helps to keep all of us energized and looking for new information.”

In fact, Lindsey looks for learning opportunities in all settings. “Some of the best information is passed back and forth in informal office settings, talking between teams or during down times,” he says. “Somebody will say, ‘Hey, I read this.’ Or I’ll talk about something we did at Oklahoma State when I was there in the late ’80s. A lot of our guys are graduate assistants, so they’re getting good information from their classes that they share with us, which is fun and exciting, too.”

Advancing the Athlete
Keeping up in the field helps top coaches design better and better programs, but many say that how they deliver those programs to the athletes is what makes or breaks a career. They suggest developing a style that is part of your personality and speaks to the student-athletes.

“I think a strength coach had better be a great encourager,” Van Halanger says. “On the field, players get screamed at. That’s just the way coaches do it. But it can’t be that way in here. The weightroom has to be a safe place. It has to be a place where kids are going to work their butts off, but know whatever we say is true and it will never be demeaning.

“Kids want to be encouraged,” he adds. “You can always find something good to say to every kid and that may be all he or she needs—a little spark, a little comment that says, ‘You can get this thing done.’”

But no athlete ever mistakes Van Halanger’s approach for a soft one. He outlines a set of rules he expects all players to follow, including no swearing in the weight room and being on time for all workouts. “If a kid is one minute late, I’m going to run him 10 stadium steps the next morning,” Van Halanger says. “But I will not be a policeman. I’m not going to sit there and count beans and worry about this and that. I’m going to give kids an opportunity to be great and if they don’t take that opportunity, then shame on them—that’s their fault.”

At Auburn University, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Kevin Yoxall, MS, MSCC, uses a very basic approach. “I try to get across to the athletes that ‘Someone else is doing the same thing you’re doing right now and you want to make sure you’re doing it better than they are,’” he says. “I know that sounds pretty elementary and I’ve had a lot of kids look at me and say, ‘Well, yeah, I know that.’ But it goes deeper than that and they have to understand how hard this whole thing is.”

Armstrong sees himself as a salesman pitching the benefits of hard work. “If I have a gift, I guess it’s that I can get kids to do things that are very hard and have a good time doing them,” he says. “I couldn’t go out and sell a car if my life depended on it. But when I’m selling hard work, I know from my experience where it’s going to take them. They learn to trust me enough to know that I’ll get them there if they can do what I ask them to do. And I build that trust through hard work and being there with them through the good times and the bad, busting their hump, being fairly uncompromising, being very straightforward, and letting them know what I think.”

Armstrong also emphasizes teamwork in the weightroom, even among members of different squads. Workouts at Xavier are scheduled to fit academic schedules, which means teams are rarely able to have all their members training together.

“At any one time, you’ll probably see half a dozen kids helping other kids,” Armstrong says. “You’ll see a golfer spotting for a basketball player. You’ll see a basketball guy spotting for a tennis player. Just the other day I saw our 6-10 basketball center spotting for one of our women soccer players who can’t be more than 5-4. We have an excellent atmosphere here and I promote that. The athletes know that their attitude toward each other is important to me, so they work at that.

“Some people will say, ‘I don’t like that atmosphere, it’s too social,’” Armstrong continues. “Well, it is what you let it become. We laugh and get up on each other and have a great time, but they know when they hit the door they have a certain amount of warmup and stretching to do, then they’re going to work because they have only about 45 minutes to be here.”

Van Halanger tries to get the most out of his athletes by teaching them to use imagery. “Sets and reps are great. Everybody does sets and reps and a lot of people work hard,” he says. “But the great strength coaches paint a picture of where a kid can go and then encourage him or her to get there.

“One of my rules around the weightroom is: See yourself making a great play,” he continues. “I tell them, ‘Lifting weights is important, but when you’re lifting in here, don’t just lift weights to be strong. Lift weights so that when you go on the field, you can make that great play.’

“I’m fortunate to have coached some great players, and I tell our current players that Deion Sanders would sometimes lift weights with his eyes closed. I’d yell at him, ‘Hey, Deion, get your eyes open.’ And he’d say, ‘Coach, I can’t. I’m running a punt return back right now. I got a pick, Coach, and I’m gone. I’m down the sideline.’”

Start Basic
Another part of being successful with student-athletes is dealing with the different backgrounds of each freshman class. Some incoming athletes have been strength training since middle school and have even worked with personal trainers. Others have never set foot in a weightroom.

A popular approach to dealing with this experience gap is to start everybody off on the same level. “I tell them all that they’re going to go through a long orientation process with me,” Yoxall says. “I put them all in the same group and progress them at the same pace. Even if some kids are being held back, I want to make sure that everybody is on the same page before we move on. That’s frustrating to some kids but that’s the way I do it.”

Fordham University Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Jason George, MS, CSCS, follows a similar approach, in part because he is the school’s only full-time strength and conditioning coach. “Out of necessity, I start everybody on a very basic weight-training program their freshman year,” he says. “Athletes who are progressing will start moving to something more advanced. The ones who need more time at the beginner level stay with that program longer.”

In some cases, it’s the experienced freshman lifter who is harder to train, and a coach has to use different tactics. “With kids used to a certain regimen from high school, it’s almost like you have to win them over,” Lindsey says, “so I feel the education of the athlete is extremely important. It’s so much better to explain to an athlete, ‘This is why we’re going to do this. It’s going to possibly prevent this injury, and it’s going to help you on the field by doing this and this,’ instead of just saying, ‘I want you doing four sets of that exercise,’ and not giving them a reason why.”

At Xavier, Armstrong takes it a step further—he cultivates athletes who show a strong interest in weight training and to lead the others. “We identify within each team those hard-core kids who love to train,” says Armstrong, who has one full-time assistant coach. “We focus on those athletes initially and make sure they have the mechanics and concepts well in mind that we want. Then we use them to help teach other kids. And they’ll learn more from each other than they will ever learn from me.”

Van Halanger counts on his seniors to do much the same thing. “I’m going to make sure my seniors are my leaders,” he says. “They’re going to become my coaches and they’re going to help me as much as my assistants do. If they see a guy not doing something, they’re going to come and tell me. I’m going to give them as much responsibility as I can, because they’re the guys I’m going to live and die with.”

Coach to Coach
Your student-athletes may be who you sweat and suffer with, but it’s just as important that you clearly communicate with sport coaches. Strength coaches can easily get tripped up in this area, especially those who deal with numerous sports. Conflicts are inevitable, and top strength coaches say it takes a delicate balance of being both a leader and a follower to stay on track.

At Illinois State, Lindsey has had success setting up solid channels of communication. The assistant strength coach assigned to a sport meets weekly with the coach of that sport and often attends the staff meeting for that sport. Lindsey meets with the head coach at the start of each semester and once a month afterward.

“I want to get a feel for what they want and let them know what’s going on in our area, if we’ve made any changes,” Lindsey says. “It helps everything run more smoothly if you have clear lines of communication set up from the beginning.”

Ideally, the strength coach works hand in hand with the sport coach to combine knowledge of strength training with knowledge of the sport. This means listening to the sport coach with both ears open. For example, Armstrong recently adjusted his program for the golf team based on input from the golf coach. The program had been working well, but Armstrong wondered if there was room for improvement. Since he’s not a golfer himself, he asked his golf expert, the coach.

“That’s how we find out if something works or not,” he says. “The coach came in and said, ‘Hey, you’ve really had a positive effect on golfer A. He’s increased his shoulder rotation by an inch-and-a-half, which translates into more impetus when he hits the ball. I don’t know what you’re doing but keep doing it.’ So we showed him what we were doing. He looked at it and said, ‘Well that looks pretty good, but it’s not quite the way I want their legs to work.’ Then he went into a demonstration. We tried some different things and made a slight modification in our program.”

The harder part is when you run up against a coach who doesn’t share your philosophies. McGettigan recommends trying to persuade skeptical coaches by showing the benefits of your plans. “I ask if I can present a program to them and have them look at our goals and what we’re trying to achieve,” he says. “Then I’ll tell them that what I’ve presented is soundly based and organized and will help us achieve their goals, because we’re both working for the same things.”

“You basically have to win them over,” Lindsey says. “You need to have some backing, whether through research or testing results, that shows your program works and is going to make their athletes better and prevent injury. If they have some really strong opinions, you have to be open-minded and say, ‘Explain to me why you have this opinion.’ Then we’ll take a look at it and try to incorporate it.”

“They’re under pressure to win, and they have justifiable concerns sometimes,” Yoxall adds. “As support personnel you have to listen to them and adhere to what they say. But I’ve always been of the belief that if there’s something we don’t agree on, I’m going to continue to hammer at that issue and make sure they understand why I’d rather be doing things a certain way.

“Ultimately it’s not my team, and if they don’t want their players doing a certain lift or exercise, then it’s their decision,” he continues. “But I’m going to make sure that I have tried to show them why I want to do something a certain way.

“If there’s anywhere I’ve drawn a line with a coach,” Yoxall says, “it’s when they want to change how things are conducted in the weightroom or during a conditioning workout. It’s not their job to come into the weightroom and say, ‘Here’s how I want you to run the workout.’ I’m not going to let that happen.”

When faced with coaches who are ambivalent about or resistant to strength training, Armstrong has had some success in training team members who are interested in it. He will work with those athletes with the expectation that the coach will notice the increase in their performances and want to see the rest of the team do the same.

But Armstrong warns there is a potential drawback to this approach. “The downside is if you bring a kid in and hurt him or mistakenly do something that’s inappropriate, then you stand no chance of ever getting that coach and his or her athletes involved in your program,” he says.

Although strength coaches may tend to have more in common with sport coaches than athletic trainers, it’s important to develop ties with the athletic training staff as well. “There have been times I’ve butted heads with athletic trainers and times where we’ve gotten along very, very well,” Yoxall says. “It’s a relationship you have to cultivate and develop because you work so closely together. Ideally, they come to you for ideas and you go to them for ideas.”

Lindsey has also established strong communication channels with his school’s athletic training staff. “All of the athletic trainers here are very good at giving us injury reports almost on a daily basis,” he says. “Before the athletes get here, we’ll know what injuries have occurred so we can modify the workout beforehand. And that alleviates problems with athletes saying, ‘Oh, my knee is sore. I’m not squatting today.’”

Staff Assistance
At a Division I program, many head strength and conditioning coaches actually coach two completely different teams. One team is made up of athletes. The other is made up of assistant strength coaches, graduate assistants, and interns. Success with the second group will go a long way to ensuring success with the first.

“There’s an old adage that says coaches who are well thought of usually surround themselves with good assistants,” Yoxall says. “That’s a very important thing to do. Every place I’ve been, I’ve been fortunate to have had great assistants and great graduate assistants around me.”

At Illinois State, Lindsey asks his assistants to develop their own strength-training plans for their sports, which he’ll review and make changes to only where needed. “My feeling is that if I were to write a program for, say, women’s tennis, and give it to one of my assistants saying, ‘Here’s the next eight weeks, I want you to supervise this,’ they’ll probably do a good job,” Lindsey explains. “But they may not put their heart and soul into it. If it’s something they developed themselves, then they want to make sure it works and gets good results. And if they make mistakes, they will remember those years afterwards. If I write something out, and they’re just supervising, they may or may not remember what did and didn’t work well.”

Yoxall also expects his full-time assistants to be able to develop and implement their own programs, but he tends to keep graduate assistants and interns on a short leash. “I know some of my graduate assistants have been frustrated by this in the past, but they’re pretty much doing what I ask them to do,” he says. “I let them cultivate their own philosophies by asking them a lot of challenging questions, asking what they feel about what we’re doing right now, and so forth. But the bottom line is that I’m going to make the decisions on what we do. I make it clear to them how I want something done and if anything is going to get screwed up doing it that way, it’s going to be my fault. I’m going to start them off slow and let them progress from there.”

Van Halanger believes in using hands-on experience to develop his staff members. “I have the graduate assistants watch our full-time guys train players, say the key words, and see how we get 40 guys in here all moving at one time,” Van Halanger says. “If my full-time assistants think someone is ready for a group, I’ll give him maybe four to six guys and then I’ll watch him and correct him. I might tell him, ‘When they’re doing the cleans you have to get them back and keep those heels down. You’re letting them pull from their toes.’ Then they start adjusting to the things you believe in.”

And that learning process doesn’t have to be limited to the younger members of the coaching staff. A couple of times a month, McGettigan has his staff discuss things they need to work on.

“We try to critique ourselves and evaluate ourselves and see how we can do a better job,” he says. “Maybe there’s something we thought we were communicating well, but from the athletes’ perspective, we’re not. Maybe we’re trying to teach a young athlete our technique, but we’re just not making a connection. Then we might need to change our approach.”

Savvy head coaches choose assistant coaches who complement their own style, creating balance within their own department. That’s the situation at Xavier, where the 60-year-old Armstrong has 27-year-old Tracy Prosser as his assistant. “She can do some of the things that I can’t do,” Armstrong says, “so I’m quick to use her in that way. And if I get out of line—which I occasionally do because I can be a little rough sometimes—she’ll say, ‘Hey, coach you need to back off a little bit.’ And nine times out of 10 she’s right. That’s an important quality she brings.”

Van Halanger has two full-time assistants who were at Georgia when he arrived, Keith Gray and Mark Kirschbaum. “I’m more of the motivator and they’re kind of the nuts and bolts guys,” Van Halanger says. “Keith is the supplements guy and Mark is the research guy—sets and reps, what’s new on the market in equipment, and what other people are doing.”

Perfecting Sets & Reps
Although so much of being a great strength coach in a large program rests on communication with others, the nuts and bolts of the job—developing great programs—is still critical. The most successful coaches say they develop plans they believe in, carefully evaluate results, and tweak workouts to fit the situation at hand. “I think the number-one thing is having a program that is sound, scientifically based, organized, and progressive,” McGettigan says.

“You have to have a foundation to stand on,” add Lindsey. “If you’re not consistent with what you do, you’re not going to get the results. The athletes won’t believe in the program if you’re jumping back and forth to whatever the latest craze is.”

Most coaches review their programs at the beginning of each training cycle and make minor adjustments from season to season. The important thing is to make sure your changes fit the goals of the program. Armstrong feels that some coaches are too willing to adopt something new without thinking about how it will work for them.

“People will see a program that looks successful and they’ll copy it and try to apply it to their situation,” he says. “But that often doesn’t work. You have to look at who you have to teach it, what you have to work with, what kind of equipment you have, how much time you have, and the pretraining status of your athletes. Will it fit what you can do?”

Although it’s important to change your program when needed, Van Halanger feels it’s just as important to stick to your guns when you know you’re right. “If you have a good plan and it’s a plan you came up with, stay the course,” he says. “A lot of times you’re just on the edge of breaking through.

“For example, 1986 was the worst year Bobby Bowden had at Florida State,” he continues. “But we didn’t vary what we did. We kept saying, ‘I know what we’re doing is going to work. We just have to stay the course.’ The next year was the breakthrough, and we were doing exactly the same things we did in ’86. Outside people will always come after you, so inside you have to stay strong as a family, and the strength coach has a huge role in that.”