On Their Own

With an increased emphasis in college athletics on providing athletes with more downtime, strength and conditioning coaches need to structure nonmandatory workouts with great care.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 13.3, April 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1303/ontheirown.htm

Of the recent changes in NCAA legislation, one trend seems to be clear: providing student-athletes with more time away from their sport. The call for this change has come from university presidents, faculty members, and some student-athletes themselves. But in most cases, dealing with the change will fall most heavily on each school’s strength and conditioning coach.

In Division I football, the NCAA is adding eight weeks of time free of mandatory workouts from Jan. 1 through the start of summer conditioning and then another eight weeks leading up to the first preseason practice. Some individual conferences are also legislating even more free time for athletes. Most prominent is the Ivy League’s move to implement seven weeks of downtime in all sports.

Despite these rules changes, sport coaches will still expect high-performance outcomes and injury prevention. And they will be counting on their strength coaches to produce these outcomes. In this article, we talk with some leading strength and conditioning coaches caught in the middle about how they are adjusting to the new restrictions.

The first quandary for many strength and conditioning coaches is how to write an effective workout program if it is not mandatory. Those at most Division I programs say they still develop their program with the assumption that the athletes will follow them.

Athletes who pick and choose which workouts they go to will never see the progress of those who follow a structured program, so a plan is laid out as if it were mandatory. “I can’t write my strength-training and conditioning programs for the weak link,” says John Taylor, CSCS*D, Head Performance Training Coach at New Mexico State University and Chair of the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s College Strength and Conditioning Professionals Special Interest Group.

“The train’s moving,” says Jerry Martin, MA, CSCS*D, Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Connecticut. “When the train passes, you’ve got to be at the station. You gotta get on.”

Since even a few days of inactivity will affect an athlete’s strength level, most coaches say plans with expanded breaks will compromise an athlete’s progress. “When you think about muscle physiology, it can take anywhere from 16 to 26 workouts for your body to increase in hypertrophy or muscle size, where it can take just two days for your body to start atrophying in muscle size,” says Russell Barbarino, MS, CSCS, CSCC, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Delaware. “So it’s very hard to catch up. If a fall-sport athlete does not work out in the summer it might take him or her the whole fall semester to catch up. And because lifting gets reduced during the season, chances of that happening are very small.”

A crucial tool in increasing the chances of summer workouts being followed is a take-home manual. Barbarino’s includes sections on nutrition and hydration as well as the strength and conditioning staff’s recommended workout routine and schedule. The goal is to provide enough information so that an athlete can work out without a coach.

Coaches say it pays to spell out the recommended off-season program as clearly as possible for the athletes. “They’ll usually have a 15-week program from the time they leave here until the time they have to report back,” says Bob Miller, CSCS, Director of Strength and Conditioning at Dartmouth College. “We get a working max for their squats, cleans, bench, and jerks, and off those we generate all the weights for the other lifts. So they have specific weights listed on cards we give them, and there’s no guesswork.”

With the Ivy League’s mandated downtimes, Miller has had to alter academic-year programs a bit. In the case of the football team, the first rest period extended from the last week of November into the second week of December, and the second covered the first seven days of the winter term in mid-January. The next rest period was March 1-14, and then another runs May 20-June 3. The March period is especially worrisome for Miller because it comes just before the college-wide spring break, which is followed by spring football practice.

“There’s less of a base-building phase and you have to get into your strength and power phase right away,” Miller says. “It also cuts down on the conditioning portion, where we’re losing four speed workouts.”

Miller says he scheduled time for informal light workouts during the rest weeks. Athletes get cards with recommended workouts, and he announces the weightroom will be open for the sport at a specific time on particular days.

“We don’t teach at all during that time,” Miller says. “We try to keep the lifts basic during those voluntary weeks so there’s a minimal risk of injury. And we don’t run with them during the rest periods, either. I’ll tell them, ‘Our indoor facility is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. to intercollegiate athletics. Try to get in there at that time and do your running.’ We’re putting a lot of responsibility on the individual to do all the work they’re supposed to do so they come off the rest period ready for a particularly intense phase.”

Especially during the summer, strength and conditioning coaches will often need to find ways to accommodate student-athletes who, for a variety of reasons, can’t follow a set off-season routine. “There are kids who are going to have to work on dad and mom’s farm in the summer, for example” says Lacey Degnan, CSCC, Director of Athletic Performance at the University of Montana, “and you’ve got to respect that and you’ve got to honor that.”

Coaches suggest investigating what equipment will be available where the athlete will be, and making adjustments as necessary. If there’s no good leg-press machine, for instance, substitute more squat lifts.

“You sit down with the ones who are going and ask them, ‘What’s your weightroom like back home?’” says Degnan. “Or you talk to the high school coach and say, ‘What kind of facilities do you have there?’

“If they have top-notch facilities,” Degnan continues, “you say, ‘Okay, let’s do this workout.’ But if they don’t, you adjust and find a workout that’s going to help them use the limited resources that they have. The workout’s not customized for each player but may be a little different from the workout for the kids who are staying. That’s the beauty of strength and conditioning: You get to use your imagination and whatever tools and resources you have to get these kids in utmost shape for summer camp.”

Some coaches are also willing to make adjustments for athletes who want to keep working out but not quite as hard. Miller says he’s been building in a lighter schedule for athletes who use some of the Ivy-mandated rest periods to take it relatively easy but don’t stop working completely.

“For the weeks that they’re off, instead of lifting four days, it’s a three-day lift program. Instead of running four days, it might be two days’ worth of running,” Miller says.

“When they look at it, they say, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to take that much of my time.’ If it doesn’t look like much, they’re more likely to do it as opposed to a 30-page program.”

Coaches also are wise to acknowledge that some athletes will want to use their discretionary time as true time off. “I think an active rest period or a time away from school and work is probably a real good idea, but an extended period of complete rest is probably more than what most athletes need, unless they’re really running into overuse problems,” says Chip Harrison, co-Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for sports other than football at Penn State. “Changing things up—doing a little cross training, stepping away from the routine—becomes an important part of resting both physically and psychologically. I think the trick is to try to maintain a level of continued practice at the same time that you’re allowing rest, particularly psychological rest, so that somebody feels fresher as they go into their preseason.”

Trent Greener, CSCS, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Oregon State, focuses on getting athletes to be honest about their activities during these rest periods, and then taking those into account. “One player did an internship overseas, then came back three weeks before football camp started,” Greener says. “He’d been very honest, saying ‘I’m not going to have the opportunity to lift heavy. I’m going to go out and do some intervals but I’m not going to have the opportunity to do a whole lot more. And so when he came in, I tweaked his program because throwing him into a high volume and high intensity of training would have smashed him and probably predisposed him to a greater chance of injury.”

For those athletes who do have access to a full range of workout equipment, the trick is keeping them motivated to follow an intense program without coaching them. Most coaches use plenty of education and a bit of peer pressure.

Greener does a lot of explaining how periodization works so that athletes internalize why they need to get on a program and stick to it even when no one’s making them do it. “We tell them this is a progressive approach,” Greener says. “You add weight to the bar, you add distances to your interval training, and you don’t go full-out starting day one. It’s a gradual, progressive, well-thought-out plan, and in order to maximize that plan you have to be with that plan from day one.”

“I strongly urge athletes to ask why we are doing something,” says Degnan. “‘Why are we doing this lift, what does this help me with?’ Because the more they know, the more that they’re going to believe and the more they can help themselves when I, or my staff, am not there. The more they know, the better off both parties are going to be.”

Many strength and conditioning coaches appeal to athletes’ innate competitiveness and team sensibilities. “You have group leaders or team captains, for example,” says Barbarino. “You can preach to them the importance of doing this program and have them relay the message in their own way.”

During day-to-day interaction with athletes, Greener and his staff talk about athletes’ individual goals and how to reach them. “You’ve got guys who want to play at the next level,” he says. “You’ve got guys who want to be starters. You’ve got guys who want to make the travel squad. You’ve got guys who want to dress on the sidelines.

“And I think those people,” continues Greener, “just through knowing and observing, have to see, ‘Gosh, to get on the playing field, I’ve got to get stronger, I’ve got to get faster, I’ve got to improve my conditioning. How do I do that? Well, I want to run alongside or lift alongside the guy who I’m trying to beat out.’ It’s going to be internal.”

“It’s like a marketing project. You want to show them results,” says Barbarino. “The freshmen coming in might be your hardest sell. But if they follow the program and you can show them that the work they put in paid some dividends, you might get them hooked. Show them the positives—their speed and strength gains—and preach to them all year that the summer is the most vital time.”

“Hopefully,” says Miller, “we’ve piqued the interest of enough kids and really got them excited about what we’re doing that during the rest periods they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I want to keep going, because I know I’m going to get better.’ That’s the attitude we’re going to take.”

Anthony Glass, CSCS, CSCC, Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports at Ohio State, also takes his message to the sport coaches. “Every year, right around four months before the summer program starts, I’ll e-mail coaches once every two to three weeks saying it’s imperative that the kids are here over the summer so that we can train them in this off-season phase, and to please support the strength and conditioning staff by suggesting to your athletes to stay around over the summer.”

Martin also uses subtle approaches. “We have a number of written slogans in the weightroom, like ‘Championships start here,’” says Martin. “And ‘Go Hard or Go Home.’ It means you don’t want to waste your time and you don’t want to waste our time. This is a place where you can put an hour a day in and you can improve yourself as an athlete. Put an hour aside every day to try to reach that dream that you have as an athlete or as a team.”

At the end of the day, strength and conditioning coaches will adapt to increasing calls for less off-season regimentation of student-athletes. Taylor, while not a fan of further restrictions on the off-season, says schools without a strong tradition of strength and conditioning for sports may fall behind. But at those where the importance of the weightroom and conditioning are deep-seated habits, he sees little problem.

“It’s not going to be a problem for a strength coach in that atmosphere to get it done because the players are going to motivate themselves,” Taylor says. “Their strength coach is going to be there. And whether or not he can directly run the session, he can make recommendations.”

Sidebar: Conducting vs. Supervising
NCAA rules state that coaches may supervise student-athletes to maintain health and safety during nonmandatory workout periods, but the details behind the rules are subject to interpretation. Some coaches, citing the injury-prevention effect of conditioning programs, see almost anything they do as contributing to health and safety. For example, they may accompany athletes on a conditioning run to show them the pace needed to become acclimatized and aerobically fit. Others prefer to simply watch and make sure there’s adequate spotting and no horseplay or egregious lifting errors.

“If you see somebody performing something that’s really way off, it’s your professional responsibility to help them out. You would be negligent if you didn’t,” says Roger Marandino, MA, CSCS*D, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Brown University. “If a kid’s simply deviating from the workout I put up on the board, I can’t go out there and say anything because it is truly their time. But safety always comes first.”

“One of the big things is not to call the coach or athletic trainer if somebody doesn’t come in or they need to change their workout time or that kind of thing,” says Chip Harrison, co-Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for sports other than football at Penn State. “If somebody comes in and has a workout—whether it’s one that we’ve designed or one that they’ve got on their own—and they need help on an exercise, that falls into the safety category as far as spotting and providing some kind of direction.”

Jerry Martin, MA, CSCS*D, Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Connecticut, was a member of the NCAA committee that developed the proposal for extended nonmandatory time in Division I football and admits the dividing line isn’t clear-cut. But his approach is this: “If the athlete comes to the weightroom, you’re supervising so he’s not getting hurt,” Martin says. “When an athlete or a group of athletes come down and you hand them a program and then take them through it step by step, exercise by exercise and rep by rep, that might be considered conducting a workout.”

Coaches also suggest not trying to navigate the rules alone. Trent Greener, CSCS, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Oregon State University, says he checks regularly with the school’s compliance office. In the future, he says, he might take the year-round programs his staff writes to the athletic administration for their review in light of the expanded non-mandatory times.

“At the beginning of the year,” says Greener, “I sit down with all of our football coaches and say, ‘Here’s our year-round training program, here’s the days off, here’s why we’re doing this.’ But we’re going to have to communicate a little bit more with the administration instead of just with the sport coaches. I’d like them to be able to say, ‘We’re looking at your year-round plan, and you’re in compliance. We feel comfortable with what you’re doing.’”

Sidebar: Ivy Adjustments
For Ivy League strength and conditioning coaches, the challenges of dealing with restrictions on student-athletes’ workout schedules extend well beyond football. Under a policy started last fall, the conference requires each of its eight member schools to designate seven weeks per year for each sport in which student-athletes have no required athletic activities or supervision by coaches of any kind.

The weeks needn’t be all at once, but holiday periods don’t count, as the intent was to encourage athletes to have more time for non-athletic pursuits on campus. For instance, most Ivy ice hockey teams took two rest weeks in September, before practice began, then will find more time in the spring.

As Ivy League strength and conditioning coaches have gotten used to their conference’s new seven-week downtime rule, they’ve found it has affected winter teams the most.

“With us, the biggest challenge came from freshmen on winter teams wanting to use the weightroom in September. Because we couldn’t conduct workouts, it got hairy,” says Roger Marandino, MA, CSCS*D, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Brown University. The solution has been to send a videotape showing the lifts to each incoming freshman—sport coaches help out making the copies, often on old recruiting tapes—and then to designate some seniors to take freshmen under their wings in the weightroom, Marandino says.

The weeks off in the spring have also proven problematic for Bob Miller, CSCS, Director of Strength and Conditioning at Dartmouth College. “We have a lot of freshmen on the hockey team and both basketball teams,” he says. “The majority of the time you get to work with them is during the spring term. That’s when you teach them all the things they’re going to need to know for their summer program, which they’re going to be doing on their own when they go home. Now, we don’t have that time to teach them all that stuff. You’re basically handing them a program to go home in the summer with, and they’re not going to know what to do.”

Tom Howley, CSCS, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Cornell University, says his staff has the importance of trying to match the athletes’ rest-period weeks with lighter periods in the training cycle. Sport coaches have provided schedules showing their teams’ off-weeks, and athletes who choose to work out at that time avoid heavier loads and more technical lifts, such as squats and power cleans, in favor of lighter, less technical and intense work.

Another way to cope is breaking up the rest periods. “What some teams have chosen to do is to go two weeks on, one week off, two weeks on, one week off,” Howley says. “They spread those weeks out so that we can cycle our workouts accordingly instead of taking seven weeks straight.”