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Football Strength

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It’s no longer just about lifting weights, Washington State
develops flexibility, speed, skill development and
conditioning to get the most out of their players.

By Steve Silverman

The role of the strength coach has changed dramatically over the years.

A couple of decades ago, the concept of the strength coach was a relatively new one. Head coaches thought that if they could get their players to lift a few more weights, they might get stronger and therefore give the team a few more chances to win games.

The goal remains the same – to win games. However, the role of the strength coach has evolved dramatically. It’s no longer just about lifting weights. Strength coaches will also develop conditioning programs, give nutritional guidance, work on flexibility, attempt to build speed and quickness, develop exercise programs for skill development at various positions and advise players on rest and recovery.

It’s a hugely important job that has grown in stature over the years. Rob Oviatt is the strength and conditioning coach at Washington State. The Cougars have gone from being one of the Pac-10 bottom feeders to one of the more formidable teams in the conference. The Cougars went 10-2 last year and registered a 33-27 win over Purdue in the Sun Bowl last season.

Head coach Mike Price put together a high-powered attack that featured the solid passing of QB Jason Gesser and a very solid, nasty and hard-hitting defense. Much of the core of the team was developed in the weight room under the watchful eye of Oviatt.

“The most important thing we do with the players is in the area of strength training,” Oviatt said. “We want to develop the power zone – the hips, legs and back. In football, that’s how most plays are made. When you develop those areas you have a better chance of making more plays.

“Most of the weight work our players is do is with free weights – and it’s done standing up. Football is a game played on your feet and you have to have functional strength – not just lifting strength. Our goal is to take care of and build up the trunk of the athlete, because that’s where the power comes from.”

To get the most out of each athlete, Oviatt will test and observe each athlete to accurately gauge their strength and fitness level. “Once a player is here for a year or two they understand the routines and what is expected,” Oviatt explained. “But the freshmen and the transfers have to be monitored and taught everything we are trying to get across. It’s not easy, but a lot of training goes on when it comes to building strength.”

At Washington State, most football training is of an anaerobic nature. That’s because coaches are looking for greater strength and power because those areas re most important when it comes to winning football games. “That’s what we are going to concentrate on,” said Oviatt. “We want our players to be in good cardiovascular shape, but the bulk of our training is strength and power training as well as speed and quickness training. If a player is rehabbing from an injury or if a player is overweight, we are going to do more aerobic training.

One area that has seen an increase in attention from football coaching staffs throughout the nation is flexibility. Coaches are looking for power and explosiveness from their players and one of the methods used to achieve this goal is improved flexibility. “There’s a big difference between warming up and doing exercises to improve flexibility,” Oviatt said. “To gain increased flexibility, an athlete is going to use resistance training and work with a partner. The idea is to gain full range of motion in order to gain maximum flexibility.”

The Oviatt File
2000-present Washington State University, Director of Physical Development
1999-2000 Louisiana State University, Head Strength Coach
1995-1998 University of Kentucky, Head Football Strength Coach
1988 Soviet Sport Institute
1985-1995 Oregon State University, Head Strength Coach
1985 University of Houston, Graduate Assistant Strength Coach
1983-1984 Texas A&M, Graduate Assistant Strength Coach
1981-1983 University of Mississippi, Weightlifting Instructor and Volunteer Assistant Strength Coach

While most football players at major college programs are very good to excellent athletes when compared with the general student population, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all of these athletes will have optimum flexibility. That is especially true with incoming freshmen.

“We find that a lot of the freshman class have flexibility problems,” Oviatt said. “They may not have done a lot of work in this area in the past. High school programs continue to get better in this area, but they are not all consistent. It takes a while to get all the athletes to the point where you want or need them to be.

“A lot of the work we concentrate on for flexibility is in the abdominal area. When the abdominals are in optimum condition, flexibility increases significantly.”

In addition to building stronger and more flexible athletes, coaches need their players to get faster and quicker. Oviatt points out that this is an area that has changed dramatically over the years and that strength and conditioning coaches can help to make a players quicker and faster than he was in the past.

One of the areas used to increase speed is with jump training and flexibility. “In the past, coaches thought there was little you could do to help a player increase his running speed,” Oviatt explained. “Most people looked at speed as a result of genetics and that there was little that could be done to help in that area. Now we know that is not true. There are speed camps and speed clinics popping up all over the place and they get good results because they have done a lot of work in defeating the misconception that speed can’t be improved.

“There are limitations, but we find that if our players do the proper speed and interval training, they will get faster.”

Communication is a key area for the strength coach. By talking with position coaches and observing practices, they quickly learn which players are struggling to succeed on the field and what areas they may be deficient in. If an offensive lineman has a problem defeating his man at the point of attack, he may need more strength. If he has problems getting leverage on his opposite number, he may need flexibility training to help him succeed on the field.

“It’s all about communication and observation,” Oviatt said. “If you watch practice and games and see what is going on, it’s not hard to tell who may need to gain more strength, more flexibility or more quickness. By talking to the other position coaches they can give you more specific information. Believe me, we spend a lot of time talking about this among the coaches. Everybody has an opinion on how to make a guy stronger or quicker and we will factor in those opinions. However, we (strength and conditioning coaches) are trained in this area and know what we want to accomplish.”

One of the areas that that is most difficult to control are the nutritional habits of the players on the team. Strength and conditioning coaches spend a lot of time trying to educate their players on eating well, but there is little that they can do if a player has not made a conscious decision to watch what he eats and take care of the furnace that burns all the fuel.

Players eat five meals as a team per week at Washington State and that is not unusual for most major programs around the country. The rest of the time, what the player eats is up to him. “It’s all about education and understanding,” Oviatt explained. “We try to teach our players how important it is to eat well and take care of yourself. But we are not dealing with grown, responsible adults. We are dealing with college students on a college student’s budget. Nobody eats perfect all the time and the same holds for our players. There are times when they don’t have time to eat a substantial meal and they will eat fast food on the run – just like anybody else. You wish that wasn’t the case, but there’s very little that can be done.

“This is an area that we can make great strides in. With more education and more advice, players can continue the learning process in this area.”

Strength and conditioning coaches have become extremely vital members of the coaching staff at the high school, college and professional level. In addition to getting a player stronger — which remains the most important aspect of their job — these individuals are charged with improving flexibility, speed, skill development and conditioning. The best ones work hand-in-hand with the position coaches and head coaches to get the most out of their players.

It is an incredibly rewarding experience. The results are seen not only on the playing fields but in the confidence level of the players that these highly skilled coaches work with on a daily basis.


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