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AFM Magazine

Building More than Strength

by: Kevin Vanderbush
Strength and Conditioning COach at Ben D
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How to incorporate Leadership, Teamwork, and Sport Psychology Training into Your Strength and Conditioning Program.

"We have found a direct correlation between the team strength and the success on the field."
- Kevin Vanderbush
Football success is often attributed to having great leadership, positive team chemistry, and athletes who possess the proper mental mindset. Often times, teams who have mastered these attributes can out-perform teams with superior athletes. However, in many cases,  coaches get so caught up in the X’s and O’s that they don’t spend time training leaders, developing teamwork, and teaching basic sport psychology to their athletes. There are many opportunities within the strength and conditioning program to develop these skills and to show your players the relationship to on-field performance.


    At Ben Davis High School, our pre-season conditioning program (which we call co-captains practice) serves as an ideal opportunity to teach leadership, to develop team bonding, and to talk about the mental issues that will be encountered in games and practices. The workouts are instrumental in setting the tone for the season. In the off-season we develop a leadership team which consists of representatives from each class. The leadership team meets to receive leadership training. (A great resource for the training is a book by Jeff Janssen called “The Team Captain’s Leadership Manual.”) From this group we choose pre-season co-captains. The choice of co-captains is not as simple as finding the best or most popular players, and is a task that should not be taken lightly. Once chosen, the co-captains are given a number of different responsibilities within the framework of the pre-season conditioning workouts. They are responsible for the following tasks: lining up the team, starting the warm-up, giving technique tips, motivating the team between sprints, making sure people are where they are supposed to be, supervising the penalty runs for those arriving late, and leading the post-workout stretching. By stepping back and watching the co-captains at work, the coach can give advice - and praise - to his leaders. Issues such as: tone of voice used, choice of words, and the responsible use of the power that comes with the position, can all be practiced and evaluated in this setting. While the training and evaluation are going on, the co-captains are establishing themselves as the on-field leaders.

    The sprints that we use are designed to be similar to the energy system used in football, but they also allow us to relate situations to game-like scenarios; and at the same time they emphasize the importance of total team effort. Our athletes are divided into three different groups based on speed:  (group 1 is the fastest, and group 3 is the slowest). Group 1 lines up on the goal line, with a coach standing at the finish line. (An example of a workout that we do is 4 sets of 10, 40 yd. dashes.)   When the coach blows his whistle the watch starts, and group 1 takes off. When the last person in group 1 crosses the finish line, the coach blows the whistle for group 2 to start, and so on until the last person in group 3 crosses the line; and the watch stops. If the time standard is met, the sprint will count. If the time is too slow, the sprint will need to be repeated. Making the time standards takes a team effort. The players in the front of the group set the pace, and the players in the back have to work to keep up. The work to rest ratio is similar to a game setting, with 30-35 seconds between each sprint – similar to the time between plays. The time between the sets and between the sprints make for great opportunities for mental training.   Some of the lessons that can be conveyed:

• Dealing with adversity: If a sprint is missed, how are we going to deal with it?  Are we going to start pointing fingers and put our heads down, or are we going to pull together and work harder to complete the next sprint?  Missed sprints and the reaction to them can be related to handling turnovers, getting behind in a game, etc.

• Approaching things one play at a time:  Talk to the players about taking one sprint at a time rather than thinking about how many are left, or how many have been missed. Relate this to the idea of staying focused on one play at a time in a game, letting go of previous plays, and not looking any farther ahead than the next play (focusing on the process vs. the outcome of living in the here and now).

• Controlling the controllables: When dealing with heat or rain during the workouts, talk about  how in game situations you need to focus on those things that are within your control and to be able to let go of those things that are out of your control (weather conditions, field conditions, referees calls, previous plays, etc.).

• The importance of attitude: Talk about how taking on the workout as a challenge and with enthusiasm can bring about a sense of accomplishment when the workout has been completed. Practices and drill work can either be burdensome and seem to go on forever, or if done with the proper attitude, a way to develop confidence. Developing enthusiasm among teammates allows everyone to perform at a higher level.

    One of the activities that we use to promote teamwork occurs while attendance is taken. We start by lining up all of the seniors on a line in alphabetical order. They will step out one at a time and call out their names to the rest of the group. As the coach is checking off each name, the newer players are learning the seniors’ names. The same procedure is used for all grades. After a few days of conditioning, the co-captains are responsible for knowing all of the new players’ names. A few days later, representatives from the first year players are responsible for knowing the names of all of the seniors. The learning of names and the act of speaking in front of the group break down some walls that open the door to initiate the development of the “we are in this together” attitude.
    The end of a conditioning workout is an ideal time to discuss other important concepts, such as:

• The relationship between preparation and confidence.

• Nothing is ever achieved without sacrifice.

• The importance of accepting and carrying out roles.

• How to leave outside problems in your locker and come to practice and games focused on the task at hand.

Weight Room

    In the 22 years that we have been keeping weight room statistics, we have found a rather direct correlation between the team strength and the success on the field. We have developed five different weight clubs and determine team strength by adding up the total number of club members in each. When the total membership reaches a certain number, our average record is 13 and 1; and when the total number falls below that standard, our record average is 6 fewer wins and 3 more losses. By setting up goal boards with prospective club members listed and keeping team totals, we have created an atmosphere that promotes teamwork. Knowing the relationship between the team’s strength and the team’s success, teammates get excited about their teammates’ club membership. The goal boards are also an important way of teaching the basics of goal setting. Helping your players set long term and short term goals adds meaning to the daily workouts.
    Some other concepts that can be taught within the weight program:

• Visualization and Imagery: These concepts can be taught when working on power clean technique, as a lead in to using these important skills in pre-game preparation.

• Self talk: When attempting 10 rep. strength clubs, many players get stuck at 9 reps. Often the sticking point is the mental thought process rather than a physical limitation. Players can be taught how to eliminate negative thoughts and the limitations that can occur when negative thinking takes over. The weight room is a great place to teach about the power of the mind, the importance of positive thinking, and how an “I can” attitude, along with the elimination of a fear-of-failure attitude that can have a direct effect on performance.

    The strength and conditioning program is an ideal setting to introduce many of the mental components of sport. Strength training and conditioning workouts require a type of discipline that can easily be related to game type situations. Coaches need to take advantage of the opportunity to introduce these concepts off the field, and then reinforce them.p

Kevin Vanderbush is finishing his 22nd year as the strength and conditioning coach at Ben Davis HS in Indianapolis. Having won 15 state championships since 1984, Ben Davis was recently named one of the top 25 high school athletic programs in the nation by Sports Illustrated. A Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) since 1986. He can be reached at


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