Keeping Score - Ways to Keep Your Off-Season Strength Program Competitiveby: David Purdum
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Maintaining a competitive mindset is a priority in the off-season at successful programs. From live player drafts to team-building exercises, creative coaches are constantly coming up with ways to keep their strength and conditioning programs competitive.
“You want to train the mental component of competitiveness year-round. That’s a critical piece,” said Maine Strength and Conditioning Coach Dan Nichol. “You don’t want that competitive aspect to go dormant.” AFM talked to four successful strength and conditioning coordinators to find out ways that they make their off-season programs competitive.
Oklahoma State’s Rob Glass
The live player draft Oklahoma State strength and conditioning coordinator Rob Glass conducts in the off-season can be embarrassing for the last man standing. But that’s just the way Glass likes it.
At the beginning of the off-season, the Cowboy coaching staff selects eight team captains. Captains are mostly established team leaders, but coaches also handpick players they want to see step up and assume more leadership in the upcoming year. In front of everyone, players are then chosen by the captains and put onto 7-or 8-man teams that will compete against each other throughout the off-season.
“The reason we like that is because it is not a coaches’ opinion of the players, but it’s what their peers think of them,” Glass said. “These are your own peers and this is how they drafted you. If you are still hanging out there toward the end of the draft, then you know what they think of you. There is a little bit of a reality check there, some self-realization of what your peers think of you, with no influence from the coaching staff, purely your teammates.”
The Cowboys are then divided into an eight-team bracket. Points are tracked and posted where everyone can see where their team stands. Position coaches are assigned to each team. “It’s good because they will get some interaction with other players on the team and not just with the guys on offense or defense,” said Glass. “You have other guys pushing players who are not normally on their side of the ball. So there is definitely some good team building out there.”
The teams compete in a variety of different events. Glass makes sure to include workouts that combine speed, strength, power and speed endurance variables. Strong-man and cross-fit events are examples. Sometimes there are one-on-one events; other times there are team relays.
One the most grueling drills, according to Glass, features a two man tug-of-war device using a plastic orange saucer that can be filled with water and is known as a Tug. Players are paired against each other, with each grabbing handles on either side of the Tug. The object is to pull the opponent five yards.
“It’s heavy and it sloshes, so it’s cumbersome and is not rigid in nature,” Glass explained. “There is balance involved. Also, there’s grip strength, there’s balance and there’s core strength because that water is just sloshing around. Sometimes those battles go on for a long time until they are just worn out. Sometimes there are quick battles and others can last awhile.”
As the off-season competition comes to a close in Stillwater, the competition heats up. Teams battle for titles in their bracket. The winners are rewarded with a big meal, and losers are stuck with scraps.
Lee Munger • Wisconsin-Whitewater
The Warhawks have been to seven consecutive Division III title games. It’s a remarkable streak, but it’s also shortened strength and conditioning coordinator Lee Munger’s off-season. “We wouldn’t trade it,” Munger said with a chuckle. “But other teams are starting in November. We haven’t been starting until January, after Christmas break.”
Munger also holds a player draft to create teams for daily competitions. The most strenuous is the team relays that take place at 6:30 a.m. on Fridays. If it’s 32 degrees or higher, they’re held outside in the crisp Wisconsin air. The relays consist of 8-10 two-man events, including carrying a teammate from sideline to sideline, wheelbarrow walks and medicine ball tosses. “It’s one of our toughest and most challenging events. But the guys like it,” said Munger, who adds a unique element into the off-season team scoring system.
“We include academics, which creates some strategy in the draft,” he said. “You want to pick guys who are physically talented but also guys that are dedicated in the classroom. This is my eighth year, and there’s always a surprise. We’ll have all the points tabulated from the physical competitions, then they’re will be a team that’s in second or third that will creep up on the first-place team, because they were stronger academically. It gets them focused on why they’re here. We’re a Division III institution, academics are first. We want to set these guys up for success after they’re done playing.”
Dan Nichol • University of Maine
Nichol will not allow the Black Bears’ competitiveness to hibernate during the cold Maine winters. “You’ve got to stay on top of that year-round and continue to push, push each week in a competitive manner,” explained Nichol.
Nichol keeps the juices flowing the entire off-season with individual and team competitions. The team is divided up into eight-man teams and put through what’s known as the Mahaney Dome Challenge.
It’s not easy. “The team-relay drills, which often resemble obstacle courses, can wear a player out,” says Nichol. “But they also help build chemistry as players root each other on through the strenuous exercises.
For example, in the “Move the Mountain” drill, each member of the team must deconstruct a stack of five plates, weighing between 10-25 kgs, and rebuild the pyramid five yards down the field. Players start from a standing position, squat down and take the plate from the top of the stack, run five yards and begin to build a new stack, hence “Move the Mountain.”
Another example is a drill that consists of a medicine ball and a track hurdle, jacked up to its highest point. Players throw the ball over the top of the hurdle, then squat down and move underneath it until both feet are on the other side. Points are awarded throughout the off-season with winners receiving Mahaney Dome Challenge sweatshirts at the end of the competition.
Bruce Schlaich • Fruitland High School (ID)
It’s easy to have a productive workout, when everyone comes in fresh and motivated.
“But it’s jump starting the energy level on the days when players are noticeably flat and uninspired that are the most crucial,” said Schlaich.
“It is human nature that you’re not going to be sky-high for every workout and you’re not going to be motivated every single day for every single workout,” Schlaich said. “You’re going to have peaks and valleys. You have to figure out how to work through those days.”
Schlaich relies on his players to get their teammates going. “I tell our leaders when they see a guy that’s not having his best day, that’s the time that you jump in and try to take them to that next level and get them through the workout,” Schlaich explained.
Another way to get through the peaks and valleys is to be keeping the workouts fresh. Schlaich brings in personal trainer Jake Glaze to hold a three-day boot camp. “One of the big benefits I get from that time is the ability to be able to sit back and see which kids are competitive and which ones may need to work on that a little bit,” Schlaich said.
There’s also the team combine events, featuring heavy rope pulls, tire flips and cone agility drills among other events.
Schlaich divides his team into two groups. The freshmen and seniors battle the sophomores and juniors in the team events. “Usually, talent-wise, that’s makes it balanced and keeps it competitive to a point where one team isn’t running away with it and guys start losing interest,” said Schlaich.
Throughout the off-season in the weight room and during the conditioning sessions, Schlaich will point to the losing teams or to individual players that aren’t giving their best effort and say, “You owe.”
That means pushups, lots of them. But in the end, the best way to keep the team motivated during the off-season, said Schlaich, is to keep things fresh. “The most important thing is keeping it exciting and trying new things,” said Schlaich. “There is no right or wrong way in doing it. Kids, believe it or not, respond to change. The human body responds to change. You always need to be looking for different types of drills, different ways to lift,” he added. “The kids seem to really respond when you’re trying new things.”
Rob Glass • Oklahoma State
“Everybody has what I call their hot button. And they’re all different. So you have to have a good knowledge and understanding of your players on your team and find out what they respond to. Some kids respond to more direct interaction, and sometimes you may have to after a session or before a session sit down with that player and talk about their goals and where they want to go.
“Ultimately, it comes down to me. It is my job to get a grasp of each kid’s hot button because they are all different. To do a good job in my role, I need to understand what those buttons are. When you get an athlete that is having a day not up to par, you have to know how to bring out the best in him on that day with whatever techniques are needed to utilize that motivation. That comes from spending time with your kids, getting to know them on a personal basis. So you know what drives them, what their aspirations are and what challenges they face and to be able to motivate from within those parameters.”
Dan Nichol • Maine
“It’s based on the individual athlete. I’ll usually point to where they are in the depth chart. You’re the starter for one year. We need to get better. Do you feel like you can handle things at this level? Is your goal to play at the next level? Do you have a goal set in the NFL? Do you have a goal to play on Sundays?
“I do a lot of motivating between the teammates, between the positions. I’ll remind guys that we have a first-year guy coming up that’s doing a hell of a job. You better step your game up.”
Lee Munger • Wisconsin-Whitewater
“If I notice that it’s the whole group that’s down, we’ll stop what we’re doing, talk about it and get them thinking about why we’re doing this. It can become a routine, a grind. We never want that to happen. We’ll just sit back, take a deep breath and say, ‘Hey, guys, we’ve got to come together, pick this thing up as a group.’”
“Sometimes, if I don’t like what’s going on, I’ll just walk out of the gym. I’ll leave the room and say, ‘Upperclassmen, bring the guys together and get it figured out. When you’re ready, come get me and we’ll get things started again.’ Little things, like putting the ownership back on the guys instead of me trying to do it is often effective.”
Bruce Schlaich • Fruitland High School (ID)
“It helps that the athletes realize that you’re noticing that they’re not giving their best effort. But other times we’ll use our clock. We have a countdown clock in our gym and weight room. I always point to it and say, ‘Every second that we’re wasting is a second our opponent is out-working us. Look, the clock is running. I know you’re not having a good day, but you have to step it up. Every second is wasting.’”