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AFM Magazine

A Strategy for Team Building

by: Chris Dawson
Strength and Conditioning Coach Kansas State University
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Players today are not any different than when I began coaching nearly 20 years ago. However, the number of outside distractions that players are exposed to almost daily has increased tenfold. It is because of these increased distractions that the player-coach relationship has become so significant. So many of these distractions that student-athletes are exposed to daily do nothing but tear down the values that we spend countless hours trying to instill in our players, primarily the value of the TEAM.

Football is a team sport, in which one player is reliant on the other one hundred plus players in order to achieve not only their individual goals, but also collective goals. Therefore, it is imperative that our players understand that the needs of the team will always take precedence over the day-to-day comforts and wants of the individual players. In order to emphasize this, we must create an environment which does exactly that in addition to one in which players want to continually work to improve.

Everything that we do from a training standpoint for our athletes is geared to making our players better teammates. A better teammate has done everything he can to prepare himself mentally and physically, is selfless, is coachable, understands and embraces his role on the team, and always puts the team before himself. If they are the best teammate they can be, then we will be the best team that we can be.

A few years ago I wrote an article in which I correctly stated that football is a game that is played below the waist, and above the neck, emphasizing first and foremost the training of the legs and hips, and their relevance to putting a player in position to make plays. However, I incorrectly stated that my primary focus as a strength coach was to train “below the waist.” I could not have been more incorrect. I have had the privilege of being a strength coach for the last 18 years, and there is nothing that supersedes the training “above the neck.” If what is going on between the ears of your players is not in line with the team’s goals, it does not matter what else is occurring on a day-to-day basis from a physical training standpoint. We will never meet our expectations as a player or as a team.


In order to have any chance to train players “above the neck,” you must establish a player-coach relationship which is based on a mutual respect and trust for one another. We do not have to agree with one another, but in order to continue improving over time, there must be a mutual respect and trust based on open communication. Consistent, immediate, honest, and direct communication is paramount – do not sugarcoat it. They might not like it, but they will respect it if you are that way with all the players all the time. I am a firm believer that the better the coach and player communicate, the more coachable the athlete. Remember that players have to earn the trust and respect from a coach through their consistent efforts, and that is no different for us as coaches as it relates to the players we coach. Consistency is the single most important ingredient to successful coaching, and successful playing. Be who you are, and be that way all the time. We learn far more about people by what they do rather than by what they say.

Let your players know that you care about them. You cannot fake this, and this is not easy, as it takes time. Find out about their family, where they are from, and what they like or do not like. Players need to know that you spend two hours a day concerned about the number on their jersey, and 22 hours a day caring about the name on the back.

Make sure that you speak the same language that your athletes speak. Displaying your knowledge of strength and conditioning by explaining triple extension, and concentric versus eccentric to your players may prove to be more confusing than helpful to your athletes. In order to illustrate a point, use coaching cues that they can relate to and understand.


Each year I ask our players what their expectations are for the coming year. I want our players to think about what they want to achieve individually as a student-athlete, as well as collectively as a team. It is extremely important that we remind our players of why we are asking them to train with such diligence.  Remember that our job in a nutshell is to get players to do what inherently they do not want to in order to achieve what they want to achieve. Remind them of what they want to achieve.

Second, I ask them where there focus is when it comes to training. It is important that we encourage our players to stay focused on the task at hand relative to training, and achieving their expectations. It is the difference in attacking the work, and doing the work. It is the difference in knowing you will win versus hoping you will win. 

Finally, we want to establish accountability amongst the players through training. It is important that as teammates, they understand that they are a part of something larger than themselves, and that their attitude and effort have an impact on more than just themselves. We want to create a situation in which the players feel a responsibility to their teammates to perform at a high level with a winning attitude. Ultimately, it is the player’s choice. Their attitude and effort are the two things which we have the least control over but have the greatest impact on their development. There are no excuses. We either get better or we get worse.  All we ask is that our players take ownership of their daily performance and the team’s results.


Football is a simple game complicated by simple people. It is nothing more than two teams, both of which are trying to make the other as uncomfortable as possible so that they cannot perform to their full potential. Quite often, it is the team who can perform comfortably in an uncomfortable situation the most that wins.  In order to best prepare our team to face these challenges, I want to create adversity and difficult or uncomfortable training situations so that the players can better learn how to stay focused on what it is they are trying to accomplish and perform at an optimal level both individually and collectively as a team. 

When properly implemented in training, these adverse and uncomfortable situations will promote communication, leadership, competitiveness, and accountability to one another.  In addition, it will also encourage discipline, and sacrifice amongst teammates for the betterment of the team. It identifies in a team setting who can be counted on, and helps to instill confidence among teammates. Equally as important, adversity in training will identify and expose those who are selfish and soft, and not ready to put the team before themselves. We need to understand that this is commonplace with first year players and very indicative as to why so few true freshmen play. It takes time. That is why we call it player development. It is our job to help them develop.


The following ideas are just that - ideas to incorporate in training to emphasize the team and ways to improve the team. The following are ever-evolving, and need to be adjusted and customized to fit each team. Each year before we start the off-season, we evaluate where we are as a program, and make adjustments based on our needs.  It is important that  we customize them to fit our current situation.

1.  Team Sprints

We run our team in three different groups - linemen (OL/DL), big skill (QB/FB/TE/LB/DE/K/P), and skill (WR/DB/RB). We begin by having the first group start the first sprint (i.e., 40 yards) on the coach’s whistle. Another coach will be standing at the finish line and will blow a whistle when the last person in the first group crosses the finish line. This whistle starts the sprint for the second group. When the last person in the second group crosses the finish line, another whistle is blown which starts the sprint for the third and last group. Again, a whistle is blown when the last person in the third group crosses the finish line, which starts the second sprint for the first group coming back to the original starting line. 

This process is repeated until everyone has completed the designated number of sprints.  The time that the team is expected to make is a cumulative time and not dependant on any one person, but rather on the entire team. The idea is that if someone is struggling, or not giving good effort, then others have to pick up the slack. The concept is exactly what teams live out during the course of a game or a season. Your teammates are counting on you, and your effort or lack thereof has a direct effect on the rest of the team.

2.  Difference Makers

We have designated a 5 minute time period once a week after we have completed our off-season workout in which everyone is already fatigued, similar to a game situation. We set up a scenario like the end of a game and call them “difference makers.” The idea is that in the last five minutes of a game, if you are on the field, your performance will make a difference. Will it be a positive difference or a negative one? We have five different stations each with a different drill. I want our players to become more comfortable at performing in an uncomfortable situation.

They perform the drill for five minutes straight, alternating reps with the other teammates in their group. Each group works one station on any given day. Each week we rotate, and that particular group performs a different drill. Some ideas for the five stations include board pushes, battle ropes, tire flips, sled drives, and DB farmer’s walk.

3.  Competition

We often match up various players or groups of players in competitions at the end of workouts. These competitive situations are short, intense, and have a definite winner and loser. Sometimes they are individual and sometimes they are a collaborative group effort. We often also have the non-participants choose who they think will win the competition. 

This is a good way to let the players know what their teammates think of them as those choosing the losing team will have additional up-downs or something similar. We can tell players again and again, but the message received seems to carry much more weight when it comes from their teammates.  Some ideas for competitions include tug-of-war, relay races, or whatever else the mind can conjure up to encourage players to compete at a high level. Without question, competition brings out the best, as well as exposes the worst. It creates adversity, and instills confidence.

4.  Multi-Level Training

We have a few different levels of lifting. We do this for a few different reasons, two of which are to continue to progress the more advanced athletes who have truly committed to the physical development, as well as to serve as a motivational tool for the players. We color code the workouts of the different levels so that the players know what level they are, and so that their teammates know as well. All incoming players begin at Level 1; however, how quickly they progress is completely dependent on the athlete. There is no shame in a freshman being on Level 1, but if a senior is working at Level 1, then it is a pretty good indicator to his teammates that he has not invested very much into his physical development as well as not willing to put his own comforts and wants behind the needs of the team.

5.  Incentive Based Conditioning

Quite often we have conditioning, but give our players an opportunity to reduce the amount and increase their rest time if they make a certain time. This indicates better effort and intensity in their individual effort. Once we attain a certain level of conditioning, I am more interested in the quality as opposed to the quantity.

Daily Assessment

At the conclusion of each day, our strength staff meets to discuss the day’s performance, both the good and bad, individually and collectively. It is important that we not only discuss what needs to be corrected, but also what needs to be commended. In addition, we post a copy of our assessment in the weight room. Without fail, the majority of players take time each day to read the evaluation, which is honest, specific, and direct. 

I believe it is a great way for our staff to keep up on the progress of all of our players, as well as a great source of feedback for our team. The players take a great interest in the assessment because they know that their teammates are also reading it. I want our offensive line to know how the running backs are working, and vice versa. Over time, as we build better teammates, and ultimately a better team, I want our players to gain confidence in their teammates’ preparation and commitment which will result in them gaining confidence as a team and the product that they take to the field.


From training in off-season workouts with no one outside of our team watching, to playing in a BCS Bowl with a television audience of 20 million, it is important to remember that we all are after the same thing. And, the only way to achieve that which we want is together. Nearly every young man from 18-23 years old in college wants to “stand out” to some extent and be different. Encourage your players and coach them to stand out with those things which matter most – their attitude, their effort, and their team.

About the Author: Chris Dawson, a 20-year veteran in the field of strength training, is in his sixth season as Kansas State’s Strength and Conditioning Coach. He previously was the strength and conditioning coach at the University of Kansas for seven seasons. Dawson also coached at both the University of Minnesota and his alma mater, the University of Oklahoma. He played linebacker for the Sooners from 1992-1994, graduating in 1995.


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