Bigger, Faster, Stronger but what about Longer?
February 17, 2016
In an "open letter to college strength coaches," Rachel Balkovec, strength and conditioning coordinator for the Houston Astros talks about ways to think for long term development, health, and performance in the college setting.
My Open Letter to College Strength Coaches
“We are the toughest, hardest working athletes in the SEC” is scribed on the doors to every LSU athletic weight room. That is also the phrase that we said at the end of every single weight session with LSU men’s tennis from 2010-2012 during my time as a graduate assistant. I killed those guys. We lifted heavy, regularly had punishment runs and utilized Tiger Stadium in a way that no regular Joe Shmo fan can ever fathom. I regularly threw basic physiological principles out the window at the drop of a hat to teach a life lesson and create more mental toughness in the group. Anyone on that team can most definitely recall the infamous day in Tiger Stadium when I kicked one of the players out and ran the team for about an hour straight. It was about the culture and mentality more than it was about the physical development. I don’t regret a single moment. When I came there, they had missed the tournament the previous season for the first time in about a decade. When I left there after two seasons, they were nationally ranked. I’m not saying it was my genius that led them there. I am saying that what we did in the weight room played an integral part in creating the atmosphere that we wanted on the court.
To further solidify this disclaimer, I would like to say that I fully believe that the mental development of an athlete is something that is VERY hard to do if an athlete skips college athletics and goes straight to the professional ranks (as we often see in our setting). It takes me about 30 seconds into a conversation with a professional baseball player to find out whether he went to college or not. And I’m not talking about whether or not he took calculus. It’s almost possible to tell it just by the way he walks. College guys are a generally little more focused, disciplined and about their business. Why? Because during their college careers, they puked in many a workout, got yelled at by the seniors, crushed in the Omaha challenge and pushed to their physical limits on the regular. This isn’t a knock on the high school draft kids. If someone offered me a good signing bonus to play professional softball when I was 18, I would have ignored anyone who told me not to and immediately signed on the dotted line. All that to say, being a college athlete is a special experience. You are put through rigors that no other student has to endure and asked to do it for basically no money if you are a non-marquee sport like softball and baseball. It’s why former college athletes are sought after for jobs and why they are more likely to hold high level positions in the corporate world. It shapes you. The LSU men’s tennis team may have been mostly comprised of preppy, Polo wearing white dudes from the burbs. But in their minds, they were trained killers.
I sometimes daydream about the high intensity atmosphere that we had at LSU (in every sport). But now, I’m in a different setting. Guys aren’t puking during their workouts and no one is going to complete exhaustion during our in-season lifts. I have shifted slightly towards another goal. While I still believe in building an athlete mentally, there is another very important variable that has entered my mind: Longevity.
Either you can drive your car in the stop-and-go city traffic, or you can take the highway. I recommend the highway. It’s much easier on the transmission, brakes, tires and gas mileage. As a college strength coach, I was thinking 4 years out. As a strength coach in professional baseball, my focus is much more long term. How can I get this guy to maintain his explosiveness, stay healthy AND maintain mental tenacity all while playing 150+ games per season for the next 10 years?
I understand that not every athlete is going to play professionally. And it is with good reason that the saying scribed above the doors of the weight room in Tiger Stadium does not say “We are the best moving athletes in the SEC with the highest FMS scores.” I would bet that you’d be hard pressed to find a college in the country that talks about movement in their mission statement. However, there is something to be said about the importance of maintaining a person’s physical integrity after he/she leaves campus. We can’t just beat these kids into the ground, then give them a high five on the way out and wish them luck with paying their medical bills after they leave. (We are starting to see more attention on this with regards to concussions.) I have always had a focus on movement, but looking back, I can safely say that there were times when I could have done a better job. Believe it or not, I’m going to tie this one back to Olympic Lifting, not dead bugs, foam rollers and mini bands.
Who are the most athletic athletes in the world pound for pound? I have heard arguments for many sports, but here are the top 5 I have come up with based off of the cumulative responses of many peer reviewed strength and conditioning office arguments: MMA (wrestling and boxing combined), gymnastics, decathletes and Olympic weightlifters. What do all of those people have in common? Overall athleticism. Not skill – but the basic needs of all athletes: strength, power and ability to move pain-free through a full range of motion. (Contact me directly to debate these statements.) They are not only able to produce force and withstand physical punishment, but they are also able to maintain flexibility while developing those qualities. But who the hell in the college setting has 15 minutes out of their 45 minute session to develop mobility and movement integrity in their players when the coach is asking for vertical jump and squat numbers??? No one. That’s who. If you can’t devote extra time to mobility, how about this: When they come in as freshmen, focus on maintaining the same level of mobility that they show up with while gaining size.
3 Ways to Maintain Youthful Movement Competency
(without sacrificing time for training)
The common response to this is, ‘they aren’t Olympic weightlifters.’ It’s not about the sport of weightlifting. If they were in that sport, they’d be lifting twice a day and doing a full gamut of movements that we don’t typically do with our collegiate athletes. (I.E. Full snatches and squat cleans). Olympic lifters may not be skilled in baseball, basketball or football, but they typically have three things that we would all agree are important: strength, speed and flexibility. They don’t have to be Olympic weightlifters, but they DO have to have Olympic quality form. Here is one example: My standard of squatting is ass to grass, not parallel. Why? First of all, it’s the proper form. If they can’t go below parallel in a loaded squat, then they are missing some pretty important mobility that they have had since they were a baby. (Disclaimer: If they don’t have the mobility to do it with proper form, I don’t have them do it, period. They need to clean up their movement first.) By squatting them to parallel only, they are restricting their range of motion under load which will cause shortening of the muscle fibers. It’s a concept I like to call multi-joint body building: Restricting ranges of motion in certain movements because ‘it’s dangerous.’ My point of view is that the inability to go through a full range of motion is much more dangerous than teaching them the importance of doing so.
Whether you agree or disagree with Olympic weightlifting is irrelevant. I bet you I can find the one exercise that is common ground between the weightlifting people and the functional training people: The Overhead Squat. Functional strength coaches would argue that it’s a fundamental movement and one of the most important movements in a screen. Weightlifting advocates would argue that overhead squats are one of the most important movements for strength and mobility. It’s the most comprehensive test on both subjects: strength and movement efficiency. My view is right down the middle between the FMS folks and Olympic weightlifting folks. I don’t believe that athletes have to be Olympic weightlifters. What I do believe is that if you can do a loaded overhead squat with proper form, chances are, you have a solid amount of all encompassing mobility, shoulder strength, leg strength and trunk stability. Requiring them to do these movements in some form or fashion keeps you in check from a movement perspective while also developing functional strength.
One common thing that I hear from strength coaches in collegiate athletics is, “I don’t have time.” That is understandable. Twenty hours a week is damning. (Even though, if you were a college athlete, you also know that 20 hours a week is a dirty lie.) If given the chance, I would have done a better job at educating my athletes so I didn’t waste precious time in the weight room. Start a private Facebook page, give handouts, send emails or tweet them. Share tidbits of information pertaining to recovery, nutrition and even anatomy that make your job easier when they get to the weight room. This could also set them up to keep up with their health after athletics. Most college athletes, including my college-aged self, had NO CLUE about the human body while playing. I hate to use this cliché, but, If I had known then what I know now, I may have saved myself a lot of pain. No matter how much the strength coach told me to push through my mid-foot and squeeze my glutes, I never fully understood why that was important and what the hell my glutes were. Find a way to educate your players that will have a lasting impact. They need to know how to take care of their bodies during and after their collegiate careers. (Especially if they are drafted by the Houston Astros. Thanks in advance.)
I like a good competition just as much as the next guy. I LOVE when I hear my athletes cheering for each other, making loud noises, chest bumping, hugging, etc. Athletes love it too. When you put athletes in a competitive situation, they can’t help themselves. Tell them that they are competing for something as simple as a paper clip and it’s been scientifically proven that they will run up to 26.5% faster than if they are just told to ‘run hard through the line.’ (Okay, that’s not scientific or proven, but we all know it’s true!) This is why, if you hold a max day, they are going to go harder than they have previously because they want to show everyone what they have worked for and of course, they want to kick their teammates’ asses. As you can imagine, we don’t have team max days in professional baseball. So, how do the athletes get hyped in the gym? Try this: Hook up a Tendo, Bar Sensei, Push or Gym Aware to the bar and watch the competition ensue. Instead of competing for weight on the bar, try having them compete for speed. (This is also the training effect that you want anyway, right?) If you had to choose, would you rather have a strong athlete or an explosive one? My answer would be explosive. I’d much rather sacrifice the weight on the bar to make sure that they are moving fast than risk an injury on a max day because their egos are overinflated. Furthermore, it has been proven that you can predict a 1RM based off of bar velocity (Mann, 2015). There are many benefits to using velocity based training and proper technique is one of them.
This letter is not to accuse any of you of making the same mistakes that I did, but rather to dispel the myth that you cannot maintain or develop movement integrity without losing strength and power. To me, the two go hand in hand. It’s a change in perspective from short term performance to longevity.
Mann, J. B., Ivey, P. A., & Sayers, S. P. (2015). Velocity-Based Training in Football. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 37(6), 52-57.
Difficulty of sports graded on 10 different variables: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/sportSkills?sort=speed#grid