Strength & Conditioning

Developing an Organized Small College Strength & Conditioning Program ⎯ Part 1 by Greg Cox


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Introduction

When you first take over a strength and conditioning department, most of us are excited to “set the world on fire”. We want to get in there, start training athletes, and make an impact right away. However, before any of that can happen, we need to sort out how you are going to train the athletes in a repeatable, predictable, and sustainable way. I can say that was definitely the case for me when I started at Colby College in the Fall 2019. I entered a department with 32 head sport coaches and over 750 student-athletes. Thus, I had many factors at play in order to develop the strength and conditioning program into something that was set up for success for the student-athletes, strength and conditioning staff, and athletics department. From staff operating procedures, to student worker hours and tasks, relationships with sports medicine, and many more in between.

The first goal however will be on scheduling the athletes to train in a way that permits year round training. Once you have that taken care of, you can focus on the other things such as building out a thorough operations manual and/or adding technology to your training program. 

This article is intended to help guide coaches that are taking over a strength and conditioning department for the first time, or coaches who would like to someday. Particularly those that are working in a small college or high school setting with a small staff and one weight room. With these constraints, your ability to organize your department will be paramount to your success in the development of your student-athletes. In this article, we’ll discuss questions you should ask of your administration early on, constraints you should consider when organizing the department, and lastly a small snapshot of how we organized our department & training schedule at Colby College. Establishing a system similar to ours will allow you to focus more on improving what goes on in your program, rather than trying to micromanage your program. In the development of this system, I challenge you to decide what healthy barriers you will set up with the rest of the athletics department. This is especially important if you are starting a program at an institution that has never had a strength and conditioning program before. Administration likely will not have an understanding of the scope of the job that is providing strength and conditioning services. This is your opportunity to set your boundaries and establish how your program will operate an efficient and effective program day in and day out.


But First, Who is Greg Cox?

Greg is currently the Director of Sports Performance with Avolve Sports. Previously, Greg spent nearly a decade in strength and conditioning, training a wide array of athletes from high school, professional, and Olympic levels.

Most recently Greg served as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Colby College in Waterville, ME. In his current role, Greg works with coaches from all levels to ensure that the Avolve Platform is one that is useful and effective for a variety of settings. 


 

1. Meeting with Admin

Admin S&C

In your first few weeks on campus, you should make it a priority to meet with administration and other key stakeholders to make sure you are on the same page in regards to how your position will operate. In this meeting, you should make a point to have the following questions answered:

(These are also great questions to have answered during the interview process!)

  1. Does the person in this role have complete autonomy to manage and coordinate the strength and conditioning program as they see fit? Who will sign off on and support the decisions that are made within the department? 
  2. What is the appropriate course of action for resolving conflict between the strength and conditioning program and other stakeholders in the department?
  3. Does this person have complete control over the facility itself? (We had a shared facility so we can’t lock the door or kick people out except during our varsity athletic hours).
  4. Does the athletic department have a tiered system for team support? Is the expectation that these priority teams receive a different service in regards to their strength and conditioning program?
  5. What does a successful strength and conditioning program look like to admin? What metrics will this success be measured? 
  6. What are some things that you thought the previous person in this role did well in leading this program? What were some of the major improvements that you felt needed to be made in order to meet or exceed the department’s expectations?
  7. Is there a plan to grow this department in the future? I.e. additional staffing or facility upgrades. 

The questions above should give you an idea of what administration is looking for as well as what kind of support you can expect from them. In my experience, being organized, methodical, and equitable to all of the student-athletes is a safe place to start making your decisions from.

I’d also make it a point to meet with the head sport coaches at this time and ask them similar questions. It may also be beneficial to ask them what they expect from strength and conditioning as a whole, and/or what they like or dislike in a program. Additionally, what qualities do they value in the sport? What qualities do they value by position? You can then aggregate the similar themes and use them to start to guide how you will design and operate your program. 

 

2. Factors to Consider 

Now that the importance and value of a system is understood, what factors go into actually building one? What factors do you need to consider to make sure that you’re not missing anything when you start out? I personally have taken over two NCAA Division III programs, previously at Norwich and most recently at Colby College. One of my very first tasks at both schools was to organize the strength and conditioning program as part of our greater goals within the athletics department. More specifically at Colby, we operated as part of the Peak Performance Program. Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) were set for the strength and conditioning program upon arrival, and I knew that if I had any hope of meeting these predetermined goals, I had to train the athletes consistently and on a known schedule by all. Time is the biggest limiting factor on any college campus, and Colby was no exception. 

The number one way to meet these predetermined goals at Colby was to provide quality training to the student-athletes in a consistent and repeatable way. The person who held my position prior did a good job of getting people interested in strength and conditioning and did what they could to provide a service to the student-athletes ⎯ however, failed to create a repeatable system. I needed to be able to continue this momentum, but harness it in a way that would allow myself and my assistant some predictability in who was training on what hour and what was going to be offered by the strength and conditioning program at that hour.

I first clearly laid out what we would offer to each team during what time of year (i.e. in-season). An impactful thing I did at this time was to get the athletes to sign-up for and commit to the same training hours for 2-4 days a week. This afforded us the opportunity to be able to predict the flow of the space as well as appropriately develop programming that made physiological sense based on what day they were lifting and practice/game schedule. Prior to this, it was pretty much open-season, and student-athletes trained at every possible hour. This period was also pivotal for establishing healthy boundaries like I mentioned earlier. My predecessor would work at the whim of the sport coaches and do as they wished. We established day one that we would work at the previously communicated hours and provide what we said we would, and then we would go home for the day (at a reasonable hour) before starting again the next day.

Considerations:

  • Facility Capacity
    • How many athletes can safely train in the facility at one time? 
    • How many strength and conditioning coaches do you have at one time to manage that many athletes? 
    • Does the makeup of the group impact how many people? 
      • A group of 15 football players is a much “bigger” group than 15 women’s lacrosse players and will require different equipment.
  • Priority/Tiered teams
    • Some athletic departments tier teams so that these teams have preferential access to services such as strength and conditioning, practice scheduling, or financial support from the college/university. Some schools have 2 tiers, some have 3 or more. 
      • It's important to consider this when scheduling, and also communicate this with less priority sport coaches to manage expectations
      • Any college in this era will have an established sports medicine program. This is a great place to start on how to manage these different tiers scheduling and treatment.
  •  Coaching Hours
    • How many hours do you truly think you can effectively /  safely manage and coach athletes in a productive way? You will not be the same coach at 6pm that you were at 8am. Fatigue is real, we are human beings not robots. 
    • Will you close the weight room so you can train yourself and eat? When do schedule meetings happen? Will you leave the weight room unattended? Will you not schedule athletes during certain days and times so that you can conduct meetings? 
      • These are things you will have to consider. As the head strength and conditioning coach, you will have to attend more meetings than you were probably used to as an assistant. Some of these will be quick and some of these will be longer meetings related to large departmental matters. Think about a policy for how you will handle this. For us, we had hours during the day that are naturally quieter  based on the students’ schedules and we tried to put all our meetings, internal and external, in those timeframes.
  • Team Splits
    • If you have a staff of more than one, how do you determine who has what teams? If you’re the head strength coach, you will have to make this decision for the department ultimately, but I’m going to strongly recommend that you consult with your assistants about what teams they might like to work with. For me, I inherited my teams from my predecessor. I made one switch in my first year and didn’t fully execute the switch until the following fall.
    • I was fortunate enough to gain an additional assistant in my time at Colby to expand our staff to three full-time coaches. With this we had to transition some teams away from myself and my assistant to this new person.
  • Sport Coaches
    • How much training input will you give them with their teams?
    • My general policy is that we’ll listen to what sport coaches want and encourage them to have their own thoughts with their team, but we cannot guarantee that all or any of the input they provide will make it into their training programs. We will ultimately use our professional discretion in the collaboration period to meet the needs of the sport as we see fit.
  • Priority Time
    • In most departments at the small school level, the in-season teams have priority for most services. Equipment room, athletic training room, etc. But is this ideal for strength and conditioning? If our goal is development, wouldn’t it make more sense to give the pre-season teams priority since we can have the greatest impact on them leading into their seasons? This is how I and others I’ve worked with have seen it and we structure our programs accordingly. We will discuss this further down in the explanation of how we scheduled things at Colby.

Strength & Conditioning ConsiderationsOne final thought before we close out this section. While we may want to move quickly and implement our changes right away, we have to be cognizant that adding changes to your program can elicit unnecessary stress onto already overloaded student-athletes. Considering this, I wouldn’t recommend making any changes to the program for at least the first 4-6 weeks. Depending on when you take over the department, I’d also recommend not changing anything for the in-season sports that are still competing, let them finish their competitive season and start your new policies with the start of the next season, or better yet, the next semester.

 

3. How We Did Things At Colby College...

Colby College

We trained our athletes year-round, but put specific emphasis on the time period immediately before the athletes begin official sport practice. As previously mentioned, this is contrary to what happens with the rest of the athletics department. Strength and conditioning is about preparation and there isn’t much preparation that can occur while a team is already in-season. We set up our weight room schedule for the entire year over the summer leading up to the start of the fall semester. We take the schedule we used the year before, along with any actionable feedback we received over the previous year and then built the schedule for the upcoming year. The times are set and we were able to manipulate the schedule between the staff as we saw fit.

As mentioned above, it’s important to delineate who has priority when, and clearly communicate this prior to the start of the academic year. The below chart is how we grouped  which seasons get priority at which point in the academic year. Below that are definitions of the terms used. Note, your academic calendar and season start dates will likely be different from mine, but you can adjust to your own academic schedules at your respective institution.

 

Sport Season

Priority Period

Winter

Start of fall semester → Official Start of Practice

Spring

Start of winter sport practice → Official Start of Practice

Fall

Start of spring sport practice → Last day of classes

 

Training Priority Athletes

For us, teams that were in priority got to train in their usual practice time block as a whole team. We utilize a single hour in the early morning and then a few hours in the afternoon after classes end. These are also the hours that we block off in our facility where only the scheduled varsity teams are allowed in. Training as a whole team is something the athletes enjoy and something they look forward to each year. It is something that they ultimately want all year, but it is not something that we can accommodate for each team in an equitable way. (We’ve tried to do this in the past but after reviewing every athlete’s class schedule over the course of a week, we determined it wasn’t feasible.)

In-Season Athletes

In-season is the time from the first reportable day for each season to the conclusion of the team’s competitive play. Each athlete receives a maximum of two training sessions in open hours (more below on open hours). Teams starting their in-season training period will have priority in signing up for their training times as they transition into their competitive season. If your school does non-traditional seasons, (i.e. spring season for soccer) I would suggest pulling the priority teams from their priority lifting times during this period and placing the next priority season into that block of time. ( ie, during the spring, fall sports would lose priority, and winter sports would go back into priority). We have been through this once and found that moving a group of teams that are in their true off-season into priority elicited a better training experience and developmental opportunity than continuing with the predetermined priority group.  

The trickiest scheduling period for us are the teams that aren’t in-season, but also aren’t pre-season. These teams fall into what we call “secondary priority”. These teams train in open hours in small groups with the in-season athletes. The only difference being that they receive three training sessions during open hours.

Open Hour Athletes

Open hours are the hours that take place in between the priority hours that I mentioned above. This is the time that the in-season, secondary priority, and athletes that need to make-up a session train. An additional constraint is that our facility was also used by the non-athlete population, so this time also allowed them to have access to the athletic's weight room. Open hours make up a majority of the year for the athletes and this allows a lot of flexibility for them and us to schedule them should they have an academic conflict. Typically, we email captains or team leaders to submit a spreadsheet with the athlete's in groups of 5-8 per hour based on their class schedule for the two or three days per week that they will train. This is not a concept that is really widely accepted in a lot of departments, but we found that some athletes flourish training in this environment vs. with their whole team.

Teams training in open hours most the year has its pros and cons for the strength and conditioning staff. It’s a pro because it allows a fair amount of flexibility for the athletes to find time in which to train and allows the staff to have an opportunity to coach multiple teams in the same day. It’s a con because it means that there are athletes in the weight room at all times unless you are intentional about limiting access for your own training periods and ability to take a break during the day.

 

Conclusion

The items outlined here are the things that not many want to think about, but are absolutely pivotal to your success as a head strength and conditioning coach. Without a stable foundation of repeatability, you will never be able to see the progress of your program in the KPI's that are being accessed. An organized “back end” of your strength and conditioning program will afford you the opportunity to begin to think about how you can add things to it to continue your progress. Once you have a system set up, adding technology (i.e. heart rate monitors, Hawkin Dynamics force plates) becomes a pivotal piece of the puzzle that helps you objectively judge the impact of your program. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll discuss the ways that we were able to successfully implement and use technology to enhance our already existing strength and conditioning program.

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Read Part 2: Link Here

  • Data points collected 
  • Data collection vs data usability 
  • Managing and viewing data to drive informed decisions

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