Building Championship-Level Football Players
By CJ Richardson, M.Ed., M.A., CSCS, USAW-1
Director of Sports Performance & Assistant Football Coach
Sul Ross State University
Every football strength and conditioning coach has similar goals during the off-season program. No matter whom you ask, the priorities are probably some version of the following:
*Increase muscle mass
*Develop strength and power
*Improve speed, agility and quickness
*Improve flexibility and mobility
There are many methods used to achieve these results, and I do not claim to have all the answers, but what we do has been very successful for us, and hopefully you can take something away to help your program. Our Sports Performance department has three stated goals, which guide everything we do. Our goals are to 1) Improve Overall Athleticism, 2) Build Psychological Toughness, and 3) Educate the Athletes. Our Off-Season program will certainly address the first goal, but without the other two, we will be incomplete in our preparation.
Improve Overall Athleticism
This is obviously where any strength and conditioning coach is going to spend the majority of his/her time. We obsessively research and plan to create the perfect training sessions for our athletes. I start with my “non-negotiables,” or things that absolutely have to be a part of my programs, and then I work out from there. I have found that once those things are in place, creating the rest of the training plan falls into place nicely.
Though each day has its focus, there are four things we are going to do every day: squat, explosive triple extension, upper body pull (vertical or horizontal), and hamstring work. They are not always done under a heavy load (sometimes only body weight), but they will always be there.
We scheduled all of our spring practices to conclude before spring break, which made for a nice split in the spring semester. We had a seven-week training block before spring break, and a six-week block after. During Phase 1, we lifted three days per week, with
conditioning sessions twice per week. After spring break, we moved to lifting four days per week with only one conditioning session. The philosophy here is that we want to maintain speed, agility and quickness, but since practice does not start for another 4-5 months, we want to minimize conditioning to maximize size gains in the weight room.
We break down the focus of each day as follows:
Monday – Explosive lifts & posterior chain
Tuesday – Long linear sprints & building work capacity
Wednesday – Heavy upper body
Thursday – Change of direction & mental discipline
Friday – Heavy lower body
Monday – Heavy lower body
Tuesday – Heavy upper body
Wednesday – Acceleration, top speed, change of direction, and/or building work capacity
Thursday – Position-specific auxiliary work and plyometrics
Friday – Medium-Heavy lower body
The spring semester is also a time for trying to build up certain areas of the body that are especially vulnerable to injury. For us, this means focusing heavily on strengthening the neck, shoulders, traps, back, and hamstrings. These areas of the body will receive significant attention during the spring and the summer.
We also emphasize, and at times will explicitly set, the tempo for different exercises. Since eccentric work leads to greater muscle fiber breakdown (and greater potential muscle growth), we seek to maximize our time under tension during this portion of the lift. For example, on our squats we might set a “3-Count Down” tempo, meaning their descent should be about three seconds. When coming up, the goal is always to move the bar as fast as possible. Even if we do not set an explicit tempo for a particular lift, we still emphasize controlling the weight through the eccentric phase.
We get a lot of work done in our sessions. We block off 75 minutes for each session, but usually aim to finish within 60-65 minutes (including the warm-up). During that span, we will have anywhere from 45-55 sets scheduled. We accomplish this not only by
emphasizing our general pace in the weight room, but also by utilizing super sets which target separate parts of the body or work opposing muscle groups. For example, in between sets of Bench Press, we will do Band Face Pulls or Goblet Squats. Other times, we will prescribe stretches or mobility work in between sets of core lifts. This allows for more recovery for our heavy multi-joint movements and addresses our goals for improving flexibility and mobility. During Phase 2, when we cut back on our conditioning, we will add a few short agility drills to our warm-ups before we lift, so that we can continue to train these skills.
Build Psychological Toughness
You cannot separate the physical aspect of performance from the mental. The elite performers master the art of both physical and mental preparation. This is sometimes less concrete in its implementation, but the goal is to find some way to challenge the athletes mentally every day. This can take many forms. It could be as simple as laying out the plan for the day with specific instructions to see if we will be able to listen and follow directions when we are tired. It could also be a specific drill that requires an athlete to remain focused in the midst of some sort of intentional adversity. It does not matter what the plan is for that day to challenge and train mental toughness. The important thing is that we are going to do something every day.
We also develop mental toughness by the difficulty of what we are doing every day. It does not matter how an athlete is feeling, the same effort is required of everyone. When they athletes show up every day, they know we will be pushing them to their limits. We talk about giving 100% of what you have every day. For example, if an athlete only feels like he is at 80% on a particular day, we expect him to give 100% of that 80%.
Some coaches simply drive athletes into the ground and call it training mental toughness. This is a simplistic, and at times, dangerous approach. We have recently seen some high profile schools get themselves into trouble with this. What is “Mental Toughness?” Is it just enduring under harsh conditions? Is it being able to push through pain? I believe it goes much deeper than that. Plenty of people can push through pain. Plenty of people can go through demanding physical challenges without quitting.
Mental toughness in the context of sport is about being able to remain focused and executing in the midst of a stressful situation. Sometimes this stress comes from fatigue, but often it comes from the situation in the game or the desire to contribute to the team effort. This is what we need to be training. I definitely believe that athletes need to be able to execute when they are tired and the only way to get them tired is to push them to that point. However, when pushing athletes to some arbitrary level of exhaustion becomes the goal in and of itself, we are not really training mental toughness.
Strength and conditioning coaches cannot forget about progressive overload and gradually building athletes to the point they need to be at by the time their competitive
season begins. To ignore this foundational principle is irresponsible and dangerous, and can even be counterproductive.
Educate the Athletes
There are 168 hours in a week, and most athletes only train with us for about 5 of them. Therefore, how they are spending those other 163 hours are going to determine a lot about their training outcomes. Am I to assume that since the information is literally at their fingertips they will eat properly, stay hydrated, and get enough sleep all on their own, without me saying anything? No chance.
At the conclusion of every workout, I give the players a brief (1-2 minute) lesson on some aspect of sports performance. These talks cover topics like the length of their naps, the importance of seeing their athletic trainer, the short-and long-term effects of alcohol, and what they should be eating before a workout. I also supplement these educational moments with daily posts on Facebook and Twitter. Utilizing social media is not something that comes naturally to me. I still have to force myself to post daily, but once I saw that my athletes were actually getting something out of it, I found my motivation.
I try to bombard them with information and just hope that some of it sticks. About halfway through the semester, I will pass out a quick quiz to see what they have retained on the subjects of nutrition, hydration, sleep, and recovery. This allows me to tailor my mini-lessons and social media posts to areas where they still lack knowledge.
I am not naïve enough to think I will be able to change all of the habits of over a hundred college students overnight, but every little bit helps. In our program, it is about celebrating good decisions and not criticizing them for bad ones. For example, if I am walking through the cafeteria and one guy at a table is drinking water and the other three are drinking soda, I will praise the guy drinking water, rather than call out the guys drinking soda.
We design every single day to be extremely challenging. In doing this, we prepare our athletes for the rigors of the competitive season. By the time the spring semester is over, our players have improved in every area of athleticism and are confident in their ability to perform at a high level. Maybe more importantly, they have developed a confidence in their ability to overcome adversity and push through challenges on a daily basis. They should also be armed with important knowledge regarding health, nutrition, hydration, and recovery. By building our training plan around our three main goals, we develop a more complete and more prepared player.
SAMPLE WEIGHTLIFTING SESSION:
Warm-Up Barbell Complex – 1 X 8e (65 lbs.)
V-Ups – 3 X 12
Hurdle Overs/Unders – 2 X 10e
Cleans 2 X 3 (Warm-Up), 4 X 2
Chin-Ups (4-Count Down) 3 X 8
Push Press 4 X 5
DB Shrugs (2-Ct. Hold, 3-Ct. Down) 3 X 10
Upright Rows 3 X 12
Glute-Ham Raises 3 X 6
Single-Arm DB Bench (3-Ct. Down) 4 X 6e
Bent-Over Rows (3-Ct. Down) 3 X 10
Single-Leg RDL 3 X 6e
Single-Leg Squat 3 X 6e
Barbell Rollouts 3 X 5
Back Extensions 3 X 10
Barbell Bicep Curls (3-Ct. Down) 3 X 8
Hanging Pike-Ups 3 X 8