Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ready, Fire . . . Aim

This is the first of my blogs about strength & conditioning for athletes.  Specifically, I work with men's basketball and men's and women's soccer at the collegiate level.  I started in the mid 90's as an athletic training student at Cal State Long Beach where (through very coincidental connections) I got an internship with strength coach, Garret "Gie" Giemont, for the then LA Raiders.  Gie was a huge influence in developing my early philosophies as a strength and conditioning coach and athletic trainer.  Gie was not the typical strength coach I had encountered . . . his emphasis was on injury prevention and performance.  The weight room was a tool for preparing athletes to tolerate the rigors of the sport and maximizing performance on the field, not just about increasing strength and power in specific lifts.  It was a perfect match for my interest in athletic training and rehabilitation. I started to see that the cycle of "strength & conditioning to sport to injury to rehab" was not a linear path where I wait at the end to deal with the injury and the rehab.  I started to see that I could have a bigger role in limiting injuries by being proactive rather than reactive. 

I continued on to get my masters degree in exercise and movement science at the University of Oregon, where I worked as a GA athletic trainer with the Seattle Seahawks for a season and worked with the likes of Warren Moon, Joey Gallaway and others.  This time really clarified the importance of injury prevention.  Warren was getting toward the end of his career and clearly still had the technical ability and tactical knowledge be one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL, but with an aging body, his strength and conditioning was less about beating his body up and more about maximizing his mobility and stability so that he could continue to maximize his experience and strengths.

From there I moved on to work as an athletic trainer at St. Louis University with the soccer programs.  There was no formal strength and conditioning coach at SLU when I began there and with some background in strength and conditioning I convinced the administration to let me move into that role.  Now, here's where the story and the point of this whole blog begins . . .

I was very accomplished at the rehabilitation side of athletic performance, but still very inexperienced at the strength and conditioning side.  As I said before, I don't think that there is a clear distinction between the two sides, but now with the responsibility of improving the "strength and conditioning" of the athletes I felt I had to quantify my worth by measuring the improvements my athletes were making.  So I started doing every test in the book.  I tested everything, from 1 rep to 10 rep max, agility, 10 yard speed, 10-20yd splits, 30-60yd splits, endurance, core stability time to fatigue, single leg box squat for max reps . . . just about anything and everything I could find.

I soon realized two things . . . for the most part coaches didn't care what the scores were, they were interested in performance on the court or field.  They were much less objective about improvement.  If a player looked faster or stronger that was that. Second, It started to become more obvious that what I was really testing was the success of my workouts and programming.  If a player got stronger, quicker or more fit, it was because I prescribed the right amount of intensity, volume and specificity.

The problem then became some players improved in their testing and some didn't . . . even though I thought they were doing the same amount of work.  So I began to get very precise with calculating volume and intensity, I began to look more at specificity of exercises . . . I calculated everything in the book.  Volume, intensity, relative intensity, work density.  I calculated how much of my workouts were dedicated to areas like strength, power, mobility, stability . . . and finally realized that now matter how much I controlled and manipulated the variables, the reality was that everything I was doing with the players was only a fraction of the total work load they were under.  The practice sessions with the their team was a much greater influence on their state of fatigue and their loss or gain in the fitness qualities I was trying so hard to develop. 

So I began looking at ways to measure the training load that the players were under to better understand how to prescribe the right amount and intensity of work.  To make a long story short, I looked at what technology was available at the time and came to the conclusion that heart rate was a good indicator of overall training load during team practices.  Certainly it is not the only indicator; in the research there are many variables that can be looked in blood draws and muscle biopsies, but those were clearly not practical for a conditioning coach, so heart rate it was.  I contacted Polar and began using several heart rate monitors allowed me to download the data onto my computer after practice and I was off and running.

I really had no idea what the data that I was looking at meant.  How hard was a session, was it too hard or not hard enough.  What is hard anyway?  Was it difficult because the coach ran a 3 hour session (volume) or was it a short session in which the intensity (heart rate) was high.  I admit I really had no idea and while I have become very proficient at looking at data and categorizing practice session difficulty, I honestly cannot say that I have all the answers.  But, after using the Polar Team System and now the Team 2 system for the past 8 years, I have developed some ideas that allow me to better assess practice sessions, fitness levels and prescribe training so that I am confident that I can prepare players to endure the rigors of the game and maximize performance. 

My next few posts will address some of the concepts that I use to do this.  cw

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