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Pre-Season Training for the Off-Campus Football Player

When it comes to college football, the modern annual training calendar is very comprehensive. Success on the gridiron is the financial lifeblood for many college athletic departments, so the preparation of these athletes has evolved to meet that demand. Depending on a program’s training philosophy and success through the season, a college football player will experience only 4 to 8 “off” weeks over the course of an entire year. Out of these 4 to 8 weeks, athletes who choose to return home will typically head back during two specific blocks: post-season (sometime between the middle of December to the end of January depending on the bowl status of the team and academic calendar) and pre-season (mid-May through the beginning of June depending on the athlete’s finals schedule and when his team begins its own pre-season training protocol). These two specific blocks are crucial to an athlete’s success because it is during this time that an individual can either gain or lose ground on his competition. In an effort to stay a step in front of their peers, motivated athletes will seek out a training facility or return to one they utilized during their prep career. While this is the appropriate course of action, it presents a unique set of challenges for both the athlete and their chosen coach or trainer. Given the time of year, I will discuss how I’ve tackled this challenge for the “pre-season” block. Although I originally intended to write this article specifically for trainers and coaches, there is a lot of great information here for athletes that are still competing, so I encourage you to read on as well.

The first issue you must immediately address is time, because you don’t have much of it. If there is one statement that has stayed true from my collegiate playing days through my coaching career it’s that the months of May, June, and July fly by at an extremely rapid rate. August may seem far on the horizon when you wrap up with spring ball and finals, but every single day leading up to training camp is a critical component in becoming the most prepared athlete you are capable of. As a coach or trainer, you have a very limited time to elicit a training effect on your athletes, so training economy is of the utmost importance. This should always be a high priority with your clients, however it is especially vital in a situation where you only see someone a few weeks out of the year. It is your responsibility to ensure they are getting a return on their investment no matter how short the window of opportunity may be.

For the college athlete, one of the best aspects of the collegiate training environment is that competition is paramount. Every day is a fight for survival in high level athletics, where they are constantly scratching and clawing to advance their standing. The pre-season training block away from that environment doesn’t have to be detrimental though; on the contrary, if you’re strategic with your training, it can be incredibly beneficial to your success. The key to utilizing the break from school is individualization. What can you do during this time to focus on YOUR weaknesses? Instead of focusing your attention on external demands, this time of year is perfect for internalizing: really getting in tune with where you are in relationship to where you desire to be. The concept of individualization is equally important for trainers and coaches as well. You absolutely need to address the individuality of each athlete when they’re coming through your door. This is a broad topic that covers everything from the specific demands of the athlete’s program, injuries (chronic and acute), to personal and team goals for the upcoming season. You may not be able to take the same approach with a Big 10 football player who has spent his winter in a program that places a heavy emphasis on size and strength as you would an athlete coming off of an off-season with a SEC team that has a heavy track influence in their training approach. It also doesn’t matter whether you’ve worked with an athlete since they were 12 or this is the first time they’ve stepped foot in your facility: you need to get an update on their injury history. Chronic issues may have been resolved while newer issues may have surfaced since the last time you worked together. This may seem like common sense, but I’ll readily admit that I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t just jump right back in with an athlete that you haven’t seen in 6 months, or in some cases a full year. The only way to clear this hurdle is by communicating. I will always reach out to the respective strength coach from each of my athlete’s schools via e-mail or phone; in addition I’ll contact my athletes a week or so prior to their arrival and talk over everything so we can hit the ground running on day one. Goal setting has become an important aspect of this initial conversation, because personal goals evolve over the different phases of an athlete’s career. In addition to personal goals, we also cover team goals so I can gauge what kind of an environment the athlete is in. Things can turn sour very quickly inside a collegiate locker room, so if I’m helping an upperclassmen that has NFL aspirations, we will devote some of our time together going over leadership strategies and what he needs to do to achieve his ultimate goal without getting dragged down by a sinking ship.

The third issue to address is lifestyle. Even the most dedicated athlete is going to be faced with the typical college temptations of 24/7 partying, horrible nutrition, and inadequate rest and recovery. Just because an athlete has traded the dorms for his parents house for a few weeks doesn’t mean those temptations disappear; sometimes they’re actually magnified by being back on the block. It is absolutely imperative that athletes stay on task while they’re home if they want to take their game to the next level. Actions have consequences, and the guys who throw away careers by falling into the party scene and not taking care of themselves far outnumber the guys who can “get away with it”. This is where goal setting comes back into play. The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously stated that, “He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.” By constantly keeping your athletes focused on the end game, they’ll be able to brush off any distractions that get thrown their way.

The final aspect of our pre-season program is the training itself. I’ve included training last for a very important reason. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in this scenario, what are you going to do to ensure that your athletes keep coming back year after year? If you base your program solely on the movements, I guarantee you’re going to have a high degree of client turnover. Yes, what you have your athletes doing matters immensely; you have an ethical responsibility to train your athletes to the best of your ability and knowledge base. But what kind of culture are you providing? When I say the word Westside, what immediately comes to your mind: the movements or the atmosphere? To the regular reader of this site, there is nothing enlightening about our training protocol. My influences are some very common names (Louie Simmons, Charlie Francis, Eric Cressey, James Smith, Joe Defranco, and Elliot Hulse are a few who just popped into my mind) as well as some that aren’t as well known (Mike Lambusta, Mike Silbernagel, Vince Gabriele, Brett Klika, and Todd Durkin have all been instrumental in my development as a coach). I do want to include a snapshot of what we do here, but I feel it important to reiterate my belief that true preparation goes far beyond physical training. One of the most important lessons for a strength coach to learn is that training is a means to an end for athletes; they’re lifting and running to improve their performance in sport, not to improve their performance in lifting and running (unless of course that’s their chosen sport). Some are going to be more into it than others, but I can’t expect my football players to love the nuances of training as much as I do. Understanding this aspect of their motivation will go a long way in creating an environment that they enjoy being a part of, as well as one that’s going to help improve their performance. Again, everything will be slightly altered for the individual needs of each athlete, but a typical week will look something like this:

- Mon: Max-effort upper body lift; position specific sprint session and/or metabolic system development in the form of circuits

- Tue: Mobility, change of direction skill work, Pilates on equipment

- Wed: Rep-effort full body lift; position specific sprint session and/or metabolic system development in the form of circuits

- Thur: Mobility, change of direction skill work, Pilates on equipment

- Fri: Max-effort lower body lift; position specific sprint session and/or metabolic system development in the form of circuits

- Sat/Sun: Recovery

Bigger athletes may have more energy system work added in if weight loss is a goal, and many of my athletes will incorporate at least 1 deep tissue massage over the course of the week as well. The “red-headed step-child” on this list is usually the inclusion of Pilates. As stated earlier, training economy is of the utmost importance during this training block. Pilates, specifically work on equipment, has been an incredible addition to our program. Level of sporting success does not always equal great foundational strength and coordination, and this is especially true with football athletes. The majority of football players we see will have some degree of the following issues when they first walk through our door: poor ankle mobility, quad dominance, weak hamstrings, a high degree of gluteal “amnesia”, an anterior pelvic tilt, hyper-mobility through their lumbar spine, deep core musculature that is essentially shut off, and a surprising lack of overall body awareness. In addition to sabotaging their power output, an athlete with these issues is just begging to get hurt at some point during their career. We will address these issues in our training, but having a qualified Pilates instructor on-site who has a phenomenal understanding of functional anatomy and biomechanics has been a true blessing (thank you Chris Jarrell). I can send our athletes to her and know that they’re getting a full hour of work hammering on their kinetic weaknesses without pounding on their body, which frees up more time for me to focus on speed, strength, and metabolic work.

If you do one thing and one thing only when it comes to your athletes and clients, here it is: care. They’re investing in you, so you damn well better return the favor. Training athletes for a living is a privilege that I don’t take lightly. It amazes me how many people just throw some movements together, yell shout and scream, and call that a program. I don’t care if someone walks in the door and says, “I’m here for this hour and this hour only- make me better.” It’s my obligation to find a way to get them walking out improved from when they walked in. Is working with my out-of-state college athletes 3 to 6 weeks out of the year ideal? No. Do I count my blessings every time they contact me, excited about the success they’re experiencing and looking forward to the next time they can get back to FQ 10? You better believe it. When you can create a positive, challenging, and progressive environment and fill that with a sound training protocol, you will not only see your athletes grow and succeed, you will be gaining clients for a long time to come. This isn’t just for trainers and coaches; environment is equally important for athletes who are still competing. There’s an old saying which states that you are the average of the five people you surround yourself with most frequently. Make it a priority to surround yourself with people who lift you up instead of pull you down, and the question isn’t if you’ll be successful, it’s when.

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