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Sucessful Group Coaching: Squat Edition

Many of you know that  I recently started as the strength coach for a pretty good football team here in Pennsylvania.  The group is fantastic; they show up consistently, do what is asked by me, ask really good  questions, and make great progress every week.   

Last week during training, I had one of those moments, where I noticed over 90% of the athletes doing things correctly, several of whom I've never even spent face to face time with. With a group that fluctuates between 45 and 60 per day (depending on their winter/spring sports schedules) in a smaller than average facility (where we perform power cleans in the hallway), you just cannot train every athlete individually.  The athletes train in groups of four, which rotates every 6-8 weeks.  Upperclassmen are grouped with underclassmen, as well as novices with advanced. This is the major difference between being a strength coach and a personal trainer-a true strength coach has to be extremely resourceful in handling a large group of athletes often in environments that are less than optimal.

One of the bigger challenges with regard to this is achieving technical excellence throughout the group in our most important lifts. Since beginning over six weeks ago, I have been hammering home the message of proper technique first, then loading the barbell appropriately, as long as proper technique is maintained.  The squat is the keystone lift that can show just about any bystander if your kids are indeed doing things correctly.  If you squat well, obviously you have great hip mobility and strength, a stable and powerful torso, and the  ability to make great gains in overall muscle size and strength.  I think watching your athletes squat shows both you and the outside world two things.

1)  You have a reasonable grasp of how to coach movement correctly.

2)  Your athletes actually listen to you and buy into what you are saying.

 

A good squat is like a good golf swing– the movement remains consistent over time, with the "number on the iron" the only variable  for both

 

What I saw during one of our sessions last week really cemented the point that my kids had bought into what I had been preaching.  I saw a 90% compliance rate with proper squatting technique among all the athletes there that Friday.  Proper bar position, elbows "up", a tight arch/lordships and awesome depth across the board.  Many of these athletes I had never coached "one on one"; again with such large numbers, it just isn't always going to happen.  However, what they did do was:

1)  Listen to me with full attention when I did group instruction on the finer points of squatting.

2)  Model technique from other athletes who had squatted correctly within their groups.

3)  Take feedback from others in their group.

4)  Give feedback to others-even if they are a much stronger and larger upperclassman.

3)  Continue to strive for technical excellence throughout.

I was really blown away-my goal for these kids was 90% compliance by the end of April, and we had achieved it at the end of February!  Overall, I give the group a grade of A- at this point on this lift. 

 

Below are two of my athletes who did a really nice job squatting-one a beginner, and one a bit more advanced:

Example 1:  A High School Freshman New to Squatting 

This athlete never squatted before we began training in late January.  He weighs about 140 lb.  Here is is using 225 lb. for a double:

 

Yes, it's not the most weight in the world, but keep in mind he hasn't really done this before January.   Everything is being done correctly-elbows up, tight arch, knees out and great depth.  You can't ask for more-a kid who attends regularly, pays attention to detail and gets it done.  The crazy thing here is that I had never spent direct time with this athlete before I filmed this!  He listened to my instructions to the whole group as well as my cues to other athletes, worked hard with the athletes in his group (spotting, cueing, and lifting while receiving feedback from his group), as well as observing others doing it right.  My job just got  much easier as a result! 

As I said before, most of of our kids are now squatting with good mechanics, so modeling of appropriate technique is easy-just look to the racks on your left and right and you will more than likely see someone else doing things right.

 

Example 2:  A Sophomore With Some Prior  "Under the Bar" Experience

Here is a sophomore athlete who had squatted before, and as you can see has some pretty good potential for moving some serious weight.  I did spend time with him coaching trunk stability, as this was not great a few weeks ago, as well as his ability to "sit back".  Here is the result: 

 

 

Great depth, good arch maintenance and a nice "pop" at the top. Again, this type of form and power comes from listening to instruction, buying into philosophy (good form vs. just more weight), taking feedback from his group, they applying effort.

There are obviously many more success stories in the Wood weight room, but I think you get the idea from what is seen here.   

Wrapping Up

Successful large group coaching comes down to a few key factors including listening, modeling, feedback and (obviously) hard work.  Once these are implemented, programming becomes that much easier to implement, gains are made, and coaches (as well as athletes) are happier.  The squat is an "acid test" lift where things just can't be faked; if your athletes can squat, then I bet everything else is probably just fine in your overall program as well as with your coaching.



10/5/1: A Simple Starting Point for Youth Strength Training

 A question from a parent who coaches multiple sports teams, ages 13 and under:

"What are some strength training options for  my kids (who participate in 2-3 sports seasons/ year), as well as the kids I coach.  I have a fifth grade boy age 11 who plays football as well as baseball, as well as two seventh grade girls (twins) who play field hockey, basketball and softball.  I coach basketball (in house recreational and travel), baseball and softball.  Thanks!

Training younger athletes is a tricky proposition.  If they are involved in multiple sports, time is tight, as their schedules are already filled.  Combine this with schoolwork and social/ family time, and you find a kid who is going to be pretty resistant to the idea of "strength training". 

 

"Success Stories" like Those Seen in "Major Payne" really only happen in the movies , not on a U14 soccer team…

 

A few questions to ask here are: 1) Do my (my own kids, as well as the athletes I coach) buy in to my "want" for additional training? 2) Are the parents of the athletes I coach on board with additional work outside the regular practice/ game schedule? 3) Is the strength program going to take time away from my practice schedule?

That said, if the answer to the above 3 questions is "yes", a really simple program can be implemented.  The way to do this is to make sure of 3 key points before starting:

 1) The Program is Simple.

Kids and parents don't want more stuff to do, as sports and family demands are already assumed pretty high, as outlined above.  Simple exercises with simple explanations are warranted here.

2)  The Program is Doable

Allowing a young athlete to experience success in performance of a skill is the only way to go in terms having any hope with long term compliance.  Making a kid think the program is easy either in what exercises have to be performed or or much time it will take will enhance your chances of making the program stick.  

3)  The Program is Scalable

Even a simple program will be for naught if a coach/ parent doesn't have the ability to scale the program to each individual athlete.  A 70 lb. 11 year old male swimmer will probably be able to perform a chin up sooner than a 14 year old  female lb. soccer goalie.  Both should be given the tools to succeed.  

 

The  3 Exercises:

1)  Bodyweight Squat– Simple to do, and able to be performed anywhere.

 

2)  Push Up- Again, simple, portable and scalable.

 

 

 

3) Chin Up/Pull Up- The one "challenge" for many young athletes, we will scale this appropriately to allow compliance and success.  If a proper chin up cannot be performed, a flexed arm or dead hang can be performed for a legitimate 10-to 15 second count.

 

 

The Program

Each athlete will perform once daily, a total of:

10 squats 

5 push ups 

1 chin up 

The key to this program is the "daily" part.  Keeping the overall volume low helps fulfill our first 2 requirements- "simple" and "doable" and will be more palatable to a young trainee in maintaining compliance. One chin up (or one flexed/ dead  hang for 10-15 seconds) no big deal to most athletes, but  ten reps might as well be one hundred the same kid  .   Daily compliance allows "greasing the groove" of these basic motor patterns/ activities, which can be progressed in various ways over the athlete's lifetime as they get proficient with the basic movements. I strive for 90% compliance in such programs, so in one year a person can take 37 days off from the program. 

Rounding up to 40 days off  (roughly 3 per month) makes it more palatable to all parties involved (athletes and parents).  In the course of a year, assuming 90% compliance, a young athlete will have performed:

3,250 squats

1,625 push ups

325 chin ups (or over 3,500 seconds worth of flexed/ dead hanging). 

You are simply having the young athlete train a "strength skill" on a daily basis, much like swinging a bat, shooting a free throw, or dribbling a soccer ball.  Not bad, considering the alternative- zero, zero and zero for all three exercises, at ages where establishing great strength specific motor patterns can pay huge dividends.

The Progression

If your young athlete(s) are motivated to do more, there are several options.  You can double the numbers of each exercise, so now the athlete is performing 20 squats, 10 push ups and 2 chin ups (or 2 sets for flexed arm/ dead hang). Another more advanced progression I like to perform after ~3-6 months of consistent (90% compliance) 10/5/1 performance:

30 squats

10 Push Ups

6 Chin Ups

Again, this is a daily progression, shooting for 90% compliance. Laying it out to make it "doable" might look something like this:

15 Squats (1 min. rest) – 2 chin ups (30 seconds rest) – 5 push ups (1 min. rest) – 2 chin ups (30 seconds rest) – 5 push ups (1 min.  rest)  -2 chin ups (30 seconds rest) -15 squats.

Doing the math, our young athlete, in one year would perform:

9,750 squats

3,250 push ups

1,950 chin ups. 

This is pretty significant, especially for a young trainee over the course of a year.  The overzealous parent and/or coach would be wise to see if their athlete can successfully handle the 10/5/1 progression for 1-2 months prior to advancing.

Who This is  Is For:

The young athlete who:1) plays multiple sports, in multiple seasons. 2)  who hasn't really participated in any "formal" strength and conditioning in the past. 3) who would probably be overwhelmed with anything more complicated.

Who This Isn't Probably For: 

A young athlete with significant experience in bodyweight training (i.e. a gymnast or wrestler) may not benefit from this type of program,as basic and advanced bodyweight strength movements are a significant part of these programs.  Also, anyone who is involved in a more formal prolonged  training program with a competent performance coach may not need a daily program.  However, most young athletes don't fall into this category, so daily practice in these basic movements will benefit them greatly.

What Happens After A Year or Two?

Your young athlete(s) will have "greased the groove" for three fundamental strength patterns, and should be ready for more aggressive loading parameters and exercise.  My advice is to first get to the one year mark and see what positive changes have occured in the athletes you coach- they should be stronger and more stable in fundamental stances and quicker with dynamic movements. They should also be more disciplined and confident, as such a program builds a positive kinesthetic habit gradually over time.