This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Training and Conditioning
By Tim Crowley
Tim Crowley, CSCS, PES, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Montverde (Fla.) Academy. He holds elite coaching licenses with USA Cycling and USA Triathlon, and he has been named Development Coach of the Year and Elite Coach of the Year by the latter organization. He is also the owner of TC2 Coaching, LLC. Crowley can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the past four years, the athletic programs at Montverde (Fla.) Academy have won eight national championships—four in boys’ soccer, three in boys’ basketball, and one in girls’ soccer. During that time, we’ve also had 170 athletes commit to continue their careers in college.
With so many MVA athletes moving on to the next level after they leave our campus, I’ve had to learn how to prepare them to take this step. I’ve met with many top collegiate strength and conditioning coaches to find out what they want from high school athletes. Unanimously, they said the two most important characteristics for incoming athletes to have were good weightroom skills and being injury-free.
This insight has shaped the way I use MVA’s strength and conditioning program to prepare our athletes for college. First, we focus on increasing their mobility and movement efficiency so they arrive at their next destination injury-free. Then, we implement consistent, progressive training that emphasizes proper lifting mechanics and strength development. Finally, we develop sound nutritional and recovery habits to put our athletes one step ahead of their peers.
By combining all three areas, we have created an effective and efficient program to prepare athletes for the next level. Since we develop the right skills and habits while they are still in high school, we increase their odds for collegiate success.
Too many young athletes suffer career-ending injuries before they even get to college. We prevent this with MVA athletes by targeting problem areas that could leave them vulnerable to injury.
For example, young athletes often lack ankle, hip, thoracic spine, and shoulder mobility. This can lead to poor movement skills, movement compensations, and overuse injuries. We target this issue with exercises that are incorporated into every training session, either during the warm-up or paired with a strength exercise.
In addition, many teen athletes lack the eccentric strength and control necessary for proper stopping, cutting, turning, and landing, which is a main factor in many knee injuries. Strengthening this quality in high school athletes keeps these injuries at bay once they go to college.
To address issues with mobility and eccentric strength and control, we include the following exercises into every training session. Doing so has dramatically reduced our athletes’ incidence and severity of injuries.
• Soft-tissue work: We begin and end all workouts with foam rolling to increase blood flow in muscles and release tight, restricted areas. To target the glutes and calves, we use tennis balls and softballs, and we use golf balls for the plantar fascia.
• Ankle mobility: A lack of ankle mobility can lead to patellar tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, and Achilles tendon injuries. To combat this, we include ankle mobility drills in our daily warm-ups. Our standard exercise is similar to a calf stretch—athletes dorsiflex their ankles while keeping their heels on the floor. However, the goal is to increase range of motion at the joint rather than the muscle. This is done by flexing the knee slightly, which takes the tension off of the gastrocnemius. Athletes do one set of 10 on each leg, and reps are done at a rate of one per second.
• Mini band walks: Strengthening the external rotators of the hips and glute medius with band walks reduces the frequency of ankle sprains and increases athletes’ eccentric strength. Our athletes use the bands to walk 10 yards forward, backward, and laterally. Over time, we progress the level of resistance in the bands and extend the distance to 15 yards.
• Mini hurdles: We do hurdle drills after our warm-up and before lifting. These exercises emphasize proper landing skills, which require ankle mobility, hip mobility, eccentric control, and stability. Hurdles also train athletes to decelerate and absorb force in a lateral direction, preventing injuries that come from sudden stops and starts. Some of the movements we use with the hurdles include single-leg linear and lateral hop and stick, as well as two-footed linear and lateral jumps and landings. During workouts, athletes clear four six-inch hurdles at a time and do two sets of each movement. As they advance, we progress to four sets.
Many young athletes, especially males, have a bodybuilding mentality when it comes to weight training, focusing solely on muscle size and hypertrophy. Not only can this approach lead to injuries, but it can decrease their speed, power, explosiveness, and mobility, as well. Since these traits are important for any collegiate athlete to have, this mindset isn’t ideal.
Instead, we reinforce that strength training goes beyond pumping iron. Creating good weightroom habits in high school athletes will pay off in the years to come.
To maximize our athletes’ chances of making an impact in college, we focus on developing total athleticism in the weightroom. Specifically, we target movement skills, proper lifting skills, core stability, muscle balance, and Olympic lifting techniques.
For movement and lifting skills, we teach athletes to be “brilliant at the basics.” Included in this are fundamental movement patterns, such as squatting, hinging, pressing, pulling, and rotating.
Every exercise we choose for these movement patterns is thought out in terms of skill progression and risk-benefit. Our goal is to use efficient exercises that have a low risk of injury. For instance, we rarely bench press, since it is time-consuming, and athletes can get more benefit out of chest pressing with dumbbells, cables, or TRX. We also clean and snatch from a hang position. This exercise is very productive for power development but doesn’t have the increased risk of pulling from the floor.
Below are some of our favorite exercises for each fundamental movement pattern we focus on:
• Horizontal pushing: Dumbbell chest presses, one-arm dumbbell chest presses, standing cable one-arm presses, TRX chest presses, and push-up combinations
• Vertical pushing: Barbell push presses; push jerks; split jerks; and one-arm overhead pressing dumbbell, cable, and kettlebell
• Vertical pulling: Pull-ups, chin-ups, band-assisted pull-ups, and one-arm vertical cable rows from plank position
• Horizontal pulling: TRX inverted rows, one-arm cable rows, face pulls
• Squat: Front squats, goblet squats, hex bar squats, rear foot elevated split-squats, TRX one-leg squats, and sideboard with squat
• Ham-glute hinge: Kettlebell swings, hex bar dead lifts, barbell dead lifts, and single-leg dead lifts (bar, dumbbell, kettlebell, and cable)
• Core: Cable lift/chop/anti-rotational presses (progressing from kneeling to half-kneel to standing), kettlebell quarter get-ups, TRX knee-to-chest/body saws, and medicine ball throws
• Power development: Olympic lifting progression and transitional exercises, box jumps, and hurdle hops.
To keep our athletes from developing muscle imbalances that could plague them into their college years, we include equal amounts of pushing and pulling in the upper body, as well as squatting and hinging in the lower body. In addition, we do a lot of single-limb work, such as one-arm pressing and pulling, along with single-leg squatting and dead lifting to create balance.
Instilling basic movement and lifting skills starts with bodyweight exercises and progresses toward resisted exercises when athletes are ready. We coach their technique every day on every set, incorporating short, concise coaching cues to ensure the right form. This process takes time, but it’s crucial if we want to hand our athletes off to collegiate strength coaches with exceptional technique.
A good example of how we build movement and lifting skills is our squatting progression. Squats are a standard in most college strength programs, so we want our athletes to have a good squatting base to build from. Once they master bodyweight squats, we start them on goblet squats with a 22-pound kettlebell. When they can goblet squat at that load with perfect form, we progress them to a 45-pound kettlebell. This makes the transition to squatting with a 45-pound bar seamless and reduces their injury rate when they begin heavier squatting.
Like squats, Olympic lifts are common in collegiate weightrooms. Developing skills in these movements while athletes are in high school builds their athleticism and explosive power and better prepares them to execute at the next level.
While teaching Olympic lifts, it’s beneficial to start with transitional exercises. These allow us to focus on a single aspect or skill of the lift as part of our warm-up to the key lifts. Some of my favorite transitional exercises are:
• Vertical leap from a hang position, which teaches athletes to push their feet into the floor and drive their hips to move the bar explosively
• High pulls from a clean or snatch grip to teach high elbows on pulling
• Snatch balance to teach speed of movement and shoulder mobility
• High cleans from the waist to teach quick pulling to a catch position.
When putting all of our strength elements together in a program, we have found that consistency and intensity are the most important factors to prepare athletes for the next level. Consistent hard work in the weightroom will instill discipline in college, and research has shown that maintaining a high chronic training load leads to reduced injuries.
Considering these two factors, all teams at MVA train a minimum of twice per week for 30 to 60 minutes each day. We complete between three and 10 reps for each movement. Fewer than three increases the risk of injury, but more than 10 puts the athlete into a hypertrophy range without significant strength gains. Neither is beneficial for long-term development.
Perhaps the area that high school athletes know the least about, yet will have arguably the biggest impact on their success at the next level, is recovery. By educating MVA athletes about this topic, we ensure they are ahead of the game when they get to college.
The two areas we focus on are proper nutrition and sleep. We emphasize regular hydration, not skipping meals (especially breakfast), healthy snacking, eating lean protein, and integrating fruits and vegetables each day. There’s also a color-coding system in our cafeteria that helps athletes with portion control. Items marked with a green sticker or serving spoon are healthy, and athletes can have as much of these as they want. Yellow items should be eaten sparingly, and red items should be avoided as much as possible. This approach gets athletes used to recognizing and selecting healthy options at meals, so they are prepared to make the same decisions in a college dining hall.
When it comes to sleep, it is well-documented that adolescents don’t get enough. This problem can get worse once they get to college, due to increased demands on their time. Using articles, posts on our bulletin boards, and regular conversation, we educate our athletes about sleep and ways to develop good sleeping habits.
As a high school strength coach, the ability to positively impact hundreds of athletes each year is a large responsibility, but it’s worth every moment I spend on it. I know that equipping high school athletes with the skills and habits to succeed at the collegiate level will have a lifelong effect on them.
AFTER THEY COMMIT
One of my goals as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Montverde (Fla.) Academy is to prepare athletes to be successful at the collegiate level. After they commit to a school, my role switches to doing everything I can to help them learn their new team’s training regimen.
My first step is to contact the athlete’s soon-to-be sport coach or strength coach to tell them about my strength and conditioning philosophy. This also gives me the chance to ask if they have a program they want to send for the athlete or any recommendations for areas the athlete should work on. If the school does send a program, we begin teaching it to the athlete so they can master any new exercises before they leave MVA.
Occasionally, the athlete’s new workout plan will differ from the one we use at MVA. When this happens, I put my personal preferences aside and think about what’s best for the athlete. For example, at MVA, we clean and snatch from a hang position. However, when our athletes commit to colleges that clean and snatch from the floor, we integrate this motion into their training so they can develop proficiency in it.
Since Montverde (Fla.) Academy is an international boarding school, we often have athletes transfer in for just their junior or senior years. From a strength and conditioning standpoint, this only gives us one or two years to prepare them for the next level.
Despite this shortened time frame, we do not rush the process. Instead, we try to keep things simple and progress from establishing movement skills to incorporating strength exercises at the athletes’ pace. To ease any concern they might have about falling behind, I talk to the athlete about getting better each day and long-term athletic development.
Occasionally, language or cultural barriers can make strength and conditioning with international athletes challenging. In these instances, I have learned to be patient. I demonstrate movements as much as possible and try to find another MVA athlete who speaks their language to serve as an interpreter.
Using these approaches, we recently had success with a Brazilian soccer player at MVA. He arrived on campus about 20 pounds overweight and had never trained in a weightroom before. As a result, he struggled the first year with the language barrier, being away from home, and adapting to our strength and conditioning program.
By introducing our strength training regimen slowly and being sensitive to any communication issues, we got the athlete on board with our program by the end of the school year. He came back for his senior year fully committed and began to realize his potential with hard work and determination. Two months after graduating from MVA, he signed a professional contract with the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer.
Preparing athletes for future success in a short amount of time is definitely a challenge, but it’s one we’ve gotten used to. Once the athletes understand what we are teaching, they give 100 percent, which makes it all worthwhile. With consistent, focused work, you’d be amazed at how much can be accomplished in only a year or two.