The Off-Season for a football player is such an opportune time to focus on development. Reviewing where one fell short of expectations and why, identify holes in their game, and establish goals they need to accomplish in order to compete. In Part 1 of our high school football series we learned a lot about the fallacies seen in the initial creation and implementation of off-season strength and conditioning programs at this level. These included lack of assessment, improper application and execution, and an obsession with numbers that don’t translate to the football field! At Power Athlete, we are all about the big picture, but never overlook the details. In Part 2 we will discuss at length two perspectives of another fallacy-ridden component on off-season S&C.
4. The Wrong Emphasis on Conditioning
Over the years, we have seen conditioning evolve as it pertains to high school athletes. Coaches with a desire to get their athletes better are trying to blend the "old school" methods with modern S&C practices with little understanding of how to marry the two.
In Laymen's terms, what exactly is conditioning?
“Doin’ work” or “Getting an athlete to survive four quarters” were two responses I got when I posed this question two varsity football coaches about their training philosophy. Regardless of what legions of high school football coaches believe, we don't want our athletes to just ‘do work’ or merely ‘survive’. We want them to focus on quality movement and execution, giving them the greatest chance to thrive! This section will look at the potentially detrimental practices that are often overlooked in the off-season training programs. And the pitfalls coaches run into when trying to blend a mix modal approach with what everyone else has been doing for the last century.
5 Fallacies-Part 1 introduced the concept of ‘posture and position’ and investing in the time teaching young athletes proper execution of strength training movements. Weightlifting allows us to add an external stress to the athlete to challenge position and posture through full ranges of motion. Two other ways to challenge and stress these are moving through various planes of motion and everyone's favorite, elevating your heart rate. Conditioning in the off-season needs begin by emphasizing and reinforcing proper movements an athlete will need in their sport and then challenging them with the aforementioned stresses. Not the other way around.
Understand that movement, in sports or in life, needs to be learned. Through deep practice and quality reps we begin to attain the coordination and proficiency in these movements. Conditioning with the ‘do work’ mentality and no attention to HOW athletes get from point A to point B begins to creates a default. This default usually consists of broken positions that impede on field performance. The repetition of incorrect movements will turn these into built-in reflexes that will show up on the field (2).
Taking a real world example, lets examine burpees. Teams have been using burpees as a conditioning and punishment tool long before Bear Bryant was walking the sideline. Having worked with many teams utilizing the burpee as a conditioning tool, we noticed when an athlete would get knocked down on the field, they took the time to perform a push up before getting back into the play. Eye in the sky doesn’t lie, and the push up was clear on the game tape every time a player got up. Solution was simple. After observing this, the pushups were eliminated from the burpees, as seen here. And we began using the burpee as a way for an athlete to change planes of motion and get back quickly into an athletic position.
Let’s talk big picture, performance and SAFETY. Football players are taught to tackle in a zero stressed environment with an extreme focus on a squared up position. They perform tackling form drills every practice in warm ups, and get reps at lower heart rate. During practice the stress increases and an athlete is put into tackle drills and scrimmages with much higher effort needed. Game day is the ultimate test for the work done in off-season and practice. Countless drills and screaming by a guy with a whistle around his neck about good position when executing a tackle are finally given a max effort. When the opening kick off ensues, the athlete will default back to what they have repeatedly practiced. If they have been taught correctly and had the proper stress placed on them, then the athlete has nothing left to do but reap the benefits on their hard work.
With practice and games comes fatigue, and when an athlete is tired they will always fall to the level of their training. If this training allows for crappy posture and poor head position, as we see many times with players who are just 'do work'ing, then it is very difficult for an athlete to overcome this come game time. Being sloppy through poorly planned circuits and drills sets up the athlete for potential injury and risk. This risk becomes prevalent as the body adapts to inefficient movement patterns. The emotional distress caused by apparently 'useless' new tackling techniques can prevent the athlete from implementing any changes (2). I use tackling as an example, but this applies all movements on the field; guard pulls, drop steps, blocking, etc.
Don’t just ‘do work’ for doing works sake. Reiterating points from Fallacy 2: Application and Execution; every play called on the field has a purpose, just as every conditioning session in a program should have a purpose. Why should the emphasis on position and proper execution only be reserved for the field? Again, invest in the time to instruct young athletes on proper execution of movements, but now with the expectation that they can maintain posture and position with the stress of fatigue. This will create a more body aware and coachable athlete under stress on the football field. You get what you emphasize, so if just doing work and going through the motions is what you expect during conditioning, then expect the same from your players during the fourth quarter.
“Run till I’m Tired”
How in "shape" does a high school football player have to be in the Off-Season?
For us, enough to survive their training and recover for the next day. Sprinting is a valuable tool for speed development and conditioning a football player, but needs to be utilized correctly. Just having your athletes run to build ‘4th quarter lungs’ when the season is 6 months away can impede strength, power, speed, and muscle gain; the focus of the off-season program.
In football, speed kills. What few high school coaches understand is speed is a valuable commodity that can be nurtured, as well as destroyed. Training heavily in the oxidative pathway during the same stage as strength training during the off-season will seriously compromise the development of strength and power. This is partly due to the fact that it is relatively easy for Fast Twitch muscle fibers to become or behave like Slow Twitch fibers with this training (2).
We understand that all three energy systems are needed for success in the game of football, but the off-season conditioning is when the focus needs to be on speed and explosiveness on the field, not running. Just as in 1RM testing, explosiveness on the field needs a trained Central Nervous System (CNS) and the athlete needs practice and reps in developing his ability to call upon this action. Neurologically, low intensity work and running does not provide an opportunity for this system to practice firing (2).
Endless hours of running up the bleachers, sprinting the straights and jogging curves, and other ‘4th quarter lung’ activities will ultimately rob your athlete of their ability to achieve maximum strength, power and speed. With inexperienced coaches, they only see ‘fast’ or ‘slow’, and think that running the team until they're tired from blowing the whistle too much will carry over from the off-season to the REAL-season. Similar as the only way to get strong is lift maximal loads, the only way to develop speed is to run at maximal speeds (1). “Train Fast, Be Fast. Train Slow, Be Slow.”
Conditioning is a solid tool in developing mental toughness, and we subscribe to the psychology of discomfort. However, there must be a regulation of volume and intensity to ensure an athlete progresses. Avoiding the development of unstable default positions and undoing weight room progress should be a main focus in the off-season. If bad technique becomes the training default, the whole goal of building strong, powerful and fast football players will be negated.
Conditioning has become what every athlete dreads most about playing football. Funny thing is the conditioning they dread is what is actually making them worse at football! The only way to get in shape for football, is by playing football! Work capacity and ‘4th quarter lungs’ will not carry over from off-season to in-season, but conditioned stress responses and speed will. You will spend more time as a coach reprogramming your athletes on proper positions on the field if your off-season program is built around simply conditioning, versus conditioning the proper positions. No one rises to the occasion; they only fall to the level of their training.
Conditioning goes a lot deeper than starting and stopping a stopwatch, what have you done to help your team succeed?
Part 3 will conclude our Fallacies segment with the most overlooked and misguided high school football fallacy of them all, Nutrition.
(1)Hatfield, F.C. (1989, pgs. 144,147). POWER: A Scientific Approach: Advanced Musclebuilding Techniques for Explosive Strength!. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books, Inc.
(2)Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. (2009, pgs.58,59,71). Supertraing: 6th Edition. Rome: Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
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Former collegiate lacrosse defensive midfielder, 4-year letter winner and 3-year team captain. Coached strength and conditioning collegiately with Georgetown University football, Men's and Women's lacrosse and Women's Crew, as well with the University of Texas at Austin's football program. Apprenticed under Raphael Ruiz of 1-FortyFour-1 studying proper implementation of science based, performance driven training systems. Head coached CrossFit Dupont's program for two years in Washington D.C. Received a Master's in Health Promotion Management from Marymount University in 2010, and has been a coach for Power Athlete since October, 2012.
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