‘Tis the season once again. The pre-season that is!
Over the next few weeks, thousands of pro, semi-pro, college, and high school athletes will be reporting for camp. Football’s first, followed by lacrosse, basketball, soccer, and just about every other sport you can think of.
While it’s a busy time of year for head, assistant, and positional coaches, there’s also a lot at stake for strength and conditioning professionals. We’re expected to prepare players for the rigors of the upcoming season, stoke competition in the squad that carries over onto the practice field, and get our athletes stronger, faster, and more powerful. No pressure!
Expectations are always high, but there’s an elephant in every weight room that nobody likes to talk about: injuries.
Whether it’s a seasoned pro who tears a hamstring on the first day or a promising high school junior who jeopardizes college recruitment by popping an Achilles tendon after a week of two-a-days, the sideline will soon be littered with broken players. As coaches, we can’t just think about depth charts, roster spots, and athlete stats; we have a responsibility to take care of our players as people first. This means doing all we can not only to maximize their on-field potential, but also to guide them through a sustainable program that mitigates the chances of injury.
Here are some tips to help get your team safely through pre-season camp:
1. Recognize that Every Player Will Be at a Different Stage
The most diligent athletes at any level don’t need to be told to train, eat right, and recover well. Their passion for performance means they’ll do whatever it takes to win, whether or not a coach is watching. But not everyone is this self-motivated. Even if you handed out packets to guide the players during the summer, a certain percentage of the squad is going to come back in various states of disrepair, having done very little productive work during the break*.
So as much as you want everyone to push themselves from day one, there will be at least a few players who will need a gentler on-ramp to get back to a reasonable baseline. This is not to say that you should reward a lack of preparedness or coddle anyone. They still have to do the work and jive with the line of best fit you’ve created in your pre-season programming. But just understand that going all out from the get-go will work for some and land others on the injured list.
*TrainHeroic Pro-Tip: want more engaged athletes throughout the summer? Athletes who log their training sessions in the TrainHeroic platform are more likely to remain accountable to their off-season programs. Use the leaderboard functionality to create healthy competition even among athletes who can't train together in the offseason.
2) Remember that No Weight Room is an Island
With the enthusiasm most coaches feel at this time of year (I know I’m always stoked to get my athletes back!), it’s tempting to rush headlong into your pre-season with a steely focus on your goals for the team. But while you should be positive, upbeat, and highly motivated, you shouldn’t put the blinders on and solely focus on the team’s strength and conditioning at the exclusion of everything else. It’s important, of course, but it's also far from the only thing they’ve got going on.
- If you’re coaching high school or college athletes, the freshmen will be trying to figure out the lay of the land on campus, registering for classes in buildings they haven’t even been in yet, sorting out meal plans, and dealing with umpteen other details. Be cognizant of the fact that they’re in a completely unfamiliar environment and in some cases, many miles away from home for the first time.
- Or if you’re in a pro sports setup, there will be new squad members coming in via trade and draft who are trying to get a feel for a new city, find accommodation, and get their families settled.
- Returning players aren’t immune from external pressures, either. They’re battling for a roster spot, making comebacks from injury, and, in the case of pros, dealing with the intrusiveness and scrutiny of the media.
- Some of the older athletes will be trying to keep their careers going another year or two, while on the other end of the scale, rookies are striving just to get a contract.
So while you should of course put everything into your pre-season push and create an environment that encourages players to focus on doing high-quality work, try to understand the outside pressures they’re under and be situationally aware enough to know when to push them and when to back off.
3) Get into a Battle Rhythm ASAP
In the military, the term “battle rhythm” refers to a day-to-day routine that’s familiar and has soldiers performing well-grooved standard operating procedures that help them navigate the chaos of conflict. Your athletes might not be literally going into battle, but they do need to be ready to fight with everything they have once the whistle is blown in the first game of the season.
That is why it’s crucial that you use the pre-season to get them into the routines that you’ll want them to follow during the competitive calendar itself.
This is one reason that I’m not as high on taking players off for a pre-season camp in some far-flung destination. Sure, you might be in a cool city or somewhere that has a lot of natural beauty. But being away from home base has its disadvantages, too – jet lag, the hassle of travel logistics, scoping out suitable restaurants and entertainment venues, etc. Plus, being away means you’re delaying the implementation of a regular schedule. So if you’ve already committed to an off-site camp this year, make the most of it, but consider training at your regular facility next pre-season.
One of the reasons for getting into a routine as soon as possible is that it provides a reassuring level of predictability for the athletes in an environment that’s inherently stressful. In point #2 above, I described just a few of the pressures players are under. Then you throw in the rigors of the season itself, not to mention academic demands for high school and collegiate athletes. As the old saying goes, there is comfort in routine, which is why so many high performers have little rituals they perform before the start of a game (Michael Jordan wearing his North Carolina practice shorts under his Chicago Bulls game shorts being the most famous example).
Anything you can do to reduce stress and uncertainty for your athletes, you should do.
4) Tame Your Testing and Get Back to Basics
In today’s technological age, the coaching staff expects to have as much data as possible on each player. While some of this can be collected more passively with wearables, it typically requires some degree of testing conducted by the S+C coach. Certain tests can also be useful for benchmarking to inform future sessions and to customize the program to individual athletes. But there can be a temptation to go testing crazy, particularly in the first week of camp.
There are more and more ways to objectively measure strength, speed, power, and so on, and you can get so bogged down in collecting numbers that you pay little attention to creating learning experiences that will actually move the needle on both capacity and skill development.
So do the bare minimum in your testing, use technology thoughtfully instead of getting caught up in the latest fads, and spread your evaluations out across the whole season rather than trying to go all out during the limited time you have with your players during camp.
This is part of a bigger philosophical point I learned from one of the best coaches in the business: Hall of Famer Bill Foran. He started off at Washington State and then moved on to become head S+C coach at the University of Miami. When the Miami Heat debuted as an NBA franchise 29 years ago, they needed someone to oversee players’ physical preparedness, and bringing in Bill was a no-brainer. He has a lot of pearls of wisdom that would fill dozens of articles like this. But the one saying that stands out when I think about pre-season camps is, “The higher your level, the more you need to focus on the basics.”
Bill has worked with some of the best players to ever grace the hardwood, including LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. While their genetic gifts and physical capabilities obviously exceed those of most athletes and Bill would need to find ways to challenge them, he always kept his practices firmly rooted in simple principles.
Over the summer you might have read up on whatever latest training method is in vogue and be eager to try it out with the team the moment camp starts. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to learn and expand your repertoire. But don’t get fixated on organizing pebbles at the expense of placing the big rocks you know deliver results. Sure, try a couple of different new things and see what sticks. But always keep the basics as the foundation for your program.
Simplicity doesn’t just apply to the physical work you’re asking of your players, but also how you’re communicating with them. Try to convey no more than three things to remember at any one time, so your athletes will remember your key messages and not be overwhelmed. Recognize that pre-season involves a lot of cognitive demands as well, and let this inform how you talk to and teach the team. Try to be clear and succinct, and you’ll have a better chance of them retaining what you’re trying to convey and acting on it.
For example, you could tell them, “Show up when you’re sore, move well, and rest up.”
5) Sharpen the Axe
Even if you’re not a history buff, you may have heard the Abraham Lincoln quote: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” What Honest Abe is referring to is the necessity of adequate preparation. With regard to pre-season camp, the outcome isn’t just getting your players ready to do their best on the field, but also making them more resilient. This is a time in the season where we see a lot of injuries for a variety of reasons.
One is the contrast between what players did when they were away from the team and your programming during camp.
The body doesn’t like big changes in stimuli that move you away from the baseline you’ve established. This is one reason that I like to keep volume to a minimum. Particularly during longer sessions and two-a-days, players are already being asked to do a lot more work than they have for several months. If you try to go harder for longer you’re going to create a potentially dangerous delta that is difficult to cross. Try to make the most of each minute you have with your athletes. It’s fine to push the needle on intensity, but don’t keep those engines at 8,000 RPM for too long, or something’s going to break.
Another thing I’ve found to be effective during pre-season camps is to emphasize muscle activation and warmup before each session begins and mobility work afterwards. These are always important, but as players are getting back into the kind of rhythm we discussed earlier, they’re more essential than ever. We particularly look at prepping sites of common injury, such as the groin/hamstrings, hips, and ankles.
And then we carefully consider the off-ramp that takes players from a sympathetic “all systems go” state back down to parasympathetic recovery. Mobility exercises, adequate nutrition, and lots of high quality sleep are all top priorities during the pre-season.