Learning from Those Around You: 10 S&C Lessons from Friends, Mentors, and Colleagues

TAGS: Learning from Those Around You, todd hamer, Bryan Mann, strength and conditioning, Buddy Morris, Joe Defranco, strength coach, Mark Watts

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Please forgive me, because I plan to name drop like a champ in this article. I figured that it was best to begin with a warning and be fair to my readers.

This month, I want to take some of what I've learned from those around me. No man or woman is an island on to himself or herself. (Yes, I paraphrased a quote from John Donne.) In this article, I'll share the lessons, what they mean to me, and who taught me them. I'm sure that sometimes the person who taught me will think, "Wow! He nailed my thoughts," and at other times, I'm sure he'll think I've butchered his intent. The beauty of this exercise is that I'll share what I learned, the people who taught me will learn how it was perceived, and you, the reader, can decipher how little I really do know.

1. Be flexible.

This was taught to me by one of my early friends and mentors in this profession. For some background, the man who taught me this has survived over 20 years at one school and, during that time, excelled with many of his teams and athletes. Too often we, as a profession, know what we're doing, but don’t know how to work with those around us to achieve the collective goal. When a coach asks you not to squat their team, what is your response? I believe squats and front squats are great too, but if I was restricted in their use, I could still make an athlete better. So look at the end game and ask yourself, "Am I better off in this instance being flexible so that I can make these athletes better and help the team achieve their goals?"


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As I told a coach recently, the only two things that will never change what I do are progressive overload and specific adaptation to imposed demands (SAID). As long as I stick to these two principles, the rest is just filling in the sheets. Thanks, Tim Kontos, for teaching me this lesson.

2. Three things will get your fired: a new president, a new building, and a new conference.

This lesson is a hard pill for me to swallow because in the last two years my school has hired a new president and begun construction on a new building. When I first heard this, I thought there was no way. If you were the one who did the work to help teams realize success, how could they fire you? Well, as I started looking across the industry, I realized that there's a ton of truth in this statement. As soon as I see a school that starts adding athletic buildings and moving conferences, I see strength coaches getting fired. While this isn't a steadfast rule, it is something to consider. To avoid this, be flexible when you see changes happening within your department. Thanks, Handy Handerhan, for this lesson.

learning hamer

3. With a weak athlete, almost anything you do will make them stronger.

Yes, I know this is common sense, but I was smacked with this at this year's conference. I was spouting off about how smart I am and how I changed some things in my program to increase my athletes' strength. The topic turned to untrained athletes, so we picked a team to discuss (in this case, women's soccer). I began a diatribe about what I've done and what I would do in the future. Then a man with a Midwestern drawl chimes in, “Well hell, Hamer. You don’t need to do that.” The smooth cowboy then took a drink from his whiskey. That wise human is the one and only Bryan Mann.

The point is, don’t overthink the training of the untrained. Teach them how to lift and they’ll get stronger. Until they're efficient at the movement patterns, don't overcomplicate things. Remember, this lesson came from the guy who wrote the book on velocity-based training. Thanks, Bryan Mann.

4. I don’t know anything.

Where do I even start on this one? This lesson slaps me in the face every two to three weeks by someone else smarter than I am (or by books I read). I guess I’ll start at the beginning: When I started this career, I thought I knew a thing or two, until Buddy Morris told me to go do some reverse hypers and I just stared blankly at him. I think it was at that point that he said to himself, "I won’t speak to this kid for a few weeks." There are just too many things out there to be an expert in all of them, so stop trying to be an expert in everything and just try to absorb more knowledge. Thanks, Buddy.

5. Every outside person who is a friend of your head coach and shows up in your weight room isn't trying to take your job.

I've heard too many stories in this industry of coaches who bring their friend in to meet the strength coach and, next thing you know, the friend is criticizing the strength coach. At my last job, I took over a very successful volleyball team. My first year working with the team, we had three knee surgeries. During that off-season, the head coach told me that her friend, who is a chiropractor, was going to come do some tests with the team. The chiropractor showed up and ran the team through the basic functional movement screen (FMS) tests. At the time, I knew nothing about these tests, so I just watched and learned. It was eye-opening to me. I realized lesson four again: I don’t know anything.

Luckily, Dr. Horowitz wasn't trying to take my job. He was just trying to help a friend and teach a young, dumb, strength coach some new skills. I learned a lot from my relationship with Dr. Horowitz, and he helped me many times throughout my career. And we didn't have another knee surgery the rest of my years at that school. Thanks, Doc Horowitz.

6. If you don’t know everything, do the best with what you have.

I've been lucky enough to call Eric Cressey a friend for years. I've said this before and I'll say it again: Eric is smarter than me, and probably smarter than you, too. I remember a few years back, I had him down at my school to speak. He was talking about something smarter than I can remember (infraspinatus, maybe). Midway through his talk, I interrupted him and said, “Eric, I work with a few hundred athletes. If I improve their overhead squats with a dowel rod, won’t that address 80% of what we're talking about?” His answer was, "Yes, it will."

This doesn't excuse you or me from trying to learn more about the human body and movement. This is just being more realistic about your expectations. Eric loves to read about anatomy; I love to read about climbing. He will always outpace my education about the human body and I accept that. So learn from that and use what you know to make your athletes better. Thanks, Eric Cressey.

buddy morris hamer

7. Get bumpy.

I was able to rehire a former assistant to work here with us last year. In one of the first lifts, he asked a team who among them was ready to "get bumpy." I thought, "Wow. What a dumb saying. What is 'bumpy'?" Then I remembered that this young coach was just being himself and reaching our athletes the best way he could. So "bumpy" became a theme around here. When you don’t know what to do, get bumpy. The lesson here is a short one: always find new ways to motivate your athletes. Thanks, Charles Jasper.

8. Keep improving. 

I know this is a catchall, but for all this person has taught me, I can't possibly limit it to one simple thing. Many readers know Mark Watts and have read his amazing writing. Mark is a good friend and, in many ways, a mentor. He gets it! He is always improving his game. How many other third grade teachers are invited to speak at strength and conditioning clinics? The reality is that Mark is a person who we should hold up in our profession as a leader, and for that, I thank you, Mark Watts.

9. If you don’t have energy, don’t come to work. 

I'll admit that this was one of the worst things I ever did in my lifting career. Jim Roney was one of my earliest training partners, and we used to split time training between the University of Richmond weight room and the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) weight room for 6 AM lifts. One morning, we were going to lift at VCU (my home weight room). I had the keys and was going to meet Jim at 6 AM. For whatever reason, I slept in and missed the lift. I remember hustling to the weight room to see a cup of coffee perched on the door handle of the weight room (I believe it was 7-Eleven coffee). I drank the coffee in a sullen mood. That was the first and only time I ever slept in.

Jim Roney taught me that energy is all that matters. The rest is just sets and reps. For this, I thank Jim. Also, Jim and I squatted the day of his wedding to make up for that missed lift.

10. There will always be a bigger mountain.

By this point, I hope you've realized that I'm not smart or too cocky; I'm just muddling my way through all this. Clearly, I'm speaking partly in jest, but at times I've allowed myself to think that I'm smart, only to be smacked back into reality by people smarter than me. About 15 years ago (maybe longer), I was a young head strength coach at a Division I school. Joe DeFranco was the bee's knees of the industry, so I reached out to him. He invited me down to visit and was more than open with all he did. He took me to dinner and we met all the Italians of northern New Jersey (picture The Sopranos). When I got back to work, I sent him my summer packet for one of my teams and asked for his opinion of the program (assuming that he would say I was a genius). I'll never forget his response: “This is a nice warm-up. Where’s the rest?” In my defense, summer packets are hard to write, because you're preparing to write for athletes who you won't see for months and you don't have any clue where they're training. Even knowing this, his response still stung. I thought I was the man at programming, and here was Joe DeFranco telling me that I wasn't.

The lesson is clear: none of us are the man, and if you climb to the top of the mountain, well, look out, because in about five minutes someone will find a bigger mountain. Stay humble and learn more. Thanks, Joe DeFranco.

Hopefully, these lessons will help you think about some of what you do and how you can better serve your athletes.

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