Since arriving at elitefts™ in June as the Director of Education, I've emphasized getting out of the office to conduct site visits around the region (and eventually the country) to gain some valuable insight from some of the top strength and conditioning coaches in the field. These coaches spend a great deal of time and have unbelievable passion for preparing young athletes to achieve their goals. These coaches are “in the trenches” working with teams around the clock and year round. After visiting with these coaches, I usually send three follow-up questions that I feel can help coaches, trainers, and athletes alike.

Dennis Cuturic Duquesne University

After meeting with Dennis Cuturic at a Starbucks outside the A.J. Palumbo Center, two things stood out about him—his passion and his enthusiasm for strength and conditioning. Cuturic has been the strength and conditioning coach for the Dukes’ men’s and women’s basketball teams for the past four years. Before arriving at Duquensne, Cuturic was an assistant at his alma mater Cleveland State and was a graduate assistant at Utah State earning a master’s degree in corporate wellness. Before earning his bachelor's degree in exercise science, Cutruic played professional basketball in Croatia for three seasons.

Mark Watts (MW): Dennis, we talked about programming during our visit. You spoke about your teaching progressions using isometrics and why you evolved into a three day a week program. Can you give us your thoughts on this?

Dennis Cuturic (DC): A major goal of any training program should be to progress your athletes from the time they set foot in the weight room as freshmen to their senior season. There should be a noticeable difference between “newbies” and upper classmen on any team, especially with respect to focus, efficiency, and tempo in the weight room. Young athletes who are transitioning from high school to collegiate sports experience huge increases in volume and intensity of training as well as game speed. Successful training must prepare the joints, namely the ankle, knee, and hip, to accommodate these greater demands, and I believe this can be achieved through improving the poor isometric control seen in the majority of new college athletes.

A house can't be built without first having a solid structure to support the framing. Likewise, we can't progress freshmen to a more advanced training regimen without the proper foundation. At Duquesne, isometric strength is the foundation that we lay to advance strength and overcome plateaus. This foundation is achieved through maintaining and overcoming one’s own body weight. From there, we can increase the duration of isometrics and incorporate movement into it. For example, a progression for body weight Bulgarian split squats is to begin with a one- to two-second pause at the bottom of the movement, move to isometric lunge holds, and then incorporate a lunge jump depending on the athlete’s training status/age. These types of movements make up 90–95 percent of a post-season program because they recruit a huge number of muscle fibers/motor units, teach the athlete to assume the correct biomechanical position of the specific exercise, and increase the range of motion.

MW: One of the topics that we discussed involved in-season basketball strength and conditioning as it relates to recovery, speed and agility, jump training, and overall performance. You had a very interesting chart from watching your players in games. Can you explain your findings and how you’ve used that information?

DC: A common assertion among many strength coaches is that basketball players jump too much during their competitive season, so we shouldn’t include jumps in a training program. However, having played basketball competitively for almost twenty years, I wasn’t convinced. I believe that any good strength coach should question anything believed to be “fact” and should confirm this fact with first-hand experience. For my own investigation, I created a chart to represent the number of times during each home game that a specific player jumped, accelerated, and decelerated. I chose two Duquesne players in similar positions (e.g. a point guard and a shooting guard, a power forward and a center, or a shooting guard and a small forward) and I compared them. I didn't count any slow transitions from offense to defense or any movements that stemmed from a slow jog as an acceleration or deceleration.

For one full Division I collegiate basketball season (twelve home games), the results were as follows:

My conclusion was that the number of jumps performed during a competitive basketball season isn’t high enough to indicate that including additional jumps in a training program would be detrimental.

MW: Dennis, final question. You gave me three characteristics that a strength and conditioning coach must have in order to be successful. You were very animated when we were talking about this, and people in Starbucks were staring at us. Could you please elaborate on these points?

DC: I believe that any successful strength coach must be knowledgeable, passionate, and coach caring. One of my first pieces of advice to any new strength coach is to “know your stuff.” A strength coach should be able to explain the what, why, and how behind his training philosophy. This is especially important because athletes and other coaches will question you at every turn. If a strength coach can explain to an athlete why a specific exercise can reinforce and improve a movement in his or her sport while preventing injury, thus allowing more time on the court and less time in the training room, the athlete is more likely to buy in to the program.

When I think about passion, I think of when I first entered the field. I was like a deer in the headlights but with guns blazing! I’ve loved my job from day one, and it’s this passion that makes it easy to get up every morning and get to work. A huge part of what we do as coaches is keeping the athletes motivated, and the more passionate a coach, the more contagious that passion is. You may have the best program in the world, one that guarantees results, but it isn't any better than having no program at all if you can’t motivate the athletes to give 100 percent effort every day.

Finally, coach-caring is probably the most important quality to me. I treat my athletes like I treat my own kids, mostly through “tough love.” I believe that the athlete will only care as much about the program and training as I care about them. Each athlete comes from a completely different background and family dynamic, so I make a point of investing my time to find that out. I ask them about their families and where they’re from, what high school they came from, what their major is, and so on. This establishes a strong relationship with each athlete and allows for the development of trust. It’s this trust and rapport that fuels what we do in the weight room.