elitefts™ Sunday Edition

It’s often assumed that a strength coach’s primary responsibility is to make their players better at their sport. While making the players better is essential, making the TEAM better should be the ultimate goal. Performance numbers are important, but they don’t win games. They especially don’t win games at the end of the season when your back is against the wall and all the chips are down. More often than not, these games are won by having mental toughness, showing discipline, and possessing team chemistry.

This past spring, I had the privilege of working with a women’s college soccer team during their off-season. This team’s record the previous season was 2-15. This year their current record  is 13-1.

I believe the foundation for their tremendous improvement was laid during their off-season strength and conditioning program. While their performance numbers and overall athleticism did improve greatly, I believe the most important thing the team gained from this past off-season can’t be measured in numbers (unless you want to measure their wins).

Here are five ways I feel a strength coach can make a team better.

1.  Teach Them How To Work

Most successful teams posses a great work ethic. Therefore, it is no surprise that a culture of hard work needs to be established within a team looking to improve. In this team's previous seasons, there wasn't a strong commitment to improve upon their athletic traits. They had no formal strength and conditioning program. They were only required to go to the weight room three times a week and sign a sheet saying they were there. This off-season, however, we had three workouts a week and I was at all of them. Most of the time I was extremely serious and very rarely smiled. As soon as they saw me, they knew they were there to work. The intensity and atmosphere of the workouts were established. We weren't there to have fun. We were there to get better. We had both late night and early morning training sessions. The morning sessions would start at 6:00 a.m. and the night sessions would often last until about 10:30 p.m. They'd never previously had to train like that before. They had no choice but to work, and believe me, I made sure to let them know how hard they were working. I told them repeatedly that there weren't a lot of teams they'd play this year who were in the weight room at 6:00 a.m. in the middle of February. While their opponents were in their nice warm beds, they were busting their butts to become better. Greatness isn't a gift; it's a choice. Successful teams make the choice to put the hard work in, and my team decided to make that choice.

2. Let Them Make The Choice To Work

Going along with the first point, it is also important to give the athletes some chances to make their own choices. It's one thing to make them be in the weight room at 6:00 a.m., but it's another when they have the choice of being there. Occasionally, I would have optional early morning workouts. I told them they didn't have to be there but that I would be. If they wanted to get better, they'd show up. Most of the time we'd have a solid number of girls show up. They didn't have to be there, but they wanted to improve. I believe it was partially because they now knew how to work hard and the sacrifices that had to be made to be successful. If they're willing to show up early in the morning to work out, you better believe they'll show up to compete on game day.

3. Team Comradery

There aren't many better ways for teams to build a sense of togetherness than by going through tough times as a team. When you see your teammates suffering right alongside you, a level of respect and trust is built. This togetherness in the weight room often carries over onto the playing field. Athletes know they can count on their teammates because they've already been through so much together. When these girls would workout in previous season's, they'd often come to sessions in small groups of two to four. Now they are working out all together. This was extra "gravy" time that they got to spend together. Just having another three to four hours a week together as a team goes a long way in helping develop a special type of comradery. I do know that there are some coaches that like to have their team workout in small groups. While this can be beneficial, I believe that you can't replace having an entire team together- the atmosphere it produces is unparalleled.The head coach told me that he'd never felt this type of togetherness with any of his previous teams. The togetherness they have been playing with this fall was certainly fostered in the weight room.

4. Attitude Is Contagious

Mental toughness is extremely important in regards to both sports and life. Most of my girls had a lot of doubts about themselves, specifically with what they could and couldn't do. They thought they already knew how far they could take their minds and their bodies. However, when you show them how much farther they can go, they learn not to set limitations for themselves. When we started training, most of the girls would only use 20- to 30-pound dumbbells for walking lunges and Bulgarian split squats. By the time the semester was over, I had girls doing Bulgarian split squats with 50-pound dumbbells and walking lunges with 60 pounds. Most probably never thought they would be able to use such heavy weights. Yet, once they saw one of their teammates start to go up in weight, they realized that they could as well. It was the same with squats. It was awesome watching some girls truly grind out a set of five front squats. The time spent under the bar not only helped create stronger bodies, but it also made way for stronger minds. I saw more and more girls develop a "bulldog mentality." This type of mentality spread throughout the team, and it's probably played a small role in their success this year.

5. Show Them You Care

In my opinion, this is the most important point. It truly is amazing how much more something means to people when they know someone cares about them and what they're doing. Though I was tough and strict with them, my girls knew, and still know, that I care about them both as athletes and as people. The littlest of things can mean the most. I'll quite often post a status on Facebook about a game they just played or shoot them a message congratulating them on a win. I've sent a motivational email to get them hyped for a game. I'll even text some of them on game day and offer some words of encouragement. These little things show that I'm paying attention to them, and they've told me how much these things mean to them. It doesn't take much extra effort to let your athletes know what they mean to you. The best part of my whole experience was the words one of the girls shared with me. When asked what her favorite part of the strength and conditioning program was, she said, "I've never had anyone care as much as you did, and that's what I liked most." Receiving comments like that definitely make all the time and effort you spend with them worth it.