There are over 300 Division I athletic programs in the NCAA today. On average, each of these schools has two strength coaches. That leaves us with somewhere around 600 Division I strength coaches. I realized a long time ago that with 600 different coaches (and this is a conservative number), there are many different philosophies out there.
This article asks five questions, which are answered by two different strength coaches—Callye Williams of Oklahoma State University and Todd Hamer of Robert Morris University—and compares the similarities and differences in the responses. It is meant to make us all think about how we do things as strength professionals.
Question #1: What is your background and how did you get to where you are today?
CW: Well, I guess this whole thing began about 13 years ago at my first strength and conditioning camp. I was 14 years old at the time and preparing to enter high school as a freshman. My family and I decided it would be a good idea for me to attend a local strength and conditioning day camp at the high school. A few strength coaches from Rice University in Houston, Texas, were offering an eight-week camp for two hours a day that covered everything from basic strength training to sport specific conditioning. I was planning to try out for the volleyball and basketball teams that fall, so I thought I needed every advantage possible. I knew that this strength camp was going to do just that.
I distinctly remember getting buried in the first week on the bench press under a 45-lb bar and finishing last during the 200-meter repeats while trying to keep up with a bunch of freshmen football players. It was at that moment that I knew I needed to get stronger and tougher, and strength and conditioning was going to give me the edge. I haven’t stopped since.
I was an athlete throughout high school and went on to Mississippi State University to play softball. After my playing days were over, my strength coach, John McAllister, approached me about becoming a graduate assistant in strength and conditioning. I jumped at the opportunity. I worked with football, men’s tennis, volleyball, and women’s golf while at Mississippi State and had the opportunity to work for and with some of the best coaches in the business including Ben Pollard, Erik Korem, Travis Illian, John McAllister, and Justin Schwind, to name a few. Upon finishing graduate school, I got the opportunity to work with master strength and conditioning coach, Greg Werner, at James Madison University. Coach Werner does it right and really opened my eyes to what it means to be a dedicated coach not only to your athletes but to this field. After three years at James Madison, I had the opportunity to join Coach Rob Glass and his staff at Oklahoma State University working with soccer and softball, so I relocated there this past July.
TH: I began my career in the late 1990s at the University of Pittsburgh under Buddy Morris. From there, I was able to learn from and work for many other great strength coaches including Tim Kontos at Virginia Commonwealth University, Jim Roney at the University of Richmond (and the whole Spider crew), and Tim Beltz at the University of Pittsburgh. I've been influenced by many others including Ethan Reeves at Wake Forest, everyone at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) and Baylor, Mark Watts at Dennison, Auggie Maurelli at the University of Delaware, and Jason Riddell at Auburn. I could go on all day. I'm very lucky because I'm able to steal from so many different and talented strength coaches every day.
Question #2: How do you develop strength in your athletes?
CW: I focus on two different areas with regards to developing strength. First and foremost, I examine their mental capacity for mental toughness and strength. If an athlete lacks the focus, desire, determination, or passion to make himself as well as his teammates better, I work to connect with that athlete and pull that strength out of him. I believe that is what much of this business is about. Really, we have to get our athletes to buy into our services and show them the benefits of what we do. As many times as I’ve heard it before, it's so true—no one will care how much you know until they know how much you care. So before I work on their squat, teach them proper running mechanics, or anything else, I work on relating to my kids and showing them that their success is what is most important. After we start tackling the mental part of strength training, we work on the physical side. I do this in a multitude of ways. I'll explain it by outlining my philosophy in the next question.
TH: I agree with so much of what you do, Callye! As a profession, getting the buy-in from athletes and coaches is something we don't address enough. We're lucky here at Robert Morris because we have a monthly meeting with coaches from the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne, and the California University of Pennsylvania as well as any other local strength coaches who can make it. During July’s meeting, the staff at the California University of Pennsylvania led the talk. They discussed how strength coaches react to athletes' actions. I've reexamined how we react to our athletes' actions at Robert Morris. We've been making a huge mistake! I stole this line and I apologize because I forget who I stole it from, but we say it every day—are you the thermostat or the thermometer? Think about this. We need to control the temperature, not just be able to tell what the temperature is at the present time. To get back to the answer to the question, you nailed it! Strength is a mental capacity. Enough said.
Question #3: What is your philosophy?
CW: I believe in building strength from the inside out and from the ground up. I train my athletes on their feet, whether that is on two feet or one foot. I focus everything at the core first. I focus on their strength between their belly button and their spine and from above their hip girdle to below their glutes. I utilize a lot of means necessary to do that. No matter what though, I believe in developing maximal strength. There needs to be some sort of stimulus to create an adaptation to elicit a response that increases the athlete’s strength. Albeit there are multiple types of strength qualities to develop, but I believe in developing maximal strength in order to benefit all the other strength qualities.
I believe in the core lifts—the squat, bench, and deadlift—and all the other variations they include. I believe in developing a foundation first through density training and increasing one’s volume through sets rather than repetitions. Most importantly, I believe in training the nervous system. As a strength coach working with athletes, I’m trying to make the nervous system more efficient first and foremost. I utilize multiple modalities to do that, and the best way I know how to describe those modalities is a toolbox. For example, I utilize barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, chains, tires, sandbags, body weight, sledgehammers, boxes, hurdles, suspension trainers, and other means. I utilize these implements to change exercises, keep the athletes engaged, and challenge them with new stimuli once they’ve mastered the current exercise or movement. All in all, I believe in maximizing each athlete’s strength potential, training their nervous system to be as efficient as possible, and utilizing multiple modalities to enhance their training.
TH: I love the toolbox analogy and agree 100 percent. We must use all the tools available to get the job done. That being said, I've been put on this Earth to end the use of the word 'core!' Please don’t take this the wrong way. I agree we must build the mid-section. I just feel we're better than this word. How many times have we had a young athlete tell us that his core is weak? Meanwhile, his body is weak! With this in mind, I try to take a very holistic approach to our training. We must be results based. If we need to do cleans, we do cleans. If we need to do tire flips, we flip tires. Results are all that mater. If someone needs more mid-section work, we will add more into the warmup and cool down.
Question #4: What makes your approach to strength and conditioning different?
CW: I believe in a holistic approach to athletic performance. Besides strength and conditioning, I believe in educating athletes on nutrition, recovery, and regeneration and utilizing qualified professionals in sports psychology to help with their mental approach to competition and personal success. Each of these components must work together in order to provide the athlete with the greatest opportunity for success.
TH: At Robert Morris, we'redifferent because we're involved and try to help our athletes get involved in all aspects of our community. I like what you said about making it holistic. We help out on campus and serve on committees like the black history month committee, the women's history month committee, and the wellness committee, and we participate in many events with student life and in numerous off-campus activities. In addition to these things, I oversee our Colonial Leadership Academy. I feel strongly that a more well-rounded athlete is a better athlete and we should be role models in all aspects of life for the student athletes.
Question #5: What are the three most important movements/exercises in your training methodology?
CW: I would have to say the push-up, squat, and deadlift. In my opinion, the push-up is king in determining relative core strength and stability, upper body strength, shoulder health, and scapula stability and mobility. I have worked and work with many overhead athletes, and I utilize the push-up as well as all of its variations as part of the training regime.
Whether it’s the back squat, front squat, overhead squat, split squat, or single leg squat, there will be some sort of squatting movement in each athlete’s program. I believe all athletes benefit from both bilateral and unilateral leg strength. Certain athletes will benefit from certain forms of squatting during certain times of the year. However, all athletes will benefit in multiple ways from squats.
I believe the deadlift is superior for teaching an athlete how to get into the correct athletic position and how to be strong and explosive in all ground-based movements. The deadlift teaches posture, forces the athlete to utilize the posterior chain, and is the foundation for teaching the clean and its variations. Lastly, the deadlift teaches athletes how to apply force to the ground in order to move a load and how to build starting or initial strength.
TH: We test pull-ups, bench presses, squats, sit-ups (sorry Cressey), broad jumps, vertical jumps, and cleans, if the athlete has shown proficiency. With all that said, I'm not sure we have our top three movements. Some of our teams do Olympic lifts while others don't. Some use kettlebells and some don’t. Some deadlift while others aren't ready to perform a deadlift. I won't go as far as saying that we're powerlifting based or Olympic based, but we use all means. Most of our athletes squat or box squat and perform body weight work as well as throw different objects. I know this is a vague answer, but I truly believe we need to treat each workout like an assessment of the athlete's capabilities.
The answers here show how two different strength coaches can share many of the same ideas but approach them in different ways. I truly feel one of the issues with our profession is that we, as strength coaches, don't celebrating our similarities but only look at our differences. There are many great strength coaches out there achieving great results, but we never hear from most of these coaches. So what I ask of you, as a strength coach, is to reach out to other coaches and learn, listen, and grow while helping our profession grow.