Eight Must-Have Physical Attributes for a College-Bound Athlete

TAGS: Robert Van Valkenburgh, Eight Must-Have Physical Attributes for a College-Bound Athlete, Deceleration, collegiate athlete, athletes, strength and conditioning, technique, mobility, Sports Training

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As a former collegiate strength and conditioning coach, I believe that most high school athletes are being done a disservice in regards to their current training regimens. My experience in working with a multitude of high school-aged athletes has led me to conclude that many are receiving poor and insufficient coaching. For example, almost every student athlete I talk with can tell me his bench max without hesitation. Yet, when asked about his squat or power clean numbers, I am greeted with a blank stare. In the rare instance where an athlete knows his maxes on lower body lifts, it is typically much lower than it should be when compared to the individual’s upper body strength. When preparing student athletes to transition from high school to the college level, the strength coach must train the athlete to possess a distinct ability to move efficiently, lift properly, and develop exceptional mobility or stability. From the day they arrive on campus, the strength and conditioning coaches have four or five years to develop them into the type of athletes that their respective programs desire.

While coaching at the Division I level, I found that freshmen who would arrive on campus would rarely be ready for the level of competition and physicality awaiting them. Most had poor posterior chains, rounded shoulders (from excessive benching), and almost all of them had either a knee or back issue. When asked about their training background, virtually every athlete would respond with one of the following answers: “Yeah, I got a trainer at 24 [Hour Fitness]” or “I do CrossFit.” In the interest of full disclosure, and it is not something I’m overly proud of, I am a Level 1 CrossFit certified trainer. However, I would never lead my high school clients to believe that the benefits of a CrossFit workout would transfer to the physical demands of their respective sport. In my professional opinion, burpies, kipping pull-ups, thrusters, etc. are great for overall athleticism, but they are not going to be sufficient preparation for college sports.

College athletes entering their freshman year will most likely find themselves thrown into the mix with everyone else, regardless of prior experience or training background. Unless they are part of a highly prestigious program, there will likely be just one or two strength coaches assigned for the entire team. In turn, these strength coaches are likely working at a pace and schedule that exceeds their recommended capacity in order to fulfill the goals of the program. This means that they will likely not have time to customize individual approaches for athletes who are under-prepared.

The following eight attributes can help ensure that a high school athlete has a smooth transition to a more competitive level.

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1. Competency with Bodyweight Movements

Before all else, it should be determined whether or not the athlete can control his own body without an external load. Movement-based mechanics must be flawless or you are doing the athlete a great disservice. Every athlete should undergo an extensive stability and movement phase before being introduced to weight training. Personally, I do not allow an athlete to bench any weight if he cannot demonstrate a textbook push up. Similarly, I do not permit athletes to squat with weight if they cannot execute a perfect squat with their bodyweight alone. It helps to employ a lot of isometric holds—this will allow the athlete to manually assume the proper position and identify how the movement should feel before adding weight to the equation.

2. Proper Running Mechanics

Training an athlete to adhere to proper running mechanics and neuromuscular efficiency from his first day of training will ensure that he achieves a superior overall benefit. At the college level, movement and speed sessions are often taught in large groups in order to account for the limited number of strength coaches. By instilling the proper mechanics at the root level, the athlete will become ingrained with the proper techniques. Once the mechanics become second nature, the benefits of the movement training sessions will increase exponentially and help an athlete standout amongst his peers.

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3. Deceleration

The ability to decelerate is an extension of the previous attribute; however, based on its level of importance, it deserves its own section. Most ACL tears and other isolated knee injuries occur when an athlete is decelerating or shifting his direction. By training the athlete to properly decelerate, you help him minimize his risk for a potential injury. Proper deceleration is fundamental to the overall success of an athlete. This type of training should be done right or not at all.

4. Mobility

Most trainers know the importance of mobility. Yet, I’m willing to bet that it is still commonly overlooked or undervalued when designing a program. A typical trainer might sit there yelling “Lower!”...meanwhile, the athlete’s chest is caving in, his pelvis is tucked, and his heels are an inch off the ground. Setting aside time at the beginning of the workout to implement two or three mobility exercises, and then adding another during the rest period, can greatly enhance athletes' mobile capacity. As a best practice, trainers should implement some form of movement or mobility screening that can be used on a regular basis.

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5. Strengthen the Back

For the high school athlete, there are few elements more important than a strong, sturdy structure. By reinforcing the strength of an athlete’s back, he will build a solid base that will lend itself for further development with his training regimen. To ensure proper development, I recommend a 2:1 ratio of pull/press exercises which will establish balance. A strong back will provide greater gains towards Olympic lifts, allow for greater stability in the shoulder, and decrease the potential for injury. I personally have all my athletes perform at least 100 band pull aparts as part of their pre-activity prep work prior to upper body training sessions. Ask yourself this: do you really think that the bench press is the key to athletic success? If you answered yes, then you should close the browser, update your resume, and get out of this profession.

6. Proper Deadlift Technique

Teaching proper deadlift technique will enable the athlete to transfer these basic skills to more complex lifting techniques that are encountered in a college training program, such as Olympic lifting variations. Much like running, if you provide the fundamental elements, it becomes easier for athletes to maintain proper technique throughout their athletic careers. Other benefits include building upon their structure in the posterior chain, increasing grip strength, releasing testosterone, and transitioning the athletes from boys to men.

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7. Instill Squat Technique

Teaching a proper squat is not hard, and it will go a long way in terms of physical preparedness. Start out light, take your time, and work on mobility. Any athlete entering college should be proficient in both the front and back squat. Most of the squats I see on a daily basis make me want to tell the kid to rack the weight while I backhand his trainer for teaching him such bad form..

8. Trunk Stability

Yes, trunk stability. It is important not to confuse this with core strength, as its attributes are distinct and valuable. Resilient trunk stability can most easily be defined by the ability to squat with your chest up, power clean with a natural spine, and run without looking like Gumby. How do you develop trunk stability? Follow the previous seven steps and you, the athlete, should be off to a good start.

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There you have it—the eight attributes to help ensure that an incoming freshmen athlete will be successful in his new strength and conditioning program. The majority of collegiate programs are built around Olympic lifts. Some, however, are based off a Westside approach, and others might use the HIT or APRE.  Every collegiate strength and conditioning program is different and will employ unique methodology. Still, the only common factor is the consistent demand for complete physical preparedness of the athlete. If you set your athlete on the proper path as outlined above, he or she will be destined for success at the next level of their training.

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