Are We Building Better Athletes or Just Weight Room All-Stars?

Stacks | August 21, 2019

The field of strength and conditioning is at a pivotal fork in the road. In an industry obsessed with appearance and weight room PRs, every coach, athlete and individual entering the sport performance realm should ask themselves one question—Are we building better athletes or just weight room all-stars?

If you have yet to ask yourself this question, wake up! Your athletes deserve better and you deserve better. Why is it that those who lift the most are rarely the best athletes? Strength and size matter, but to what extent? How much is enough? And what types of strength are actually most applicable to sports performance?

It’s not about how much weight you move, but how fast and how well you move it. No competitor has ever moved out of the way because someone shouted their squat max!

Lost in the obsession of building bigger, stronger athletes is the mastery of skills like sprinting, jumping, cutting and improving overall movement. An athlete’s ability to squat 400 pounds only matters if they can apply their strength and power to on-field movements. If it doesn’t transfer, it doesn’t matter.

I’m not here to make enemies and point fingers or say that we are doing it all wrong. Strength training is undoubtedly a pillar of athletic development.I’m here to challenge and bring awareness to the amount of time, energy and importance our industry places on strength over other integral athletic development skills like sprinting, agility, deceleration, jumping and mechanics.

The performance field is filled with countless intelligent, driven and hardworking individuals. But have we lost our way? Maybe we’ve been focusing on the wrong metrics all along. Maybe we are just building weight room all-stars.

The ‘Eye Test’

It is ingrained in athletes and coaches alike that lifting more weight and mastering Olympic movements will make them a better athlete. So we all buy-in and convince ourselves we’re improving overall athleticism, simply because these athletes “look” like they’re getting more athletic inside the weight room.

As a former 5-foot-9, 180-pound All-American return specialist for South Dakota State University, I was always overlooked for my size and appearance (I weighed 140 pounds as a high school senior). I lifted less in the weight room, was never the favorite to the strength coach, and was never just given the position because I looked like a big, strong athlete. However, when I stepped on the field, my athleticism immediately overshadowed my less-than-impressive “Eye Test” grade. It didn’t matter how much I could bench or how big I was, but that I made plays.

Know Your Role

As performance coaches, our job is not to teach or improve specific sport abilities. That’s the role of the sport coach. It’s our duty to improve movement and performance for respective sports. If we don’t coach movement skills like sprinting, acceleration, decelerating, change of direction and jumping, who will?

A great sport coach understands the importance of mastering these skills for his or her players, but they don’t have time to integrate this into everyday practice. They trust their performance coach to develop these skills. But after years of observing and working in the industry, I often see these skills entirely overlooked and undervalued. They need us to step up and step in to make sure overall athletic development is being integrated into our programs.

What Does Your Programming Say About You?

What’s the No. 1 role of a strength and conditioning/performance coach? Undoubtedly, many will say to improve strength. Even if you don’t say that aloud, what would a breakdown of your programming say? How much time is spent improving Olympic movements, programming for strength, improving barbell maxes and making them looklike an athlete at a glance?

Now ask the same question to the athletes. Why are they entrusting their athletic careers to us?

Are we not promising to make them better athletes?

As a former athlete who could not depend on size, I absolutely understood the importance of developing my overall athleticism. I was in the weight room not just for strength, but to improve speed, agility and movement. I wanted to be a better athlete, period. I wanted to run faster and jump higher in the name of superior on-field performance, and I didn’t care much about bench maxes, aesthetic appearance or gaining weight. However, over and over I was told that lifting more weight would make me a better football player, so I bought-in, even though I had my doubts about how much time and energy was spent chasing bigger biceps and heavier PRs.

Athletes that don’t buy-in to the strength coaches methodology are often seen as lazy, selfish or problematic. But maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe they’re not seeing it translate to the field. The smart athletes ask questions of their coaches, often that annoying, to-the-heart question of ‘Why?‘ Do you have the answers?

How Did We Get Here?

When did the measure of an athlete become about lifting an irrelevant number of plates loaded on a barbell? For most, we do only what we are comfortable coaching. We want metrics to provide visible results and PRs that look good on paper to help quantify our value. As a result, we started believing the following lies:

  • You can’t coach speed or athleticism.
  • I’m a STRENGTH coach. It’s not my job to teach athletic skills.
  • Squat heavy and you’ll jump higher.
  • At this level it’s genetics. They should already know how to sprint, jump, etc…

And on and on and on. If you truly can’t coach it, why is there a performance industry in the first place?

These statements are likely made because many coaches simply don’t know how to train athleticism, never mastered the skills themselves, or don’t seek to understand their full value. There is a vicious cycle in our industry of blindly doing what “my coach did.” Many enter the industry having learned from professors who never trained anyone, carrying with them college degrees that required little or no practical application, and boasting certifications but minimal “hands on” training experience.

To be better, we must evolve.

We can’t just assume our athletes are moving right. Most athletes never learn to move correctly, and the result creates bad habits during their developmental years. It is our job as coaches to determine if they need to re-learn the skills or just improve a few aspects, then communicate it with simple cues. We must coach with intent and purpose during every aspect of our programs. We need to actuallyteach them how to jump, cut, move and sprint and not just throw drills, random exercises or weight lifting schemes at them and expect them to figure it out.

To coach a skill, you must first seek to understand the movement and then master the mechanics.

I personally believe it’s always beneficial if you can demonstrate the skill at a high level. Would you rather learn a skill from someone who does it really well, or someone who has never really done it?

It’s time to stop taking the athlete who is already fast and athletic and forcing him or her into the same tired mold. Stop forcing them to put on excessive weight to look more the part. We are often making them slower and more prone to injury, and they know it! They already have “It.” DeSean Jackson knew he had “It” when he actually lost weight before the NFL Combine, weighing in at 169 pounds so he could clock a blazing 4.35 40-Yard Dash. His career speaks for itself. We need to study how he got “It”!

Sure, not every athlete is born with equal natural abilities, and each individual has a genetic ceiling, but it’s time to apply what these athletes who successfully challenged the status quo have done and what they are doing differently. How they create force and how they move. It’s time to stop the weight room insanity. Yes, there is value in strength training. Yes, it is an aspect of improving athleticism, but the key is explosive and efficient athletic movement.

Michael Jordan was once asked how he learned to jump so high. His answer:

“…I used to work on jumping, I used to just try and jump and try to dunk and I guess if you exercise that muscle to that activity, somehow it’s gonna improve…”

Repetition! Break the skill down, learn to do it right, build a habit and then master it! It is only then that the true value of the weight room and improving strength will be fully utilized.

As coaches, it’s our responsibility to help athletes reach their full potential of athletic development by providing ALL of the tools and skills to reach peak athletic performance.

There are a growing number of resources teaching proper athletic movement, and that’s why I started Simple Speed Coach. Check it out for free high-quality, simple How-To Videos for coaches, parents and athletes to learn how to coach and MOVE like an athlete.

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