One of the greatest things to ever happen to me was also one of the worst.
What I mean is it gave me some of the hardest moments of my life, but they were also the most transformative. It was my good fortune to have an outstanding strength coach when I was wrestling in college. He was strict, honest, fair, and demanding. He did all the little things right and expected the same from his athletes. I didn’t understand how anyone wouldn’t want to run through a wall for him, but some athletes just would not comply. Some would complain, some would go through the motions, and some would be late or even miss a workout. These things were always met with some form of punishment—usually at 4:30am the next day.
I then had to perform log rolls for 300 yards. After my consequential reverse peristalsis, I vowed NEVER to be late again. I stayed true to that for the remainder of my time training.
Although that was one of the worst experiences of my wrestling career, I respected and valued it. But that was during a time that CARA and RARA hours didn’t exist; athletes could be summoned as early as coaches wanted. In today’s landscape, bringing in athletes so early is not allowed. Additionally, using exercise as punishment is a means we’ve moved away from completely. What worked to get me in line back in 2001 simply isn’t an option today.
So, what can we do to make sure our athletes are compliant with training if we can’t get them out of bed at dark-thirty and make them sick all day—even if it’s to teach them a lesson they need to learn? Rest assured there are other approaches that can be just as effective, if not more. In my opinion, it comes down to three fundamental things every team should have: culture, education, and buy-in. With these, you either coach your athletes up, or these fundamentals deteriorate rapidly.
What an easy word to throw around—culture—especially on social media. Transparency and consistent communication are important—you can’t ever communicate the team culture too much. But you can’t just talk about culture and expect it to happen magically. It must be well thought out, rooted in core values, and practiced and protected daily. Some examples of core values might be accountability, integrity, and a positive attitude. Your athletes must also adopt daily habits that embody your values, like staying positive, caring about what they do, and being accountable. Everyone must be all in. As I tell my team often, “I protect this culture like I protect my first-born!” Once you have someone who pulls in different directions and whose habits counter the culture’s core values, you’ve got a problem.
Here’s where the education piece comes in. The culture MUST be incorporated top-down. It needs to be established first with the head coach because they have the leadership roles. It then trickles down to the assistant coaches, support staff, athletes, and even to the people who work in various roles in the building. These roles may include building managers, marketing and game-day operations personnel, and even the janitorial staff. Everyone helps to make up the fabric of your culture, so it’s important to invite them to team meetings where the values, practices, and expectations will be explained. When everyone involved understands the importance of maintaining the habits of a positive culture, it can drastically decrease or limit negativity and distractions that could otherwise take away from the culture you strive to build.
Once you’ve clearly established the culture you’re building and a process for training everyone about it, getting buy-in is what will make it all come together.
When you have effective communication and education on what the culture and expectations are, it’s a heck of a lot easier to have buy-in from everyone. That buy-in can carry over into the work needed in the weight room and on the field of play. But even if these things are set in place and understood, you can still have one of those athletes that just doesn’t get it; they won’t do the things you asked, don’t show up on time, refuse to care, have a poor attitude, etc. This is where coaching them up every day comes in.
Buy-in can be cultivated. It can be realized. I let my athletes know the first day they are with me that I am going to coach them hard. I am going to demand a lot out of them—probably more so on their bad days—and I will treat them with the utmost respect. I love telling them this and getting it out in the open because it’s like a signed deal. I coach you hard, you in turn work hard. So when I approach them about their lack of compliance, we can refer to previous conversations about how we do things.
A major way I cultivate buy-in with my athletes is constantly reminding them that it’s not about the weight room; it’s about what they want most: improving in their sport. We must educate them by showing them their numbers. For example, the two guys on my hockey team with the heaviest front squat (385 and 410, respectively, at 180 and 185 pounds), also happen to be two of our top 5 fastest guys on the ice. So, when some athletes don’t want to move heavy weight, whether it be on a squat or a split squat, etc., I always remind them that strength is NEVER a weakness. We will get them strong, but the great part is we will get them faster on the ice, too. It would be 100% a waste of time for them to increase their max by 100 pounds if they don’t get faster on the ice, in my opinion. Additionally, my volleyball athletes may not truly care that they clean or squat a lot more than they had previously, but they care when they can jump higher and hit harder.
One of these “coaching hard” moments had a profound effect on buy-in with one of my athletes earlier this year. It was during a 1RM test on the front squat. This athlete completed a rep with what they thought was their 100% (it was a hard 6/10). When the athlete racked the bar they backed out saying, “Yeah that’s good.” I said, “Yeah good rep. Now put 15 pounds on and let’s go again in a couple minutes.” For this next rep I tried to make the athlete more comfortable by adding spotters on the sides of the bar and I said, “Hey, no worries. Go get you some and if you happen to fail, we got you.” Well, wouldn’t you know they competed the rep (8/10), and they thought they were done. I said, “Nope, now you’re gonna go up again.”
This time I had put on a weight that I was 95% sure they were going to get, but they had only 40% confidence. The athlete looked at the two side spotters and the back spotter and said, “Hey now, be ready I’m kind of a wuss and I don’t know if I’ll get this or not.” I stepped in and told the spotters to back away and I took the spotting arms off the squat rack. Then I told the athlete, “We don’t have any wussies in here so that’s impossible, and now you don’t have spotters so you better get it!” (Yes, I stepped in as the spotter since the bar was unracked.)
So what do you think happened? The athlete successfully completed the rep and racked the barbell. I went nuts and so did the spotters. It was an incredible moment and I’m sure as coaches we’ve all experienced that feeling. After the emotions died down, I pulled the athlete aside, congratulated them, and asked how they felt. They replied with, “Man that was awesome and the most I think I’ve ever done before.” I told him I’m proud of him and to keep it up because it’ll take him far in his sport.
And THAT is how you cultivate buy-in. But it’s not the only way.
We also utilize the Firstbeat system to make decisions about the intensity and duration of each day in the weight room and practice. I do this by calculating the intensity of practices and games. You can do this by taking trimp/minute. Trimp = training impact, or how hard the day felt for the athlete. It’s a very simple way to calculate intensity and compare days, as well as practices to games. It was extremely powerful to show the athlete what happens to them when they have an efficient shift on the ice compared to when they don’t. More specifically, it showed what happens to their intensity and their ability to do work when they are on the ice for too long as compared to when they are not. This enabled the athlete to better understand what they need to do to get the positive results they want— to understand this is what happens to you when you do the right things, and this is what happens to you when you don’t. Which one do you like better? Got it? Good.