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Four Strategies to Improve Athlete Compliance

By Sean Conaty, MS, SCCC, CSCS, USAW, USATF, CISSN, Pn1

As a Sports Performance Coach, I have observed how the success of our training programs is largely based in how we do things rather than simply what we do. More specifically, it’s about how we get our athletes invested in what we do. Coaches can set the standards and the framework, but it’s the athletes’ daily actions, buy-in, and intent that ultimately define the success of the training program. Instead of solely focusing on sets and reps, we must understand how to influence athlete behavior and cultivate an environment of buy-in. I believe coaches should put themselves in their athletes’ shoes and ask what would prevent them from complying with or buying into something? A breakdown in compliance means a breakdown in trust. If I don’t believe a training program will help me achieve my goals, why would I follow it? If I don’t trust what my coach says or does, why would I listen to them?

“Trust the process” is a popular phrase used by the Philadelphia 76ers, describing their team culture over the past few years. I like this expression because strength and conditioning is a process. How often do we talk about “slow cooking” things in the weight room? When we expect athletes to automatically buy in to the weight room, we are literally asking them to “trust the process.” Instead of expecting our athletes to have blind faith—or belief without true understanding—it is up to us as coaches to get our athletes to first understand the value of the process, and then believe in the process before finally trusting it.

The following are four strategies I use to cultivate a culture of understanding, belief, and trust with our athletes.

Strategy #1: Meet Recruits and Their Families

Everything we do in coaching stems from relationships. Relationships are built on trust and are developed with time. Get started on this process by developing a relationship with your athletes’ ways before their first day in the weight room—when you are trying to correct their squat pattern in a chaotic, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable environment for them.

In a college setting, the easiest and most powerful way to start building relationships with athletes is to become a part of the recruiting process for your sport. As a coach, you should meet recruits and their parents on their visits, give them a weight room tour, present what you do, and show them how training is integral to the process and culture of the team. Show them training videos so they can get a sense of what the actual training environment is like. Show them previous before and after pictures of former athletes to convey what is possible. This will compel the parents and the athlete to believe in the process.

But don’t stop there. Go out to dinner with the recruit’s family and the coaching staff. This is the perfect opportunity to break down barriers and form a meaningful relationship with a future athlete you may work with. Get to know their family and learn more about their background. If you can earn the trust of their family members, you are more likely to earn the trust of the athlete. I’ve worked with some athletes in the past who were initially extremely guarded and did not let many people in. In these cases, having a relationship with a family member made the athlete feel comfortable around me. When athletes see someone they trust put their trust in me, they feel safe to open up lines of communication.

Strategy #2: Athlete Goal-Setting and Ownership

Strength and conditioning coaches have a great opportunity to set additional goals with athletes. You can start by getting athletes to communicate with you individually. Schedule a face-to-face “interview” with each athlete throughout the year by having them come into your office and talk about their goals. This will help grow and further develop your relationship, which is critical, and it allows your athletes to know they have some level of ownership over their training and the team culture. Find out what motivates them. Learn what makes them tick and what drives their behavior. What’s their current environment like outside the four walls of the weight room? Athletes’ environments may or may not be conducive to the behaviors we are asking of them when they leave the building. Therefore, we must first understand their present environment to understand their behavior.

The goals that athletes have for themselves may differ from the goals that the coaches have prioritized. Ask your athletes what they want to improve physically and get them to write those goals down. Even though we have our own assessment process that categorizes athletes based on anthropometrics, movement screens, and KPI’s, it is extremely powerful and informative to hear an athlete tell you they want to gain 10lbs of muscle this off-season or that getting rid of chronic knee pain is important to them. Once you know what your athletes value, create an action plan for them and explain how these action steps and behaviors will contribute toward achieving their goals.

Giving your athletes ownership over their behavior is key. A question I always ask athletes in that meeting is, “what’s one thing you can change today that will get you closer to your goal?” The more we can give athletes ownership and get them to identify effective action steps for themselves, the more they will comply with it all.

Strategy #3: Make Accountability A Team Effort

You’ve built relationships with your athletes. You’ve heard their goals.  Now, how do their actions match their words?

We must hold our athletes accountable to the daily behaviors that lead them to success.  To further drive home communication and transparency, make an accountability board visible in the weight room. Everyone on the team can write their physical development goals down for that specific time of the year. They can be outcome or process-oriented goals, which have to do with either training, nutrition, or recovery. They can range from getting 8+ hours of sleep every night, to specific weight gain or weight loss, to eating breakfast everyday, or adding in one bonus day of recovery per week. An athlete writing their goals on the accountability board, in front of their teammates, is making a commitment to the team. The board promotes the fact that they are all in it together, and that these individual physical development goals are part of the process to achieve the overall team goal.

One of the most important pieces of the accountability board is that it is now more than just the coaches holding athletes accountable; the teammates are checking up on each other as well. When we are in the weight room warming up I’ll have players shout across the room at a teammate to see if they ate breakfast or did what they committed to do on the board. It is no longer just my voice. The players take ownership of the team. That is real culture.

As strength coaches we might be around the athletes more than sport coaches, but their teammates are the ones that are around them 24 hours a day. We can educate our athletes all we want, but who is really around to hold them accountable the other 20+ hours a day we don’t see them? The more we can reinforce commitment to goals and mutual accountability on the team, the greater the chance for sustained success.

Strategy #4: Prime your Environment for Success

The environment speaks, and it should be used to further communicate with your athletes in order to influence the required behavior. The environment is like the training wheels of buy-in, and, although the goal is to outgrow relying on those training wheels, they are still a great teaching tool to get started. Our athletes will rise or fall to our level of preparation, and our environment is one of the first things to communicate that preparation. So if discipline and attention to detail are important to us, then our weight room needs to demonstrate that to our athletes—from the room set-up, to rack assignments, to the flow of the room. If we expect energy and enthusiasm during training, then the weight room needs to communicate that even before our athletes get in the door.

Music is a powerful contributor to an environment and it can change the entire mood of a lift group. Know what music your athletes like—this should come organically from having good relationships and communication with them. Creating playlists catered to your team’s training is simple but powerful. Going back to giving athletes ownership, I encourage them to make their own “clean” playlists that we can train to during lift. We have certain guys on the team that make music as well. They send me their songs so I can add them to our lift playlists. This checks all the boxes and drives up energy and team engagement.

I want the environment to communicate with our athletes, but also to influence certain behaviors. For our environment to actually influence the behavior we want, we must put in work ahead of time to reduce friction points. Friction points are added steps in our process or unnecessary barriers in our environment. For example, we set up our nutrition station so that athletes have to walk by it before they get to the locker room in the morning before lift. If the nutrition station was somewhere on the other end of the building, we are only creating an additional obstacle between the athletes and the behaviors we want (i.e. to grab a pre-lift snack). Additionally, the nutrition station is set up in an organized and visually appealing way to influence the athletes’ decision to utilize it.

The same principles apply in monitoring. This is why the process of our data collection is so critical to the success of our monitoring strategies. Can we eliminate friction points in our data collection? When it comes to wearable devices, the goal is to make them a part of the daily uniform for our athletes. Athletes have the devices hanging from their lockers with their practice gear every day. It just becomes a part of what they wear. This daily process needs to apply to our subjective strategies as well. If you have trouble getting athletes to remember to fill out a subjective wellness questionnaire, then can you get it automatically sent to their phones at a specific time each day? What I’ve found to work best is have them fill it out in front of you daily, before you do an objective measure of readiness like HRV. This creates an action step with the data as it opens a line of communication pre-lift with my athletes and I. What I’ve seen is, the more obstacles we put between the athlete and the behavior, the less compliance there will be. The longer it takes to show action from data, the less athlete compliance there will be. The more we reduce these friction points and make training and monitoring a transparent part of the process, the more buy-in we will get from our athletes.

It Starts with Us

If athlete compliance is something we struggle with, we must first look at ourselves, and the relationship we have with that athlete. Are we someone that athletes can trust and believe in? Do we communicate effectively? Increasing athlete compliance ultimately comes from the strength of your relationships, and your ability to communicate with your athletes so that they understand what is required, and then align their goals and beliefs with the necessary behaviors. Aligning beliefs and behaviors means that athletes now own the process.

We do not want athletes to be compliant just because they are told to do something; instead we want buy-in and ownership. I want athletes to see value in the process. You only buy things you see value in, and when you buy something you own it. I want my athletes to own the process and then trust it based on actionable results.

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