For certain sports, weight training is often overlooked or is not necessarily viewed as an essential component of training. Additionally, it is uncommon to see strength training incorporated into the overall training plan at the developmental stages of these sports. Soccer in particular tends to be one such sport. Not to say every coach holds this view, or that all soccer teams do not incorporate strength training, but it is just less common to see soccer programs that place an emphasis on the strength training. Development of the aerobic system becomes the focus of on-field training (rightfully so), but sometimes does so at the cost of strength and power improvements in the weight room.
What does this mean for the collegiate strength and conditioning coach? This means you may have incoming athletes that have never stepped foot in a weight room. You may have athletes that are uncomfortable with weight training and have not been educated regarding the benefits strength training can have on performance. On the other hand, you may have athletes that have been training for several years and are proficient in a wide variety of movements. As the coach, it is your job to teach, educate, and inspire every athlete, no matter the experience level, to carry out the training program you design. How exactly do you get your athletes to “buy-in,” though, when they come from a background that does not emphasize the benefits of strength training or even discourages strength training?
1. Build trust and respect with your athletes
Building trust and respect with your athletes must be the first step, as it is the most important component in developing “buy-in” and can be applied to any sport. How exactly do you build trust and respect, though? Begin with viewing the situation from the athlete’s perspective. They come to university to play soccer and earn a degree. In some cases, they may have met you (the strength and conditioning coach) on an official visit. In others, the athlete may have no idea that they are going to be lifting weights and doing supplemental conditioning sessions with another coach. In some cases, athletes may have experience with lifting, while in others, they may have never picked up a barbell prior to arriving on campus. The athlete’s background will influence whether they will be comfortable, let alone confident, in the weight room.
Next, if you are not familiar with the sport, be sure to educate yourself. Talk with the coaches, go to practices, discuss strategies with the players, get out there and try it! More experience with a sport will help in developing a program and enabling you to explain your programs to the athletes in more relatable terms. The more you are able to effectively convey exercise selection in relation to what the players do on the field, the greater the chance they will understand the benefits and invest the required effort.
Finally, it is important that you make yourself accessible. While there is a limit (yes, we as coaches need our “official” days off, too), be sure to let your athletes know that they can speak with you and contact you with concerns or questions. Maintain an open line of communication. This includes being receptive and taking their words into consideration. You do not want to be the elusive figure athletes only see and talk to during lifting sessions. As a coach, it is your job to demonstrate to the athletes (and the coaches) that you are there to help improve performance on the pitch through developing their physical attributes (strength, power, and speed) in the weight room.
2. Deliver a consistent message
Before you can deliver a consistent message, you first have to determine your message. Your message can be your training methodology, the rules you will establish in the weight room, etc. Once you have this message, hold firm! If an athlete shows up late for a lift and part of your message states tardiness is unacceptable, be sure to impose the defined consequence. Every time. Do not play favorites. The same consequence needs to be applied to both the stud striker and the freshman redshirt on the bench. Having a defined and consistent message is essential to player “buy-in.”
That being said, understand that your message will evolve over time. New research may support a better method for developing speed. A new sport coach may allow you to incorporate more exercises or include new team culture specifics into your message. The best programs change and adapt from year-to-year to improve upon deficits and reinforce strengths. This includes your message. The crucial component in maintaining consistency, however, is to share these changes with your athletes and explain why these changes have occurred. Make sure you include the athletes and that they fully understand your expectations from the moment they walk into the weight room until the day of graduation.
3. Incorporate one-on-one interaction
This step can be difficult in a team setting, but it is possible! One simple way is to make it a point to talk with every athlete during a training session. This can be as simple as saying “hello” and briefly asking how classes and practices are going. This takes only a minute and lets your athletes know you are interested in their general well-being and not solely how much weight they are moving that day.
Another approach is to use cuing as a means to initiate one-on-one interaction. When you are working on technique with an athlete, ask that athlete which cues are the most helpful. Was it “chest up, back flat,” or did the athlete respond better to “deep breath, broad shoulders?” Have the athlete write down the cues in the program, refresh your memory by looking through the program, and then use those cues with the athlete at the next session. Yes, you may not memorize all of them if you have a team of 30, but work to add a few each day.
These two relatively small steps can have a significant impact on an athlete’s approach to training and his or her communication with the coach. These steps will help in developing trust between an athlete and coach, an already defined essential component for “buy-in.” It can be easy for an athlete to get lost among a team of 30 athletes. Spending even a minute of your time at each session touching base with every athlete helps you to better understand the athletes, develop a training program, and foster a mutual level of trust.
4. Be present at other team events
The majority of the time, the athletes you work with will be seeing you in the weight room. However, it is important you attend other team activities as well. Perhaps the most accessible ones are their competitions. Watch how your athletes compete. How will you be able to fortify strengths and improve upon weakness? What exercises can you incorporate in lifts and what modifications can you make to conditioning protocols to achieve these two things? You should have a vested interest in helping the athletes improve their performances on the field. In watching the athletes compete, not only can you see how they are progressing, but again, it is a way to demonstrate to your athletes that you care about helping them to improve their overall performance, not just how much weight they can lift.
Team practices can also be a great opportunity to get some face time with the athletes and the coaches. Culture is an important component of any team. Often in practice, you will be able to see how the coaches expect the athletes to conduct themselves, how the coaches interact with the athletes, how the athletes respond to the coaching styles, and the overall atmosphere of team training. You can speak with the coaches about whether there are key elements they are trying to enforce or introduce into the culture, and find ways to include those into S&C sessions (see my final Bonus Step #6!). This can serve to connect the sport training and strength and conditioning work, making all three components come together as “training.” When an athlete sees that the best performances come from having all the puzzle pieces together, the athlete is more likely to “buy-in” to your program.
A few other team events where you may have an opportunity to attend are team meals, games on the road, or recruiting-related activities. Team meals tend to be more relaxed and let the athletes see that, yes you are, in fact, human. You can talk about something other than lifting weights. The same goes for traveling with the team. They have the opportunity to see you in “real clothes” and have conversations with you about topics other than training. If you have the opportunity to talk with recruits during visits, it gives the current athletes a chance to hear things from your perspective, and it also allows any future student-athletes to have a little familiarity with you as one of the coaches and familiarity with the weight room. This can make freshmen year slightly less intimidating when they begin their initial S&C program.
Your presence at team events outside of the weight room demonstrates that you are sincerely interested in how the team performs outside of the weight room, that you are another member of the coaching staff as opposed to a separate entity, and that you do have interests that extend beyond lifting or conditioning. You become more relatable, bolstering “buy-in” among your athletes.
5. Engage the athletes
When working with the athletes, it is important to remember two things: 1) The athlete is the one completing the sessions you program, and 2) every athlete will respond differently to a training plan. Engaging the athlete (beyond just performing the exercises) by explaining the specific goals for a training cycle and asking for feedback regarding the program is helpful to you as a coach, and it also helps the athlete “buy-in.” Further engaging the athlete in a training session may reveal some unanticipated responses to your program design and will open the door for greater communication with the athletes, while also increasing the athlete’s awareness of how training impacts performance.
Once you have their feedback, make sure to acknowledge that you have heard and understand what the athlete said, and that you are actively seeking ways to incorporate his or her feedback. Is there something a number of athletes thought was not beneficial or even detrimental to performance? Do they have suggestions of how modifying an exercise may make it more applicable to the sport? Does the athlete notice that they are working a specific muscle group in practice that is not covered in the weight room? Do they feel certain exercises have more carry-over to the pitch?
In posing certain questions that have the athletes monitor personal progress, you can help them to take greater ownership over their training. Does the athlete feel he or she has put in 100% during this training cycle? In which areas has the athlete seen the greatest improvements? What areas of weakness could the athlete work to strengthen.
While sometimes it may be difficult as a coach to hear corrections or suggestions from your athletes, remember that you can always be better. If that means making an alteration based on feedback from an athlete, perhaps due to an unintentional oversight on your part, consider it a learning opportunity. At the end of the day, you want to provide the best possible training program and coaching to your athletes. No one wins if you let ego infringe upon this goal.
6. Continue to cultivate the team culture in the weight room
This one almost goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: the weight room is an excellent venue to work on growing the team culture. Before the season begins, meet with the sport coaches and define the team goals. What are they trying to accomplish this season? What are their expectations of the athletes? Are there any rituals or traditions the team performs before practices or games? Discuss with the coaches how they are implementing practices and what they are going to be emphasizing during practices. Once you know these things and have a more in-depth view of how the team operates, you will be able to incorporate certain aspects into your lifting and conditioning sessions.
Besides talking with the coaches, you can also meet with the team captains and hear what their vision and expectations for the team are that season. Work with them to show you are there to help and that you want to hear from the players as well as the coaches. This is also another way to engage the athletes and have them take ownership over their training. When the team comes to the weight room or heads to the field for a conditioning session, you want them to be excited to train. You want to create a positive training environment where the athletes can build self-confidence and also be confident that all coaches are working to design training plans that will help them to achieve their goals.
Gathering this information helps you to understand what the team is working towards, and presents a consistent message to the athletes. They hear the same phrases and directives in practice as they do in the weight room, making the components of training cohesive rather than separate entities. The athletes will being to view strength and conditioning (if they do not already) as another necessary component of training. The more you can incorporate the team culture into your programming, the more the athletes and the sport coaches will trust you are working to design and coach the best program to meet the athlete’s needs.
These five steps are a great starting point a coach can use to get athletes to “buy-in.” There is a slight overlap between the various steps, which serves to create an integrated training environment, bringing together training in the weight room with training on the pitch. While these are not the only methods, they can help you build a solid foundation with your athletes. As you get to further know and understand what inspires and motivates them, you will be able to develop your own methods to get your athletes to “buy-in.” Some of the greatest and most memorable moments as a coach are when you have athletes “buy-in” to your strength and conditioning program, and you see them improve performance, excelling on the pitch as all the pieces of the training puzzle come together.
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