Program Design for Training Camp With Zero Preparation -- Bill Gillespie

Soft Tissue (hamstring, groin, hip flexor) injuries are going to occur due to overuse. Simply meaning those muscle groups are going to be used at a higher intensity and/or more volume then they are used too. Sleep, hydration and stretching can help but usually these are not the factors that cause soft tissue injuries. Think of 3’s. The first 3 days and the first 3 weeks are the key to determining work capacity to prevent soft tissue injuries. 

  • The first three days must be mostly teaching, instruction and going through the drills. This is going to be enough to allow their bodies to adapt. The first 3 days is pivotal to prevent injuries in weeks 1-3.
  • After 3 weeks of slowly building work capacity, the body will start to adapt and the athlete will be able to be trained as you usually train them in most cases. 

Program Design for Training Camp with a Short or Zero Preparation Period Prior to Camp

Designing a training program for Training Camp is going to be quite a bit different than if you had an entire summer to prepare the team. Especially this year coaches are going to be challenged to condition the team and have them game ready with little to no base of work capacity. Our goal isn’t to crush them and get them “tough” or teach them a lesson for not doing more on their own when they had the opportunity during the summer. Our goal shouldn't be to see if our athletes can survive the workouts but can they thrive in the workouts! If you push a team too hard you are going to suffer more soft tissue injuries and/or their legs are going to be dead until week 3 or 4 of the season! Bottom line is you want your athletes conditioned enough that they stay healthy and can be prepared to safely play the game and not put their life at an unneeded risk. Having your whole team healthy and able to play the entire season might be one of the most important factors in your teams success this season due to the number of programs that can’t condition their teams in the summer as they have in the past. There’s no camps or “7 on 7” competitions to help prepare the team for the season, so the beginning of this season the athletes could look different than they have for literally decades and there aren’t a lot of coaches that have the formula for a practice schedule with a team that is in this type of condition. I believe that the coaches who figure it out and train their team the best might find at the end of the season several more wins than teams that might have more talent. Going into high school I was on an extremely talented football team, in fact we had 13 players on the team that received D1 scholarships and we were ranked #7 nationally at the beginning of the season. Our problem was our school district had a teacher’s strike when football season started and we weren’t allowed to practice at all until the strike was over. It turned out the strike was settled the week before the first game. We were loaded and our first game was against a lower class school, but they had been training. Sadly, we lost that game 18-19 and it was the only game we lost the entire season. Because we lost that game, we didn’t get the chance to go to the play offs and we will never know how good we could have done. Having tons of talent couldn’t overcome having the ability to prepare. Proper preparation can overcome talent! So you may not have the talent of other programs but now it’s a level playing field and here’s a chance to give your team a better chance to win.

Later I will cover how to design a program for Training Camp after a full summer of training, but that is not the situation that we are facing during these times of the virus. There are many programs who can’t afford to have their players stay for the summer, but even those programs who have a few players training for the summer have many athletes who can’t even find a weight room and have no base of training going into Training Camp except maybe a 2 - 3 weeks period to “Get them in Shape”. If you had an opportunity to study the previous articles, I wrote on Reintroducing Athletes back into Strength Training. You are going to need to apply several of the same principles of developing work capacity when Training Camp begins. The body can only handle so much work and before it’s not going to be able to recover. The question is, what is too much work? There are many factors that come into play when determining the workload. Always remember that your big guys won’t recover as quickly as your smaller players and running isn’t the best test of determining if they are in shape. While I was at Liberty, the cross country team had 2 athletes over 3 years that won the individual national championship in cross country. Many people of course would consider them in great shape, and yes of course they were extremely well conditioned. However, if you had a conditioning contest with one of these national cross country champions or the fattest lineman on your team chances are you would put your money on the cross country runner if they had a conditioning contest. But let’s say that the conditioning contest wasn’t running but was moving 250 pound boxes! The lineman can move 250 boxes but the cross country runner isn’t going to move a single box! Which one do you want playing on your line? Conditioning is specific to the task and determining that someone isn’t in shape because they can’t run isn’t what we are looking for. For that matter, when I coached in the NFL an all pro corner came to me and asked if I knew how much he loved his children.  I said yes of course you are a great dad. He said if he was told he had to run a mile without stopping or he would never see his children again, he said he would give his kids a hug and tell them to remember that he loved them! He said there was no way he could run a mile without stopping! Was he out of shape? I don’t think so! His body was conditioned and created by God to be a very explosive and powerful athlete that could demonstrate incredible abilities and repeat them again with a very short rest. But he was not out of shape! 

Pre Season Conditioning Tests

Over my nearly 50 years of being around football at all levels, I have seen all kinds of conditioning tests. Years ago, it was common to do a mile run for a conditioning test. The story is that the great running back Earl Campbell didn’t pass his conditioning test, even going into his senior year of college at the University of Texas. After he wasn’t able to pass the test his senior year his head coach got upset with him. Earl Campbell turned to his coach and said, ‘Coach, when it’s 4th and a mile, take me out of the game!’ He went on to have an incredible senior year winning the Heisman trophy!  

A conditioning test sounds like it would be a great solution to insure that your team returns in shape and ready to start Training Camp. There are some questions you are going to ask yourself before you decide if there should be a conditioning test. If the test is too hard, there’s a chance too many athletes might fail the test. Then what? If they are too out of shape to pass your conditioning test and you require them to do extra conditioning then how are they going to handle extra work along with practice? By the first game they might look like they are in great shape but their legs are dead and they can’t move as fast as they should. If the test is too easy then nobody is going to train to prepare for it, or worse yet they will try to get in shape the week before the test and this is when you see hamstring pulls and cramping during the test. It’s a tricky situation. But if you set a standard you have to be willing to back it up. Some coaches will stand by the standard that they have set even if it has cost them their best players. If you threaten the team with a punitive punishment and they fail the test, you have to back up your word. And I don’t mean that if they fail the conditioning test, they are being demoted on the depth chart then when Training Camp is over and the regular season starts they are back as the starters! If you threaten to send them home if they fail the conditioning test and it turns out that your best player and your worst player both fail the test, are you willing to send home your best player? If you only send home the worse player then you undermine your leadership. Our goal is to have our team healthy, our best players ready to play and to build a team where the players trust in the leadership of the coaches. The conditioning test isn’t a test to determine who is in the best running shape, but is the team in running shape enough to start Training Camp! That’s it, nothing more! They don’t have to be in game shape before Training Camp starts. You want them in good enough shape that the conditioning test doesn’t have a negative effect on their practice and mostly that they are in shape enough to start Training Camp. Training Camp is the building block to get the team in game shape as much as possible. In fact I have seen if you over condition too early, the athletes run out of gas later in the season because they haven’t had enough time to develop their bodies enough to handle the work capacity for an extended period of training. Many of you have heard of the Rookie Wall in the NFL. This is with elite athletes that are getting paid a lot of money and this game is very important to them but they just don’t have any juice in them and the coaches have to take special measures to keep them on the field and to keep them healthy.

I love to have a conditioning test but if I have been training the team for the entire summer, I don’t believe that a conditioning test is necessary. I believe after a grueling summer of conditioning it’s time to focus on playing football. The work has been done. If I haven’t been able to train the athletes for the summer, a conditioning test might be necessary to have the athletes do some running on their own. But again, how hard do you make it and what is going to happen if you fail the test? I was at one program where if you failed the conditioning test, they would have you run early in the morning and in the middle of the afternoon. The make up running wasn’t hard, it would basically just cover the distance with a goal to take away their nap and sleep in time. After two weeks they were given the opportunity to pass the test again and everyone found a way to pass the test the second time. 

Over my 40 years of being around football I have used the 12 minute run, the mile and half run, the mile run, 16 x 110’s and the 300 yard shuttles of 25 yards and back. I really liked the 300 yard shuttle of 25 yards and back. We would give them 5 minutes rest between sets and I found that 3 x 300 yards was really tough and you really had to be ready to go to pass this test. When I was with the Seahawks, I was introduced to a very simple conditioning test. At first, I thought it was too easy but the players explained to me that if you were in shape to start Training Camp you wouldn’t pass this conditioning test. That made sense to me. The team was broken up into three position groups; line, speed and the other players, which we called intermediate position players. Everyone ran 12 sprints starting on a one minute turnover. The linemen ran 60 yards, the intermediate position players ran 75 yards and the speed guys ran 80 yards. The linemen had to run their times in under 10 seconds and the other two groups had to run their times in under 11 seconds. We found this test to be effective in us knowing who was in shape and who wasn’t and the team came out of the test healthy. The conditioning test wasn’t overwhelming and allowed the team to focus on preparing for a successful Training Camp.

Programming Football Practice

I’m not going to pretend that I am a football coach, so I am only offering some guidelines to help coaches to decide how to organize their practices to give their athletes the best chance of success. I have been blessed to work under some of the greatest football coaches that have ever coached. I have watched and learned from their years of experience and success. We are going to take the same principles that were outlined in the manual Reintroducing Strength Training to Athletes after an Extend Lay Off and we are going to apply them to planning football practice and conditioning. 

First of all, the first few days are going to be a lot of teaching and coaching. Helping an athlete understand why he is doing something will help them to buy in to what they need to do. With the lack of work capacity, the team isn’t going to be able to handle very much work so the first three days are great days to focus on teaching. Teaching should also include selling your program. As a coach you are a teacher and a salesman. You should be striving for every drill to look as good as possible and run with perfection. Soft Tissue (hamstring, groin, hip flexor) injuries are going to occur due to overuse. Simply meaning those muscle groups are going to be used at a higher intensity and/or more volume then they are used too. Sleep, hydration and stretching can help but usually these are not the factors that cause soft tissue injuries. Think of 3’s, the first 3 days and the first 3 weeks are the key to determining work capacity to prevent soft tissue injuries. 

  • Having a fresh, healthy athlete when you get started is something that you don’t want to abuse or ruin. Once they are injured or their legs are dead it can take a very long time to get them back and they can’t help the team. 
  • The first three days must be mostly teaching and instruction and going through the drills is going to be enough to allow their bodies to adapt. The first 3 days is pivotal to prevent injuries in weeks 1-3.
  • After 3 weeks of slowly building work capacity the body will start to adapt and the athlete will be able to be trained as you usually train them in most cases. 
  • The first 3 weeks of training is going to establish the base to offer you the opportunity to have more healthy athletes later in the season giving you a better chance of being successful in November and later in the year.  

Your planning for developing work capacity should be set up in 4 day segments. The first three days are loading then the 4th day is an unload day or a back off day. The work capacity of each segment is going to be based on the same math that was used to design a strength program after an extended lay off. You are going to have to overcome the passion and excitement of the athletes when they first get started. They are excited and they believe their bodies are invincible, but it’s your responsibility to control that passion so they are ready to go on game day. Everybody feels like they can do anything when they are healthy but once they become fatigued and/or injured they will start to question why they are doing this. It’s our job as coaches to watch over the health and well being of our athletes. 

In the first 4 day segment, you are going to want to drop your volume down to 50% of what you would consider a normal practice. You are going to have to develop a method of measuring the work level of your practice. You can list the drills that you normally want to accomplish over the first days of practice to determine your baseline for your volume. When you have a baseline of volume that you would normally want to do in the first 4 days then you are going to cut that in half. This is going to be very difficult for coaches to do but if the team hasn’t done anything, and you must assume that if they haven’t been training with you that they haven’t done anything. Use this opportunity to create a culture of excellence. Be demanding and raise the standards but do it with fewer reps than you had used in the past. 

You are going to have to extend the rest periods between drills using at least a 1 to 8 work/rest ratio the first day, a 1 to 7 work/rest ratio on day 2 and then on day 3 go to a 1 to 6 work/rest ratio. You can regulate the work/rest ratio by the number of groups that you have in a drill. If you have 9 athletes in a drill then this is going to force a 1 to 8 work/rest ratio. I know this isn’t the way that you want to do this and you may be afraid that the team is going to think that you are getting soft, but educate them on why this is important and that you are looking out for their safety. It has to be done differently because the preparation was different. By stressing the importance of preparation, the mature athletes will embrace this during the off season. In the first few practices there must not be any let down of focus and intensity. If you push your team too hard physically too early, they are going to break. Protect your athletes and keep them healthy! 

The volume over the first 4 day training period should be determined at 50% of what you would normally do the first 4 days of practice if the team had been training all summer. You are going to use the first 4 days, then you are simply going to divide up the volume by starting with light volume and building the volume each day for the first 3 days. The amount of workload over the 4 days can be laid out so you do 21% of the 4 day total workload on day 1, 28% of the 4 day total workload on Day 2, 36% of the 4 day total workload on Day 3 and remember Day 4 is your Unload Day so you are looking to do 15% of the 4 day total workload on Day 4. After completing the 4 day cycle then you are ready to add volume over the next 4 days and continue to reduce the work/rest ratio until they can comfortably train with a 1 to 4 work/rest ratio. The team will return after the 4th day with lots of energy and hopefully with more healthy athletes. After the 4th day I would start the second 4 day cycle with a 10% - 15% increase in volume. From this moment on, I would train the team with the volume distribution on day 5 going back to 36%, on day 6. I would do 28%, on day 7 I would do 21% and then I would have an unload day with 15%. Please remember that the 15% volume day is just as important as the other days and you have to coach it with just as much passion and you can’t treat it like it’s a recess period. You must create an urgency for this practice and demand excellence. They can’t think that you are giving them a break. I have even seen head coaches plan a day to kick the team off the field because he said that he didn’t like the intensity of practice but he was really giving the team a break and forced them to use this opportunity to raise the level of expectations. I thought it was awesome! Funny part was he told me that he was going to do this before practice and he sold it so well that I fell for it! After the team was in the locker room having a player’s meeting, he turned to me and asked me if the team bought it. I said I knew it was coming and I bought it!  This was one of things he did made me think he was such a great coach. There are other methods that you can cut practice short and blame it on something else when in reality you just wanted to reduce the volume of practice. So even a short practice can be used to develop the team dynamics, if we are thinking outside of the box!

Every 4 day cycle should increase in volume and intensity by 10 -15% so that in 20 - 24 workouts the team is in great shape with fresh legs and hopefully a reduced number of soft tissue injuries. As you can see that it’s very easy to take the same approach in designing your conditioning workouts. 

Just as in the weight room, even if you lift light weights with low reps and the athlete tries to create extra force, they are exposing themselves to possible injuries. The bar speed should be smooth and not as explosive as they could be if they choose to. You can exceed your max with the force on the bar if you take the right weight and move the bar fast enough. If an athlete hasn’t been lifting you certainly wouldn’t think that they were ready for maxing. It’s the same thing if you take a submaximal weight and move it fast. You are still putting extreme pressure on the body even though it’s light weight and low reps. Until the team is conditioned you only want to see strict technique and smooth movement of the bar. The same principle is true when it comes to the intensity or speed of the drill. You should be focusing on perfect technique at this time and not how fast they can go. I understand how difficult this is going to be to coach but always teach safety. If the team knows that you have their best interest in mind they are going to be willing to follow you. This is true if the exercise is slowed down or if the exercise is very challenging, they must always know that you have their safety first and foremost on your mind.   

Post Practice Conditioning

The most successful teams that I have been a part of did little to no post practice conditioning. I am not a big fan of post practice conditioning. I think the energy could be spent more effectively in a well organized practice. If the practice is intense enough there shouldn’t be any energy to run afterwards. If there is, then maybe the athletes held back knowing they were going to have to run after practice. It is going to be more work on the coaching staff to organize the practice to run effectively but it will be worth it. It can be done even with a small staff if you are creative in what you do.

If you believe that you must do some post practice conditioning then I would highly recommend that you hold off until you have had the opportunity to go through two 4 day practice schedules. When you add post practice conditioning this can not be counted separate from the workload of practice. When football season begins, the workload from the weight room, practice and post practice conditioning must be all considered in the total volume. The total amount of work the team can handle will be determined by the overall maturity of the team and the amount of preparation they were able to get done before the season started. It’s all about developing their work capacity. As coaches we want to zero in on exactly what we want them to be good at and then develop their ability to do it at the highest levels with very low rest intervals, be conditioned to stay focused and not put themselves in a position that could lead to a possible injury. Even with a very well conditioned football team the demands of introducing football practice is something that is very difficult for strength coaches to duplicate. If you want to do post practice conditioning, introduce it after the second week of Training Camp. If the team wasn’t given the opportunity to get in the prep work before the season began then there’s a great chance that they are struggling to handle the workload of just going through football practice and lifting during Training Camp. 

It has often been said that the best conditioned team wins in the 4th quarter and I must agree that a well conditioned team is going to push harder and make fewer mistakes in the 4th quarter. But the truth is, the team that knows how to compete the best usually wins in the 4th quarter! That’s why what you do in the weight room and in your conditioning is so important. 300 pounds never changes! 300 pounds is the same today as it was a year ago, 10 years ago, it has never changed! But if you fail to lift 300 pounds then come back and get the weight, who got better? The athlete who had failed to lift 300 pounds had to look himself in the mirror and ask himself what he needed to do to beat 300 pounds. This is where we learn how to compete and how to win! This is a key part of learning how to be mentally tough and learning that you have more in the tank. How you as the coach approaches strength & conditioning is either going to teach the athletes the confidence to charge forward at full speed, or they are going to learn to cut corners and pace themselves to make sure they are going to be able to finish the workout. It’s a fine line between what is too much and what is too easy but that is the art of coaching. 

Coaching a Competitive Team

I have found through my years of coaching that most people think that it’s talent that allows an athlete to rise to the top. I have seen that this is true with young athletes, but once they get to the college level I have seen hard work and great preparations trump talent. I have also noticed that competitive drive plays an equal role, or maybe even a greater role, than talent on who goes on to play after college. The most competitive athletes I have ever coached were NFL athletes. Yes, they are very talented, but I believe it’s their competitive drive that helped develop the talent and is why they are in the NFL. I believe that it’s very coachable to teach and develop competitive drive. It’s all about how you set up the lifting program and conditioning program. You must have opportunities to give them a chance to compete and challenge themselves. They will enjoy competing and will work harder and more intense if they are given the opportunity. 

The opposite is true also. You can train your team to feel uncomfortable competing, or worse yet, training them so hard that they have learned to hold back and not push themselves. Teaching your team to compete at the highest level on game day is your goal as a coach. Don’t teach your athletes to hold back and expect them to compete on game day. They might come out with lots of energy at the beginning, but most of that energy is created to convince themselves to play hard and when fatigue starts to set in, they will start to pace themselves. During my 40 plus years of coaching I was nervous if I saw a lot of manufactured energy during pre game. In the biggest games that I have coached the team was quiet and calm, there was no hype, no jumping around, just focused on what they needed to do to be successful. Your biggest fear better be when your team is trying to create energy so they feel like playing the game. That passion was supposed to be coached and developed during the preparation phase. Game day is just a representation of the preparation that has been invested by both the coaches and players.

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