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How Strength Coaches Lift Teams to Championship Goals

“Teams are only as strong as its weakest link.” It is one of the most overused cliches in sports despite its accuracy. But what about a team’s strongest link – meaning, their fittest?

As the strength and conditioning field has evolved through the years, the significance of the strength staff within organizations and at school has also increased — especially at the collegiate level. It’s fairly common to see strength coaches jumping around on the sidelines at college football games or sitting toward the end of the bench in college basketball contests.

Pregame warmups and mid-game support of both players and athletic trainers are just a small portion of what strength coaches do. Their most important work takes place away from the game, in the weight room.

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Photo: Villanova Athletics

But, for winning programs, even more, the responsibility falls on strength coaches.

“Since I only train men’s basketball I’m around the team and staff all the time,” Villanova men’s basketball strength and performance enhancement coach John Shackleton said. “So, I’m also giving the guys the same message that (Villanova head) coach (Jay) Wright gives them, but maybe just in my own way. The culture is already established, so it’s easy for me. All I got to do is enforce (what we’re all about) — which is hard work, train smart, play smart. We have all of our core values. Those core values we talk about on the basketball court really translate. We talk about the same thing in the weight room when we train.”

Though, no two programs are the same. Not even winning ones like Villanova men’s basketball, which has two NCAA Tournament titles under Wright (both of which Shackleton was a part of), and Auburn football, which is where Texas A&M Commerce senior director of sports performance Joe Caldwell spent his playing days and won the 2010 BCS National Championship while lining up at middle linebacker for the Tigers.

While then Auburn football head coach Gene Chizik sent the tone for the program during that era, another prominent voice on the Tigers’ staff impacted Caldwell and his teammates en route to their title.

“I was blessed at Auburn to have one of the best strength and conditioning coaches to ever do it (in) Kevin Yoxall,” Caldwell said. “I wanted to be a physical therapist coming out of high school, but once I saw the structure and how well the coaches teach and break everything down to make sure that all athletes have a full understanding of why the weight room is important.

“The big thing they always told us that stuck with me now is we take from the weight room, as football players, the weight room doesn’t take from us. … The coaches made sure they told us why (we did something) really well,” he continued.

But the dialogue between Auburn football players and Yoxall didn’t come to a stop when players exited the weight room.

“The thing that Coach Yoxall wanted from us in the weight room was communication,” Caldwell said. “So if anything ever popped up, we were expected to call him well in advance and let him know. If we had some problems with our family or something, we needed to communicate. We had to do that before our lifts.

“At Auburn, the big mantra is being an “Auburn Man.” So everything that you do — outside of football, in the community, and everywhere — you got to carry yourself with a different standard because you represent the university everywhere you go. … Being around the strength coaches so much as a player, it really helped establish that culture.”

After playing football at Auburn, Caldwell went on to serve as an intern coach for the program before later making the move to Rice where he’d serve as the co-lead assistant strength and coaching coach before settling in at Texas A&M Commerce where he’s working with a football program that won the DII title in 2017.

“It’s almost like it was tailor-made for this situation,” Caldwell said. “Yes, this team was already really good before I got here and had success in 2018, (but) we’re coming in the third year from that. In my experience at Auburn, we won the National Championship in 2010, then we had a pretty decent year in 2011 (won Chick-fil-A Bowl over Virginia), and then 2012 was one of the worst years in school history. So, when I got here, that’s what I was looking at. (Texas A&M Commerce’s) last year before me was our (Auburn’s) 2011 season.”

While Caldwell is trying to help steer a ship back in the right direction, Shackleton is doing his part to keep his athletes on track at Villanova — attempting to stay under the radar in the process.

“I kind of stay low-key (in games),” Shackleton said. “You see strength and conditioning coaches on TV and they get all hyped on the sidelines. That’s not my kind of style. I kind of look at myself as like a silent assassin getting all the s— done behind the scenes and not really try to put myself out there, personally.”