May 14, 2017 • Strength & Conditioning

Powerline: Improving work ethic and developing leaders

In an article that recently appeared in Coach & Athletic Director, the author referenced the book “Millennials go to College,” written by Neil Howe and William Strauss, as the lead-in for his discussion.

There were some interesting bullet points that I feel should be addressed on a daily basis with today’s young people, and these included:

  • Help them understand and handle adversity, as this generation has difficulty dealing with tough times.
  • Teach them that improvement takes time — there are no easy roads in athletics or life. Higher athletic settings — and competitive arena of life — require high standards coupled with a never-say-die attitude.
  • Help them fight their battles.

The article struck a chord with me, as many of the developmental techniques and “reality checks” referenced are woven into our strength and conditioning program.

At Michigan State, our program goals are as much about building the mind, team chemistry and leadership as they are about developing the raw material of the body. And that focus is embraced, cultivated and embedded in the heartbeat of our strength and conditioning activities for every men’s and women’s sport.

This installment of Powerline gives you our template for developing a great work ethic and building leaders within the structure and discipline of the Spartan strength and conditioning program.

More than a philosophy, it’s truly a mind-set, and I would like to take this opportunity to share the approach we take with our athletes.

No entitlement

When I meet with a football recruit, I ask him three questions:

  • Do you have a passion for academics?
  • Do you have a passion for football?
  • And, do you have a passion for training for football?

Normally, I ask these as rhetorical questions, but the players are usually quick to express an affirmative answer — at least on the first two. The third question, however, often throws some of them off center. They really don’t see that one coming.

Soon after they supply a weak, uncertain “yes,” I proceed to explain the reality of major college football. It may parallel their high school experience to a slight degree, but not nearly with the extensive, intense or comprehensive nature that is commonplace at this level.

In collegiate football, training for the game is a year-round, highly organized, extremely challenging and ultra-competitive process. Quite simply, it is unrelenting hard work.

   » ALSO SEE: Standards & leadership in the weight room

They must come to the realization that most of their time will be spent preparing to play the game, and not playing the game itself. The actual game is played a mere three to four months out of the year, and much of the remaining time is dedicated to the physical and mental preparation required of this very demanding, unforgiving and unquestionably great game of football.

And even after they have willingly given all of that heartfelt work, commitment, dedication and sacrifice, there are no guarantees of victories, or even that they will play on a consistent basis.

Victories and playing time are earned and not given. There are no participation ribbons distributed at this level. You must earn your keep in college football, and you must earn it on a daily basis for as long as you are a part of the program.

In football, as in life, they must be ready to approach the every day challenges with a proverbial fistfight mentality. If they do that, they have a greater chance at success than if they walk through life holding out their hands with a sense of entitlement.

We constantly remind our athletes that they are entitled to one thing: the opportunity to work hard on a daily basis to earn the privilege of wearing the green and white. If they do this, they have a greater chance for individual success, and we certainly have a greater chance for team success.

Put your name on it

When we win a Big Ten football championship, a bronze plaque with the names of the players, coaches and support staff is attached to the outer wall of Spartan Stadium. It will be there forever; a shining testament to the hard work, dedication, commitment and sacrifice that went into a championship season. Our players will bring their children and grandchildren to future games and show them that plaque with their names on it.

“Put your name on it” takes on a significant meaning in that sense — a desire to do what it takes to put your name on a championship.

It’s also the way we ask our players to conduct their daily lives. We ask them to be proud to put their names on every effort, whether it’s in academics, their personal lives, their dealings and relationships with others, or with the reps and sets of a challenging workout.

As a matter of fact, we tell the players to “put their name” on the ensuing workout – a willingness to sign-off with a great effort. Each player grades his own workout every single day. Was it a Big Ten championship effort, or was it average? It’s interesting to see how they perceive their efforts.

It also can be a life mantra: Before you do anything, say anything or get involved in any situation, step back for just a moment and ask yourself, “Am I willing to put my name on this?”

You would be surprised by the number of former players who come back for a visit and say they still make a lot of decisions by asking themselves that question. If nothing else, it causes you to pause and gather good, accurate information on the decision you are about to make.

‘One more rep’

Our program is built on a foundation of effort and toughness. Sustained excellence, even in the face of overwhelming adversity, is our ongoing goal.

To keep this way of thinking at the forefront, we ask our players to maintain a “one more rep” mentality. It represents an attitude of always trying to outwork our opponents. It’s not necessarily a literal single repetition of an exercise. It can actually be several more minutes of challenging, physical work.

Remember that it’s a mentality, not a single, tangible entity. The whole idea of “one more rep” is to go above and beyond the norm.

At the conclusion of every scripted lifting and running workout, a player is assigned to administer the “one more rep” to the group. Each athlete knows that when he is selected or volunteers for this duty, the following guidelines apply:

  • Explain in full detail the exercise(s) to be performed
  • Demonstrate the correct techniques and execution of the exercise(s)
  • Hold everyone accountable for the proper execution as described

In other words, he is the coach of the group at that particular time and he must take full ownership of the situation. The strength staff steps back and assumes a supervisory role.

On occasion, we assign two or three trustworthy individuals with some degree of leadership skills to conduct the “one more rep” session. The concept has grown to the point where our players look forward to leading and taking control of a workout.

‘Winning thought’ & ‘good word’

It’s a tradition here to gather around the Spartan head after a run or lift to share not only basic announcements, but also what we call the “winning thought” and ending the session with a “good word.”

After giving a brief synopsis and evaluation of the completed workout itself, I present a “winning thought” of my own. Mine are usually life-related, and if there is a definitive football reference within, it is purely by coincidence. I am convinced that it’s vitally important that your team has an unwavering belief, deep in their minds and hearts, that you are sincerely concerned about their lives outside of the given sport.

The “winning thought” gives me a daily opportunity to express this in a perfect setting. It could involve just a few words, a couple of sentences or just a hard-hitting quote that is powerful and meaningful. It does not have to be a sermon.

When I’m finished, I ask if one of the players would like to share a thought of their own. Several of them volunteer, and most of the time they share some really purposeful, amazing, heart-felt sentiments with the team. It gives the players an opportunity to step-up and be heard in a completely different light – one that focuses on them more as people and not athletes.

That same individual leads us in a “good word,” which is simply anything that brings the session to an end on a positive note. Often it’s a prayer of some type, but it has run the gamut from everything to remembering a teammate’s relative who has a health issue to a reminder that players conduct themselves with honor, dignity and integrity in all phases of their lives. The good word is their choice, and anything from the heart qualifies.

In essence, the “winning thought” and “good word” are simple, effective exercises in developing leadership.

Ken Mannie is the head strength and conditioning coach Michigan State University. His column, Powerline, appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine. 

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