Seven things necessary to take athletes to the next level
Standing on the sideline at a recent game, I took time to think back about the outstanding athletes I’ve had the chance to work with and their development as athletes.
That weekend, I worked a speed camp for high school athletes. During the Q&A session with the participants and their parents, one of the questions stood out to me. A quiet, but driven athlete stood up in the back of the group and asked, “What’s the main difference between where we are now and playing in college? What do we need to know to make the team?” She went on to say, “This is my dream. I am willing to do what it takes to make this come true.”I’ve been fortunate to be asked to speak to many groups of athletes throughout my career. I have been honored to share whatever information I can with those in attendance at each event. You can see how this moment was worth taking a step back to gather my thoughts before just rambling on about traveling, teammates and competing at the highest level.
In this exact moment, the answer was simple — run, lift, practice, stretch, eat, study, sleep and repeat. Here are the specifics to tell your athletes.
College athletes work on their fitness three to four days a week, at minimum. If high school athletes are not on a consistent fitness program, they are cheating themselves and letting down future teammates. At the Division I level, strength and conditioning coaches have a summer program available for incoming freshman. After getting paperwork completed to attend an institution, ask your respective sport coach for a conditioning manual. After receiving the manual, contact the upperclassmen on your team to better understand the expectations of that specific team.
Included in this packet is the strength training information. Ask to sit down and meet with the strength and conditioning coach to make sure you understand what each exercise looks like and how to properly progress through the workouts over the course of the summer. If you are participating regularly in a strength program in high school, have your high school strength coach or personal trainer reach out to your college strength coach to begin your preparation as soon as possible. Freshmen can mentally be ready for the fitness requirements, but strength training is not easy. It takes mental toughness and a willingness to do the little things to prepare for your next step.
From the collegiate level on, athletes are fit and strong. There just is no other option. In high school, it’s easy to rely on athleticism and conditioning to get by. In college, a few mistakes or lack of mental focus changes the outcome of a game. At the next level, just one of either dictates who is possibly a living legend or a goat.
Practicing every aspect of your game over and over is a must. What you learn at practice is only the beginning of what is necessary when preparing for the next level. Pick up your stick, grab a ball, glove, shoes or whatever the case may be and prepare physically as well as mentally for any scenario. Practice at a tempo that simulates or exceeds the stress of a game. If practice is more challenging, then the stress associated with competing on game day will be easier to manage. This intensity helps you to be successful during competition because you have prepared the correct way. As the cliché goes, practice being comfortable when others would be uncomfortable.
Taking care of your body is a big change for athletes at the college level. Relying on an athletic trainer, sport nutritionist, sports psychologist and strength and conditioning coach requires an adjustment on the athletes part. Learning there is much more to preparation than just jogging around a field and touching your toes for a little before practice. Warming up properly, getting stretched, treatment, pre-hab, and/or rehab need to be scheduled into your daily pre-practice routine.
Post-practice is not just going home after the last whistle either. Ice baths, hydration weigh-ins, massage and your ability to recover for the next practice or workout must begin as quickly as possible to give you an advantage.
Nutrition has been crammed into most athletes heads as they realize their potential to play for an institution of higher learning. The problem is that misconceptions and mistruths flood the fitness industry making it difficult to figure out what to believe. As a college athlete, what you put into your body says just as much about you as doing extra fitness, another rep in the weight room, completing rehab successfully or participating in regular regeneration protocols.
I’m sure you heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I want to challenge that approach a bit. Educate yourself on the benefits of what you are putting in your body following practice, workout or a game. “What?” “When?” and “How much?” are questions you should be asking the nutritionist that works with your program.
Take time to research any supplement that anyone ever recommends you put into your body. Don’t be gullible enough to believe that just because a celebrity, professional athlete or friend is taking it that it is the right thing for you to do to achieve greatness. You are now a student-athlete. Yes, a student-athlete. It is in that order on purpose. Never forget that and educate yourself more often than just when in the classroom.
As you move from high school to college and beyond, how you approach the mental side of all aspects of your life becomes more and more important. On day one of college, make sure you have a calendar or some way to keep yourself organized. Write down when assignments are due, games, travel dates, any other significant dates and when you are going to work on each of these events/assignments so you do not become overwhelmed.
Scheduling time for academics, film work, group projects, social events, etc., is an important step when transitioning to your new home away from home. Academics at the college level are demanding. The same goes for game preparation. Become comfortable with watching film on yourself. Evaluating athletes’ performances after each practice and game is commonplace at the Division I level. Learn to be open to constructive criticism, communicate your thoughts effectively so teammates know what you are seeing, and prepare by studying the oppositions tendencies week in and week out.
Athletes need seven to nine hours of sleep a night, and even a nap during the day, to help their body recover from the stress of the college environment.
It takes discipline to get your studies completed and get to bed early enough to be well rested for the next day’s challenges. Far too often the freedom of being on your own is overwhelming to rookies. Determine a bed time and a consistent wake up so your body gets on a consistent schedule. If you can determine your rehab or lifting times, earlier is better.
Too many things come up throughout the day that only distract you if your workout is scheduled later. You generally have more energy in the morning because you have rested throughout the night. So your efforts are greater and more consistent, which translate into a better relationship with your ATC and strength coach. These two individuals are more a part of your athletic experience than you may realize initially.
Robert Taylor is the founder and owner of SMARTER Team Training. He was the head strength and conditioning coach at Loyola University Maryland for more than seven years. Hes also been a strength and conditioning consultant for athletes on the Womens Lacrosse World Cup champion Team Australia in 2005 and was head strength coach for Team Australias 2009 World Cup team, which played in the world championship game as well. He has worked with the Anaheim Angels, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Mutiny and San Antonio Silver Stars.