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Experts’ Roundtable: Athletic Performance/Strength & Conditioning

By Tai M. Brown

There are very few areas of an athletics department that regularly interact with all Student-Athletes on a campus. The men and women who make up Athletic Performance/Strength & Conditioning staffs are among those who consider that interaction a primary function of their responsibilities. In this Experts’ Roundtable we’ve ask four practitioners from institutions around the country to give their insight on the position and all it encompasses.


When discussing Student-Athlete (SA) well being, how does the Athletic Performance staff fit beyond just strength & conditioning?


Elisa Angeles (Director of Olympic Strength & Conditioning, Florida State University): I believe the “Athletic Performance” staff consists of much more than just strength and conditioning. There are many components that need to effectively work together to maximize the level of service that can be provided by a successful Athletic Performance Department. S&C, Athletic Training, Sports Nutrition, Mental Conditioning, Student Welfare & Development, and Academic Services all have a large stake in SA performance.


The primary role of the S&C staff is to develop Student-Athletes physically and mentally by overloading their systems and guiding them to adapt appropriately. It is common practice for the S&C staffs to hold high yet attainable standards. Guiding student-athletes through challenging situations and allowing them to struggle, fail, and succeed both individually and as a team builds strength and confidence on and off the arena of competition.


Through both challenge and support, a strong level of trust is built and the strength staff often takes on the duty of role model and confidant. Athletic Performance staffs frequently wear multiple hats and are one of the first to know when a SA is struggling. Once someone notices this, they can take appropriate measures to make sure the student-athlete is appropriately supported and hopefully serve as an early intervention before any issue becomes uncontrollable.


Teena Murray (Director of Olympic Sports Performance, University of Louisville): In an ideal model, the Athletic Performance staff is part of an integrated team of health and performance specialists committed to all aspects of SA well being. Today, most departments are working to create highly collaborative models with common leadership, a common philosophy, a common language and operating system, and a common communication platform organized to optimize sharing of information across the performance team.


As the front line with our Student-Athletes, the Athletic Performance staff is often first to identify potential problems and concerns. It is imperative that we know what information to share (and how) to initiate effective processes, and create effective solutions/strategies to optimize care.


John I. Williams (Director of Strength & Conditioning/Athletic Performance Coach, James Madison University): With respect to Strength & Conditioning (S&C), and because of heat related injuries and extreme cases of muscle trauma (e.g., Rhabdomyolysis), universities have broadened the microscope which exists on our profession. But I see this as a response to a few situations that could have been prevented. This leads me into my response. If institutions begin to structure the AP/S&C position as an advanced role resulting in positions in administration, there would be a more holistic view leading to preventative measures that can be implemented by those with practical experience and daily interaction with Student-Athletes. This advanced approach is often applied to sport coaches as well as entry-level athletic administration positions, but rarely thought of in the realm of sport performance.


Student-Athletes are exactly that, and their experiences are not the experiences of the “student” only. The best thing to do for the well being of the SA is to stop straddling the fence and build a healthy, complete experience. This experience should help them to understand the importance of life skill elements, social responsibility, success through planned adversity, and should include a strong support system for the duration of their time on campus.


Michael Favre (Director of Olympic Sports Strength & Conditioning, University of Michigan): At the University of Michigan, we don’t operate under our own “silo.”  Rather, we are a functional member of a larger team, composed of Athletic Performance, Sports Medicine, Nutrition, and Sport Psychology, aptly called Student Athlete Health and Welfare. As our Associate Athletic Director of Student-Athlete Health & Welfare, Darryl Conway, has stated, “Our standard of operation should focus on care rather than coverage.” Such a care-focused model includes more than just carrying out the mandated athlete performance sessions.


This elevated service paradigm entails embedding staff within the sport team structure. This includes attendance at practice, home and away games, participation in team and staff meetings, researching and incorporating new methods, analytics, and technology to make for a healthy SA experience.


Within this integrated model, we work with service providers to create opportunities for all our service providers to regularly interact with each other, thus facilitating the exchange of information regarding Student-Athletes and the teams we have the privilege to work with. The results of this model have included both changes to our individual services, along with several collaborative initiatives.


Acknowledging the enhancements within the Athletic Performance industry, what is the most effective way to evaluate those within the profession who serve in a leadership capacity?


Williams (James Madison): Evaluation of the leadership position within AP has become a subjective environment because each institution has its own infrastructure, titles, and scoring system. This leaves a lot of room for inconsistency based on uninformed opinions. To reduce some of this variance, I suggest a tiered system that first evaluates the daily responsibilities as a supervisor and secondly looks at coaching performance and its respective metrics.


Murray (Louisville): This question reflects one of the greatest challenges, and greatest opportunities within our field. Too often, evaluations of AP leaders are subjective, and performed by administrators with a limited understanding of the profession and the industry. Without question, AP represents the fastest-evolving area of collegiate athletics.


Ideally, as with leaders in any field, key performance indicators (KPI’s) must be established related to:


  1. Consistent implementation and management of best practices (across the performance program)
  2. Talent identification/acquisition, and proven impact on growth, development, and mentorship of staff under their supervision (full-time, graduate assistants, interns)
  3. Execution of core competencies (across the performance program)
  4. Effective creation of a progressive model, approach, environment and operating system conducive to producing desired outcomes
  5. Vision for future. Commitment to collaboration. Engagement in strategic planning, innovation, and research – particularly with academic partners, and other campus resources
  6. Commitment to professional growth, and advancement of the field


Favre (Michigan): Objectively assessing Athletic Performance has always been a difficult process, especially for those outside of the industry. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that there are so many other factors (other service providers, recruiting, sport coaching, academics, funding, level of competition, etc.) that go into the success of our sport programs. Along those lines, we should also look at how we define “success” for our student-athletes and teams. Is it purely winning or is it a combination of numerous factors (e.g., winning, physical development/improvement, injury rates, academic performance, overall personal experience, etc.)? In order to have an all-encompassing assessment, all these areas should be considered.


A multi-faceted approach should be implemented in order to accurately determine the efficacy of someone in a leadership role within Athletic Performance. There are number of questions that should be asked when making this assessment:


  1. Are the leaders of these AP departments fostering a student-athlete health and welfare centered environment by establishing evidence-based philosophies and methodologies?
  2. Do they create a positive and inclusive environment where the Student-Athletes are confident that they as individuals and their care are the priorities?
  3. Is there evidence that a system of multi-year development (e.g. Student-Athletes performance measures improving over time) has been instituted? The use of physical test results (e.g., strength, explosiveness, endurance, speed, agility, etc.) and various analytic technologies can help provide objective information.
  4. What are the exit interview reviews by graduating Student-Athletes divulging?
  5. Is the AP department/director considered a leader within the field (speaking/presenting, consulting, and publishing)?
  6. How do the other service providers and sport coaches view their working relationship with the leader and/or other members of this department?


Angeles (Florida State): Effective evaluations of the AP staff leaders should be multi-faceted and time intensive. There are many moving parts that go into a successful Athletic Performance Model; therefore the evaluation should include all the corresponding aspects. It would be helpful for the evaluator to have a strong grasp of the needs and demands of each component of an AP staff, as well as how each inter-related facet relies on one another in order to perform at a high level. I would also suggest allowing for input from each of the other leaders in the Athletic Performance model: staff members, sport coaches, and Student-Athletes. This should give a well-rounded evaluation, guide both praise and areas of improvement, and potentially address future needs for the Athletic Department as a whole.


There are few areas of athletics that are exposed to all Student-Athletes on campus; Athletic Performance being one, how can that exposure and influence be used to enhance the Student-Athlete experience?


Murray (Louisville): The AP coach sits in an ideal role to impact all aspects of athlete development. Based on exposure alone, they are positioned to build the strongest relationships, and deliver the greatest volume of education, mentorship, and guidance.


Beyond the assumed impact on physical development, those in these positions create standards for mindset, conduct, communication, effort, execution, leadership, and accountability. They serve as key role models while demonstrating a high-performance lifestyle. And, in collaboration with the larger health and well being team, the AP coach identifies and communicates needs, challenges, and opportunities for advancing education combined with intervention and execution (e.g., sleep, nutrition, recovery, mental health, confidence, anxiety, etc.).


Angeles (Florida State): As the question stated, the role of AP staff spans across and is exposed to all sports. We have the opportunity to create an environment that allows Student-Athletes to see one another as equals as well as connect individuals across sports who may be struggling. For example, there may be an international SA struggling with culture differences and the reality of being a great distance from home. While on a completely different sport team, there may be another international SA from the same country. Connecting those two students could greatly beneficial for both individuals and the AP staff has the access and influence to do that.


Williams (James Madison): In order to best execute an holistic approach to the SA experience, athletics administration should consider formally incorporating life skills responsibilities under the AP umbrella; similar to the way nutrition education has been included in within sport performance. The AP arena presents the best opportunity to reduce or eliminate silos by promoting a management structure that helps the process of making decisions seamless and adds to a positive experience.


Favre (Michigan): As stated previously, all our service providers work collaboratively within the Student Athlete Health and Welfare department. Specifically, this includes two of the areas that have greatest exposure to the student-athletes, AP and Sports Medicine. Consistent interaction throughout the academic and calendar year allows us to stay abreast of any issues our Student-Athletes may be facing. This affords a proactive approach with regard to the holistic needs of each individual.


What are the challenges you see the Athletic Performance industry facing in the immediate and long-term future?


Favre (Michigan): The first challenge is resources. This includes financial, personnel, equipment/technology, and facilities. The model that the University of Michigan operates, requires our service providers (especially our athletic performance coaches) to expand on their traditional footprint of focusing solely on the performance sessions.


This expanded service requires a lower sport to S&C coach ratio. At the University of Michigan, this ratio is 1-2 or 1-3. Many institutions, unfortunately, still have ratios of 1 S&C coach to 6 or more sports. Essentially, the more sports an S&C coach has, the less time there is to fulfill the other roles involve with the position.


In addition to requiring more personnel, there is a race for newer technology and facilities. Such a commitment, however, requires financial resources. It is this ever-increasing need for greater resources that has become a challenge for many institutions.


The next challenge is a one we’ve been confronted with for quite some time…the vetting process for athletic performance coaches.  In August of 2015 the NCAA passed Bylaw 11.1.5 that specifically states “A strength and conditioning coach shall be certified and maintain current certification through a nationally accredited strength and conditioning certification program.


This bylaw was initially created to be a firm standard, but it was quickly devalued when it was decided to leave it up to the institutions to determine which, if any, certification meets this criteria. This has allowed numerous people to be employed, in leadership positions, without any certification and/or relevant college degree (exercise science, kinesiology, etc.). Having such qualifications demonstrate one’s ability to practice an evidenced-based philosophy and methodology.


In contrast, our colleagues in Sports Medicine have firm standards and guidelines in place for those desiring to become an Athletic Trainer. These standards include specific degree programs, certification, and practicum hours in order to even qualify for a potential opportunity to work in the profession. In addition to these rigorous standards, Athletic Trainers often have to receive state licensure before they can work in many states. Enforcing these credentialing standards doesn’t eliminate all risk, but it does minimize the risks inherent with rigorous physical activity. If SA health and welfare is truly the priority, then we should endeavor to ensure that those being entrusted with such be duly qualified.


Williams (James Madison): The answer to this question could possibly be a three-day seminar. To keep the answer brief, I will list the elements I consider challenges for the future:


  • Financial resources
  • Decreased training calendar for revenue sports
  • Administrative protocol and hierarchy
  • The cloud between clinical science and practical application
  • The constant need to justify and validate our existence amongst our profession
  • Sport coaches
  • Institutional compensation


In closing, this profession is unique, in a constant state of evolution, and the demands grow daily but regardless of the hurdles, we always strive to keep the focus on the experience of the Student-Athlete.


Murray (Louisville):


  • Immediate challenges entail the confusion related to professional credentials within the industry. This grey area allows under-qualified and poorly prepared coaches to enter the field, thus tarnishing the image and diminishing the impact and perceived value of qualified practitioners.


  • Despite significant growth in the number of administration positions across athletic departments, growth planning for AP positions in administration and opportunities for advancement remain limited.


  • With the growth of technology and analytics in elite performance, there is a clear need for stronger academic programs domestically (undergraduate and graduate) emphasizing sport science and high-performance sport. Many top positions, and newly created positions focusing on sport science/data science, are going to international candidates with stronger preparation in these areas.


  • At a time when the centralization and integration of health and performance teams is critical, there remains a trend to decentralize to accommodate the demands of individual sport coaches.


Angeles (Florida State): Early age sport specialization is showing that student-athletes are coming into college with poor movement patterns resulting in higher injury rates.


I feel the “arms race” in utilizing technology with Student-Athletes will continue to be a growing strain on budgets. Additionally, the rapid rate in which monitoring Student-Athletes is growing, outpaces the number of positions needed to handle the influx of data, as well as knowledgeable individuals to that qualify for those roles.