Brad Schmidt, MS, CSCS, USAW, is Associate Head Coach for Athletic Performance at Creighton University, working with the volleyball, women’s basketball, and baseball teams.
Beyond standard lifting and conditioning work, I like to incorporate some fun, competitive elements into our offseason volleyball training at Creighton University. This started in the spring of 2014, when the coaching staff and I decided to include daily contests to increase the players’ competitiveness and ability to push through challenges.
Every January, I meet with our seniors, and we divide the roster into two squads that battle for the title of “Offseason Champions.” We have a competition each day, and the winner is awarded points. At the end of the offseason, players on the winning team receive T-shirts.
The events on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays involve lifting, plyos, agility work, or conditioning drills. On Fridays, the activity is always something outside of the box. For example, we’ve played dodgeball, knockout, foam roller bowling, and Quidditch, and we’ve also incorporated reading and drawing competitions.
In tandem with our Offseason Champions initiative, we hold a “Queen of the Week” contest. We bestow this honor on the player who demonstrates effort, leadership, and intensity during workouts that week. She is awarded a tiara, which she is required to wear during warm-ups, and 10 points for her team.
After previously selecting the Queen of the Week myself, we now have the athletes vote anonymously for the winner. Allowing them this task has shown me how much they recognize the hard work put forth by their teammates. For instance, we had 12 players on our roster in 2016, and the Queen typically received eight to 10 votes each week. It was clear that the team knew who was working at the highest level.
Another new twist is that the Queen now gets to decide the weightroom attire on Fridays. This has resulted in many interesting themed dress-up days, including “American Friday,” “Ninja Friday,” “Disney Friday,” “Flannel Friday,” and many others.
Going hand in hand with our Offseason Champions and Queen of the Week initiatives is another activity that we introduced in 2014 when we needed to improve the team’s aggressiveness and mental toughness. As a result, we decided to institute one day per offseason where the players’ primary goal was to “survive and thrive.” From this, our “Death Day” was born.
Death Day consists of a number of physically demanding exercises or conditioning drills that push the athletes to their limits. We work it into the Offseason Champions competition and award points to the best team, individual, and leader.
The exercises for Death Day are usually formatted in a circuit, including battle ropes, weighted shuttle runs, push-up holds, and farmer’s walks. The circuits have three to six rounds. Following each round, we perform some type of “finisher.” Through the years, these have included towel pushes, army crawls, court suicides, and burpee waterfalls, but one of my favorites is the weighted wall sit competition. For this activity, each team selects a player to perform a 90-degree wall sit for maximal time. We add a 45-pound plate to the players’ laps every minute, up to a five-plate max. At that point, it comes down to who quits first.
I’m always amazed by the comments from the athletes following Death Day. They usually go like this: “That was awful, but I can’t believe how incredible I felt after,” or “I did way more than I thought I was capable of, and I never knew I had that in me.” I didn’t foresee these results back in 2014, but the team begs for Death Day every year now. It’s taken on its own identity, and many of our players see it as an offseason rite of passage.
The key to getting results when implementing these types of competitive activities is maintaining the line between having fun and losing control. Our players take pride in knowing when it’s time to work, and I ensure that they understand when it’s okay to have fun (i.e., playing dodgeball) and when they must be focused (i.e., APRE back squat).
Overall, the daily competitions are a big hit with the team and break up the monotony of lifting multiple times a week for months. In addition, they improve team culture. As we progress through the contests, players take ownership of their performances. This translates to the court and creates an understanding that they will only be as successful as they are willing to push themselves.
Our competitive efforts have also improved athletes’ focus and intensity in the weightroom. When they show up for training, all they want to talk about is the competition for the day and who is going to beat who. Their attitudes have changed from “Get in and get out!” to “How can I be my best today?”
During the offseason, we continually strive to learn and push our student-athletes forward. An offseason program will never guarantee a conference championship or an Elite Eight appearance. However, it’s a vital part of the road that can get us there.