Eight Must-Have Physical Attributes for a College-Bound Athlete

By Robert Van Valkenburgh, The Institute

As a former collegiate strength and conditioning coach, I believe that most high school athletes are being done a disservice with their current training regimens. My experience in working with a multitude of high school aged athletes’ has led me to conclude that many are receiving poor and insufficient.  For example, almost every student athlete I talk with can tell me his bench max without hesitation; yet when asked about their squat or power clean numbers I am greeted with a blank stare. In the rare instance where an athlete knows their maxes on lower body lifts it is typically much lower than it should be when compared to the individual’s upper body strength.  When preparing student athletes to transition from high school to the college level the strength coach much train the athlete to possess a distinct ability to move efficiently, lift properly, and develop exceptional mobility or stability. From the day they arrive on campus, the strength and conditioning coaches have four or five years to develop them into the precise type of athlete that the respective program desires. 

While coaching at the division one level, I found the new freshmen that would arrive on campus would rarely be ready for the level of competition and physicality awaiting them. Most had poor posterior chains, rounded shoulders (from excessive benching), and almost all of them had either a knee or back issue. When asked about their training background, virtually every athlete would respond with one of the following answers: “yea I got a trainer at 24 [Hour Fitness]” or “I do CrossFit.” In the interest of full disclosure, and not something I’m overly proud of, I am a Level 1 CrossFit certified trainer and I would never lead my high school clients to believe that the benefits of a CrossFIt workout would transfer to the physical demands of their respective sport. In my professional opinion, burpies, kipping pull-ups, thrusters, etc. are great for overall athleticism but they are not going to be sufficient preparation for College sports.

College athletes entering their freshman year will most likely find themselves thrown into the mix with everyone else, regardless of prior experience or training background. Unless they are part of a highly prestigious program, there will likely be just one or two strength coaches assigned for the entire team. These strength coaches are likely working at pace and schedule that exceeds their recommended capacity in order to fulfill the goals of the program. This means that they likely will not have time to customize individual approaches for athletes that are underprepared.

The following eight attributes can help ensure that a high school athlete enters their program prepared to ensure a smooth transition to a more competitive level. 

1)     Competency with Bodyweight Movements:  Before all else, it should be determined whether or not the athlete can control their own body without an external load. Movement based mechanics must be flawless or you are doing the athlete a great disservice. Every athlete should undergo an extensive stability and movement phase before being introduced to weight training. Personally, I do not allow an athlete to bench any weight if they cannot demonstrate a textbook push up. Similarly, I do not permit them to squat with weight if they cannot execute a perfect squat with their bodyweight alone. It helps to employ a lot of isometric holds, this will allow the athlete to manually assume the proper position and identify how the movement should feel before adding weight to the equation. 

2)     Proper Running Mechanics:  Training an athlete to adhere to proper running mechanics and neuromuscular efficiency from their first day of training will ensure that they achieve a superior overall benefit. At the college level, movement and speed sessions are often taught in large groups to account for the limited number of strength coaches. By instilling the proper mechanics at the root level, the athlete will become ingrained with the proper techniques. Once the mechanics become second nature to them, the benefits of the movement training sessions will increase exponentially and help them standout amongst their peers. 

3)     Deceleration:  The ability to decelerate is an extension of the previous attribute; however, based on its level of importance it deserves its own section. Most ACL tears and other isolated knee injuries occur when an athlete is decelerating or shifting their direction. By training the athlete to properly decelerate, you help them minimize their risk for a potential injury. Proper deceleration is fundamental to the overall success of an athlete; this type of training should be done right or not at all.

4)     Mobility:  Most trainers know the importance of mobility, yet I’m willing to bet that it is still commonly overlooked or undervalued when designing a program. A typical trainer might sit there yelling “LOWER” – meanwhile their athlete’s chest is caving in – their pelvis is tucked – and their heels are an inch off the ground. Setting aside time at the beginning of the workout to implement two or three mobility exercises, then adding another during the rest period can greatly enhance their mobile capacity. As a best practice, trainers should implement some form of movement or mobility screening that can be used on a regular basis.   

5)     Strengthen the Back:  For the high school athlete, there are few elements that are more important than a strong, sturdy structure. By reinforcing the strength of an athlete’s back, he or she will build a solid base that will lend itself for further development with their training regimen. To ensure proper development, I recommend a 2:1 ratio of pull/press exercises which will establish balance. A strong back will provide greater gains towards Olympic lifts, allow for greater stability in the shoulder and decrease the potential for injury. I personally have all my athletes perform at least 100 band pull apart as part of their pre activity prep work prior to upper body training sessions. Ask yourself this – do you really think that the bench press is the key to athletic success? If you answered yes, you should close the browser, update your resume, and get out of this profession. 

6)     Proper Deadlift Technique:  Teaching proper deadlift technique will enable the athlete to transfer these basic skills to more complex lifting techniques, such as Olympic lifting variations, that are encountered in a college training program. Much like running, if you provide the fundamental elements, it becomes easier to maintain proper technique throughout their athletic career. Other benefits include building upon their structure in the posterior chain, increasing grip strength, releasing testosterone, and transitioning the athlete from boy to man.

7)     Instill Squat Technique:  Teaching proper squat is not hard and it will go a long way in terms of physical preparedness. Start out light, take your time and work on mobility. Any athlete entering college should be proficient in both the front and back squat. Most of the squats I see on a daily basis make me want to tell the kid to rack the weight while I backhand their trainer for teaching them such bad form..

8)     Trunk Stability:  Yes, trunk stability – it is important not to confuse this with core strength – as its attributes are distinct and valuable. Resilient trunk stability can most easily be defined by the ability to squat with your chest up, power clean with a natural spine, and run without looking like Gumby. How do you develop trunk stability? Follow the previous seven steps and you the athlete should be off to a good start.

There you have it, the eight attributes to help ensure that an incoming freshmen athlete will be successful in their new strength and conditioning program. The majority of collegiate programs are built around Olympic lifts, some are based off a Westside Barbell approach, and others might use the HIT or APRE.  Every collegiate strength and conditioning program is different and will employ unique methodology; the only common factor is the consistent demand for complete physical preparedness of the athlete. If set your athlete on the proper path as outlined above, her or she will be destined for success at the next level of their training. 

Michele Bergh