Whether it’s a timed mile run, a beep test, shuttle sprints, or some other form a fitness testing, when an athlete fails to pass a required conditioning test it can set off a cascade of negative emotions ranging from frustration and disappointment to guilt and anxiety. As the strength coach you are often caught in the middle of those emotions experienced by the team coach and the athletes.
Many times team coaches also attach consequences of not passing fitness testing like reduced practice time or playing time, equipment or gear restrictions, loss of locker room access or other team privileges. Every coach, team, and scenario is different, so as the strength coach you may have to negotiate each instance differently, but hopefully these perspectives outlined below will give you some added insight to help navigate these often tense situations.
Having a clear understanding of not only the testing standards but what type of fitness the coach is trying to assess and what the consequences will be, are important things to establish, and as early as possible. Some specific tests are standard in a sport across all levels however, oftentimes tests are selected at the discretion of the coach and don’t necessarily sync up with the qualities necessary for their sport. It’s your job as the strength coach not to judge, but to guide coaches in selecting testing protocols that measure the types of skills, fitness, or energy system proficiency relative to their sports. Having this information helps the strength coach formulate a conditioning program that not only gets the athletes in better shape, but in the right kind of shape for their sport, and if the testing protocol is appropriate, the conditioning program will also prepare them sufficiently to pass the require fitness test.
All staff members should also be clear on what the consequences of a failed conditioning test will be and what the timeline will look like for an athlete that does not pass. If the consequence involves not being allowed to practice or play in games, this then really becomes an urgent situation and so the answer of these questions should be considered prior to any testing taking place. How soon will the re-test occur? Will sitting out of practice cause more harm than good? What if the star player fails? What if 50% of the team fails? Will extra conditioning help or hinder re-testing? What if an athlete keeps failing after multiple attempts? Will there be a modified test option? The re-test protocol or timeline should also be established in advance. Some tests physically exhaust the body and energy systems more than others, so while a 40-yd dash could potentially be tested every day, a multi-mile gauntlet run test should probably not be. How often a re-test opportunity will take place and whether extra conditioning will be added to the training schedule are things that should be established well before and made clear among all staff as well as the athletes on the team.
"Punishment workouts" for failed tests, tardiness, missed sessions and other slip ups or mistakes used to be common place and even expected. As times have changed, the type of punishments given or even the use of the word punishment has changed considerably. The argument for or against punishment activities is better suited for another time. Right now I want to offer a few points on workout sessions that are administered as a consequence to a failed test or failure regarding some other team policy for that matter. The punishment should fit the crime. If endurance is an issue, adding a 2, 3, or even 5-mile run (depending on the sport) or the same distances but broken up into intervals with targeted run/rest times might be more appropriate for other sports. In a test involving shorter sprints with turns or quick direction changes simply repeating the test with added reps and shorter recovery times is an option. Similarly, lengthening shuttle distances for increased endurance or decreasing distances for shorter shuttles to emphasize quicker turns or direction changes are also good approaches. If the goal of the punishment is simply to build toughness, accountability, or an improved foundation of fitness then the options are almost limitless. For example, a circuit of minimal rest involving things like stair sprints, tire flips, box hops, battle ropes, and challenging bodyweight exercises not only builds physical toughness but mental toughness as well. When selecting a punishment I also take into consideration things like whether it will involve the whole team or just the guilty parties, how close we are to competition day or the next re-test day, and when or what the next team practice is. Regardless of the reasons leading to the punishment, the workouts administered in consequence to that should be designed to elicit fitness or performance related benefits rather than just inflicting pain, fear, or humiliation.
Student-athletes should also have a clear understanding of testing standards, related strength & conditioning workouts, and consequences of not passing a team fitness test. Athletes should know what the test is measuring, how it’s conducted, how it relates to their sport or position, and recognize the correlation between the test, their sport, and the strength & conditioning program. Knowing these connections can help athletes mentally wrap their minds around the purpose for their training, especially when it doesn’t appear obvious. This can also help reduce testing anxiety in some players and increase overall program adherence. Understanding how to do the test and the consequences of not passing the conditioning test eliminates surprises, builds accountability, and may also increase motivation because no one wants to let their team down, miss playing opportunities, or have to do extra conditioning sessions.
Once everyone is on the same page with the logistics, it’s now time to figure out what went wrong. Usually it’s one of three things: mental failure, physical failure, or preparation failure.
Mental failure occurs when the athlete is in shape and has successfully passed the test during training sessions but nerves or anxiety overwhelms them during the actual test and they fail. Usually these athletes just need one or two more attempts to pass because the anxiety or fear decreases once they experience the test in real-time. The strength coach can help with positive talk, reassuring the athlete that they’ve already done all the hard work to pass this test, and help keep them calm with breathing or visualization techniques.
Physical failure occurs with the athlete is simply not in physical condition for the test. An athlete that didn’t follow the S&C program, is sick, or is injured or recovering from an injury and is just not physically in shape enough to complete the test to the standard set. The strength coach can help by having an honest conversation with the athlete about why they came in out of shape and if necessary work with sports medicine to create a rehab program that helps to fast track their conditioning level while working around any injury restrictions. If the athlete simply didn’t do the required training then extra conditioning sessions combined with, appropriate recovery, and re-testing as often as safely possible will help jumpstart their fitness level.
Preparation failure occurs when the athlete is in shape but is either not familiar enough with the testing protocol or doesn’t have the right level or anaerobic or aerobic conditioning for their test/sport. In either case whether familiarity or specificity is the issue, simply repeating the test one or more times will be all that is necessary for the athlete to learn and adapt to the test. Remember, the athlete in this scenario is usually in very good shape, but may have geared their training towards things that are easier for them, more suited to their natural ability, or just more enjoyable to them. For example, an athlete than needed to pass a repeat shuttle sprint test, because of their avid enjoyment of long distance running, may have conditioned themselves to be more aerobic than required by their sport or testing protocol. So, even though they are fit they just might not be physically peaked for the test-specific anaerobic sprint work. The strength coach can help simply by reassuring the athlete that they are fit and capable of passing the test, that they understand the protocols of the test, and help them with timing, change of direction, turning techniques and other skills that could improve their efficiency in performing the test.
No one likes to fail or feel unprepared. As long as the team coach, strength coach, and student-athlete are on the same page and have open communication regarding expectations and consequences then conditioning test failure can be addressed, handled, and successfully overcome with little or no drama. As the strength coach you have to be ready to be the mediator and voice of calm and reason during these times, especially when the season is approaching and passing a test can mean the difference between a player sitting on the sidelines or playing in a game.
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