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Connor’s Lessons from Maryland

posted on July 6, 2020

Hello Union Fam,


For those of you that don’t know me I used to be a coach here at Union Fitness up until December 2019 (recently returned). In December I had the opportunity to be an intern strength & conditioning coach at the University of Maryland. The teams I was working with include: Baseball, Field Hockey, Volleyball, Women’s Lacrosse, & Wrestling. The goal of this blog post is to reflect on my experience at Maryland, evaluate what sets some of the best athletes in the country apart & what I plan to implement in the future.


For those of you reading this who haven’t been inside the walls of a collegiate weight room and envision athletes performing super complex & specific exercises; let me stop you right there. That is not the case. The three words I heard more than anything while at Maryland were, “Keep it simple!” For the most part, 80% (some would argue higher) of what strength & conditioning coaches’ program is very similar across the country. So, the question I find myself asking is “What sets each program/department/team apart?”


1.) Mind the Gap
“When the truth is blurred, perception becomes reality whether you like it or not.” This lesson is based around being aware of the gap between how you are perceived by others and your reality. You can be as self-aware and conscious as you want, but there is some value in objectively hearing how others perceive you. What people perceive is usually what they believe, and this is based on what they consistently hear, see, & think. I am and most people are guilty of creating perceptions before obtaining full information. This can also lead to a valuable and tough conversation on bridging the gap of how you and others are perceived. Going forward, notice those perceptions but don’t allow them to grow. Instead be intentional and put your best self on display.


2.) What does it mean to be tough?
When you think of tough, you probably imagine a scene from Rocky where he goes round after round, with a bloody face, eyes swollen, broken nose, & still somehow manages to come away victorious. True toughness to me is a characteristic many talk about but few execute.


The best example I have of this comes while one of my teams at Maryland was running shuttles. After already lifting for about 45 minutes we headed down to the basketball court to run our 3rd week of shuttles. The shuttles were 15 yards and back and every rep had to be completed in a certain amount of time. Your foot has to be behind the line at the start of every rep and you have to touch the opposite line every time. I was positioned at the baseline/start line, blowing the whistle to start, checking to make sure everyone was behind the line, & calling out times. First set no problem. Second set no problem. Halfway through the third set the female DIRECTLY in front of me says, “Connor my foot wasn’t behind the line. We owe an extra rep.” I missed the person two feet in front of me and instead of just cruising past it she held herself and the team accountable. Over the course of all of my strength and conditioning experiences, I can count this type of event on one hand. Speaking up, holding the individual and team accountable, knowing the result will make your teammates suffer more. The funny thing is after we finished the shuttles and debriefed; no one held a grudge or had any ill feelings towards her. So why doesn’t everyone hold themselves and others accountable?


To me the answer is habits. If you don’t not have the daily habits built in of doing things correctly and completely you will surely not hold yourself or others accountable when it will receive blow back. In the future I will look into team building activities specifically designed to get athletes to speak up and hold each other accountable. Secondly, I think debriefing is crucial. This is an opportunity for a coach to give honest objective feedback, but also an opportunity for your athletes to give feedback. Not just to you, but to each other. These micro events will be my attempt to get them to engrain and establish these habits and create an environment that is player led.  I would much rather have them remind each other to pause their reps than me. 


3.) Slow Cook
For someone who enjoys training hard, this is tough for me personally but is always in the back of my mind when coaching & training others. Harder is not always better. With Olympic sport athletes, coaches typically have them for 4 years. With that being said don’t try to throw everything at them their first year. This is also true for a private gym. It may feel like a big accomplishment to barely walk out of the gym but is it unnecessary. Yes, there are times to push the envelope but not all the time. It is our responsibility as coaches to regress you when you do not have the proper movement literacy to perform an exercise and progress you when you are crushing it. Remember, slow is smooth and smooth is strong. Put your ego aside and remember that one step back & two steps forward still get you ahead. 


In the words of Cej, “Just be a dood!” Now what does this mean? To me it means: be authentic, be vulnerable, support & praise others without expecting anything in return, & know when to listen. At the end of the day strength & conditioning, personal training, & the fitness industry is a relationship industry.  Knowing your audience and what they respond to will build a client faster than any “perfect program”. I have seen some coaches and interns do this really well and others not so well. Do they always need you in their ear or do they just need an occasional cue? Do they like picking apart every detail or are they going to do anything written down? Do they need you hyping them up for every set or do they just need feedback?


An example I am reminded of takes me back to my time interning with Pitt’s Strength & Conditioning Department. It was a 6:00AM summer lift. A few of the wrestlers had to train early before heading to their summer internships/jobs. They had squats as one of their main lifts. One of my fellow interns was not typically loud but was trying to get them ready for their working sets. As he is spotting one of the wrestlers, he starts yelling & cueing the things that look like they need improvement, “UP, CHEST UP, KNEES OUT”. Finally, the wrestler finishes his set, racks his weight, and my fellow intern goes to help the next athlete. At this point I am still by the wrestler’s rack when he turns and says to me (in a little different language) “Why was intern X yelling. It’s just squats.” LIGHT BULB MOMENT. This particular wrestler didn’t need any external motivation or encouragement. He just wanted to be coached up without the yelling. He was going to give his best effort regardless.


The importance of conversation is nothing new, but often overlooked. A training session is much more enjoyable for a coach and client when everyone is on the same wavelength! Having some feel comes down to keeping in mind that the conversation is not about the relationship; the conversation is the relationship. And if you can’t hold a conversation what does that say?


Connor Keenan


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