Specificity in Team Sport Speed, Conditioning & Agility with Andrew Cormier
Andrew Cormier joined the University of Massachusetts Department of Athletics as a sports performance coach in July 2019 and works directly with the men’s lacrosse, women’s soccer, and softball programs. He came to UMass from Holy Cross, where he was an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Crusaders’ men’s and women’s lacrosse, women’s volleyball, and men’s and women’s tennis programs. Cormier’s prior stops include a sports science internship at the University of Minnesota, a graduate assistant coaching position at Amherst College, a sports performance internship at the University of Denver, and a strength and conditioning internship at his alma mater, Springfield College.
Cormier co-runs the sprint-jump-throw.com website and the Sprint Jump Throw Performance Podcast alongside Joel Reinhardt. He earned both his degrees at Springfield College: a B.S. in Applied Exercise Science in 2016 and an M.S. in Exercise Science and Sport Studies in 2018.
Freelap USA: What are some ways that you have found to integrate a low-volume “Feed the Cats” methodology into team sport conditioning?
Andrew Cormier: I think it is important to start by clarifying that “low volume” is relative to the sport you apply it to, and conditioning is the process of acclimating to all stressors. In my current position, where I work directly with women’s soccer, men’s lacrosse, and softball, there are drastically different physical demands in the competitions—low volume relative to soccer demands would still bury most softball players. Working back from the competition demands, it becomes important to consider what is being addressed in sport skill practice (running speeds, distances, explosive efforts, heart rates, general work/rest ratios, etc.).
Once there is an understanding of what I previously mention, this is when “conditioning” comes into play. I believe that any training I prescribe is meant to supplement what is missing, yet necessary, to prepare them for the most important parts of their sport. To clarify, I believe in the necessity for high chronic training loads, as long as the training loads are implemented to develop the highest priority qualities. The high priority qualities tend to be so CNS intensive or stressful on tissue that the overall volumes that athletes can complete are not as high as just jogging a bunch of miles.
[bctt tweet="I believe in the necessity for high chronic training loads, as long as the training loads are implemented to develop the highest priority qualities."]
In the classic hypothetical example of a soccer team relying mostly on small-sided games for technical development, the appropriate supplement to their program would likely be environments that require the athletes to experience closer to upright sprinting/running mechanics—max velocity sprinting, extensive tempo running, or drills that can force them to feel those postures. If the student-athletes get a ton of running volume every day in practice and would not even benefit from the addition of those drills, the necessary strategy may be to provide more low-threshold, borderline therapeutic, outputs and maybe even straight-up rest (but there should be conversations with the sport coaching staff to improve practice design and management).
Lacrosse is a sport classically trained in a lactic environment, sometimes with small-sided drills and sometimes full-field drills. In the common case, my “conditioning” supplement would just be the implementation of purely alactic, high-speed sprinting, high-intent power and strength training with plenty of rest between reps, or moderate-to-low heart rate aerobic training methods.
Softball is about as alactic as it comes in regard to team sports. In my opinion, that means that “conditioning” a softball team relies on providing them with the necessary training to improve their absolute alactic outputs (speed, power, strength) and their ability to repeat those outputs as close to their maximum, in the volumes that they will be required to do in competition and practice.
Freelap USA: What are your experiences in the integration/education process of a low-volume “Feed the Cats” method into sport skill practices, in terms of working with sport coaches?
Andrew Cormier: The education and integration process of lower-volume sport preparation starts with my own understanding of the sport needs, the specific coaching staff wants, and the general sport culture. To beat a dead horse, an understanding of the competition demands by the sports performance/strength and conditioning coach is crucial.
Talk with the coaching staff in your specific situation, ask them questions to explain their playing style and how they want their players to be able to perform in competition, and gauge their understanding of the physical constituents in the sport. Lastly, understand what kind of relationship the typical athlete in a particular sport has with physical training. All of these components are important so you can communicate effectively with the coaches and student-athletes.
The integration of lower-volume sport skill practice is simple with an open-minded sport coaching staff and technology such as GPS, heart rate monitors, or even a stat sheet. Objective data allows me to put a value in front of them to validate or challenge what they perceive. I utilize the data and logic to paint a picture of what is most impactful in games for certain positions, how often they may have to do those impactful movements, and how we can go about developing them. Once coaches start to notice how important the highest intensity or complexity skills are and how rarely they occur, most will naturally want to focus on the quality of execution in practice rather than the quantity of tired reps.
[bctt tweet="Once coaches see how important the highest intensity skills are & how rarely they occur, most will want to focus on the quality of execution in practice rather than the quantity of tired reps."]
If the coaching staff is not open to improving practice by utilizing the data, don’t buy the technology. If no technology is available, having a general understanding of intensity (speed, heart rate, intent, body contact, shots, throws, etc.) and the volumes prescribed (yards, reps, time), and a good idea of what fatigue looks like, will more than suffice. If skill execution is starting to deteriorate, either the skill needs to be regressed or rest needs to be given. I tend to say that if the skill is getting below the level that would be acceptable for them to execute it in a game, the coach needs to either stop the drill for rest or make it easier. The goal should be to stack as many game-speed reps as possible—that doesn’t mean reps have to be perfect and not challenging, but they must allow for max intent and focus.
Freelap USA: What are some key ways to fill rest periods between high-output training activities such as maximal velocity sprinting or heavy strength training?
Andrew Cormier: I believe that in any endeavor, it’s crucial to optimize your time. Student-athletes at every level have more on their plates than ever before. Therefore, coaches, teachers, and administration should not look to do more, but allow them to focus more, consequently helping them to make the most of their time. When it comes to high-output training, there are two main situations for me: during a sport skill session or during strength and conditioning allotted time. It is important to note that no skill with the sport implements can be completed during a strength and conditioning session.
If max-velocity sprinting is being supplemented as part of a sport skill session, the rest time could be supplemented to focus on low-CNS output, finer motor skills (shout-out to Andy Ryland from USA Football for letting me use him as a sounding board for this idea). For soccer, this could be throw-in target practice. The thrower has to place the ball to a teammate’s shoulder, hip, and foot. The receiver has to control the ball in a specified number of touches.
The importance of skill execution could be emphasized by recording successful attempts, ranking best to worst, and letting the team know the next day—more objective feedback on performance related to practice. You could continue to challenge this skill by adding complexity (tougher target areas) or just moving the receiver a bit farther away.
If you want to maximize the rest periods between heavy strength training, there are still many things that you can implement. Some easy, low-hanging fruit is to implement light flexibility exercises around some of the major working joints or individualized common problem areas to promote relaxation between sets. Another beneficial choice is to provide some of the therapeutic exercises associated with the athlete’s injury reduction plan in relation to individualized or common sport injuries during the rest period. Ideally, the therapeutic exercise would not even include the primary musculature that is utilized in the high-CNS lifting—so for softball, they could trap bar deadlift and then complete neck/shoulder/scap exercises in an aerobic fashion.
Freelap USA: What are some key elements of the training culture you want to see at UMass? How do you teach and reinforce this culture with coaches and athletes?
Andrew Cormier: The key elements of the training culture I want to see are purpose, attention to detail, and enthusiasm. If purpose is a part of the culture, then the reason why certain methods are or are not being completed has been thought through when planning. Intentional actions and words become the norm when the purpose is understood and believed in.
[bctt tweet="The key elements of the training culture I want to see are purpose, attention to detail, and enthusiasm."]
Attention to detail is a part of the culture once the purpose is understood and believed in. Attention to detail will refer to how you act, perform, and communicate. Enthusiasm will end up being the feeling associated with the previous two elements. Enthusiastic people have an intense energy to them, exhibited by how they act or talk about their situation with great interest and enjoyment.
The two big ways I reinforce the culture are to communicate and model the behavior I would like to see. For me personally, being enthusiastic provides enough context to the student-athletes and coaches and shows I’m a student of their sport and will do my part to improve each student-athlete, as long as their effort is there as well.
Another aspect of reinforcing the culture is to clearly communicate what to expect from me and what I expect from them and then hold them accountable for their actions. This includes the thought/purpose behind their actions, executing with great attention to detail, and understanding that energy and belief (positive or negative) multiplies. With coaches, being transparent, truthful, and authentic goes a long way.
Freelap USA: What are some key tenets for how you approach agility and change of direction in your performance program?
Andrew Cormier: To start, I believe that if sport skill practice occurs regularly (even in eight-hour weeks per the NCAA), then the direct agility and change-of-direction needs are being covered. As long as sport practice drills are properly designed, athletes will gain the most important agility skill development related to their sport, particularly in the perceptual-cognitive realm. Open or chaotic drills will transfer the most; therefore, if they can be done as a part of the sport, they should be.
[bctt tweet="As long as sport practice drills are properly designed, athletes will gain the most important agility skill development related to their sport, particularly in the perceptual-cognitive realm."]
I believe open/chaotic/sport drills force the athlete to focus their attention on the task at hand, so I should supplement their performance programs with drills or exercises to focus on themselves and the execution of movement patterns. Since athletes in team sports are most often required to perform based on external cues from the environment, I believe some time allowing them to focus on themselves is valuable, and I am still figuring out the proper balance.
The study, “Mechanical Determinants of Faster Change of Direction Speed Performance in Male Athletes” by Dos’Santos, Thomas, Jones, and Comfort, found that the main determinant of change-of-direction speed was shorter ground contact times in the final foot contact. They suggested that multiplanar plyometrics would enhance change-of-direction performance because of the similarity in the push-off mechanism during change of direction.
I believe that the use of multiplanar plyometrics with maximal intent creates a more resilient athlete because the plyometrics will be executed through greater ranges of motion compared to those seen in competition and expose the athlete to high-speed eccentric forces in a controlled manner. There is also great benefit gained from general strength exercises as far as a general force absorption and production standpoint.
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