Penn Sports Performance Symposium Takeaways

On Saturday, I attended the first Penn Sports Performance Symposium and it was a really unique experience. I have attended a few symposiums and conferences, but the spectrum of presentation and discussion at this symposium was spectacular. The room was filled with MD, ATC, CSCS, PT, and RD credentialed individuals. The side conversations between presentations even provided amazing insight on how to progress the field of sports performance.

One thing that I think is critical is that we become comfortable with this idea of sports performance. As strength coaches, we sometimes box ourselves in and put up massive walls. Sports performance is a more comprehensive methodology. We should want to rub elbows with MD, ATC, PT, and RD professionals in the field. The first priority should be the athlete. We need to put egos aside to progress to a new frontier of performance. Below are a few of the highlights I took away from the presentations.

Notes from the symposium:

Rob Wagner, PhD: Exercise Technique

-“You can’t be strong if you’re not confident.”

-ATC and CSCS should strive to develop consistent standards for teaching movements. An athlete will notice differences in teaching standard (ex. Setup for a squat) and have a harder time developing movement mastery.

Main Duties of a Strength Coach:

  • Prevention of Injury
  • Performance Enhancement
  • Research

-Keep in mind that poor technique can be “mastered” just like good technique. Poor technique can result in limited athlete potential.

-When thinking about strength training and skill performance, think about the consistencies between the strength movement and the sport. For example, use a squat because it provides similar loaded ranges that the athlete will experience in the sport.

  • However, do not change the exercise to replicate the sport skill (ex. Have rowers squat super narrow due to position in the boat). Altering the exercise to fit the sport skill may alter the overall effectiveness of the exercise. The athlete is also getting plenty of “sport specific” repetition in practice. Find pieces of the exercise that mimic the sport skill and highlight those specific pieces of the movement, without changing the overall execution of the movement (ex. Focus on the drive from the floor during a squat and compare it to the drive a rower needs in competition).
  • Think about the speed of the sport when teaching the technique of training exercises. Move slow, be slow. Move fast, be fast.

Phases of Learning

  • Cognitive
    • This phase is the beginner phase or a phase where an athlete is relearning a skill.
    • The phase lasts for a very short time.
    • Keep things simple. Focus on positive feedback and keep a macro view of movement. The goal is to start confidence development early.

          Cues to focus on:

  • Balance
  • Posture
  • ROM
  • Focus on proper setup and the endpoint of the movement. Keep things basic.


  • Associative
    • Get away from an athlete having to see themselves move. Focus more on kinesthetic sense.          -Most of your time as a coach will be spent in this phase. The athletes should become conversationally fluent in a movement.
    • Start to break down a movement into more technical detail.
    • Teach an athlete why we do things the way we do (ex. Why is the bar path important).
    • Make praise more specific and precise (ex. Way to keep your chest up.)


  • Autonomous
    • The athlete does without thinking.
    • Coaches should question athletes in a way that the athlete analyzes the skill (ex. How did that feel?). Get the athlete to reflect on the movement.
    • The use of imagery/self-talk can be implemented for performance.

              Cues to focus on:

  • Effort
  • Speed/Tension

-Break the lifts into two main phases (squat, bench, deadlift):

  • Setup-This increases in importance as progression through learning phases occurs and performance increases.
  • Performance-This encapsulates the actual lift.

Points for Bench Press:

  • When do we ever see movement where elbows are at shoulder height during a pressing motion? Usually if elbows are at shoulder height, the athlete lost (ex. Lineman). An athlete should look at the ceiling while benching, not at the bar. A basketball player does not look at the ball while shooting a free throw. The athlete looks at the rim.

Points for Squat:

  • High bar back squat is more universal and safer for beginners.
  • Elbows should be pointed slightly back to lock bar in place (versus straight down).
  • If an athlete has a short torso and long legs the athlete will struggle to get to bottom of a squat with upright torso. Have these athletes front squat instead. Think about the first rule of a strength coach when teaching a squat. Prevention of injury!

Points for Coaching:

  • Athletes will view you as an expert because of your position. This often makes it hard for them to relate to you in terms of movement. Having a lead athlete that is proficient in lifts opens the gateway for a powerful demonstration tool. The athletes will be able to relate more to the athlete demoing versus when you demo. This allows them to pick up more of the skill faster. 

Diana Caramanico, MAPP (Masters of Applied Positive Psychology): Mental Skills in Sports Performance

-Optimism is “the engine of resilience.”

-Absence of negative emotion=sociopathy

-Don’t fear negative emotion. You just have to channel it effectively and in the right dosage.

-Negative emotion helped our ancestors pass on good genes.

  • Ex. “A lion is coming. I should probably hide.”
    • Negative emotion is for self preservation.
    • Positive emotion is for societal preservation.

-Inducing the right amounts of negative emotion can help an athlete or team refocus.

  • Ex. A team is up by 20 points and starts to take the foot off of the gas. The opposing team makes an 8-0 run to cut into the lead. A coach can implement some negative emotion to refocus players and up performance.

-Resilience is a learned skill.

-Exposing kids to adversity helps with this development of resilience. Micro-adversities are still needed in child development. Even having a child experience boredom exposes them to a stat where adversity is needed. They figure out how not to be bored. Leagues where nobody gets out or everyone goes to Nationals is detrimental to life resiliency.

Emotional Control: Deep breathing only goes so far. It is like “putting a bandage on a stab wound.”

  • Activating event: What event triggered the struggle for emotional control.
    • The event does not cause the emotion. If the event caused the emotion, we would all respond the same way to events. Comprehension and thoughts surrounding the event cause us to respond differently.
  • Belief: This needs to be the focal point of long-term change.       
  • Control Emotions
    • Turn threats into opportunities. Take the athlete past adversity to a sliver of hope.
      • Ex. Threat: I failed the run test for the team. Opportunity: I now know what my weakness is and what I need to improve on. This will help me develop more effective programming to reach my goals.

Hunt the good stuff:

-Make an effort to highlight three positive points from the day during dinner.

-We are hard wired to find negativity. It takes a conscious effort to notice positive. This can be trained, however.

James Findley, PHD: Sleep and Human Performance

-Sleep is under diagnosed in athletics due to the though that an athlete is admitting fatigue or weakness.

  •  An athlete believes this will result in a loss of playing time.

-There are three types of people who will not get enough sleep.

  • Those who can’t. Those who won’t. Those who don’t.

-Insufficient sleep results in increased cortisol and decreased glycogen.

-Stage III sleep is most important for physical restoration and rejuvenation.

-REM sleep is most important for cognitive restoration and rejuvenation.

-Wakefulness peaks during the mid morning and then mid afternoon.

  •  College athlete peaks are, on average, shifted later compared to average peaks.
  • Expecting optimal performance at a 6 am lift may not be realistic for most. There are extra barriers to performance.
  • The most drowsy state is when circadian drive and drive for sleep are closest in levels (post lunch).

 -Circadian drive can eliminate home field advantage. It is best to start adapting to time changes days in advance of competition to minimize the effects of circadian drive.

-Sleep deficits are cumulative. You don’t adjust to lower levels of sleep. You just get worse.

  • Subjective aspect does level out over time. Ex. “I feel fine."
  • Objective aspect does not. Performance will continue to decline.

-Studies have shown that increased sleep (into the 8-10 hour range) results in increased individual performance. These increases in individual performance can result in more team success.

Jim Steel, Med, CSCS: So you want to be a strength coach?

-Teach athletes that it is ok to be uncomfortable.

  • The weight is going to feel heavy.

-Athletes are rarely as into training as you are.

-Everyone gets one time (to be late, miss a lift, etc.).

-No time for gimmicks.

-Always know why or admit when you don’t know why.

  • Then find out why.

-Anyone can make their athletes throw up.

-Never forget what it is like to be a freshman.

-Trick athletes into getting strong.

-Don’t let a bad workout get you down.

-Everything works: there’s good, better best

-Go by science, not by feeling.

  • Provide concrete data on why training works.

-Understand trepidations about lifting.

  • Ex. The squat is scary because you can’t see the bar.

-Understand trepidations about maxing.

-Get ready for plan breakers.

  • Sport coaches are notorious for this.

-Learn one thing a day.

-Tell your athletes to do one thing to get them better everyday.

-Have fun and relax.

-Show me the pros on your team.

  • Ex. Don’t do an Olympic program if you’re not Olympic.

-Don’t micromanage coaches on your staff. Don’t make robots out of them.

  • Ex. Everyone has a right to their own style.

-Just because I make it look easy does not mean that it is easy.

-You must compete.

  •  Want respect from athletes? Compete. 

-Umbrella understanding.

  •  Realize that there’s much more to an athlete’s life than just the two hours he or she spends in the weight room weekly.

-Keep your mouth shut and learn. 

Posted on May 24, 2016 .