West Point Strength and Conditioning – Interview with Mark Watts

Every strength and conditioning coach has challenges; dealing with coaches, administrators, athletic trainers, doctors and unmotivated athletes. But few coaches have the same challenges as Mark Watts. Mark is an assistant strength and conditioning coach at West Point.

After enlisting in the Marines, Mark worked double duty as a football coach and as strength and conditioning coach. His job resume includes stints at Denison University, Allegheny and Clarion (PA). While he no longer has to coach football, Mark has his work cut out for him.

West Point is not your normal 4 year university. While we are all familiar with the military academies, most of us have no idea what really goes on. The academics are tougher than you can imagine. When you consider that their job and placement after graduation is largely based on academic performance, it is a huge priority with the students. The summer conditioning program is not normal. The end goal of West Point is to develop military leaders for our future. It is not to win a national title. Each summer, the cadets at West Point undergo a different type of field training. The first year is devoted to Basic Training, the second year is to Cadet Field Training at Camp Buckner. The third and fourth year is spent in active Army units around the world.

Sleep is a luxury to a Cadet at West Point. There are few that get more than 5-6 hours a sleep a night. While they do get to eat 3 meals a day, the food intake is limited. Lunch is only 30 minutes and they feed all 4200 Cadets in this time.

Every cadet participates in an intercollegiate, club or intramural level sport each semester. From 3-6pm, all Cadets participate in physical activity. While this might seem like a good thing, imagine having all sports, either lifting, running or practicing at the same time.

Recruiting is also limited. As everyone knows, this is a huge factor for success in athletics. A 5 year military commitment after graduation and possible stints in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly restrict the number of potential athletes at West Point.

When Mark filled out the EliteFTS Strength and Conditioning Survey, I was impressed. After talking to him, I knew that his job is certainly unique. Below are excerpts from our conversation and from the survey.

EFS: Mark, thanks for taking some time out of your hectic day and answering some questions. You are in an interesting situation that is different than most strength coaches. What kind of obstacles do you face at West Point?

Mark: The biggest obstacle we face in training our Cadets at West Point is the military training they endure while here. We never want to make this an excuse, but there are challenges that arise that we must deal with. Lack of rest, recovery and less than optimal nutrition all play a role. We see all of our athletes within a 3 hour window. This makes our time with them critical and we must be organized when everything happens in the afternoon. The other trait we must have here at West Point is adaptability. We must be flexible when unexpected changes come up in the cadets' military training. Sometimes we need to alter a max effort squat day when it's the day after a 15 mile road march.

EFS: What do you think your role is as a strength coach?

Mark: Our job is to get the athlete better at his/her sport and keep the athlete healthy. We try to train in 3 week blocks. This keeps our athlete from a plateau and adds more variety. It also gives me a better opportunity to individualize and adapt the program more frequently.

My biggest thing is building a rapport with the athletes. This is a people oriented business. It's not about intricate routines or fabricated record boards that don't mean much. It’s about the athletes. I try to concentrate on the athletes' technique and providing constant feedback. Whether he's doing 3 reps at 87% or 4 at 85% is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. If the athlete is stronger this week than the last time he performed the exercise is what counts. This is why we stick with mostly rep maxes instead of percentages. There are too many flaws in percentage based training. My basic requests of our athletes is to work hard everyday, squat parallel and lift heavier than last time you did the exercise.

EFS: Dealing with sport coaches isn’t always easy. How do you deal with them?

Mark: You have to see it from their point of view. Their game is judged by wins and losses so they feel they should be involved in the implementation of a program. I think it goes back to communication skills and getting that coach to trust you. I stand by what I believe in because it is what I feel is best for the athlete. Sometime you need to compromise and adapt your training style. Unless you are big time and never get questioned, you need to be able to communicate your ideas to the sport coach so he/she believes in what you are doing. For example, if you are a HIT guy and the new football coach wants to incorporate Olympic lifts, you either better know or better learn the Olympic lifts even if you don't believe in them or get your resume together.

EFS: What mistake do you see a lot of coaches making?

Mark: There are also so many coaches that spend all of their time looking for the next job; they end up neglecting their athletes at their current job. From a philosophy standpoint, there is so much of this Olympic vs. HIT B.S. going on, people forget about the big picture. Most of this debate comes from people who don't know a damn thing about anyone else’s philosophy than the one they've been exposed to. I think it's ludicrous for a coach to base his program around one method. I feel they're positive attribute to several philosophies. To be tracked into one method is just absurd. This is why I think there is a tremendous amount of validity with the basic Darkside (Westside) template and Coach Kenn's Tier system. These systems address the entire contraction continuum and incorporate all of the important strength training methods.

EFS: And what mistakes have you made?

Mark: Trying to put all of my athletes on the same program regardless of training age. I also tried to progress athletes to quickly and had them performing exercises or drills they weren't ready for. For conditioning, it took me a while to understand energy systems and how to train the athlete within the same energy system as their sport dictates. I also did too much volume with plyometrics and not monitoring foot contacts.

EFS: Generally speaking, what exercises do you feel can help an athlete?

Mark: The parallel squat and its variations, the deadlift and its variations, any kind of posterior chain work (this includes things that most are familiar of; glute ham raises and reverse hyperextensions), pressing variations (bench press, incline, dumbbells, etc.) and kind of row and pull-up and single leg variations. As long as an athlete is healthy and can do these exercises, these are the foundation for most athletes.

EFS: A lot of people are looking for a way into the strength coaching profession, particularly in a university setting. What is your advice?

Mark: I realize it sounds cliché, but this business is all about who you know and being in the right spot at the right time. There are a lot of good strength coaches out there that do not have a job because the new football coach or athletic director wanted to bring in their own guy.

There are a lot of coaches that have full-time strength jobs because they are friends with someone of importance. If you are looking into becoming a strength coach at a university you must volunteer, intern or become a graduate assistant for a university. Do this while you are young and don't have a family. You need to find time to associate yourself with a quality and open-minded staff and be a sponge. Take in everything you can so you can develop your own philosophy. This may be the only way you can get Division I experience and solid references.

You also have to have some credentials. Most full-time DI jobs require a Bachelors degree and prefer a Masters degree in Exercise Science or required field. They will also want you to be certified. Having a Master's degree and being certified does not mean you are a good strength coach. It can, however, eliminate you from being considered for a full-time job.

You have to educate yourself. Spend time and money and read everything you can, watch every video you can, and most importantly, go see everyone you can. Go where you need to go in order to visit with quality strength coaches and pick their brains. Be courteous. Asking to spend a day with a staff during summer or spring workouts is probably not a burden and will be worth every penny.

EFS: Finally, when an athlete asks why they are doing something, how do you respond?

Mark: I feel it’s important to educate our athletes on what our philosophy is and why we do it this way. Everywhere I have been, the athletes want to know why they are performing an exercise or at least want to see the big picture. It’s important that the athlete believes in you as a coach and the system.

I explain to the athletes about the general Darkside template and reinforce that will be do 1 of 3 things when we perform an exercise: max effort, dynamic effort and rep work. I explain it by this: We will either do an exercise as heavy as possible (within prescribed rep range), lift a weight as fast as possible (within a percentage of your best 1RM), or lift a weight as many times as possible. This keeps things basic and allows the athlete to understand what we are doing without overcomplicating things.