The Team Dynamic
Passion and understanding are two cornerstones of remarkable coaching.
Client: IMG Academy boys lacrosse team
Personal Trainer: Justin Russ, CSCS, strength and conditioning coach, IMG Academy
Location: Bradenton, Florida
Passion. A typical day for Justin Russ involves wrangling 30–50 high-school athletes through their daily conditioning training. The athletes attend IMG Academy, where they undergo rigorous athletic and scholastic programs. Russ is a strength and conditioning coach responsi- ble for the development and implementation of conditioning training to improve each athlete’s physical capacity and minimize injury risk.
There is one group of boys close to his heart. “I’ve been working with the IMG Academy boys’ lacrosse team since my arrival on campus,” says Russ. “I grew up playing lacrosse in Buffalo, New York, and I’ve always had a passion for the sport. I knew I wanted to work with this team and to help the kids grow and develop. The kids are great—it’s like having 50 little brothers.”
Development. One of the greatest challenges Russ faces when working with the lacrosse team is the wide range of physical ability among the boys. “We have some guys who absolutely love to train and have been doing so for a long time, and we have others who’ve never stepped into a weight room before,” explains Russ. Boys in the latter group, much like inexperienced clients, tend to present with poor core strength, immobility, poor body control, quadriceps dominance, valgus collapse during a squat, rounded shoulders and more.
“I think it’s important to remember that we’re dealing with developing athletes at IMG, and many of these movement issues can be attributed to the fact that the athletes are still growing.”
Foundations. “As with any strength and conditioning program, the first priority is to keep the kids on the field, injury-free,” Russ says. “We sat down with the athletic training staff prior to the season and looked at injury statistics from previous years to determine what we could incorporate into the program to reduce common injuries. In our case, the most common injury was ankle sprains.”
The next challenge was to shore up the team’s physical capacity. “As strength coaches working with this group, we have our work cut out for us. To overcome the challenge of coping with a wide range of athletic ability, we divide the lacrosse players into two separate groups and create different (yet mirroring) programs for each group,” he says. “I’m responsible for the younger developmental group, so I focus on a few primary goals: strong foundational movement patterns, proper exercise techniques, controlled eccentric movements, injury prevention, core strengthening, and posterior chain development. I make it a point to keep the programs and exercises simple and to coach thoroughly and actively as the athletes are going through their daily lift.”
Coaching. Russ adds that beyond developing high-quality conditioning programs, dealing with the athletes can be a challenge because of the different ways they respond to coaching. “High-schoolaged kids aren’t perfect, and it’s our job as coaches to instill discipline. We also need to show empathy,” explains Russ. “I’ve found this especially useful when talking to the athletes about school-related issues. Showing empathy and providing advice can mean a lot to young athletes and can help them buy into the program for the long term.”
Russ adds that he spends a lot of time learning which coaching style works best with each athlete. He tries to speak to his athletes in a way they’ll understand and in a manner that helps them visualize success. He’s noticed that teenagers tend to enjoy it when you explain the “why” and some of the science behind exercise and strength training.
The approach seems to be working. One of Russ’s fondest memories at IMG Academy is of watching both the lacrosse teams win championship trophies at the IMG Nationals Lacrosse Tournament.
“You develop a relationship with the kids on turf and in the weight room when you’re leading conditioning and weight training sessions. To see them go out and do what they do—and do it exceptionally well—was special. I was watching the tournament from the sidelines and was fired up, like a proud older brother.”