UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State basketball strength and conditioning coach Brad Pantall says the most important aspect of being a strength coach is being honest with the athletes and getting them to understand and value a physical development program.
“That’s more important than any one exercise, any rep set scheme or any frequency of days of how you train,” Pantall said. “That’s the foundation of this whole thing.”
A State College native, the 39-year-old Pantall is in his seventh season as strength and conditioning coach for the men’s and women’s basketball teams. Before working with basketball, he was a graduate assistant strength and conditioning coach for two years under then-football strength coach John Thomas. He has also worked with the NFL’s Washington Redskins and Cincinnati Bengals in their strength training departments.
Since the early 1970s, strength and conditioning programs have become an integral part of college athletics. Many universities have large conditioning staffs. The Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association has more than 1,000 active members, according to its website.
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At Penn State, Craig Fitzgerald, the football strength and conditioning coach, oversees all strength and conditioning for the 29 intercollegiate sports on campus. He and his staff of professional strength trainers work closely with all of the teams’ athletic trainers and coaches.
In addition to Pantall and Fitzgerald, Shawn Contos is strength and conditioning coach for wrestling and Robert McLean for men’s and women’s hockey.
Pantall joined the Penn State football team in 1992 as walk-on long snapper, earned a scholarship his sophomore year, played in 36 consecutive games and was a member of the 1995 Rose Bowl Championship team.
He said being a student athlete at Penn State is what really got him interested in strength and conditioning.
“Coach Paterno gave me a pretty unique opportunity right as I was finishing my undergrad to get a start in the coaching world in the weight room and to help out with our defensive coaches,” Pantall said.
His basketball program consists of year-round balance and multi-faceted physical development. When players come in as freshmen, he said, his staff looks for any deficiencies, imbalances and weak links in their physical development chain.
“This really starts the mold of their individual program,” Pantall said.
Pantall’s training has two parts, he said. One is strength and power, in which the players train all the muscles. The other is explosive and power movements. He said they do a lot of medicine ball throws and resistance and loaded jumping with the hip complex to get the triple extension – a term when a player gets the rebound or makes a shot movement pattern.
“One of the most important factors is we train hard,” Pantall said. “We push these kids and ask them to do more than they ever thought possible.”
Pantall is big on variety and never does the same workout twice. Another crucial aspect of his philosophy is accounting for individual needs and deficiencies, and their metabolic speed and conditioning program, which is specific to basketball.
“At the end of the day we are trying to be functional basketball players,” Pantall said. “Not body builders, not Olympic weightlifters, not football players.”
Four weight rooms are exclusively for athletes on campus. They are located next to the Greenberg Ice Pavilion, in Rec Hall, in the Bryce Jordan Center, and next to the indoor track facility off University Drive. The football team has its weight room in the Lasch Building.
One strength coach new to the university level is McLean, who works with the men’s and women’s hockey teams.
Last yea, McLean was strength and conditioning coach for the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche. He also served on the staffs of two Stanley Cup champions, the 1996 Avalanche and the 2000 New Jersey Devils.
McLean said the biggest transition from the professional ranks to the collegiate level is the realization that education comes first.
“In the NHL you live and die by every game, and the furiousness of every little thing you do is paramount,” he said. “While here you have to keep and mind that the game itself is secondary to the classes and education of these young men.”
McLean, who grew up in Westchester, Nova Scotia, a hamlet of 140 people about 100 miles north of Halifax, said he needed to take on more of a mentor role to help the players develop good habits and leadership while also trying to make them better athletes.
“It’s not life or death here. In the NHL, every day there is so much tension and stress. One loss can hang over a team for days… . To me it’s a more fun level and less stressful, and I think you can have much greater effect on the athletes.”
Sophomore forward and captain Tommy Olczyk said he’s never had so much fun working out.
“You get in there and you excited to work out because he brings such a level of excitement and passion,” Olczyk said.
McLean comes from the philosophy that the first responsibility of a strength coach is injury prevention. Having been around the professional game for more than 20 years he can easily predict the body that will eventually result from playing ice hockey.
Given his experiences, McLean has designed a warm-up specifically to deal with the imbalances and weaknesses hockey players face. McLean said the players lift heavy weights and use a strategy in which leg and core stabilization is the main component.
“You don’t always build an athlete up as strong as they can get,” McLean said, “but you make them as strong as you need to be for the sport.”
Skating is an unnatural movement because of the external rotation, he said. Because of this, he said, he goes out of his way to address the hips of hockey players because of all the injuries that can occur.
“In running sports you don’t have to deal with that foreign movement pattern,” McLean said. “You can develop strength a lot faster in those guys than ours. You have to be aware of the injuries your sport is prone to.”