Article Written By: Jordan Pickett 

Asst. Coach at Southwestern University

A Guide, Gauge and Go-To For Improvement

A Note on Performance

Before diving into what college coaches are looking for in performance, a note needs to be made here that athletic performance is crucial and important, but it is not the key to getting recruited. It may be what catches the eye of a college coach or recruiter, but character and grades are points of interest as well.

Athletes should dedicate just as much time, likely more, to improving their studies, and becoming a great teammate. In my personal experience, I have seen more athletes lose their roster spots over character issues and academics than a lack of physical performance. 

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Aspects to Performance

College coaches are looking for the best. They are looking for athletes that are faster, stronger, and more explosive than what they have, that will complement their roster, and that will give them an edge on the competition.

There are several aspects of physical athletic performance that need to be addressed:

  • Speed 
  • Strength 
  • Power
  • General athletic ability

Each of these needs time and attention to create the best athlete. Speed deals with direction change, the time it takes to get to max speed, how quickly an athlete moves, and how quickly they can decelerate–not only how fast they run.  Strength deals with the force necessary to move or keep power from moving. Oftentimes strength is evident by how easily an athlete makes a play or move. Power, also dubbed explosive power in many conversations, concerns how quickly an athlete can convert strength into speed, whether vertically, horizontally, or rotationally. Power is the transfer of force and is extremely important in all athletics. Then lastly, general athletic ability is observed through hand-eye coordination, maintaining body control under chaos or uncontrolled circumstance, and incredible proprioception that advances play.

College coaches most often look for a combination of these 4. A great way to enhance performance is to figure out which area is the weakest and enthusiastically improve that skill. Each aspect of performance can be enhanced with consistent action over time. Sure, there are some athletes with an incredible amount of natural ability. However, speed, strength, power, and overall athleticism can be improved with a plan, consistent work, and proper nutrition.

1. Speed

Speed is a valuable component of athletic performance that all coaches look for. The faster the athlete, the easier it is to implement the sport’s system. Coaches can run more closed plays in volleyball, they can full-court press in basketball, and they can teach a more comprehensive shot selection in tennis. Speed gives an athlete an edge.

Speed is also directly related to strength and explosion. Therefore, if there is only enough time or resources to improve one skill, I recommend improving speed. Because speed is essential explosive power, improving speed will improve all other aspects. Train moving in different planes, different directions, with different speeds accelerating and decelerating. The muscles needed to slow down an athlete are vital to the athlete's control.

There are plenty of resources on YouTube and other streaming sites with skills videos on improving speed. Speed coaches are also often available in an athlete’s area. College coaches are looking for fast and dynamic athletes. Improving speed is a challenging skill but worth the time spent. 

2. Strength

College coaches look for the strength of an athlete for many reasons. Every athlete is going to improve their skills and their power when coming into a program that has a strength training program. However, college coaches see the edge it gives them when recruiting a stronger athlete.

Recruiting a strong athlete is like starting a job with money in savings already. That employee will make an income and add to the protection, but more money never hurts. Having a solid baseline will benefit athletes. Strength takes time to build, but with consistent effort, it is possible.

Athletes need to make sure they are consuming 20-40g of lean protein after training to repair muscles and be consuming 1g per .5lb of body weight to maintain their muscles. While not always, in some cases, stronger muscles can also relate to a lower injury rate. Strengthening the muscles keeps the joints safe. Getting stronger will also help the athlete physically handle the demands that college athletes put on the body. 

3. Power

Speed gives an athlete an edge and is noticed by college coaches. Strength is also edge-giving. However, power is how quickly an athlete can move the weight. Energy is coveted and sought part of athletic performance and will catch a coach's eye when watching.

The more powerful an athlete is, the more likely they are to be recruited, given that they are skilled, a good student, and do not get into trouble. Most sports require peak performance of at least two athletic attributes. 

4. General Athleticism

Coaches are constantly looking for ‘an athlete.’ Teaching a sports skill can be easy if the athlete is coachable and the coach is a good communicator. However, if an athlete does not have the physical athleticism to do the maneuver, skill, or play the coach is designing, then coaching becomes difficult.

Athleticism is often the subconscious making decisions and plays that the conscious mind can’t catch up to. Hand-eye coordination, reaction time, body control, and balance can be trained to improve overall athleticism.  

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Ways to Improve and Gauges of Level of Performance

I will list some times and tests for determining an athlete's level of performance. This will differ for men and women, and across sports, so below a general inventory of tests exists. It is by no means exhaustive. In parentheses, you’ll see a range of times to aim for.

For speed: 

Tests such as 

  • 40 yd dash (F 4.8-6 sec, M 4.3-5.3 sec)

  • Pro Agility 5-10-5 (F 4.5-5 sec, M 4.3-5.3 sec)

  • T-test (F 11-12 sec, M 8.7-10 sec)

Have been shown to test the general speed abilities of athletes. 

Strength measures can be a back squat 1+ x bodyweight, and for females, a front squat to 95lbs x 5 as a general strength gauge. Plate pinches, pull, ups and chin-up holds are reasonable measures of strength. Power and explosion are challenging to measure outside of a vertical test, so vertical tests are one of the best intensity measures. 

Vertical ranges: 

  • Female averages above average 20-24”, excellent 24”+

  • Male averages above average 24-28”’, excellent 28”+

*An ending note athletic performance can be heavily influenced by nutrition and flexibility. When training for improving athletic performance, recovery, sleep, and adequate nutrition should be given attention to getting the most out of athletic performance

College coaches are looking for the highest level of performance possible; if the most elevated level of performance isn’t possible in a recruiting class, then an athlete needs other skills such as leadership, an high (specific sports) IQ, and exceptional grades. 

Assess each area, then get to work on improving those areas. Happy Training!