Here’s what happened when we made our fitness testing into a game

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In 2014 we implemented a series of nine “challenges” for our team’s preseason fitness testing. Collectively, we called it The SUNYAC Challenge.

SUNYAC stands for State University of New York Athletic Conference. It consists of ten teams at public universities in New York, one being Fredonia. That gives us nine opponents in our conference — nine teams, nine challenges (details).

Some of the challenges are extremely difficult. Run a mile in 7 minutes and 25 seconds. Perform a rear-foot elevated split squat with 110 lbs. Sprint four lengths of a volleyball court 18 times (pictured). It causes athletes all sorts of anxiety.

But the difficulty isn’t what makes The SUNYAC Challenge special. It’s special because it’s a game. And games have rules.

The first rule of The SUNYAC Challenge is that every challenge needs to get done. On a 15-player roster, 135 challenges need to be completed (15 x 9 = 135). Everyone gets two attempts at each one.

The second rule of The SUNYAC Challenge is that if a player can’t complete a challenge in two tries, another player needs to do it for her. This is where we coaches tend to cringe: “Some of my players are lazy. They won’t be able to do the challenges and they’ll just let other players do it for them.”

That valid objection brings us right to the heart of what college is for: motivating people to learn. In this case, learning to be self-directed.

It’s easy to motivate through punishment. “If you don’t pass the fitness tests, you’re not playing.” “If you don’t get a ‘B’ in this class, you won’t graduate.” Used sparingly, punishment is an effective tool. Used frequently, student-athletes become punished people. Better to learn self-direction.

In 2014 we made the challenges too hard. Some of them were so unmanageable (6:59 mile!) that the fear induced in the team made volleyball a distant afterthought. 2015 was much better when we eased up a bit. More athletes passed, and the ones that didn’t were putting forth more effort.

This year was different, though. Not because more athletes passed challenges (which they did), but because for the first time nobody expected a teammate to do a challenge for them. If an athlete failed, she was much more likely to attribute it to her own preparation than to the impossibility of the task. She was genuinely disappointed and didn’t want someone doing it for her.

Because of that, the athletes who had to repeat challenges for others were more understanding, and they pushed themselves just as hard the second time around. When two athletes had to repeat a mile, they churned out times of 7:04 and 7:05. When a group of four combined to run for an injured athlete, splitting it into quarter-miles, they sprinted to a 6:20 finish! After three years, that’s when I knew with certainty that the system is working.

To my knowledge, we don’t have a metric that measures this sort of transformative change.

[The idea for this system came from Amber Warners’s presentation at the 2013 AVCA Convention. We, and several other teams, stole it.

When I interviewed Warners in April, she explained why she’d share something so critical to her team’s success: “I just shared the conditioning program with some high school coaches and they said, ‘Why would you want to share that? Why would you want to give away your secrets?’ Well, this is about doing a job that’s really, really difficult. And if it can be a betterment for athletes and help the game be more positive, what’s more important than that?”]

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