New Paltz Strength and Conditioning Coach Gary Gall on Accountability, Communication, and Leadership in the Weight Room

By Jon-Ryan Maloney

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Gary Gall never intended to be a strength and conditioning coach. After graduating from Susquehanna University in 2009, he wanted to join the United States Navy — the SEALs or SWCCs in particular.

While working full-time as a recruiter for a healthcare agency, Gall began training three to six hours a day in preparation for basic training. His expectations were dashed, though, when it was discovered he had a small scar in his left eye, a condition that would disqualify him from service.

Though it crushed him, the naval officers noticed Gall’s determination. They noticed how good he was at lifting weights. He was so good they offered him an internship to train other Navy recruits. It wasn’t long before Gall had moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota to become a strength and conditioning graduate assistant at Northern State University. 

Now as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at New Paltz, it only makes sense that Gall’s styles of training and leadership draw heavily from the military:

Jon-Ryan Maloney: Since your original ambition was to go into the NAVY Seals, is there anything you bring from that experience into your job right now?

Gary Gall: As far as leadership, the military promotes a big picture. You’re part of something bigger than you, and if you falter you’re going to cause a kink in the chain that’s going to bring everybody else down. So that’s what I really want to create in the weight room here. When I organize kids I have them in small groups, and I have group leaders. The leaders and I talk before the workout about what’s expected of them, where they have to go, and how they have to lead their group. It’s not just me anymore. This is supposed to be your team, you’re supposed to be a captain, so you have to start to provide for the team.

JRM: We’ve talked about this in the past, but can you give more detail about how you organize your team workouts?

Gall: When the athletes come down to the weight room I have a packet of folders for their session. Each folder comes with a detailed workout, and it comes with a name tag on the folder. The name tag has the last name of the four to six leaders I’ve picked out. Once they come down I’ll meet with those leaders for a brief time. We’ll talk about the workout, we’ll talk about any adjustments that need to be made, and we’ll go over what they need to know. On those sheets are a list of expectations from me about creating an environment, creating accountability, or guiding the freshmen. I’ll purposely put a weaker, inexperienced lifter with a certain leader to see how she handles it.

This is one of the big adjustments I made this year, because I never knew how much athletes took ownership of the workouts. One thing I said in our staff meetings back in the summer is that if we create this leadership academy, we’ve got to make something for the athletes that’s like a badge of honor. So my first step with that was to use post-it notes for the leaders’ names on the folders. The leaders could change every week. You were given this opportunity, but it’s not your right to keep it. If you’re not doing what I think needs to be done, or you’re not doing quite enough, somebody else’s name will be on there. I guess the biggest thing behind it is accountability. I’m sure you might be having these same problems, but athletes these days don’t take much initiative. They kind of want things done for them. So how can I change that a little bit?

JRM: Well, that was going to be another question for you. You’re going to speak at the Buffalo State Strength and Conditioning Clinic in the spring about accountability, so can you give me an overview of what you’re going to talk about to the people there?

Gall: I’m going to talk about trying to build that weight room culture. My goal for workouts is to have them run similar to a military style of training. I noticed last year that there was a lot of down time. There was chit-chat going on, and casually going through reps. I didn’t see the best effort out of everybody all the time. So how do I eliminate that? The first thing I thought of was to count everything. Back in August I went from counting reps in a program to counting seconds. So an athlete will do a power clean for 15 seconds. Then he stops and has 15 seconds of rest, and we switch right to the next person. The smaller groups and smaller teams actually run like factories. Four or five people will be up ripping through their exercise, finish, and after a ten-second window the next person is up. What I noticed is that it completely eliminated down time. Everybody was moving. So my plan at Buffalo State is to organize the people into groups and go through something like that. One of the key things I noticed was that if there was poor communication in the beginning, the workout failed.

JRM: You mean communication with your leaders?

Gall: Yeah, with the leaders. I want to put things in their hands, and take away the spoon-fed mentality of guiding athletes through a work-out.  It’s in your hands, and if this work-out isn’t very good it’s not totally my fault. Now it’s your fault — it’s our fault. And number two is communication. I’ve seen coaches just write a work-out on the board, and have the kids just go through it at their own pace, just getting through it. I don’t want to have that. I want a sense of urgency from the first minute. We’re getting through everything with some kind of purpose. Not only am I held accountable for how the work-out goes, but there’s four or five leaders with me who are held accountable for that, too. They realize that, and it creates a culture. When they come to strength training, it’s like another part of practice. They can’t check out.

JRM: I think that’s part of the beauty in Division III, because there’s only one coach, and we have to rely on these kids to be accountable. I think that’s a big benefit.

Gall: It’s a huge benefit.

JRM: Because you’re not going to be there in four years.

Gall: Right, and you and I aren’t going to play. They might come down here and have a fantastic workout, with me yelling and running around, but I’m not on the field. How will you translate that mentality onto the field? Am I going to have to come out there and yell before the game? Or are you going to be able to turn it on yourself, and get others to follow you?

JRM: When you select leaders, are they selected just by you? Or do you have input from the other coaches?

Gall: I collaborate with the coaches. I don’t see them play as much either, so I don’t always see the other side, so we collaborate on that.

JRM: I want to ask, too, about training athletes while they’re out-of-season. It’s a different ball game because it’s not part of their practice anymore.

Gall: I know. It’s totally different. I work through three different programs. I have everybody grouped. I have what I call power sports, movement sports, and endurance sports. I make up three different programs for that. When the athletes come down, I encourage them to come down in groups of four or five at a time, every ten or fifteen minutes. That was my way of establishing a little bit of organization. Now I’ve reorganized my weight room this summer and I have eight different stations in here. As they’re filtering down, I’m taking those groups and putting them in stations. That’s helped the flow tremendously. I had another idea after speaking with a colleague at Vassar College (Cameron Williams). They’re a lot bigger than I am here, so he runs one general program. I think they have 25 sports.

JRM: That’s a big job for one person.

Gall: I know. He said that his most popular sports, the kids he sees a lot of — the volleyball players, baseball players, soccer players — he said he tailors his workouts towards them. I really think that’s something I might entertain in the years to come. It’s not perfect, but it’s simple. The big problem I have is a person who’s on week 6 in a cycle and a person who’s on week 2. When they come together it’s hard to know where to put them. That’s something I just haven’t achieved yet, but now I’m really looking into his idea.

JRM: This is a big question, and you can take it in whatever direction you want, but generally, what has worked for you at New Paltz, and what hasn’t?

Gall: What has worked, number one, is just my energy and my passion, and the relationships I’ve created. I think my first two years here I would sugarcoat things. Now that I’ve cultivated relationships with these seniors, when I come down on them very hard about things they know that I’m very frustrated, they know that something isn’t right and they know something needs to be picked up. Number two, you’re not going to send your car to a guy in a suit. You’re going to send it to a guy that’s in a mechanic outfit who’s dirty from the neck all the way down. As a coach in this, I believe you have to be pretty good at lifting weights, and you have to be pretty intense with working out. As I get older and have a family, things might change, but sometimes I’ll work out in the weight room just so kids can watch. They can watch me go through a hard workout, and they can watch me fail at something, so that they know that that happens. What hasn’t worked is I won’t be a sugarcoaty-coach. I’m really going to have to fight that battle, not doing something just to make somebody like you.

JRM: Particularly with athletes?

Gall: Yeah, with coaches too, but it’s all about setting some kind of standard and some kind of a purpose. That’s what I’ve noticed. In my first two years I was popular, but I don’t think it totally brought our teams to their fullest potential.

JRM: I think that’s something I still struggle with too. Everybody wants to be liked.

Gall: You’re going to at first. It’s hard to take someone you don’t know and call them out to their face. It’s hard to do two weeks on the job when nobody even knows what you’re about.  It’s easier four years down the road.

JRM: I always like to end with this question to open it up: Is there anything else that’s important for people to hear from you?

Gall: The biggest thing for me, and maybe it’s because I’ve gotten older, but eventually nothing lasts. Teams don’t last — kids don’t last because they move on and graduate. In the big picture, life doesn’t last. So don’t waste a day, don’t chop one up. Get the most you can out of every single day. Get the most you can out of what you do. You don’t know when it’s all going to end.

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