Pick a sport. Any sport. For more than 30 years, strength and conditioning coach Tim McClellan has likely helped somebody get better at it. McClellan thrives on tailoring a plan for anyone who wants to work hard—from local high school sports teams to middle school Little Leaguers to pro athletes in the off season and even a newly accepted West Point cadet preparing for basic training.
The concept of designing sports-specific programs to help build muscle and improve agility—on top of regular practice sessions—was a fairly new concept in the mid ’80s, when McClellan started his career working with ASU Sun Devil football players. These days, sports-specific workouts for young athletes have become routine. McClellan talks about overtraining, what colleges look for in young athletes today and why anyone can improve their physical fitness if they’re willing to put in the time and effort.
Why were you drawn to a career training athletes?
When I was a child I was just enamored with sports. I liked competing and the things that I learned from the games we played, whether it was baseball, football or basketball.
Do you work with athletes from any sport or background?
Throughout my career, I’ve been blessed to have a great diversity of experiences. I’ve had the opportunity to prepare about 11,000 athletes for their chosen sports. So if it’s out there and it’s a contested event, I’ve probably trained somebody for it. Fortunately I’ve also had an opportunity now to train some others. I’ve got some firefighters, which I thoroughly enjoy.
Have you found that people must be born with natural talent or can they develop the skills to be competitive athletes?
People are absolutely born with natural talent in varying degrees and in different areas, and I think we all have our own blessings and they’re all different. Not anybody can be a world champion, but everybody can improve if they’re willing to put in the time and effort.
How do you decide on the best ways to coach athletes for their particular sports or to meet their particular goals?
The buzzwords in my profession are “sport specific.” What you want to do is a biomechanical analysis of the sport. You want to go through the exercise physiology and what has to happen in the body to make those mechanical movements for that particular sport.
How has your role in working with young athletes changed over the years?
My job used to be getting athletes motivated and pumping them up and getting more out of them. Nowadays, my job involves getting people to train smarter, not just harder. A lot of kids these days are over-trained.
Are you seeing more kids getting injured these days? If so, why?
When I played in the late ’60s, throughout the ’70s and early ’80s, the percentage of injuries caused by overuse was eight percent of the total number of injuries for adolescents. That figure today is now 80 percent. I see it all the time—kids that are 11 years old with partial fractures in their backs because they’re playing too much soccer. Or the 13- to 14-year-old volleyball or basketball player who’s got stress fractures or stress reactions in the feet from too much time on the court. There’s been a significant increase in overuse injuries in youth athletes and that’s really, really sad.
What have you noticed about young athletes who commit to playing a single sport at an early age? Does that usually give an athlete an advantage to win a college scholarship in that sport?
What’s happening these days is everyone is specializing in one sport, which gives them more skill in that one sport. But they’re missing out on general athleticism. Make no mistake about it—colleges and professional teams want well-rounded, good athletes. If they have a great athlete, they can polish him/her into what they want them to be.
You’ve written a book, “Inner Strength, Inner Peace: Life Changing Lessons from the World’s Greatest.” It’s not the instructional manual on diet and exercise that one might expect from a fitness expert; but rather a collection of stories about the athletes that you’ve trained and how they have, in turn, motivated you—NFL and U.S. Army legend Pat Tillman, Olympic swimmer Gary Hall, Jr., a sumo wrestler, cyclists, a pole vaulter, martial arts experts. You write about how motivation to “be your best” can come from anyone. A high school coach, your parents…even dogs.
There are things you can learn from the world-class hockey player or world-class football player. And there are things that you can learn from the 85-year-old man who wants to stay fit. I’ve been really fortunate to be exposed to not only some great high-achieving athletes, but also some great high-achieving people. My hope is that I’m smart enough to see these things and be able to grow from them myself.
Robert T. Balint, of Phoenix, conducted this interview during a summer internship with our editorial department.