Coaching Philosophy: How Matt Hickmann Builds Trust at MTSU

About the Author: Mike Austin is a contributing editor of AFCA Magazine. The American Football Coaches Association is the only national organization dedicated to improving football coaches through ongoing education, interaction, and networking. The AFCA and Hammer Strength have teamed up to provide insights into the coaching profession, elite athletic programs, and more. 

Matt Hickmann of MTSUMatt Hickmann, who was named the head strength and conditioning coach for Middle Tennessee State University in June 2018, wants players asking questions. He’s not expecting them to be mindless robots, and he definitely encourages them to take an active part in what they’re doing in the weight room — after all, it’s their well-being that’s at stake.

“We educate our players on a daily basis of what, how and why we are doing,” Hickmann explains. “If the athletes understand what they are doing, it will give them more reason to do it. If you get them to start thinking about the why, then they will ask more questions. If they ask more questions, then that gives them more answers, which gives them more clarity, and more clarity means more trust.”

Hickmann knows the only way to build on that trust and get players to buy in and believe in what he’s teaching is to produce results. Athletes want to see development. They want to reach goals. And, they want it all to translate on the field. But, as any good strength coach understands, it’s not always that easy.

“The weight room can beat guys up, so the most important thing is for athletes to move well,” he says. “What does that mean? All movement needs to be at a high level. If an athlete has a limitation, we are going to address it and work relentlessly at fixing it all while working around it in the meantime.”

This holds true regardless of the level of football. Hickmann has been the director of strength and conditioning at Cumberland University (NAIA) and Furman University (FCS), while also assisting at Georgia Tech (including during the 2014 Orange Bowl championship team) and North Carolina State, both being in the FBS. He says it’s not the level of football that affects the way he coaches, but the individual player. He says you must be consistent in showing players you care about their performance, fueling, recovery and well-being, while being versatile enough to understand that some athletes respond to different coaching styles.

“All athletes understand the value of the weight room and performance,” adds Hickmann. “They are all human and want to be coached. But the one thing that has been consistent is that not everyone will respond to the same coaching cues, so we have to figure out a way to get our message across.”

And that message had to come across loud and clear to a new group of athletes for Hickmann last year as he stepped into a good situation at MTSU. Head football coach Rick Stockstill is in his 13th season leading the Blue Raiders, so the culture already has been established and in place. Hickmann saw his role as someone to complement what Stockstill had built as their belief systems and approach to coaching were similar.

He says during the interview process, they covered setting standards, expectations, values, vision and the mission from the get-go. Once Hickmann secured the job, he just needed to keep things moving forward.

“We believe in the same things so that was simple,” he explains. “I just had to reiterate those things. The weight room already had great set up and was very efficient with how I wanted it.”

Now, Hickmann hopes to continue producing results at a school that earned a spot in the Conference USA title game a season ago.