In 2016 the athletics department hired its first full-time strength and conditioning coach, Chris McPherson. Last year, Michelle Pifer was also hired to supplement his role. Since their arrival, the Swarthmore athletics program has experienced unprecedented success. Just in this past year, the Garnet have won Centennial Conference titles in women’s soccer, men’s swimming, and men’s basketball, with the men’s basketball team finishing as the national runners-up.
Women’s softball coach Melissa Finley attributes her team’s success to her players’ work in the weight room with the strength and conditioning coaches.
“They’ve been working harder,” she said. “They’ve done a lot more in the weight room with our strength coach, Michelle, in terms of lifting and conditioning.”
In addition to Finley many other coaches attribute their team’s recent success to both McPherson and Pifer. Pifer gives the credit to the athletes.
“There has a been a great shift in attitudes and the recent success in Swarthmore’s Athletics can show for it.” Pifer said. “We as Strength Conditioning Coaches understand it is tough and it is not ideal — but it is a part of fulfilling the commitment to yourself and to your team, and the journey of being successful at the sport that you love.”
McPherson thinks overall athletic success is a product of much more than just a better strength and conditioning program.
“It takes a team effort which involves administration, sports coaches, sports medicine and most importantly Swarthmore College student-athletes,” he said. “Our athletes have bought in to what we have been doing and worked hard in and out of season — through this the results are starting to show.”
In his time here, McPherson has worked to create a culture of a strong work ethic and accountability. He has also made efforts to make the gym a more hospitable environment.
“I wanted the weight room to be a welcoming environment for all students,” he said. “When most students arrive on campus they have little to no experience working out in a weight room. The weight room can be an intimidating place at times, so I wanted to change that. I also wanted the weight room to be a place of learning as much as the classroom was for our student athletes. Besides learning proper weightlifting technique, which muscles you are working or proper running mechanics, the weight room can teach lessons about life that one not might realize right away.”
Sports has spoken to McPherson in ways that reach beyond life lessons. Growing up, McPherson felt a connection to athletics that inspired him to get into the strength and conditioning field. He ran track and field at Temple University before going on to get his masters in Exercise Science and Health Promotion from California University of Pennsylvania. He previously worked at La Salle University, St. Joseph’s, and Temple before coming to Swarthmore.
“Sports has personally had a major impact on my life and I wanted to do something that allowed me to have the same impact on others through a career that involved athletics,” McPherson said. “Helping others improve their athletic performance and reach their personal goals has been a dream job of mine and I am happy to be living out that dream.”
He works with men’s soccer, men’s basketball, baseball, field hockey, women and men’s lacrosse, women’s volleyball, and men’s and women’s swimming. Pifer takes on the other sports and has learned to adapt workout regimens to accommodate different team’s schedules.
“My role is to provide year round training for women’s soccer, women’s basketball, men’s tennis, women’s tennis, men’s track & field, and women’s track & field,” Pifer said. “Each individual sport team has a different off-season and in-season training schedule, availability, and demand from me. Therefore, I work to fulfill each individual sport team’s needs and demands so they may be successful.”
Pifer joined the program last year after interning at Bucknell University, Bloomsburg University, and at University of Pennsylvania. At those internships she fell in love with coaching and strength conditioning.
“I grew to love coaching and the weight room, the connection and relationships you build among athletes, coaches, and the Athletic department staff,” Pifer said. “But most importantly the opportunity to see each individual athlete’s hard work that transpires into physical improvements, and ultimately translates to success on and off the field.”
Pifer outlined the some of her roles in her job as a strength and conditioning coach.
“The role of a Strength and Conditioning Coach is to foremost reduce the risk of injury, maximize athletic development, and improve overall wellness for each individual athlete,” she said. “Additionally, the goal of of each weight room and conditioning session is to use scientifically-proven strategies to improve an athlete’s power, strength, flexibility, mobility, maximal speed, and cardiovascular system. When strategizing to maximize physical performance for each individual sport; the sport demands, sport characteristics, and specific sport movements from each individual sport are considered throughout the annual program design.”
To get the most out of workouts, Pifer and McPherson connect with coaches in the department to be aware of the schedule for different teams. By accounting for fatigue, intensity of practices, and physical stress, they can design more effective training sessions.
“This can be a complicated process so as coaches, we work diligently to monitor fatigue so athletes feel fresh, explosive, and strong going into each competition,” Pifer said. “Furthermore, the communication with Sports Medicine allows us to be on the same page for current injuries, physical limitations, and appropriate progressions or regressions due to current injury.”
Pifer has also contributed to the informational presence of the athletics department, releasing advice on healthy living habits and nutrition on the Swat Strength instagram page almost daily. She has also held sport nutrition presentations for most of the individual sports teams on campus. Pifer has also strived to help in the difficult balancing of academic and team requirements.
“I have attempted to provide time alternatives to athletes to aid management of being a student at a rigorous academic school while maintaining success as an athlete,” said Pifer.
Most of Swarthmore’s student-athletes have really felt the benefits of the coaching from McPherson and Pifer. Women’s soccer player Ally Scheve ’22 is one of many to appreciate the work of the strength and conditioning coaches.
“I have really enjoyed working with Michelle this spring,” she said. “She has obviously put in a ton of effort and thought into how to structure lifts so our team can get the most out of every meeting.”
Scheve also mentioned how much their team’s coach cares about their athletic success.
“Michelle is always super welcoming and will write you a work out even if you don’t have team lift,” she said. “She also generally wants to know how you are feeling and what she can do to help you achieve your goals.”
Looking forward, Pifer and McPherson have plans to continue improving the athletics program and goals they wish to see accomplished in the coming years.
“My goals are to continue to provide content to student-athletes about sport nutrition, recovery strategies, and weight training related topics on Instagram and through presentations for individual sport teams,” Pifer said. “Other goals include searching for opportunities on Swarthmore’s campus to educate and communicate the importance of maintaining good physical health, the benefits of participating sports while attending Swarthmore College, and how participating in sports teaches you life’s biggest lessons. Lastly, my professional goals are to obtain my sports nutrition certification this summer, and to obtain my USA Weightlifting certification this summer as well.”
McPherson holds similar goals.
“I would like to see continued growth among all of our varsity sports teams both in and out of sport,” McPherson added. “Our student athletes have accomplished some amazing things these past few years that makes me proud. Another goal would be to have one of our varsity teams win a national championship. On a more personal level I want to continue to improve and grow as a coach.”
McPherson and Pifer have undoubtedly been crucial in the recent success of Swarthmore athletics. However, they are sure to share the credit for this success.
“In conclusion, our contribution to overall athletic success is truly a team effort,” McPherson said.