The High School Strength Coach: Challenges, Solutions, and Outcomes

There are few high school strength coaches in our local area.  As a high school strength coach, I'd like to share the challenges that we've had, what we're doing, and how the strength program has benefited our athletes after the first year.

A survey (Wade, Pope, & Simonson, 2014) of 57 Division I strength and conditioning coaches revealed that incoming college freshman athletes lack (a) lower extremity strength, (b) overall flexibility, (d) core strength, (d) proper Olympic lifting technique, (e) the mental toughness to endure collegiate sport training, and (f) lack of knowledge of correct nutrition and recovery principles.

Recommendations included hiring certified coaches and athletic trainers (CSCS and USAW) in order to improve upon these shortcomings. These recommendations really apply to all high school athletes, and particularly those who are talented and dedicated enough to participate in college.

Challenges for High School Strength Coaches

These finding of this study make sense, but hiring certified coaches alone does not ensure that the deficits indicated can be addressed. The challenges are multi-faceted even when certified coaches are on staff.

As an example, in Knox County, TN only 4 of 16 high schools have CSCS-certified coaches.  All positions are part-time on a “consulting” basis. Contracts run from September to May. I've found that if my position is going to make a difference, I need to put in time well beyond the limits of the contract, as do the successful sport coaches.

Here are a few of the challenges:

Part-time is not enough.  The pool of CSCS-certified coaches who can work part time before and after school is probably pretty small, especially considering that only 61% of those who take the exam pass it. Of those qualified, only those who are available late in the afternoon could take such a position. 

Fostering coach/athlete knowledge and skill. An important role is instructing sport coaches and athletes about correct technique, ensuring safety, performing workouts as prescribed, and following training principles. This involves dispelling popular myths and misconceptions, including those that athletes pick up from the internet and working out at local commercial gyms or fitness centers where few, if any, fitness trainers hold the CSCS or USAW certification. 

Athletes training during classes. You would think that this is a positive, but not so much. Athletes in these large classes receive little instruction or supervision. As the strength coach, I am not able to coach athletes who work out in class. It is up to the athletes to follow their programs as posted, and some simply do not comply. Remember, this is high school, which leads to my final point.

Compliance with programming. Kids are kids. In general, the boys would rather lift more weight in a half squat than less weight in a parallel squat. They want to stay with and lift more than their friends even if they exceed their prescribed weight loads. And some just don’t want to lift—lazy, not focused, whatever; however, they are highly motivated do limited-range curls with lots of weight in front of the mirror. I’m beginning to think it is in their DNA.

The point is that it takes lots of supervision and instruction to achieve the desired results.  Here are the things that have worked pretty well for us.

Multiple assignments. As the high school strength coach, I am on site most every day year round. I also coach the throws in track during the spring, and most of the throwers are linemen. The receivers’ coach is also the sprint coach. These dual roles allow us to coordinate training programs and foster running/lifting technique year round.

Supervision and structure. Sport coaches must be in the weight room in a 1:15 coach-to-athlete ratio. Due to the large number of football players, there are usually 4 football coaches (2 in each weight room) supervising very structured workouts.

To ensure that every athlete follows the program, each athlete lifts on cue: 1st man up, 2nd man up. The other sport teams are small enough to allow adequate supervision.

Positive environment. The school’s leadership is key in setting the tone. They maintain standards of behavior while motivating and encouraging positive change in sport programs and training philosophies. There is respect, trust, and collegiality among the coaches, who are willing to learn and implement new training methods. In addition, older athletes help instruct and support younger athletes.

Benefits of Hiring a High School Strength Coach

Consistent with the recommendations from the article, in combination with qualified sport coaches and strong leadership at the high school, we agree that athletes are more prepared for competitive high school play just one year after hiring a high school strength coach. Those athletes who are recruited for college athletics are also more prepared, too, because they are more motivated to succeed.

  • Improvements in lifting technique and lower body strength and power are most notable. Many athletes have mastered good basic mechanics in the more complex Olympic lifts (power clean, split jerk, and power snatch and their variations).
  • All are performing parallel squats vs. half squats, unless they are limited by hamstring/low back flexibility. In that case, the athletes are assigned additional stretching activities to achieve the necessary range of motion.
  • Teams perform both stretching and core strength routines daily. Sport coaches make adjustments to the posted routines as needed for their sports.
  • More students are participating in sports at the high school than ever before, more signed with colleges, and more signed with D 1 schools. The signees tend to be the ones who are most interested in nutrition, recovery principles, and proper technique.
  • No injuries occurred in the weight room and the training likely prevented or reduced the severity of some sport-related injuries.

In terms of sport performance:

  • Football had a perfect season (10-0) for the first time in its history, won two post-season games, and lost in the semi-final round of the State play offs.
  • Both Boys and Girls Basketball had successful seasons. For the first time, both earned multiple post season honors.
  • Four athletes qualified for the Indoor Track and Field State Championships and two medaled. 
  • I've worked with rugby, a club sport at the high school, for 3 years. The South Doyle Rugby Club is consistently ranked in the top 15 teams in the USA as a result of excellent sport coach leadership. They consider specialized strength-speed training as an edge over competitors. 

We'll soon learn how the spring sports fare at the end of the semester.

In conclusion, if your school can hire a qualified strength and conditioning coach, it's a plus. But a certified coach does not ensure success for the reasons and challenges mentioned. But when the strength coach and sport coaches create a positive training environment under the leadership of an effective athletic director and principal, you have the potential to develop more capable athletes and a more successful program. 

Back to Sport Strength Training

Reference

Wade, S.M., Pope, Z.C, & Simonson, S.R. (2014). How prepared are college freshman athletes for the rigors of college strength and conditioning? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(10), 2746-2753. Abstract: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24714539