During my time as a high school strength and conditioning coach, I found that the best outcomes for our athletes occurred when the sport coach and I were on the same page with respect to the role strength training should play for both the athlete and the program.
Some coaches firmly believed that the weight room is a place to enhance athletic performance, and they were all-in from the start. Others believed that the foremost priority was creating punishing workouts to “build toughness.” A third group was reticent to promote or engage in strength training, either because of a bad previous experience or because they subscribed to debunked myths and misconceptions.
With so many divergent opinions about what is “right,” I believe it’s important for strength coaches to establish and communicate a set of commonly accepted principles to the sport coaches you work with. Doing so will create better relationships and improve outcomes for your athletes and the athletic program as a whole.
1. Let the Pros Handle It
In my opinion every high school should have a certified strength and conditioning coach who writes programs and coaches athletes in the weight room as their main responsibility. Some high schools may not have the budget, which means that sport coaches must often fill the void. At the club level, some coaches may employ a strength training period as part of their practice time. Regardless of the situation, I believe whoever is responsible for overseeing workouts should hold some formal experience and certification. Sadly, when a professional isn’t available, we sometimes wind up with programs like this:
Our programs must work for our kids, not against them. To that end, good programming includes compound movements, progressive overload and some variety. Our programs should be tailored to the individual needs of the athlete. I could very easily download the UGA football workout and hand it to my players. However, that program would be largely inappropriate for the majority of the kids whom I coach, because they haven’t developed the skills to execute it properly. Assigning them a program they can’t execute simply sets them up for failure.
There’s also an art to coaching. Coaches with a strong command of their field understand the nuances of movement and help athletes maximize efficiency. For a sport coach, that’s the detail in a quarterback’s footwork or the middle blocker’s positioning to defend a spike attempt. For a strength coach, it’s the detail of recognizing when an individual should be Goblet Squatting instead of Barbell Back Squatting. It’s also knowing when to properly cue a correction or when to simply stay quiet and let the athlete work through it.
2. If You’re Not Getting Better, You’re Getting Worse
Aside from “do no harm,” my top priority with the athletes I coach is to help them improve their athletic performance. I view the weight room as a tool to achieve that outcome.
Some coaches view the weight room as a place to create “toughness.” Such coaches are usually confusing “toughness” with “working them beyond their breaking point.” I completely understand the need to build resilience and fortitude, but what these coaches fail to understand (or wantonly ignore) is that performance gains are made through the work we do, the recovery we get, and the quality of the foods we consume.
My observations suggest that the average high school kid does a pretty poor job with the recovery and food intake components of the equation. Most get less than 8 hours of quality sleep per night and are frequently up past midnight. These same kids also eat poor quality foods or simply do not eat enough to foster muscle recovery and growth. Yet they’re still showing up to practices, lifts and games and going hard. It’s a recipe for failure. Therefore, a responsible approach takes all of these factors into play when designing and implementing a workout.
I also believe there are better ways to create the disciplined, mentally tough athlete we all desire. Let’s enforce punctuality. Let’s create accountability by ensuring that they’re following their workout program as written. Let’s promote responsibility by having them pick up after themselves. Let’s educate them on appropriate rest and nutrition strategies and help them follow through. Ultimately, sport coaches need a high performing athlete on game day, not one who’s physically and mentally fatigued just for the sake of “toughness.”
3. The Best Abilities are Availability and Durability
If we’re doing a good job on points one and two, then we should certainly be avoiding injury in the weight room. Furthermore, a goal of a well-designed strength training program should be to reduce the rate of injury during practice and games. If an injury does occur, improving return to play times is yet another goal.
Collision sports like football and hockey always spring to mind when we discuss strength training, because bigger, stronger bodies can better create and absorb force. But don’t overlook its importance to non-contact sports like tennis or cross country. For these sports, strength training offers us the opportunity to work out imbalances created from overuse during the season.
Strength training is also perfectly acceptable for younger children (e.g., ages 9-13). Here, our goal with strength training is to develop quality movement patterns and facilitate motor learning. We don’t need heavy weights to accomplish this goal. Body weight or light weight is sufficient. Once kids have developed quality movement patterns and coordination, we should add greater amounts of external load to continue strength gains. Some individuals may express concern that the growth plates are in danger as external loads increase. However, this fear is completely unfounded. When kids run and jump during play, they create roughly 6 times their body weight in ground reaction forces. A controlled strength training environment pales in comparison.
As long as we’re not overloading poor movement patterns or grinding our kids to a pulp they’re going to reap the benefits of strength training, while reducing their exposure to injury.
4. Don’t Stop Strength Training During the Season
In many cases, a sport season represents one of the most important blocks of training time we have; let’s not waste it. This is especially true for the multi-sport athlete who spends most of the year in-season. Much of the push-back I received about in-season strength training came from coaches who thought their kids would be too sore from strength training to practice or compete. However, it’s important to remember that we’re not designing high volume workouts in-season. Our goal is to stay strong to better withstand the rigors of the sport season and to keep performance high. We can accomplish this in 30-40 minutes, two or three times per week. We’re still going to use compound movements. Experienced athletes have their training volume reduced with fewer sets and reps, but maintain strength with heavier loads. For novice athletes, skill acquisition is the priority. They continue to build competency with body weight and lighter weight movements.
Of course, there are always schedule changes and exceptions. The strength coach and sport coach should be on the same page concerning the weekly demands of the sport to ensure the best interest of the athlete is always prioritized. Communication helps to ensure consistency. If your athletes work out inconsistently, their strength will suffer, and the likelihood that they are sore after a workout will increase. Lastly, by allowing players to leave the season stronger and more competent than they otherwise would have, they possess a better foundation upon which to build more strength in the offseason.
5. It’s Just as Important for Females
Whether it’s performance improvement, injury reduction or general physical preparedness, the benefits of strength training apply as equally to female athletes as they do male athletes. Sadly, I’ve seen coaches buy into the notion that strength training will make females “bulky,” or they simply believe it’s unnecessary for them. That’s nonsense. We can also dispense with the notion that female-specific programs are required. I program Squats, Deadlifts, Lunges and Presses in various forms for my female athletes, just like their male counterparts. I vary the resistance and rep scheme and constantly look for ways to challenge and empower them. If I didn’t, I’d be doing them a disservice both in terms of their athletic development and in terms of their perception of what’s possible. Let’s not deprive them of the opportunity to be stronger and more athletic because of outdated ways of thinking.
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