My 5 Biggest Mistakes as a First Year High School Strength Coach

By Zac Cowell, MTI Contributor

In April 2021 I earned my CSCS and began coaching at a small high school in rural Indiana. Until this point, my only experience training athletes had been rehabilitating and reconditioning injured high school athletes back to practice and gameplay during the eight years I have been practicing athletic training. This was done through a medical perspective and conservative approach.  I had already been the AT for this school for three years, though after one year as the strength coach I made five mistakes that will be crucial to avoid in the future. All fitness professionals would do well to avoid these errors. 

Thinking I Had All the Answers

As a first-time strength coach, there was self-imposed pressure to prove how much I knew. I made every session into something more like seminar than off-season weights for the football team. The way I saw it, the teenagers in attendance had no effective training base to pull from which gave me the justification of demonstrating every lift and nit-picking on every fine detail of lifting mechanics. The discovery that textbook material has little transfer (if any) to the real world was much needed. 

Over time, I learned the kids responded well when I answered their own questions instead of playing professor. The athletes will do the work and will be enthusiastic about training when they are not subjected to an amateur exercise science lecture. 

Adjusting the Program Too Often

Winter made its presence felt and cancelled almost three whole weeks of school. The time off necessitated a full re-set of percentages for the lifting progression. Over the weeks that followed, I made more adjustments to the point that I was not holding to a core system anymore. I changed rep schemes, did circuit-based accessories, added and removed major lifts, even added PVC exercises to develop snatch technique. 

We did manage to recapture some positive energy toward the end of school when we ran a progression that built toward testing our main lifts before finals week. 

Not Communicating with Coaches and PE Teachers

In the adjustments and wholesale changes I made, I never consulted coaches or PE teachers. With an enrollment less than 300, many of the athletes I was training were already playing a sport or would quickly have a spring season. My wrestling coach was all for his wrestlers getting a lift in, but the basketball coach was skeptical and had questions about why some of his players were more fatigued than usual. The track coach was frustrated about why times in the 100 meter dash were not on pace. The baseball coach discouraged his kids from the barbell bench press. Our PE teachers who use the weight room as part of their class saw fatigued kids and misread it as lack of effort, leading them to push the kids harder or drop grades. 

All of this could have been eased or avoided altogether had I consulted with them. Listening to their thoughts and concerns about how morning strength training can affect practices and games later in the same day has built trust among the community. I am the first in-school strength coach they have worked with and certainly the first AT who was also a strength coach. I made too many assumptions about everyone accepting my ideas. We were fortunate to begin communicating when we did to avoid overtraining our athletes. I now design strength programming for PE classes that does not overreach with the morning sessions. 

No Clear Message

From the start, I never presented the athletes with a clear goal or explained my system to them. Rather than extend a direction for the kids to work toward, I gave the impression that all I wanted them to do was load more plates on the bar and maintain perfect form. Do they all need to back squat three plates, bench two plates, and deadlift four plates? Five or six who come close to that will do just fine, and the rest need to keep making progress and attending consistently. Meetings are planned to introduce a core system for off-season and in-season training. A clear message for building dynamic athletes will be extended and that will be our collective goal. 

Swapping Methods

The start of the off-season began with sprint mechanics and a simple strength progression for back squat, bench press, deadlift, and power clean. The goal was to continue adding weight to all these lifts upon completed sets to set up the next session. Through the re-sets my own insecurity with the success of my programming caused me to adapt. My objective became convincing anyone who would listen that I knew what I was doing. After spring break I thought conjugated periodization and circuit-based accessory lifts were the answer. In a few weeks I thought teaching progressions for snatch and clean and jerk was best. Finally in the last few weeks before the end of school I returned to the simple progression we had in the beginning. 

Going forward, I will demonstrate the main lift of the day and then allow the athletes to get to work on their own. They proved they will follow the progression and can coach each other up when they see bad form. I am grateful that these teenagers who I did not trust in the beginning are responsible enough to watch out for each other. 

Conservative as an AT, Performance as a Coach

The best way I have found to serve both roles for the same community is to wholly shut off one and turn on the other in the proper time and place. 6:30 AM on a Tuesday morning? Time to drill sprint mechanics and get stronger. 3:20 PM Tuesday afternoon? Time to evaluate that knee and tape some ankles. Give a cue in one situation, remove from the game in another situation. My short time as a strength coach has shown me what is needed to drive on-field performance. I used to think of high school kids as patients. Now I consider them athletes with individual needs according to their sport and base level of strength. There is no cookie-cutter approach as an AT or strength coach when coaching or giving treatment because every one of them has specific needs. Each athlete requires a stimulus that drives the physiologic adaptation they require to be better prepared for the next season. I have gained understanding that my job as AT and strength coach is to employ methods to drive that stimulus. 

Zac is an athletic trainer and strength coach with Logansport Memorial Hospital in Logansport, Indiana.

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