The Basic Process of Learning that Strength Coaches Neglect to Implement

There is a large amount of coaches who at the end of the day, wonder if they are really making a difference with their athletes. Is the amount of time they are spending with their athletes meaningful? Are the training sessions designed appropriately to get the most out of every athletes with the time allotted.  Believe me, I would ask my self that question frequently. The more I learned, the more experience I got, the more I doubted myself. Probably due to just being more mature and gaining enough humility to question myself more and criticize other coaches less. I find that the number of coaches that truly have no idea what they are doing is multiplying or they are just publicizing their ineptitude more. Maybe I mind my business more or give these coaches the benefit of the doubt so I try to be less outspoken. But, I see this often and I am able to recognize the lack of competency in others because I found it in myself first. I spent a lot of time coaching athletes by "winging it."

Clarion University at one time was called Clarion State University. Before that, it was Clarion Teacher's College. The education program is strong and I got a lot of tough love from professors, field supervisors, and academic advisors. One statement I heard at least once a semester was addressed when an education major would say, "I want to be a teacher because I love kids." The standard advice from an older, wiser, former teacher turned professor would always be, "After one day of teaching, you won't like kids anymore." Open jaws would be combined with nervous laughter and the follow-up statement would ensure. "You better want to be a teacher because you love teaching." It's the same for coaches.

 Coaches so often get into strength & conditioning for the wrong reasons. They see a strength coach as someone who works with sick athletes and gets to work out all day. People like training themselves and the equate it to training others. Not even in the same solar systems as far as skill sets. Something that Loren Landow had said that helped me with this analogy. Training for a competition is probably the most selfish thing you can do. Training someone else to reach their goals is probably the most selfless. It doesn't mean you are a selfish person if you compete in powerlifting or bodybuilding or whatever; you have to be selfish to be successful (putting your competition goals at a high priority.) My point is it's the opposite of coaching. Like I said before being strong feeds your ego, getting others strong feeds your family.  

Developmentally Appropriate Practice

So where do coaches go wrong? When they treat training sessions as something less than an opportunity to teach, motivate, and evaluate. There is a 4 step process that can help coaches to ensure their sessions are meaningful and not merely getting the team "in-and-out" of the weight room.

  Simple steps to teaching that coaches take for granted.   A photo posted by Mark Watts (@mjdubs_elitefts) on

This circular model can be easily utilized in any coaching setting. It can also be said that this pattern can flow in both directions. Most importantly it is a model with no clear beginning or end and is by no means linear. This 4 step process involves Objectives, Planning, Instruction, and Evaluation.


This seems fairly obvious to most but all to often coaches make this too complicated or avoid the bottom line.  Articulating specific objectives for each training session is more than just writing a workout on a whiteboard or handing out sheets.  It's not a schedule, it is listing specific, attainable, and appropriate goals for each team in each setting. These goals can be formal or informal, subjective or objective.

Technical Goals: Video and Coach observation evidence that there is indeed a marked improvement.

Performance Goals: Tangible, numerical improvements based on load, reps, velocity, or time.

Tempo Goals: Measurable improvements in the amount of volume, work-sets, and even work capacity in a given training session.

List 1-3 specific, measurable, and attainable goals for each training session you plan for.


There is an old saying among football coaches (probably  first said by Woody Hayes) that for every hour of practice, you should have 2 hours of planning for it. If I really thought about it, this was probably true.  Preparing 5 hours per day for practice may seem over the top, but if you count, game-plan meetings, opponent film breakdown, personnel groups , scout team management, situational planning, call sheets, etc.; it's proably close.

Now as a strength coach, there is no way you are preparing that much for each group that comes into the weight room. But, planning out each session and the logistics that go into it is critical. Here are a couple key points that can help with perpetuate and intense and dense training session.

Equipment Set-Up: This is obvious, but some coaches don;t feel it is as important. This would mean everything laid out for movement prep, bands around racks for pre-hab, J-hooks at the correct height, etc. Take the extra time to do this.  Athletes aren't dumb, they know when you are not organized and doing this isn't coddling, it's eliminating time wasting.

Rack assignments: Athletes like training with their friends. It's natural, but assigning athletes to racks based on 1.) height or 2.) highest working set weight can drastically reduce time with changing weights in between sets. Your teams should be changing weights like a NASCAR pit crew anyway (unless you have 2-3 per rack). Taking the time to assign stations can also alleviate the added stress of injured players integrated with the regular groups.

Complexes, Supersets, and Circuits: Knowing how many athletes will be in each group can determine the way the rest of the training session will flow. It takes some flexibility on the coach's art and some time to acclimate the athletes with this process. I have learned that I would rather have 7 athletes per rack then to split up the workout so that not everyone performs exercises in the same order. Here is an example for a Lower Body training session, specifically the squat. After interviewing Evan Simon and he told me about his organization, it made me feel good that I was on the right track.

  • 4 Athletes: Spot, Squat, Load, Load, Repeat
  • 5 Athletes: Spot, Squat, Jump, Load, Load, Repeat
  • 6 Athletes: Spot, Squat, Jump, Prehab, Load, Load, Repeat
  • 7 Athletes: Spot, Squat, Jumps, Antagoisnt, Prehab, Load, Load, Repeat

... and so on. More on this system in the near future.

Competitive Groups: Any time there is competition involved in drills, take the time to assign personnel and match up teammates that when they are competing, will give the coaches a better method of evaluating potential and will motivate teammates. There are a lot of programs that have  coach or player run drafts. In this instance, the draft itself is the most important aspect.


Constantly coaching. That is a phrase that will help coaches more than most other two word phrase. I wish I would have done more coaching in situations where I didn't deem it necessary. Up big or down big in a game? Keep coaching. Instead of arguing with refs? Keep coaching. Instead of giving rah rah nonsensical bullshit (which rarely motivates athletes)? Keep coaching.

One way to help with ensuring athlete success is to break this communication down in sections.

Written Routine: When the athletes arrive, there should be clear written instructions on the pre-lift activities they should be engaged in. Movement prep, pre-hab, etc. should all be clearly laid out so the athlete can engage in self improvement from the giddy up.

Pre-Lift Meeting:  The athletes should have a clear understanding of what is expected of them that day.

  1. Any changes in the normal routine, changes is set & rep schemes, changes in rotations should all be laid out ahead of time.
  2. Any overall technique issues you are seeing as a trend.
  3. Any feedback about pace, spotting, exercise selection, general demeanor, should also be addressed at this time.

You have about 45-90 seconds before you lose them and any sport coach feels you are taking away a conference championship by talking to your athletes too long.

During Training: Don't overcoach. Have a set parameter for all coaching on what the right communication should be and what the right amount of communication should be.  Here is a basic guideline:

  1. Before the Set: Address set-up, hand placement, stance, and anything you have been collectively working on in terms of technique
  2. During the Rep: Buzz words, & familiar and universal (in your program and among your staff) coaching cues. Non-exsistent for Olympic Lifts.
  3. Between Reps: Reinforce good reps, revaluate quickly, correct any flaws (one at a time).
  4. After the Set: Don't give a mini-clinic. Praise any improvements, address any technique discrepancy, tell them why it is important.

After the training session: 

Review any administrative issues and remind them of the basics.  Make sure that academics, proper nutrition (make sure they can define it), adequate sleep, and the fact that beer and weed reduce testosterone and growth hormone production are in your dialogue frequently. This is usually not time for any Knute Rockne speeches, Talk to the team from your heart and make them feel like 1.) you are honored to be their coaches and 2.) they should never take one moment for granted in that weight room.


This needs to have a direct relationship with objectives. The evaluation process is determined by, but also determines the objectives of the training session. These evaluations can be very informal, but every training session should be evaluated.

Evaluations should go beyond the athlete's performance. Coaches should also be evaluated during these sessions in terms of staff development. Like John Maxwell has said, Experience is not as important as evaluated experience.

Evaluation also goes beyond performance tests. I personally feel we have gone overboard with testing. In fact,we have misused training methods to serve as training assessments. For example, exercises used to develop explosive power are bastardized to assess it. Case in point: the box jump. We are now determining lower body force production thourgh a drill that is more accurately measuring flexibility and speficif coordination to that movement. We have kids running across a gym to knee themselves in the ace to land on a stack of bumpers then jumping down. The box jump was designed to increase safety by reduced ground contact forces.  Not anymore, I guess. This is validity 101. Is the test designed to determine the actual quality it was designed to test in the first place?

Finally, there is some major difference between evaluations. In my opinion, there are specific distinctions between them.

  • Screen: This is a standardized scoring system to say IF the athlete is at risk or not. Ex: the FMS, Sickle Cell
  • Assessment: This can be an informal skill directive that will illustrate needs of improvement for the athlete: Ex: Dynamic Warm-Up, Squat technique
  • Performance Test: This will determine the performance potential of the athlete. This gives an objective number on a test that the coach will determine the extent of the success potential. Ex: 5-10-5 Pro Agility, Vertical Jump

The missing evaluation in most programs...

Standards: This may be the most underused and overlooked (is that the same thing?) See the problem with performance tests are they can have a limited context. My fax front squat is 375. Well what does that mean exactly? For a 105kg Olympic Lifter, that sucks, for a DI football player? that sucks. In a lot of other team scenarios, it may be ok. Comparing to teammates has no meaning and comparing to opponents is unrealistic. Standards, however, give a set of objectives that are measurable. They may not be equal but they are usually equitable.

Dan John once told me ( and he probably wrote bout it) that if you had a high school football team in which every player power cleaned, front squatted, and bench pressed 205lbs they would win the state championship (or at least be hard to beat. I know what you are thinking. 205 aint shit. But, think about it.  Everyone on the varsity team. I wll take my chances.

Ethan Reeve wanted all of his players to be able to 1 Arm bench press 125lbs for 5 reps on a stability ball.  Obscure? maybe. But, are you really going to 5Rm a test like that?  We developed a standardized system before I left Denison. Basically it was bodyweight plus a specific number instead of for example 1.5 times bodyweight.  We felt this kept things form equitable for the big guys.  So it was something like this.

  • Clean bodyweight +25lbs
  • Squat: bodyweight + 100lbs
  • Bench Press: Bodyweight + 50lbs

I am not saying those are impressive or even accurate, but it gave our best lifter and opportunity to be awarded a War Hamer and all of our players an attainable goal to shoot for.

So regardless of how many, how often, or how hectic your training schedules are, try this 4 steps to help your athletes improve in the weight room.


  •  Physical Education Methods for Elementary Teachers-2nd Edition by Katherine Thomas, Amelia Lee, & Jerry Thomas
  • The Strength & Conditioning Internship: A Simple Guide for Strength & Conditioning Coaches - Parts 1-4 by Mark Watts


Hang Snatch 105lbs for 5 doubles

Dumbbell Elevator Press

60s Flat x 10, 45 degree x 10, 30 degree x10, flat x10

Inverted Dumbbell Row

60s 45 degree x 10, 30 degree x 10


Power snatch + Hang Snatch

60kg for 5 doubles

Conventional Deadlift with Bands

  • 352x3
  • 352 for 3 singles supersetted with 3 box jumps

Buffalo Bar Bench Press


Neutral Grip Pull-Up

  • Grip 1 x5
  • Grip 2 x3
  • Grip 0 x2