Managing the Dynamics of the High School Athlete

TAGS: Aaron Rittgers, team sports, high school athlete, strength and conditioning coach, coach

When I was in high school and lifting weights to prepare for the up-and-coming football season, there were several things that I kept in the back of my head: arrive early to the weight room, follow the coach's instructions as best as possible, be a coachable athlete, bench press as much weight as possible, always give 100 percent effort at whatever I was coached to do, power clean (for whatever reason the coach gave us), bust out a couple sets of EZ bar curls, pay attention when the coaches spoke and be the last person to leave the weight room. I did these things as soon as I entered high school, and I was very fortunate to start on the offensive line as a sophomore because of some of them. Let me inform you that I didn't earn a starting position because I was bigger, faster and stronger than everyone else. I weighed a solid 198 pounds and ran a relatively slow 40-meter time. I was an average athlete at best. But what I did do was bust my ass in the weight room every chance I got. I enjoyed lifting weights, and I understood the payoff that came along with it upon earning a starting position as an underclassman at a school known for successful football teams.

Recently, I was hired by the Ohio State University (OSU) Wexner Medical Center as an athletic conditioning specialist. Our staff is outsourced to local high schools to design and implement year-round strength and conditioning programs. Every day, I have the opportunity to coach athletes, both male and female, who have extremely different training backgrounds. Some athletes will go into their senior year with three years of training experience. Some athletes have never stepped foot in the weight room and couldn't tell you the difference between a barbell and a dumbbell. Others' experience stems from the local personal trainer at LA Fitness. Along with the above, some athletes come to training sessions for different reasons.


Some athletes are there because they truly want to get stronger and become better athletes while others are present because their parents are making them attend. All the above can make coaching today’s high school athlete an ever important position, especially in the weight room.

Today’s high school athletes are rather unique and much different than college athletes. They play sports all year round with very little time for rest. Some are specializing in one sport between the ages of 14 and 18 instead of playing multiple sports. Prior to working at OSU, the majority of my experiences were at the college level. I've been very fortunate to work with athletes at all levels.

High school athletes want to know why they have to do what they are doing. 

Upon working with high school athletes, there were several things that I learned very quickly including:

  1. Never assume anything. When I say never, I truly mean never.
  2. High school athletes want to know why they have to do what they are doing.
  3. There are athletes who show up to socialize. They don't understand the benefits of training. They are there to hang out with their friends and keep their parents off their backs.
  4. Don't be surprised when an athlete walks in with Vans on. Ask the athlete if the head coach allowed him to wear the shoes during a practice or game, and when he replies no, tell him to consider training a “practice" or "game.”
  5. Repeat your directions multiple times because most likely there are athletes who aren't listening or paying attention.
  6. Let the athletes know that they can leave their egos at the door. There isn't any need to load the bar with entirely too much weight just to get stapled to the bench. This also will most likely need to be repeated.
  7. Lastly, enforce a cell phone rule as soon as possible. It’s sad that it has come to this, but it needs to be done.

I'm writing about these situations because I face them daily. I strongly believe that if I'm dealing with them, there are other coaches out there who are also dealing with the same situations. Sometimes I'm able to resolve the situation quickly while others are a constant battle. Before covering some of these situations, let me make one thing clear. I do have athletes who don't fall into any of the above groups. I'm very lucky to have many athletes who take training seriously and reap the benefits of their hard work. The following paragraphs include examples of the above situations and how I managed to work with the athletes and solve the situations.

RELATED: Should Athletes Power Lift in the Off-season?

After my girl’s off-season group had completed their warm up, we met at the white board and went over the workout. I gave them all the details and asked if they had any questions. I then asked if they had any technique questions and if they fully understood the exercises. I received a convincing “yes” from the athletes. I assumed that they understood what a bench press was and what 3 X 6 meant and that I didn’t need to demonstrate anything. Then I witnessed one athlete lying the wrong way on the bench to bench press. While fixing that athlete, I noticed another athlete doing what seemed like many more than six reps. I asked the athlete how many reps she had done and her response was, “I did 1 x 18 instead of 3 x 6.” At that point, I was kicking myself in the ass for assuming. I stopped everyone, and we gathered around a rack. We spent the next 25 minutes going over the bench press and the sets and reps for the exercise.

Never assume anything. Even if your athletes say that they understand, take the time to explain what is expected of them. There is quite possibly an athlete who is too embarrassed to speak up with a question. This is your chance to help that athlete before she does something wrong, injures herself or even injures another athlete.


High school athletes want to know why they have to do what they are doing. My hope is that they want to know because they are interested in the benefits that the exercise has to offer. Recently, I had an athlete ask me why we do single leg hip bridges and double leg hip bridges. I could have easily said “just because” and left it at that. However, I feel this would've left the athlete thinking that the exercise isn't important or that I don't care about him. Inform athletes why they are doing what they are doing and how the exercises will improve their performance on the playing field. This will give them much more incentive to perform the exercise with great technique and not half ass it.

As strength and conditioning coaches, we need to adapt to every athlete who walks into our weight room.

Athletes walk into the weight room daily wearing improper shoes. It literally drives me insane. This is one situation that I'm constantly battling. I can't understand why the athletes feel as if it is OK to wear such shoes as Vans, boat shoes and cleats. As a strength coach, we're asking our athletes to perform multijoint exercises such as the squat, push press and hang pull every day. When an athlete walks in with improper shoes, I can't have him or her perform these exercises because I feel as if I would be putting the athlete at risk for injury.

Informing your athletes of this will allow them to have a better understanding of the importance of wearing proper exercise shoes. If this doesn't work, ask your athletes if they would be allowed to wear such shoes while playing their sport. Their response will be “no.” Tell your athletes to consider training a game or practice when it comes to shoe choice. If they still are unable to understand and follow directions, the weight room might not be the place for them. In my opinion, they aren't coachable. Athletes who aren't coachable can rip a team apart.

I never thought that having to make a cell phone rule in the weight room was necessary. I can’t imagine pulling out my cell phone in the middle of a bench press in high school. Who the hell would the athletes need to be on the phone with during a training session? An emergency is one thing. A text to your buddy is something altogether different.

During one of my pre-season training sessions with a lacrosse team, I witnessed an athlete pull out his cell phone after completing a set of squats. I have never felt my heart beat so fast and my body temperature rise so quickly in my entire life. I must have looked like the Wild Coyote with steam coming out of my ears because as soon as the athlete turned around and saw me, he put his cell phone away as quickly as possible. As much as I wanted to yell and rip this athlete, I knew that this was the wrong attitude to have.

This situation relates back to the first one that I talked about—assuming things. I assumed that I didn’t have to make a rule for cell phones and I was obviously wrong. Inform your athletes that cell phones have a place and it isn't in the weight room. Let them know that if there is an emergency, they need to leave the weight room to deal with it. I informed the athlete that the cell phone needed to be put away and never brought out again in the weight room. I also addressed the entire team on the new cell phone rule of leaving it in their lockers.


As I mentioned before, the situations that I've been exposed to usually don't show up in a college weight room and they shouldn’t show up in a high school weight room. High school strength and conditioning is becoming more prevalent. More high schools are hiring strength and conditioning coaches every year because they understand the benefits of having such a coach.

As a high school strength coach, be prepared for every situation you can imagine. Never assume anything. Take the time to explain every detail as best as possible. Whether it deals with exercise technique or sets and reps, every aspect is important. Set guidelines and rules that the athletes need to follow. This will hold your athletes accountable to the program and to each other and will allow them to train in a safe environment. Talk to your athletes about the importance of proper training attire. Many of the athletes we see don't wear athletic shoes/attire to school. This requires them to bring their attire along with them to school. More frequently, I have suggested to athletes that they just leave whatever they need in their cars.

As I've mentioned before, today’s high school athlete is much different than high school athletes of five, 10 or 15 years ago. As strength and conditioning coaches, we need to adapt to every athlete who walks into our weight room.

Aaron Rittgers graduated from Capital University in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in health and fitness management. While attending Capital, Aaron played four years of college football as defensive end. Aaron has had the opportunity to intern with strength and conditioning staffs from Kent State University, Denison University and Ohio State University. He is currently an athletic conditioning specialist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, where he designs and implements year-round strength and conditioning programs for Olentangy Liberty High School (OLHS). Along with OLHS, Aaron has designed and implemented pre-season strength and conditioning programs for Hilliard Darby and Dublin Jerome men’s lacrosse teams.


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