Being a strength and conditioning coach is a calling. Somewhere deep in our DNA there is a yearning to make people better. No matter how you arrived or got into this profession, we are all in it for the right reasons.

My journey started because I truly love to see people get stronger, and this was a great place to be able to do it. I did not care if it was a squat max or a 20-pound increase on lat pulldowns; I thought that as long as the athletes got better at something every day, we were on the right path. It is true, but I quickly figured out that just strength was not necessarily the thing they had to get better at — it was life.

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Being successful in life and being able to face adversity with confidence and assurance to conquer any problem is key. As with the age-old debate of the chicken or the egg, what comes first: winning or confidence? I have always believed that you have to build confidence in what you are doing first and the wins will come. That is the basis of the “process” we hear so much about now, and it is 100% correct in my book. If you get better at everything you do every day, you become a master at it. And a master at his craft is a dangerous individual. When you get a team that strives for mastery, watch out.

The question is never asked enough: how do you build your team? How do you take a group of athletes from every aspect of society and get them pulling in the same direction toward a common cause? Too much time is spent on sets and reps and not the foundation you must build to live your culture.

I was blessed with my first job and it was one of the most exciting days of my life. I got to work at a lower income high school with some of the greatest kids I have ever known. Being a strength coach sounded simple enough; just take care of business, make them a little stronger, and everything would be good. I am going to go through the metamorphosis of that team, where we started, and where we ended up. In short, the process we followed.

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I will never forget my first day. I went through about 1,000 different workouts until I wrote the “perfect” one. I waited in the weight room after school and the first two guys in were the starting and backup quarterbacks. I thought, "Great, good leadership from these guys getting here early." So we waited and waited. They were the only two to show up. I don’t know why no one else was there, but they had never had an off-season lifting program, so I guess they thought it wasn’t mandatory. Wrong. I took those two through one of the most grueling workouts and runs they had ever been through. It was two hours of hell with only each other for rest. I can remember it to this day. They were exhausted, too tired to even talk. When it was over I marched to the football coach’s office and told him flat out that the team had better be there tomorrow or I was out.

Sure enough, the next day they were all there, more out of fear of getting in trouble than wanting to work out. They didn’t know how to do anything, so it was crazy, but we got through it. Then they showed up again and again, a few kids missing here and there, with the coach handling the discipline. Then something magical happened: kids started learning how to do things, and slowly but steadily gains started to come their way.

We worked out for a month and then school was over for the summer. We could not make the lifts for the summer mandatory, and on top of that, the school decided to tell us two days before classes ended that they were going to remove asbestos from the weight room and we could not use it. So there was a maintenance closet with some double doors that led to the outside. We could fit two platforms, two squat racks, and two benches in it. That was it. It was definitely improvise, adapt, overcome.

Day one came and I was hoping for the best while fearing the worst. Every player showed up. In one month they went from external mandatory (punishment) to internal mandatory ("because I want to be great"). It was awesome. Kids had to do a set, walk outside, and then the next kid came in and did his set. We just kept rotating until we were done and then we all went outside to run.

Things were going good but we were missing something. They were doing a great job lifting but got tentative once they started to go heavier. It was like they didn’t trust themselves and it was frustrating watching them leave weight on the table. We got to a heavy squat day and we loaded it up for one of our best players, our tailback who went on and played in the NFL for six years. He got under the bar, unracked it, and then re-racked it. He got out from under it and said, “I can’t do it.” I could feel all eyes on me as the room went silent. That was the tipping point. I knew it was now or never.

I got right in his face, backed him into the wall, and told him in so many colorful words that the word “can’t” would never be used or said again. I told him that when I put the weight on the bar I knew he could do it, so he had better believe in himself more than I did and get under the bar and do it. He got back under the bar and squatted it perfectly for his reps. He looked at me, I looked at him, and that was the spark it took. The other players realized that I was there to help them and I would never put weight on the bar I thought they couldn’t lift. Trust was built that day, player to coach, coach to player, and player to themselves. That was the day they started to carry themselves a little differently. Confidence started to form.

45826209 - american football game - attack in progress

It went like this day in and day out, and by the end of the summer, they were ready to go. Camp went great and we started to win. The season played out the same way as the summer. They carried their internal confidence to games, which made them more confident each time we won. We became good. Really good. We never lost a game that year.

This December marks the 20th anniversary of that first state championship. Confidence was high, work ethic was established, and the goal was achieved. The biggest fear you have after any season is what kind of team will return. Will we have to start over? Are we going to build or rebuild? Are we one-and-done? Gratefully, these questions were answered immediately. I remember telling them after the game that they would get a week off and then get back at it in the weight room. I was walking down the hall after school the Monday after they won the championship hearing all this noise in the weight room. I walked in and the entire team was in there. They looked at me and said, “Coach, we don’t need no week off.” And boom, that was it. We never looked back and won four in a row until I got a job in college.

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As far as preparing them for life, I can give you two examples of many to show how great these players turned out and how they learned that commitment to hard work, sacrifice, and helping others is the cornerstone of any success. My wife and I came home from our honeymoon to find all of our furniture stacked up into one room with our back door and lock broken. We thought we were robbed, and I was about to call the police when a bunch of our players came over and said they wanted to give us a wedding present but couldn’t afford one. With the help of our locker room attendant, they had broken into our house and polished our hardwood floors. Best wedding gift by far.

And of those two quarterbacks I mentioned earlier, one is a successful businessman in town and the other got a full academic scholarship to Yale, played football, and is now coaching defensive backs at a Division I school. He said he wanted to give back.

Image credit: kzenon ©