How to Keep Your High School Athlete's College Strength Coach from Hating Your Guts

As football season approaches, many athletes are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to put all their hard-earned, off-season gains to the test on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and maybe even Monday nights. With the end of every season begins the opportunity for improvement and misguided efforts. Unlike the majority of most college and professional athletes, who have a qualified strength and conditioning coach in charge of their development through the different seasons and their careers, many high school athletes’ careers are left in the care of less qualified hands. These may be the hands of their strength and conditioning coach, their sport coach, a personal trainer, their parents, their friend, themselves, or even a combination. And while all efforts from all parties involved are with good intentions, they sometimes can lead to less than optimal results or, in the worst case, have detrimental effects to the athlete’s abilities and career.

I've had the opportunity to work at the collegiate strength and conditioning level. Currently, I work predominately with high school athletes at my facility. I still remember what it was like when college freshman would come in for their very first college football workout. Many of them had never even been through a structured workout program before, and many of the ones who had were taught incorrect technique and had false maxes. As coaches, we spent the first several weeks or months trying to teach good technique and set a solid foundation for the athlete’s college career. Now that I train high school athletes, my goal is to set that foundation early and send them off to college with the skills necessary to be competent on the field and in the weight room.

I recently had a talk with several of my college coaching friends about major mistakes they see in the training of high school athletes. I'll share with you several key factors that I believe are important in the process of preparing high school athletes for their college programs and summaries of the conversations I had with several college strength and conditioning coaches.


Simple but Effective Programs

Keep your programs simple, but for the love of God, program something and record what you’re doing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen somebody train athletes without any type of formalized, progressive, forethought approach. Literally, he's just training off the top of his head, using whatever he thinks sounds good that day. This is a big time no!

It's important that anyone dealing with the development of athletes takes some time to plan his developmental system throughout the year. Each season (pre-, in-, post-, and off-) should have its own goal(s) and its own training methods. When planning these different training seasons, keep the programs simple. These are high school athletes, and there isn't any need to teach them a different motor pattern every week. Let them get skillful at the basic movements and major exercises and build them up over time.

Also, your athlete’s training should be recorded for both your sake and the sake of the athlete. There isn't any way to remember every weight of every set of every exercise that your athlete has ever done along with any notes on how the training sessions went, how the athlete felt, or how his technique looked. Keeping a written record of all the training sessions allows you to make educated progressions based on the needs of each athlete and it allows you to objectively look at your programs to see what is working and what needs improvement. Because you should be programming, writing the weights and notes in shouldn’t be that difficult. I hate that I even have to remind people of this.

Technique, Strength, and Speed

Another major mistake I see often is sacrificing technique for higher weights. I've walked into a high school weight room and watched six kids dump squats over the top of their heads. The only words out of the mouths of their strength and sport coaches were, “More weight!” and “Get lower!” Brilliant!

Remember, technique must be taught first. Once technique is mastered, the athlete can begin to progressively build up his strength levels. Once a satisfactory level of strength is attained, speed/explosive methods can be introduced. Make sure that strength is continuing to improve and that explosive movements are progressed as well. Use training means and methods that are concurrent with the athlete’s maturation level. Just because you saw a YouTube video of an NFL player doing some crazy plyometric jump doesn't mean it's the best movement for a 16-year-old who has never seen a weight room before.


No Gimmicks

Get rid of the gimmicks. Teach what you know. It seems every person I run into nowadays “trains athletes” or is a “speed coach,” but when I say something about Siff, Verkhoshansky, or Francis, they look at me with a blank stare and proceed to tell me how they use all kinds of speed bands, parachutes, chains, and whatnot. I'm not saying that these implements don't have any place in the development of athletes, but many times these methods are too advanced and coaches/trainers aren't qualified enough to teach them. The same can be said for Olympic movements. I won't discuss whether or not Olympic movements are optimal for athletes either, but if you don’t know how to do them and coach them, they shouldn’t be in your program.

Teach what you know, what you're comfortable with, and what you're qualified to teach. This may be just the basic exercises, but an athlete who learns quality basics will be better prepared once he reaches the next level than an athlete who was taught all the advanced stuff incorrectly. College strength coaches would rather have an athlete with a good foundation of strength and coordination who has never done an Olympic lift than an athlete who has been doing Olympic lifts incorrectly for four years. It's easier to teach a new movement than to correct an already ingrained one.

“Sport-specific training” is another method I think most coaches/trainers should stay away from. I don’t mean programs that fill in the holes left by sport practice. I mean training with movements that mimic sport movements. There are definitely exercises that have a high degree of dynamic correspondence (carryover to sport), but the way they are programmed is fairly technical. If programmed too close to an athlete's season and sports' practice, these measures can have a detrimental effect on the athlete’s sports' skill coordination. If programmed without the right timing, they might not have any transfer of ability. Add in athletes who play multiple sports, play the same sport year-round, or have other glaring weaknesses and you’ve got too many factors that make them less than optimal.

On a side note, I realize that parents, coaches, and athletes like crazy “new” stuff. I know it's easier to sell a speed cord than it is to sell proper sprint mechanics, and it’s easier to sell tire flip puke fest than time motion analysis conditioning. It's also easier to sell sport-specific training methods instead of basic strength. Not knowing any better makes you unqualified. Knowing better and doing it anyway makes you an asshole. Don’t sacrifice training integrity for an extra dollar. For example, a high school in Memphis recently put in a new weight room with every gizmo and gadget imaginable—bands, chains, plyometric boxes. You name it, and they’ve got it. But they don’t have any strength or conditioning professional in place to run it. The athletes get to train themselves or their coaches get to train them. Now how much sense does that make?

This isn't by any means an all-inclusive list, but it does shed some light on a few methods of intelligent training that will keep your athletes on the good side of their college strength coaches.

Here are what my college strength coach buddies had to say:

“I’ll start with generalizations and then work down to specifics. Athletes out of high school are fundamentally weak. I’m talking about from either never having lifted or from just not being coached through a full range of motion. Granted, with my sports (or all sports in general), I’ll take kids who have never lifted before over kids who have lifted incorrectly for years. I don’t blame the athletes for these issues because it isn't their fault. Whoever their coach was (sometimes mom and/or dad) has done a huge disservice by either not really giving a damn or simply not knowing. Either way, if I’m going to have any athlete do something, it’s going to be correct. It isn't going to be something I see out of a “fitness” magazine.

Because these athletes are weak, they tend to have imbalance issues causing gross overcompensation. The most common areas of dysfunction come from the lack of posterior chain muscles or postural muscles. Remembering the phrase “mirror muscles,” this isn’t surprising. High school athletes also have a lack of exposure to proper Olympic lifts and plyometrics. Once again, the coaches running the high school sports are more worried about tactical issues. That’s what keeps them in their jobs. A lack of qualified strength coaches teaching sound progressions on how to flex, extend, and rotate through a full range of motion increases the chances for injury before I have ever met my athletes.

Probably my most underrated point yet though is the athletes' eating habits. This can vary widely depending on where they’re from and what mom and/or dad taught them. I can’t believe the number of athletes who don’t eat breakfast (or much at all for that matter), don’t know what foods to eat for certain goals, and don't know when to eat. As I’ve already stated, this is an uphill battle. I’ve had athletes as senior exercise science majors telling me that they don’t eat breakfast, so imagine how freshmen look at nutrition?! Plus, many college athletes are more worried about playing the latest/greatest Xbox or Playstation®3 games and they stay up way too late for no reason. In summation, high school athletes are generally weak and imbalanced, they aren't taught correctly on how to be explosive, and they don't have any clue on nutrition or recovery (sleep).” — John Simmons, Strength and Conditioning Coach, Track and Field
Ole Miss


“High school athletes weren't taught enough technique work on core lifts. Too much emphasis was placed on results, not fundamentals. Generally, they have weak cores, weak low backs, and weak hamstrings, and they have a low work capacity. Too much emphasis was placed on the bench press and too little or not enough emphasis was placed on acceleration mechanics, overhead presses, and back work." — Tommy Moffit, Director of Strength and Conditioning,

“First, the strength and conditioning coach must employ a program and develop a philosophy in which he can safely and correctly administer it while abiding to the constraints in which he may be faced. To properly execute a program, the coach must first know his athletes and their ability and level of training. From this, the coach can select exercises and the desired progression. The progression of athletes depends on their ability to generate a larger capacity of work and mastery of previous skills. It may need to be addressed earlier, but athletes who don't have basic balance, body control, flexibility, and/or core strength may have a more difficult time mastering certain movements. This is the reason why teaching proper technique on all exercises is important. Often the insistence of improper technique will show defects in the athlete’s physical ability. Don't overlook these cues. It's vital for the safety and continued success of the athlete that these issues be addressed immediately and consistently. Always insist on proper technique. Proper technique is the detail that will set your athletes apart from the competition when all else is equal. Finally, be your own strength coach. Don't worry about the numbers or what everyone else is doing. Knowledge is powerful, but it can also be dangerous. Just because someone else is doing the latest and greatest doesn't mean that it will be the best method of training for your particular situation. Know your athletes, communicate with them, allow them to communicate with you, and be patient. Dedicate yourself to the profession and give it everything you have every day. Remember, you are a strength and conditioning coach for them." — Jeremy Phillips, Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach