Six Things I've Learned as a Strength Coach

TAGS: teams, sport-specific training, strength coaching, programming, form, technique, matt rhodes

I’ve only been a Division 1 strength coach for three months, but I’ve already learned so much. Some stuff has been a review- I just needed to be reminded of what it was like to be on the other side of things. Some things, however, I didn’t know.

Bottom line: this isn’t rocket science. It’s very simple.


This is everyone’s favorite hard-on nowadays. Year-round training and meso- and mini-cycles and all that fancy crap. Yeah, it doesn’t happen that way. Forget the delusions of grandeur. You have little to no control over the time that your teams will train. College athletics has given sport coaches a lot more individual time to practice their sport, so strength and conditioning time is even less. With the exception of football and track, you MAY get six to eight weeks a year where you can actually have a set schedule to train your team. In-season training is rarely on a schedule. Again, with the exception of football, you don’t really need to be a genius with programming. In six to eight weeks they’re not going to get much stronger, but you need to make sure you’re maximizing the time you do have. If it’s not a Clean (or variation), a Squat, a Bench Press, and some very solid Back and Lat work, it’s a waste. Hammer the big stuff and fill in the blanks with some fluff. In six to eight weeks there’s no reason for a deload. Just a simple progression will do the trick.

Form and Technique: 

This is another one that was a little tough for me to swallow. First, it needs to be good form and technique so that the athletes don’t hurt themselves. But as far as being perfect, that ain’t gonna happen either. Make sure they sit back and keep their chests up while squatting. Make sure they hit depth. Make sure they use their legs on the bench. Hopefully, their asses don’t come off the bench, but if they do, that’s fine— at least they’re using their legs and making the bench a full body movement. As long as they get good triple extension on the Cleans (variations), that’s fine. Ideally, they catch the weight and keep it tight to their body, but as long as they jump, extend, and are explosive, you’re winning. We’re not training Olympic lifters; we’re trying to get athletes to be explosive and powerful.

Sport-specific Training:

That’s when the athletes actually play their sport. There is no such thing as sport-specific training in the weight room... unless you’re a weight lifter. Sorry to all of you jokers out there who are trying to make money on this bullshit concept. If you’re a good strength coach, you know that every athlete that plays a sport needs strong legs, hips, core, shoulders, and back. So: Clean, Squat, Press, Pull-ups, Rows, and stabilization work. That’s it! Yes, we do a lot of single-leg stuff, but all sports should do single-leg work. My job as a strength coach is to get the athletes as strong as possible in the limited amount of time I’m given. Their coach's job is to take that strength and help them become better at their chosen sport.

Training Men’s Teams vs. Women’s Teams:

There’s no difference. Like above, they all need strong legs, hips, core, shoulders, and backs. The only major thing I’ve really seen is that women need to really strengthen their abductors to help alleviate ACL injuries. We do a lot of band walks and side walks/shuffles to address this issue. The other thing is the approach to coaching. I believe that you coach men and teach women. That’s not to say that you don’t get in a woman’s face if she’s not getting her work done, but you have to be a little “softer” with the ladies in order to get what you want. This may sound sexist, and I’ve discussed this with one of our women’s coaches, but as a man, I can’t yell at a woman the way a woman can yell at a woman and get the same result. My goal is to get these teams to perform at their best in the weight room. I don’t care how I need to get that done, just as long as I get it done.


This is something I’ve learned directly from Conor Hughes. He’s the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Football and Men’s Basketball. His teams are dialed in and there’s no bullshit on his watch. He sets the tone from day one, and his teams know how they are to conduct themselves in the weight room. This comes from the question, “Would you rather be liked or respected?” I believe it’s very important to be liked... but only to a certain point. I worked much harder for coaches that I liked, but the line is very distinct and it must be defined well from the start. I never really respected coaches that I didn’t like. I don’t remember coaches that I didn’t like. They probably taught me some good lessons, but I don’t remember them. I remember coaches that I liked and respected. When your athletes come into the weight room, you set the rules. You decide what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable. To me, this is one way to earn respect. Set the rules and hold the athletes accountable. Another way to earn respect is to show them that you care about them. I constantly ask kids how they are doing. How’s school? How’s your family? Etc…  And I genuinely mean it when I ask. It’s also important to make sure to correct form and technique issues. Make sure the kids are performing things right. The athletes will know that you’re here to help them get better as athletes and as people. To me, that is how you gain respect. Hold the athletes to very high standards.

Performance in the Weight Room:

Another true gem from Conor Hughes: your athletes will perform as you do. If you have a bad day, so will they. They’re performance is a direct result of your enthusiasm, focus, effort, intensity…  If you have a bad day, or if your girlfriend dumps you, suck it up.  It will affect them if you let it affect you. Your job is to prepare them for competition. Deal with your shit outside of the weight room.

There are certainly other things that I’ve learned, but these were on the top of my head when I woke up today. I need to get better at all of these things as I move forward in my career. I’m good at some and not so good at others, but coaching is a work in progress and I'll always have room for improvement. Like lifting, I try to keep my strengths strong and improve my weaknesses. If you’re a coach and you’re not constantly striving to get better at what you do, then you’re a bad coach and you should consider other employment.

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