Table of Contents:
– There simply are not enough strength and conditioning professionals at the high school level.
-A movement of integrating strength coaches into high schools is going to take a paradigm shift at the administrative level.
– Injury prevention is first and foremost the primary goal of the strength and conditioning professional. Weight room safety is major component that precedes any programming considerations for injury.
To appreciate my passion for improving high school athletics, you first need to understand where I started my coaching career.
My strength and conditioning career started differently than most others I’ve had the fortune of meeting and networking with in this profession.
As a high school sophomore I became fascinated with the preparation it took to perform at a high level in my sport — baseball. When I turned 16-years-old and could drive for the first time, I got a gym membership, joined a pitching academy, and drove myself to both nearly every day after school or practice.
I had no idea what I was doing. Regardless, I was enthralled by the empowerment strength training gave me. I learned that I had more control over my abilities, and subsequently my career, than I ever could have imagined. Through trial and error I found out a lot of other things as well, like time management (I originally struggled with my IB/AP classes when I threw an extra hour or two of training into my daily routine), discipline, and attention to detail.
Upon graduating from high school I immediately began coaching baseball at my alma mater, first running warm-ups, and then designing my own training programs with nothing more than a personal training certification. Like my own training during high school, I had no idea what I was doing — at first.
Four years of high school coaching and a college education (majoring in Kinesiology) later, I ended up earning the title of Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist and a full-time job in Professional Baseball.
In those four years I also spent time interning at the professional baseball and collegiate levels, but I could never give up high school coaching, despite rarely earning a single dollar doing it.
I had not only seen the importance of instituting a training program during my four years of coaching, but there was an even deeper connection stemming from my own experiences as an athlete who discovered performance training.
Not every sport coach, principal, or administrator has had a comparable experience or that same appreciation, and this is understandable. That is why, I have decided to write this multi-segment piece on the importance of having a performance training professional in the high school weight room.
This piece seeks to find make the case for integrating strength coaches with every high school athletic program by addressing multiple benefits that would appeal to sport coaches, parents, athletes, and administrators alike.
I can’t speak for every high school in the United States, but I can certainly speak for what I have both seen personally and heard from other strength coaches around the country. There simply are not enough certified or credentialed strength/performance coaches at the high school level.
Of course, we could speak for hours to many of the performance-related benefits that are seen from incorporating a legitimate strength and conditioning program into a sport program’s annual training plan. Although every sport coach or administrator may not know the actual science behind it, most would agree that a strength coach would help their athletes’ performance.
Unfortunately, this acknowledgement clearly has not been enough of an impetus to see any significant increase in the number of high school strength coaches. It is important, then, that we speak to some other areas of concern that, we should hope, would spark a greater interest and demand from high school and school board administrators.
Part I of this multi-segment essay will focus on safety in the weight room.
Safety Considerations in the Weight Room —
There are multiple components involved when evaluating the safety of a weight room. The first is the prevention of acute and traumatic injury.
Take a step back from any weight room training session, regardless of who is orchestrating it, and observe what is actually happening. Athletes are moving very heavy loads, sometimes moving them through difficult patterns and/or at very rapid speeds. This is inherently dangerous, especially to the 14 through 18-year-old who has limited training experience, minimal supervision, and/or little coaching instruction.
Talk to nearly any strength and conditioning professional and you will undoubtedly hear the phrase, “movement quality” or terminology akin to it when they discuss their training philosophy. This means that the performance coach seeks to improve performance and reduce the likelihood of injury by ensuring that the athlete moves effectively and efficiently.
There is a saying, coined by a highly influential coach in our industry, Gray Cook, which says “We do not put fitness on movement dysfunction.” Meaning, we are not going to load faulty movement patterns at the risk of injuring an athlete, especially just for the sake of putting up big “numbers” in the weight room.
By doing so the strength and conditioning professional can help reduce the risk of acute and chronic injury in the weight room. There are many other important factors to consider, though, when talking about safety during strength training.
For instance, the athlete isn’t always going to achieve their goal during a certain lift, even when technique is sound. Whether it is technical or muscular failure, sometimes repetitions need to be aborted.
In this regard, the athlete should be taught what exercises require a spotter, which ones should never have a spotter (as it may increase the risk of injuring both the lifter and the spotter as well), and how to “dump” or drop a weight when the rep cannot be completed. Failure by a coach to teach these concepts can predispose the athletes to injurious or risky situations.
For example, what happens when a young athlete is performing a Front Squat, but was never instructed to use safety rails when squatting and/or was also never taught how to safely or appropriately “dump” or drop the weight on a failed rep?
It’s not just solely about making sure the athlete is educated about movement technique, though. Weight room etiquette and behavior must be taught and engrained as well. This goes beyond just prohibiting horseplay, though.
Even more, this is about instilling awareness in the weight room. Teaching the athlete the little things about weight room safety, and making the connection between safety and availability on the field. For example, the athlete may not see the importance of putting away their dumbbells after a set of dumbbell bench press until they are enlightened on what can happen as a result: what is the risk when they go to drop their dumbbells after a set and pinch their fingers between those dumbbells and ones that were left on the floor by somebody else, right next to the bench? A jammed or broken finger can easily derail an athletic season.
Ultimately, the strength and conditioning coach understands that priority number one is to reduce the likeness of injury, and this starts by reducing any chance of injury occurring in the weight room itself.
Without proper instruction the athlete is predisposed to injurious and unsafe conditions through no fault of their own. The performance coach professional can help reduce this risk of injury by making it a priority to use their formal and experiential education to provide the safest weight room environment possible.
Even with the best of intentions from a non-professional strength and conditioning coach, it’s hard to expect the weight room to be a safe environment without someone who specializes in this specific realm of athletics.
This may be shrewd example, but would you feel safer knowing your kid’s school bus was operated by a bus-driver licensed to drive that bus, or someone who has only driven a car? No matter how many years of experiencing driving a car, or what type of car they’ve driven, if they haven’t driven a bus, they don’t know every specific detail of safely operating that machine.
It all boils down to scope of practice. Why do high schools place such a high importance on Athletic Trainers? Because, no matter how many years of coaching a sport-coach has over their career, they are not formally trained in diagnosing and treating on-field injuries, nor are they held to any educational standards as the research evolves — simply put, it is out of the sport coach’s scope of practice. Likewise, why do Athletic Trainers refer certain athletes with injuries to Doctors? Because diagnosis and treatment of that specific injury is out of their scope of practice.
There is nothing wrong with admitting that something is, in fact, beyond the scope of your position. Every position or profession has a limit to this scope of practice. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a Physical Education teacher or sport coach admitting that they are not educated or certified in any performance training components and need the help.
Likewise, I would certainly say that just because you are a strength and conditioning specialist does not mean that teaching Physical Education classes is something you for which you be expected to be prepared. Rather, it is up to the professional, no what profession, to get formally educated and/or certified in additional areas if they wish to increase their scope.
On a briefer, yet equally important note, there are several other factors that affect safety during training, such as the cleanliness of the weight room, the upkeep of the equipment, and the clothes and gear that the athletes are permitted to wear. A professional strength and conditioning coach has been formally taught the importance of maintaining safe and properly functioning equipment and clean surfaces. Also, they know what gear an athlete should wear to avoid any injury, such as the wrong shoes.
Safety certainly is not the exciting part about performance training, but it is probably the most important. It does not matter how strong the athlete gets if they get hurt in the weight room. Of course, the sport coach will be upset if this were to happen, but liability is another issue in and of itself.
Ultimately, it is the needs of the athlete that should always come first, no matter what level of athletics we are discussing. The athlete doesn’t simply need a place to train and a program written on the whiteboard, they need guidance, and they need a safe environment to grow and develop as athletes and young adults. While a non-certified or professional performance coach can certainly do their best to make this a priority, one that is certified or credentialed can almost certainly ensure of it.
In writing this, it shouldn’t be gleaned or inferred that sport coaches or Physical Education/weightlifting coaches are incapable of training athletes. Instead, the message hoping to be received is that hiring a professional in performance training will ensure that the athletes get the best attention and teaching in that specific field. They will get professionals who are trained in weight room safety, movement technique, and weight room upkeep. They will also get professionals who are passionate about performance training, and are not only required to continue their education as a strength and conditioning coach, but are internally driven to do so out of their own passions, not just out of obligation.