As the early stages of the fall and the new school year begins, many high school sport coaches around the country will now take up a pad and pen (or keyboard) to devise a strength training plan for their team. In a perfect world, every high school would have a full-time strength and conditioning professional employed on staff, not only to thoughtfully create the program, but also to confidently implement it. Unfortunately, it is safe to say that the majority of high school do not have the “luxury” of having a full-time strength coach.
Thus, the high school sport coach is often tasked with creating the strength training program themselves with whatever pertinent academic background and work experience they have (or lack thereof). And, oftentimes this process can be overwhelming to the sport coach, and rightfully so; as if it weren’t already enough to manage student-athletes on the field and in the classroom, temper relationships with parents and administration, maintain facilities/fields, and teach academic classes, these coaches now have to delve into a job responsibility – strength and conditioning – that has its own specialized and requisite skill-set.
This process doesn’t have to be painstakingly difficult though; with a general understanding of what the young, untrained athlete needs, combined with an acknowledgement of a coach’s competencies in the weight room, the coach can begin to plan a pathway for safe and effective physical development. Once this is established, laying out the timeline for training and competition will install the proper constraints in which to build the training plan around. Finally, making considerations for the time of year and the sport can further dial the program into one that is effective and manageable.
In Part I of this series we will discuss, in brief, what sets the young athlete apart from their older, more experienced counterparts, and how to base a program around their needs, as well as the coach’s competencies in the weight room.
Training the Novice Athlete
The biggest hurdle to overcome for a high school sport coach in developing a strength training plan is clutter – all of the hyper-specialized training we see collegiate and professionals undertaking, the training we coaches experienced as players, the technical information and jargon published on the internet, Instagram videos of irrational/non-sensical/unsafe exercises that tempt fate more than stimulate adaptation, or even the good information out there that just isn’t pertinent to the high school athlete. Information overload in this field can, understandably, be a reason for coaches to give up on this process before they even begin. The initial step is to clear the clutter, and to understand what the high school athlete actually needs.
In strength and conditioning, when we first begin working with a team or athlete, we are taught to do a “needs analysis” of the sport. For the high school coach, I believe this is the most appropriate way to begin as well. But, rather than do the needs analysis on the sport, simply do it for your athletes’ training age/history.
The beauty of working with high school athletes is, in fact, their relatively low training age; in other words, the fact that they have been undertaking committed strength training for a couple or years or less (some have never even started doing so). If this is the case, then we can very quickly simplify the process.
Athletes with low training ages…
- need general strength, not specialized or specific strength,
- will develop many biomotor qualities (speed, power, agility, etc.) by improving strength alone,
- need to develop the total athlete – i.e. general athletic and weight room movements – not hyper-specialized or sport-specific movements,
- will progress very quickly no matter what training they are given,
- recovery very quickly relative to older athletes,
- possess a great window for neurological adaptation, meaning they can improve their relative strength, and
- need little variation in training early on.
For more on the topic of generalized training, please read: Why Youth Athletes Don’t Need The Same Performance Training Methods as an Elite Athlete
In their quest to provide the best resources and tools possible for their athletes, coaches strive to devise the most beneficial programs; anything less feels like a disservice to their athletes and program (trust me, I understand this, having been a high school sport coach myself with little strength and conditioning knowledge early on). What we fail to realize, though, is that sometimes simple is much better.
In truth, with a novice athlete, the only disservice we can do them is to provide unsafe, risky, or harmful training. Coaching a young athlete like a professional or coaching beyond our means/capabilities is putting our athletes in a position to get hurt, not succeed.
It is true what they say: new trainees can get stronger by doing just about anything. Hence why your every day high school “weightlifting coach” with no credentials or meaningful experience/knowledge in the area can still get kids stronger. But let’s not minimize the role of thoughtful and purposeful training: just because the athlete is getting stronger doesn’t mean they are doing so safely, or improving in other areas.
Thus, keeping it simple with young athletes doesn’t justify throwing anything against the wall to see if something sticks. It does, however take the pressure and burden off of the coach to produce highly complex and specialized programming.
Additionally, a coach should leave their ego at the door by acknowledging what they are competent and confident in when coaching. Who cares if the University of ______ is doing Cleans? If you can’t coach is confidently, you have no business asking your athletes to learn and utilize it. And, quite honestly, I don’t care which variation of the Squat the leading experts say you should utilize for baseball players or pitchers; if you aren’t comfortable teaching it, then it has no place in your program yet.
So, what are some actionable first steps for creating a program?
- Do a needs analysis of your athletes… chances are the high school athlete is a novice trainee, thus the absolute basics will work. I can’t stress this enough: do not overcomplicate things
- Determine what is important to you and your program… pick a handful of movements, exercises, drills, etc. that you find important, and make those the priority – then get really really good at those. For example, we know that complex multi-joint exercises provide great bang for the buck in training (e.g. Squats, Hinges, Lunges, Pushes, Pulls, etc.), so I recommend their inclusion – and if done right, they alone can be enough for your program.
- Stay within your means as a coach… with the above movements in mind, it can be easy to try to pick the sexiest, most sport-specific variation in the book for your athletes. But, if you can’t coach it, don’t think about using it. Cut the clutter; trim the fat. If you can’t coach the Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat, that’s just one less lunge exercise that you have to choose from when designing your program, thus simplifying the process early on.
Again, it cannot be stressed enough: keep this process simple. The more simple the program is, the safer it most certainly will be, and ultimately it will be that much easier for you – the busy high school coach and teacher – to implement.
With this general understanding of the needs of your young athletes and your competencies as a coach in the weight room, you can begin the strength-training planning process. In Part II of this discussion, we will begin to look at the more specific X’s and O’s of training by laying out the seasonal/yearly timeline.