Building the best strength program with the right coach
Strength and conditioning is a greater focus in high schools today, as more coaches have learned its value to athletics.
Darnell Clark, director of strength and conditioning at Charlotte Country Day School in North Carolina, has been at his job for 15 years. The school introduces competitive sports in the seventh grade, though 90% of Clark’s work is with high school students.“I work with them all on performance training,” he said. “The key to a successful program starts with the support of your administration. We have up to 90% of our students participating, so you need to be aligned with the mission of the school.”
Support from the coaches is vital. Even though strength and conditioning isn’t mandatory, there is close to 100% participation from those on the JV and varsity teams.
“Our coaches see the benefits of the performance training aspect and having them support and trust me is extremely important,” Clark said. “Performance training takes time out of what they do from a technical and tactical standpoint, and for them to give up some of their time, they have to believe in the end-product.”
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) released professional standards and guidelines a number of years ago and recently revised them. They outline key topics in preparticipation screening and clearance, proper qualifications, guidelines for supervision, and instruction.
James McFarland, strength and conditioning coach for Hillsborough Township Public Schools in New Jersey, said they’re designed so people can use the science into practice through developing strength and conditioning programming.
“It really helps drive home the objective of why a strength and conditioning coach is needed at the high school level,” he said. “There are a number of districts that also have middle school programs at the high schools to help the physical learning of our athletes.”
All athletes must be considered. McFarland gives the example of an 11th grade athlete who is inexperienced but is in the final stages of his growth and development, alongside a freshman who has only begun their growth and development.
“Those two types of athlete could be in the same facility and be involved in the same type of programming, and we need to be able to accommodate that,” he said. The National Academy of Sports Medicine’s performance enhancement specialist (PES) certification is another gold standard in the strength and conditioning space.
There’s also the strength and conditioning coach certified certification (SCCC) from the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association, though some of what is learned might not be a great fit for high school athletes.
Who to hire?
The background of a sound strength and conditioning coach at high school should be carefully considered.
“Having a certification should be looked at as a starting point and not a final destination of the coaching journey,” Clark said. “If someone passes a certification course, they think they’ve made it. But it’s really just a starting point and basic information that everyone should know.”
For athletic directors who are hiring, Clark doesn’t believe that not having a certification should be an immediate disqualifier.
“Perhaps they couldn’t afford it or maybe they took it and failed,” he said. “I would certainly ask them why, and it opens up the conversation. But this is where the industry has gone, and I definitely would recommend someone interested in the career to be certified.”
Pat Mediate, strength and conditioning coordinator and head strength coach for football at Greenwich High School in Connecticut, believes a perfect candidate is someone who has come from a collegiate background and has a strength and conditioning program they were involved with. It’s also valuable to find someone who likes kids and doesn’t need to show off how strong they are.
Some other things athletic directors should look for is where a coach acquired their experience, where they learn new things, and how they incorporate their knowledge into the program.
McFarland, who has been certified since 1999 and has more than 25 years of experience, noted the NSCA’s qualifications for a strength and conditioning professional start with a bachelor’s degree in the field of physical education or exercise fitness, passing of the certification exam and maintenance of the certification through continuing education units, and involvement within the association.
Another important aspect is finding a strength coach who works well with sport coaches, athletic trainers and administrators.
“When looking at this type of person, you want to see all the components of leadership that they should be pretty strongly in,” he said.
Regardless of certification, not every coach is right for teaching at the high school level. In Clark’s opinion, if someone is not personable and can’t connect with athletes, they probably won’t be a good fit for the job.
“It really doesn’t matter what they know, because they won’t be able to execute it effectively,” he said. “All of the applicants we get are qualified from a technical standpoint and from an educational standpoint, but what separates the people we hire is about human connection. They need to be able to build a report.”
Mediate thinks bad candidates are personal trainers who own a business.
“They are in it to get money and get kids to go to their training center,” he said. “That’s a big problem sometimes. We lose kids to them, and they get hurt because they overtrain.”
Weight room considerations
In the weight room, communication is important for any strength and conditioning coach. It’s always a good idea to post the workout and have a set plan.
“Everyone has different learning approaches and you just have to work with the different keys in your pocket until you find one that fits,” Clark said.
For that reason, one needs to understand progression and regression, and work with each student to prepare them to get to the more advanced movement.
Mediate said there needs to be buy-in from the kids and coaches at the school, as well as a bond between the strength coach and those leading the sports programs.
Once the strength and conditioning program was started at the school — the first time that weights were used in training at the school — the new culture was designed to attract kids into an environment that was fun and something to help them achieve success.
“We started with the freshman class and it took four years to develop the program and that last year, we ended up winning the state championship because of that program,” Mediate said. “It took them that long to be able to be strong enough to compete at the level they needed to be to compete in our state.”
The program has 100% attendance and the student-athletes come in four days a week. They’re now well versed in the art of weights and building strength.
Physical literacy is becoming more important as more schools take steps so student-athletes understand more of the whys of what’s being done, and not just the what.
“Whether that be the basic progression of Olympic lifts or learning how to squat or use the bench press, it’s about the joint stability, and a level of appreciation for what that specific exercise can do to assist their goals — both personal and team shot- and long-term goals,” McFarland said. “And understanding where they are at specifically individually with their growth development, knowledge, movement pattern efficiency, it’s most important for them to appreciate the process of training for a sport and fitness.”