Jan 29, 2015Before The Play
Although a strength and conditioning coach’s work is often judged by what occurs on the field, it’s their role behind the scenes that is sometimes most important.
By Ryan Johnson
Ryan Johnson, CSCS, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach and a physical education teacher at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minn. He was named the Minnesota NSCA 2010 High School Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year and can be reached at: [email protected].
Tobi, a former football player here at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minn., will likely go down as one of my favorite success stories. He and his parents came to the United States from Liberia when he was young. When Tobi arrived at our high school, his athletic skills were off the charts–he could run, jump, and catch like no other football player on the team and was a huge contributor at wide receiver.
But Tobi’s education level was lacking, and he needed to attend summer school classes throughout his time at Wayzata. This meant that he couldn’t attend team lifting and running sessions over the summer, so he and I met privately every day after school and trained together.
Tobi’s situation became further complicated when his mother returned to Liberia to tend to some family matters. Unfortunately, Tobi and his father lost contact with her and without a second household income they soon found themselves in financial trouble. Tobi had every reason to feel sorry for himself and throw in the towel by quitting the team, but he stuck with our training regimen.
At the end of the summer, Tobi’s classes concluded and he was able to join the team for the final week of training and what we call the Trojan Olympics. To his teammates’ astonishment, Tobi proceeded to blow them away in almost every category. He then went on to lead the team to the state championship that season. The best part was that his mother was able to return to the U.S. in time to see it happen.
Though Tobi’s academic troubles continued to plague him as he was recruited by various colleges, he attended a junior college before getting into an NCAA Division I school where he is living out his American dream of getting a college degree and playing football. I’m proud to know that the extra hours he spent lifting and conditioning with me and on his own helped prepare him both physically and mentally for his academic and athletic journey.
Wouldn’t it be great if every athlete we worked with had Tobi’s drive? Of course! But it’s not always easy being a high school strength and conditioning coach. Some athletes don’t want to be in the weightroom, and at times, dealing with sport coaches and parents can be very challenging.
Over the 10 years I’ve been coaching and teaching at this level, I’ve learned a lot about how to handle some of the more difficult situations that can crop up for a strength and conditioning coach. In this article, I hope to dispense some advice on how you can do the same by sharing a few stories that ended up teaching me a lot.
It’s not uncommon to have multi-sport athletes at the high school level, and generally speaking, this is a great thing. More and more research tells us that specializing in one sport can result in overuse injuries, so we definitely advocate going out for multiple teams here at Wayzata. It makes the athletes more well rounded, and the teams are more athletic.
But problems can arise with scheduling when jumping from one sport directly into another. For example, a lot of our football players also play basketball, which presents an issue because they are usually still playing football while the rest of the basketball squad is preparing for the start of the season. And the further the football team goes into the playoffs, the more basketball prep time these players miss.
To compound the issue, our football team is very good and has won three state titles in the past decade. Meanwhile, though our basketball team is also very talented, the squad plays in the same section as the perennial state champion–a nationally ranked team–and hasn’t been nearly as successful as the football program. Needless to say, the combination of these elements can be very frustrating for our basketball coach.
Over the years, the basketball and football coaches and I have talked about the issue, and I helped broker a compromise that set up some specific lifting sessions just for those athletes who played both football and basketball. It seemed to be working well, until one day a former football player who was interning in our weightroom made a comment to one of the dual-sport athletes about doing a workout that was “a tough football workout and not a lame shootaround in the gym.” When the basketball coach caught wind of the comment, he stormed into the weightroom and proceeded to chew me out.
I felt terrible, and wasn’t very happy with the intern. I explained to him that the relationship between the two programs was very delicate and it was not acceptable for him to influence any of the players because of his ties to one of the teams. I then found the basketball coach in the gym and approached him. He apologized for losing his cool, and I assured him that I had a stern talk with the intern and it wouldn’t happen again.
While I am lucky to work with understanding sport coaches, there are still times when we aren’t on the same page. If a coach is misinformed or simply uneducated about something you’re doing in the weightroom, take time to find out what their concerns are, then calmly explain the reasons behind your methods and decisions. I’ve found it’s best to present this info in simple, easy-to-understand terms rather than sending them a technical journal article or regurgitating one word-for-word.
Informal conversations with coaches even when there is not a problem are also beneficial. Being friendly and cordial with each other is important so that if a problem does arise, you have already established a comfortable and respectful relationship. To do this, I’ve asked our athletic director to provide me with an opportunity to speak to all of the sport coaches at one time.
During this time, I offer to talk to their teams about working in the weightroom and answer any questions they might have about what I do. My message is clear and realistic: My goal as a strength coach is to increase their athletes’ performance and decrease their risk of injury, but there is no magic workout that will automatically build state champions.
One other thing I’ve done with sport coaches is encourage them to attend the strength and conditioning workshops offered at the various conferences and clinics they attend throughout the year. These sessions can be very eye opening for them and our coaches often return to school ready to learn more about what our weightroom can offer their athletes.
However, despite all of a strength coach’s efforts, it’s quite possible a sport coach still won’t want to get their team involved in strength training. There is a coach here at Wayzata who wants nothing to do with the strength program, and I’ve had to learn to be okay with that. If a coach is polite and says, “No thanks,” I accept their decision and concentrate on working with the coaches and teams that want to be in the weightroom.
At a recent banquet, I heard a fellow coach joking that his dream job was to coach at an orphanage–because there wouldn’t be any parents for him to deal with. Though I’ve worked with some terrific parents over the years, there are definitely days when I agree with his statement. One incident in particular comes to mind.
A couple of years ago, the father of one of our football players blamed me when his son didn’t make the varsity football squad. He told me I failed to make his son a football player and that as the strongest kid in his class, he should have made the varsity squad.
Though quite taken aback, I calmly agreed that his son was indeed very strong. Additionally, I told the father about working with his son on his speed and agility, and he excelled in these areas as well. But I also explained that there is a lot more to being a varsity-level football player than physical prowess.
I work closely with our football coaching staff and knew that the position coaches simply didn’t feel the player was ready for varsity competition, and I was comfortable speaking on their behalf. I could have simply told the father that I didn’t pick the team and referred him to the head coach instead, but I got the feeling he believed that my time spent with his son in the weightroom was a waste.
In this case, a face-to-face meeting with the athlete’s father was critical to diffusing the situation because it allowed us both to vent our frustrations in an open environment. Before I spoke to the parent, I made sure the athletic director and coaching staff were able to be present as well. Administrators can act as mediators, and they also support the school, so if you haven’t done anything wrong, your athletic director should always have your back. And because the issue was about a decision the coaching staff had made, not me, I wanted to make sure they were fully informed about how I was responding to the father’s accusation.
While speaking to the father in the meeting, I remained calm and even-toned. He was upset, and so was I, but I didn’t let him see my frustration. It would have been easy to raise my voice to defend myself, but I knew that to be the bigger person, I had to keep my emotions at bay. In the end, he agreed to drop the issue. In the meeting, it had become obvious quickly that the father was acting out of desperation for his child. He just wanted the best for him, and I happened to be the one he blamed.
Overall, I’ve found that when a parent has a complaint, it’s good to have a systematic strategy. Here’s what I do: If a parent e-mails me with a concern, I respond via e-mail once in a timely manner. If they e-mail again, I ask for their phone number or for them to call me. As easy as it is to keep firing e-mails back and forth, that’s not an effective way to solve a problem.
When it comes to dealing with parents, proper and professional communication is especially important. Don’t let a parent’s complaints rattle you, but don’t ignore them either. Instead, ask if you might be able to help by explaining your reasoning or your side of the issue. Most often, the parent just wants to understand the situation more clearly.
WARY OF THE WEIGHTROOM
Megan was a remarkable basketball player–tall, athletic, great ball handling skills, a nice shot, and quite driven. But she wasn’t too keen on working out in the weightroom despite being more slender and not as strong as some of her teammates and opponents.
Instead of coming into the weightroom for our summer lifting program with her teammates, Megan opted to work with a private coach on her basketball skills. And during the fall, she decided to join the cross country team to “stay in shape” for basketball.
The problem was that Megan needed to put on weight and get stronger if she was going to accomplish her goal of obtaining an NCAA Division I basketball scholarship. But Megan’s basketball coach wanted her in the gym, her cross country coach wanted her out running, and her parents wanted her to stay out of the weightroom because they were concerned that weight training would negatively affect her shot.
I’m sure a lot of strength coaches have been faced with this problem. You may encounter female athletes who are hesitant to weight train because they’re afraid of “bulking up.” Or perhaps an entire team is told by their sport coach that they need to work on their sport-specific skills during the off-season instead of participating in a lifting program. In Megan’s case, she and her coaches and parents didn’t fully understand the benefits of weight training.
What is a strength coach to do in this situation? With Megan, I began tackling the problem by talking to her one-on-one. I explained that added strength and size would only help her game, not hurt it, and that in college she would be expected to participate in a lifting program so it would be beneficial for her to get a head start now.
In a lot of cases that involve athletes who don’t want to participate in a lifting program, I’ve found it’s usually a case of misinformation–not only by the athlete, but also often by their parents and/or coaches. As strength coaches, we have access to a plethora of research and articles on the benefits of weight training for athletes we can share with them. For example, I showed Megan research to back up my claims, as well as an article about NBA great Kevin Garnett in which he said he has his best shooting nights after having a great weightroom workout earlier that morning.
I also talked to the other adults surrounding Megan. Her mother was concerned that weight training would negatively affect her shot, so I explained why that wouldn’t happen while encouraging Megan to continue working with the skills coach outside of the weightroom. I asked her cross county coach whether he wanted what was best for Megan or his team’s success, and he admitted that it may look like he was being selfish but he really wanted what was best for her. I told him if that were true, he would send Megan to the weightroom.
At this point, I talked to my athletic director about my frustrations. I explained why I thought Megan was being done a disservice. He agreed with me, but we both knew I couldn’t force Megan to work out in the weightroom. At the end of the day it was up to her whether she wanted to lift or not.
So how did I convince Megan to weight train? Actually, I didn’t. Although I gave it my best effort, she chose not to. But what I did next proved to be really important. I let it go. I did not harbor any negative feelings and told her I’d be ready to work with her if she changed her mind.
At some point, you have to let it go and not risk burning any bridges–with the athlete, coaches, or parents. Megan did land that D-I scholarship, but her future coach had a concern. He wanted her to report to campus early because she had a lot of ground to make up in terms of her weight training abilities. Because I had left the door open for her, Megan didn’t hesitate to finally come in. We ended up working together every day before she left for school. And when she comes back to town on break, she still comes into our weightroom before heading to the gym to work on her game.
Megan is a perfect example for all of our future collegiate athletes. I tell them that weight training will be a big part of competing at the college level, and we can help them prepare now in high school. There are still plenty of misinformed athletes out there we can educate, and sometimes we just need to be patient until they’re ready to learn.
Author Ryan Johnson regularly contributes blogs and monthly features to our Web site. For more of his thoughts on working as a high school strength and conditioning coach, search “Ryan Johnson” at: www.Training-Conditioning.com.
Sidebar: MENTORING ROLE
The role of a mentor is usually reserved for sport coaches and teachers. As a strength coach, I consider myself lucky to have become a mentor to some of the athletes that have passed through the hallways here at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minn.
Nancy first walked into the weightroom as a timid sophomore who had been advised to enroll in my strength and conditioning class by her physical therapist. An accomplished ballet dancer, she had recently undergone a relatively minor surgical procedure on her hip, and her physical therapist thought it would be advantageous for her to do some strengthening work in the weightroom as part of her rehab.
It was immediately apparent that Nancy was apprehensive and uncomfortable in a weightroom. We began slowly at first, following the exact exercises her physical therapist had prescribed. But it wasn’t long before she started asking me about the science behind the exercises we were doing. And some of her questions were pretty tough!
Over time, Nancy became really interested in strength and conditioning and began taking more of the weightlifting classes offered here at Wayzata. Her senior year, she was named the school’s physical education student of the year–and her interest didn’t wane. Nancy is currently attending the University of Minnesota, where she is in the dance program and also currently interning with the school’s strength and conditioning program. She’s interested in finding a graduate program where she can continue on the exercise science path.
In this profession, there is no better feeling than when we turn non-believers into believers. Though Nancy was apprehensive at first, she was also open-minded. When she realized that the strength training exercises she was doing were helping her recover and become stronger, she wanted to know more about how it all worked. And as her teacher, I got to open the door for her.