Apr 9, 2018Caught in a Crowd
In high school and small-college settings, strength coaches can find themselves training 30 to 40 athletes without any assistance. What are ways to keep your head above water?
The NSCA recommends a max strength coach-to-athlete ratio of 1:10 at the high school level and 1:20 for college, but we all know reality doesn’t always match this ideal. For example, during my time as the sole strength coach at Dixie State University, a small NCAA Division II institution, I regularly trained entire teams at once (so a 1:40 ratio for the baseball team), while still being responsible for the remaining 350 athletes in 12 other sports.
We’re seeing similar scenarios more frequently nowadays as the field of strength and conditioning grows at a lightning-fast pace. Coaches and athletes are starting to understand the value of strength and conditioning, so more performance positions are being created. That’s the good news.
However, many of these positions are coming at smaller colleges or high schools. The bad news is that resources are often scarce in these settings, and the coach-to-athlete ratios are drastically different from programs at higher levels.
At the same time, today’s strength coaches face more responsibilities than ever before. The position-which formerly involved simply being the “weights coach”-now requires running a holistic athletic performance program consisting of strength, speed, agility, conditioning, flexibility, regeneration, nutrition, fatigue management, and the list goes on. So there’s more for coaches to do but still only one person to do it at many schools.
While some strength coaches facing high work demands and even higher coach-to-athlete ratios may head for greener pastures, these obstacles can in fact be viewed as challenges to overcome. During my time as a one-person strength and conditioning staff at Dixie State, I made many mistakes trying to manage it all. But I also learned a lot along the way, which enabled me to improve my program each year. I developed guiding principles that I still use today, and I consider myself fortunate to have had the experience.
DEFINING YOUR ROLE
The first, and perhaps most significant, lesson I learned when faced with poor coach-to-athlete ratios is the importance of clarifying your job expectations with administrators, coaches, sports medicine staff, and athletes. What do you need from each of these groups to be successful, and what do they need from you? Countless issues can be avoided simply by answering this question.
If your job description requires you to train 12 different teams three times a week for an hour each, that alone is 36 hours a week of just coaching. This doesn’t take into account time for program design; communicating with coaches/admin/sports medicine; training for speed, agility, or conditioning; testing and reporting; weightroom setup, clean up, or maintenance; continuing education; practice or game-day duties; and anything else that may fall under your purview. If your administration wants you to perform all of these duties and more by yourself, expect to burn out quickly.
To prevent such a negative outcome, have an honest and direct conversation about expectations with your administrator. This will help align your goals and responsibilities with those of the entire athletic department and avoid many potential future conflicts. Here are some basic questions to ask about the logistics of your position:
• Will I have game day or practice duties?
• What records or reports am I expected to keep?
• How will I be evaluated?
• To whom do I report?
Ideally, this discussion would take place during the hiring process, but it often does not. I made the mistake of not broaching these topics up front at Dixie State, so I had to address them as issues arose.
However, no matter when you have the conversation, the key is to educate administrators that strength coaches’ jobs involve more than simply writing a workout on a whiteboard and letting the athletes go. Administrators will often see a blank hour on the weightroom schedule and assume you have absolutely nothing to do, when that’s never the case. You need to determine how much time is available for instruction each week and how much time is needed for other responsibilities. Then, use that information to set joint expectations.
In addition, ask your administrator how many hours they expect you to spend with each team. The ebbs and flows of preseasons, in-seasons, postseasons, and offseasons will typically provide some structure for your access to each squad, but different coaches will have different opinions about what your role should be. If you discuss this topic with your administrators up front, they can support you if a coach has unrealistic demands for your time. Unless defined by your role or clarified by your administrator, priorities should be assigned based on need and logistics-assume all teams deserve equal amounts of your attention.
Still, you should also meet with each of your sport coaches individually to discuss what they want and what you can offer. Initiating this conversation will ensure you and the coach understand each other before conflicts arise. Here are some questions to ask them:
• When will your team train? How many times a week and in how many groups?
• Who will run warm-ups and do conditioning with your team?
• Will I travel with your team?
• What testing and reporting do you expect from me?
• How often do you want to communicate with me?
Keep in mind, some aspects of working with athletes might be best left for the sport coach to handle. For example, though many strength and conditioning professionals pride themselves on being the “culture coach” who is in charge of doling out consequences to noncompliant athletes, accountability and culture start with the head of the program. This is especially true when you are faced with poor coach-to-athlete ratios and can’t do it all.
I learned this lesson quickly when I worked at Dixie State, as my attempt to personally hold 350 athletes accountable ended unsuccessfully. Simply keeping track of who was late, who missed, and who needed to make up workouts became an unmanageable task. Similarly, setting up early morning make-up lifts on my off days became just as much of a punishment to me as the athletes. Accountability starts with consistency, and I was unable to consistently enforce my rules. This was frustrating and confusing for both the athletes and me.
Instead, I found the best response in most situations when dealing with a noncompliant athlete is to send them home and inform the head coach. The coach likely has penalties already laid out in a team code of conduct that they can enforce.
If you’re seeking an ally in your one-person quest to run a strength and conditioning program, look no further than your sports medicine staff. The inherent overlap between strength and conditioning and sports medicine requires these two departments to regularly communicate and collaborate. Make time each week formally or informally to discuss injury reports, injury trends, or specific athletes. Once you understand your athletic trainers’ policies for injured athletes, return-to-play, shared facility use, and prehab programming, you will be able to share your knowledge and align your goals together.
Further, setting expectations with your sports medicine staff on what injured athletes can and cannot do will go a long way. I was told on more than one occasion at Dixie State, “The athletic trainer said I couldn’t do X,” when I knew for a fact that the athletic trainer would say differently. If you are on the same page with your sports medicine team, you’ll be able to call athletes’ bluffs.
Last but certainly not least, you must make your expectations clear with athletes. Doing this will make it much easier to get buy-in. From setting protocols on appropriate workout clothing to make-up lifts to your late policy, your standards should apply department-wide.
SYSTEMIZE AND SIMPLIFY
With expectations established, you can turn your attention to programming. Your strength and conditioning regimen must be a well-oiled machine when dealing with poor coach-to-athlete ratios, mostly because of the limited time you will have with each team.
For this reason, I recommend using a system of templates to build workouts instead of starting each training block from scratch. This method makes the daunting task of writing programs for each team much more manageable.
I created my own templates by categorizing exercises through movement or intent. Then, I could simply plug in certain lifts, intensities, and volumes based on athlete, sport, or time of year. For example, the category “bilateral knee dominant strength” might be five sets of five back squats for offseason soccer but three sets of three trap bar dead lifts for in-season softball. (See “Starting Point” below for a sample template and how I make it more specific.)
Along with streamlining your programming, don’t forget the importance of simplicity. When you’re the sole strength coach for an athletic department, creating individualized workouts for each athlete isn’t possible. Remember instead that creating intricate workouts is not necessary. The simpler the movements, the easier it will be for your athletes to do them well. For instance, I have always been a huge fan of the Olympic lifts, but I rarely implemented them in the small school setting because they are highly coaching intensive. Since my time was already at a premium, those movements didn’t have a place in my program.
To take simplicity one step further, use a consistent nomenclature for exercises, drills, movements, and progressions with all teams. The lack of weightroom space in a small college or high school often requires athletes from multiple teams to train together, and having standardized names for everything allows this to happen seamlessly. It also means you don’t have to spend as much time bouncing from athlete to athlete explaining different terms.
Training large groups of athletes by yourself is extremely challenging, and while simplifying your programming can make it easier, you might need a little extra assistance. That’s why strength coaches shouldn’t hesitate to ask for help.
One of the biggest mistakes I made early on in the small school setting was not having interns. I was so worried about needing to teach or coach yet another person that I failed to realize how beneficial they could be.
Once I got on board with interns, I found most of them in the form of former or current athletes. Although we didn’t have an exercise science major at Dixie State, this is also a great place to look for interns. If applicable, develop a relationship with the exercise science faculty beforehand to make this easier.
As far as the interns’ duties, they can, and should, be able to assist from day one. Start with simple tasks, such as counting reps and timing drills, before having them lead warm-ups and coach exercises. Give them more to do as they prove they can handle it.
Initially, interns may be involved in your discussions with administrators, sports medicine staff, or sport coaches as a fly on the wall. But as their role within a specific team grows, you can start to involve them more. This will help them develop professionally, build connections, and establish relationships within the athletic department.
However, if you’re going to give an intern ownership of training a team, make sure to inform the sport coach. If you don’t clear it with them, they may assume you view their team as less important or as a guinea pig. To gain the coach’s confidence in your decision, explain how your intern has proven to be capable and make sure they understand that you are still overseeing their team.
Another helpful strategy when dealing with poor coach-to-athlete ratios is utilizing the upperclass athletes at your school. After a few years in your strength and conditioning program, veteran athletes can assist by becoming “junior” coaches. This keeps you from having to supervise every player on every lift and has the fortunate byproduct of creating team culture and camaraderie.
For example, I utilized a “block zero” concept with all of my athletes at Dixie State, which meant I taught or retaught our foundational movements at the beginning of each school year. By the time athletes were seniors, they understood the exercises and cues well enough to assist and coach up their younger teammates when they made a mistake-just as a senior would correct a younger player for an error on the court or field.
To further expand this concept, I often built peer coaching into workouts. I put athletes into groups of three and gave each person a responsibility: Athlete 1 performed a main (coaching-intensive) movement, Athlete 2 performed a low-risk, simple assistance movement, and Athlete 3 served as a spotter/coach for Athlete 1.
If Athlete 1 performed a lift incorrectly or skipped a rep, Athlete 3 was held accountable. So if Athlete 1 was bench pressing with a false grip, instead of getting on them, I asked Athlete 3 why they didn’t correct the error. This helped from both an exercise technique standpoint and a safety standpoint. Athlete 1 observed me reprimand Athlete 3, which ensured they learned the proper technique, as well.
All in all, I think strength coaches agree that the growth of our profession is a great thing. In a perfect world, all new positions would come with ideal facilities, plentiful resources, and low coach-to-athlete ratios. But until that becomes a reality, strength coaches can set themselves up for success by agreeing on clear expectations within their departments, systematizing and simplifying their programs, and accepting any and all help they can get.
Below is a sample template I have used to plan workouts when facing poor coach-to-athlete ratios:
Anterior Chain Strength/Power Emphasis
• Bilateral squat pattern + plyo
• Unilateral squat pattern
• Upper-body press
• Upper-body pull
The next two charts show how I would cater the template to specific sports and times of the year:
• Front squat + depth jump: 5×5, 4×5
• One-leg squat: 4×5
• Push-up: 3×8
• One-arm dumbbell row: 3×8
• Barbell rollout: 3×8
• Hex bar dead lift + depth drop: 4×3, 3×3
• One-leg squat: 2×5
• One-arm dumbbell press: 2×8
• One-arm dumbbell row: 2×8
• Front bridge: 2×30 seconds
This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of Training & Conditioning.