Jun 12, 2024
Practical programming for young strength coaches
AJ Whitehead, University of Wisconsin Associate Director of Olympic Strength and Conditioning

Young coaches must grasp simple training concepts, such as progression and overloading. While all experiences should help them build out their coaching toolbox, not all tools need to be used, and your tools evolve with time.

Some simple words a mentor of mine once told me, “The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.” This has stuck with me. The strength and conditioning profession continues to evolve and grow, but the basics remain—and I believe this is the starting point for young strength and conditioning coaches.

youngFirst and foremost, young coaches must understand how to apply the basics. Though there are many different and more complex philosophies around the topic of periodization, linear periodization is a simple, yet incredibly effective starting point. In understanding and then applying concepts of linear periodization, young coaches will learn how to manipulate training principles within a program like volume, intensity, time under tension, work-to-rest ratios, and basic exercise progression and/or regression. This includes an understanding of where the athlete falls within their season (off-season, pre-season, in-season), hours allotted weekly, and how this impacts the training you can prescribe to them.

Next, know your why and be confident in the how of what you are programming. You may create the highest-level program to give to your athletes but if you do not understand the why behind what you are programming, you will never sell it to them. Athletes want to know why and you need to be able to explain it in a way that is basic and digestible to them. There is no need to get lost in the depths of science with your athletes. Additionally, knowing your why is going to help you be confident when implementing or defending that program. Remember, a program is only as good as your ability to coach it and how much your athletes trust in you.

An often-missed concept that young strength coaches can fail to comprehend is knowing how it feels. Test yourself first. If you are going to program something for athletes, make sure you have tried it yourself beforehand, so you better understand what specifically it is you are asking your athletes to do, both mentally and physically. Because you know how it should feel, you can better coach and cue your athletes through the training session and cycle. That said, do not forget all the stressors in our athletes’ lives that we may not be aware of. As strength coaches, we manipulate physical stressors to attain certain performance adaptations. Sport coaches are doing the same with practice, and additional physical stress must be considered when programming along with the mental, emotional, and spiritual stressors outside of the time spent training for their sport. 

youngAnother lost thought for young and eager strength and conditioning coaches is communicating and collaborating with their respective sport coaches—never mind valuing their input. It is imperative to understand what matters to them and what they want out of their team, because it is their team, and it is our job to support them. Every sport coach is different—some will be entirely hands-off so long as their athletes remain healthy and improve, while others want to be highly involved. The priority must always be on building a relationship with your sport coach to provide the best training environment for your athletes. 

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Finally, what I believe to be the most important piece is meeting your athletes where they are at—not where you want them to be—and then bringing them with you. It can be easy to assume or overestimate their abilities. Simply because they are a Division 1 athlete or they play a certain sport and that skill is a part of their sport, it does not mean they are a good mover or even coordinated. Even more, it is understood that the human component comes before the athlete. Make it a priority to care about them as a person first. Most athletes have based their entire identity on their athletic performance, so grasping this larger concept of them as individuals can lead to great gains in not only trust and buy-in, but it helps you better understand what is on your life plate that you cannot physically see. 

To sum it all up:

  1. Do not overcomplicate it. Start simple, know where you want to go and resist the urge to get caught up in trendy or flashy methods of training. 
  2. Do not program anything you have not done, cannot demonstrate or explain. Not all your athletes learn the same way – provide verbal, written, and visual cues.
  3. Put the highest value on communication.
  4. Come as a learner.
  5. Most importantly—relationships must remain your top priority.

In closure, though this article may be directed towards young, up-and-coming strength and conditioning coaches, it should still resonate with all coaches—we never stop learning. I would like to thank all my former interns for teaching me life lessons along the way and impacting my career in ways they may never know.

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