Freelap Friday Five with Craig Cheek
Craig Cheek is currently in his third year as the Director of Strength and Conditioning at Stephen T. Badin High School. He graduated from Bluffton College in 1997 with a degree in health and physical education and from Bowling Green State University in 2004 with a master’s in developmental kinesiology. He has past experience at all levels of college athletics and has served as a sport coach for football and track and field. Coach Cheek oversees the strength training and conditioning programs for Badin’s entire athletic program. He also directs weekly strength and conditioning camps for middle school athletes of all sporting backgrounds.
Freelap USA: A lot of training ideas often sound great on paper, but fail to live up to expectations. Some popular ideas such as supersetting exercises may be fine for lower loads with experienced athletes, but not at early stages of development. Could you share why concepts sometimes fail in high school environments?
Craig Cheek: I think a big reason why some concepts may fail is because kids do not know what they do not know. Kids have no idea what supersetting exercises means. Even when coaches take the time to explain what we want, most of it goes in one ear and out the other. High school kids are very distracted, and the mindset is not always one that is focused on training.High school kids are often only physically present. They need to be mentally engaged, with a serious intent in their training, says @built_by_craig. Click To Tweet
A problem I see is that a large number of athletes come to the weight room because a teammate or coach told them to. They are just physically present. They do not understand that there needs to be a serious intent to their training. Much of my energy is spent trying to get them mentally engaged after a long day sitting in class. Our concepts look great, but without the mental engagement from the athlete, they will remain stifled.
If the concept is a little too complex, it’s time to step back and reevaluate who your clientele is and why you are trying to do it.
Freelap USA: Social media and large high school programs paint an unrealistic expectation with kids. How do you guide young athletes to start with fundamentals when there’s the pressure of pursuing the “315 club” and other arbitrary measures? How do you motivate without placing an athlete on an unrealistic path?
Craig Cheek: I strongly believe that, as coaches, we have to meet kids where they are. I believe that to do that we have to educate coaches first on how to manage their own expectations for kids. A kid who cannot bench 135 isn’t going to be benching 250 after six weeks. This (educating coaches) is a tough battle to fight and I am not sure that it is one that a strength and conditioning coach will ever win.Coaches have to meet kids where they are. To do that, we have to educate coaches first on how to manage their own expectations for kids, says @built_by_craig. Click To Tweet
The great thing about my position is that I dictate the training program. Certain sports have a heavy sport coaching presence during lifting, while others have almost none. In either case, the kids do not have a choice but to start with fundamental movements. Coaches are made aware of what to look for in each session and basically serve as assistant strength coaches.
Kids will get frustrated at times, and it requires constant dialogue telling them where we are going to help them get through. Kids and sport coaches are only worried about today, while it is my job to show them the global picture and where they are headed. Something as simple as a T-shirt for 100% attendance goes a long way with motivation.
Freelap USA: Teaching athletes the same exercises over and over again can get tedious for some coaches, so they resort to a lot of “experimental” type movements that lead to a dead end. How do you inject creativity and variation without losing the pillars of development?
Craig Cheek: I have made that mistake more times than I’d like to admit. I think one of the easiest areas to implement creativity is in warm-ups. Nowadays, it seems like every exercise can be progressed/regressed hundreds of different ways. I do not let the warm-up become a circus act, but sometimes a minor twist on something as simple as a walking lunge can lead to better engagement during the warm-up.
We do a lot of basic hinge and squat patterns during our warm-up, so it tends to get dull and kids go through the motions. I can insert a variation to it and that automatically re-engages the kids. Adding a front squat to hang power cleans is a weight room example.
I think variety is good, but not at the expense of solid training. The variations have to make sense for what we’ve been doing and what we will do later. In my experience, introducing basic movement patterns becomes the experiment.
Freelap USA: A classic syndrome is that a national championship college football training program is seen as the winning ticket for high school. Often coaches assume that if a kid trains like an elite athlete, they will become an elite player. How do you explain why some programs may not be appropriate for younger athletes?
Craig Cheek: I explain that the players winning national championships are on a different plane altogether, skill-wise, than the kids we deal with daily. I’m not “holding back” the next Tom Brady. I cannot emphasize this enough with coaches and parents.
No coach wants to hear this, but I’ve worked with athletes competing for national championships who are very elementary, skill-wise, in the weight room. What separates them is their skill on the playing field. I used to spend a large portion of college training sessions reintroducing things to athletes that I felt should have been covered in grade school PE.Coaches tend to think resiliency means we should throw more on the kid. That mindset leads to a broken-down athlete once they get to college, says @built_by_craig Click To Tweet
The other thing is physical maturity. Freshman high school athletes are further from adulthood than freshman college athletes. I’m learning that young kids may be a little more resilient than I give them credit for, but I believe therein lies the trap. Coaches tend to think that resiliency means we should throw more on the kid. That mindset leads to a broken-down athlete once they get to college. Working with college baseball, it was mind-blowing how many first-year guys came in with trashy shoulders.
Freelap USA: More and more high schools are adding professional strength coaches to their program. What are some important guidelines that should be in place to encourage qualified candidates? How do you see the future improvements in this field?
Craig Cheek: I do not know if these would encourage or discourage candidates, but I think at a minimum they should have an advanced degree with certification. While education is only a piece of the puzzle, it is an important one, nonetheless. Coaches should have demonstrated experience in organizing large groups of athletes into a training session.
I think the ability to be versatile is a key factor. Can you rearrange on the fly because bad weather has forced you indoors with 50 kids for a conditioning session? What does that look like? How do you handle the random athlete who decides to join the training group on a Wednesday three weeks into the training block?
The reality with high school kids is that they are just that—kids. What may be a minor inconvenience for us as coaches is a full-blown calamity for a 14-year-old who doesn’t have a ride home after school.
High school strength coach is a unique position and almost a novelty to some school districts. If we can get school districts to recognize the strength coach as a professional position that is different from the traditional classroom teacher, then I think we can make inroads to getting more qualified people into the field.