Michael Gragg, SCCC, CSCS, has been the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Harding University (DII, Arkansas) since 2021. He is Harding’s first-ever strength and conditioning coach and oversees the sports performance efforts for more than 400 student-athletes. Prior to HU, he was a strength and conditioning coach at Northern Arizona University, responsible for the training and development of men’s and women’s basketball and sprinters, and he assisted with football. Before NAU, Gragg was a graduate assistant at TCU and an intern at Battle Ground Academy (Franklin, TN). In college at Harding University, Gragg played in 43 games as an offensive lineman and earned his B.S. in Exercise and Sports Science and his M.S. in Education.
Freelap USA: After you were hired as Harding University’s first strength and conditioning coach, what were your top priorities and goals for establishing the department?
Michael Gragg: It was important to identify early in the process if I was being hired to check a box that would fulfill the NCAA requirement of having a certified strength and conditioning coach on staff. I was happy to realize they sought me to establish what would become a significant support system for the student-athletes and to mentor strength and conditioning students in our Master of Science in Strength and Conditioning (MSSC) program. Throughout the interview process, my goal was to establish a congruence of vision between myself and the university. Being sure the athletic department and coaches knew exactly what to expect with me joining the team was a must.
Communication and collaboration were my top priorities. I intended to get a sense of what every sports coach was doing for S&C (if anything). Sit-down meetings with coaches and athletic trainers were vital for gathering information about team training history. I made an effort to chat with as many student-athletes as possible about their weight room experience—the good, bad, and memorable. There are plenty of funny AND horrifying stories about what some athletes experienced in the weight room and during conditioning before I arrived.
Freelap USA: The importance of building buy-in is often discussed in strength and conditioning—what tips do you have for sustained success in developing relationships in the athletic department?
Michael Gragg: There are a few things that led to success in earning trust in the athletic department. I was very intentional and invested substantial time and energy in getting to know the student-athletes. It was incredibly valuable to ask how I could best serve them, what their expectation of me was, and how I could deliver on those expectations. Seeking feedback and honestly assessing what the athlete is thinking and feeling begins by being vulnerable with them first. It’s powerful to stand in a room of athletes and ask, “Hey, what do y’all like or not like about the training? What questions do you have? How can I be a better coach for you today?”…and then be very receptive to the feedback.
I was deliberate in learning every athlete’s name in the first week—regardless of team size—and engaging with them by name. Attending practices is a critical aspect of gaining buy-in. Being present and available at practice enables you to get to know athletes when they are in their true element. Having players and coaches feel as though they are your top priority goes a long way in building trust over time.
Our sports coaches appreciated that now, S&C training was off their plate, and they could prioritize recruiting and other valuable responsibilities in the off-season. The new voice in the room holding players accountable, echoing team standards, and leading athletes toward continued growth aided team development and was a key factor in buy-in with sports coaches.It took nearly two years to get every team all-in with S&C, but I believe patience, results with other teams, and not burning bridges with sports coaches early on paid dividends, says @MichaelGragg. Click To Tweet
For the coaches who did not want S&C involved with their teams early on, I was very careful not to intercede with what they had been doing successfully for years. I took an indirect approach but was persistent in getting to know these coaches and athletes by stopping by practices for the occasional stretch or recovery session to demonstrate the value of S&C outside the weight room. It took nearly two years to get every team all-in with strength and conditioning, but I believe patience, results with other teams, and not burning bridges with sports coaches early on paid dividends.
With our sports medicine staff, it is a priority to check in daily with a sit-down meeting, a pop-in talk, a chat at practice, or a quick text. It is up to us to ensure we are in the loop with our athletic trainers and sports coaches on all injuries and training modifications. We never assume or expect anyone will communicate vital information; instead, we consistently seek information from the source. Additionally, we program in a way that mitigates the risk of injuries based on the needs of the sport, and we are prepared to build in training modifications when needed.
Being familiar with injury history and modifying for individual needs was a small thing athletes and athletic trainers greatly appreciated. By encouraging student-athletes to live up to their potential and pursue excellence and by serving as a support system, we work as a team to promote the holistic development of their minds, bodies, and spirits.
Ultimately, production matters, and a pivotal piece to building buy-in is RESULTS. Our strength and conditioning department offers safe, appropriately challenging, and technically sound training that provides exactly what athletes need to support their athletic endeavors and mitigate the risk of injuries in an environment where they will be empowered and supported daily. Those simple things executed at a very high level build buy-in.
Freelap USA: For a Division II university, you have a good-sized staff of graduate assistants and interns. How did you go about building and developing your staff?
Michael Gragg: When hired, I was the only full-time S&C coach. During my first semester on campus, the demand for strength and conditioning among all of our teams was very high, and attempts to bring in volunteer interns had no success. I pitched the idea of creating graduate assistant positions to help train the teams and increase our MSSC program’s enrollment numbers. If the four graduate assistant positions had not been approved, the strength and conditioning department would not have blossomed into what it is today. The students in the MSSC program who were not GAs observed the importance of getting in the weight room, and before I knew it, we regularly had staff meetings of 8–9 young coaches growing together every day.
Establishing and upholding a department culture was essential once we had multiple young coaches working together. We are unified in keeping the athlete at the center of everything we do, and we have clear expectations for how we will coach and carry ourselves daily. Those things, paired with quality time, led to a cohesive team of disciplined coaches who challenge and hold each other to be their best.
Bringing in young and hungry strength and conditioning coaches is vital to the success of our department. Involving current GAs in interviewing candidates helps them prepare for their own future interviews and allows us to determine if the candidate is a good fit for our team. Once a GA demonstrates their ability to do what is required at a high level, they have earned the trust and autonomy to do their job while knowing they have my support and guidance when needed.Through staff readings, presentations, program defense, peer evaluations, and feedback, we learn to think critically, are refined by the fire, and become eminently prepared for the next opportunity. Click To Tweet
I would not be the coach I am today if not for my two internships and GA experience that led to a strong desire to create an environment of continued professional development amongst our staff. Through staff readings, presentations, program defense, peer evaluations, and individual feedback, we learn to think critically, are refined by the fire, and become eminently prepared for the next opportunity.
Freelap USA: What obstacles have you overcome while establishing the strength and conditioning department?
Michael Gragg: Every S&C staff member will navigate obstacles to operate smoothly and pursue continued growth. Because our GAs and interns are doing phenomenally in their roles, many have earned jobs after their first year. I make an effort to be involved in the GA’s planning process while also allowing them the autonomy required for growth to avoid a lack of consistency from our staff to the teams. Ideally, this allows sport coaches and players to trust there will be results from year to year even though the S&C coach may change. This highlights the continued need to attend competitions and be present in the weight room periodically to keep relationships strong.
Like many small school strength and conditioning departments, we have our share of budget constraints. Our MSSC program budget allows us to provide a stipend to our graduate assistants (which has grown year to year) and has furnished valuable pieces of technology (GPS, force plates, VBT, HR monitoring). However, the funds for equipment maintenance, upgrades, and weight room supplies come solely from our donors or from individual sports teams investing their budget into S&C. We have been able to slowly add equipment and make the enhancements required to pursue excellence largely because our administration, sport coaches, donors, and S&C department have a shared desire for keeping the student-athletes’ development central to what we do.
Freelap USA: A certified strength and conditioning coach working with all athletes is still uncommon in many high schools and small universities. What advice would you offer to school or university administrators looking to invest in strength and conditioning?
Michael Gragg: Every university and high school should have a certified strength and conditioning professional whose sole responsibility is to direct and oversee the training of all student-athletes. The benefits that a strength and conditioning coach provides extend far outside of the weight room. I would encourage administrators to explore the value of strength and conditioning and hope they come away realizing our role is way more than “bigger, faster, stronger, and better conditioned.” If supported by an administration that fosters collaboration between strength and conditioning, sports medicine, and sport coaches, a high-quality S&C department will aid in mitigating the risk of injuries in training, practice, and competition. It will enhance the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being and performance of athletes, which results in improved team success in and out of competition.
Administrators who have the desire to promote strength and conditioning should make every effort to staff and fund the department adequately. If compensated fairly, athletic departments have a better chance of enticing higher-quality candidates and have an opportunity to retain coaches for longer periods. There are too many S&C departments that are a revolving door of head and assistant coaches due to coaches being overworked and underpaid. The true value of a strength and conditioning department, just like exercise, reveals itself over time and allows for long-term athletic development.The true value of a strength and conditioning department, just like exercise, reveals itself over time and allows for long-term athletic development, says @MichaelGragg. Click To Tweet
It should be the standard that athletic administrators evaluate the S&C department’s performance and its impact on athlete development and encourage open communication and teamwork with all parties that influence student-athlete performance. This should take place under the supervision of an administrator with a strong understanding of health and human performance. Ultimately, the support from the athletic administration allows for a sustainable strength and conditioning department and sets the foundation for long-lasting student-athlete health and performance.
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