Let me say this plainly: Every high school principal and athletic director should want a centralized, school-wide strength and conditioning program in their building. My confidence in this statement comes from my experience seeing the educational and strength and conditioning landscapes from a variety of angles. The marriage of these two worlds—scholastic education and strength and conditioning, particularly in high schools—is a match made in heaven for those willing to consider it. This partnership, if handled appropriately, is one of the most powerful I have encountered in my own journey between both worlds.Every high school principal and athletic director should want a centralized, school-wide strength and conditioning program in their building, says @coachnickcook. Click To Tweet
My Personal Journey
Entering college in 1998, I was simply looking to become a collegiate strength and conditioning coach. But as providence would have it, my career experiences provided a much more comprehensive perspective—one that has been shaped over a 20-year period during which I have walked in the shoes of student, coach, teacher, school principal—and I am now back to the role of teacher/coach. Each experience has fostered my belief in this powerful partnership.
“A vigorous body helps create a vigorous mind.” –Thomas Jefferson
Whether it was becoming aware of Soviet sports science by growing up down the street from Louie Simmons’ Westside Barbell in Columbus, Ohio; studying under an Olympic-level physiologist as an Exercise Science student at the University of Mount Union; or playing under the winningest coach in college football history—who also happened to have a background in the science of behavioral psychology—my appreciation for a science-based approach to integrating the training of the body and mind was birthed by these foundational experiences.
“Success is like anything worthwhile. It has a price. You have to pay the price to win and you have to pay the price to get to the point where success is possible. Most important, you must pay the price to stay there.” –Vince Lombardi
As a coach, I have been blessed with a wide variety of experiences: volunteer assistant at the college level; graduate assistant coach at the college level; assistant at the high school level; head coach at the high school level; head coach at the college level; and private sector performance coach. I’ve been a part of losing teams, and I’ve been a part of national championship teams. I’ve experienced coaching at all three levels of the NCAA, in a high school setting with thousands of students, and in high schools with fewer than 200 students. Through a broad net of experiences like this, you learn a lot about what helps performance and what hurts performance. You absorb transferrable principles, grow to understand the cost of excellence, and learn the art of differentiating how these truths apply to the needs within the community you are serving.
“Whenever you shepherd, know well the condition of your flock, and set your heart upon your herds.” –Proverbs 27:23
As a schoolteacher, I have worked with snot-nosed sixth graders, maturing 12th graders, and everything in between. I have walked the hallways of large public schools and very small private Christian schools. I have taught more than one subject, had my own classroom, traveled between classrooms, and participated in many faculty seminars.
Being on the front lines with students exposes you to their various needs and the struggles that contemporary young people face in their day-to-day lives. These experiences have given me a deep-seated passion for the overall health and well-being of young people. Whether it is physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, or social, we as teachers tend to grow increasingly sensitive to the tapestry of factors that impact the success of students in our classrooms.
“Guide the decision-making process but give your men the satisfaction of participating in the process. Consensus can prevent problems.” –Larry Kehres
In my first year as a high school principal, I spent a lot of time repenting of the poor attitudes that I sometimes held toward administrators when I was a classroom teacher. When you learn how deeply “you don’t know what you don’t know,” it has a profound effect on your perspective.Without a specific strategy to foster collaboration, athletics can quickly turn into a hornet’s nest that will damage the fabric of your overall school culture, says @coachnickcook. Click To Tweet
Being a school administrator in the 21st century is a massive job with many competing priorities. For most principals I know, the work of building a genuine culture of mission, unity, and collaboration throughout the school community is one of the most elusive yet critical tasks. And if you want something that will be a potent disruption to this culture-building and all of your exciting academic efforts, insert an athletic department riddled with conflict, failure, injuries, and in-fighting. Without a specific strategy to foster collaboration and prevent these problems, athletics can quickly turn into a hornet’s nest that will damage the fabric of your overall school culture.
What Every Principal Wants
My experience from these various vantage points, including my own time spent as a principal, leads me to believe that administrators everywhere want the same basic good for their school communities. There is a shared set of overarching objectives that I would summarize into these four core areas:
- Health and well-being of students
- Engaged learners
- Unity and teamwork among faculty and staff
- Growth and success for students
What Every Principal Needs
I believe all administrators would agree with this statement: A positive, dynamic school culture does not happen by accident. It takes intentional planning, communication, and action. Those administrators who are passionate about cultivating culture throughout the whole school are always searching for tools, methods, and strategies that have the most “bang for the buck”—strategies that are efficient and that will deliver great results without sabotaging their already scattered time and energy.
If you are a principal or athletic director reading this article, and I have your attention, please allow me to share a tool that I would liken to a potent fertilizer in the hands of a gardener. It’s a single resource that when applied to your overall scholastic program can simultaneously: improve the overall health and well-being of the majority of your students; produce more engaged learners; unify and build collaboration among your most ego-susceptible staff members (coaches); and be an engine of measurable growth and success for a large cross-section of your student body.
This potent tool is a school-wide strength and conditioning program, administered by a qualified strength and conditioning professional, unified throughout your physical education and athletic programs.
4 Reasons to Consider S&C
If you are a principal or AD, here are four reasons you should integrate this powerful tool to help meet the overarching goals and objectives for your school:
1. Improve the Health and Well-Being of Students
It has been widely published that schools are currently working with the most anxious generation on record. Whether it is anxiety related to their home life, social life, or school performance, a large cross-section of the students we work with struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns.
Addressing these needs certainly calls for a multifaceted approach, but contemporary research has increasingly validated the role of one very powerful tool in this fight: intense exercise. Studies have shown direct correlations between intense exercise (resistance training, sprinting, etc.) and lower levels of anxiety and depression among adolescents. A 2017 study that surveyed thousands of adolescents showed that “The group that had the highest level of activity had the highest levels of well-being and the lowest levels of depression and anxiety.” A 2019 study published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews cited many possible ways that “Physical activity can treat and prevent depressive symptoms,” concluding that “exercise promotes self-esteem, social support, and self-efficacy.” Resistance training, in particular, is the form of exercise that has yielded some of the most positive findings in keeping anxiety at bay.
If treating and preventing depressive symptoms in a natural way is not enough to convince you that the majority of your student body needs to resistance train in an organized way, maybe saving parents trips to the ER, PT, and/or ortho and preventing lost classroom time due to appointments will push you over the edge. Whether because of the benefits that a simple exercise like barbell squat can have in preventing injuries or the findings of a comprehensive review of research from 1982-2016 showing how regular participation in resistance training by youth athletes can decrease injury rates by up to 68%, the physical well-being of your students will be better off with resistance training than without it.
As Joe Eisenmann, Ph.D., one of America’s top experts in youth growth and development, puts it, “A compelling body of scientific evidence supports participation in appropriately designed youth resistance training programs that are supervised and instructed by qualified individuals. –Sincerely, The position statements of major sports medicine organizations.”
2. Engage Learners
Rewind hundreds of years and you will find examples of human beings touting the connection between a strong mind and a strong body. This discovery through general revelation, observation, and experience has been irrevocably confirmed through modern scientific research.
The more often and more intensely a person exercises, the better the brain functions. For our students, we’re learning that activities like regular strength training and sprinting contribute to measurable increases in learning and academic performance.
Besides producing healthier brains that are more prepared to learn, there is another benefit that a sound, science-based strength and conditioning program provides for students. A truly instructional strength and conditioning environment inherently provides training and scaffolding for the development of a growth mindset.A truly instructional strength and conditioning environment inherently provides training and scaffolding for the development of a growth mindset, says @coachnickcook. Click To Tweet
As students are assessed, engaged in training, motivated to improve, and reassessed to show progress in a strength and conditioning program, they are repeatedly being taught that their physical abilities and mental fortitude are qualities that can be developed. These types of progress and resilience are classic components of a growth mindset. I have found that this type of training, in the low-stakes environment of a strength and conditioning program, provides an excellent framework that students can build upon in their other personal, social, and academic challenges.
3. Establish Unity and Teamwork Among Faculty and Staff
Unity and collaboration among adults in schools can often be elusive. One reason is that in the world of education and coaching, philosophical beliefs and the resulting passions can be very tribal. Adherence to particular strains of strategy, while demonizing others, is far too common in educational and coaching workshops, clinics, social media accounts, and materials. These puritanical attitudes and reductive practices typically cause more division than unity and, in my opinion, tend to stall progress on behalf of kids.
As a principal who at the time was a “former” coach, I always found it helpful to take a more humble, holistic, integrated approach when trying to unify my staff. Inspiration for this approach came from the wise words of 17th-century theologian Rupertus Meldenius, who once said, “In essentials Unity, in non-essentials Liberty, in all things Charity.” Rather than picking a popular tribe to identify with and doing a proverbial cannonball into the pool of the latest fads in research and pricey workshops, I led my team in selecting some time-tested, research-based, essential fundamentals that we all could agree on. From there, we sharply focused our efforts on resourcing those areas, no matter what philosophy we borrowed from to get things done. We would be firm in purpose, but flexible in implementation.
I have found the same approach helpful with coaches, as we tend to have the most tribal tendencies of them all. Are you an “Olympic” person or a “powerlifting” person? Is “speed” the right word or is it “conditioning”? Do you squat “below parallel” or not squat at all? Do you run a “spread” offense or a “Wing-T”? Do you like “pitch counts” or do you hate them? Do “ladders” suck or are they helpful? Do you believe in “linear” periodization or “conjugated” periodization? Does lifting “hurt your shot” or “help your shot”?
Stand tall, puff your chest out, identify yourself, and pick your molehill to stand on. It can turn into quite a circus within the coaching community. The pull toward ego can be very strong. So, what is a high school AD or principal to do if they want to bring unity to this headstrong community that struggles with “sharing” athletes? Enter the power of a centralized strength and conditioning program.
Some keys to this approach that I have found very helpful include: hiring a qualified strength and conditioning professional (preferably with formal exercise science training)—not just picking a sports coach who is the most “swole” or the most passionate about training; hiring a professional who can unify around core/transferrable principles of athletic development—not a tribal apologist who subscribes to one particular “type” of training; and then providing all the admin muscle you can muster to resource, support, and guide this process toward success.
I will share more practical tips with administrators at the conclusion of the article, but the way we currently apply this at Chicago Christian High School is that we build our central program around five core areas that our coaches can all agree on. These may be different for your school, but for us these are: spiritual/leadership development, joint stability, flexibility, mobility, and strength. None of our coaches want their athletes to get worse in these areas. The consensus is that improvement in these areas will help any of our athletes across the spectrum of all sports. There may be disagreement in how exactly to accomplish these improvements, but that is where the next layer of our integrated approach comes in.We build our central program around five core areas that our coaches can all agree on: spiritual/leadership development, joint stability, flexibility, mobility, and strength, says @coachnickcook. Click To Tweet
From these core agreements, we then filter our program through a shared workout* format that includes:
Spiritual/Character session + Dynamic warm-up + Ground-based barbell work + Sport-specific auxiliary work
Spiritual/Character session + Dynamic warm-up + Linear speed work + Multidirectional COD work + Stretch reflex/plyometric work
*Note that this outline represents workouts for off-season athletes. Our sports coaches have autonomy over in-season training.
The key unifier for us is that once this outline is set, we allow (and encourage) our individual sport coaches to participate in exercise selection in a large way. Whether it be spiritual development content, sports-specific auxiliary exercises, or mobility workout exercises, our goal is for sports coaches to take ownership over choices for their sports prep, but filter it through the strength and conditioning professional and the shared science-based format for the workouts.
There is a lot more I could share about our specific fleshing out of these ideas, but that is not the goal of this article. I am sharing a small snapshot of our experience to illustrate how we use a centralized strength and conditioning plan as a tool to cultivate unity and collaboration among our various coaching staffs, rather than division and compartmentalized workout sessions. This is especially important for us, as two-thirds of our athletes are multi-sport athletes. Our system is by no means perfect, but we have very little in-fighting among coaches, our parents love the program, and our kids continue to improve across the spectrum of our defined essentials in measurable ways.
All of my fellow administrators out there know that what I just described in the previous sentence does not happen by accident. I think they would also agree that this type of unity in an athletic department is school culture gold. I truly believe that a well-thought-out, school-wide strength and conditioning plan has the power to break up hard ground and help assist any school with striking similar gold.
4. Nurture Growth and Success in Students
No educator worth their salt wants to hurt their students’ chances at success. Effective educators are always looking for and willing to implement strategies that will help increase student performance.
I have already mentioned some examples of how learning and academic performance are helped by having your students participate regularly in a science-based strength and conditioning environment. But the growth and success benefits do not stop there.
Another inherent performance-enhancing quality of a school-wide strength and conditioning program is how it can saturate the entire student body with the research-backed benefits of setting and meeting measurable goals. The motivational and performance-enhancing benefits of measurement and informational feedback for students is something that is well documented in behavioral psychology research and a tool that many successful coaches have utilized. A sound strength and conditioning program has this power built in. Whether it be weights that are calculated, sprints that are timed, jumps that are measured, or bar data analyzed, students can experience a daily environment rich in measurement, goal setting, and timely feedback. Helping students grasp these goal-setting skills in the strength and conditioning classroom can give students a framework for how to apply them in their academic pursuits and other areas of interest.
Lastly, I don’t believe there is a principal or athletic director who wants their sports teams to stink. Athletic success can have a magical way of boosting overall school morale, motivating young people, and energizing a community toward excellence. If you want one particular step that you can take to help increase this type of success throughout the entire athletic department (all sports, male and female), hire a qualified professional and unify how your athletes lift, sprint, jump, condition, and recover (i.e., a centralized strength and conditioning program). For the sake of brevity, I want to purposefully give more of an anecdotal challenge to help provide some credibility to this claim.To help increase this type of success throughout the entire athletic department, hire a qualified professional and unify how your athletes lift, sprint, jump, condition, and recover. Click To Tweet
If you are an athletic director or principal, I challenge you to pick 4-5 athletic programs in your state that have repeated state-level success in most of their sports (male and female, power sports and endurance sports, etc.). Don’t think about individual sports (best track program, best football program, best basketball program, etc.), but focus on collective, repeated success as a whole athletic department year in and year out at the state level. We all know those schools, and we also know that they are very rare.
Make your list, call those schools, and ask their athletic director about how they handle strength and conditioning at their school. Take notes, ask probing questions, and seek examples. When you get off of the phone call, ask yourself whether there is an organized strength and conditioning program present in their school that most of their kids and sports teams participate in (yes or no). After you finish all of your phone calls, tally the yes and the no answers. Then decide for yourself about the validity of this claim.
4 Steps to Take
If you are an administrator looking to begin the process of taking your school toward a more unified, centralized strength and conditioning plan, a great starting point is to get acquainted with the website of the National High School Strength Coaches Association (NHSSCA). There you can find great resources and get connected to the right type of people within your state as you begin this journey. I would also like to share with you four final pieces of advice:
1. Make room in the budget – I have been in my fair share of budget committee meetings and have also been inundated with the numerous requests and competing priorities that are our lives—I feel you! If you are serious about doing this right, you will have to make room in the budget. Go to bat, advocate, be a trailblazer, have tough skin, make phone calls, explain the vision, and explain it again. Do whatever it takes to make sure that when you hire a qualified professional (remember—don’t take shortcuts and hand this off to the coach who likes lifting weights the most), you pay them as well as you can, and they have a line item in the annual budget for equipment, curriculum materials, etc.
2. Have the tough conversations – The administration should do the heavy lifting and lead the charge on integrating this plan into PE curriculums and athletic programs. Throw this lead block, pave the way, and take care of the politics on behalf of the coach. This will go a long way in making sure this venture is successful.School administration should lead the charge on integrating the S&C plan into PE curriculums and athletic programs. This will go a long way in making sure this venture is successful. Click To Tweet
One specific recommendation on this front is to lay out a clear vision of what this will look like to your coaches and PE teachers, why you are doing it, what you expect of them, and how you will hold them accountable. I recommend building participation into yearly coaching evaluations. Communicate well, hear questions, motivate your team, and create buy-in. Your teachers and coaches are good people who deserve great communication, but you also need to set up your strength and conditioning coach for success. Put this load on your shoulders—you can do it.
3. Overdo the cheerleading, promoting, and public support – Publicly validate your strength and conditioning coach and successes within the program every chance that you get. Parent meetings, coaches’ meetings, school assemblies, halftimes, banquets, social media, etc. Athletes, coaches, teachers, and parents need to know that the administration is fully behind this program. This is one of the key factors to successful implementation.
4. Watch school spirit, unity, academic performance, and athletic performance grow!