Science. Strength coaches love to use the word “science,” and they are the first to point out and defend their backgrounds “in science” or discuss how their program is “based on science.” Additionally, I’ve never seen or known a group of people prouder of the letters behind their name than the strength and conditioning community.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not jeering—I’m just stating observations. Perhaps fueling our insistence is that when it comes to strength and conditioning, a level of ignorance pervades most of society—and even the greater athletic community. Of course, science provides the backbone for the profession, and in any given training session, a coach may use information from multiple disciplines of science to perform their job. The science is undoubtedly important, but being a strength coach entails just as much, if not more than, the science we’re all so obsessed with.The science is undoubtedly important, but…for all that science to have any relevance, the relationships and training environment must come first, says @rachelkh2. Click To Tweet
Much of what transpires in a successful training session is the result of coaching our tails off day in and day out, as well as the relationships we build with our athletes. For results to abound, and for all that science to have any relevance, the relationships and training environment must come first. A successful environment is indicative of numerous intangibles, many of which are not solely based on science. Establishing these things requires a great deal of communication and persistent work by the strength coach, but they are instrumental in reaping weight room dividends.
The following four principles are the building blocks I have in place to establish a successful training environment. Points 1 and 2 discuss the inflexible but important nature of structure, while points 3 and 4 revolve around the interpersonal side of coaching. Although vastly different, their coexistence is possible and necessary for success.
- Safety as the driver.
- Unwavering expectations.
- Education and relevance of training.
- Emphasizing the individual.
1. Safety as the Driver
It is not the basis of this discussion to provide a multipoint checklist for weight room safety, but I would be sorely remiss if I overlooked safety’s importance and overarching role in a successful weight room environment.
Regardless of level or scenario, safety in the weight room is the principal concern and should provide the backbone for the whole of the environmental structure. While culture and team building have tremendous importance, their influence should never compromise safety. Additionally, the weight room should be a controlled environment where rigidity and structure are standard, not only for safety but for positive training outcomes.Regardless of level or scenario, safety in the weight room is the principal concern and should provide the backbone for the whole of the environmental structure, says @rachelkh2. Click To Tweet
When it comes to garnering support, particularly at the high school level, sport coaches, parents, and administrators are much more likely to be in your corner if they know safety is your primary concern. I have witnessed this time and again in my own situation, whether it be through parent meetings or in persuading my administration to make changes to the weight room.
Lastly, a rigid environment does not mean the weight room can’t be enjoyable—quite the opposite. It teaches athletes how to set their mentality for work but simultaneously find enjoyment in a safe manner. For me, there is hardly a better feeling than watching my teams work while enjoying camaraderie or jamming out—although I do adhere to a recommended decibel level.
2. Unwavering Expectations
When safety is the foundation, it’s easier to establish everything else. Establishing expectations helps ensure safety and positive training outcomes in a variety of ways.
Expectations look different from coach to coach, and program to program, based on each unique situation. For me, the expectation of attention to detail cannot be overstated, and I would contend it is the main reason my teams thrive in the weight room. For me, everything, from following instructions to re-racking weights, should be completed with the upmost attention to detail. If you don’t do the small things right, the big things will never come to fruition.
This expectation begins when I first interact with my athletes at the middle schools. During my initial visits, we practice getting into warm-up lines, which we may do multiple times in a day until we get it right. I tell them how many lines I want and how many people I want per line. Once the warm-up lines are set, I demonstrate and explain the warm-up movements, along with some specifics I want them to follow. For instance, making sure their front foot is straight when performing a backward lunge, and that they finish everything through the line.
We practice and rehearse simple, basic things over and over and then gradually keep adding. Having an expectation of attention to detail is no different than teaching an exercise progression. Start basic, establish proficiency, and continue building, never neglecting the original focus on detail.
Note: Anecdotally, I’ve found younger athletes are the most impressionable and soak up everything you teach in a most enthusiastic way. If you’re able to get face time with your youngest group, I highly recommend doing so.
Freshman year is a highly formative time for my athletes because everything they do revolves around strict attention to detail. The training process is extremely gradual for them, as progression is dependent on their ability to consistently perform according to my expectations. They must perform all movements, no matter how basic, with exacting proficiency before we progress.
This is also when they learn how to clean up and replace equipment according to my preferences—which, like many coaches, is precise. The status of the weight room at the end of a session is under scrutiny, and we don’t break out until it meets the expected standards. It takes some time, but eventually it becomes automatic and evolves into a group effort of communication and teamwork.
The weight room is a perfect place to set expectations, and although carrying out expectations is on each athlete, it’s the job of the coach to consistently see that those expectations are met. As adults and coaches, we are responsible for molding kids into what we expect. They can and will rise to the bar we set, but it is our job to help them reach it.
3. Education and Relevance of Training
Although education and relevance are similar, they aren’t the same, and each has a different focus and delivery in my program.
Weight room education plays a large role in safety, but it’s also my goal to impart some training knowledge to my athletes for when they graduate and are responsible for their own fitness.
I place the most importance on the following four beliefs when it comes to lessons about the weight room and general exercise education:
- Technical proficiency is imperative.
- Consistency is crucial.
- More is not better.
- Enjoyment is a must.
We have no curriculum or set plan, but we utilize teachable moments to impart the importance of these four points and others on a consistent basis. I specifically like to emphasize that exercise can and should bring enjoyment. Strength training is a vital part of athletic performance, but not everyone possesses a passion for lifting, and that’s okay. Post athletics, we should want our athletes to lead active lives and do so; finding an enjoyable form of exercise helps ensure sustainable, healthy practices.
Beyond these four points, the teachable moments have proven to be bigger than just lessons about working out. Several of my athletes have gone on to pursue degrees in exercise science, education, and health care because of interests sparked in the weight room. Education is empowerment and weight room time should be utilized for more than just moving heavy things around. For the majority of kids, athletics will only be a temporary part of life. Use your platform and influence as a coach to continue bettering your athletes after they graduate and move on.
I’m just going to come right out and say it—if you want compliance with your expectations and the weight room to be safe and productive, you’d better be able to make it relevant to whomever it is you’re training. This is perhaps truest when coaching kids and youth athletes. Middle and high school-aged kids have the best BS detectors on the planet. If you can’t explain to them why they need to front squat in terms they understand, you might as well be invisible.If you want compliance with your expectations and the weight room to be safe and productive, you’d better be able to make it relevant to whomever it is you’re training, says @rachelkh2. Click To Tweet
Relevance is important, and when someone is able to understand the why, how, and what of whatever it is you’re attempting to impart to them, their buy-in will be authentic. This is true for female and male athletes.
I’m making a point to address this because the archaic narrative that only females need context for the weight room is tiresome and quite frankly incorrect. Males may feel more comfortable in the weight room or may be more inclined to voluntarily lift weights, but this in no way equates to their having a better understanding of how strength training can benefit them. It is prudent and only logical to spend time explaining how the weight room can benefit everyone you train regardless of sport or gender.
4. Emphasizing the Individual
For the weight room to be successful, each athlete needs to feel valued. Investing the time to build individual rapport and treating everyone fairly, regardless of ability, will give you a major return through individual buy-in.
One way I accomplish this is by making it a priority to give feedback to every athlete I train each day. This doesn’t require lengthy conversations or detract from training, but every athlete, whether a starter on varsity or a non-starter on freshman B, leaves the weight room knowing that I pay attention and see them among everyone else.
Another way is by meeting your athlete where they are in regard to training. Every athlete in the care of a strength coach has different and unique training needs, and each deserves due consideration. I’m not implying you need to make a different workout for every person, but being observant and coaching to the needs of each athlete is the job of the strength coach and shows that individual that you are looking out for their welfare.
Listen and pay attention to your athletes: If they tell you a certain exercise hurts, don’t blow them off. There’s always the proverbial grain of salt, but taking a minute to listen to a kid may do more than create buy-in—it may open a door of trust where that athlete feels comfortable enough to confide in you about their life.
Lastly, although the weight room environment is rigid and structured, my athletes know there is always an open line of communication with me. They know we are going to train, and we are going to train intelligently, but how we train may differ at times based upon their needs. They understand the importance of communicating and feel empowered to do so because they know I care about their well-being.
Making Science Matter to Others
Earning the trust and support of your sport coaches is vital for building a successful weight room environment. Your athletes will be your best marketers and will greatly influence this relationship.Sometimes it may just take time, humility, and genuine conversation before all that science between your ears matters to anyone but you, says @rachelkh2. Click To Tweet
Sometimes it may just take time, humility, and genuine conversation before all that science between your ears matters to anyone but you. Strength coaches should understand that even with the practice of scientific principles, it takes exposure and consistency to produce results. This goes for people, too.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF