As the influx of dedicated strength and conditioning coaches grows every year, it’s important for roles to be discussed, defined, and boundaries set. In this article, we look at the viability of a sport coach as a replacement strength coach, whether by choice or out of necessity. Just as sports medicine practitioners have had to navigate this path, strength and sport coaches must get on the same page or risk an adversarial and untrusting relationship as professionals.
Most of us in the strength and conditioning world have spent time on social media. If you have, then you’ve seen many things you enjoyed and agreed with, many things that you didn’t, and probably more things that leave you shaking your head in disbelief. Some of us choose to keep scrolling, and others engage in the debate to various levels. For better or worse, I seem to fall into the “engage” category. I enjoy discussion, which can end up being a very time-consuming process for sure.
If you follow these discussions, there’s a sense that lines are drawn between certified strength coaches and non-certified sport coaches. Is the divide growing? Isn’t physical education a certification? The next question to pose is: What is qualified? A person can reach a point of competence in a field. Does that make then qualified? If not, what does qualified look like?
Every field of study has a level of artistry and craftsmanship. In addition to the questions above, we need to look at the role these skills play within our profession. How much experience does it take to achieve a skill level where we can call ourselves professionals, and does experience mean more than the fact we earn money doing it? Also, we must take into account that all experience is not equal. The quality of education, either formal or informal, also looms large in the equation. There seems to be much labeling and generalizations on both sides of the debate. Why do so many strength coaches feel that the majority of sport coaches are somehow not qualified for the job?
On the flip side, many strength coaches wonder why so many sport coaches believe that by playing a sport and having even a high skill level in coaching the sport makes them qualified to run a sports performance program. In the days before schools had a widespread ability to provide certified athletic trainers for sport teams, that responsibility fell to sport coaches. There’s little debate that sports medicine situations are better handled by an available dedicated professional. Why is the field so divided on reproducing the same outcome in the sports performance arena?Strength coaches must learn to accept, educate, and support sport coaches when they need us, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
These are all important questions to ask and discuss for the field of high school strength and conditioning. I have no illusions that this article will answer all the questions that arise. I do know that we need honest and open discussion as opposed to sneers and ridicule. As strength coaches, we must learn to accept, educate, and support sport coaches when they need us. Even the ones who post to Twitter workouts we don’t agree with and videos we may not value.Sport coaches must grasp a growth mindset and stay in constant pursuit of evidence-based S&C best practices, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Sport coaches must play their part by grasping a growth mindset and stay in constant pursuit of evidence-based best practices. This article will not solve these issues, but I hope it leads to some honest discussion on the future of high school sports performance.
Football Coach vs. Strength Coach?
One area that’s really drawn me in over the last few years is the “football coach vs. strength coach in the high school weight room” debate. It seems to be a never-ending battle, creating a divide full of resentment in high school strength and conditioning. Dive deeper into the debate, and the main sub-category seems to be certified vs. non-certified coaches in the high school weight room.
Most schools have no requirements to run a strength program, and this leads to many sport coaches being in charge, specifically football coaches. Often, full-time strength and conditioning professionals are not happy with this setup, which leads to lots of debate over how to run a high school weight room.
This article represents my opinion on this topic. My background gives me a unique perspective. Many of my colleagues in the strength and conditioning world followed the traditional route—a college program in sports performance or exercise science followed by internship hours that led to more education and a full-time job. My route started as a social studies teacher and football coach who ran the weight room because I was the biggest guy despite my lack of any formal training.
I progressed to physical education teacher, certifications, and further education in Kinesiology and Exercise Science that led me to give up football and create a strength and conditioning position at my school. This position led me to a full-time high school Director of Strength and Conditioning position that forbids me from coaching a sport.
My experience has allowed me to see and live both sides of this debate, and I want to share my perspective to help others see my unique point of view.
There Is No Cut Off Point to Competent
First off, I need to say that the biggest sore spot for me in any of these debates is intense generalizations that people throw out on this topic. There is no black and white when it comes to the certified vs. non-certified debate. I know many, many non-certified coaches who do a great job in the weight room. I know a few certified coaches who do some things I would question. There is a wide range of quality on both sides of the equation. So when I see coaches taking a stand on this talking-point, I shake my head. There is no room in this argument for generalizations and labels. There are simply too many variables. We need to look deeper into each situation before making any judgments on who is a qualified strength and conditioning professional.
I think most of us agree that a certification does not automatically make you a qualified coach, which leads us to the next obvious question. One that’s tough to get a solid answer to and represents a gray area in our profession. What makes a coach qualified? The next question, for me at least, is whether you can be qualified and not have any certification or educational background in sports performance. Finally, can you be a qualified strength and conditioning professional and a full-time sport coach? Is there even time in the day for that?
Let’s first tackle the hardest question to answer. What makes a person qualified? If not certifications, then what? For me, the answer lies in a coach’s mindset. Are you a growth mindset person or a closed mindset person? If you have a closed mindset, you’ll never be a qualified strength and conditioning professional, regardless of certifications. How do I define a growth mindset? Understanding the concept of “I don’t know what I don’t know.” Please let me say my opinion comes from my experiences. If you coach your athletes and don’t know exactly why you do everything you do, you need to work to reach the qualified status.
I’m very adamant about this, as it stems from personal experience. When I look back at my early days as a sport coach who ran a strength program, I was not qualified. I had no idea why we did anything outside of the most rudimentary knowledge gained as both as an athlete and the BFS book I read. I coached my sport, and what we did in the weight room was secondary and much less important to me. My athletes all did exactly the same workout, regardless of training age and ability. I could go on and on.
Having traveled this road, I clearly see how unqualified I was at that point. My life and profession changed very quickly when I was challenged to get better and had the opportunity to learn from one of the best in the business. Each time I learned something new, I realized how little I actually knew about the field. I would chase the next bit of knowledge and again be humbled. This was the key moment of my career. I had two choices: I could decide that I knew enough about the field and stop asking questions and seeking knowledge or I could make the conscious choice to realize I didn’t know what I didn’t know and dive in head first to be the best I could be. Growth mindset was my decision, and I’ve not gone a day since without asking questions.Knowing the why behind everything you do is the first step to becoming #qualified. It requires you to learn, says @YorkStrength17. #strengthcoach Click To Tweet
So for me, step one to qualified is knowing the “why” behind everything you do. This requires you to learn. One of the huge reasons I wrote this article is the “terrible whiteboard workout” phenomenon. We’ve all seen it and many of us have interacted. A coach has a workout written up on a whiteboard with multiple sets of 10, high volume, no percentages, no pull to push reps, etc. Does a qualified coach write these workouts? Simple question for me. Does whoever wrote that know why they wrote it? Is this a hypertrophy day? Maybe part of a designed plan?
Just because we don’t like the workout doesn’t mean it’s wrong. What makes it wrong is when the person who wrote it was guessing. It’s a blunt comment, but if you don’t understand which set-rep-intensity programming induces which specific adaptation, you’re probably not qualified to program workouts. The good news? That doesn’t mean you can’t learn. It also means you don’t necessarily have to become certified to check off this box toward qualified. You need a growth mindset and the willingness to chase that knowledge. It’s out there. All you have to do is ask.
What About Craftsmanship?
Another aspect of qualified is understanding and making sure you’ve mastered the progressions and regressions for each of the movements you plan to program. How and when to use each part of your plan is extremely important in developing efficient and safe movers. Loading dysfunction is a huge mistake. In a previous article, William Wayland wrote, “The key takeaway is that movement quality drives loading strategy and not the other way around.” This is an absolute as far as my definition of qualified goes.
Understanding the adaptation you want and having a plan for teaching it from the most basic movements forward are two separate things. You do not want your child coached by a person who has every freshman and every senior doing the same program. It’s a bad and dangerous recipe that can easily lead to injuries. I know from experience.Having a growth mindset and willingness to chase knowledge and education can #qualify you as a strength coach, says @YorkStrength17. #strengthcoach Click To Tweet
So again, we go back to certified vs. qualified. Does having a well-thought-out and evidence-based plan and understanding progress and differentiation based on training age come only with certification? No. Once again, a growth mindset and willingness to chase knowledge and education can qualify you. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely possible. Obviously, I could keep going with this list. These are two of the many things that combine to make a sports performance coach qualified.
There is one common thread to the two ideas listed above and the many others left out. They require a great desire to become educated in best practices. They also require a willingness to be a lifelong learner. One of the greatest high school strength coaches I’ve ever known, Gary Schofield, said once, “The question is, have you coached 32 years or one year 32 times?”A qualified strength professional continues to learn to stay on the cutting edge of best practices, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
That point hits hard. It’s possible to be qualified and allow yourself to slip into a danger zone. If you were once qualified to work on computers but have failed to continue learning as technology develops, you’re no longer qualified to work on a computer. Being a strength coach is no different. While many aspects of our job are timeless, much more change quickly. A qualified professional will continue to learn to stay on the cutting edge of best practices.
Experienced But Not Certified?
Can you become qualified without any certifications or formal education in the field? Yes, but it’s very difficult. If you lack formal education in an area of sports performance as well as certifications, you have to be a highly motivated learner, and it requires many years of study and networking. It’s possible, and we all know coaches who fall into this category, but it’s rare. Spending time with great coaches led me to desire more education. That pursuit led me to get my first certification, which led to more questions, more education pursuit, etc.
I can tell you without reservation that a physical education degree alone is not enough. The degree is important to have and will make your pursuit of jobs at this level exponentially easier. However, the curriculum is sadly lacking in understanding of sports performance. The process of pursuing a sports performance education and certification often leads to a great desire to obtain more. Without at least one of these motivating factors, you must be highly motivated and driven to be great at what you do.
Sport Coach as a Strength Coach Replacement?
Can a person who identifies as a full-time teacher and sport coach be considered a qualified sports performance coach? Is there even time to be great at both?
There are many layers to this question as well. For one, it’s extremely difficult to be a head sport coach and also a strength coach for more than just your team. It happens, and we all have examples to point to, but it’s a big commitment. Being an assistant coach and strength coach is much more doable. If you have classes during the school day, it’s even more possible.
That said, the issue is not whether it’s possible. The discussion is about being qualified if not certified. How can you find the time in the day to teach, be the best sport coach you can be, and do the job of a strength coach? These are three full-time jobs. You can do it, but something will suffer.
I gave up coaching a sport for this exact reason. I spent tremendous time working to be the best football coach I could be. As I got further into the job of strength and conditioning, it became clear that something had to go. I chose the job I loved the most and let football go. When I did, a new world opened to me, and I’m a much better strength coach to many more athletes. I had no idea what I didn’t know until I had the time to learn it. It’s very difficult to be the best at your job doing both.
Sometimes there is no other alternative. While high school strength and conditioning is booming, there are still more schools than not depending on sport coaches to run the programs they have. These are the situations that lead to this entire debate. It’s up to those coaches to decide if they want to be qualified or only do what they know—right or wrong. That’s the sore spot for me.Too many sport coaches running strength programs treat it as an afterthought, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Too many coaches running strength programs treat it as an afterthought. That’s why we see “whiteboard workout” issues. It’s why so many strength coaches ridicule these situations. While I totally agree with the side that says “maybe those guys don’t know better and we should educate instead of ridicule,” I question why more coaches are not seeking the education and certification to make them qualified.I question why more sport coaches are not seeking the education and certification to make them qualified strength coaches, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
If a coach is seeking help, nobody I know in our field will turn them away. It’s our absolute responsibility to educate those who seek improvement. I seek it daily and have never had a coach turn me away. It also falls on the sport coach to want to improve and have a desire to learn. When you don’t have the educational background in sports performance, you better want to learn if you want to be qualified to work with athletes in this arena.
“My kids are strong” is not something to hang your hat on. That’s literally the easiest thing to do in sports. If you send kids to a field to pick up rocks and have them get a bigger one every day, they will get stronger. You could teach a child to coach that and be successful.
The real objective is to keep athletes healthy and safe and make what you do translate to the sport. That’s the science and the art of strength and conditioning. You must be willing to grow your knowledge past “That’s what we have always done, and we win” or “That’s what Coach X told me they do, and they win.”
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that both sides need to recognize that we’re on the same team. Yes, without a doubt in my mind (unpopular opinion alert) every school would benefit greatly from a dedicated sports performance professional on staff. There was a time when coaches taped ankles and made medical decisions at practice for the athletes. The integration of certified athletic trainers into high schools revolutionized the situation. That’s their job and only focus. Coaches don’t have to spend time on athletic training duties so they can coach.
Now imagine if the sport coach didn’t have to worry about anything sports performance related? I used to tell coaches to spend 80% of the time on coaching and 20% on strength and conditioning. Now they spend 100% on coaching, and I spend at least that amount of time on strength and conditioning. Which situation improves the depth, width, and attention to detail of both programs? I don’t think there’s a good argument for not having a qualified strength and conditioning coach when possible. But that’s not always possible.
As much as the field is booming at the high school level, there are more schools than not where sport coaches are responsible for the strength program. There is still zero reason to not have qualified coaches on staff. That’s where strength and football coaches being on the same side comes in.
You don’t have to spend large amounts of money, get expensive certifications, or anything else to be considered qualified. Read, study, reach out, and network with strength coaches. Join the National High School Strength Coaches Association and get involved. If you have any doubts about what you are teaching, find out if it’s best practice or not. We have to be unified and not divided.
And strength professionals need to understand that many schools need their sport coaches to run their strength program. Accept this and make an effort to bring as many as possible to qualified and not as concerned with certified.
Meanwhile, many football coaches need to realize that classically educated and certified strength coaches can almost certainly help them improve their programs, the same way athletic trainers improved their schools’ sports medicine programs. It’s time all involved recognize the value of the other. The best thing for our student-athletes is to have a qualified strength coach to depend on. And it’s a reachable goal if all involved are willing. Allowing our egos or beliefs about certifications or any other topic prevent us from reaching that attainable goal is a disservice to those we are tasked to serve.
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