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By Mark Hoover
Strength and conditioning at the high school level has traditionally been the domain of the sport coach in the vast majority of schools. It was part of the head coach’s job description to implement their team’s sports performance program.
As the high school level experiences its current influx of strength and conditioning positions, those boundaries are forever being crossed. While many sport coaches recognize the advantages of having a dedicated strength and conditioning professional working with their team, others have problems as the lines of control blur. As strength and conditioning professionals, it is our job to do our best to guide sport coaches in the direction of an evidence-based high-performance strength program.As S&C professionals, it is our job to do our best to guide sport coaches in the direction of an evidence-based high-performance strength program, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
But how do we best deal with the many different personalities and “types” of team coach for the benefit of all? In this article, I’ll talk about the different coaching characteristics you’ll likely see, and how you can get them onboard—or at least understanding your goals for the team.
The Common Patterns Strength Coaches Will See
As I sat down to write this, I came up with seven categories of coaching characteristics for the coaches I have worked with. This is in no way a complete list, as there are many subcategories, but these are what I will discuss in this article.
- Losing = “We’re weak” (Blame/Excuse)
- “Do it my way…” (But I have no idea why)
- “We win, so it’s right” (Anecdotal)
- “Bench, curls, and dips” (Erroneous)
- “I’m just a little bit smarter than you” (Compulsive Suggester)
- The college program coach (Parrot)
- “I trust you because this is what you do” (Pragmatist)
While it’s easy to say, “we just need to educate,” it’s often not as easy as simply sitting down with a coach to share a vision. Regardless of our experience, we will run into a situation that is very frustrating and how we solve it will dictate how successful we are in that particular situation in the future. No matter the level of the challenge, if we, as sports performance professionals, want to be able to guide a successful program, we need to get our sport coaches on board. Even if we can’t get them all the way in the boat, our job will be many times easier if we can at least get their foot on the deck!
This article covers several types of sport coaches I’ve dealt with over the last 20+ years, and how I (mostly successfully) navigated the situation to create a workable environment.
The ‘We Lost Because We’re Weak’ (Blame/Excuse) Coach
“Our main issue is we are the weakest team in school history.” This is the actual start of a weekly email that one head coach I worked with sent to me and our football staff—every time we lost a game! While my instinct was to reply (after a 30+ point loss), “Well coach, maybe if we averaged 10 more pounds on our squats, we would have only lost by 28 instead of 35,” I refrained.
This coach is a particularly tough one to deal with. Ego/narcissism drives the Blame/Excuse Coach. They have an ingrained characteristic that drives them to believe they are never part of what went wrong. Instead, they play the “blame game,” and the strength coach is a really easy target.The Blame/Excuse Coach believes they are never part of what went wrong. The best way to approach them is one-on-one, with facts in hand, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
In my experience, the way to approach this type of coach is head-on, with facts in hand. Have a one-on-one conversation with the coach. These types are often very passive-aggressive (hence, the vague email instead of a face-to-face conversation with actual complaints) and will roll it back very quickly when they’re face to face with you. Having the facts in hand will make it very difficult for the Blame/Excuse Coach to make their case. Unless you really are (and even if you are) the “weakest team in school history,” you will have documented testing results that outline improvements, etc.
In my case, I went a little overboard and made a Google Sheet listing all of the testing numbers from each athlete, from the first test I saw to the most recent, with percentage increases for each lift/speed test. It also had an overall team stat line showing great improvement since the first test. At that point, I predict you will get an answer that sounds something like, “I didn’t mean you,” and the next email will be even more vague but every bit as infuriating.
Unfortunately, I have found that while you can probably prove your point and improve the situation, the B/E Coach will likely never admit their mistake in communications with you. Stay vigilant, continue to be proactive and educational, and every time another job opens up, let the coach know how perfect he would be in THAT other job.
The ‘Do It My Way (But I Have No Idea Why)’ Coach
The “My Way” Coach isn’t always a bad one to work with. Unlike the Blame/Excuse Coach, I find the “My Way” Coach to be very reachable if you give it time and build a relationship with them. This coach has come to the conclusion that the way they do things is best. You need to show them, in detail, how you can improve upon what they already do. Of course, this is just my experience and by no way a psychological study, but most “My Way” coaches I have known had one thing in common. They knew the way to do what they wanted, but had almost no idea why they do it. (And “to get stronger and faster” isn’t the right answer—how and why does what you do accomplish that?)Most “My Way” coaches have one thing in common. They know the way to do what they want, but have almost no idea WHY they do it, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Sport coaches must spend the majority of their time perfecting their skills at the sport they coach. The sports performance side of it has to be secondary. While many coaches are amazing at both, it takes a special person to do that. I know that I could not! Tell this coach to imagine if they spent zero time on their sport and 100% of their effort went into the art of strength and conditioning. I then talk to them about how that is exactly what I do. When they think about strength training, I think about it as well. When they think about practice drills, I’m thinking about strength training, and so on.
Next, ask them about their strength and conditioning philosophy and quiz them on the “why.” Listen and do not judge them. Then explain your philosophy and WHY you do what you do. Ask them what goals they have in mind for the strength program and educate them on how you will use a sound, evidence-based program to reach max potential for their team. It’s my experience that once you form a bond with the “My Way” Coach, they are excellent to work with. Listen, educate, and relate, and things can be great.
‘We Win…So It’s Right’ (Anecdotal Coach)
The coach who believes that winning games justifies each and every thing they do comes in two categories for me. The first is the coach who actually leads the team that wins, therefore believing that what they do in the strength program is superior. This can be interesting, for sure. Wins and losses at the high school level never come down to one factor. Often, the team that is most well-coached doesn’t win.
A team with superior natural athletes will likely beat the team at an athlete deficit even if that team has a spectacular strength program. The “We Win” Coach uses anecdotal evidence to support the viability of what is done in the strength program, even if it isn’t necessarily the safest, soundest, or most efficient program. I’ve seen coaches selling programs and advertising that “YOU TOO CAN WIN SEVEN CHAMPIONSHIPS JUST BY DOING OUR PROGRAM.” Well, not so much. Even if that is a solid program, they are marketing it under false pretenses.
The variables are just too great. Every program, every year (as we all know) needs to be adjusted and re-thought based on the needs of the athletes that year.
This coach can be reached, however, (and it may sound like a broken record) through education. Explain the “why” to them and make small adjustments that will improve the program. “Coach, here is why doing 10 sets of 10 (anything) probably isn’t the most effective way to cause the adaptation we are looking for. Let’s try this.”
This was a tough one for me. I tend to get frustrated quickly when I ask why they want to do something and all they respond is: “Well, we win, so don’t change it.” My advice is just holding your ground. Continue to educate and explain every adjustment and why you are making it. The advantage you have is that this coach wants to win and doesn’t much care how most of the time. Show them how an evidence-based, technically sound program will help them win MORE.
The second category of “We Win” is much easier to deal with and I have probably seen this more than anything. This coach has been part of a winning team or has gotten a program from a winning team and wants to emulate the success. Much like the “My Way” Coach, you need to foster a trusting relationship. I sit down, look these coaches in the eye, and ask them to explain why they want to do what they want to do. I listen and then (again) educate on the how and why what I plan to do will help our particular group of athletes be as successful as they can.
To be honest, my experiences have almost all ended up very positive in these situations. These coaches often lack a knowledge base of their own (that’s why they are copying the other program). They will be excited to know how much you know and eager to build a program that may get them a book deal as well!
‘Bench, Curls, and Dips’ (Erroneous Coach)
I like to call this coach the “Erroneous” Coach. While “volume acclimation” and hypertrophy have a place in all programs, they shouldn’t be the main focus for an athlete. While my athletes obviously bench press, it’s the least emphasized of the major strength and power moves because it provides the least amount of power output potential.
That being said, we ALL know the big bench press coach. I once spoke with a coach who said, “Once we get a majority of guys to a 300-pound bench, we will be where we need to be.” That’s not a fabrication. He said those exact words to me. Where do we even start with that one? I’d rather not, because that rant would take up the rest of the article.
This coach based this on the “We Win” perspective mentioned before. I’d guess that if he actually ever had that many “300-pound bench guys,” they were probably very large and could also squat and clean a great deal of weight. Definitely an offshoot of the “We Win” anecdotal evidence “formula.”
This category was more just for “ranting” purposes. I will not attempt to change this coach’s mind. We bench and dip, and curls are an easy auxiliary to add. Just do a few of the things he likes and move on. This coach knows so little about sports performance, he will likely never know the difference.
‘I’m Just a Little Bit Smarter Than You’ (The Compulsive Suggester)
At some point in everyone’s life, we will meet the “Compulsive Suggester.” This person is just a little bit smarter than you (or so they believe) in just about every category. It’s particularly frustrating for us as strength coaches. The nice thing is they are little more than a nuisance. In my experience, the worst part is having to take the minute to explain why what you are doing is the right way at that moment.The “Compulsive Suggester” coach is just a little smarter than you (or so they believe). And every once in a while, they may have a useful idea, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Every once in a while, these coaches may have a useful idea. That’s a conundrum because if you acknowledge this, they will get worse. If you don’t, then they may see you doing it their way the next time and it will get worse. So, I guess that’s not a conundrum, because it gets worse either way. Anyway, normally these coaches mean well and are polite. My tactic is to smile and nod. Then quickly explain my “why” and walk away as fast as possible.
The College Program Coach (The Parrot)
If you are in coaching, you are already familiar with “The Parrot.” These are the coaches that go to clinics and never see an idea they don’t like, as long as a major D-1 Power 5 Conference coach presented it. The problem is that that Power 5 coach doesn’t coach 14-year-olds who grew up not skipping or playing outside. I hear this all the time.
It was particularly bad when I actually coached football. “We run Oklahoma’s offense.” Really? Do you also have Kyler Murray? If you don’t, then you may need to adjust it.
It’s the same with a strength program. We need to show these coaches that coaching a large group of ELITE athletes is vastly different from 14- to 18-year-olds with a massive range of skills. This idea has a lot of the “We Win” thought process. These coaches wish to simulate the winning ways of a team of elite athletes playing at an extremely high level. That’s not the situation you are in and we must (for the athlete’s sake) nip this in the bud.We need to show the “Parrot” Coach that coaching a large group of elite athletes is vastly different than coaching 14- to 18-year-olds with a massive range of skill. Click To Tweet
Lay all this out for the coach. Explain to them that what you will program may not be exactly like Ohio State. Instead, it will feature a similar level of appropriateness based on the age and skill level of your athletes. Those athletes have gone through a long process of up to eight or more years of strength and conditioning preparation. Our athletes are in a much earlier stage of that and need to be properly trained to get the most out of the program.
I’ve never had an issue convincing these coaches to trust me. Again, the knowledge base of the “Parrot” probably isn’t great. That’s why they want to copy a program. Once they recognize that you do have a plan and a deep knowledge base, they will be on board.
‘I Trust You, Do What You Do’ (Pragmatist)
The trusting Pragmatist Coach is by far the best one to work with. I’ve been lucky enough to work with four football coaches over the last 12 years who fall into this category. Adrian Snow, Ron Massey (Rest in peace, Coach), Luke Hyatt, and currently, Dr. Dean Boyd. I use their names because I truly appreciate them as coaches and people.
I mention “football” because normally those are the coaches that can make or break your coaching job from an enjoyment standpoint. Almost ALL of the coaches in the previous six categories coached football. All four of the above-mentioned head coaches had questions to start. All probably thought I was a little crazy at one point or another. None of them came from the same philosophy as me from a background standpoint. Yet all four allowed me to explain and demonstrate the how and why of what I do.
All four eventually said, “You know more about this than I do…I trust you. Do what you think is best.” All four eventually believed in what we do and never looked back. This is an awesome situation because it inspires you to get better as a coach. These coaches entrust YOU with the preparation of their athletes.When head coaches entrust you with the preparation of their athletes, it inspires you to get better as a coach, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
These coaches support you and allow you to do what you need to do to help the athletes reach their maximum potential. I’m very lucky that I work with an entire sport coaching staff at YCHS that trusts me. Treat these coaches with great respect and admiration. If you get to work with coaches who trust you and support you, repay them with the best effort possible.
I would implore you to treat every team with the same level of enthusiasm. Once the Pragmatist Coach understands that you will treat them and their team with the same level of energy as you do the other programs, your job satisfaction will go through the roof.
Closing Thoughts on Team Coach Collaboration
I hope this article gives you some ideas about how to deal with various coaches within your school. While it is far from an all-encompassing scientific study of sports psychology, it does give a snapshot from my experiences over the last 20+ years. Remember that you are not alone, and this is common throughout the profession. Other coaches are facing the same challenges, so think about managing personalities and thought processes with the right antidote.
Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions or to chat about a similar experience you may have had, as it’s likely you are experiencing the same need to communicate.