Monte Sparkman is the Director of Athletic Performance at Richland High School in Texas and is currently in his eighth year coaching there. Prior to his arrival at Richland, Sparkman had coaching stops at Burkburnett, The Virginia Military Institute, and was an intern under Frank Wintrich at the University of North Texas. In 2018, Sparkman was recognized by the National High School Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association as the South Region Coach of the Year. He is a NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, a certified Club Coach and Sports Performance Coach through USA Weightlifting, and a certified Level 2 coach through USA Track and Field. Coach Sparkman is a graduate of Baker University, where he was a three-year letterman on the football team. In his spare time, he also enjoys competing in powerlifting.
Freelap USA: Years of strength and conditioning experience has taught you a lot with regard to programming. Can you share any mistakes you made in the past and how you are succeeding now after learning from your errors?
Monte Sparkman: If you aren’t learning from your mistakes, are you really even learning at all? Early on in my coaching career, I was a coach all about the numbers. I hung my hat on getting the most impressive numbers I could from each athlete. Many times, form was sacrificed.
I think most of that thought process came from a couple different reasons. First, being ignorant to athletic performance as a whole and not just weight room numbers. As a powerlifter, strength tends to be on my mind a lot, and it’s where I would emphasize a lot of my time with my athletes early on. But, as you know, they don’t roll bars and weights out on kickoffs, jump balls, or the starting lines of races. Getting stronger was a small piece of the puzzle.
The reason I think coaches, myself included at the time, tend to hang their hats on strength numbers is because those are the easiest to affect. Let’s be honest, the easiest thing for a coach to do is make a high school athlete stronger. Most of them are untrained and have tons of hormones flowing through them. They can just look at weights and get stronger.Let’s be honest—the easiest thing for a coach to do is make a high school athlete stronger, says @MonteSparkman. Click To Tweet
The only way I knew to measure how effective I was as a coach, in my mind, was through the increase of maxes in the weight room. If we were getting stronger, I must be doing a good job. As I continued to evolve and mature as a coach, my eyes were opened to the rest of the performance picture: The fact that athletes had to train other components of performance to include movement, mobility, nutrition, and restorative pieces.
Second, another epiphany was accepting that what athletes do in the weight room is GPP (general physical preparedness), not the end-all and be-all. In order for athletes to truly maximize their sport performance, they have to move well. Proper movement leads to a greater longevity in sport. In my opinion, the movement piece should probably be prioritized significantly more than the resistance training piece in a coach’s athletic performance model. In the words of legendary strength coach Buddy Morris, “If an athlete can’t move, he/she can’t help us.” The programs I create now for my athletes are much more balanced than in my earlier years, and thus I believe our athletes are the ones who have benefited the most from me learning those lessons.
Freelap USA: A lot of your athletes are very disciplined in the weight room. Can you explain the culture of your program and how your athletes respect each other and the workouts you design?
Monte Sparkman: Culture is one of those words that can be difficult to define. I think it starts at the top with me. It’s important for my athletes to know that I train, and not only that, but I compete also. I don’t think coaches have to be world-class strongmen or powerlifters, but I do think it’s important for coaches to train, compete, and have performance goals of their own.I don’t think coaches have to be world-class strongmen or powerlifters, but I do think it’s important for coaches to train, compete, and have performance goals of their own. Click To Tweet
Celebrating athlete successes is another way that coaches can build culture. Athletes want to know that the training they are doing is helping them improve as athletes. We have pound clubs for the clean and total clubs for the three lifts (clean, bench, and squat). Those clubs start at 800 lbs. and increase to 1,300 lbs. (I’m still waiting on someone to get that one.) This year we started a speed club (miles per hour) off of our flying 10s and an over 30 inches vertical jump club.
If you want your athletes to improve in a particular area, start measuring, recording, and then posting the results. We were already celebrating the strength side of the program, so it only made sense to start celebrating the movement side as well.
I think the second component of a great culture is to have standards and then hold your athletes to those standards. You must communicate and remind your athletes often of the expectations of your program. This can be done in a lot of different ways, with one of the easiest being through book studies that help communicate the values you want to emphasize to your athletes. Some of the resources we have used include You Win in the Locker Room First, “Leave a Legacy,” and other writings from Jon Gordon. Athletes will rise to the level of expectations you set for them; conversely, they will find the paths of least resistance as well. Be fair and show grace when needed, but above all, be consistent.
Freelap USA: Working with parents is difficult for many coaches mainly due to all the questions they have. How do you manage communication with parents, and how do you make sure they are on-board with your philosophy?
Monte Sparkman: Over-communication with parents is crucial. I don’t have any secrets in my program. I have had multiple parents come and watch a session. I want them to see what we do so they have a general understanding. It’s our job as strength coaches to educate our parents on what we do and how we do it.
Before this virus happened, I was planning on hosting a performance open house where parents could come learn the basics about our performance and how their athletes are benefiting. This is also where being certified can be a huge benefit. Certifications are getting a lot of attention these days. Having one certification over another doesn’t automatically make you a good coach, but it does separate you from the coaches who are not certified. It acknowledges that you have a certain base level of understanding of performance training that the lay coach doesn’t have. Once parents understand that I am not just a coach on staff who likes to “work out”—that I am actually certified by multiple national organizations—they tend to become allies versus adversaries.
Promoting our program on social media has also been instrumental in boosting parental support. They are able to see and share in their athletes’ successes. They feel a part of our program. We have a tremendous athletics program booster club with some amazing parents. Fostering relationships with those parents has allowed our athletes to have some high-impact weight room and nutritional upgrades to our program. Without their support, new prowlers, bars, and weights, and in-game and post-training recovery nutrition that includes snacks and chocolate milk, would not be possible.Promoting our program on social media has been instrumental in boosting parental support. They are able to see and share in their athletes’ successes, says @MonteSparkman. Click To Tweet
Finally, just being available and approachable goes a long way when building relationships with parents. Visit with them before and after games, greet them when you see them in the fieldhouse and school, and answer any messages or emails promptly. When I get a message from a parent with a concern, I try to address it right then. Don’t let it wait or put it off. I also try and answer with a phone call and not though email. I want them to hear my voice and not read text. A lot can be misinterpreted when communicating through email. We have amazing parents, and I am proud to be able to partner with them to give our athletes the best possible resources to have the most sport successes possible.
Freelap USA: Athletes and coaches can be frustrated when things are not easy to learn. How do you instill patience while encouraging progress? Some athletes adapt and learn at different speeds and may feel like they are lagging compared to quick learners. What is your secret here?
Monte Sparkman: Have a plan. Have multiple plans. One of the biggest skills I have learned since coming to high school level is to have a plan A, B, C, D, and even E and F. Be an over-planner. Be prepared when adjustments to the schedule need to be made; be prepared and confident to adapt your program or a given session when you aren’t getting the results you are looking for.
Don’t chisel your training programs in stone. They should be loose guidelines, not steadfast commandments. Joe Kenn said that strength coaches have to be chameleons. That we have to be the most adaptable coach on the staff. I believe that to be 100% true.Don’t chisel your training programs in stone. They should be loose guidelines, not steadfast commandments, says @MonteSparkman. Click To Tweet
There have been a few different times when working with a particular athletic group that I have had to completely regress their training multiple levels due to a lack of positive progression. When creating a performance plan, you must create a plan with built-in progressions and regressions and have the confidence to implement the adjustments when appropriate. When you walk into the Freak Factory during any one of our training sessions, you might see two or three different variations of a particular movement on any given day. On a lower emphasis day, you might see goblet squats, front squats, and back squats all in the same session.
Athletes might all use the same program just with different variations. As much as we would like it to be otherwise, athletes develop at different rates. As strength coaches, we have to meet the athletes where they are and not force them into a specific movement variation.
This is where having a broad set of skills and experiences comes into play. Develop proficiency with as many “tools” as possible. Don’t just have one way of doing things. Be married to principles and not specific training styles or exercises. Keep the big picture in mind, and always keep athlete safety at the forefront of all decision making.
Communicate your expectations and goals to your athletes. They must understand the end goal is to create the best athlete possible and not the best powerlifter, bodybuilder, strongman, or weightlifter. Once they trust that you are putting them in the best possible position to be successful, athletes will tend to buy in and trust in your program absolutely.
Freelap USA: You have been lifting for years, and athletes can visually see you are no stranger to the iron. Can you share how this helps young athletes buy into your program and what you have learned about impressionable athletes?
Monte Sparkman: Never trust a skinny cook. I think the same could be said for strength coaches. Most of the time, I am a walking strength coach stereotype: bald-headed, bearded, hoodie—we have all seen them. I embrace it; it is who I am. I have been identified as a strength coach since before I had a full-time job.
With that said, it does give me a certain presence when I walk into the Freak Factory with my athletes. Having a certain level of strength has opened a few doors for me professionally. Being a great, or even good, athlete doesn’t mean you are going to be a good coach. But it does show people that you at least have some minimal competency in your craft; that you might have some knowledge in what you are talking about.
I think in the same way it has opened professional doors, it gives me a certain influence with my athletes. Having size and strength makes it significantly easier when communicating with my athletes. I know how the weight is going to feel on their bodies. I can walk them through maximal attempts. I know where they are going to struggle with one movement or another. I can anticipate and then steer them away from a lot of the same mistakes I made coming up. Hopefully, I can keep them from making similar mistakes that I did.
One of my biggest influences growing up was my high school football coach. He was a former professional football player who could be seen in our weight room consistently bench pressing four plates for reps. I knew in a short time that I wanted to have that same level of strength. You could say that’s where I developed my love for the bench press and maximal strength development. I want to have the same impact on my athletes. I’m not saying I want them to grow up and be powerlifters, but everyone should have some level of physical well-being as they go through life.
Lifting weights is a lifelong sport. Having increased general strength will enhance overall quality of life tremendously. It’s important for everyone to be involved in some degree of weight training.
Back to buy-in—yes, I believe it helps to have above-average size and strength. I have to be careful not to promote the weight room too much, to the point that our athletes begin to become one-sided in their training. I tell them often to not let the highlight of their athletic career be things that happen in the weight room. Sure, I want our athletes to break PRs in the weight room, but more importantly, I want them to break their sport PRs.Sure, I want our athletes to break PRs in the weight room, but more importantly, I want them to break their sport PRs, says @MonteSparkman. Click To Tweet
In some cases, being a person of size and strength has been something I have had to overcome. People who see a guy who is big, bearded, and bald have some automatic assumptions about lack of intelligence and the meathead persona. I am most definitely a meathead in many regards, but I also have a master’s degree in educational leadership and multiple performance and teaching certifications. I consider myself to be very much a student of the game and a lifelong learner.
People also think that because I am who I am, that I am mean, angry, and/or standoffish. I have to go out of my way when working with the younger athletes and coaches who aren’t as familiar with me to let them know that it’s okay to ask a question or talk to me. I’m not some big, scary monster. I am their coach; I am here to help them and not promote fear.
I have also had to overcome the idea that using my training programs will make athletes look like me. I remind my female athletes often that they are not going to become big and bulky after completing one of our weight training programs. In fact, it’s most often the opposite effect. They end up losing mass because of the decrease in body fat and increase of lean muscle mass.
I had to overcome this misconception with my current employer. I had to show him that I wasn’t going to train our athletes as powerlifters, the way that I train. Sure, we use some concepts from powerlifting. I have written and spoken often about the way we train many times. But I don’t think anyone who comes into the Freak Factory would mistake our performance training for the training of powerlifters. I may compete in powerlifting from time to time, but that is only a small part of who I am and my coaching philosophy.
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