By the time student-athletes reach the collegiate level, most have gained some measure of elite status — even before a certified strength and conditioning coach has had a chance to assess their talents and influence their trajectory. But what about high school athletes? Physical maturity can vary greatly from ninth grade to 12th grade, or even within the same class of peers. Moreover, the difference in developmental rates between boys and girls ages 14 to 18 is pronounced, not to mention each gender's inherent physical differences.
Could the services of a certified strength and conditioning coach be considered every bit as important to prep student-athletes as those competing in college and beyond?
"More so," says Pat Mediate, strength and conditioning coordinator and head strength coach for football at Greenwich (Conn.) High School. "Freshman year is key to teaching those 14-year-olds the proper form and technique for Olympic movements and power lifts to be safe. They are developing motor patterns that need to be set prior to the upper grades. If that doesn't happen, there will be very little chance of having great technique for the lifts going forward."
Strengthening a profession
In a perfect world, every high school would employ a strength and conditioning professional, but that's far from reality. It's difficult to determine how much company Greenwich has in that category, since the National Strength and Conditioning Association is just now starting to gather such data, but it's not a large peer group. One estimate puts the figure at 1,000 high school professionals — a fairly meager figure considering there are close to 25,000 high schools in the United States.
Others are willing to bulk up the numbers a bit. "If I would have to guess, I would say 10 to 15 percent of schools hire a strength coach, and another five to 10 percent outsource their programs to private facilities," says Liane Blyn, head Olympic sports strength and conditioning coach at Appalachian State University, a job she took in 2016 after serving four and a half years as Franklin (Mass.) High School's first-ever S&C coach. "The rest either utilize a sport coach or a teacher or don't have a program. The number has definitely increased though in the past five to 10 years."
The NSCA has promoted the profession within high schools since 1980, but efforts have intensified of late. A paper titled Why Your High School Needs a Qualified Strength and Conditioning Professional was released at the NSCA Coaches Conference in January and published the following month in the journal NSCA Coach. The goal is to take student-athlete training off the plate of sports coaches and put it in the hands of individuals with specific education and certification.
"Just because a coach or teacher has lifted does not mean they understand pediatric exercise physiology and can apply it to their students," says Patrick McHenry, head strength coach and physical education instructor at Castle View High School in Castle Rock, Colo. "Working with student-athletes who are going through growth spurts is not the same as working with a college- or elite-level athlete who has finished growing. The coach must take into consideration that a growth spurt will cause the limbs to get longer, which means balance, coordination and movement patterns will be affected."
"A sport coach knows how to coach their respective sport — soccer, field hockey, football — not necessarily how to enhance athletic performance through speed, strength and conditioning programming," Blyn says. "Schools do their student-athletes a disservice if they do not hire a credentialed and educated strength coach."
A former cornerback at the University of South Carolina, Jay Spearman holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology and master's degrees in both health management and exercise science. Today, he's the director of strength and conditioning at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia, S.C. "You want people who understand the science and how to properly apply it," Spearman says. "I teach research, so the athletes know everything that we do is a practical application. I always make sure to tell them why. Why are we doing lateral band walks? To activate the glutes, so we can keep those knees tracking over the ankles. I film them and show them. 'Day one, this is what you did. Day five, you look comfortable. Do you feel better?' 'Yes, it feels much better.' And I'm like, 'There it is.' "
A strength coach's hiring pep talk
Proper technique is critical when performing an Olympic lift. The same can be said about hiring a strength and conditioning professional. Strength coach Liane Blyn recommends high school administrators maximize the opportunity to get it right by taking these six steps:
1. Create a job description that fits the environment. What do you see as the strength coach's required responsibilities?
2. Look for someone who is educated and certified by a credible organization, such as the NSCA.
3. Look for someone who has a long-term vision and plan for the program.
4. Make sure the person is sound in his or her programming for all sports.
5. Make sure the person doesn't just bring along a college program to implement at your high school.
6. Conduct due diligence in searching for the right person who will be the right fit for your program. Make sure the person exhibits great character and passion as a strength coach.
Tangible results of a strength coach's impact at the high school level transcend gains in the weight room to include the art of keeping student-athletes on the playing field.
"By the time I left my position in November 2016, the program became a year-round speed, strength and conditioning program for all of our high school athletes," Blyn says of her days at Franklin. "I was able to hire two assistant coaches during the school year and five during the summer to help facilitate the program. During the school year, I averaged 160-plus offseason athletes training three or four days a week. All in-season teams trained one or two days a week. Our injury rate over the four and half years dropped by 75 percent."
But high school strength and conditioning coaches will tell you there's even more to it than that. "It's to a point now where you want guys who know what's best for the kids," Spearman says. "And it's bigger than just working out or throwing weight on a bar. You want to develop them from the ground up — foundational development — and I mean to a point where you want them to understand that we're going to build a connection first, and then I'm going to teach you the ins and outs of training properly. Once a kid trusts you, they'll work hard. If they work hard and apply themselves to a process, they get stronger, they get faster, they get better, there's less injury. You're building not only better athletes, but better people."
"One of the reasons I love my job so much is the specific setting," adds Sam Melendrez, physical education chair and head strength and conditioning coach at Discovery Canyon High School in Colorado Springs, Colo. "I spent some time at the collegiate level, and soon after becoming a high school strength coach I realized how big of an impact someone can make with athletes at this age. This is a pivotal time in a student-athlete's life to establish safe and effective training practices, not only for improved performance and sport-related injury reduction, but for lifelong health and fitness."
Benefits to the school
Limit liability: A qualified strength and conditioning coach can help limit a school's liability and implement procedures that support risk-management.
Increase professionalism and safety: For the same reason schools require a certified athletic trainer to work with their injured athletes or a certified lifeguard on pool decks, the same should be true for the coach who is designing and supervising the strength and conditioning program.
Extra coach on staff for all sports: A strength coach allows the sports coach more time to focus on the day-to-day practice schedule while the strength coach oversees the strength and conditioning of the team.
Due diligence: Demonstrates due diligence in properly equipping athletes for the physical and mental demands of a particular sport and establishes a greater commitment to injury prevention.
Gender equity: Assists an athletic department with implementing strength and conditioning programs that are gender-specific.
[Excerpted from the National Strength and Conditioning Association's Why Your High School Needs a Qualified Strength and Conditioning Professional]
Selling the school board
Convincing cash-strapped school districts that a strength and conditioning salary makes sense is no slam dunk. "Expense is an issue," says Mike Nitka, director of strength and conditioning and a physical education instructor at Muskego (Wis.) High School, who puts a S&C coach's salary at the level of a starting teacher — $30,000 to $35,000. "Districts do not seem to value this position, and many try to combine two positions."
Blyn widens the salary range from $20,000 to $55,000, with stipend positions falling somewhere between $900 and $7,000. In an era of scholarship-seeking parents willing to pay for private personal training, a high school athletic department can actually recoup some of its investment in a strength and conditioning coach. "The goal for the offseason fall, winter and spring workouts wasn't necessarily to make money for the department; it was to offer a great service to our student-athletes. The small charge covered the stipend for the strength coach," says Blyn of Franklin's approach, adding, "Our summer program cost was $150 and brought in a good chunk of money to the department — more than $100,000 — and after paying the staff there was a net of approximately $60,000."
Numbers don't tell the whole story, nor should they lead the discussion, according to Spearman. "When you're thinking about presenting this to a school board, you want to keep the kids in mind first," he says. "If you want to gain the parents' trust, make sure that the kids and their safety is put first. If you have kids training under a person who is not certified or not qualified to do that work, that could be a legal issue.
"Sometimes being a strength and conditioning coach at the high school level is seen as entry level, but it's not," Spearman continues, "because you're at a point where you may be the kids' introduction to actually developing who they'll be after high school."
That entry-level attitude is hamstringing American athletes, adds McHenry. "In other countries, the coaches with the most knowledge work with those who need the most help — the younger athletes," he says. "They realize how important it is to start the athletes off on the right foot."
Like most things in a competitive world, success breeds imitation. Prioritizing strength and conditioning at the high school level through the hiring of full-time experts is no different. While nationwide hiring numbers appear modest, there are expanding hotbeds of high school strength and conditioning. "Between South Carolina and Georgia, it's pretty high," Spearman says. "It's a domino effect. If I'm at a competing school and I see that you hired a strength guy — and your program got better, kids can move better and injuries are decreasing — I'm going to go out and hire a certified coach, too. Not to say that everybody will do it, but I would recommend that people start looking into getting a certified coach to work with all the kids, because it's so important."
Not lost in any of this are the benefits — beyond compensation — to the individual strength and conditioning professional. As someone who left the high school ranks, Blyn voices some regret. "I honestly thought I would be at Franklin High School until I retired, and some days I feel like I didn't finish what I started," she says. "The high school setting can be one of the most rewarding settings in the field of strength and conditioning."
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Raise The Bar" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.