Driving a Sense of Urgency for Hiring a High School Strength Coach
The Three-Phase Plan:
         Over the last year and a half, I have shared many conversations with Mike Winkler, NHSSCA Great Lakes Regional Director and Director of Strength and Conditioning for Archbishop Hoban High School. Often, we find ourselves talking about what we need to do to get more high schools to create Strength and Conditioning Jobs.  Mike often remarks that a major reason for his devotion to NHSSCA is to grow this profession. However, we find that there does not seem to be much urgency when it comes to creating these jobs. Many Athletic Directors will say they would love to have the role, but do not have funds. Some schools have administrations that love the idea, have the funds, but find that teachers’ unions present adverse challenges.  In most cases, the path of least resistance is to obtain a teaching license to teach PE and run a strength program through that manner. There is certainly a lot of benefit to this path, but that should not be the only way that administrations can create this vital position without pushback.  The reality is that more schools need to create this role whether they go the PE route or choose to invest in a Full-Time Strength and Conditioning Coach.  There must be a sense of urgency for the importance of this role, and we must speak in terms that administrators and union representatives can understand. To do this we may have to take an uncommon approach.  This is where my diverse background comes into play and I use this article to spotlight the problem that schools face by not having a qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach.

I hold a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in Disaster Preparedness Emergency Management. In short, I like to say I am a risk manager that uses reasoning and outside-the-box thinking to find solutions. In addition, I have served as a Police Officer and spent years in Logistic Operations Management. My coaching career started back in 2014 and I have been everything from a stipend Football Coach that was the “Strength Guy” to a Full-Time Salaried Head Strength and Conditioning Coach.  I’ve worked at small high schools and Ohio Division 1 High Schools. I have worked in the inner-city public school setting and a well-funded public school.  I really have seen a wide variety of situations. The one thing all these places had in common was the “find a way” mentality and a general understanding of the importance that a Qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach would provide to their school. So, it’s just a matter of creating urgency and clear understanding.  

So, how do we create urgency?  In Emergency Management there are four key sectors that disaster preparedness is broken into.
  • Preparedness
  • Mitigation
  • Response
  • Recovery
The first two deal with keeping the bad thing from happening or limit the severity of it. The other two deal with how efficiently you clean up the mess and get back to normal.  When schools do not have a qualified person running their weight room it is like finding yourself out in the woods during hunting season without your orange vest on. Wearing orange over your camo doesn’t guarantee you won’t take a round of buckshot, but it does make your support so much stronger.  If you say, “I got shot in the rear” and the game warden asks, “Did you have your orange on?” and you respond “No” that wouldn’t bode too well for your sympathy from the game warden. Same can be said for a high school without a qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach when a student-athlete gets injured in the weight room and the school is sued. Although a qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach does not omit the risk of lawsuit, it does ensure that the school took proper steps to be prepared.   That is an administration’s responsibility to an operation—to manage risk.  Therefore, not having this role in place creates a problem!
Phase 1:  Validate the Problem and Justify the Solution.
“Right Guy, Right Thing, Right Time.”

What exactly is the problem?
The problem is risk of weight room injury to student-athletes, and the legal ramifications that the school district would have to contend with. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is little urgency for this problem because most administrative decision-makers do not have all the information to understand just how at risk they are when they 1) offer athletics, 2) have a weight room in their school, and 3) when they do not have a justifiably experienced and qualified person set in place to develop safety procedures, as well as, develop scientific-based programs that emphasize differentiated instruction and ability groupings for their student-athletes.  Before we dive deeper, let’s look at what a qualified strength and conditioning position could be. A school district would be wise to offer a step program which makes the role more of a career and not a job. This will ensure a better pool of qualified individuals.  The strength and conditioning position would be determined by budget and overall school belief in the role’s merit. It would look something like this:

Strength and Conditioning Coordinator (Stipend pay to Salary range) - This person would run all athletic strength and conditioning programs for a school (High School or Middle School). They would work with the sport coaches to provide them with a certified strength and conditioning professional. This role would ideally be the first strength and conditioning position at a school, therefore pay may be supplemented with additional duties in the school district.

Head Strength and Conditioning Coach (Full-Time) (38K to 75K per experience) - This person is responsible for all athletic development programs for a High School (9th to 12th grade) or Middle School (6th to 8th grade), NOT BOTH. This role is strongly supported by the Athletic Director, Principals and Superintendent.  It would be mandatory for all sport coaches to work and consult with the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach on all matters related to Strength and Conditioning (i.e. Strength, Conditioning, Speed/Power Development, Injury Prevention, and Recovery).  

Director of Sport Performance (75K and Up) - This person holds the same duties as the Head Strength Coach, but they are responsible for the district’s High School and Middle School (6th to 12th grade). Essentially, they would handle the direction of sport performance for the entire district and would be consulted by the Physical Education Department on foundational strength and conditioning, as well as athletic development curriculum. This role would ideally be a school administrator.

Minimum Qualifications:
  • Bachelor’s Degree required
  • Master’s Degree Preferred (Director Role: Masters Degree required and 5+ years’ experience)
  • NSCA: Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist Certification or equivalent is required
The question that really needs to be asked is, “Do high schools NEED a Strength and Conditioning Coach”? If so, how do we get more schools to see the urgency in this claim? This question reminds me of a story I once heard a News Station General Manager tell about the art of sales.  He said, “Sales are really quite simple, you have to find the right guy, offer the right thing, at the right time.”  Ok, simple enough, right guy, right thing, right time … No big deal.  Shedding light on this issue is a sale.
So, who in this case is the “RIGHT GUY”?  The “right guy” are schools without a certified Strength and Conditioning Coach running the weight room.  It’s essentially any school that has not realized someone must be designated to the strength and conditioning element of the school. 
Moreover, what is the “RIGHT THING”?  This is where the story gets confusing.  The “right thing” is a solution to the problem stated in the beginning: Risk of weight room injury to student-athletes, and the legal ramifications that the school district would have to deal with.  However, the “right time” unfortunately controls the desire for this “right thing” and that itself is another problem.  Let’s unpack this.  Most schools do not realize they have a problem, before the problem is already upon them, hence the need for a solution. In other words, it’s not until a student-athlete gets hurt, and they are being sued, that they realize, “Maybe we should have had a better process in place, we better act now.”  This brings me to another issue. The majority of schools allow students to go into a weight room daily without a qualified person running the flow and safety of the room. They are playing chicken with serious physical injury or death, and that is negligence.  So, what do we do?  It seems that we must bridge the gap between the “right time” and “right thing”.  To do so we must justify that the “right thing” is in fact the right solution.
Well, what exactly is the “right thing”?  The “right thing” is hiring a qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach to help the school be more legally resistant to liability for negligence.  It couldn’t be that simple?  To prevent this potential problem, schools should just clear out enough room in their budgets to hire a qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach?  Yes, that is correct, but it really isn’t that simple.  The Strength and Conditioning Coach isn’t just being hired to prevent a potential problem. They are hired because they are a needed role within the school.  This is the point where we justify our merit as Strength and Conditioning Coaches, and we go full Rodin’s Statue.
The key verb is “NEEDED”.   Why are we a needed profession? Why are we needed in a high school?    We must answer this question but answer it in a manner that is more aligned with the vast concerns of a high school administrator. This means we need to apply special criteria. This brings me to story number two. My bachelor’s degree is in Philosophy. In a senior-level class of Existentialism taught by Dr. Eric Cave, the question of “The Existence of God” was posed.  Dr. Cave advised the class, “We can have this debate but, there is one rule, you can’t use the Bible as your evidentiary justification.  Make a case for the existence of God, but do not use the Bible.”  This way of thinking is thought provoking, and it is needed to validate the key term “Need.”  As we think of all the concerns a superintendent must worry about and address, we must remember that their justification for creating a role such as the Strength and Conditioning Coach is not likely to be won over by talking about periodization and performance indicators. So, as we answer, “Why is the Strength and Conditioning Coach a needed profession in high school?” We should omit using arguments such as performance improvement and the benefit to the school culture. Let’s go ahead and put the low hanging fruit on the table and take injury resistance to sport injury out, as well.  What is left to validate this question?  SAFETY! 

It seems if you are forced to justify the role of a Strength and Conditioning Coach without explaining some of the key components of the role to merit its importance, what you will be left with is, this role will provide safety to the students and to the school.  
One last thing to consider when justifying the need for a qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach is the ratio of impact this role will have on the school itself.

Importance of Ratio Data
  1. Impact = Supervision (How many students safety are you responsible for? 
  2. Culture = All In (Drive the School Mission) Move to Action
  3. Learning Enhancement = Strength training increases Neurogenesis and Synaptogenesis. In short, it is proven to create more Neurons and Synapses
Below you will see some raw data obtained from both private and public high schools in Ohio that employ a qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach. This data outlines the total volume of students in the school and the number of those students who are athletes. This data shows that on the low end, a Strength and Conditioning Coach will be responsible for 31% percent of the student body population, which on average is near twice that of a teacher, who is responsible for 12% to 18% of the student body population on average. On the high-end, a Strength and Conditioning Coach at private schools sees an average of 80% of the student body population.  The average public school ratio is approximately 43%. In addition, Strength and Conditioning Coaches will see these students the entire year (12 months) as they do not take summers off. They also have the same student body population ratio every year. This role, if encouraged by the administration, can be a real game changer for a school district. I believe this because the Strength and Conditioning Coach has so much influence over a sizable portion of the student body population. Depending on how the school chooses to fund the role or what additional responsibilities they may assign to the strength coach, that ratio number can be increased. In the business world this is relatable to return on investment (ROI), paying one person to directly impact more students. Essentially, if a school district pays a teacher 50k to see 200 students and pays a Strength and Conditioning Coach 50k to see 400 students, the return on investment is better with the Strength and Conditioning Coach. This basic example would deduce that the cost of impact for the teacher is $250 per student and only $125 per student for the strength coach. With this said, at minimum a Strength and Conditioning Coach is at least worth a teacher’s salary. 
To sum everything up, the main goal of Phase 1 is to create awareness and drive the sense of urgency to further the discussion that more schools need to find a way to hire a qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach.  To do this we had to state the problem: “Unqualified people running weight rooms demonstrates a lack of preparedness by school districts.” If you don’t want to hire a qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach, then don’t have a weight room or athletics!  That is a statement that will most definitely create some waves, but sometimes we fall into the trap of wanting to have our cake and eat it too. More concerning is that in this case the shortcomings will fall on the parents who will have to pay the bills for a student’s injuries all because the school is operating in an unprepared manner.  I can personally attest to this exact situation. When I was in high school our football coaches ran the “bigger, faster, stronger program,” and although soundly thought out and organized, we started back squatting and power cleaning in the 9th grade with no progressive or regressive process. I loved being in the weight room and working out with my teammates, but this lack of progressive-taught technique resulted in trips to the chiropractor in 10th grade.  At $40 dollars a visit, my mother just couldn’t afford it. So a fork in the road decision was placed in front of me, quit football or forge ahead and deal with the pain. Forge ahead was the only option for me.  This high school injury has continued to loom and it’s a major piece in how I program my own training to prehab and rehab any future issues. Nevertheless, I am sure many people have stories just like this, and some I am sure have cases far worse. This simply should be prevented at all costs by school districts. One of the key promises in the Hippocratic Oath is, “Do no harm.” As Strength and Conditioning Professionals, we should stand up for this rule!

Furthermore, it has been laid out that the hiring of a qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach, without discussing the X’s and O’s of their role will provide a great return on investment to the schools safety and the direct impact on their student body. As for the full benefits of a school employing a Strength and Conditioning Coach, there have been many great articles written that outline their entire value. One article to mention is “4 Reasons Every High School Principal and Athletic Director should invest in a School’s Strength and Conditioning Program” by Coach Nick Cook. There are many others worth a read. 

As it was mentioned in the beginning, this is a sale, and will take a village to bring it to reality, but we must believe it is necessary.  Phase 1 should have intrigued you to want to learn more about how we break the old mode, and what exactly the liability of NOT employing a qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach looks like. Those things I plan to cover in Phase 2 and Phase 3. Hopefully this has provoked some thought, and Phase 1 has put the wheels of action in motion to better protect our students and high schools.

Cody Coley, MS, CSCS