Will Ruth

I frequently see sport coaches and athletes reluctant to enlist the help of a strength coach. Many coaches rely on what they did in their own athletic career, despite the fact that these training methods are often outdated or inefficient. Many athletes rely on advice of other athletes or the internet. While personal experience, anecdotal information, and some online resources are great for gathering information, there is no substitute for in-person instruction and supervision when it comes to physical preparation.

Photo Credit: Emily Shiels

Lifting weights is not as easy or simple as turning a group of athletes loose in the gym, or handing them a program and saying “go ahead.” If you’re a sport coach or an athlete, ask yourself: what would happen if we tried that system with sport practice? As a strength coach as well as a sport coach, I see a great disconnect between the two, almost as though many sport coaches believe that simply being around a weight-room will confer benefits of greater strength and power for their athletes. Here are my main reasons that athletes should work with strength coaches for at least part of the competitive year, if not year-round.

#1: For the same reason sport coaches are qualified to coach their sport, strength coaches are qualified to be strength coaches.

A football coach wouldn’t automatically be qualified to be a soccer coach, so why would a sport coach automatically be qualified to be a strength coach? A qualified strength coach will usually have several, if not all, of the following factors:

  • Experience as an athlete
  • Higher education in an exercise science discipline
  • Certifications and credentials in specific disciplines
  • Someone they still learn from–A professional mentor, former internship supervisor, or network
  • Experience training athletes in a weight-room
  • Experience training him/herself in the weight-room

Note that it IS possible for sport coaches to double as strength coaches, but they must have some, if not all, of the above qualifications.

In the USA, most strength coaches have played sports at least in high school. It is important that the strength coach can relate to the mindset of an athlete in some competitive way. They have at least a Bachelor’s (but often a Master’s) degree in exercise science, kinesiology, sport performance, athletic training, or a similar field.

Most have completed an internship at some point during their career, learning under a more experienced coach, and still maintain a network of other coaches and mentors they can learn from. The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification (NSCA-CSCS) is considered the gold standard of certifications, but other versions through ACE, NASM, and USA-Weightlifting are also valid and applicable.

Most qualified strength coaches have years of experience training athletes, either as an intern, graduate assistant, assistant coach, or head strength coach. In addition to this, strength coaches MUST have training experience in the weight-room to be able to instruct athletes. This should be a no-brainer, but I have seen and known strength coaches who don’t lift, and I always wonder how they can instruct or motivate their athletes.

Be wary of coaches who do not have these qualifications, or those who only have 1-2 of the qualifications. Not all former athletes understand how to make other athletes great, even if they were a great athlete themselves. Not everyone with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree has the actual coaching experience necessary to know how to instruct a diverse group of athletes across multiple sports. Not everyone with a certification is qualified to be a strength coach.

#2: Just as sports require specific technique to maximize ability on the field of play, so does strength training.

Strength coaches have both educational and experiential qualifications to not only select the right exercises for each sport and each athlete, but to instruct those exercises. For example, I have 4-5 ways of teaching an athlete to squat. Each way works, but different athletes respond to different cues. I can draw on both my education in exercise science as well as my experience coaching hundreds of athletes in the weight-room to figure out which method will be the best to get an athlete to perform the lift correctly.

Any sport coach can look at an athlete performing a sport task and evaluate several different technical points to suggest changes to make the task more effective. A faster shot, a better block, a more powerful rowing stroke, etc. Any strength coach can do the same for a squat, deadlift, or press. Treat strength training the same way you treat sport training, and strength coaches the same way you treat sport coaches, and you’ll benefit on the field of play.

#3: Good strength coaches can look at the sport through a different lens than the sport coach.

A good strength coach will also know and understand the sport and demands of the sport for the athlete. Strength coaches not only understand the sport from a muscular perspective, but also from an energy system, injury prevention, and health standpoint. When communication is great between a sport coach and a strength coach, they can combine their viewpoints of an athlete to develop a more comprehensive picture of performance. Here’s an example from a recent practice with the men’s rowing team.

Going out with the men’s crew team has greatly improved my relationship with the athletes and ability as a coach [photo Tohn Keagle]
I was in the launch boat with the head coach. We both noticed that the stroke seat was dipping his hands at the catch and then burying his shaft on the stroke. The head coach saw a technique failure and reminded the rower of proper form—keep his hands consistent on the recovery with a slight raise at the catch, and then drive straight through the stroke with an even blade height, but the rower continued to err. I saw an athlete with a tight upper-back, weaker lats, and restricted thoracic spine mobility, compensating for this by shrugging his shoulders, taking more strain on the traps and less on the lats. We combined our viewpoints for the athlete, reminded him of proper rowing technique AND used internal physical cues of what a correct stroke feels like at a muscular level. The athlete learned to feel the stroke more in his lats than traps and began to pull with a more even blade height and smoother catch. He can then work on his thoracic mobility, lat strength, and upper-back tightness to continue to improve.

#4: A strength coach has a different relationship with the athlete than the sport coach.

Everyone gets tired of hearing the same thing from the same person. Having a separate strength coach for a team allows for another coach to reinforce messages from the sport. Athletes also have many different learning styles, so sometimes the same message will “click” when presented in a different way. Many athletes I’ve worked with don’t understand proper change-of-direction technique with regard to knee alignment until they learn it in the weight-room through the squat or lunge. The weight-room is a great opportunity to break down sport technique into smaller pieces so the athlete can master it one step at a time.

Furthermore, the strength coach can also motivate athletes differently than the sport coach. This change-of-pace from a normal practice environment can help keep athletes engaged in their training and avoid burnout for both players and coaches.

#5: The simple act of having a strength coach increases buy-in for the athletes

Athletes are more aware than they are often given credit for. My 12-year old lacrosse player cousin and I were talking about his team and his coaches, and he described to me exactly which coach was insecure and overcompensated on the field, which coach he knew was just looking to get mad and take it out on someone, which coaches he respected and which coaches actually knew their stuff, etc. At age 12, he had identified team dynamics between his teammates as well as his coaching staff. Athletes know when a coach is faking it or throwing things together on the fly. Having a dedicated strength coach says, “we care about your development as athletes and have found someone knowledgable and competent to keep you improving.” It increases the legitimacy of the program, contributes to team bonding, and allows for the athletes to share in team struggle in a different environment.

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