The Biggest Mistakes in High School Strength and Conditioning

High school may be the most important time of physical, mental, and social development. High school strength and conditioning can have a huge effect on an athlete’s overall development. It can also be a fragile time as the athlete is going through so many changes.

That’s why I reached out to a group of coaches who either work in the high schools or work without high school athletes in the private sector. I asked them the question, “what is the biggest mistake you have seen in high school strength and conditioning?”

A lot of these guys were eager to contribute, an important characteristic of the strength industry. These coaches understand that mistakes are made and they are hoping to help someone avoid the mistakes either they have committed or have seen.

I learned a ton collecting their responses and if you are a young strength coach, make sure to pay attention! These are some of the best in high school strength and conditioning.

Gary Schofield

  • Head Strength & Conditioning Coach-Greater Atlanta Christian School
  • Co-Founder of the National High School Strength and Conditioning Association
  • 2012 NSCA National HS Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year

Training With Purpose. Bigger, Faster, Stronger sounds great, but I am after Better. I want my athletes to perform better in their sport, not just a weight room. Coaches need to know why they choose the methods they choose. Too often we fall in love with an exercise. Maybe its because it is what we did when we were athletes. Maybe its because we still enjoy completing the exercise. But are we choosing the exercise because of what it is developing? For me, it was the Clean. I used to say we performed the Clean to develop and measure power development. However, we used to perform 1 rep maxes. While this is a good measure of strength, it does not give a good measure of power as it does not consider how fast the movement was considered. Since power is strength x speed, we were not really measuring power. We were using the clean as a measure of strength. That was not my intent so we needed to add speed into the equation or agree to measure and develop strength with the clean. In my opinion there are better strength choices, so we initiated velocity based training into the clean. We didn’t add velocity based training because it was the new thing to do but because it gave purpose to our training.

Mark Hoover

  • Strength and Conditioning Coach/PE Teacher-Piedmont High School(Union County, NC)

“I came into strength and conditioning from a different route than some. I was the meathead football coach guy. I thought I knew what it was all about. Which looking back now seems quite ridiculous! I could say not searching out more education earlier, underuse of progressions and regressions or many other hard lessons learned. I guess top of the list is chasing numbers. When I first started out, I was all about “my guys are strong!” What I hadn’t learned yet was that is the absolute easiest part of the job. Strong is easy. Mobile, moving well, healthy, force production, athletes thriving within the program…those are the things that matter most. Don’t get me wrong. I still love numbers. However it takes a back seat to the process. Once you develop a process of getting to those numbers that allows your athletes to thrive in their environment, that’s when the numbers make a real difference.

Joe Aratari

  • Penfield High School Head Strength & Conditioning Coach
  • Next Level Strength & Conditioning Coach, Manager
  • NHSSCA-NYS Director

“What’s your max bro?”

In my eyes, the biggest mistake in high school strength & conditioning programs is testing too much. I think consistently testing maxes is a sure fire way to lead to mental frustration and injury.

I personally like testing and the concept of record boards. Your program is dependent on YOUR context and the use of record boards at Penfield High School certainly helps our culture and belief in our system. However, problems occur when programs test every new phase. I not only think this leads to injury, but it also messes with student-athletes mentally.

In my eyes, testing should be internally-driven, so athletes can try to compete against their prior selves. I think when we test too frequently, we do not see much progress and this can lead to mental frustration. Athletes would have much more success testing fewer times instead of every couple weeks or new phase.

In addition, testing too frequently and not increasing your numbers can lead to disbelief in the program.

I’m sure many of you can relate to this conversation…

Athlete: “Coach, I went to the insert any commercial gym this weekend and tried to max my bench after 3 sets of 8 because I was feeling it. I didn’t get it. Is the program not working?!”

Me: *Facepalm*

Our staff 100% has to take ownership of this and educate our athletes on why we test at certain times in the year. However, if WE as a staff actually go ahead and test every 4-6 weeks, these types of conversations and disbelief would be more common.

I always refer back to this answer to my athletes who like to test their max all the time..

“Why test strength when you can build it? You spend more time preparing than actually performing. So get good at preparing and you’ll get great at performing.

Micah Kurtz

  • Director of Strength and Conditioning-AC Flora High School, Columbia, SC                                  
  • NHSSCA and NSCA South Carolina State Director                                                                                      
  • 2016  NSCA High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year

“Creating my own program independent of collaboration and not learning from industry leaders”

When I first started as a strength coach, I felt that I always had to create my own athletic performance program independently, instead of reaching out to other strength coaches and learning from them. I would go to conferences and listen, but I would not truly internalize or apply what I heard. I made many mistakes when I first started running my own program, and many of those errors could be attributed to trying to do everything myself, instead of contacting great coaches and learning from them.

When I began reaching out and collaborating with other coaches, I became a 100% better coach. Bill Foran, Gary Schofield, Jeremy Boone, Jeremy Holsopple, Jesse Wright and Tim DiFrancesco are leaders in the athletic performance world and I have found that they, along with many other great coaches, are willing to share what they know.
Unlike some other sports-specific industries, the strength and conditioning industry has a great culture of collaboration and sharing. I have reached out to legendary strength coaches who I did not know personally and said, “I’m in town, I’d love to come meet you and learn what you do.” More often than not, they have been willing to meet and share their wealth of experience with me.

John Girton

  • Director of Strength Conditioning-Robert E. Lee High School, Springfield, VA                  
  • NHSSCA Virginia State Director

A question like this always helps you realize how far our program as come. Every year you evaluate and make changes to improve your strength and conditioning program, but when you take the time to look way back and see all the things you could have done better sometimes it seems like I made every mistake you could make when I started. I feel the biggest mistake I made was not building relationships with my athletes.

​All my mentors were more disciplinarians that pushed me to be my best, but kept their athletes at arm’s length not really bonding with us. Most of my athletes today don’t respond to that. It’s taken me a few years to realize that being more open and developing those relationships and the culture of the program are the most important things I can do. When I made the program about relationships and developing a bond with my athletes I became a much better coach, a better person, and enjoyed my job a lot more. It also had a profound impact onpropelling our strength and conditioning program and has started to turn around the entire culture of our athletics program.

Tripp Smith

  • Strength Coach and Owner of Hammer Smith Sports

Coaches not teaching a lift, exercise, or technique because they don’t know how, never done it etc. Go learn! Plenty of resources to learn proper teaching progressions for squats, oly lifts, KB, etc. ignorance is no excuse. Learn it, teach it , benefit from it. YouTube university can teach you wonders.

Joe Mascaretti

  • Strength Coach and Founder of 3Sixty Athletics, Long Island, NY

The biggest mistake I see high school strength and conditioning coaches make is trying to mimic the programs of college and professional teams. It’s important to note that this mistake doesn’t come from foolishness or negligence, but instead is derived out of coach best intentions.

For the same reason you wouldn’t throw an elementary school child into an AP Calculus class, high school athletes shouldn’t be thrown into college strength programming.

Instead of emulating what college teams do, we should prepare for what college teams do. For example, rather than back squats and power cleans for strength and power, dominate goblet squats and jumps.

High school athletes need heavy doses of the basics. There is absolutely no need to rush. As a result of our patience, when the time comes for more advanced concepts to be introduced, they’re better prepared, and reap more benefits from the advanced program for having done so much foundational prep work in high school.

John Garrish

  • Assistant Athletic Director – Director of Athletic Development & Performance
  • Head Coach, Track and Field- Sprints, North Broward Preparatory School
  • Director of Athletic Performance: Florida Rugby Union 7’s HPP
  • NHSSCA Board of Directors, Region 1 (Southeast)

There’s two big mistakes that I find myself making all too often: one tangible, one more intangible. When programming, I find myself rushing to an advanced method of training that isn’t necessary nor timely for our level of developmental athlete. The reason for it usually stems from a false concept of where our “elite” athletes are at. None of our athletes are yet elite, even our best are developmental in their own career trajectory. Still, however often I tell myself this I forget the notion or succumb to the temptation of designing a “cute” program. This not only leaves our beginner athletes behind, it’s an inappropriate method for our advanced students. I’ve battled this by assuming a backward design thought process, that is, to start with an end goal in mind and work backward.

The more intangible mistake I make, and I make it nearly ever day, is I confuse who I am with what I do. It’s easy when we commit so much time to one thing to identify with it, but identifying with something is not the same as identifying as something. We weren’t born strength coaches and we won’t die strength coaches and it’s important for us to remember that. Even your athletes will not remember you for your program, or even your coaching. They’ll remember you for who you truly are, how you make them feel and who they become as a result of your leadership. It’s both humbling and comforting knowing that there are things much more important than writing and implementing a program.

I Might As Well Give My Opinion

The biggest mistake I have seen in high school strength and conditioning is the lack of individualization. In high school strength programs across the country, you will see cookie cutteR programs that EVERY kid follows. The good coaches understand that not every kid is ready for the same program. Program individualization is difficult in the high school setting because of the number of athletes that a coach is seeing but it can be done.

Each athlete is at different points in their physical development. Some have been training for years while others, this may be the first time they have stepped foot in a weight room. We all go through the same basic growth from infancy through adolescence, but the differences can be seen in the timing and magnitude of growth. Not every athlete is ready to squat, bench, and deadlift on day one. Forcing an athlete into a program they are not ready for, is setting them up for failure.

Well That’s All!

I must say this was fun to work on. I’m not sure I had a single coach that I reached out to turn me down. That is the beauty of the strength and conditioning industry, most of the people are open books and always trying to share ideas. What did you learn? What are some of the mistakes you have seen in high school strength and conditioning?