With over 15 years as a strength and conditioning coach (S&C Coach) working both in performance sport as well as with young people of all ages and abilities I wanted today to share with you some insights into the challenges I have had to overcome on the pathway to success. Wherever you are on your journey I’m sure you may have encountered some of these challenges yourself in some form, but my latest challenge is the one I really would like to focus on.
The First Challenge:
When I began working in strength and conditioning in professional sport (over sixteen) years ago I immediately ran into my first major challenge in my environment-‘Prove that structured strength and conditioning is needed’. It seems amazing to suggest now as sport in the UK has become so professional and the use of and value attached to strength and conditioning provision and coaches has rightly blossomed. However, at the turn of this century, strength and conditioning was still establishing its identity and proving its value across many sports in Britain. Thank goodness that so many coaches have done such a good job and influenced sport so positively and emphatically.
I do not think it can be understated the great influence S and C coaches have had in British sporting success over the last twenty years. However, clearly the development and wonderful successes have run alongside all of the advances in medical, physiotherapy, psychology, talent identification and nutrition based support so we should be careful before we start taking too much credit! Plus I would suggest the athletes themselves should take a bit of the credit right!
I found daily in the early years of my jobs in cricket and tennis that I would have to justify my training practices to coaching colleagues and the athletes constantly. Fortunately now it is pretty much universally accepted that if you want to prepare excellent and robust athletes, you need to have an evidence based, structured strength and conditioning programme and the S and C coach is seen as a highly important and valued member of the performance team.
The Second Challenge:
The second significant challenge that we as a group of practitioners face and that I have faced for the last ten years has been the classic- ‘We do not think young people should do strength training because it is not safe’. Once again through the work of eminent researchers and practitioners in our field we have seen this and the ‘it stunts their growth’ stand point refuted and now for the most part the fear and myths are being dispelled and hopefully we as the YSCA are making a significant contribution in this area through our coach education pathway. The challenge is ongoing but we feel like we are ‘winning the nay sayers over’.
The latest Challenge:
So there I was a few weeks ago, sat at the back in a (very good and interesting) conference for Directors of Sport in education minding my own business, trying to work out whether at the coffee break I was going to go with the pain au chocolate or Danish pastry option when one of the key note speakers introducing the impressive line-up for the day on stage questioned directly as part of an all-round Sport in School topic address –‘why should schools have a ‘Head of Strength and Conditioning!’
In essence the suggestion was made that S and C was for only the elite kids and that schools needed to move away from this emphasis/approach and focus on exercise for the ‘whole school population’. It was also muted that ‘Strength and Conditioning Coaches’ should be renamed to something like ‘the Exercise and fitness Coordinator’.
As one of the oldest, original and few ‘Heads of Strength and Conditioning’ in education and someone who has hopefully tried to champion S and C in various settings for many years you can imagine I sat there and felt an overwhelming urge to stand up and say ‘Hold on a minute!’
Fortunately and rightly I didn’t! Instead I have thought about and pondered this viewpoint greatly for the last few weeks and have decided now to have my say from a position of reflection. Indeed to use this article to give a balanced response to an interesting viewpoint. I have tried to in Stephen Covey terms – ‘Seek first to understand before being understood’
I can see where this perception of S and C and coaches in schools comes from but I disagree with it. But it is a perception that I can understand. A number of schools have realised that for their best young athletes and teams to be successful and if they want to compete for local and national honours but hopefully more importantly want to see their pupils progress safely and optimally on their journey towards adult sport and life then they have to access strength and conditioning.
With finite budgets and many coaches accessing on a part time basis one can completely see how the perception and actual delivery may in many school environments support mostly ‘the better sporty kids’. However, with a bit more commitment and creativity a very different far greater influence can be achieved. In addition you do not have to be a ‘great athlete’ to improve your ‘movement competency’, ‘physical literacy’ or whatever you want to term ‘moving well’.
I am in the fortunate position of having been able to build a programme in a school for ten years and indeed initially the focus of the programme was the more able young sports men and women’. Fortunately as I have been able to expand our programme we now work with 130 of the 700 children at the school each week in high performance S and C sessions.
That does not include the two ‘games options’ we offer for non ‘high performance’ children in Year 10,11, 12 and 13 which amounts to a further 60 children who receive S and C input. That also does not include the 8 hours of Sixth Form afternoon and evening recreational training, rehab for any children with long term injuries, the influence we have had on games session warm ups, team preparation (all levels) physical education practical content and the recent influence we have had with the school caterers from a nutrition perspective for all children.
Why should we do all of this? Forget performance this is about general health.
A Couple of Examples:
I recently bumped into two of our leaver athletes now in their early 20’s. One is a young lady with 15,000 followers on Instagram. She is now into fitness and lifestyle work and is a nutritionist. She has moved away from her elite skiing path in to a new one but training is at the core of her activities. I also bumped into a young man who is at university studying Geography and Humanities who told me how the head of S and C at the university saw him completing some cleans in the gym, asked him where he learnt to lift and then enquired if he was interested in some internship work!
A very current example below is a young man called Harry who I work with three times per week. Harry is a great all-rounder who enjoys rugby, hockey, skiing-basically anything he can compete at! Whilst he is very good by his own admission an elite sports career is not his aspiration. He was however, delighted this week to get told he had the very best ‘full-clean’ in the school!
A reminder of what WE stand for and deliver at the YSCA:
Very simply our goal is to accelerate the health, wellness and movement quality of young people worldwide.
Yes it’s ambitious but you have to aim high. There is a western world obesity crisis fuelled by lack of movement and poor wellness and health. We want to impact that.
- Bring the Excite, Engage, Enable coaching methodology to every training session, every practice and every young person’s life.
- In order to do this we need inclusive training environments that young people are excited to be a part of.
Our terminology for this is an elite but not elitist training environment for every young person in the country to have access to. We need YSCA affiliated training groups across the UK and worldwide that young people can grow and develop within.
- Clearly, to achieve these goals we need to build a capable and passionate coaching workforce that are empowered to create physically and emotionally healthy young people.
Health before performance!
The work that we do as coaches is not about developing elite young athletes. On the contrary it is about building the foundations of effective movement for all people, irrespective of their athletic talent or aspirations.
The fundamentals we teach to our coaches and our students are there to serve us throughout life and to make a positive impact on our health and wellness and not just simply about performance. Of course should our students have those aspirations our curriculum will absolutely facilitate those goals too.
I hope that clears up where I am coming from! I remain happy and proud to be a Strength and Conditioning Coach in a school! I look forward to seeing many more schools employing full-time S and C coaches and YSCA coaches making a difference with young people of all ‘talent levels’ around the world in the years to come.
Best wishes to all!