Strength Coaching 101: Summer School Edition

By: Schuyler Schmidt

This summer I had the privilege of interning with the strength coach of a local professional hockey team. Working alongside an already established strength coach was an incredible learning experience for a novice like me. Here are some of my thoughts and observations for other aspiring strength coaches.


9. Coach the Outcome of a Movement

You may know the correct anatomical term for every part of the human body, but chances are your athletes do not. Because of this, internal or anatomical cues won’t be understood, while external cues like “throw the bar to the ceiling” or “stand proud,” will be. These types of cues make much more sense to your athletes because you are telling them exactly what outcome you want and exactly how to do it. There is no ambiguity or jargon in these simple directions.

The only time an anatomical description is useful is when an athlete asks a specific question pertaining to the actual anatomy of an exercise.

8. Progressions = Success

Even professional athletes start at the beginning. Baseline fitness and movement patterns are established first before an athlete can progress with harder variations of an exercise, different rep scheme, or tempo in all phases of the workout—warm-ups, conditioning, plyometrics, and lifting.

Progressions are a safe, efficient way for a strength coach to measure improvement and motivate his athletes, who can see their own improvement as they go from ball rollouts to TRX fallouts, for example.

7. Coaching Method Depends on the Athlete

Form is everything. As a strength coach, immediately correcting technique flaws that can cause injury, such as a rounded back in a deadlift, is your job. Nitpicking every detail of a lift may not be a good idea, though. While some athletes want to be “micro-coached” through every portion of a lift, others will be frustrated and tune you out, even when you are trying to keep them safe.

Take your coaching one step at a time. Fix the things that will cause injury first, integrate the other cues from there, and never accept sloppy form.

6. Don’t Play Favourites

Athletes come to you to get better, regardless of their starting point. If you want your athletes to respect you, make sure the same rules apply to everyone in the group. Also, make sure to divide your time equally amongst the group. Don’t coach only the best athletes. This is especially important when coaching a group of young athletes who are at various stages of physical development.


The “worst” one today may be the “best” in another year.

5. Know When to Be Serious and When to Have Fun

Training takes focus and intensity; goofing off while lifting weights is dangerous. That being said, there is room for some chatter and laughter between sets! The strength coach sets the tone for the workouts — letting your athletes see your personality will help them “buy in” to you and your training program.

If coming to the gym isn’t an enjoyable experience, your athletes’ progress will suffer, and you will be out of a job. Also, incorporate some activities your athletes enjoy into the routine.  If they like doing a conditioning circuit or playing handball or soccer for a few minutes after a workout, include these as a “treat” on a Friday and give them something to look forward to.

4. The Most Powerful Learning Tool is Observation

I spent hours this summer simply watching movement. I scrutinized my athletes’ form on every exercise, asking my boss for guidance when something didn’t make sense to me. For instance, because I lacked knowledge and experience in plyometrics and agility ladder drills and progressions, I asked questions about the order of drills and why one progression came before another.

Reading articles and textbooks builds your knowledge base, but seeing that an athlete who has difficulty keeping his pelvis rolled under during a push up will also have difficulty with form in a strict overhead press, for example, solidified movement patterns, compensations, and weaknesses in my mind, and also got me thinking about the steps needed for correction.

3. People Hear Your Words But Feel Your Passion

Your athletes can tell if you really care about your job and about them through your actions. Are you a role model for your athletes? Do you practice the same discipline that you preach to them? Do you absentmindedly go through generic cues or are you enthusiastic about the workouts?

If you love what you are doing, it will naturally come through in your body language, tone of voice, genuine interest in your athletes, etc.

Telling an athlete you want him to get better is one thing, giving up your Saturday mornings to train him gives truth to your words and makes him want to try that much harder for you. Put another way, “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care”. You won’t love your job every day, but if you find yourself trying to muster up enthusiasm day in and day out, coaching isn’t for you.

2. Use Common Sense

New fitness theories, trends, and exercises guaranteed to make your athletes bigger, faster, and stronger pop up on the internet every day. While it’s hard not to jump on the bandwagon, if something sounds too good to be true or you can’t make sense of it, let someone else be the guinea pig, especially if it involves the safety and success of your athletes.

Along the same line, remember that you are a strength coach, not a physical therapist or a nutritionist. Keep up with your field, learn as much as you can, but know your role and the scope of your practice.

1. And Speaking of Roles…

If you work for a team, you will be asked to do things outside of your job description. While you didn’t go to university for a degree in towel washing, team budgets are small, and everyone is expected to pitch in.

If you want to be popular with your athletes and your management, load and unload equipment for away games, help with laundry, do favours related to your job for the players like making protein shakes, and do it with a smile!


Final Thoughts

My summer strength coaching experience was both eye-opening and motivating. One of my biggest revelations was that the classroom learning has a place in real life. I found that the science I learned in textbooks and lectures is necessary for understanding the body and its adaptations to exercise in order to program and design workouts, but it’s only the beginning.

Strength coaching is more personal than pictures and words on a page. Each athlete brings his or her own personality into the gym, and so the actual experience of coaching is the only way to perfect the balance of the athlete-coach relationship.

I don’t know where I will go with my kinesiology degree, but after my summer in the gym, I know that I will continue to learn as much as I can about the human body, movement, and performance, pursuing more coaching experiences with all ages and ability levels.


S&C coaches and trainers, which of Schuyler’s points resonate with you the most? What have you learned from your experience working with clients or athletes? Comment below and “like” us on facebook!

My name is Schuyler Schmidt, and I am a third year honours Kinesiology student at Waterloo. I love everything that involves movement and look forward to learning more through my classes, training the varsity athletes, seminars, and the Strength & Conditioning Club. Having dabbled in everything from distance running to powerlifting, I have a broad view of fitness and believe that “one workout doesn’t fit all.” Outside of academics, I enjoy hiking, canoeing,  jewelry making, gardening, and working at a vineyard/winery in my hometown.



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