Recently, an article was published by CBS sports that has made the circles in social media about the unregulated world of collegiate strength and conditioning. Having worked at a NCAA Division I institution as both an athletic trainer and a strength coach for almost 10 years, this article struck a cord with me for a number of reasons.
The college setting is both very rewarding and very demanding and I think part of the reason that the article stood out to me is because they make a lot of very valid arguments about what can be improved with the profession, but they also fail to fully understand or explain all of the demands that are placed on the collegiate strength staff, medical staff and athletes. If you haven’t read the article, check it out here. Even if you aren’t a strength coach or a huge college sports fan, I think you’ll find it an interesting read.
At the risk of getting on a soap box, I will take this week’s blog post to provide my thoughts and input on the article and state of collegiate strength and conditioning. To best organize my thoughts, I’m using some bullet points:
- The article claims that the world of collegiate strength and conditioning is unregulated overall. While I will agree with the fact that it needs tighter regulation, I believe the bigger problem is that there is no regulation to coaching in general. Other than being CPR certified, there is no regulation to any sport coaches in the NCAA. The vast majority of college coaches handle their own conditioning during workouts and write their own practice plans and decide when their players need rest or not both in practice and in games. The problem is that most of these coaches have degrees in history, education or management. They have very little to no scientific understand as to how the human body works, but they are deciding a lot of things on and off of the field related to physical performance. They tend to do what they were coached to do when they played. The problem with this is that outdated techniques tend to be handed down from generation to generation. While I would like strength coaches to be more regulated, at least there is some sort of a standard that has been set forth which hasn’t been done for coaches across the board.
- A couple of years ago, I applauded the NCAA for stepping up and requiring that strength coaches hold a certification. The problem was how it was implemented. Rather than make a stance, they chose to be very ambiguous and non committal with what they defined as the standard. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation and anyone who knows anything about NCAA institutions, they understand that if they want something bad enough, they’ll find a way to bend the rules to make it work. The NCAA needs to pick 1 or 2 national certifications and stick to them. I would recommend the CSCS and the CSCCa because they are easily the 2 most well known and respected.
- The head coaches have an incredible amount of control and leverage over their teams and players and have little to no understanding of what a strength coach really should be doing. And, they are usually the ones who are telling the strength coaches what to do. In most programs across the country, strength coaches are often caught in the middle between what they want to do and feel is right based on science and their understanding of the body with a head coach’s opinion of what should be happening. In many programs, it is common for a strength coach to have a workout planned with long term goals in mind, only to have a head coach walk into the weight room and tell them that they want it changed or even worse, the head coach runs the team into the ground for one reason or another and expects the strength coach to pick up the pieces. I was once criticized because I had a basketball player tear her ACL in a summer league offseason game. She was undercut by an opposing player in a game that was out of control because of poor officiating and because of NCAA rules, she was forced to play with a bunch of high school players who she didn’t know and didn’t play at her speed and it was on a crappy court surface. But, I was questioned because they had squatted earlier in the day and it was felt that maybe her legs were too tired to be playing. The knee injury had nothing to do with the workout, but it was an easy place to point the figure. Those are the types of situations that strength coaches are put in regularly.
- Today’s strength coach is pulled in a lot of different ways. They are being told to do things by the medical staff and coaching staff and if they aren’t done correctly, it is easy for them to get sent packing. I was once told by a head coach that if our team didn’t win a championship in 3 years that he would publicly name me as the reason that we weren’t winning because I wasn’t willing to perform some of the exercises that he wanted performed. I was unwilling to perform them with the team because I felt that they were a waste of time at a minimum and possibly dangerous. In that situation, the strength coach is forced to make a decision between feeding their family by keeping their job or doing what they feel is right by the athlete.
- Many times, especially at smaller institutions, strength coaches don’t have all of the information that they need to keep their players safe. Using Sickle Cell Trait (SCT) as example, it can be very difficult for a coach to know which athletes are positive and which aren’t. It is fairly common to have positive SCT athletes, especially on bigger teams, but if that isn’t communicated appropriately, things can get deadly in a hurry. Several years ago, all NCAA athletes were tested for SCT, but it was quickly deemed too costly for institutions, so now athletes are simply required to sign a waiver stating that they don’t want tested and won’t hold anyone liable because of it. It is the easy way out. The problem is that if one of those kids sickles in a workout and the strength coach didn’t know that he or she should be modifying their workout, when they die on the field, the coach gets the blame. I’m not saying that coaches shouldn’t be held accountable when bad things happen, but I am saying that calling the offseason “killing season” and pinning it on strength coaches isn’t very fair in a lot of respects. There are a lot of factors to why a young person might suddenly collapse in a workout and many of them can’t be controlled by a coach.
- Along those lines, it is important to understand that any college coach makes their living dealing with the decisions that are made by 18-22 kids. Many of these young people don’t eat well, have horrible sleeping habits, drink and do drugs regularly and take supplements that are largely unregulated. All of these factors affect an athlete’s output and recovery. If they aren’t doing their part and not disclosing some or all of these factors for one reason or another, a coach will have a very difficult time prescribing proper workouts.
- All college coaches are paid to win ball games. Because of the competitive nature of collegiate sports, there is a very fine line between pushing the limits of performance and going overboard. Any good, honest coach will tell you that at some point in their career, they made a mistake and pushed someone too hard. It usually isn’t because they didn’t like an athlete or because they aren’t good at their job. It’s usually because they simply underestimated or overestimated the athlete or workout. If you aren’t pushing those limits at times, you aren’t fully developing your athletes to their potential.
- There is really no good way to objectively evaluate a strength coach. You can’t simply rely on wins, because there are too many factors out of their control with winning and losing. You can’t just go by performance numbers achieved by their athletes because they don’t recruit them and pushing big numbers is often dangerous for many athletes. You can’t go by personality because some of the best coaches I know aren’t all that well liked by their coworkers due to their personality. You also can’t use the athlete’s feedback because many of them don’t like to be told what to do or to work hard. So, they don’t like the coaches that are often the best for them. If we can’t rate a coach all that well, how do we know which ones are good and which are bad?
Overall, I think the article was a little bit harsh on college strength coaches. I do think the profession can and should improve, but as of right now, they are simply working within the standards set forth by the NCAA. So until that gets tightened up, things won’t change much. And, until the evaluation system gets cleaned up and control over strength coaches is taken away from head coaches that are actually less regulated, we will continue to see a lot of these same issues perpetuate year after year.