How to Deal with Difficult Coaches

I have had the privilege of speaking at three different national conferences. Each time I have presented, I have looked back and tried to figure out what I could have done better. There is always that pressure when you are speaking to your peers. The presentation I’m sharing here from my most recent national conference is anything but groundbreaking, but I hope it was at least reaffirming for coaches. I am 100 percent convinced that most coaches in the audience could have provided just as much insight on the subject.

The Importance of the S&C Coach and Sport Coach Relationship

Strength and conditioning coaches constantly deal with the external factors of the profession. The pay, the hours, the job market all make it one of the toughest professions. Out of all of the internal factors, dealing with the sport coach is probably the most stressful. Coaches usually do not stress nearly as much about scheduling, programming, etc, as they do with sport coach communication. This is why I thought the topic was important.

Stress Management

one of the most stressful situations for any strength coach is when there is a new coach is hired.

Job Security

If you are one of those strength coaches that can do whatever you want and you don’t have to answer to anyone, well then you made it. You have the dream job. And you are in an extremely rare situation. Truth is, our jobs are tied into sport coaches, even if the AD is the immediate supervisor. It only takes one piece of negative feedback to stir the pot.

Professional Development

Congrats if you got hired at every job you have had without knowing anyone. You have an impeccable resume and you are the best interviewer in the business. Most of us know, that rarely happens. Along with the Head Strength Coach and AD, the sport coaches will be an important reference.

Understanding the Sport Coach

They have more invested than you.

This is something that most strength coaches don’t understand or a lot don’t want to admit. I will never say that strength coaches don’t care about their athletes. It’s just that by the time you see those first-year athletes when they report to fall camp or classes, the sport coaches may have been in touch with those student-athletes for years. The amount of time coaches spend on the phone, e-mailing, home visits, etc. is staggering. These coaches have invested a lot of time in resources developing relationships.

They are protective of their teams.

These coaches care about their athletes as people just like you do. But their relationship is not as objective as yours. That black and white nature of how a strength coach assess athletes looks almost cold and unemotional to sport coaches. These athletes have way more of a direct impact on the success of the sport coach.

They may not trust you.

Unless they hired you, they are stuck with you. Imagine if you were coaching a team and someone you didn’t know very well was going to be training them and spending up to eight times as much time with your team than you.

They may not see your value.

Sports performance may be an afterthought for some sport coaches. No one will care about training more than you. This is natural and just something you will need to deal with. Some coaches do not see the correlation between physical development and success in competition. Don’t be offended. It is changing slowly, but still an issue.

Communication Strategies

Initial Meeting

Don’t approach this meeting with the intention of laying out your philosophy and impressing them with facts they aren’t even sure what they are. Instead, take the time to ask questions about what the sport coaches expectations are. Get them talking as much as you can to get as much information to help your ability to communicate your philosophy over the long term.

Provide the coach your training program.

Be an open book, just don’t give him this initially. Wait until after you are able to gain his ideas and what is important to him/her. Once you know this, make sure that everything is laid out. This will help you if there are any issues later.

Invite them to a session.

Coaches appreciate good coaching. Let them see your passion and the buy in will come more quickly.

Get feedback.

The more consistent feedback you can get the better. Athletes are going to talk to coaches and sport coaches talk to each other. If they are talking about the program and you aren’t aware of the concerns, this could fester. Keep those lines open.

Creating the Culture

Off-Season

No need to justify what you are doing, just outwork everyone. Make sure that athletes are leaving your sessions knowing they are working extremely hard and with purpose. Athletes will not go back to their coach and tell them the workouts are too hard. And the coach will surely not tell you to “take it easy” on his/her players. If they do, you are in the wrong place.

In Season

A few things you must do:

1. Try to eliminate or at least reduce all soreness in athletes. Sport coaches lose confidence in you when their athletes are sore. I realize it gets frustrating when a coach cancels a few sessions and it’s been three weeks since the team lifted. There is no avoiding being sore in this case. But if you can stick with dynamic/olympic lifts, use box squats, reduces eccentric loading, etc, this can help with soreness.

2. Be insanely adaptable. Have a system so that you can quickly adjust on the fly when teams cancel or move practices or when whether is a factor. Instead of having a plethora of workouts for in-season athletes, we would have a standard template and were able to adjust based on the following matrix:

  • Time of day: Separate lifting session, before practice, or after practice.
  • Last Game: Day after game, 2 days after game, etc.
  • Next Game: Day before game, 2 days before game, 3 days before game, etc.

Based on the above information, we were able to eliminate exercises, reduce sets, and change the general order. Using an exercise menu from our pool would help give more options as well.

Team Competitions

This is a great way to get a coach’s buy-in. Sport coaches equate hard work with competition and they will relate more when you have put the athletes in situations to compete. This also gets you to know the players better and allow things to “play out” while you can observe and see the same things your coaches see.

5 Frustrations and How to Deal with Them

I am sure there are more than five things that frustrate strength coaches when they have to deal with the sport coaches. These are some basic rules that may help.

Frustration 1: Using their Program

Nothing is worse than when a sport coaches hands you a program that they want you to use to train their athletes. These programs range from the same program they did when they were in college, to a program their assistant brought with them, to a generic program they got from whatever BCS school wins the most games that year. Here are a few questions to ask the coach. This is a great opportunity to get to know the coach and what exactly they are looking for. It’s important to sound more inquisitive than interrogative.

  • Where did they get it?
  • How long have they used it?
  • Why do they like it?
  • How have they evaluated it?

This will reveal how much the coach really knows about the program. There is an old saying that most coaches know enough to be dangerous. Did they know if it worked or not? Most coaches will give you the “if it ain’t broke…” Well, most coaches who have run their own program may not know if it’s broke or not. The answer to this question is usually a let down.

Make it your own!

If they have given you a program they want you to use, then obviously you are beyond the point of convincing them otherwise. Unless, they really didn’t think you already had a program (could happen, I guess). So take the necessary steps adjust the program.

1. Put their program in your format.

2. Make adjustments based on facility and scheduling.

3. Ask yourself if the coach will really know the difference.

Frustration 2: Schedule Changes

Dear lord, how many times can one team change their schedule? It’s one thing for outdoor sports (specifically baseball and softball) to change lifting days and times due to weather and field conditions. It’s another when indoor sports do it. For some reason basketball seems to be the biggest culprit of cancelling, adding, and rescheduling lifting times. Here are some helpful tips:

Constant Feedback from Coaches and Athletes

Ask questions and don’t assume anything. Anticipate that the schedule will change daily.

Over-Communicate

Daily e-mails or better yet, get out of the office and converse with sport coaches every day. Develop a relationship with the assistants as well.

Adjust on the Fly

One thing that can help is how you organize your workout sheets. Having a basic template for in-season sports and then have the capability for deletions of exercises, adjustments in volume, or choices based on whether the training session is before, after, or at a separate time. Exercise menus work well and this way if a team moves their session, you can make the adjustments without creating another workout card.

Essentials First

Always make sure to address basic strength issues. When in doubt, get stronger. It is the one quality that all other are based on.

Frustration 3: Deleting Exercises

What happens when the coach doesn’t agree with an exercise you are doing or an exercise in general? There is something about this exercise that the sport coach is against. Make sure to ask why the coach does not want it in their program. He/she may have had an athlete injured in the past. Most coaches wont be this involved, but you should be prepared when it does happen.

Make sure you can justify it.

There are certain exercises that you will feel are musts. Make sure you are passionate and say why it is in your program.

Have enough evidence to support it.

You can talk to you are blue in the face about what the studies show. It way just be as easy as saying that X college does it. Regardless, you need to be able to provide facts on why you need to do the exercise. For example, coming up with checkpoints to sell the sport coach on why your athletes squat parallel and its benefits.

Is their a suitable alternative?

If the coach is adamant, than you better be adaptable and come up with a substitution you are happy with. I have had a coach that did not want her athletes doing box jumps. Well, I knew I could figure out about 100 different exercises to develop lower body power. Unless you are one of those coaches that copy everything out of an eBook, you are a professional and you should have an alternative for everything.

Frustration 4: Adding Exercises

The coach wants you to do some exercises that you have never done. They have probably seem them on the Biggest Loser or on ESPN2 and they feel it is the answer to fixing their 500 season. These exercises could range form standing on BOSU balls to exercises that “simulate” the sport. Well, the coach is set on it, so here are some questions that will help implement it.

Is the exercise dangerous?

Any exercise can be dangerous. It may be more than a risk to benefit ratio, but you should have an idea of what exercises are no-nos. This will depend on the situation you are in. I have been in weightrooms that did not have bumpers. We didn’t snatch with a barbell. Just not as safe for my situation. Rope climbs for an example are never a safe idea for athletes. Crossfitters better be good at them because they will be a part of their competition, but having athletes 30 feet in the air is grounds to express your opinion to the sport coach.

Can the exercise be implemented?

Is it even feasible to add the exercise to your program? Do yo even have the capability and equipment to implement the exercise? Explaining your limitations along with the asking the coach to explain the benefits of the exercises will help the coach ask “do we really need this?” Also make sure the coach knows that adding this exercise will eliminate another.

If you have no choice, coach technique and reduce volume.

I had a coach who wanted his athlete performing very high depth jumps regardless of bodyweight. Along with constantly trying to adjust box heights and reduce volume, coaching the athletes on technique was the only thing I had control of. Also, constantly coaching technique in front of the sport coach will also expose any universal technique discrepancy. It will allow everyone to see any flaws based on equipment which will give the coach some awareness of the intention of the exercise.

Frustration 5: Testing

Don’t test athletes just to test them. If there are any assessments or performance tests that you feel you need to do, then my all means. But, when it comes to getting your sport coaches the information or your athlete’s progress, there are a few questions to ask:

What do they want?

Get feedback from coaches on what test number they want.

What will the numbers mean?

Make sure your sport coaches are realistic about their testing numbers. Do they know what a fast 20 yardd time is? What is a good Illinois Agility test number, or a 3 cone test? Is a 100-pound bench press really good for a freshman field hockey player?

When will they need the data?

Most coaches want the results as soon as the test is over. Be realistic with when you can get them the report and make sure you follow through.

What will they do with the data?

Nothing is worse than when you rank your teams by vertical or 30 times and the coaches already knew where their athletes would place. Are coaches looking for progress? If so, are they comparing year to year or just for that cycle? Problem is, you may only have an athlete for an eight week off-season cycle. With in-season, non-traditional seasons, and breaks, most of the training is done while they are playing or outside of your supervision. Make sure that is communicated to the coach when they are looking for yearly improvements.

Alternatives to testing.

Looking at competitive speed groups and adjustable training maxes are just a few ways of looking at evaluating and tracking athletes without taking an entire week for testing. Some sports and their coaches covet these weeks. Others, not. Know the culture of the team and what is really important to the coach.

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About the Author

Mark Watts is the Director of Education at elitefts.com™ and the NSCA Ohio State Director. He is an Adjunct professor in the College of Professional and Applied Studies at Urbana University. Watts has a master's degree in exercise science and health promotion from California University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree in elementary education from Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Mark has been working with college athletes in over 20 different sports at the Division I, II, and III levels for over 15 years as a strength and conditioning coach. Prior to elitefts™, he coached athletes at Denison University, the United States Military Academy at West Point, Allegheny College, and Clarion University. He has also completed strength and conditioning internships at the University of Tulsa and Ohio State University. Mark is certified by the National Strength & Conditioning Association, USA Weightlifting, the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and the Collegiate Strength & Conditioning Coaches Association. He started competing in powerlifting in 1997 and is an amateur Strongman competitor in the master's division. Mark is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is a USMC veteran.