Sets, Reps, and Negligence: How to Be a Safe and Effective High School Strength Coach, Part 1

Coach Mike Nitka, MS, CSCS*D, RSCC*E, FNSCA, USAW, and member of the Volt Advisory Board gave a lecture at this year's NSCA National Conference in New Orleans. We were SO impressed by his presentation that we asked Coach if we could repurpose it for the Volt blog! In this exclusive 3-part series, I'll be sharing Coach Nitka's advice on weight room management, safety, and how strength coaches can protect themselves from liability and accidents in the weight room. Huge thanks to Coach Nitka for his willingness to continue donating his expertise to benefit coaches across the country!

"Sets, Reps, and Negligence: The Responsibilities of the Scholastic Coach"

Mike Nitka is the kind of coach every parent of a high schooler dreams of. Sitting in the auditorium listening to his presentation on "Sets, Reps, and Negligence," I jotted down my first impressions of Coach as a public speaker: "Patient. Firm. Kind. Honest. Tough Love. No-Nonsense.”

Coach Nitka is a veteran strength coach, loving husband and father, and a living legend in the industry. After dedicating 35 years to running the weight room at Muskego High School in Muskego, Wisconsin, this “retired” coach has turned his attention from high school athletes to novice strength coaches, and continues to educate in his kind, gentle, no-nonsense manner. His passion: safety in the weight room. Like I said, every parent’s dream coach! 

And just to give some context for Coach Nitka's impact as an effective educator, here are photos of his weight room at Muskego before and after renovation:

Muskego High School weight room before...

Muskego High School weight room before...

...and after! Muskego's new weight room has 30 pieces of cardio equipment, 15 circuit-training stations, 6 squat racks, 6 platforms, and 6 benches - and is used by 7 P.E. classes and multiple after-school groups every day. The weight room is organized with, Coach Nitka says, "surgical precision."

...and after! Muskego's new weight room has 30 pieces of cardio equipment, 15 circuit-training stations, 6 squat racks, 6 platforms, and 6 benches - and is used by 7 P.E. classes and multiple after-school groups every day. The weight room is organized with, Coach Nitka says, "surgical precision."

Do No Harm

If you’re a new strength coach, chances are your first weight room doesn’t look like this. But when you devote 35 years to the same school, building your program from the ground-up and impacting thousands of young athletes along the way, you earn a few things. In Coach Nitka’s case, it was a complete weight room makeover, built to Coach’s exact specifications. But you don’t earn something like this overnight: you earn it through years of high standards and excellence. Now, Coach Nitka shares his advice about how to run an excellent weight room.

The #1 rule in any weight room? First, Do No Harm. Sound familiar? It’s part of the hippocratic oath that all medical practitioners take before seeing patients - and it says a lot about how Coach Nitka views the strength coach profession. "'Do No Harm' simply means I will never injure somebody's kid," says Coach. And after training over 10,000 high school kids over his career, he takes this rule quite seriously. The rule itself is actually very simple: it's a promise to uphold standards. Standards of safety, teacher conduct, athlete conduct, cleanliness, and more. "Do No Harm" guided Coach Nitka when creating his 4-year strength program, designed to develop long-term athleticism in kids over 4 years of high school. A new weight room doesn't happen overnight - it's a slow play. A safe play.

The new Muskego weight room is all about organization. Students pick up their program in the hall, slap the "Train Like a Champion" sign above the door, and check in at the front desk before training. The weight room also contains 4 video cameras to ensure athlete safety (and protect the strength coach from liability) at all times.

The new Muskego weight room is all about organization. Students pick up their program in the hall, slap the "Train Like a Champion" sign above the door, and check in at the front desk before training. The weight room also contains 4 video cameras to ensure athlete safety (and protect the strength coach from liability) at all times.

Working with high school-age kids in a room filled with heavy equipment can potentially be dangerous - but it doesn’t have to be, not with the right mindset. Coaches, let this #1 rule inform every decision you make in your weight room, because when everything you do is about athlete safety, a lot of things become clear.



Rules for the Strength Coach

The weight room, says Coach Nitka, can be a really safe place - as long as everybody knows the rules:

1. Inform participants and their guardians of the risks involved with strength training.

This will include having athletes sign an Assumption of Risk form. Students must participate voluntarily in a weight training program - this is for their physical safety as much as it is for the liability of the strength coach. All athletes that enter the weight room must be informed of the risks involved in strength training. Anyone who has not signed their form, does not enter Coach Nitka’s weight room.

2. Be aware of the strength coach’s Responsibility, Duty, and Obligation to weight room participants.

If this sounds jargon-y, that’s because it is: Coach Nitka pulls a lot of his phrasing from the legal terminology around issues of liability. And coaches should be “reasonable and prudent,” more legal phrasing - meaning coaches must take reasonable (fair, sensible) steps to preventing weight room injury, and act prudently (with care) if/when an injury does occur.

3. Implement a Standard of Care for participants.

Accidents happen in the weight room all the time. Many of them are preventable - but some are not. If or when an injury does occur, coaches should ask themselves, “What would a reasonable and prudent person do under similar circumstances?”

These rules also emphasize the importance of inter-departmental communication. Reviewing other S&C coaches' training programs and keeping all staff in the loop regarding situations involving athlete safety is crucial for maintaining high weight room standards.

NSCA Standards and the Strength of America Award

What is the very best way a strength coach can ensure safety in the weight room and uphold that #1 rule, Do No Harm? Coach Nitka says it’s all about competence. The strength coach profession combines many disciplines: sport/exercise science, organization and administration, management, and, of course, coaching. To become competent in all these disciplines, Coach recommends all coaches achieve CSCS certification through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. 

The scope of practice for the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist includes two main categories, Scientific Foundations and Practical/Applied science. Topics like anatomy, exercise physiology, biomechanics, nutrition, program design, exercise technique, organization/administration, and testing and evaluation all fall under the scope of the certification. Getting your CSCS is the best way to both ensure your weight room is being run safely and protect yourself against liability.



To take high school weight room safety to the next level, Coach Nitka implemented the Strength of America award in partnership with the NSCA and the President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. This award is given to high school weight rooms that meet a minimum of 90 points in the following categories: Supervision, Education, Program, and Facility. This certification is a public way of letting parents and students know that the coaching staff takes weight room safety and management seriously, and can help you earn clout with school administration (which, as Coach Nitka demonstrated with his weight room makeover, can pay off in the long run!).

You can find more information about the Strength of America Award on the NSCA's website here.

The Takeaway

Click the button below to read Part 2 of Coach Nitka's Presentation, where he breaks down areas of liability for the high school strength coach - as well as the steps you can take to reduce your risk of injuries, accidents, and potential litigation.

 

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Christye Estes, CSCS, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is an NSCA-certified strength coach and a Sport Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye