Sets, Reps, and Negligence: How to Be a Safe and Effective High School Strength Coach, Part 2

If you’re just tuning in, make sure to read Part 1 of this 3-part blog series before continuing—you’ll be glad you did!

Mike Nitka, MS, CSCS*D, RSCC*E, FNSCA, Volt Advisory Board Member, and 36-year veteran coach at Muskego High School in Wisconsin shared his wisdom on strength coach liability in a presentation at the NSCA National Convention this year in New Orleans. Coach Nitka has generously let us repurpose his presentation here on the Volt Blog—and Part 2 of this series is dedicated to examining the areas of potential liability in a weight room, and what coaches can do to prevent accidents and litigation.

While every training facility is unique, the NSCA has identified nine areas of potential liability for weight room management. Whether you, like Coach Nitka, run a high school weight room, a college lifting program, or a private facility—these tips are for you.

1. Pre-Participation Screening and Clearance

Liability protection starts before your athletes set foot in your weight room. While it might not sound important, all athletes must first be medically cleared to participate in a weightlifting program. You should know every athlete’s age, height, weight, blood pressure, and more, so that you can design an appropriate program for each student. As of 2009, there are not universally accepted standards for screening participants—which means the strength coach must exercise careful judgement in accepting a bill of health for an athlete. Here’s what to look for.

The strength and conditioning coach must require a signed statement verifying medical proof of clearance to participate in the weight room. This means the athlete must get a physical exam (conducted by an MD, PA, or NP) that includes a comprehensive health and immunization history, an orthopedic exam, and some type of cardiovascular screen.

Image Credit: Coach and Athletic Director

Image Credit: Coach and Athletic Director

Similarly, if an athlete is returning to the weight room from an injury, he or she MUST show proof of medical clearance (from the school ATC, if you have one). This way, the coach can safely modify the athlete’s program to accommodate injury rehabilitation.

The importance of this first step CANNOT be understated. If you don’t know an athlete’s health history, you are compromising their safety in the weight room—and you will be held liable for any accident or injury.

2. Personnel Qualifications

Image Credit: National Strength and Conditioning Association

Image Credit: National Strength and Conditioning Association

Who is running your weight room? Are they knowledgeable about exercise physiology, kinesiology, and biomechanics? Are they experienced at training, spotting, and managing athletes in the weight room? Do they have an appropriate certification or a degree from an accredited college or university? Ensuring athletes are properly supervised during their lifting sessions is paramount to keeping everyone safe—from injury and litigation.

Outside the Muskego High School weight room, Coach Nitka posted a sign: “Athletes and Coaches: a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) must be present during all strength and conditioning sessions. Thank you for following our rules.” (So polite!) While it is not a national requirement that only NSCA-certified CSCS professionals can supervise a weight room, Coach Nitka made that a priority at Muskego. Why? Because he knew the level of education and expertise necessary to get that certification, and therefore trusted that he was hiring the best-prepared personnel for his weight room. By making personnel qualifications a priority for your weight room, you ensure the safety of your program—whether you are physically present or not

3. Program Supervision and Instruction

Did you know that 80% of all court cases concerning strength and conditioning injuries deal with some aspect of supervision? And this goes beyond simply hiring qualified personnel to staff your facility—whether it’s poor facility maintenance, defective equipment, inadequate instruction, or lax supervision, these issues of program supervision mark a trend in litigation. Recognizing the importance of proper supervision, Coach Nitka gives us his Cardinal Rules of Supervision in the Weight Room, that must never, ever be broken:

  • Always be present. Being present goes a long way toward eliminating liability.
  • Be active and hands-on.
  • Be prudent, careful, and prepared.
  • Be qualified (just like in #2—for Coach Nitka, this means possessing a degree in Scientific Foundations or a CSCS certification, in addition to having basic CPR and First Aid training).
  • Be vigilant. Develop a “coaching eye” for potential danger.
  • Inform participants of safety and emergency procedures.
  • Know participants’ health status (just like in #1).
  • Monitor and enforce facility rules and regulations with athletes and coaches—NO EXCUSES.
  • Continually monitor and scrutinize the training equipment.

As you can imagine, scheduling your facility becomes an important factor in ensuring proper supervision and instruction for all student-athletes. In theory, coaches should schedule and distribute activity throughout the day to promote an optional training environment. And while reasonable steps should be taken to make optimal use of staff and facilities, there is always a potential mismatch between services and resources during peak times. Ideally, you will be able to allot 100 square feet of space per individual lifting at any given time, and achieve a proper professional-to-student ratio for supervision (middle school = 1:10, high school = 1:15, college = 1:20). Professional discretion can be used to adjust these guidelines, of course—this is just the best-case scenario.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this section on supervision is this statement to coaches: when your athletes are in the weight room, this is NOT your time to train. Coach Nitka is adamant on this point (highlighting the text in red and underlining on his PowerPoint slide), and for good reason: the moment a coach decides to “get a lift in” with his or her students is the moment proper supervision goes out the window. After all, you can’t spot an athlete on bench when you’re benching yourself. Get your workout in before or after students are using the weight room—not during.

4. Facility and Equipment

The employer (the school, in most cases) and the strength and conditioning staff are jointly responsible for the safety, effectiveness, and efficiency of any weight room program. This includes the organization and upkeep of the training facility and equipment. In some cases, the strength coach will be involved in all phases of the design and layout of the facility (much like Coach Nitka was during his weight room’s remodel), while in other cases, a strength coach will simply assume responsibility over an already existing facility. Regardless of whether you get a say in how your weight room is constructed, there is a lot a strength coach can do to ensure your facility and exercise equipment is safe for all weight room participants.

First, you must establish policies and procedures for the selection, purchase, and repair of exercise equipment. This requires a lot of planning—which is a good thing! Repairs and safety audits should be regularly scheduled, as well as documented and filed for future use. 

Once you’ve established your procedures for maintaining equipment, you must ensure participants know how to use equipment properly. Athletes (and staff) should use equipment only for the purpose intended by the manufacturer. The moment a piece of equipment is used improperly is the moment you become liable for any injury an athlete might incur. Supervision, obviously, goes a long way in helping prevent this, but posting signage (usually provided by the equipment manufacturer) on the equipment also helps cover your bases.

The Takeaway

This post only covers about half of Mike Nitka’s tips on avoiding liability in the weight room. I’m sure by now you can sense a theme: making sure athletes are cleared to work out, properly supervised by qualified staff, and have a safe weight room environment in which to train is key for protecting strength coaches from liability. Stay tuned for Part 3 and the conclusion on our series, where Coach Nitka highlights the remaining rules for weight room safety—helping you (and your athletes) experience a better, safer, and more effective program.

Join hundreds of thousands of coaches and athletes using Volt's intelligent training app. For more information, click here.

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