Most coaches in the sporting world agree that weight training offers massive benefits to athletes.
However, from the perspective of a young athlete stepping into the weight room for the first time, it can be difficult to accept the type of commitment it will take to see the benefits of strength training. To be fair, from an athlete’s point of view, it makes sense!
Putting a metal bar in your hands or on your back, then moving it up and down doesn't seem like something that would naturally make you better at putting an orange ball in an orange hoop, or be able to move through the water faster or more efficiently.
Not only do weightlifting movements appear intimidating to athletes, but they are often challenging to perform.
Take an RDL for example, a seemingly simple movement, from the eyes of a total novice:
You have to hold a metal bar, move it from top to bottom, and you can’t just “lean over” and fold like a lawn chair. You have to flex one muscle group, reach another, and repeat...multiple times. Then, once the training session is complete, the immediate effects aren't necessarily enjoyable (or noticeable). In a time where instant gratification is king, coaches have to emphasize the benefits of a painful activity that doesn’t have instant results.
As an athlete, you did what your coach asked by performing the awkward movements in a training session and then (for the next few minutes to the next few days afterward), you are sore, tired, and likely don’t feel athletic. To be blunt, you’re likely miserable.
To cap it off, after the initial soreness wears off, a similar training session comes around and it gets a little harder: a few more pounds if warranted, or a few more reps.
As an athlete, the last time you did this it didn't feel great and now you have to make it harder? This is, seemingly, insanity.
“Selling” Athletes on the Benefits of Training
Anyone who has taken the plunge into strength training — as either a coach or an athlete — knows the reason for this madness is that, in terms of improving athletic performance, it actually works. While the science says that adherence to a consistent weight training program will make you jump higher, run faster, and be more resilient against injury — throwing a few research articles at an athlete won't necessarily convince them to start tossing around weights.
From an athlete’s perspective, it doesn’t seem very logical to do something that appears nothing like your sport, makes you sore or tired, and just gets harder. How likely is it for a young athlete experiencing these symptoms to continue to subject themselves to this "torture" on their own?
In short, training is hard and it’s not likely that athletes are going to buy-in on their own. It's also not their fault if they don't choose to train without ever having a coach sell them on the benefits.
So, how does one sell a young athlete on the journey (and benefits) of training?
The first step is for a coach to convince, or "sell," athletes on the idea that they can not only be better at their sport, but a better version of themselves. Training, whether some people realize it or not, has a lot of life parallels:
Doing something you've never done before is scary, and takes courage.
Doing something when you don't want to do it takes gumption.
And pushing teammates to stay the course in their own training when they don't feel like it takes leadership.
The very first time a coach introduces the concept of training to an athlete, the coach should not only discuss what training can do for them, but also what it cannot. Training will not throw off your shot, make you slower, or bulkier from merely touching a metal weight and for most groups of athletes it’s important to speak to that directly and "get out in front of it." The message, in summary, is this…
“We are going to weight train in order to help you become a better athlete and a better version of yourself. It is going to be awkward and uncomfortable at first, but give me a few weeks and I'll prove it."
Setting Expectations: A Program’s Weight Room & Athletes Situation
In addition, making an initial pitch to athletes can be even tougher when you factor in a program's situation. Every athletic program is different, and some programs have more resources than others. Not every school has a dedicated strength coach or coordinator. Not every program has the ability to get in a weight room with a structured setting. Some schools don't even have a weight room!
That's why the message has to be clear and succinct, because training can mean you are going to have structured time in a weight room with a team, and it may also mean that athletes have to find time on their own at a local gym, or do push-ups at home.
Regardless of your setting or situation, if you sold the idea of training to your athletes, it's now on you, the coach, to set expectations, as well as prove that it works.
If it's possible within the program, set up some initial testing based on your sport, setting, or feasibility. It could be a vertical jump, broad jump, or even a push-up test. These are merely examples, but they are easy to implement and an easy connection for an athlete to make for their sport.
Now, in order to actually see improvement on those tests, as well as in their ongoing sports practices/games, the most important part is setting expectations for training.
If you have the ability to be in the weight room as part of a structured setting as a coach, or with a strength and conditioning coach, set up a consistent time for everyone to make training. Whether it's before, during, or after school, if you can set up a structured time for a team or individual to make training happen, that's ideal.
Training as a team offers a multitude of benefits. It allows everyone to take part in a shared challenge, which fosters bonding and unity. Challenge is relative to each athlete, and being able to see your teammates conquer obstacles fuels momentum for others to do the same. It also sets an even playing field for everyone to hold each other accountable to do the work. Finally, it allows coaches to know which of their athletes to push, and which ones need to be pulled.
However, a lot of coaches work with athletes that don't have reliable transportation, have jobs outside of school/practice, or have to train elsewhere outside of the school because a weight room isn't available. It’s a tough reality but one many athletes struggle with. For athletes in that situation, a coach should level set to see what is and isn't realistic for them. If push-ups and planks are the only options available, then set up a plan of attack around those options that makes sense. If juggling a job, school, and practice is too much, potentially set expectations elsewhere to make sure they are able to make the most out of their situation.
Once expectations have been set, test again. It shouldn't take a ton of time or equipment, but testing allows athletes who have been putting in work to shine, and see the fruits of their labor. It also allows those who haven't been training, to see everyone's progress.
Selling athletes on the benefits of training never stops. It starts the first time an athlete enters a program and continues until they move on to their next endeavor.
Not every school finds itself in the same scenario, and some programs are better off when it comes to equipment and resources than others. Regardless of a school’s (or team’s) situation, the crux of the matter is this:
You can have the best program in the world for your situation, but it won't work if athletes don't believe in the training or consistently adhere to it.
Ultimately it comes down to the coach to build interest and frame expectations for young athletes, as well as make training a consistent option to commit to. From there, coaches will see their athletes succeed both on the court, pool, field and in the weight room.
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Follow Coach Marhanka on Twitter @AMarhanka