Sparring with Coaches

Learning to navigate disagreements with sport coaches is an invaluable skill for strength coaches. Here's advice from some who have fought that battle.

By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 11.6, September 2001,

Imagine if Dilbert were a strength and conditioning coach. With all the different bosses Dilbert would have to please, documenting his travails would result in a Sunday comic section delivered by forklift.

Strength and conditioning coaches are faced with the daily reality of answering to a myriad of sport coaches and often it's no laughing matter. "A strength coach is going to deal with about 20 bosses," says Robb Rogers, Associate Strength Coach at Middle Tennessee State University. "You've got the AD and the football coaches--all of them will be your boss because they all lifted weights at some point, which makes them experts. Then you have each sport coach and maybe even the athletic trainer and team physician. So, there might be at least 20 people you have to keep happy."

Dealing with sport coaches doesn't have to be a harrowing ordeal, though. Successful strength and conditioning coaches find a way to handle the different voices and demands within an athletic department. The key is not avoiding these conflicts, but rather resolving them professionally and productively.

"Even if you're not always in agreement, the more communication you can have with the coach, the better," says Tommy Boyer-Kendrick, Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Idaho. "If you have to disagree a little bit to find a common ground, then that's a good thing. If I never had any unpleasant meetings with coaches, we would probably not be doing everything we could to provide the athletes with the best training possible, because it's human nature to not agree on everything."

A Fine Line
Few strength coaches find themselves in a strong enough position to win a toe-to-toe battle with a sport coach, especially those in high-profile sports like football and basketball. "Obviously you have to make sure that what you're doing meets the needs and philosophy of the head coach of that sport, because ultimately they're responsible for the success or failure of that team, and they will be the ones who are ultimately hired and fired based on that," Boyer-Kendrick says.

"You're not there to tell the head coach how to run his team," he continues. "You're there to provide him with scientific expertise, experience in the field, and the ability to train his athletes for what he needs."

For Rogers, it boils down to a simple equation. "If the sport coach, or the position coach in football, is happy, then everybody is happy," he says, "regardless of whether you're doing the right thing, the best thing, a great thing, or a poor thing."

The trick is walking that fine line between providing advice yet not forcing final decisions on every workout. "When you steadfastly believe in something and you know a change needs to happen, it's imperative that you step up and tell the coach that," Boyer-Kendrick says. "You can say, 'I understand what you're saying, Coach, but this is what I believe and this is what I'm seeing.' Any good sport coach is going to value your opinion, assuming you have proven that everything you do is for the betterment of the team and that this isn't something you're trying to do to make yourself look good."

One area where strength coaches should cross that line is safety. Most strength coaches agree that when they see sport coaches prescribing exercises or drills that put athletes in positions where they could get hurt, something must be done. There are several tacks to take when handling these situations.

"I approach the person breaking my rule in a fashion that no one knows this meeting ever took place," says Mike Nitka, Strength Coach at Muskego (Wis.) High School. "I will never embarrass any coach in front of his staff or players. I think that is just terrible. There are times when I might be fuming, but I'll bite my tongue and walk away. Then, when the session is over, I will speak with the coach.

"I will tell the coach that particular activity is dangerous and I will cite as many reasons as he or she needs," Nitka continues. "Then I will ask that we not do it anymore. If at that point the coach says, 'Screw you. It's my team, and I'm doing what I want,' then my next step is to go to my athletic director with a written report. Otherwise, I would not write it up."

Rogers makes a note of any coach ignoring his safety advice. "A sport coach friend of mine told me one time, 'Document, document, document; because the truth undocumented is a lie and anything documented is the truth,'" Rogers says. "So it's important to go back to your office and make a note of the problem and the discussion. Then if a kid comes back and there's something wrong with him and people start getting called on the carpet, you have the documentation."

Boyer-Kendrick suggests getting back-up help. "Sometimes, it might take getting the athletic trainer or the sports medicine doctor involved," he says, "and bringing them along to give you some support in what you're saying. Many times, when the team doctor or head athletic trainer say something, the head coach cannot override them because of the health and liability issues. Fortunately, I've built a rapport with the sports medicine people and they understand that I'm basing everything I do on science."

Be Open
Most sport coaches don't want to risk injury to their players and will quickly eliminate any exercises the strength coach feels are dangerous. But sport coaches may have strongly held beliefs about other aspects of strength and conditioning that might conflict with how you think athletes should be trained for maximum results. This is where most of the day-to-day conflict lies.

"The quantification of measuring if a strength coach is doing a good job is almost impossible," Rogers says. "Strength and conditioning is based on science, but the application of it is an art. And how do you measure art? It's subjective."

As the one with the education and the training, it's natural for the strength coach to feel he or she knows it all, but it's important to keep an open mind and realize your way may not be the only way. "When I was younger and just getting started, I was of the opinion that, 'Hey, I know how to train guys because I have the degrees and I know what's going on,'" Boyer-Kendrick says. "But that was my own enthusiasm overriding my intelligence, and I've learned better than that now. Good strength coaches will take a sport coach's comments to heart, and before just agreeing or disagreeing with that coach, they will sit down and think if that coach's comments make sense."

Simply listening to what coaches say isn't always enough, though. When coaches start talking about programs or regimens they believe in, it's easy to get caught up in countering their statements and miss the other information beyond their words.

"You have to let these guys talk," Nitka says. "Some of them are used to talking and telling, and they're not used to listening. So the good strength coach has to listen very acutely to exactly what the coach is saying and not saying.

"Even if some of these gentlemen are really off base, I will sit there and listen until they're done, while trying to read between the lines and figure out exactly what this coach is telling me," Nitka continues. "Does he like this program because it's short? Does he like it because it's safe? Is it because he understands what it's all about?"

Communicate and Educate
In order to facilitate such communication, it helps to establish a connection with coaches before the disagreements pop up. "The big thing is to develop a relationship and rapport with them," Rogers says. "You have to hang out with them. The best guys I've seen will sit down and say, 'How are you doing? What's going on? Did you see that thing in the paper?' Spend five or 10 minutes, have a cup of coffee, hang out, and leave. Then you're having a relationship with a person rather than a position."

As that relationship develops, add some education. "Half the job is being a teacher and winning people over," says Paul Jensen, Strength and Conditioning Coach at Siena College. "Once you win people over and they have a good understanding of what you're trying to accomplish, then you can really have some fun."

Boyer-Kendrick recently worked with a new sport coach who had little exposure to strength training before coming to Idaho. When the coach came to the weight room to watch her team work out, he made a special effort to explain the exercises they were doing.

"Over the next few months, she developed an understanding of what we were doing and why it would be effective," Boyer-Kendrick says. "Now, she thinks everything I do is wonderful. That just shows what can happen if you're humble enough to educate the coach about what you're doing, and in a way where you're not telling them this is the only way to do it."

Jensen takes a similar approach. "I'll make it as simple as I can and try to break it down so they can understand," he says. "For example, I'll tell them that when you lift weights on machines, you're isolating muscles, which puts a lot of force on those muscles to make them bigger and stronger. But, when you keep making the bigger muscles stronger, you're ignoring the smaller muscles that are really important for stabilizing joints and preventing injuries. That's the same thing as sticking a big engine in a small car. You're real good when you're going straight, but as soon as the road bends you have some problems.

"Or I'll tell them the body is like a bicycle wheel," Jensen continues. "You want to tighten the loose spokes and loosen the tight ones. If you have tight muscles and loose ones, it's the same thing. But when you're lifting weights, the tight muscles just get tighter and tighter, and then you have a big muscle imbalance, and that just leads to injury."

Along with being a teacher, be sure to educate yourself about the sport before talking with the coach. "If you talk football to a baseball coach," Rogers says, "he's going to turn you right off."

"You have to understand what that sport is all about muscularly and metabolically," Nitka says. "If you go in there and you really haven't done your homework and the coach shoots you out of the water, any credibility you may have developed is lost."

While some of these techniques can get a message through to a sport coach, in the end, a good relationship with a sport coach comes down to trust. And there are no short cuts to establishing trust.

"Ultimately, the head coach has to trust you not only as an individual, but also as a professional," Boyer-Kendrick says. "Trust is built upon that daily working relationship--what they see in you every day and what the players see in you every day. The coaches are looking at the players and asking themselves, 'Do those players trust this guy? Do they feel this strength coach is making them the best athlete they can be?' And if that is happening, generally you'll see a trend where this coach will accept almost anything you throw out there."

Problem Coaches
Just as Dilbert has his pointy-haired boss, strength coaches will usually have at least one sport coach who will hold firm in his or her position, no matter how much communicating and educating you do. And there's often little a strength coach can do, except defer to the sport coach's authority, as long as what the sport coach is doing won't put anyone in physical danger.

"It would be very hard for me to stand there and tell a coach who has had 20 wins for the each of last nine years, 'Here's how you should do it,'" Boyer-Kendrick says. "That would be very naive on my part, not to mention stupid. Because he has had success and part of that success includes his strength and conditioning program. Besides, you never know, he might have more success with his program than he would doing it my way.

"So, sometimes, you just have to tuck your tail, swallow your pride pill for a little while and allow that coach to do what he or she feels is best for the team," he continues. "But you should also continue to offer your support."

This provides an opportunity for the sport coaches to hold on to their programs while at the time showing them the value of yours. "We'll usually come to a treaty," Jensen says. "We'll include things for each other in the program. I'll say, 'If you're going to include that one, let me do this one,' and we'll usually reach an agreement that way."

That support does not always have to mean a personal commitment, if you're fortunate enough to have staff you can pass the sport on to. Rogers did just that after one of his sport coaches ignored any suggestions for modifying the program he brought from another school, which had enjoyed much on-field success.

"I looked it over and it was straight power lifting," Rogers says. "And when I asked him if he had won because of this workout or in spite of it--simply because he had some great athletes--he looked at me like I had horns growing out of my head. The next day, I walked into my office and the same workout was on my desk--all the lifts, same reps, everything. So I simply figured if he doesn't want to do what I think is best, that's fine. I turned it over to a graduate assistant and didn't deal with that sport any more."

As a strength and conditioning professional, you will encounter similar situations where a sport coach is unreasonable. You will also face situations where you must answer to multiple sport coaches. Before you resign yourself to life with Dilbert and his Sunday-morning struggles, remember some important concepts for managing your relationship with sport coaches.

First and foremost, strive to elevate your relationship to one of mutual respect. Listen to them, learn their language, ascertain their concerns, and understand their sport. Work to educate them about how your expertise can enhance the health and effectiveness of their programs. This groundwork will help resolve the inevitable conflicts in a professional and productive manner.