| Observations of High School Strength Coach: Year 1

Author / John

Observation is a powerful tool for a strength and conditioning coach to gain experience at any level or years in the game.  Personally, simple observations have yielded countless lessons: seeing the extremes of the talent bell curve manning the clipboard under the high noon, 110 degree turf of DKR stadium, recognizing emotional investment of athletes of different years in school, ranks on the team, scholarship vs non-scholarship, and men vs women on the Hilltop.  And more recently, getting reverse observed when the Ruiz would be hiding somewhere in the AXIS jungle noting how I would lead (or not-lead!) when training was scheduled to begin and he was ‘not there’.

High-School-Football-Strength-Training-Power-AthleteMy latest coaching travels led me to a high school that had never employed an S&C coach.  This presented a unique challenge.  Taking the position many of the Power Athlete clientele face each day, this was a perfect opportunity to solve common issues of implementation, coaching/time barriers, and building a strength program from scratch.

The opportunity to introduce high schoolers to the weight room for the first time has been irreplaceable in my strength and conditioning journey.  This article will present observations I made in this first year, and how to use these to empower your athletes towards their training goals.

Attitude – Be the Thermostat of Weight Room

Kids these days.  Maybe too many hugs when they were young from mommy.  Not enough red meat.  Almond milk(?).  Guys only date one girl at a time now instead of two or three.  Too much money has these kids drinking top shelf beers instead of cowboy cold Lonestar.  Too many buttons on the video game controllers. Whatever it is, something has a lot of high school athletes thinking they are owed something, and they’ve lost the rambunctious, reckless, ‘die for a win’ attitude that was rampant in Katy, Texas (enter your hometown here, coach) in the early 2000’s (or whenever you played ball).

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All soapboxing aside, the biggest observation I’ve made this school year is that these kids do not know how to get excited!  Whether it’s big lifts, big hits, big…anything, the energy and attitude in the weight room, practice, and even the games was depressing me!

The strength coach is the thermostat for the team, not the music!  This means energy, discipline, positivity, shit-talking, and calling out effort and quitters!  A range is necessary to apply the appropriate lesson or spark.  A coach that only has one temperature, whether it’s too positive or too much of an asshole, will limit the buy-in.  You can be the greatest programmer in the world, but without buy-in, your athletes are just exercising.

How does one change the culture and attitude of a whole athletic program? Be the temperature you want to see in the weight room. For example, the inner hype-man made a lot of appearances daily, and, when the energy or expectation wasn’t matched, shut it down and sent them home.  This made the kids that had the itch learn to match the energy level, which gradually infected the others.

Base Level of Strength – Better Than Christmas

The greatest gift you will ever give these kids is what we call a Base Level of Strength.  Its optimal packaging? The CrossFit Football Amateur Progression.  The program focuses on accelerated adaptation while allowing athletes to train or practice the next day. Reasons to implement this progression day one of starting a program are endless, not only for the athlete’s development, but also for your development as a strength coach.  Check out previous articles for details regarding building armor, swagger, and introducing performance pressures the athletes need to be ready for.

Power-Athlete-High-School-FootballThe Base Level of Strength is earned through consistency and staying the prescribed course.  Driven over a 12-20 week period, this adaptation builds a strength level that will never go away.  Once established, an athlete who returns from injury, or spends some time away from their training will be able to return to this level much quicker than it was earned- typically 4-6 weeks.

Built into the Amateur Progression is a foundational component on which their athletic success depends: coordination.  Often referred to as ‘5×5 island’, the consistent reps allow each athlete to pass through phases of inter-and intramuscular coordination, allowing for dramatic strength and speed increases.  The invaluable knowledge of ones body through space improves daily with consistent load increases on the bar and subsequent gainzz on the bones.

But you only get one shot at this. DO NOT deprive the kids of this single opportunity by applying %’s based off bullshit 1RM’s or what your ole ball coach made you do in high school!

Chunk It Up

Dan Coyle has a perfect analogy for navigating Primal Movements; it is like you exploring a dark and unfamiliar room.  You take your time, bump into stuff, stop, think, and give it another go.  As Coyle put it in The Talent Code, “Slowly, and a little painfully, you explore the space over and over, attending to errors, extending your reach into the room a little further each time, building a mental map until you can move through it quickly and intuitively.”

First, demonstrate each Primal Movement and deliver the execution expectations looking at the task as a whole.  If you cannot demo the movements well enough yourself, pull up the Field Strong demos and watch the PAHQ athletes move seemlessly and effortlessly through each.

Power-Athlete-Primal-MovementsSecond, break the Primals into the smallest possible chunks and consistently train each during the training session.  This is where the warm ups are an incredible teaching tool.  The Dead bug, Spiderman, See Saw Walk, everything really, is a primal movement broken down, so start with the basic progressions (discussed at the CrossFit Football seminar) and progress through each as your athlete’s ability increases.

Third, put the bar on their back or in their hands and have them solve a problem with their bodies.  The chunks are mastered on the floor, then pieced together in the Primal Movements.  We want the athletes to make these connections with their bodies.  Play with movement timing, but slow or fast, always focus on posture and position.

Direction- Empower Their Future

Every Thanksgiving, the glory day win margins get bigger and the Turkey Bowl gets shorter, yet the game always ends with, “If only I had (certain training tool, knowledge) when I was in HS, we would have won state!” Uncle Rico, you can’t go back, so live vicariously through them and empower these kids to win state.  And move on from your small town flashbacks.

Nana McQuilkin used to say, “It’s not about perfection, it’s about connection.”  She wasn’t talking about the athletic position, so I’m going to allow some sentimental wiggle room with her words. I have been known to take my job too seriously, and have learned throughout the school year that not every SeeSaw walk is a life or death situation.  There needs to be a balance and understanding between execution expectations and constant effort from the team.  The worst thing you can do is make them hate training.  The weight room provides so much development well beyond biceps.  Do not take this away from them because you’re an asshole every warm up.

High-School-Weightroom-Power-AthleteWe can rag on this generation, but the majority are good kids and have the same goals we had at their age.  The weight room is your opportunity to provide honest direction for what they’ll need to be successful at the next level.  A connection with the athlete and a range from you is required.  Not all athletes will need the same kick in the ass.

The non-punctuals and time management kids will be the most obvious.  While I started with an alienation and shared suffering strategy, this created other problems affecting the performance of the team as whole.  I approached each individually, and instead of punishing them, I challenged them.  Identify the barriers and bullshit, and make them be honest with themselves.

Social intelligence and an individuals ability to work towards common goals, regardless of background or social circles is a lesson every kid needs to learn in high school.  College and after, they may work with individuals they cannot connect with.  Guess what?  The head coach or boss don’t give a shit.  If the group expectation is not met, you’re either benched or fired.  Let the kids fight it out and learn to work through frustrations with blood, sweat, and tears in the weight room and on the field.  Winning works wonders too.

High-School-Weight-Lifting-Power-AthleteConsistency: Sum of the Parts.
A good friend of mine played rugby in college and worked construction in the Summer.  A club athlete, he was offered no off season condo program.  Didn’t matter, the consistent full body manual labor was all he needed.  The work wasn’t the only thing that was consistent.  Without fail, the whistle blows at 7 am and lunch is at 12 pm.  You see the same rambunctious fools busting each others balls and getting the job done every damn day.  The reason he stuck with the job all four years was quite poetic, “Show everyday at 6am, bust your ass with your boys, and in 3 months you can step back and gaze at the masterpiece your time and work built.”  Sum of the Parts.

Show them consistency is key for success not only in the weight room and on the field, but also in the classroom and life.  Unlike a daily mirror gaze, their play on the field and the bathroom scale will show them what consistency within the Amateur Progression has built.

Reputation > Twitter.
No one cares about the opinion of a 14-22 year old.  Do not let one tweet, post, scram, or snapchat ruin your life.  Unfortunately, this is not common sense for these kids.  If you can’t tell Nana McQuilkin, safe to say you shouldn’t tell the rest of the world.  Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for us to hear of a young athlete’s words or images have affected another person or group.  Whether a classmate, someone of the opposite sex, or stance on a current issue, it best they keep their opinion to themselves.  One tweet is not worth losing a scholarship over.


These are just a handful of the observations and decisions I made my first year with this program.  It’s a long road, vision and culture do not come easy, and for an hour a day I can bring attitude, strength, athletic improvement, direction into these kids lives.  Their performance will be empowered well beyond the handful of games they play each year.

Thank you for reading.  Please share your observations, frustrations, or anything you have faced in your coaching experience with this population!


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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.


  1. BarbarianBlake on April 13, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    Thanks for sharing this Tex. I’ve also experienced the unexcited nature of the kids these days. Many a time out on the gridiron this past season there would be a kid make a good play during practice and I’d be the only one to go over get hype with the kid. My head coach hated it to and would call them out on it frequently.

    • Tex McQuilkin on April 17, 2015 at 12:53 pm

      That’s crazy the coach doesn’t want the kids to get excited during practice or games. Does he in turn get mad for them for not putting in effort or playing with heart when down a score or two. Maybe there is a sense of lack of control when the team gets rowdy. Have you brought this up in team meetings?

  2. slezak on April 13, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    Yep, I dig this. I look back and I will never forget my football coach, Coach Herman. The man got us into the weight room and developed my interest in training, most importantly though he took the time to connect with us and if we were interested in the weight room he would help us with form and learning new things.

    As for the unexcited nature, that is a tough cookie. I believe that every young kid has “primal instincts” and wants to yell/scream/shout, unfortunately they may not know how to channel the energy or feel uncomfortable doing it because they’ve been sat down in front of a computer screen and told to sit down and shut up. I remember my days in the Boy Scouts, you get some pretty soft/sheltered kids out there. But at summer camp kids would start off quite and soft but we couldn’t break until everyone was all hyped up and excited. Ex: Which troop had the loudest chant got to get first inline for meal. I thought of the underlying concepts, what got people excited? What chants could I use to get the blood flowing? While doing burpees they couldn’t count loud enough or together, so I would yell louder than them, when they got it right we went up a number “2,2,2,2,3,3,4,5,6”. Sure enough, they were all screaming to the top of their lungs. I was smiling from ear to ear and so were some of the kids. Lastly, I threw in some more friendly competition. What is more primal than wrestling between rotations of conditioning? Not only is it a great workout, but I’m slapping the mat, hollering, and the other kids fall in line with it. I call one person out in the beginning, then they choose their opponent. Winner gets to call out the next fighter, who will then choose his opponent. The kids, from what I can tell, don’t want the easy target, and they have a sense of pride. Even the softest kid in my group put up a fight, I could put a raw egg strapped to chest and it wouldn’t have cracked, but he was not about to loose. Patty cake and bear hugs may not be wrestling to some, but he got excited about it.

    Back to working on Uncle Sam’s pay check…

  3. Chris Longo on April 14, 2015 at 6:39 am

    Well written Tex. Sum of the Parts has been huge for our young athletes. The thing we often struggle with is the balance between positivity and ass kicking. This generation walks a thin line, as you said, of entitlement.
    That being said, I’ll keep this article in my back pocket for July when our sport specific program is in full swing. Thanks man.

    • Tex McQuilkin on April 17, 2015 at 12:56 pm

      Ha, I have crossed that fine line a few times this year. One kid went to get chalk for a med ball plyos and I let him know real quick how I felt about that. Coach in control of their emotions is always in control.

  4. Eric Gough on April 15, 2015 at 7:21 am

    Good points Tex. I’m in my 8th year as a HS weight room teacher. Once had a transfer kid get all jacked up & loud while spotting for another & the whole place went quiet…sad. I do my best to be loud & encouraging, but it is a new era I guess. Sad thing is kids still get the idea that long sessions of slow lifts is the way to go–our summer FB strength program pushes that. I try to speed things up, but there’s always pushback. A work in progress for sure.

    • Tex McQuilkin on April 17, 2015 at 12:59 pm

      Share this article with those coaches and have a constructive conversation about it. Applying a program is one thing, getting investment from the kids is another. Keep coming back here or the forums with how this goes down.

  5. anthonyt on April 15, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    Awesome stuff. I help out the towns football team in the weight room a couple days a week in hopes to spread the excited AND life lessons learned. Unfortunately, many schools do not have the money to hire a S&C coaching so they hire a clueless coach to run the weight room.. it infuriates me. It is something that definitely drives me when Im available to help these athletes. What I have found though, if you give them the tools to become strong, fast, and jacked they love it! On another note… I first started with Zach Even Esh in his Edison gym 7 years ago and saw the benefits then and now in athletics… also in life. Training high school athletes is not always about the numbers which is hard to see for some coaches.

    • Tex McQuilkin on April 17, 2015 at 1:02 pm

      Iron Sharpens Iron, so one man sharpens another. Endless life lessons to be learned in the weight room. Zach is an awesome person to talk with about developing toughness in kids. Be sure to check out episode 101 of the podcast and we have some great topics on this. Keep up with the good work in the weight room and hopefully they’ll see the value in the investment you’re giving the team.

  6. Nick on April 16, 2015 at 10:59 am

    Good read and I agree with it all. Have been a strength coach for a few years and just started my first gig as a HFC. After meeting the kids, I figured I had point A as a starting point. After a couple sessions in the weight to observe and see where we were at as a whole, I realized we are way behind point A. The program hasn’t been successful except for a year or two sprinkled in here or there. So all of this plane of motion work and movement is a building phase. It will help the varsity kids to an extent, but I am looking at as building for the future with the younger kids. All of our clean work is mostly from that power position or hang. Haven’t developed the movements down well enough to work from the floor. We also split the kids up into two group: fr/so & varsity kids. We do have some kids that know what they’re doing to an extent. One of the other factors is training my staff on technique and getting them to be actively present and not just watching and talking. If kids see you care and are committed, they will buy in as well.

    Now if I can only get the PE dept and other teams to clean up after themselves or learn how to stack a weight tree. All of my drawings on the white board haven’t worked out as well as I had hoped!

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