By Shane Nelson, MS
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the IYCA International Summit in Louisville, Kentucky. To say the very least, it was an incredible experience and one that I’ll remember for a very long time. I was completely blown away by the knowledge of every speaker I was fortunate enough to listen to and their graciousness and willingness to share this knowledge, both on stage and off.
I had a four-and-a-half hour drive home after the event, so needless to say, I had plenty of time for reflection. One of the recurring themes I heard over the weekend from speakers and attendees alike was the fact that, in their opinion, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to gain access to athletes through coaches or school systems in general. This sentiment was repeated more than a few times, and it really struck a chord with me. I knew right away that I wanted to share my own personal experience on this subject and hopefully offer some insight to other sports performance coaches on how to tap into this market.
I am in a unique situation in that I am both a high school strength & conditioning coach and a personal trainer and sports performance coach. So I’ve sat (and continue to sit) on both sides of the fence regarding this very topic. And I can tell you with 100% confidence that it’s not as hard as you’d think to be granted access to these athletes. Will it require some work? Absolutely. But the rewards are large and many.
High school coaches, by their very nature, are protective of their athletes. The last thing they are going to do is turn their players over to someone they don’t know anything about. And why would they? Most of the high school coaches I’ve ever dealt with (especially the “old school” types) see personal trainers and sports performance coaches as individuals who are only in business to make a profit, with little regard for the athletes they work with. What’s more, these same individuals still believe it’s 1985 in terms of training protocols, so the thought process is, “What do these guys know that I don’t?” They are very ignorant of the training modalities of today and the benefits of them. Terms like functional stability, suspension training, corrective exercise, and force-absorption training are foreign to them. They have no comprehension as to the benefits of all of these and the huge difference they can make on the field or court.
So how exactly does a sports performance coach get a foot in the door with a coach or school? Well, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s going to take some work. Here goes…
Barrier #1 – The idea that sports performance coaches are only concerned with making a profit.
Solution – Volunteer your time in some capacity, any capacity, for FREE. Start in the town you live in. If you have children who attend school there, that’s even better. But it’s not necessary. Attend a few varsity football, basketball, or baseball games and take note of what the hometown team is lacking. Is it power? Top-end speed? Lateral speed or the ability to change direction quickly? If you feel that you are in a position to help correct these deficiencies, contact the coach and let him know. A friendly email that begins with something like this may work wonders: “Hi coach, my name is _________, and I’m a performance enhancement coach here in town. I’ve been following this year’s team all season, and I’ve been to every home game. As a trainer, I see a couple things that, if improved, would make a world of difference to the success of the team. I’d love to sit down and speak with you about these if you have time.” The fact that you’ve invested your time watching his team and are now reaching out to assist him with facets of the sport that are beyond his expertise will speak volumes to him.
When he contacts you about this, (if for no other reason than to ask you your thoughts on what you feel his team is lacking) take that time to educate him on how you can assist him in getting his team to the next level. Offer to come in and speak to him or the team about whatever your specialty is (speed training, Olympic lifting, etc.) at no charge. Find out when the football or baseball team (or whatever team you’d like to work with) workouts are held and contact the head coach to see if you can come in during this time to assist. Generally speaking, most of these workouts are held right after school, somewhere between 3:00 and 5:00. If you’re in the business of training kids of this age, you’re probably not very busy during these hours anyway because your client base is in school and then in the weight room. My point is that it’s probably not going to kill your business to spend an hour at your local high school during this time.
Here’s something very important also to consider: There are A LOT of high schools out there that don’t employ strength and conditioning coaches, so usually it’s the head coach of the team who runs the strength training program. This is especially true at the smaller schools out there, those that don’t have the funding in the budget for one. These schools are not fortunate enough to hire someone to run the training programs and thus are the schools and coaches you should seek initially. Here’s why…
One of the reasons the strength & conditioning coaching position was created for me at the high school I work at is because the varsity football coach was getting burned out due to the grind of the football season and then having to be in the weight room the entire off-season. His exact words to me (and I’ve heard similar words from many other coaches) were, “I need a break from the players, and they need a break from me. When they hear the same voice all season long and then again the entire off-season, they begin to tune you out. They need to hear another voice in the weight room.” The problem for the coaches at the smaller schools is that there is no money in the school’s budget to hire someone to run the weight program. These are the coaches who are looking for help. They may not even realize that they are, but I promise you they’ll take it if it’s offered tactfully and with the right motivation. A great time to do this is right after the team’s competitive season draws to a close and off-season training is about to begin. This is how you get your foot in the door.
It is very important, however, that this doesn’t come across as merely a sales pitch. Coaches will be very much on guard, so you have to be sincere in your approach. They need to know that you care about the kids in their program. By donating some of your time at their facility, they will begin to see this. At that point, you can begin to make some suggestions and modifications to the current training program. Give the coach time to see that you have a very specific skill set and you’re using it to make his team better or more competitive. Make him feel like he and his players NEED your help to attain their goals. Once this occurs, you are now in a position to offer “additional” training a couple evenings a week at your facility.
Explain to the coach that this will be when very specific types of training (functional, explosive, speed training, etc.) will take place. The key here is to make sure that this additional training will complement (and not replace) the training that is happening at school. Most coaches want their athletes to train together as a team as often as possible. They don’t like it when select players are missing team workouts because they are training on their own with “personal trainers.” Therefore, offer to train as many of the kids at one time as your facility will allow. This makes it very inexpensive to the kids, enables them to keep training as a team (which coaches love), and makes it profitable for you. If you’ve left a positive impression with the coach, he will most certainly be a sounding board for you and will do everything in his power to make sure his athletes are getting to your facility to train. Before you know it, the football team won’t be the only team training at your facility. The basketball, baseball, soccer, softball, and every other sports team at the local high school will be knocking at your door.
Barrier #2 – Many coaches aren’t in tune with the training modalities of the 21st Century.
Solution – You’d be surprised by the amount of high school coaches out there (especially football) that still operate under the assumption that all you need to do is bench, squat, and power clean to be successful. In their minds, things like power sleds, TRX bands, and medicine balls are nothing more than gimmicks. They need to be educated as to how these devices can be used to make their athletes more explosive and thus better at their sport and position. Coaches also need to be made aware of the concept of muscle imbalances (and the potential injuries as a result of them) and mobility drills and exercises to alleviate them. If you are well-versed in these, you need to get your name out there with these coaches because I’m telling you most of them don’t have a clue about either of these. Once they learn something about these, however, they quickly come to realize the importance of them and will use you as a resource to implement them with their athletes.
This is your chance to make an impression on the coaches at the local high school. When you’ve been granted permission to come in and speak to the coaches and athletes (or better yet work with them a little bit in the weight room), bring some of the tools that you utilize in your facility. Demonstrate a couple drills or exercises that you use and discuss what they do and why they are important to a particular athlete in a particular sport. Take some time to let the athletes perform some of the exercises. This would also be a good time to speak to the coaches and athletes about muscle imbalances and injury prevention. Most coaches and high school athletes aren’t aware of techniques such as foam rolling and mobility drills (and the benefits of each), so a quick tutorial on these two topics will go a long way with both populations.
The bottom line in this discussion is that you can gain access to high school athletes through their coaches with the right approach. For the last two years, we’ve sent several of our football players to an outside facility for this type of training. The biggest reason the head football coach and I agreed to do it is because the owner approached us in the manner I discussed and runs a program that coincides with what we are doing in the weight room. Another major reason I agreed is because, as the strength coach, I am responsible for training athletes on many of our teams. Therefore, I don’t always have the time to dedicate to this type of thing after school. Not to mention the fact that there are restrictions as to the number of contacts a coach can have with players during the week in the off-season.
I hope this article has shed a little light on the mindset of a high school coach. As I said, I sit in an interesting position, as I am a coach, but I’m also a personal trainer. In fact, a facility just opened in my hometown recently, and they’ve asked me to start training athletes there in the evenings. Beginning after our kids return from spring break, they will be training with me at this new facility. And I will be reaching out to other local coaches then as well.
Good luck! If you have any questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.