Coaching Philosophy: Advice from the NSCA on Strength Training for High School Athletes

About the Author: Adam Reed is the associate editor of AFCA Magazine. The American Football Coaches Association is the only national organization dedicated to improving football coaches through ongoing education, interaction, and networking. The AFCA and Hammer Strength have teamed up to provide insights into the coaching profession, elite athletic programs, and more.

Scott Caulfield from NSCAWhen dealing with young athletes in a training environment, Scott Caulfield, head strength and conditioning coach for the National Strength and Conditioning Association (Colorado Springs, Colo.), warns not to see people in their early teens as “miniature adults,” but to see them as children. And, children need structure.

Caulfield says it’s imperative strength coaches of young athletes have a detailed, specific plan to every session they lead. This involves writing down the exact movements and lifts you want to accomplish, and the amount of time to spend on each.

“If you don’t set a time limit, you’re going to get caught in the weeds on some of this stuff,” he says while adding individual sports coaches seem to do a great job with pre-organization, and strength and conditioning coaches need to do the same. “Writing down that plan is one of the most important things you’ll do.”

Once you get players in your weight room, no matter how big or mature a young athlete seems, that person still needs to be taught the proper mechanics and movements. And, patience is key.

“They should not sacrifice load for technique, so lifting maximal weight with poor form should always be avoided no matter what the movement,” Caulfield cautions. “Also, young athletes should not be trained beyond the point of physiological benefit (never to the point of throwing up) and never using exercise as punishment.”

Sticking to the basics is what’s going to work, and what’s going to establish a long career of proper training.Hammer Strength Rack at NSCA

“With children and adolescents, you should work on developing fundamental motor skills and foundational muscular strength using a variety of training methods such as strength training, plyometrics (such as jumps and hops), speed training and agility training,” he says. “The development of these motor skills and strength are also key to reducing injury in team sports, recreational activity and even free play.”

When it comes to motivation and engagement with youth athletes, Caulfield says strength and conditioning coaches must make the workouts fun and challenging, which encourages early teenagers wanting to come back day after day. He does this by having athletes focus on their individual drill sets but with a competitive, team aspect as part of the challenge. This way, even those new, underdeveloped athletes still can contribute and compete in the weight-room setting.

“You want to design programs on young athletes’ individual needs,” he explains. “The more you can engage them and make it enjoyable, the better chance you’ll have getting them to be interested and see improvements.”

But, once you start seeing improvements, don’t be too quick to ramp up the load. As eager as you may be, and as much as they may want to advance rapidly, safety and erring on the side of caution are critical at this age. Again, don’t mistake physical maturity for mental maturity.

“When they can listen to your directions, pay attention to details and perform movements with excellent form and under controlled tempos, then increasing resistance gradually at 5 to 10 percent (on most exercises) is a safe progression.”

This also is the reason why Caulfield isn’t fixated on goal-setting in younger athletes. It’s more important to get them interested in the proper way to train, he says, rather than hitting specific number marks.

“The main goal of strength training for younger athletes should be learning perfect lifting technique and to keep in mind the cliché, ‘practice doesn’t make perfect but perfect practice makes perfect.’”

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