10 Lessons Learned from a College Strength Coach

When it comes to high school, collegiate, and professional level strength and conditioning, there’s always a constant goal in mind; improve athletes in the best, safest, and quickest means possible. One of the hardest parts of becoming a strength and conditioning professional at these levels is developing your training style and voice. In most cases, the only only way to do this is by experience and lessons you learn along the way.

To help provide guidance, I reached out to a young strength professional who’s worked with college and professional level teams. John Larson is an M.S. Candidate, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), and USAW Sports Performance Coach.

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Image from @newyork_citystrong Instagram page 

Larson attended Hofstra to finish his M.S. in Sports Sceince while working as a volunteer intern coach at West Point. After Army, Larson went to The University of Alabama to work as a  volunteer graduate assistant coach and finish his Master’s. Post Alabama, Larson got hired as an assistant Sports Performance Coach for The St. Louis Cardinals. Larson left the Cardinals and worked as Manhattan College’s Director of Sports Performance for a year. Currently, Larson is working as a Strength Coach for LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds.

Clearing Up Misconceptions

Jake Boly: Before diving into the lessons you’ve learned as a coach; I have a quick question about college strength coaches. Do you feel as though college level strength coaches get somewhat looked down upon in the strength industry?

John Larson: I can certainly see that. I think there might be a few reasons for this and one of them has to do with time constraint. We (college coaches) only have a finite amount of minutes in a week to actually train and coach movements at a team oriented standpoint, so any type of individual attention to imbalances, weaknesses, and asymmetries can sometimes get overlooked. Secondly, especially in college football, from what I’ve noticed, a lot of programs bring on football players or former players to their staff. While this isn’t always a bad thing, if someone isn’t properly trained to coach athletes at this caliber, there can be a learning gap, especially with an increase in future injuries from lack of fundamentals.

Boly: That all makes complete sense, now let’s dive in; what are 10 lessons you’ve learned thus far in your training career?

1. Show You Care

Larson: No athlete cares how much you know, until they know how much you care. A strength coach is different than a sport coach, getting to know your athletes on a personal, professional level helps bring out their best. The trust they instill in you will help bring positive results.

2. Less Is More

Larson: There’s only so much time in the day you get with your athletes. Focus on developing the fundamentals and quality movement patterns to provide the best result and avoid long-term injury.

3. Create a Why

Larson: Anyone can put kids through a workout, but know why you’re doing every aspect. When you can demonstrate the carry over from your training and their sports, this creates a synergistic effect in the effort they give.

4. Communication Is Key

Larson: Communication in the gym setting is key to optimal performance. You need seamless communication between the head coach, athletes, and athletic trainers, doing so will bring about the best results.

5. Reach Out and Follow The Best

Larson: It’s important you constantly research and become well versed in your practices. Watch and learn from the best in the industry and create your own personal touch. For example, some professionals I follow are, Senior International Coach Marc Vasnov for weightlifting, Scott Cochran for gym culture, and Richard James for sprint tech. Never stop learning, complacency is lack of care.

6. Create The Culture You Want

Larson: It’s essential to build a culture that wants to come in, build each other up, and reach new levels. A lot of coaches don’t realize that they’re not only the coach, but the gym leader as well. If you come in and display that pushing each other is cool and fun, then that culture will carry over to your athlete’s work ethic.

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Image from @newyork_citystrong Instagram page 

7. Practice What You Preach

Larson: There’s no shame in admitting when you’re not perfect or well versed at something, that’s okay. Although, don’t put something you’re shaky in yourself into a program. This can not only lose some trust in the athletes, but put you in a bad position. If you want to use something, learn and become an expert first!

8. Olympics Weightlifting is a Skill/Technique Movement Pattern

Larson: When applicable try to avoid haphazardly programming Olympic movements. You need to fully understand the movement patterns before teaching them. Seek guidance from real weightlifting coaches and learn every aspect of the lift. An explosive jumping jack while yelling, “jump and shrug,” is not how Olympic weightlifting should be used or cued.

9. Take Care of Yourself

Larson: This job is going to mentally and physically push you. We work long days, are underpaid, and often don’t have a social life out of work, but we do it for the love – not the money. However, it’s important you take care of yourself. When you’re off your game or strung out, this can carry over to your athletes. Know when to say when and take some personal stock in yourself.

10. They’re Not Your Athletes

Larson: This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned thus far. We’re an annex to the head coaching staff. Every piece of information head coaches provide, along with Athletic Trainers should be fully acknowledged and taken into account for your training. You’re a bridge, not an end all be all.

Feature image from @newyork_citystrong Instagram page

About the author

Jake Boly

Jake holds a Bachelor's in Exercise Science and is finishing his Master’s in Sports Science this December. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and a USA Weightlifting Level 1 Sports Performance Coach (USAW L1). Currently Jake personal trains remotely through his business Concrete Athletics and at Intrepid Gym in Hoboken. Throughout his career, Jake has worked with general clients, multiple types of athletes and has a lot of experience working with youth-level trainees.