College Versus High School: Where Should Weightlifting Athletes Start?

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend or USA Weightlifting. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Weightlifting in the United States is growing in popularity every year with over 700 participants in the 2016 Youth National Championships (18 and under age group) and over 400 in the 2016 Junior National Championships (20 and under). With the influx of athletes, the question then becomes, do we need more to keep that interest alive?

My husband, Jason, and I debate on this subject from time to time. We both believe the popularity of the sport is great enough to add more levels of competition to it, but where we differ is whether it needs to start at the high school or collegiate level.

The United States has several collegiate opportunities for athletes, including East Tennessee State University, Lindenwood University, and Northern Michigan University. Overall this is very few compared to the number of colleges and universities nationwide that have sports programs. My personal belief is that we start in college, especially on the women’s side.

NCAA Division 1 Collegiate Sports offer 85 football scholarships. With the implementation of Title IX, that means that there are 85 scholarships that have to be matched on the women’s side (assuming all 85 football are male athletes). For simplicity’s sake, let’s use one sport, but in reality this won’t even crack the surface and doesn’t address all the nuances of college athletic programs and administration. Basically for every opportunity that helps in monetary value for a male athlete to attend school, the school must offer the same for a female athlete.

Pause squats this am … #yikes #BAMASB

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Title IX as defined by the NCAA website states: “Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. Sect. 1681 (20 United States Code section 1681) et seq. (Title IX), is a Federal statute that was created to prohibit sex discrimination in education programs that receive Federal financial assistance. Nearly every educational institution is a recipient of Federal funds and, thus, is required to comply with Title IX. The regulation implementing the Title IX statute is at 34 C.F.R. (34 Code of Federal Regulations) Part 106.”

If you are interested, more information and details can be found here.

In the SEC, more specifically the University of Alabama, we offset football by offering women’s soccer (12 scholarships) and not men’s, women’s rowing (20 scholarships), women’s gymnastics (12 scholarships), and women’s volleyball (12 scholarships). More details on the scholarships allowed can be found here. Between these four sports, it still doesn’t equal the 85 needed to match football. Other sports that are dual gender, such as track & field, will offer more scholarships for women than men, so it eventually all equals out.

My personal opinion would be to approach the NCAA with statistics on women’s weightlifting. Women’s participation is growing tremendously in the sport. Women love the idea of feeling strong and empowered, but even without getting sentimental, we account for a significant amount of USA Weightlifting memberships now.

I believe the NCAA could go about adding the sport on the women’s side in two different ways:

1. They could add the sport by itself and allow for schools to decide which sports it wants to use to even the scholarship with football. Give the sport 10 full scholarships. Eight athletes makes a full team in weightlifting, with two reserve scholarships. Most sports split them up anyways, so you could still bring in more girls with partial scholarships. With this method, a school to choose weightlifting over women’s gymnastics or women’s soccer; something with a comparable number of scholarships.

2. The second method: they could add women’s weightlifting as a sport and take a few scholarships from other sports, such as rowing. In the SEC, women’s rowing has 20 full scholarships; only nine row in the boat (actually, eight row, and one – the coxswain – commands). Weightlifting could take eight from the sport and still leave them with plenty to fill a team.

I believe it would be a fairly easy add for most schools, because they already have weight rooms. The equipment is already in their possession. The University of Alabama doesn’t have female bars, but after that addition, you would need a head coach, a possible assistant, and funding for travel. The cost for schools would be much less than almost any other sport. Most would only travel nationally at the University level competing against other colleges and universities. In addition, they could use USA Weightlifting’s University Nationals as a way to get qualified athletes experience against more competitive athletes until the collegiate sports catch up.

Any international competitions and travel would continue to be overseen by USAW as our sport’s national governing body. I believe having more collegiate opportunities would give high schools a reason to add the sport into their programs after they can show the athletes the opportunities available to them after high school graduation.

My husband Jason argues the opposite, believing that it should start at the high school level, especially since states like Florida and Texas have strength sports in high school. A 2013-2014 survey showed Florida has 256 schools and nearly 6,000 participants in strength sports. Florida is a hybrid between Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting with one competitive lift of the Clean & Jerk, and the other the Bench Press. Texas is straight Powerlifting. Jason thinks following the model these sports set, but competing in the Olympic Lifts, would encourage the continued growth of our youth participation and also give high schools a reason to hire more knowledgeable strength coaches.

Recently, the NCAA passed a rule stating that collegiate strength and conditioning coaches must be certified to coach at that level. The rule was placed in response to over twenty deaths suffered during conditioning in 2000. “Having a certification that is accredited guarantees that the strength coach has demonstrated a certain set of skills and abilities to meet the performance needs of their sport teams and athletes,” says Boyd Epley, NSCA Founder.

Jason believes it is only a matter of time before this is also a requirement at the high school level. This idea would open job opportunities for Olympic Weightlifting Coaches with the dream of being full time coaches.

He states that while he doesn’t know the exact statistics for USA Weightlifting Level 1 certifications, he does believe that the participation will eventually slow down. However, “this could be another way to generate revenue for USA Weightlifting if they come up with an appropriate certification for high school coaches. This certification could be offered at major national conferences and also serve as continuing education for these coaches, all while promoting a future for our sport.”

(A quick Wikipedia search shows that there are 26,407 public high schools and 10,693 private high schools in the United States. I imagine that not all of these schools have sports programs, but if even half participate in athletics, they would have coaches in need of certifications to meet state or national standards. That could mean 18,550 coaching certifications USAW could potentially generate.)

In addition, Jason says, “USAW could create continuing education courses for these coaches to bring another source of revenue for our sport and the coaches need the hours anyways”.

Jason also argues that we are currently missing out on a lot of athletes by not having options for high school athletes. (Though this could change in the very near future with new efforts from USA Weightlifting and partners.) Currently, we hope that great athletes find weightlifting. Then, either the parents of the athlete have to pay for a club coach or the coach has to volunteer time to produce these weightlifters. If high school strength coaches double as weightlifting coaches and make it accessible to the entire high school population, how many more athletes could we find?

Jason believes the greatest benefit of having Olympic Weightlifting as a high school sport is the ability to model ourselves like track & field. The United States has a history of domination at the Olympic Level in track and field and a lot of it is because of the availability of participation at the state, regional, and national level as we as club participation.

My biggest concern at the high school level is funding. How do they find the funding for the sport? While almost all high schools have some type of strength program, they would need some additional equipment that may not be as easily accessible in their budgets. Florida weightlifting has all athletes (male and female) compete on men’s bars and in pounds. This could be one way to keep costs down for high schools. Most would already have this type of equipment, leaving only the addition of travel costs to worry about.

I believe the sport could grow big enough to treat it similar to track & field, allowing athletes to compete locally against rival high schools, and only travel once or twice for a regional level and state level competition. The same as collegiate age, the top youth kids that reach qualification totals for USA Weightlifting Youth Nationals could fund themselves, or possibly do some fundraising through the school to raise money towards entry fee and travel costs. Jason thinks hosting meets at the state level can generate more revenue for the high schools themselves to help fund athletes for larger events.

I believe the introduction of Olympic Weightlifting as a sport at the high school level will encourage year-round participation in the sport as long as coaches work together for multi-sport athletes. However, I believe the introduction of Olympic Weightlifting at the collegiate level will encourage specialization in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting because athletes will see a future that could potentially help them during the next phase of life.

Some would argue that athletes will still choose football over weightlifting for the opportunity to play professionally, but with the stipend help USA Weightlifting offers, you can show incentives to these athletes as well. Also, I’ve seen the professional athletes coming out of the University of Alabama, and they aren’t necessarily suited to weightlifting. They are much taller and bigger than the competitors we face at the International level, and very few would transfer perfectly to the sport. (I’m not saying that’s true for all of them – they are fantastic athletes – just my observations of the average.)

Regardless of the side you choose, I feel like we have ground to stand on towards the growth of our sport. It’s not if, but when, and I am beyond excited to see the opportunities expand for our future!

Featured image: @chfpweightlifting on Instagram