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Top 6 tips for building programs for high school athletes (1)

Top 6 tips for building programs for high school athletes

High school athletes have different strength training needs than college athletes. “You have to think long-term,” says St. Edward High School Head Strength Coach Augie Promersberger. “Don’t think of sports-specific programs – there’s plenty of time for that when they get to college. Think about individualized programming and building humans.” 

Promersberger knows how to develop high-performing high school athletes. He’s a recent Ohio High School Strength Coach of the Year whose all-boy’s high school has won back-to-back state championships in football, 12 straight wrestling state championships, and placed as state runners-up in hockey, basketball and track. Promersberger presented the following tips for building programs for high school athletes at the 2023 Hammer Strength Clinic.

No. 1: What’s best for the student is best for the program.

“Our guiding star is what’s best for the kid,” Promersberger says. “We want him to compete. We want him to be a multi-sport athlete. We want competitive intensity. What’s best for the kid is always going to be what’s best for the program.”

One of the challenges at St. Edward is the size of the weight room. They have 2,800 square feet that must accommodate 300 to 400 students a day. If they focused only on building competitive intensity with that number of kids working in that small space, it would create chaos.

That’s why Promersberger and his team focus on building competency, ensuring comprehension and creating individualized progressions that reinforce compliance.

No. 2: Focus on competency and comprehension.

“Competence and comprehension are a daily thing, that’s what we do as coaches,” Promersberger says. “Do they understand what we’re doing, and can they physically do it?”

Coaches need to know how to communicate high-level ideas simply. Promersberger and his coaches achieve this by breaking each exercise down into related skills that must be mastered in a specific order. These components become standards on a checklist that is personalized for the student athlete. Until an athlete can check off a box with the approval of his coach, he is unable to proceed to the next step.

Because of the progression, a kid might spend the first three weeks in the weight room with a PVC pipe, working solely on form and not touching a weight. “We start to lose them, and we have to repair those relationships,” Promersberger admits. But it’s important to prioritize their development over speed. “I don’t want to be fast. The brain of an eighth grader is moving too damn fast as it is. I want the mind to slow down. I want their body to slow down. I’m using tempos. That’s the best teaching tool in a large group setting.”

Focusing on competency and comprehension is an effective way to keep kids from getting hurt. Once that becomes a habit, you can work on increasing compliance.

No. 3: Build trust to increase compliance.

“Compliance is a teaching issue – getting them to do what you want them to do,” Promersberger says. “If you have a relationship with that kid, it will go a lot smoother.”

Trust is something Promersberger and his coaches work on often. “You want your high school kids to look like men playing among boys. [To do that], we need to build adult-level maturity in a hurry. The first thing you have to do is earn their trust and confidence.”

Promersberger says it’s important to work on earning trust and confidence from your coaches, too. “It’s a people business. Your assistant coaches and your kids are advantages.”

Strengthening those relational bonds isn’t a one-and-done trick. Promersberger points out that there are a lot of similarities between coaching and being a parent. “It’s an everyday thing. And that can be overwhelming at times.”

But with consistent, daily effort, you will build strong relationships between individuals and coaches. Those bonds become the bedrock for a workout culture that benefits everyone.

No. 4: Build a workout culture around individualized progressions.

When Promersberger arrived at St. Edwards he inherited winning teams. But he wanted to increase the consistency of their athletic efforts. Around that same time, he noticed that coaches of blue-chip football, wrestling and basketball teams were starting to do things differently. He realized that their performance was the result of the culture they were building around weight rooms. Coaches were present and attendance was mandatory. Once his athletic director made attendance mandatory, Promersberger says, it was a game changer.

But you can’t go from zero to 60 with kids. “If you start with Olympic lifts, they’re going to get hurt.” Instead, Promersberger recommends thinking through the kind of progression needed to train athletes in the skills they need to master to do Olympic lifts correctly.

This is where the standards card and its series of checklists comes in. At St. Edward, each kid gets one. “Every box they need to check off is on that card.” It’s easy for the athlete and the coaches to see how the student is progressing in this way. As one progression is mastered, new cards are issued, tailored to any new competencies the athlete needs to learn. The individualized progression reinforces trust between the students and the coaching staff. “It’s an opportunity for connection,” Promersberger explains. “Every time a box gets checked and the coach has to sign off, they’re building that relationship.”

No. 5: Develop the person as well as the athlete.

Workout culture isn’t only about building athletes; it’s about teaching kids how to become responsible adults. Challenges your kids face aren’t only physical, they may be societal, emotional or mental.

“Upon first contact, we’re teaching everything from how to walk, how to talk back, how to make eye contact. This generation that went through COVID, they’re really bad at making eye contact. They don’t want to touch anybody.” To help socialize these students, Promersberger and his coaches extract a “toll” from each student as they enter and leave the weight room – a fist bump.

Look for rite of passage moments – times when everyone can rally around an athlete to celebrate a milestone achievement. Promersberger says a good example of this is when a St. Edward boy attempts to lift 100 pounds for the first time. “What a great opportunity to build a bond.” The coaches will gather all the boys in a circle and tell them to give their energy to the young man attempting the lift. The excitement in the room and support they give is paid back tenfold as that rite of passage moment inspires not only the athlete checking that box, but also all the kids who now look forward to achieving the same feat.

No. 6: Be prepared to improvise.

“Coaches needed to become masters of improvision,” Promersberger says. Space limitations might require an exercise adaptation. Blocks in comprehension might be overcome by introducing a variation that can produce the same effect.

Do what you need to improve form and function, Promersberger counsels. Don’t be afraid to tweak exercises to maximize what you want to achieve. “Coaches need to be able to coach anything.”

Improvisation is also an important skill because things often change on the fly. “There are a million variations of the same thing.” So, focus on what matters, and everything else will fall into line.

Things to remember.

Building a program for high school athletes requires daily attention and an intentional coaching strategy that emphasizes long-term gains rather than quick wins. Here are some important points to bear in mind:

  1. The trust and confidence of your athletes and coaching staff is something you earn daily.
  2. Great teachers are great communicators: Keep it simple. Focus on what’s important.
  3. To create a safe environment, focus on comprehension and competency. Compliance comes with trust.
  4. What’s best for the kid will always be what’s best for the program.
  5. Building a solid, skills-based foundation takes time and can be achieved by creating individualized progressions.
  6. Don’t be afraid to improvise. There are a million variations and ways to teach an exercise.

Coach Promersberger trains his athletes at St. Edward on HD Elite Racks. Learn more about HD Elite here.