The return to training and participating in high school athletics was welcomed by coaches, parents, and athletes this past summer. Several programs across the country opened their doors to eager students who were ready and willing to be around their peers and back into a training program. However, other programs, schools, and states have yet to resume in-person training and coaching.
After going through the initial return to training, and now at the conclusion of a fall sports season, I have made some initial observations and have a few pieces of advice that I think will be valuable to coaches, regardless of if you are seeing athletes in person or virtually.
Initial Observations of Strength & Fitness Levels in Fall Sport Athletes
High School Athletes
Our return to training here at Wayzata High School in Minnesota occurred the second week of June. This was roughly 10 weeks after a distance learning model with no access to training or working with our athletes. Upon the return, I was able to train with most of our upper-level athletic teams, and a couple of things stood out to me.
- For the boys, it was apparent that a lot of them had found weight rooms, as their absolute strength was pretty good. Many had found equipment online or in stores, some even built squat racks out of lumber and put in their garages. It was also quite observable that their fitness levels were poor. Strong, but out of shape.
- For our female athletes it was just the opposite for the most part. They had much better overall fitness, but their strength numbers were down quite a bit.
Middle School Athletes
Due to COVID-19 restrictions and having to keep our numbers down, we did not have access to our middle school athletes until school started in mid-September. I feel it important to point out that these observations were made by an over assessment in my mind by observing the workouts. I did not test the athletes in any capacity but rather just kept an eye on how workouts were going and adjusting.
Offseason and Lower-Level Athletes
With the return to school, we were able to begin training our offseason teams, and with this I was able to see our lower-level athletes for the first time since March. The initial observation on these kids was a bit different as it was somewhat apparent that just about everything was down. Both strength and fitness were poor, and to be honest it was to be expected. We didn’t have the time to work together in the summer and in most cases, they probably didn’t have access to equipment like our older athletes did. The younger athletes don’t have cars, training opportunities, nor the drive that most of our older athletes did. It wasn’t ideal but was reality.
My focus was on general physical preparation and getting them back into a regular training routine. We spent majority of the fall in the weight room and I gave them supplemental running and conditioning workouts to do at home on the days they didn’t come into the weight room. We are operating out strength and conditioning program like a hybrid classroom/learning model, so students come in every other day in split groups in order to keep our numbers down.
Observations of Strength & Fitness Levels in Winter Sport Athletes
With fall sports winding down and prepping for winter sports starting up, I have been keeping a close eye on our basketball programs. These athletes are now able to enter the gyms and start season prep.
Again, without testing, it is very easy to see which athletes were doing the running workouts and which ones were not. In some cases, we had athletes feeling unwell during warmups, let alone after a couple of trips up and down the court in game settings.
My philosophy is that there are a lot of pandemic bodies showing up in our training facilities and programs and it is mostly the younger student athletes. Varsity athletes have had better access to training, while the younger kids don’t have enough experience yet to know what they needed or how to achieve it without training.
As coaches, strength or sport, I believe that it is imperative that this type of information is gathered prior to training. I have heard some horror stories from around the country of coaches testing athletes out upon their return to training. While it is smart to assess and observe, I find no value in forcing kids to go through a 300-yard shuttle test on their first day back into our facilities and programs. Rather I suggest programming workouts, monitor the training effects, and adjust accordingly.
This summer we trained athletes for approximately 6-7 weeks in our summer program and we didn’t finish the summer with a testing program for the first time in my 20 years here. I didn’t see the value in it at all, in fact I told all our athletes that we would be getting stronger and better this summer but that we were not going to be testing out.
There are a lot of athletes excited to be getting back to playing sports and that is a huge win for all of us. Some of these kids prepared in the down time while others didn’t. Those that didn’t prepare figure out quickly that they should have. This will show itself through basic training and activities and doesn’t need to be pointed out as a result of brutal testing.
As winter sport coaches start gearing up for the season, they would be best suited to take the same approach and level up their squads incrementally through practices and open gyms. I have had a few athletes who tested positive for COVID return, and while they are healthy and were cleared to participate, aren’t showing the same stamina they had pre-COVID.
My final thought on this topic is simply to enjoy being back in front of athletes and working in sport. There are going to be a lot of general training programs and regressions and that is ok. We as coaches are here to take passengers on a journey, which is the definition of what a stagecoach is.
This pandemic has made a bumpy road for several of our student athletes and we as coaches need to provide the best possible outcome for the kids. We are here to make the journey as safe as possible and help them achieve the best possible version of themselves in their sport.
Johnson is a graduate of Normandale Community College, Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota, playing football at both NCC and Augsburg. “RJ” teaches physical education at Wayzata High School and is the Strength and Conditioning Coordinator for Wayzata Public Schools, a position he began in 2000. Wayzata Athletics have captured 52 team state titles in histenure; Johnson works directly with the three-time state champion football program as Director of Operations and Player Development. He is a member of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist as well as a Registered Strength and Conditioning Specialist – both certifications with Distinction and is the Minnesota NSCA State Director. NSCA awards include Minnesota High School Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year 2010; State Director of the Year 2013; Strength of America Award 2015; and 2017 National High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year. In 2017 he became a founding Board Member of the National High School Strength Coaches Association (NHSSCA); and serves as a Regional Director for the organization. A former volunteer firefighter, he also received an Award of Merit from the Minnesota Department of Health and Safety for participation in a lifesaving CPR/AED effort to revive a player that suffered sudden cardiac arrest while at practice. Johnson is a frequent clinician, speaker, author and his Wayzata Trojan Power program has been visited by over 50 other high school and small college programs. He also volunteered his time in the Rockford School District where he and his wife and four children reside by serving as the Rockford Area Youth Athletic Association President and Youth Football Director.