Differences in Settings – High School vs College

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

Since 2006 I have been a Strength and Conditioning Coach. Most of it has been in a collegiate setting, with the past 2 ½ years at the high school level. Throughout this time, I have always been interested in different settings. Big time college football, small-time college football, college basketball, Olympic sports, NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, MiLB, private, MMA, military and the list goes on and on. When talking with those in different atmospheres I always felt like I was missing out. I would love to experience each one, but the truth is there is not enough time to experience them all fully and the grass is not always greener on the other side.

Since transitioning from the college to the high school level I have realized something – one setting is not better than the other, just different. There are pros and cons to everything, and with this new series of articles we are hoping to highlight these differences and maybe help some young coaches pick the avenue that is right for them.

The Low-Down on College

Strength and conditioning is an amazing, rewarding career and a College Strength and Conditioning Coach is the iconic position for a Strength Coach. The environment is often fast-paced, fun, professional enough and extremely goal oriented. You are part of a usually tight-knit staff and everyone is working towards a common goal. The athletes are often dedicated to their craft and care greatly about team and individual performances. Game day is an entire day, and if you are working in “big-time” college football, game day can be a half-week when the RV’s start rolling into town. The pay range can be anywhere between a couple of free shirts and earned recommendation to $500k+ per year (although rare). While many entry-level positions do not pay what the individual is worth, the pay has been steadily increasing throughout the years. When I first started back around 2005-06, I believe there were two strength coaches making over $200k per year (Mad Dog and Moffitt), now that is commonplace among Power 5 schools, with many assistants making six-figures. Just like pay, the higher level you reach the more resources you have – budget, equipment, technology, and a team of professionals that support what you do and the goals of these athletes – sports scientists, nutritionists, sports psychologists, etc.. This is just a short list of what makes college strength and conditioning a great profession, along with helping dedicated individuals reach their goals.

It is not all barbells and beers. Work: Life balance usually sucks. The balance is usually better at smaller schools, but you may also have two strength coaches and 20+ sports in this setting as well. Every now and then you get a gem and could be working at a Power 5 school on an AM schedule and be leaving work around 2-3pm every day, but these are far and few in between. College athletes are often great to work with, but you can also get a good amount of ego, privilege, and attitude as well. Athletes are not the only ones with big ego’s, while some coaches treat their strength coach with much respect, the strength coach can also be the first to take blame. Working for a bad coach can make this job a living hell. Along with all of that, job security blows! One bad year can be all it takes and suddenly you’re out of a job. One can also find themselves in a situation where they win, the staff moves on, and for one reason or another you don’t. That may be the worst, left behind without a job.

What’s Up with High School Strength

High school strength coaches enjoy a better work: life balance (most of the time), better job security, and make a bigger impact on their athletes. Many of the athletes at this level have not physically achieved much. It is not uncommon to see a young athlete walk in on day 1 with their heads down, shoulders slumped forward and not an ounce of confidence. Two to three months later that same athlete suddenly walks through the doors, with a smile on their face, head held high and shoulders pulled back. All because they have newfound strength and a sense of achievement. Many of the athletes will find a reason to respect you from the start. “He coached at the college level”. “He’s stronger than me”. “He’s bigger than me”. “They do this for their job.” Many of the coaches treat you with respect as well, knowing this is what you do, do your thing!

While many of the crap things about college strength and conditioning are fixed at the high school level, it’s still not perfect. Unless you are at a private school, the chances of being a full-time strength coach are slim. You often will have other duties as well, depending on the situation, this could put a major damper on the job. Pay can be nothing. At public schools it’s usually a volunteer or extra stipend situation. Private schools can be better, but the chances of making good money are still slim. Teacher salary is typical. While some athletes respect you as you walk in the door, others could care less what you say because they read an article on bodybuilding.com, and now they are the freaking expert. There seems to be more “old school” thinking amongst certain coaches as well. Lifting will make you bulky, stiff and slow. Game day is just a blip of your afternoon or evening rather than a day-long event. There is also no camaraderie that comes from being a part of a strength staff and you likely won’t have anyone around to bounce ideas off of. If you’re lucky you will get a couple of good sport coaches to help out, and maybe an intern from time to time.

Final Comparison

College provides a more intense, bigger risk bigger reward atmosphere. There are dream situations, and complete crap situations. While I believe the best coaches rise to the top and find better positions, there is also a lot of luck involved too. There is more you can do with your athletes at this level, as you are dealing with athletes that are more gifted and mature and your resources are more as well.

High school provides you an opportunity to have a lasting impact on athletes, whether it is preparing them for college athletics or a lifelong journey of being active. You can’t do as much with them, but you will become great at coaching the basics. There are good paying opportunities, but they are hard to come by. Your family life will likely be better as you will have more time and won’t be packing up and moving every few years or stressing that one more loss could be it.

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