Why Every Level of Strength Coach Needs to Understand the Brain

It took me several years being involved in the Strength & Conditioning world before I became immersed in the subject of neuroscience. These days it’s becoming a bit trendy to say things like “it’s all about the brain,” or “the brain always wins” but does anyone really understand the brain any further than those statements?

Why should you have some understanding of the brain if you’re a Strength & Conditioning Coach? Well, for every level of S&C Coach, I will tell you why…

High School Strength Coaches

It’s a bit ironic how high school strength coaches are considered the “lowest” level while they have arguably the most dramatic impact out of any of them. They have a ton of athletes with ZERO experience in the weight room. They have almost exclusively blank slates. That’s honestly incredible.

Something that I’ve noticed along the way is that there really is no better way to slam the fast forward button when trying to create a change or new pattern than blasting quality tone into your muscles through weightlifting. When you have nothing but blank slates, you are going to get what you want really fast. On the flip side, if you’re screwing around, you’re going to get to a bad place really fast.

Whatever patterns you’re creating here, are the patterns that they are going to use for the rest of their lives. Good or bad!

Just like your muscles, any pattern you create is also being cemented in the brain. Good or bad! The coding for all these patterns are held in the brain and they never get deleted, EVER.

You need to understand how your brain is receiving these inputs or you’ll never be able to control the outputs.

Lastly, you’re setting the stage for how they perceive training for the rest of their lives. How many times do you hear something like so-and-so won’t go swimming because they had a bad experience as a kid? Same thing goes with the weight room.

What kind of experience are you creating? Is it positive or negative?

Are they going to be the kid who never goes swimming again? High school strength coaches have ALL the say in this!

College Strength Coaches

A lot of college athletes are stepping into the weight room for the first time when they get on campus. High School Strength & Conditioning is starting to become a lot more regular but it’s still quite a bit from being standard practice. Because of this, a lot of college strength coaches will have the same neural responsibilities as High School coaches.

However, building upon the brain-oriented obligations of high school strength coaches, college coaches will have an increased requirement to be cognizant of balancing a student-athlete’s stress-load.

As far as performance training goes, this isn’t a perfect environment. These kids go to class for several hours a day, they party…. A LOT and their actual sport practices are extremely intense and super time consuming. Somehow, these warriors of the weight room have to find a way to get their athletes to improve in the midst of this onslaught of stress.


As much as you may not want it to, the girl that keeps turning your athlete down for a date is playing a role in what you’re able to get out of him in the weight room. So does his midterm exams, late night party habits and the fact that he didn’t get a snow day when he really wanted one.

Everything counts!

What can you do to stimulate recovery and efficiently schedule your work?

You have to be aware of all these factors when you’re programming. This is stress management.

You also have to be able to think on your feet and be ready to scrap your plans for any given day when you get thrown a curveball.

Finally, college strength coaches may have the most access out of anyone to their athletes. They have the ability to have a ton of hands on time over the course of four years (sometimes more). This gives them a tremendous opportunity to build great habits that will carry them through life.

It also makes it super important to really understand the psychology of each of your athletes. What makes them tick? What makes them happy or sad? Do they love the weight room or hate it? How can I accommodate their individuality to maximize our weight room product?

Pro Strength Coaches

This is where becoming a neural-stud muffin is a HUGE deal. I’ve been fortunate enough to ride the bus in the Minor Leagues for five years grinding through a 140-game schedule as well as fly around the country with the Los Angeles Lakers throughout an 82-game schedule.

At this level, traditional strength coaches are screwed. Programming barely exists. You have to be able to think on the fly every second of the day. There are so many variables and the biggest one is the schedule. There is a disgusting amount of travel and an un-forgiving game schedule. If you need recovery time to make performance adaptations, then understand that you’re not getting any of those adaptations as long as the season is going on. It is about eight consecutive months of sleep deprivation and stress.

Now you have to be really savvy with your neural understandings. You need to know everything that drives these players up the stress level and you MUST do whatever you can to help them come back down.

You HAVE TO know each player and their personality better than anyone. You need to know that each player is going to have a very different recovery menu and you have to be willing to crack their code.

At this level, you need to be diving down as deep as you can. You should be fluent in visual processing, auditory responses and nutritional fundamentals. You need to be making as big of a dent in their stress as possible.

I’ve always thought that the best pro strength coaches are the ones that are able to get their athletes to recover the best.

This takes a great amount of humility and a huge amount of dedication and selflessness.

The other thing to consider when dealing with pros is that they all likely have a number of years of experience with weight training which means that getting performance gains is going to be much harder than it would be for a high school strength coach. A lot of times you will be splitting hairs to get a fraction of an improvement. So you have to be willing to consider all contributing factors.

Take all of this and add in choppy offseason availability, super strong personalities and a collection of athletes with a wide assortment of training preferences and you’ve got yourself a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell (the cowbell being the brain of course)

Private Strength Coaches

The interesting thing about private sector strength coaches is that they need to tip-toe the line of giving their clients what they need and giving them what they “think” they need/want in order to maintain their business. In the other realms of performance coaching, coaches are given clients and they never have to worry about having enough clients to make a living.

Because of this, private strength coaches have to be all over neural adaptations because much of what they do may require some real fancy footwork to satisfy both parties. One of the biggest aspects of personal training is progress. Clients want to see their money being put to good use.

The problem is, after several years of training, it becomes harder and harder to make progress and most people aren’t willing to put the effort in to make that happen. In addition, most people’s lifestyles put a cap on their progress even though they are still expecting you to make it happen.

Private strength coaches need to understand the sensory system and how to manipulate it so they can organize the system and set it up properly during their programming. They need to understand the role that emotions play in motor control and nervous system activation. They need to be willing to set aside what they believe to be right and be creative as hell because the simple concept of the client not understanding your methods will put a hard ceiling on your progress.

They also need to be ready for anything. For my entire career I’ve had the luxury of working with one extremely specific population. Private coaches can train a professional athlete, a grandma, a middle school lacrosse player and a pregnant 30-year-old woman all in one day. You have to have a really good grasp on how the brain works to cope with that roster. Each one of these clients will have very different neural responses to what goes on in the gym and you better be ready for it.

Human brains run on memory. Every client or athlete you see is going to be running on different memories. No matter where you work, it’s going to be in everyone’s best interest to have at least somewhat of a grip on what’s going on between the ears.