Guest Post: 6 Principles for the School Environment

If coaches are teachers, and teaching is coaching, then Grant Stephensen knows why as a high performer in both fields. He has mixed head coaching roles with Head of department roles and teaching with coaching for well over a decade. In my visits to his office I always notice there is certainly no shortage of silverware, from World Cups to sports day ribbons.

12 Years training student athletes in schools and an ever changing strength & conditioning world has led me to the following 6 principles for a safe and effective gym environment for all students.

  1.  Teach them!   

Your gym should be treated like a classroom to educate the athlete. Create thinkers in the gym, not drones. I wonder why we still have teenage boys overdeveloping chest and arms for self-image reasons. We must make athletes at a young age feel comfortable with exercises like squats and deadlifts and teach the benefits. Take responsibility for your athlete’s development. Educate them how to strengthen all areas of their body.

  1. Develop Discipline

Athletes need to develop self-discipline if they are to survive the harsh world of professional sport. Your gym should be a great environment for teaching life-skills and professionalism. Equipment maintenance, towel use, and correct attire should be emphasized at all times.

Technique:  Remove the notion that weight is the key during development and emphasise technique.  Educate the athlete on why they are doing the movement and how it will help them become better. Avoid students trying to progress too quickly, especially if your programs are based on teachers evaluating technique before any progression.  Use technique improvement as the motivator, not the weight lifted!

Diet:  Many students will be wasting their hard work if they’re not eating correctly. I hear two main questions. How do I gain muscle? How do I get toned?  Constant education regarding the nutritional components of the food they ingest and the biological reactions is needed. As much as possible involved their parents in the discussion.

Etiquette:  Many students are oblivious to the gym etiquette required at a commercial gym. In these situations it’s important to put the long-term health of the athlete first.

If your gym is the only gym where they feel comfortable, you’re setting them up for failure. Think health before performance. Make them feel comfortable with what is required and your conversion rate of students who use a gym regularly post school will rise.

Following a program:  Students enjoy ‘giving something a go’ due to the stimulus provided in the gym environment.  Use that draw to promote basic overload principles by utilising a program so all students are held accountable and are gaining knowledge in the field.

Prehab and Rehab:  All students cry poor when it comes to time. Emphasize the importance of prehab and rehab work and reinforce it. You can also use this part of your program for continual screening.

  1. Cater for new students:

Often the screening process is overlooked with new students are they are thrown into a program.  Teaching time is needed for the student to feel safe and for the student to learn processes. Try pairing the student up with an experienced athlete or create a modified circuit or prioritize 1 on 1 coach time? Creativity is key in a school environment but make sure to gauge their physical and mental levels within the gym environment.

  1. Motivate through challenge:

Challenge every student’s knowledge in every aspect of the gym…constantly. Set the standards high and continually look for ways to challenge every individual.  I’ve had students that progressed quickly and others who just couldn’t remember to bring a towel! Find the challenge point with the individual athlete and hammer it!

  1. Forget Money, Find Space:

If you are lucky enough to have the money required for an amazing gym with expensive equipment then go for it. If you don’t, remember you don’t need a lot to get students moving and motivated.

Challenge your boss to fund raise and dedicate time to finding the space. I’ve found if you show you have a wealth of knowledge and a burning passion in the area the students will love the gym.

  1. Safety

This is always #1 in a school environment! Battling the myths surrounding strength training is hard enough with gym related injuries.

We, as educators, have the trust of the community and therefore hold the key to educating parents through their children.  In 12 years of training students in a school gym, I have had 2 minor injuries and one was due to faulty equipment.

On the other hand, on the field I have had many major injuries requiring hospitalisation and long term issues for the athlete. Make sure your gym is a controlled environment, and you’re in control!

Grant Stephensen is the Head of the Physical Education Department at Marsden State High School and the current Australian Universities Rugby League Head Coach. Contact Grant at or follow him on Twitter @GrantStephensen



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