When an organization is failing, no matter if it's a Fortune 500 corporation, a local church or the evening shift at the local Applebee’s, a turnaround typically dictates a change at the top.
From 2008 to 2013, Westside High School, once a perennial South Carolina gridiron powerhouse with six state championships to its credit, lost its winning ways. Imagine the Community’s angst after six consecutive losing seasons, including two single-win and one no-win campaigns.
And the losing culture transcended the football team: In 2013, there was not a single varsity team at the school with a winning season record!
Given the pride most towns take in their high schools, let alone one with such a storied history, it was clear that changes were needed: Over a span of 90 days, a new principal, a new AD, and a new Head Football Coach were all in place.
All Three Aligned With Great Expectations
The three new leaders shared a common philosophy, a common commitment to excellence and a set of shared expectations for their athletes.
Rayvan Teague, the new AD, summed it up well when he was hired, “I am looking forward to working with Coach Earley and Principal Roberts, and I know we all share the same goal of instilling high expectations for our students.”
Roberts, Teague and Earley are quick to recognize the vision and resource support of Tom Wilson, District 5 Superintendent. And it’s not as if the District is flush with extra budget dollars and unlimited resources: As one indicator, 78% of Westside’s students receive subsidized lunches.
Before joining Westside as AD, Coach Teague had amassed his own 220-69-1 career record as a head football coach with several trips to the state finals. Teague reminds us that the whole point of athletics is to develop well rounded and healthy students, and accordingly, it is necessary to commit resources if you want successful outcomes.
The new Principal, Kory Roberts, was no stranger to football excellence and high expectations, either. His father, William, won six state championships at Westside (yup, the same Westside) in 30 years as the head coach.
Coach Earley inherited a football team coming off of a 1-10 season, their sixth losing season in a row. Yet, at his first all-school assembly, Earley matter-of-factly talked about what it takes to “win State” and the fact that the path to such greatness starts by working hard.
The first game was just six months away and there was no time to waste.
Men of Action…and Results
The new Westside leadership wasted no time in making big changes, starting with hiring full-time, in-building coaches. These coaches could monitor athlete behaviors and make sure they maintained their grades (and eligibility). Working with the curriculum committee, they established a 4th period lifting class for varsity athletes and, the following year, created a second lifting class.
Coach Earley knows what it takes to turnaround a program: He’s done it four times.
His “secret” is his deliberate approach to fixing four backbone elements:
- Strength and Conditioning
Starting with culture, he spends the first few weeks diagnosing the current situation, followed by 90 days of attacking the identified issues, using “carrots” to pump up the positive energy. He has found that there are always naysayers, so either they embrace the new approach…or they’re out.
He intentionally cultivates a positive environment that attracts student athletes, while emphasizing academic performance and off field behavior as important as athletic performance.
Cascading Expectations in the Weight Room
Athletic Director Teague pulls no punches regarding his expectations for in- and off- season training: “If a student athlete doesn’t buy into the weight room, then he or she won’t play.”
Coach Earley echoes similar sentiments. “I expect my athletes to work hard in the weight room. We know our competition is training and, to win, we need to work harder than the teams we play.”
Even Principal Roberts directly leveraged the weight room to drive buy-in to a new approach. By inviting the 8th graders to join him in the weight room, Roberts created the opportunity to build relationships with the up-and-coming frosh through his position, presence and personality.
And it worked.
In just a couple of months in the weight room, the young student athletes saw dramatic gains that translated into a more confident self-image. This new found confidence, the resulting connection with the new Principal, and the forum it presented to reinforce expectations and accountability led to Roberts’ true objective: improved academic performance.
Which leads us finally to Westside High School’s Strength Coach, Aaron Cottingham. Initially, a part-time coach, Cottingham witnessed first hand the drama of the regime change. Now a full-time, in-building coach, he clearly has embraced the new approach.
TH: How did the leadership changes impact your job as the strength coach?
Coach: You have to keep in mind that Coach Earley had to revamp the entire program. He instilled a positive belief system that was sorely missing. He made it clear that we needed to make major changes quickly if we were to return to a winning tradition.
TH: What problems were facing you in the weight room?
Coach: I had tried many approaches to engage and communicate with athletes in the weight room. From whiteboards and papers taped all over racks to dispensing individual folders and workout sheets to track results, athlete engagement and organization were missing with these standard approaches.
We wanted to motivate them by creating a competitive culture in all aspects of the program, including the weight room. Our instincts told us we needed to get on the kids’ level with technology, and that’s what initially interested us in TrainHeroic.
TH: So were there any key features or benefits that intrigued you?
Coach: You gotta remember that I’m just a meathead trying to make it! So we were looking for technology that didn’t bury us in complexity. I don’t want to be stuck behind a computer…I want to coach my guys.
After the initial set-up, TrainHeroic has freed up so much time. Now, each athlete gets a workout with individually prescribed loads. The loads increase as they make progress which keeps pushing them. The Leaderboard is a HUGE hit and makes it competitive for everyone. It lets me control everything.
TH: Have you realized those benefits and what does that mean to you?
Coach: Yes, and then some. Competition has improved and the kids take the weight room time much more seriously. Kids are more self guided and in charge of their own training. Athlete engagement increased especially as they started to realize big gains.
TH: How did you go about implementing the change to TrainHeroic?
Coach: We began with a trial, starting out with the athletes using Chrome books. When we transitioned to new weight room, we purchased iPads. Honestly, it took us a couple of months to sort out how we wanted to use the new approach…there was a fair amount of trial and error.
TH: How did you align the coaches and athletes to get behind the new approach?
Coach: The kids were easy - they are very comfortable with technology. But I started with my assistant strength coach first and gave him the responsibility for the freshman team. We picked one thing a week to focus on. For example, the first couple of weeks we focused on making sure athletes logged their workout results. If an individual athlete didn’t log their workout, they gave us 50-100 up downs. That accountability worked wonders!
TH: Now that you’ve implemented the platform, how are things different in the weight room?
Coach: Organization and flow is much different and the time in the weight room runs more efficiently. The athletes are enjoying quicker gains by programming exact percentages/loads.
The level of intensity is like night and day, thanks to the competition and accountability of the Leaderboard.
This past year was a learning year, and we learned a bunch. As I dial this in further this coming year, it’s not even gonna be fair next season!
Results Count: "Winning in the Gym"
TrainHeroic salutes Westside High School’s leaders for the amazing turnaround, and we are honored to have played a small role in restoring the winning ways at Westside.
- In his first season at Westside, Coach Earley led the team to an 8-4 record. This past season, his second, the Rams went 11-2 and won the Region 1 4A Championship.
- And it goes beyond football: The boy’s basketball team that had a 9-14 record in 2013 finished 20-4 this season.
- In 2014, only 2 athletes qualified for the SC State Strength Meet, but in 2016, 11 qualified.
Head Coach Earley again sums it up very well:
“I have to admit I had a couple of initial reservations, but TrainHeroic has helped us work both harder AND smarter. We see 2X the output from our athletes in the weight room now with TrainHeroic. The athletes love the technology...it’s visual, factual and provides immediate feedback. My coaches can monitor the athletes’ results and participation even if they’re home with a new baby. In all my years of coaching, TrainHeroic is the best money I’ve ever spent.”