Simulated flyover of Fort Mill’s planned Catawba Ridge High School
Rick Lewis’ son, Cameron, can baffle him with the latest developments in strength and conditioning.
Rick Lewis, the athletic director at Catawba Ridge, graduated from Appalachian State 30 years ago with a physical education degree, and taught weightlifting classes during his 21 years as a high school basketball coach.
Lewis previously was the athletic director at Myers Park High in Charlotte and, when that school raised $200,000 for a new weight room, he hired a certified strength and conditioning coach.
He says the results were obvious.
“If you look at athletics over the last four years at Myers Park, it’s boomed,” Lewis said. “We were always good, but now they’re pretty much elite in everything.”
The recent Rock Hill Schools investigation into football weightlifting practices at Northwestern High School showed that South Carolina requires only physical education certifications for its weightlifting/strength and conditioning teachers.
When Lewis was hired at Catawba Ridge, he said he wanted a strength and conditioning teacher certified beyond South Carolina requirements.
That was in part because of his son.
Cameron Lewis was an exercise science major at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and, in addition to his four-year degree, now holds three additional strength and conditioning certifications.
“That’s much more extensive than what I knew as a P.E. guy,” Rick Lewis said. “It evolves weekly. The stuff that (Cameron) does, it makes perfect sense, but I didn’t learn that stuff. So I learned from him.”
For the past nine years, Northwestern has had a certified strength and conditioning coach in James West, a 19-year teaching veteran with a degree in kinesiology from the University of Arkansas. He oversaw strength and conditioning training for all of Northwestern’s sports teams.
Northwestern assistant football coach Grady Baggett took over the football team’s weight training class this semester as the teacher of record -- alongside his twin brother, Knox -- according to Northwestern principal Hezekiah Massey. Both Baggetts have P.E. certifications, according to the S.C. Department of Education’s educator qualification search.
Massey said in a text earlier this month that he couldn’t comment on why West didn’t teach the class this semester, because the investigation was ongoing.
Complaints from Alisha and Greg Johnson II prompted the investigation at Northwestern. The Johnsons told The Herald their son, Gregory, claimed head football coach James Martin was running the weightlifting class. Martin has a social studies certification, according to the S.C. Department of Education’s educator qualification search.
A new workout plan used in Northwestern’s football weightlifting class incorporated Olympic-style lifts, a fact that was confirmed by an April 5 school district letter responding to the Johnsons’ complaints. Olympic-style lifting is the type of weightlifting where a barbell with weight plates sits on the floor and athletes hoist it to their chest, or over their head.
The Johnsons allege that Northwestern football players were injured lifting weights during the class this semester, including their son, Gregory. They said Gregory went to a chiropractor in early March and was held out of lifting weights for several days. No definitive proof has been presented that shows Gregory was injured in the weightlifting class.
The letter the Johnsons received from the school district on April 5 didn’t attribute any wrongdoing to Martin, but did state that Northwestern had stopped Olympic-style lifting in its weightlifting classes.
Pick weight up, put weight down
Olympic-style lifting is a highly technical form of weightlifting that requires intense schooling and focus on the lifter’s form and movement, according to Winthrop strength and conditioning coach Ben Abbott.
When knowledgeable, experienced instructors are absent, high school weight rooms can become dangerous places, said the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s head strength and conditioning coach, Scott Caulfield. And Lewis said one benefit of having a highly qualified teacher is limiting Catawba Ridge and the Fort Mill school district’s legal liability.
Employing weightlifting teachers certified beyond minimum requirements isn’t a widespread practice -- and not just in South Carolina. According to the NSCA, no state requires its weightlifting coaches to have training, licensing or continued education beyond P.E. certification.
Abbott says that should change.
“I think if a person is running strength and conditioning for any athletes, high school, college, any type, I think you should be certified through an accredited body and an organization,” Abbott said. “Just because you’ve read a magazine or lifted yourself, I don’t know that that qualifies you to understanding how the body works, and all the little stuff.
“It’s not as simple as pick weight up, put weight down.”
Jeff Dillman said essentially the same thing about athletes at Northwestern doing Olympic-style lifts.
Dillman is the strength and conditioning coach at the University of South Carolina. He said he communicated through e-mail with Martin about Olympic-style lifts.
Dillman said in an email to Greg Johnson II, which was provided to The Herald, “I can’t truly speak on Coach Martin’s behalf other than the program that he sends, because I am not there to see the program being taught.”
Dillman’s email to Greg Johnson II also said “That is why I don’t like to give coaches workouts because they don’t understand why and when we do it.”
Dillman told The Herald earlier this month that there are no dangerous lifts. They only become dangerous when there is too much weight on the bar, or proper technique is not taught.
The trend that’s coming
How does a certification requirement get raised by the state?
If the South Carolina Department of Education decided to enhance the certification requirements for strength and conditioning coaches in its high schools, the state board of education would have to pass a recommendation that would then need further approval from the General Assembly, according to Ryan Brown, the S.C. Department of Education’s chief communications officer.
“Occasionally those types of things have been made over time, as we see a need and are adapting to the changing needs of the education system,” Brown said. “Generally, they’ve been us trying to allow greater flexibility and get some of the regulation out of the way, as it relates to certification.”
That may especially be the case right now. The state had more than 6,000 open teaching positions at the end of the 2017-18 school year, according to Winthrop’s physical education program director, Kathy Davis.
Brown said the board either takes up a potential certification change on its own, or individual school districts can make proposals.
“At this time we have no plans to require additional credentials for physical education teachers who teach weight training classes,” Rock Hill Schools spokesman Mychal Frost told The Herald in an email.
However, some area schools aren’t waiting. Catawba Ridge, Rock Hill High, Clover, York, South Pointe and Lewisville high schools have coaches with some level of strength and conditioning certifications beyond P.E. to oversee football weightlifting programs, and, in some cases, other sports too.
“I think every high school should have it,” Lewis said. “I think it’s growing, I think eventually in South Carolina it’s going to be a super-valuable piece for every high school. I think that’s the trend that’s coming.”
Doing right by kids
Charles Enlow has wasted no time in beginning work with several of the Catawba Ridge sports teams.
The school doesn’t open until the fall of 2019, but Lewis hired Enlow, an NSCA-certified strength and conditioning coach who is currently pursuing a PhD in exercise science. Enlow will teach Catawba Ridge sports teams’ strength and conditioning classes, but won’t have any other coaching obligations. He’ll also work with the school’s athletic trainer, Katie Runyon, in rehabbing injuries.
“I feel very comfortable with him getting our kids back out there safely, the quickest, but doing things the right way, doing the right things for the kids,” Lewis said. “That’s really what they’re doing at the college and pro level, so why wouldn’t we do that at the high school level when they’re young and still growing?”
Because Enlow won’t be connected to one specific team, he’ll be able to impact all of Catawba Ridge’s sports teams, the kind of setup that Northwestern previously had with West. Lewis said he’s had conversations with Enlow about specific workouts designed to help prevent ACL tears within the school’s girls’ soccer team, an issue that has hampered girls’ soccer nationwide.
“We’re doing right by kids,” Lewis said. “And that’s the thing you always have to ask yourself.”