Sparta — Sparta High School’s strength and conditioning program, led by coach Michael Graham, recently completed a heavy lift of its own.
The program was one of just 39 from across the country to earn the title of Program of Excellence from the National High School Strength Coaches Association. It was the only program from Michigan honored.
The awards recognize programs that value professionalism, prioritize safety and efficacy and invest in continuing education and use of technology.
Graham, who teaches PE and health in addition to strength and conditioning, submitted video and other materials from his courses and received the good news from the NHSSCA in April.
He’s not resting on his laurels, though; he hopes to continue to grow strength and conditioning into a school-wide program through which he could work with every athletic team. He currently works pro bono with a few teams, but there’s no formal program outside of the school day.
The current course dedicated to strength and conditioning takes place during the school’s “focus” period. Students who make a benchmark grade select an elective course for the period, and each quarter more and more are choosing strength and conditioning.
COVID relief funds enabled Graham to work with students in a program last summer, offered at the new Sparta Middle School gym. With funding for additional programming this summer, opportunities for the program are still growing. “I think we’re heading in the right direction,” Graham said.
“Being stronger definitely makes a difference (in sports),” said ninth-grader Jackson Jones, who plays soccer and runs track. But Jackson doesn’t have to rely on metrics from athletic events to see progress made in the gym. All of Graham’s classes use PLT4M, a digital training platform, to develop training plans based on their personal goals and track progress.
In addition to serving as a data warehouse, the platform provides physical education programs for in-season and out-of-season athletes, as well as mobility programs and even yoga. “There’s all these physical education opportunity programs that I kind of tweak and make it fit for Sparta students,” Graham said.
Students set their own fitness goals and complete assessments throughout the semester to check in on their progress. “There’s usually not a case where we ever don’t see any growth, which is good,” Graham said.
Students’ workout programs are customizable, too. “I have kids who are non-athletes, and they might be a freshman and I might have a senior who has lifted for four years. So it’s my job to kind of meet them in the middle,” Graham said.
“For some people, especially beginners, it teaches a ton,” tenth-grader Isabella Elliot said of the course. For more experienced students, “It’s a good set-aside time to work out,” she said.
Isabella said that even as an experienced gym-goer she values the opportunity to learn more about good stretching, form and different types of workouts.
Graham said about half of the students he has in a class are athletes, while the other half are taking the class just for credit. “But in my classroom, I like to consider all students student athletes,” he said.
Those newest to the gym often see the fastest growth, he said, “and once they get to gain that confidence, they feel more comfortable. And it just boosts their self esteem.”
Watching students grow in confidence “trumps any type of strength gains they made,” Graham said, adding that the confidence also comes from learning how to avoid injury and stay strong and healthy overall.
Though he is invested in helping students on athletic teams improve their performance, success in sports isn’t his main goal for the program. “My goal is to make kids feel good about themselves,” Graham said.