Social Media, Strength Training Drive Austintown Fitch Football
AUSTINTOWN, Ohio – Austintown Fitch football coach T.J. Parker holds up his phone and uses its camera to pan across players practicing or engaging in strength training.
The video will wind up on the team’s social media accounts, where alumni, community members and even future Falcons players can see the work these players put in to prepare for the fall season.
“They get inspired and they can’t wait to be what we are right now,” says rising senior Tyler Evans of the youth players in Austintown.
Rising senior A.J. Byrd is well aware that Parker is taping the team but stays focused on the task at hand. He and his teammates are held to a higher standard because of the watchful eyes from the community and beyond.
“It kind of pushed me to do better and be stronger because when you get up to the varsity level it’s a different type of animal up here, so you really want to be prepared,” he says.
Parker’s ambition for a social media footprint began when he was Westminster College’s running backs coach in the 2019 season. The 2003 Austintown Fitch graduate was named the Falcons’ coach in December 2019.
He is the school’s first full-time head coach since the late Phil Annarella passed away in June 2019. Jon Elliot served as interim coach during that 2019 season. That’s the year Parker became in tune with social media at Westminster.
Westminster’s football recruiting coordinator, Jared Heck, emphasized the importance of social media graphics to entice football recruits. The football program is ranked 12th in the nation in NCAA Division III according to Lindy’s Sports in its preseason poll.
A graphic design company from Texas and local professional photographer David Dermer helped highlight the team, but it’s Parker who is on his phone recording strength training or practices – spending 10 to 15 minutes each night editing and uploading that day’s action for the social media audience.
The Austintown Fitch Football sites have 1,100 followers on Twitter, 1,700 on Facebook and 1,225 on Instagram as of mid-July, controlled by Parker, his assistant coaches and support staff. Along with that, the team has an alumni publication run by Parker’s former Fitch classmate and friend Brandon Polish.
Fitch relied on its social media presence throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as its team could not gather until late May 2020. Videos of individuals training were uploaded and shared, and Zoom meetings were held to keep lines of communication open between coaches and students.
“I think our activity and the way we use multimedia, even Zoom at that point, really gave us an upper hand on a lot of other programs,” says Parker, whose team won the first seven games of a season limited to six regular-season contests in 2020. “I think that helped progress us from a team that was in year zero learning everything, [and eventually accomplishing] what we did last year.
“It kept us connected. It kept us together, trying to build that team that we just couldn’t get when everybody was alone at home.”
Social media is how Daniel Wedding, Austintown schools’ director of strength and conditioning, made his way to northeastern Ohio from his home state of Tennessee, where he was a graduate assistant at East Tennessee State University in 2014. Through a Twitter job posting, Wedding found the Austintown position and was hired in June 2019.
He, like Parker, relies on social media to reinforce teachings to the Falcon student-athletes. Wedding sees it as a way to praise hard work and consistency.
“Maybe [other athletes at the school] are competing with them in their own sport and say, ‘Oh wow, I’ve got to get in there. I’ve got to compete, get stronger and more explosive as well,’” he says.
He works with all varsity sports teams at Fitch and emphasizes he wants to get the most out of the team’s abilities.
“We want to make sure to build confidence in them and really push their limits,” Wedding says.
The offseason is about preventing injuries and building stamina for the upcoming campaign. Wedding’s focus is not necessarily on muscle groups, but on movement patterns to train several muscle groups at once utilizing different lifting patterns.
He then assesses the vast scale of injuries in each sport and what is prevalent at Fitch. Wedding explains to each athlete the reasons behind the exercises and how it benefits them in their specific sport.
“A lot of times the best teams at the end of the year are the healthiest teams,” Wedding says. “So if we can keep our best players out there the longest, then we’re going to be sitting pretty good.”
Wedding learned the craft of strength and conditioning while coaching football players at the NCAA Division I level, and has transitioned that knowledge to the athletes at Fitch.
Wedding also learned at Eastern Tennessee the importance of coaching like “my hair was on fire,” and being detail oriented.
“When the kids show up, the field and the weight room are already set up,” Wedding says. “They know I’m ready for them, and they’re expected to come in and work. That’s our standard.”
It’s taught these players more than strength training.
“He’s taught us to be a better man, how to really handle perseverance through everything and keep on going through weight training,” says Fitch senior Evans. “That teaches us a lot.”
Parker has taught in the Austintown Local School system since 2007, and started his coaching career with baseball, basketball and football.
His father, Ray, an umpire and longtime youth coach in the area, emphasized to his son the importance of training at a young age – helping him maximize his abilities on the football field and basketball courts. Helping other athletes achieve those goals is Parker’s passion.
“I knew if I wanted to be a head coach, it was somewhere where I can impact a program and a community,” Parker says. “What better place than my hometown?”
Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.