Strength and Conditioning in the Collegiate Sector is becoming increasingly more competitive each year. The reasons abound, as coaches in every sport now realize how important a reputable S&C coach can be to the success of their program. It is becoming standard for S&C coaches to be highly educated, have legitimate certifications, have hours of practical experience, and possess unique skill-sets in the fields of massage therapy, nutrition, and countless other modalities. I am lucky enough to, first and foremost, have a job, and secondly, have a job I absolutely love in the collegiate sector of strength and conditioning at the University of Southern California.
I am a rarity. I was not a collegiate athlete. I have not won, nor participated in a powerlifting, olympic weightlifting, strongman, or bodybuilding competition. I delved into the strength and conditioning world only after changing my major twice in college (pharmacy school could have brought in some serious doe, but I could not rationalize driving my BMW to CVS for work).
Once I got in, I got in….full force. I did everything right, because I had to. How could I be attractive to employers? Well, I will tell you exactly what I did to become just that.
1. Formally Educate Yourself
College is your chance to acquire the base of knowledge you will need going forward. Whether you major in exercise science, kinesiology, athletic training, or biomechanics, you must have a fundamentally sound scientific background to move forward in a positive direction. I have a B.S. in Exercise Science from the University of Connecticut and a M.S. in Strength and Conditioning from Springfield College. Although that has helped in gaining employment, I in no way believe this is the one and only path. I recommend you obtain an undergraduate degree in kinesiology, athletic training, sport biology, etc. Although exercise science may seem like the logical track, it can tend to be too broad in its subject matter. A good base of knowledge is indeed of great importance, but one must cater their educational experience towards the end goal of coaching athletes. Focusing on the sciences vs. spending credits in sport psychology, the art of coaching, and sport administration will be beneficial.
Your “coaching” classes come when you pursue graduate work by finding a top collegiate strength and conditioning program that accepts graduate assistants. The goal is to provide yourself with an environment that essentially allows you to be an extension of the Strength and Conditioning Staff. Springfield College provided me with a graduate assistantship that allowed me to control every aspect of strength and conditioning for the football, men’s basketball, and field hockey teams. That experience was the most valuable in regards to enhancing my coaching skill and developing my philosophy. Springfield College is not the only establishment that can provide this, although it is certainly a viable option!
2. Gain Practical Experience
Practical experience can come in many forms. More than anything else, these experiences will mold you into the coach you will inevitably be. I recommend you take some time and put serious thought when deciding what you end up getting involved with. I truly did not learn how to write and implement a program until I began getting experience outside the classroom in the collegiate strength and conditioning setting. I have had great and not so great practical experiences. Either way, you must choose what you get involved with based on the ACTUAL coaching opportunities allotted during the experience, whether or not you come out of it with a specialized skill, certification, or degree, and who then becomes a part of your network. I believe you should have at least 3 formal experiences prior to getting your first job in the collegiate setting. I believe 2 of those experiences should be in the collegiate setting itself. One at a higher level D1 program and another at a lower level, but both having coaches with extensive experience and network connections. The third experience should be in the private sector. Whether that be at a specialized performance training facility, physical therapy clinic, athletic training observation, etc., this experience will allow you to develop, or at least expose you to, a specialized skill not normally acquired in a collegiate S&C internship.
These experiences serve as your dress rehearsal for your subsequent job. Realize that you want to be a collegiate sector strength coach. Also realize that
this means you must address, command, and successfully run training sessions for upwards of 30, 50, even 100 athletes. Common sense tells us that if you have not been put in a situation that lends itself to you replicating this situation, then you are not ready to get paid by a University to train its athletes. If you find yourself reading this and have not yet learned how to use excel or have not ran a warm-up for a group of over 30 kids, then you need to get moving.
I was lucky enough to have been thrown in the fire during many of my experiences. You may be scared s!*#less, but it is the best and quickest way you will learn (and get respect).
3. Network, Network, Network
Everyone knows networking is important, but as I get further into my career, I realize how UNBELIEVABLY necessary it is. I will be honest, the importance of networking was part of my reasoning for starting this website. As a young buck in college, I sometimes looked around wondering how certain people were getting these great jobs. It was because they were salesman; they sought out people they had to know and made connections. Whether you are good or bad, if you know the right people, you will make gains.
My network has been established mainly from the educational institutions I attended and the internships I performed. I am extremely grateful to have been a part of the programs at UCONN and Springfield College, because of the extensive networks they have in the field of strength and conditioning. Passively networking based on your school affiliation is not enough though. You must be pro-active. Be comfortable calling or emailing every strength coach in the country (actually just call, people do not know how to speak on the phone anymore and its ridiculous…sadly, if you can speak on a phone it is almost a special skill these days). DO NOT ask if they have any internships and absolutely, positively DO NOT ask if they are offering paid GA positions or internships. Ask them their story, ask them how they did it, do not ask them for advice. People are always willing to talk about their own story, rather than try to give someone they do not know a life lesson. Once you have made a good contact, you can move on to expressing your goal of becoming a public sector S&C coach, and if they offer any internship opportunities or simply would allow a volunteer to come in and observe. Keep in mind that coaches may not, in reality, have the time for a random kid trying to get on the phone with them. If possible, go visit facilities or approach these coaches at conferences to establish the connection. Do not be that kid the staff talks about as the one that will not stop calling.
4. Acquire a Special Skill
Gaining employment in the collegiate setting means making yourself marketable. Being a collegiate athlete goes a long way when standing out, but even that has become increasingly commonplace or a non-factor when other things are considered. Acquiring a special skill or expertise in the realm of massage therapy, functional movement screen, kettlebell training, boxing, MMA, speed training, nutrition, etc. can be extremely valuable. I am not saying rush out and get yourself an RKC (you best believe I am NOT at the current $2,300 price tag), but be able to be that coach that others call on when they need advice in your area of expertise. If you can claim expertise in a certain modality that can be utilized by the strength and conditioning department, you may move to the top of the list of candidates.
5. Informally Educate Yourself
The passion I have for S&C was not always what it is today. It was not until I entered graduate school at Springfield College, did I realize the competition that was a part of the industry and how passionate these coaches could be. Prior to that, I would continually educate myself outside of formal schooling, but it was minimal at best. Being surrounded by young and hungry professionals, it quickly became commonplace for me to be immersed in some sort of reading material between classes or getting together with other students for a serious white-board session after coaching groups. Next to your practical experiences, this is the next best learning tool. The many friendly and not-so friendly debates you will inevitably have, will allow you to practice verbalizing your thoughts, philosophies and stances. If you are not reading everything, talking with everyone, and living the profession, then you will never be offered a seat at that table.
6. Be Ready to Provide Free Labor
Bottom line, you are going to have to do a lot of work for no compensation. Am I saying it is always fair or right? Yes and no. I have never been totally sold on the “I am going to treat you like s%$t until you pay your dues” notion. On the other hand, you must still know your place as an intern, work your ass off, know your stuff, and everything else will be taken care of. If you are good, people will notice. And NEVER quit an internship. If you have, put your planet fitness, 24 hour fitness, golds gym, curves, or equinox uniform back on, because coaches will find out.