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April 14, 2016 • Strength & Conditioning

Confronting challenges of today’s strength coaches

On just about a daily basis, I receive inquiries regarding the requirements, process, and suggestions for becoming a strength and conditioning coach. These contacts stem from both current sports coaches at the high school or collegiate levels, as well as undergraduate students who seek internships or graduate assistantships.

The first point of discussion regarding this profession is delineating between truth and myth. There are many misconceptions surrounding the field, thus a clearer understanding of the industry’s status and its inherent expectations are in order.

Perception vs. reality

As far as perceptions and misconceptions are concerned, let’s take a quick look at the real life of a collegiate strength and conditioning coach.

In terms of commitment and dedication to the responsibilities of the field, interested individuals must understand that it is not uncommon to spend 12 to 14 hours on the job most days for the better part of the year. And yes, there will be some 16-hour days interspersed in that mix. Additionally, expect to work a good amount of weekends, most assuredly during the in-season of your designated sport and for recruiting events during the offseason.

While most sport coaches get anywhere from three to four weeks of vacation during the months of June, July and August, that window represents a prime training period for strength coaches — especially for fall sports. The strength coach might get one to two weeks of total vacation time during those months, but that’s in an ideal situation.

The overall time commitment can be very stressful on the family. Many of my former colleagues who have either retired or moved on to another career path have cited this as the overriding factor in their decision.

Make no mistake: All avenues of coaching involve family-time sacrifices, and the strength and conditioning field is second to none in this regard.

Qualifications

Gone are the days where you merely needed to have a few competitive lifting trophies on your mantel — or an extraordinary physique — to qualify for the position of strength and conditioning coach. Today, it’s a true, hard-earned profession.

Cultivating a strong educational background is not only an advantage but also a standard requisite for entering the field. Young people with aspirations of entering the profession must be aware that the paramount variable in cementing a credible vita is the fact that they’ve been put through the fires of academia. Here are seven of the more valuable areas in this curriculum.

1. Human Anatomy and Sports Physiology: Structure and Function. This area of study includes comprehensive training in all of the body’s muscular and neural systems. Emphasis should be in the interactions of these systems, and the protocols and subsequent adaptive responses that initiate positive changes. An emphasis on applying principles to practice should be evident.

2. Biomechanics of Athletic Movement. Once the structure and function of the human musculoskeletal system is fully understood, it is now important to translate this knowledge to the training environment and the field of play. Athletic movement is very specific in nature, and in order to apply evidence-based training procedures, a solid background in this discipline is warranted.

3. Research Methodologies: Tests and Measurements. The true strength and conditioning professional, while not necessarily actively involved in the rigors of research design and data collection, must keep current on the influx of these scientific papers for evidence-based findings, updates and professional growth. The profession is light years ahead of where it was due to the burgeoning increase in both the interest in this field and in the quest to put training protocols to test of the scientific method.

4. Coaching and Sports Psychology. Today’s coaches often underestimate the intricacies and challenges presented by the so-called millennial athlete. In order to fully capture both their hearts and minds, you need a clear lens on how each works. Today’s student-athlete is very different in some respects and very similar in others when compared to the student-athlete of 15 or 20 years ago. Knowing those differences, the reasons for them and the strategies for dealing with them will serve you well in your daily interactions. Ultimately, that can have an effect on the impact you have on each of them.

5. Motor Learning: Concepts and Practical Applications. Strength and conditioning activities prepare the system for the physical rigors of the sport in question. However, they do not necessarily sharpen the specific skills required in those sports. This is why at least one graduate-level course in motor skill development and the scientifically sound principles of learning, acquiring, recalling and executing intricate sport/position skills is important.

The term “sport-specific” is loosely used to validate the use of various movements. Coaches must adopt a curious mentality when “sport-specific” is attached to a drill, lifting movement, training methodology or piece of equipment. A data-driven motor learning course helps clear that path.

6. Principles and Practices in Athletic Training. While you are not expected to assume the duties of a certified athletic trainer, having a firm grasp on their responsibilities, duties, and approaches to rehabilitation and injury treatment protocols serve both positions well on several fronts.

The strength coach and athletic trainer must work together on a daily basis in assessment, planning, implementing, documenting, and progressing with regard to a host of injuries and other issues. That includes overall physical and mental health and well-being. You will find that the very best programs in the country have great communication and cooperation between these two areas. You will also find that those who do not are missing a very important piece to comprehensive care for their athletes, and it is transparent in many negative ways.

7. Essentials of Musculoskeletal Care. The coursework here is targeted toward the effects training has on the neuromuscular system and in addressing the procedures for appropriate recovery and rejuvenation. Troubleshooting the overtraining syndrome and all of its pitfalls are addressed in detail, with attention given to the concomitant strategies for steering clear of this potentially debilitating condition.

As you go through the curriculum, you’ll undoubtedly have room for a few elective courses. The following may be required, but would nevertheless provide a wealth of insights and prove to be very valuable, especially in managing myriad peripheral issues that are bound to surface.

  • Sports Law and Litigation. This is an area where many in the coaching profession are behind the curve. It is important to know the liabilities of the profession, the rights afforded to both the student-athletes and coaches and the incidents that have led to litigation.
  • Guidance and Counseling for Adolescents and Young Adults. A course in this area gives you the academic wherewithal to approach young people with the right messages when attempting to help them navigate the choppy waters of their social lives, school, athletics and future goals.
  • Alcohol and Drug Education. The use and misuse of the ubiquitous classifications of drugs — including the over-the-counter, prescription and illicit street varieties — is a vital educational component that the strength and conditioning coach must have at least a seminal level of awareness. 

Certification

Forty years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a legitimate strength and conditioning organization to join for learning purposes and professional growth aspirations. Within the past 30 years, there has been an exponential increase in the number and categories of professional strength or fitness associations that have branched into specialized areas.

Whether you hope to be an Olympic/power lifting, high school, collegiate or professional strength coach, or a personal trainer, there is an organization and certification opportunity available to fit your educational background and assist with your professional growth.

Two notable, accredited organizations for the aspiring strength and conditioning professional are the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCa) and National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).

Practical experience

The more accredited certification and hands-on experience you accrue as an adjunct to the austerity of academia, the more marketable you become. As a matter of fact, you might as well chalk-up the importance of an internship or graduate assistantship as a requirement for the collegiate and professional ranks. I say this primarily due to the fact that the industry is becoming more saturated than ever, and the competition for available positions is fierce.

The winning combination of education, accredited certification, networking, field experience and a true passion and persevering attitude will serve you well on your journey.


Ken Mannie is the head strength and conditioning coach Michigan State University. His column, Powerline, appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine. 


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Steve Coomes

Nice article. Thanks for your work at Michigan State, coach. You are an inspiration in the program!