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Guide to hiring a strength and conditioning coach

By Ben Gleason & Meg Stone, Center of Excellence for Sport Science and Coach Education, Department of Exercise and Sport and Sciences, East Tennessee State University

The strength and conditioning coaching profession has quickly grown over the last few decades. Despite the clear benefit that athletic programs find in employing coaches to specifically focus on physical development of athletes, little formal guidance currently exists to aid athletic directors in hiring strength and conditioning coaches (SCCs).

Some smaller-budget schools leave physical development in the hands of sport coaches, while at many high schools, weight room supervision may be delegated to a teacher or coach with little experience and no formal training or currently accepted certification in program design or implementation.

To further complicate matters, coaches in the current American sport system are seldom trained to properly integrate conditioning and weight training with the tactical and technical training for their sport. This issue may lead to overuse injuries, improper selection of exercises, poor skill development strategies, non-contact injuries and improper management of fatigue that may impact athletic performance if a sport coach is left to implement their own strength and conditioning program unsupervised.

Proper certification

It’s important to differentiate the general concept of certification from relevant certification. A board-certified and licensed physician who specializes in psychiatry would not logically expand his or her practice to include orthopedic hip replacements. Doing so would put them outside of their area of expertise and potentially invite practical and legal consequences as a result of professional incompetence at joint replacement.

Hiring a certified personal trainer as a SCC is analogous to this practice. Personal trainers have a different skill set and training, which often includes clients with less ambitious physical performance goals centered on improving physical appearance. The primary focus for SCCs is to improve performance in sport by improving strength, power and many other athletic performance qualities using evidence-based practices as part of a long-term plan.

Two U.S. organizations have established programs to certify SCCs. The National Strength and Conditioning Association was the first organization to provide an accredited certification – the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) – and provides a level of distinction (CSCS*D) for individuals who demonstrate considerable activity within the organization, according to the NSCA website.

The NSCA requires a bachelor’s degree, current first aid/CPR training, and continuing education to attain and retain certification. A candidate must pass an accredited computer-based or written test to earn certification.

The NSCA’s Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach (RSCC) program was developed to indicate a group of professionals who have worked with athletes for a minimum of two years to ensure SCCs possess an adequate level of skill required to operate independently. RSCC*D is awarded to coaches in the program who have worked as a SCC for 10 years, while RSCC*E is awarded to coaches who have worked as a SCC for 20 years, according to the NSCA website.

In a recent effort to ensure a high quality of strength and conditioning staff, Major League Baseball has required RSCC status for new SCC jobs.

The second U.S. organization to provide a SCC certification is the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCa), which offers the Strength and Conditioning Coach Certified (SCCC) credential, according to the organization’s website.

To earn certification, a candidate must pass a written and oral examination – proctored by a panel of SCCC mentor coaches – demonstrating program design and practical knowledge and competency with exercise techniques. The CSCCa recently obtained accreditation for SCCC.

Some overseas organizations also have developed accredited certifications for SCCs that are periodically offered in the U.S. One is the Accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach (ASCC), offered by the United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association.

Certification requires passing a written exam, assessment of practical skills in demonstrating advanced exercises and weight lifting coaching, speed and plyometric coaching, and successful presentation of a case study demonstrating a high level of skill as an SCC. The examination is proctored by panel of certified mentor coaches.

SCC education

Popularity of strength and conditioning material in academic curricula in the university setting has boomed in recent years. As a result, many candidates now possess basic training in physiology that is required to demonstrate understanding of generally accepted programming tools, like resistance training movements and basic strength programming.

Practical experience of a recent baccalaureate, however, may be lacking, so many organizations now require at least one year of practical experience before these individuals may be considered for full-time positions as SCCs.

Evaluating skills

It may prove difficult for a sport coach or administrator to assess the skill level of a SCC. Many individuals holding higher-level SCC jobs, particularly in revenue sports, have attained their status through social connections. Some SCCs may have gained employment via athletic history or previous job performance, like unpaid internships or graduate assistantships.

The practice of hiring from social connections and athletic history alone may not guarantee a highly qualified SCC. We have therefore developed several suggestions in the box below (or) the box right that may aid a search team in hiring the best candidate for a SC job at any level. Many of these suggestions are found in the recent article by the “Inter-Association Task Force for Preventing Sudden Death in Collegiate Conditioning Sessions: Best Practices Recommendations,” a must-read for coaches, administrators and sport medicine staff.

A highly skilled coach adheres to all of the principles in the task force article, however some of the recommendations may be specifically useful in screening resumes and selecting quality candidates to interview.

Generally, items one and two tend to be used in collegiate SCC job ads. A small number of athletics programs employ SCCs with multiple specialties (sport psychologist, nutritionist, etc.). Coaches with multiple specialties are generally found at large-budget universities with diverse academic programs or employed by professional teams.

The second skill set is often attained after the coaches have received formal training in strength and conditioning. Coaches often attain the second specialty while working long hours as a SCC. This combination of dedication and opportunity is unusual – generally the working demands of SCCs at small-budget universities prevent further formal education after full-time employment begins.

Small-budget programs may be able to hire a highly skilled SCC as part of university faculty or staff. Providing a stipend to a qualified physical education or exercise science lecturer (CSCS/SCCC) to serve as a SCC for one to three teams may greatly enhance the services available within the athletics program and enhance faculty or staff retention.

Many athletics programs have hired SCCs who do not have college degrees with relevant majors. While none of the certifying agencies require specific college majors for coaches to be certified, a background education in physiology is necessary to comprehend and appropriately apply advanced programming concepts.

In short, formal education in exercise physiology or exercise science may be necessary for such a coach to excel at their craft, as noted in S.P. Brown’s textbook Fundamentals of Kinesiology.

While there is currently much debate on the “best” program design for many sports, it is our opinion that the best SCCs stay abreast of current research and possess foundational education in exercise science and physiology. Such understanding allows the SCC to better understand what effects new training methods actually have and prevents the SCC from adopting ineffective gimmicks to their programs.

Recommendations

In an effort to reduce exposure to liability and potentially reduce sport-related medical costs (by a reduction in injury rates), athletic directors should ensure individuals who program and supervise weight room activities or conditioning sessions hold current certification by one of the organizations that offer relevant certification for SCCs.

Even in smaller-budget schools, athletic directors should highly encourage and fund any current sport coaches who supervise weight room activities or conditioning sessions to attain a relevant certification, continuing education and formal training in the use of training methods they implement.

Another confounding issue is that many SCCs who work with high-revenue sports (particularly at the BCS level), report directly to the sport coach. This scenario may lead to pressure to implement ineffective training methods demanded by the sport coach, decrease job stability and establish a high rate of turnover for the SCC.

In the wake of an unsuccessful football season, the shortcomings of the sport coaches alone may result in termination of a highly skilled and successful SCC – a practice that is arguably unethical. Examples of abusive coaching are plentiful in the media, particularly in training sessions for American football. With the SCC reporting directly to the sport coach, the SCC may be pressured to include ineffective or abusive “mental toughness” training activities that violate their principles instead of evidence-based physical development programming.

SCCs should report directly to the athletic director, not the sport coaches. An ideal organizational structure athletic administrators should strive to achieve is a Sport Performance Enhancement Group of highly skilled specialists in SC, sport psychology, sport medicine and sport coaches, working together to maximize the sport performance of the team. Such a concept is absolutely within the budgets of larger U.S. universities and is being implemented partially by a small handful of programs.


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