February 3, 2010 • CoachingStrength & Conditioning

Career path for the strength and conditioning professional

The strength and conditioning profession has certainly burgeoned over the past 30 years, in both supply and demand. Running parallel with this progress has been the heightened interest by many young people in career opportunities in the field.

In response to these many questions, I would like to offer suggestions and personal experiences that can serve as a guide.

Cultivating a strong educational background

Young people with aspirations of entering the field have asked me for a checklist of requirements and qualifications to help with their planning.

With all due respect to certification programs and the wealth of organizations that offer them, the paramount variable in cementing a credible vita is your educational background. Administrators who are meticulous with their homework in examining strength/conditioning coaching candidates look first to education.

They want to be assured that the person they eventually hire has successfully completed the challenges of extensive academic disciplines and relative course work.

The curriculum should be under the auspice of physical education and/or kinesiology, and ideally with an emphasis in exercise science.

The following is a short list of some of the more valuable areas of study that would underpin a strong academic track for the strength/conditioning professional:

  • Human Anatomy: Structure and Function
  • Sport and Exercise Physiology
  • Biomechanics of Athletic Movement
  • Kinesiology
  • Research Methodologies: Tests and Measurements
  • Motor Learning: Concepts and Applications
  • Principles and Practices in Athletic Training
  • Coaching and Sports Psychology
  • First Aid: Injury Care and Prevention

A few recommended electives would be courses in Guidance and Counseling, Sports Administration, and Sports Law (litigation involving sports activities) that give you perspectives and a wide-range of protocols for dealing with issues outside of the training environment.

Again, this is not an all-inclusive list of courses, but ones that would certainly rate very high with every practitioner.

A minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a physical education/exercise science area of emphasis is normally required for a high school position, with a master’s degree preferred for the collegiate level.

The graduate level editions of the aforementioned courses are obviously much more fine-tuned and detailed, require more lab and practical setting work, demand more research-oriented readings, and are very heavy-handed regarding written manuscripts and reports.

Those intent on working at the collegiate or professional levels understand that the majority of administrators and/or general managers are adamant about hiring individuals with advanced degrees (master’s degree or higher) for both credibility and public relations purposes.

Certifications with credible organizations are certainly beneficial. Just be sure to do some research on the organization to verify that their certification program is prestigious, widely recognized, and suggested/required by potential employers.

Field and practical experiences

At some point during your academic career, usually toward the end, you should serve an internship in a strength/conditioning setting suitable to your goals. In many programs, this is a requirement for academic credit. If not, you should seek to find one — even if it is on a volunteer basis — for field experience.

Remember, the more hands-on experience you accrue as an adjunct to the austerity of academia, the more marketable you will become.

At Michigan State, we interview at least eight to 10 intern candidates every academic year, and bring aboard as many as five to eight of them to assist us with training the diverse composite of athletes in our athletic department.

In return, they receive academic credit, a wealth of field experience and a nice piece to help them build a résumé.

A highly recommended step after receiving your bachelor’s degree is to seek a graduate assistantship, either at your alma mater or elsewhere. Keep in mind that these positions are relatively few compared to the influx of individuals seeking them.

To be prudent in getting a head start, you should mail cover letters and résumés to prospective programs as early as the last semester of your junior year. These should be followed-up with occasional e-mails and/or typed letters to the specific individual(s) involved in that department or on the search committee.

The final rep

My personal trek to becoming a strength/conditioning coach didn’t precisely follow the presented road map. Upon graduating with my bachelor’s degree in health education and physical education, I went directly into high school teaching and coaching for 10 years.

I taught classes in health/physical education and had the privilege of being an assistant football coach, head wrestling coach and assistant track/field coach during that span.

Additionally, I did a lot of the strength/conditioning work with our athletes — as full-time positions for the high school level were non-existent. As a matter of fact, during that period (mid-seventies to early eighties), there really wasn’t much of a true strength/conditioning profession at any level.

Even though it was an unconventional journey, I would not trade even one of those years spent at the high school level for anything. That experience was invaluable to me in so many important ways, and there is no doubt whatsoever that I am a better coach for having done it. From there, I followed the career template described earlier.

My point is that it is never too late to enter the field if it is truly something that is in your mind and heart, and if your educational and career backgrounds are properly aligned, to make the transition.

I would be more than happy to answer questions you might have on any aspect of career planning in the strength/conditioning field. Just drop me an e-mail and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

Suggestions for the graduate assistant/job hunt

As I mentioned, get your “feelers” out early.

Pick your top choices and send a cover letter, résumé, and at least four rock-solid references comprised of individuals who are able to attest to your abilities and character in the coaching setting.

Good reference choices are coaches, teachers, professors, camp directors, etc. Your former bosses at the car wash and corner bar and grill might be great guys, but they are irrelevant references for one of these positions (yes, I’ve received a few of those).

Even if no job openings have been posted at these universities or organizations, you want to be way ahead of the resume onslaught in the event an opening arises. A wise coach once told me, “Don’t wait until the game is sold-out before you start looking for tickets.”

Cardinal résumé rules

Personalize every single shred of your correspondence. Never send a form cover letter. I know athletic directors and coaches who immediately toss informal “To Whom it May Concern” correspondences into the recycling bin.

Along those lines, always use the individual’s correct title whenever addressing him/her anywhere in the correspondence. You’ve never met the individual; so do not assume that you are on a first name basis.

Follow-ups via email or typed (never handwritten) letters are fine, just don’t overdo it. Be persistent, but don’t be a nuisance. Once every three to four weeks will suffice.

Unless you are contacted and asked to do so, phone calls are usually unnecessary, and can be uncomfortable for both parties. If they are even the least bit interested, they will call you first.

Ken Mannie is the head strength/conditioning coach at Michigan State University.

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