The value of a PhD for a Strength and Conditioning Coach – Patrick Dolan

Completion of higher education degrees increases one’s knowledge in specific areas and may also be helpful in work-place promotions. In sport, a Master’s degree is usually the highest point a coach feels he or she needs to climb to in order to separate themselves from their peers, but here are 10 reasons why strength and conditioning coaches may want to consider tackling an applied PhD program to enhance their skill sets as a practitioner.

1.  The challenge for excellence

In my experience, the personalities within the strength and conditioning profession are that of great ambition and in constant pursuit of excellence in everything they do. They must be, in order to preach the same expectation to the athletes they work with. A great S&C coach finds ways to facilitate their athletes through uncomfortable tasks and environments (failure) to set the foundation for future success. For coaches who have been working with athletes for a while (experience always outweighs degrees!), but want to assess their practices against science, enduring the journey of a doctoral degree is surely going to offer this same standard of staying uncomfortable as a coach.

2. Getting comfortable with the data

Like many other industries, strength and conditioning is shifting more and more towards a data-driven profession. Is the pendulum swinging too far? My opinion on the job title “sport scientist” will have to come in a future blog, but my general opinion is that collecting data is vital in offering information necessary to drive reflection on past practices, and future changes in any program. The numbers (or questions) can fall anywhere along the continuum of simple to complex. Some examples are ‘what was the average duration of training sessions this past in-season’; ‘how did the summer sessions’ injury incidence rates after COVID-19 compare to the last three summers’; or what was the effect of my ankle sprain reduction strategy over the past two years?’ There will be different, but appropriate data collection and statistical tools needed to answer these questions. Personally, getting more comfortable with advanced data-analytics was one of the primary reasons I chose to pursue a PhD.

3. Applying research into practice

I have heard S&C and sport coaches use the notion that the real world doesn’t have time or space for research. Certainly, the everyday sporting environment offers many limitations that do not allow for gold-standard methods, but like we preach to our athletes, don’t let challenges get in the way of being as great as you can be. If there is a standard to objectively determining if your program (in the weight room or on the field) is effective, you should be striving to reach that very standard as closely as possible. This doesn’t mean bells, whistles and graphs at the sake of the art of coaching, but rather for me, this means I want my strength and conditioning staff to operate as one of the most objectively driven departments in the industry. Just make sure you have coaches that can coach!

4. Surrounded by people who are different and smarter than you

One of the few draw backs in the strength and conditioning industry is that the staffs are often limited to one person, YOU. Implementing a strength and conditioning program year after year, whether for a team of 30 athletes, or 15 teams being responsible for 300 athletes, your program can become repetitive and follow an approach of ‘one size fits all’. Being enrolled as a full-time PhD student, spending the amount of hours normally spent in the weight room as a full-time S&C coach, now in an office with 10 other post-grads, immerses you with experts all interested in the same subject matter that is sport science. You will have opportunities for daily coffees and conversations with world leading experts in biomechanics, sports nutrition, sports psychology, physiology, coaching pedagogy and more.

5.  Increasing credibility

I am not a big believer in that whatever is on your resume (or not) is most representative of your abilities and what you will actually execute in the job day today.  However, let’s be honest, the strength and conditioning industry is young, and much less regulated than other accompanying fields such as sports nutrition, sports psychology or physiotherapy which have varying registries and licensures to practice. Completion of a PhD demonstrates relentless commitment to start and finish a long-term project with inevitable ups and downs and constant scrutiny from experts in all things science. Personally, I chose a project that will allow me to better collaborate with medical personnel in my future coaching role. The gap between strength and conditioning and sports medicine departments in many settings is often embarrassingly wide, and another primary reason I took this path.

6.  Disseminating effectively

You have chosen a dissertation topic that will be of interest, but also enhances your future coaching portfolio. You have studied the different research designs and ran your clustered randomized controlled trial. You have critically analysed the studies’ outcomes and thought about how these findings can apply to your work setting and others in your field. Now what!? Full time strength and conditioning coaches are constantly communicating laterally and vertically within their organization, sometimes as a subordinate, sometimes as a leader. The ability to communicate and present clear, concise, objectively supported content is critical for success. The PhD process forces opportunities for peer-reviewed academic writing and oral presentations to senior academics within the university’s school or department. If nothing else is gained from the PhD process, these opportunities alone will drive success in whatever position you hold in the future.

7.  Constant appraisal and feedback (supervisory team)

Many strength and conditioning coaches often report up to a person with a very different background and expertise. For example, in a professional sport setting that can be a General Manager, in the US collegiate system that can be an athletics director for external operations, or in the private setting the head sport coach. Very often, these supervisors are unequipped to fairly assess your contribution, but also unable to provide constructive feedback in specific areas which you need to improve upon, outside of general work-place practices. Your supervisory team however, will be leading experts in the area of sport and exercise science, perhaps each with a separate niche within the domain. You will be challenged to grow in very tangible and specific areas relevant to you as a strength and conditioning coach. It is hard to find experts that are comfortable and qualified to give such criticism on a regular basis. But you better be ready for it!

8.  Generalist to specialist

There are many nuances to both the art and science of coaching that when first starting out, a young coach should gather inspiration from many relevant areas including weight training programming, speed development, varying coaching voices, fatigue management, physiology etc. S&C coaches need to be competent in multiple areas to have a positive impact within the organization they work for. However, in time, mastery of these general skills alone will attenuate further progress. Hard skills (ie. prospectively measuring injury risk factors in football or velocity-based training effectiveness on throwing velocity) learned throughout the PhD process will allow for endless evaluation and improvement in any program or setting.

9.  Elevate yourself from the pack

Employers in other industries offer pay raises for earning higher degrees, and while I have not heard of a PhD increasing your pay at the club you work for, it may help for future job applications in two ways. Firstly, possessing a PhD within S&C (and the wider performance staff umbrella) is not commonplace, however I do believe the tide is just now starting to shift that way, favoured for director and managerial roles. Secondly, the skills learned and earned upon completion of the PhD process will likely now match the highest positions held within the organization you’re applying to, giving you the leverage to demand a salary worthy of your expertise.

10.  Open up other career opportunities (academic, administrative, consulting)

Finishing bluntly, the hours required for full-time strength and conditioning coaches and their compensation does not balance out. With that said, I believe the privileges that come with coaching for a living outweigh any cons. At some point in your career, you may find yourself out of work because the head coach got fired, or looking to supplement your income with part-time teaching or consulting for a new sports tech. company, or trying to start a new family of your own and look to enter the academic world with more structured and consistent hours than professional sport. I believe a doctor of philosophy within sport science allows you more flexibility to find the professional opportunities that align with your personal desires at the time.

Patrick Dolan is a PhD Researcher for the Irish Rugby Injury Surveillance (IRIS) Project in partnership with the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) focusing on measurable strength and conditioning strategies in order to reduce the rate of injury occurrence and severities. A native of the US, Patrick is a Sports Science network professional for US Soccer, providing support in strength and conditioning and sport science to US Youth National Teams during domestic and international training camps and matches.   Patrick is an Approved Mentor for the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCa),  a Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach (RSCC) and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).  Contact Patrick via email at, his profiles on Researchgate: LinkedIn.  Follow Patrick on Twitter @coachpdolan

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