Two years ago I published “The Value of a PhD for a Strength and Conditioning Coach”. While there are more benefits to pursue a PhD than I listed, those 10 reasons were geared towards a more seasoned coach, or someone who has been in the industry full-time for at least a few years.
This prequel however, sparked by the current module (SS4092) Advanced Practices in Strength and Conditioning which I’m leading some lectures and modules for fourth year students, will discuss things I learned and things I wish I had learned in my early coaching days as an undergraduate student.
What is your why? Hopefully you have heard of Simon Sinek, famous for many TedTalks around the world. His first viral talk “Start with why” is an important perspective on how leaders inspire action, and how, moreover why great companies become successful. It boils down to what is your purpose? What is your purpose for doing what you do and why you believe what you believe? If a group of strength coaches were asked why they do what they do, the majority would agree that their purpose can be summed up to serving others (the why), through physical activity and motivation (the how) as a coach (the what). If you are not passionate working for and with others, or don’t enjoy physical activity and encouraging those around you, then being a strength and conditioning coach is probably not your calling. Once you have discovered your why and have decided that S&C might be for you, there are helpful steps to take early on to ensure a successful, impactful and enjoyable career.
Step One: Earn your degree
Obviously as a future exercise professional, it is imperative to understand basic human structures and functions. Earning a degree from an accredited university says you have a competent level of understanding within anatomy and physiology to use scientific principles as the backbone of program design. This program design will be the roadmap towards any physical goal you are after with your clients and athletes (ie. strength, decreased body fat %, jump height etc). So don’t just earn your degree, but earn it well with the intent of absorbing and retaining the information. You’ll need it again, for your certification of course, but every day when you are responsible for other people’s health and safety.
Step Two: Earn your certification
Once you have your degree you are now eligible for a few different noteworthy certifications. The leading organizations most recognizable internationally would be the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA, USA), the United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association (UKSCA), and the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association (ASCA). In my experience, the NSCA’s Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification would be the most recognized and most often listed as a job requirement for certain postings, internationally and not just in the USA. Keep in mind the term “strength and conditioning coach” will often be referenced towards working with sporting populations at a team or club level. However, this is not always the case. As a student, you must explore, in real life not just the textbooks, working with different populations including athletes, geriatrics, healthy general populations, those with particular disease and conditions etc. You might know your why, but different certifications offer different tools for a coach and how you might best serve the population you work with. Other organizations worth exploring their certifications are the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM-Exercise Physiologist), the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science (BASES-Sport & Exercise Science Accreditation), and the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach Association (CSCCa-SCCC). Be aware that some certifications may sound great in title, but offer little advancement in knowledge already acquired in your academic courses. Others may offer great content and practical tools to be an effective coach, but might not be recognized widely enough to be suitable for certain job requirements. Don’t waste your time and money on a certification just to get a few letters behind your name if they won’t enhance your skills or fulfil a pre-requisite for jobs you intend to pursue. Early in your career, spend money on what is only necessary, likely the NSCA-CSCS but do your homework, and use the rest for travel and housing expenses to gain experience shadowing and volunteering under great coaches.
Step Three: GET EXPERIENCE
Hopefully you become aware (and take advantage) of this step early on in your journey (still an undergraduate) to get at least some experience before completing your degree or certification. If you have already graduated with your bachelor’s without any experience don’t worry, if you are patient and willing to sacrifice a bit, be creative and take initiative, then you can still have a great career in strength and conditioning. Right or wrong, don’t expect the first few experiences to be compensated with currency. As mentioned, S&C often becomes synonymous with sport. However, there are two other key sectors to consider when looking to gain experience early on. They might just serve your why. If you ignore gaining shadow experience in these other two sectors, you’ll have less knowledge and experience to draw on in your future career where it might be extremely valuable with a particular client or athlete, but also less marketable if future jobs are only available in that setting. The private sector includes working with the general population, such as a local gym or fitness centre. People of all ages, training ages, and physical goals, sometimes 1:1, sometimes in groups. Generally speaking, an improvement in overall health is the target in the private setting and for some that might be overall weight loss, increased lean body mass, preparing for a 5k, or a combination of all three. You will gain experience learning how to build relationships and motivate individuals with varying degrees of commitment level in a setting where your impact is invaluable. This sector will challenge you to make the experience enjoyable as much as you are working to improve physical qualities, whereas in elite sport, relationships are key but pressures can be high if certain metrics are not met regardless of perceived experience. The other setting different from sport would be the clinical setting. Clinical settings can vary from working for a hospital network, for example as a preventative specialist in diabetes for someone diagnosed as pre-diabetic, likely using more laboratory testing than you might in the private setting in addition to collaborating with a dietician, or you might find yourself working in a clinic alongside physiotherapists, playing an integral role in a person’s return from injury which can be extremely rewarding.
Step four: Train often
This one is obvious, but important. As a coach, you need to hold others to a certain standard. A standard of commitment, a standard of technique and form, a standard of intensity and so forth. You’ll need to hold yourself to these standards if you want to create the best working-relationship with your athletes and clients. So while your friends are out partying three or four nights a week at Uni and skipping the gym, you might consider sacrificing some social activities in order to expose yourself to as many reps under the bar as possible. The more competent you are in demonstrating a wide variety of exercises, at varying intensities, the more capacity you will have to be successful with varying populations. Spend four months researching and training in bodybuilding, four months in power-lifting, then 6 months in Olympic lifting, then three months of endurance training. Learning the physical adaptations to exercise in the classroom is very different from seeing the changes in your clients, which is completely different again from experienceing them yourself both physically and mentally. Find a training partner, someone you can challenge and can challenge you back as a lifter but also as a coach.
Step five: Supplementary Learning Opportunities
When you finish your degree, these will become continuing educational resources. For now, you need to supplement your knowledge in the classroom with what is actually being applied. Below is a list of books, podcasts, coaches to research and job boards I would recommend visiting often for the latest internship opportunities. Learn the pre-reqs for jobs you may want in the future, start forging a process to get there. Be active in your absorption, start a file now with lists and notes and dig down different rabbit holes because the lists below are not ranked nor exhaustive just a variety of starting points. Good luck.
- Periodization (Tudor Bompa)
- Supple Leopard (Kelly Starrett)
- Super Training (Verkoshansky & Siff)
- Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training (Laursen & Buchheit)
- Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook
- The Pacey Performance Podcast
- NSCA’s Coaching Podcast
- The Strength Coach Podcast
- Iron Game Chalk Talk
- The Tim Ferris Show
Coaches to research:
- Des Ryan
- Tim Suchomel
- Joey Bergles
- Eric Cressey
- Daniel Baker
- Eamonn Flanagan
- Paudie Roche
- Mike Robertson
- Bryan Mann
- Brad Schoenfield
Finally – there is a clinic being held May 14th 2022 in Co. Cork, Ireland by the Irish Strength & Conditioning Network. This is a “no brainer” to attend and begin networking with those who are well into the journey you are now beginning.
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 also a Sports Science network professional for US Soccer, providing support in strength and conditioning and sport science to US Youth National Teams during domestic training camps and international tournaments. 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).