Insights into Strength & Conditioning in the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association

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The Ontario Colleges Athletic Association (OCAA) has not only been a place for student-athletes to continue their post-secondary athletic pursuits for over 50 years, but it is also becoming a place for strength and conditioning coaches to start and grow in their careers. Like some of the student-athletes they work with, S&C coaches can gain the experience needed to transition to USport, national, and/or professional organizations. Over the last 5 years especially there has been a big boom in schools adding strength and conditioning to their athletic departments to stay competitive and assist in the recruitment of prospective student-athletes. In this interview, we speak to 3 coaches at 3 different institutions to offer some insight into strength and conditioning at the OCAA level. Teresa Arnini is the High-Performance Coordinator at Humber College in Toronto Ontario, a role she has held since 2010. Jason Melhado is in his second year as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario. Rounding out the group is Rob Chrzaszcz who is in his first year in the OCAA at Niagara College in Niagara, Ontario.   CSCA – What led you to your current role? TA: The opportunity presented itself 10 years ago, by our then Athletic Director, to work one on one with student varsity athletes; to get them stronger and faster. A group exercise studio became available due to additional renovations within the athletic centre and thus Humber’s High-Performance Centre was established.   The position was created for a 24 hour per work week in which I would introduce the program to the athletic department, student-athletes, and teams. My goal was to support & educate our varsity student-athletes/teams on how to enhance their athletic performance. In the first year, my initial goal was to establish a trustworthy relationship with the student-athletes/coaches/teams and take on anyone interested to work with me. I started with the cross country team, which I am also the Head Coach. I took other interested student-athletes (1 on 1 and small groups) ideally anyone who was interested or who was required to do extra training by athletic therapy or their sport coach. My other goal was to educate the student-athletes/coaches of the necessity of establishing a progressive strength program for athletic development, understand the importance of periodization; and build strong communication with the teams. This was a new concept for Humber’s Athletic Department, and it needed to be approached as a step-by-step, consistent and trustworthy process.  Within the first year, the interest was growing, and I grabbed the attention of another sport coach who asked me if his athletes could get involved by adding regeneration sessions and conditioning group sessions. I believe this was the start of the program being visible. As the years progressed, I was doing more than 24 hours a week, the days became longer, which created the opportunity to take on another part-time coach to assist with the program and develop it that much more. I guess the rest is history. I/we worked hard to build the program; a program that not too many individuals were aware of or believed in or saw the benefit of. We had to be patient, be available for coaches/student-athletes, we had to be mentors, educators and above all, we needed to keep working on establishing a trustworthy relationship with everyone.  Within the last 5 years the program has grown so much; most of our teams have some involvement with the HPC; I was able to hire another coach thus establishing a small department with two coaches and myself. Having this opportunity allowed me to slightly transition away from coaching and focus on more of a coordinator/administrative role to grow the department. Currently, we work with our 13 teams (260+ student-athletes), we provide full support to all our teams, consisting of full-year periodized programs, fitness testing, year-round recovery, and movement sessions, nutritional consultation/education both in/off season, a fully equipped varsity only weight room, sport psychology support and full integration with our athletic therapy department. As well as having an established student internship program with The University of Guelph-Humber’s Kinesiology Program.  JM: In the fall of 2010, after working in the private sector for 4 years, I was looking to “break-in” to strength and conditioning at the OCAA or OUA level. I reached out to University/College Strength Coaches (some of which I knew, some of which I didn’t) and set up meetings about any internship or employment opportunities. Meeting with Teresa at Humber College was one of those opportunities. I can remember vividly, a couple of weeks into my time at Humber, Teresa asked for my banking information. That night I sat in my car and cried that I just got a job in collegiate athletics…I thought I was volunteering!   In the spring of 2016, it was time to move on from Humber. This is where the relationships you build can come back around. I met Jason Kerswill, (who is currently the Director of Athletics at the University of Calgary) during my time working with Canada Basketball Men’s National Program when Jason was the High- Performance Manager. He left that role to become the Manager of Athletics & Recreation at Seneca College. So, I reached out to him to discuss if adding a Strength and Conditioning Coach to the department was in his plan. It was. That began the process of building a program as a “one-man band”, after the first semester I was able to add a placement student from the Fitness and Health Promotions program and in year two added another strength coach to help better serve the student-athletes.   However, it was a short stop. In December of 2017, I decided to leave Seneca and move to Kingston, Ontario to be closer to my girlfriend Katie who that summer accepted a role as the Head Athletic Therapist at St. Lawrence College (SLC). Thankfully, St. Lawrence posted for a Strength Coach role in the summer of 2018 and I was able to return to the OCAA after a few months in the private sector. Currently, I am in year 2 at SLC and have worked closely with Katie to build a fully integrated Performance Therapy model with 6 placement students (4 from SLC’s Fitness and Health Promotions Program and 2 from Queen’s University) and provide strength and conditioning support to 5 of our 8 Varsity Teams.   RC: As a kid I was very involved with sports which propelled me into a world of competition. This was where the seed was planted as I always excelled in every sport, I participated in.  After high school, I decided to attend Niagara College for Police Foundations, graduated and continued to pursue a degree in Psychology at Brock.   After a couple of years, I did not feel the same desire to go to school and took a year off to figure things out. That was the best choice because it exposed me to what my passion was. I got a job at a gym selling memberships and shortly after was transferred to be a fitness consultant. I was not ready for this position but after 3 months of working as a consultant I realized I wanted to go back to school to help people exercise and improve their health. I then took it upon myself to go back to school at Niagara College for Fitness and Health and got a graduate degree in Exercise Science.   Also, as a former Niagara College athlete, I can relate to the athletes and understand what must be done to improve performance. It’s not easy to transition from high school to college sports without guidance and I feel like I can bridge that gap and make the athletes feel comfortable when it comes to weight training. Nonetheless, my journey was long, a lot of ups and downs but I am now doing what I have always been designed to do and I love it.  CSCA – What does a typical day look like for you? TA: Our days usually run from 9am – 8pm, in which we have set open gym times in the morning. From 3pm onwards we have our set team sessions. Within the day itself, we plan and program for the teams/individual student-athletes, we meet/consult with them on various topics, we provide nutritional consultation or any other items that the student-athletes may require. At times, we may have meetings with captains, managers, and teams. We work closely with our therapy department, who we meet with weekly and at times daily to follow-up on student-athlete progress. The day is packed! Expectantly or unexpectedly.  JM: I feel like I am lucky that I have pretty much the same start time each day. The sports that have “Team S&C Lifts” (M/W Basketball, W Rugby) train at 7 am twice a week. I arrive with the placement student from that team at 6:30 am to start setting up for the session. We have a great situation with a newly constructed fitness centre which has been set up very well to facilitate team sessions with 4 connected squat racks and large turf area as well as storage for the various tools need for our sessions. After our session (45-60mins) I send off the attendance to our sport coaches and input any of our monitoring data (vertical jump on a jump mat, body weight, etc).   I try as much as possible to use the 9 am – 10:30 am window to get some training in myself. Last year I was fortunate to teach a couple of classes in the Fitness and Health Promotions program as a Maternity Leave coverage which also filled some of my mornings and afternoons. Currently, I may use the afternoons to work with any student-athletes that missed their team session or want to get an extra workout in. I work in combination with our Head Athletic Therapist to recondition our student-athletes as part of their Return to Play/Performance Plan, adjust individuals’ programs or program the next training phase. We utilized the Teambuildr Software for our programming which makes these tasks very time efficient.   Each Tuesday we have a staff meeting with our placement students where we discuss the week ahead and complete a treatment or exercise technique scenario. This leads into our team’s evening practice time, at the start of the year I work with our sport coaches and placement students to install our Pre-Practice Prep (warmups) or touch base with coaches about how the team is doing in the weight room. It also gives me a chance to see how things are translating on the field or court, what types of things the group or individual lacks and where things can be adjusted. As we move through the year our placement students lead the warmups and I just stop in quickly to touch base with coaches if necessary. I am also here for most home games to lead or assist in the Pre-Game Prep of both the team and individual student-athletes.   RC: Currently I am working with the basketball, volleyball and soccer programs here at Niagara College. A typical day for me has our basketball team’s training from 6:30 – 8 am. Our volleyball program comes in as small groups throughout the day based on class schedules and our soccer team trains every day on the field during their practice time.  CSCA – What are some of te challenging and rewarding aspects of working in the OCAA?  TA: Starting with the rewarding aspect – for me, it’s the relationships that are created with the student-athletes and the sport coaches. To be able to watch a young student-athlete grow into a responsible, dedicated and strong competitor is so rewarding. We are teaching them strong skills that they carry with them in life.  Challenges: When I was given the opportunity – I researched and realized that no other OCAA college had a set Strength & Conditioning Program; in which there were assigned SC coaches to work with teams/student-athletes regularly. Some colleges outsourced; some used their sport coaches or Athletic Therapists to help student-athletes and some had no support and left it up to the student-athletes to figure out.  Being one of the first programs within the OCAA was difficult; as not too many people knew anything about strength & conditioning. Some knew that it existed in USports and within the United States, yet within the collegiate level not too much. I/ we had to educate administration staff/athletics/student-athletes/sport coaches as to what was involved in this SC program and the importance of proper development, avoiding overtraining, recovery, sleep, nutrition, sports psychology, etc.   It was difficult for me initially as I had to share the space with the Fitness & Health Promotions Program, which utilized the room 2 days a week for their academic class; leaving us with only 3 days to work with the student-athletes. I had to separate the mentality of personal/fitness training vs athletic training as well. As you can imagine, there was a lot of education that was needed. Most of our sport coaches are part-time and this led to many emails/phone messaging and at times it became very difficult to meet with them to discuss the team’s development and/or specific student-athletes.  At the time most student-athletes thought that playing their sport was good enough for their performance and they often played too much of the same sport which can lead to overuse injuries. It was at times challenging to educate them and prove to them that incorporating strength, flexibility, mobility, proper nutrition, and regeneration would make them that much better and optimize their performance.   JM: In my experience the challenges of working at the OCAA level are not that different from any other level of post-secondary sport (USport, NCAA, etc). You need the support of your administration and sport coaches for your program to be successful. At times that can be a challenge as administration may know what your role is “on paper” but they may not have a full picture of how you serve the student-athletes. This can make it difficult when they are asked to bring budgets, compensation or staffing requests to their superiors. Our sport coaches are also part-time which can make it difficult at times to meet face to face as they balance work, home life, and coaching responsibilities. Facilities can also be a hurdle as even though some colleges are building or renovating their athletic centres, creating a space that is conducive to work with the student-athletes or teams is not often in the plans. As I mentioned I have worked at 3 different OCAA schools and they have had 3 different facility situations. A positive that comes out of that is you need to adapt and be creative on how to work within your facility situation to create the adaptations you are looking for with your student-athletes.   A challenge that often gets overlooked is student-athlete turnover. With a range of academic programs at the college level, we could have a student-athlete in our program anywhere from 1-5 years. Not to mention those who transfer or are not academically eligible from semester to semester or year to year. Having a relationship with your coaches and student-athletes is critical, so you know if a student-athlete is a long-term situation (maybe they plan to take two diploma programs, 2 years each) or a student-athlete that is university transfer who is doing a post-graduate diploma (1 year). This information can have a big effect on how you construct your training plan for the group or individual.   The last challenge I will mention is staffing. Again, not unique in the OCAA but the growth in this area as compared to USport over the last 3-5 years still needs to improve. While more and more USport schools have grown their departments to multiple staff members with those strength coaches having 2-4 teams in their “portfolio”. Most schools in the OCAA have 1 staff (not usually full time, may also not be there during the summer) who is responsible for all of the varsity teams (which can be as large as 13 teams!). Some school’s Athletic Therapists have strength and conditioning responsibilities and some athletic programs don’t have any formal support at all. The positive to this is that some schools are seeing the success of those schools with strength and conditioning coaches on staff and are beginning to add roles to their departments. Strength coaches also need to have honest conversations with their administrations that to best serve their student-athletes it cannot fall just on one person and create additional strength coach roles at their schools.   We all got into this field and collegiate strength and conditioning in particular to have an impact on young people at such an important stage of their lives. That is the biggest reward, to use the weight room as a vehicle to teach the life lessons of hard work, dedication, responsibility and teamwork. When you get messages from former student-athletes saying “thank you for helping me become a responsible young person and for holding me accountable” that is what we are all in this for. The wins and championships are great, but it’s the relationships formed that is the lasting reward.  Another rewarding aspect of the OCAA is that you may have the opportunity to build a program from the ground up. Is it stressful to have a lot of balls in the air and at times overwhelming to try and design and implement a system of training to fit your situation, YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT IS! However, to see your program grow and develop is something very special. Maybe you only had one or two teams bought in at the start and now you have 2-3 more, maybe you were able to get your contract extended into the summer months to assist those student-athletes who live in the area, or maybe you were able to add another staff member or create student-placement opportunities. These are the things that make the tough days all worth it in the end.   RC: Some of the rewarding aspects of working with student-athletes in the OCAA is seeing the energy of the group increase as they progress through our training system. It is great to see them start to understand the “whys” of the program and how to do things correctly. Nothing is better than hearing a student-athlete say that things are becoming easier as the progress through our lifts with consistency and hard work. Some of the challenging aspects at times are student-athletes’ egos. Sometimes they are resistant to having their exercise technique broken down and are only concerned with putting more weight on the bar just for the sake of it. This can be especially the case for upper-year student-athletes as it can be tough to break down old habits whereas first-year students may come in with a bit of a “clean slate.” As we know getting them to take a step back and focus on exercise mechanics will pay off in the long run, but sometimes it is difficult for them to see that.   CSCA – What advice would you give people just entering the industry? TA: Perseverance, patience, be adaptable, stay current within the industry, be prepared to wear many hats. Strength and Conditioning Coaching is not only about performance; you need to be diverse and accepting, have empathy and understanding. It is also important to be accountable and teach accountability and be willing to work irregular and yet at times long hours.  JM: I think the biggest piece of advice I can give someone who is entering the field is two-fold. First, continue to learn. With the ease of access and availability of information there is no excuse to rest on what you learned in school. However, what you see on a social media post, quick article or podcast interview is just a snapshot. Dig into the citation, invest in the book or product from the post. Gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the information. Also, with the number of certifications and courses available it can be overwhelming and can create a chase to have letters after your name. Take some time to evaluate yourself and your program. What are the areas you in which you can better serve those you work with? Shape your learning around that.   Secondly, don’t be afraid to reach out to another professional. A couple of years ago I was fortunate to be asked by a colleague to speak at his strength staff’s training. He introduced me as a “great networker”. I’m not sure what that means except to say I am the person that means it when I say “we should set up a call” or “would you be open for a visit.” It may come from something someone posted on social media, a podcast or it may be that I’m in their city for a trip. I always want to spend time and “talk shop” with other performance professionals. You can’t be scared to get a “no” or think “I’m only at a small school, etc, why would they want to talk to me.” One of my goals for 2019 was to talk to a different coach each month to make sure I wasn’t just reaching out to coaches I already knew. So many coaches have influenced my views on the development of our student-athletes and that could only have happened by setting up a call or visit. As I mentioned right off the top, a “cold call meeting” started my career in the OCAA and I encourage all young coaches to reach out to those whose programs they’d like to learn more about.   RC: A big piece of advice I wish I received as I entered this role and that I can pass to others is, you have to meet your student-athletes and sport coaches where they are. Like many others who get a role like this, I came in with a little bit too high of expectations. It’s ok to have a preconceived plan, but you will quickly realize it’s a whole different ball game. Another big piece of advice when working with student-athletes in a team setting is to have an open mind and be adaptable, they all have different methods and different training backgrounds. 
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