At present there are 24 Colleges and 22 Universities (including the Royal Military College – RMC) in Ontario. Of the 24 Colleges very few have full time S&C coaches on staff. The majority have full and part-time fitness co-ordinators and athletic therapists helping students and athletes with their conditioning. There are also very few programs that offer individuals entering the field the opportunity to learn specifc strength and conditioning skills. One such program that offers such an education is Sheridan College. The main driver of the program at Sheridan is Dr. Trevor Cottrell. We asked Trevor 4 questions about how he got started, and what he sees as the future of our field.
CSCA: Why are you a strength coach?
TC: I started offering strength performance training services in 1993 because during that time there was little strength and conditioning programming available, and as a competitive Olympic weightlifter and powerlifter I felt I had the skills necessary to work with athletes to improve performance. I personally experienced significant athletic performance gains through strength training and felt that I could help others to experience similar gains. At this time, strength training was just starting to be accepted as a safe and effective approach to improve performance in some sports, but it was still largely ignored by most sport organizations in Canada. As a result, I moved to the U.S. to coach at a University. There I truly learned the theory and practice of performance training, but was hesitant to return to Canada as there were so few jobs in the industry. I decided to go the academic route, completing my PhD and moving into a professor role. My motivation was largely due to the push back of fitness professionals and many professors to performance training principles. For many, strength training was still dangerous, it stunted growth, and offered few health advantages. Machines were favored to free weights, and lifting any kind of heavy weight was discouraged. My experiences countered these beliefs but until I had a terminal degree I felt that my ability to credibly argue for strength performance training would always be limited. During my academic training I continued to coach small groups and had an Olympic weightlifting focus. I got great satisfaction of passing on the gift of strength and power to others and to see how sometimes it could have drastic changes in both their performance and life. I continue to coach small groups to this day and like to focus on youth athletic development as they have the most to gain from movement skill and power coaching. It completely opens doors to them and the confidence they gain is life changing.
CSCA: What are 2-3 differences between S&C in Canada and the US?
i) Volume – There are not as many strength coaches, strength coaching opportunities, and people using strength and conditioning principles in their training in Canada vs. the U.S. In Texas, strength training was mandatory for athletes starting in grade 7. All athletes signed up for summer strength training starting in grade 7. High schools had multi-million dollar weight rooms, Universities had extensive S&C resources, and there were many very large and competitive private facilities as well.
ii) Education – In the U.S. there are many Masters programs with a strength and conditioning emphasis. The undergraduate degrees in the U.S. do little to teach good principles of training so there is reliance on graduate programs to provide this learning. At the same time there are extensive internship opportunities in the NCAA varsity weight rooms to learn the trade. In Canada there are few graduate programs with an S&C focus and a very limited number of schools with extensive internship opportunities. Graduate programs are more research or rehabilitation focused. As a result, Canadian strength coaches often have more experience in performance testing and the scientific basis of performance, a more therapeutic small group approach to training, and less experience in working with large groups of athletes trying to get them strong. The U.S. strength coach, on the other hand, has more of a “grind” mentality, tending to worry less about the individual athlete needs and more about the group dynamic.
iii) Athlete Quality – The Canadian athlete is an endangered species. As a country we do so little to prepare our athletes properly for athletic performance across the lifespan that we are lucky to be on the world stage at all in some sports. Other than a few choice winter sports which everyone loves, and participates in, athlete development is half hazard and random in most amateur sport. Both parents and coaches have little understanding of what it takes to develop athleticism for the world stage. In Canada, athletes are sent into University sport without ever touching a weight, learning how to sprint or jump, and being appropriately conditioned for the workload to follow. We completely set up our athletes for injury and low performance. Then, due to poor resources and funding, we allow our athletes “optional” attendance and a poor coach to athlete ratio. Often we just hand them a program and leave them on their own to follow it. We are missing so much athletic potential by not developing athleticism early. The U.S. dominates due to the early onset of the mass volumes of participation and grind mentality. Athletes have a “Yes sir!” mantra and know if they do not engage they are off the team. But the grind doesn’t develop athletes properly either. It often breaks them. If we as a country developed proper youth physical education and empower coaches to deliver it effectively at a young age we would have a multitude of elite athletes to choose from come adult age. It is not difficult, but would require a huge cultural shift away from the current state where exercise is optional, children are fragile, and effort is subjective.
CSCA: What are the 2 or 3 things you look to most in hiring a strength coach to be part of your team?
i) Real experience – I want a coach that has been working hard with athletes in team settings and developed a proven track record of making them better. This is quite difficult to find sometimes in Canada as there are so few quality internship experiences, with many athlete interactions being sporadic and for short durations (ie. the classic 8 week preseason performance camp). Many individuals applying for S&C jobs have spent much of their time observing workouts, running prolonged warm-ups, and doing movement correction. They have not been given the time it takes with athletes to truly develop their athleticism.
ii) Critical thinking – A good coach needs a basis in education that allows them to understand and integrate the many domains of exercise science (anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, motor control, psychology and nutrition). They then must be able to identify the limitations of our knowledge in these areas and find solutions to weight room problems. They should not be swayed by trends and fads, but still allow themselves to change directions if sufficient evidence permits it. Our industry is filled with gimmicks and snake oil, a good coach does not get easily distracted by these.
iii) Leadership – It seems intuitive that leadership is a skill necessary for successful strength coaching, but it is a hard concept to measure and assess in an interview. Leadership comes in many packages, but ultimately involves being able to control human groups, gain their trust, and motivate them to be better. A good leader is a good teacher and mentor. Leadership is developed through mentorship, emotional intelligence, and rehearsal. New coaches need to carefully reflect on their leadership skills and find models of leadership that can work for them.
CSCA: Consider where S&C was 10-15 years ago, compared to today, and what do you expect from S&C in 10 years from now (in Canada).
TC: There has been a positive evolution of strength and conditioning in Canada in the last 15 years. 15 years ago, very few Universities had full time strength and conditioning coaches, Own the Podium was in its infancy, and public understanding of the need for performance training was largely nonexistent. We now have full time strength coaches in most of the major Universities, most NSO and PSOs have some amount of access to S&C services, and there is a general public acceptance that strength training for athletes is good. Unfortunately we are still decades behind some of our competitors.
University S&C programs continue to be grossly understaffed, reliant on private funding, and often have little accountability. NSO and PSOs still suffer from coach apathy towards making S&C a priority in some cases. Some sport coaches are not entirely versed in S&C principles and therefore do not integrate them well. The public does not understand what good performance training is and continue to find the cheapest method to “check the box” to say that little Jill is doing their strength training. Local athlete boot camps, hockey dryland training in the hallway, and personal trainers tend to dominate the private market, which results in a poor product and poorer outcomes. All of which devalue the industry. Ultimately, all of these outcomes are symptoms of poor education, and ultimately, higher education is to be blamed. Kinesiology degrees continue to provide poor practical skills in any form of exercise training. Faculty members at Universities do little research in applied training principles and are largely ignorant of principles for athlete development. As a result, their students are left to learn from the internet and weekend workshops, which trickles down into high schools and amateur coaching where a lot of these Kins move to in their careers. In the next 10 years, with the advent of the CSCA, I see a shift towards better education of strength and conditioning professionals. Professional graduate degrees will start to include a greater emphasis on S&C principles. The CSCA will establish standards of education for the industry and provide expertise and curriculum for education. Young students and coaches will become more aware of the complexities of training programming and know how to seek out professionals in the industry. Better training will take place at high schools, colleges, universities and in amateur sport resulting in better outcomes. Coaches will start seeing the critical role S&C professionals play and find the time and budget to integrate this type of training. In 10 years you should see larger Universities hiring Directors of Human Performance who oversee Athletic Therapy and Strength and Conditioning service lines with the mandate to integrate performance services for athletes. There will be multiple full-time strength coaches at each institution. High school physical educators will start running structured strength and conditioning sessions for athletes as part of the physical education curriculum at schools and as extracurricular activities. Private facilities will become larger and more accessible to the general public. Larger training facilities will become viable as parents see the value in investing in these services and know how to shop for a quality product. All of this will trickle upstream into better athletic performance and ultimately a strong Canadian standing in sport worldwide.
Dr. Cottrell is currently the professor for the Bachelor of Health Sciences (Kinesiology and Health Promotion) program at Sheridan College. He received his Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo, a Master’s degree in Exercise Science from Northern Arizona University, and a Doctoral degree in Physiological Sciences at the University of Arizona. Trevor’s teaching areas include physiology, nutrition, resistance training, strength and conditioning, and therapeutic exercise. His research examines performance testing, training for power, and pre-performance preparation. With over 30 years of competitive strength athletics experience and 26 years of strength coaching experience, he combines a unique blend of theory and practice into his coaching, teaching and research.