Over the last decade, there has been a shift towards greater integration of academics and sports in high schools. This integration has resulted in greater incidences of certified strength and conditioning (S&C) coaches working with high school aged athletes either during regular time table blocks or outside of traditional school hours. The introduction of Fitness and Conditioning 11 & 12 into the BC Curriculum further opened opportunities to integrate S&C into a student’s schedule either through a structured class taught by a teacher with S&C credentials or by providing credit for the training athletes were already completed as part of a structured high-performance sport program.
While it is fantastic to see high school athlete’s greater accessing S&C services, there are still very few S&C coaches working directly within the BC public and independent school system. With investment in facilities being a barrier to more robust S&C programs, it is the schools with the tradition of athletic excellence and strong alumni support where S&C coaches are most prevent and making the greatest impact. In BC, this is primarily occurring in the independent schools including Brentwood College, St. Georges School and Vancouver College.
Scott Vass, MHK, RK, CSCS, is the Athletic Director and S&C Coach at Vancouver College. He is also this quarter’s CSCA’s featured high school coach for British Columbia. Scott has successfully navigated creating and securing a full- time S&C role and understands the realities of coaching in the public and independent school setting. He is optimistic about the opportunities for S&C coaches to work in the high school environment and wants to help create the change required to grow the profession. Scott’s full-time high position is unique in BC but like many other coaches, he wears multiple hats. He is also the IST lead for Wrestling Canada and a father to young kids. Scott’s days are long and are fueled by his passion for teaching and seeing his athlete’s progress and succeed. A huge thanks to Scott for sharing his story and the many insights it can provide to those in, and looking to enter, the S&C profession.
CSCA: What was your professional progression leading to your current role as Athletic Director and Strength Conditioning Coach at Vancouver College?
SV: I initially started out in a commerce program at Lakehead University in my hometown of Thunder Bay. After completing three years, I found that although I was doing well in school, my heart really wasn’t into it. I took a couple of months off to work full-time and contemplate what I wanted to do with my life. I came to the conclusion that I’d rather find a career that I was passionate about instead of focusing on making money. I dropped out of the Commerce program and decided to pursue a sport science degree and play football. I ended up going down to the US to attend a junior college, then transferred to Simon Fraser University to complete my Kinesiology degree. I had first started working out in grade 9 when they took our PE class to a local gym. I really noticed how the increased strength gains translated to increased performance in the sports that I played. Being only 5’8”, I was always one of the smaller players and was always looking for every edge that I could get to increase my athletic ability. As I went through my Kinesiology degree at SFU, I focused a lot of my optional projects and areas of study in the area of human performance. At the time there were almost no full-time university strength coaches in the country and the strength program for our football team was run by one of the football coaches. There were also very few private athletic development facilities in the city. I did an internship with Steve Ramsbottom at Human Performance in Burnaby 8 rinks and found my niche.
After I finished my football career, I had to return to SFU to finish some classes. It was at this time that Derek Hansen was hired on as a full-time strength coach at the school. Derek is one of the most intelligent coaches that I have ever met when it came to the realm of athletic development. I asked to work under him as a grad assistant. SFU did not have an area of study for a Masters program that I was interested in but at UBC Dick Mosher was running a Master of Human Kinetics in Coaching Science program. I was able to combine the two and complete my Masters at UBC while acting as a grad assistant strength coach for Derek at SFU. I owe the majority of my development as a strength coach to Derek. Over the 2.5 years that I worked with him he invested an immense amount of time teaching me program design and performance planning, sprint biomechanics, speed development and injury rehabilitation. He also introduced me to a number of coaches that greatly influenced my thought processes including Charlie Francis, Al Vermeil, Al Miller and Rob Paneriello.
While working at SFU, one of the wrestlers introduced me to Rick Tkach. Rick was the massage therapist for the national and Olympic wrestling teams. Rick was looking for a kinesiologist to work doing active rehabilitation in his multi-disciplinary clinic. As I finished my Masters, I took the opportunity and worked with Rick for a year to increase my knowledge in the area of injury rehabilitation. Working within a multi-disciplinary setting allowed me to learn from a great team of physiotherapists, massage therapist and chiropractors and greatly expand my skill set. After a year of working there, I wanted to return to working with athletes. Anthony Findlay was in the process of opening up Level 10 Fitness on the North Shore and offered me the opportunity to join his team. At the time, Level 10 had the majority of national team training contracts in Vancouver. Working at the facility offered me the ability to combine my skills in athletic development and injury rehabilitation, while at the same time working as a personal trainer with the general population. While I had a lot of experience working with large groups, spending time doing personal training really forced me to focus on developing service skills and taught me how to build individual client relationships.
While at Level 10, I had the opportunity to work with an incredible group of coaches including current UBC Strength Coach Joe McCullum. Joe and I worked together to train Vancouver based members of the national wrestling team. It was at this time that Road to Excellence (now Own the Podium) was beginning to assist National Sporting Organizations in organizing sport science and sport medicine teams. With my experience as a strength coach working in a multi-disciplinary setting and my business background, national team coach Dave McKay and former national coach Jim Miller suggested me for a role with wrestling. I was hired on as Integrated Support Team Manager for Wrestling Canada, a contract I continue to hold today.
The Vancouver College (VC) opportunity kind of came out of the blue. A Level 10 co-worker and VC alumnus let me know that the school had recently added a large weight room and was looking to hire a full-time strength coach. While I enjoyed Level 10, I was exploring options to return to full-time athlete training either in the Canadian sport system or US college system. The VC position was not exactly what I was looking for but once I had the opportunity to visit the school and meet the people in the Vancouver College community I knew it would be a perfect fit. Working with the developmental athletes at this level has been incredibly rewarding and one of the best experiences in my life!
CSCA: How many athletes do you support in your role? What other sport science and medicine integration is happening at Vancouver College?
SV: Vancouver College is an independent Catholic all-boys school that has a strong emphasis on both academics and athletics. The main sports include football, basketball, rowing, track & field and wrestling. Over the course of the year I will work with between 250-300 of the students as an S&C coach. Most of our varsity athletes take the strength & conditioning class that is offered at the grade 11 and 12 levels and will train 2-3 times per week in class. Each strength training class consists of between 30-45 athletes. After school, I also run additional speed development and strength training sessions for the varsity athletes.
Our grade 8 and junior varsity athletes do not have the opportunity to take strength training classes due to Ministry of Education requirements. All of their training takes place after school. I will usually split our weight room in half and train two teams simultaneously. There will be anywhere from 45 to 100 athletes training at once. This creates a number of challenges as the athlete to coach ratio is incredibly high. You not only have to develop strategies to teach complex skills such as the Olympic lifts to large groups, but also need to be able to quickly progress or regress exercises as there is a wide range of ages and maturity level. I teach older students how to coach the lifts and what cues and corrections need to be given. If they see a variance in proper technique they can help out in the coaching of the younger athletes on their team. As they pick up those skills, you then need to challenge and empower the older student with leadership opportunities to aid in helping run the workout. I continually educate the athletes not only on what to do, but why they are doing it so they have a clear understanding on the purpose of each workout and the exercise selection. Once you have done this you end up with a group of athletes that can pretty much run the workout by themselves. I am also lucky that I have a large group of fellow teachers and coaches who volunteer their time to assist me with the sessions.
Sport science and sport medicine are integrated into the training in a number of ways. There is an educational component to the varsity strength training classes where they are exposed to the same topics such as anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, injury prevention and nutrition, that a first-year kinesiology student would study. Students are also required to perform practical ‘labs’ on baseline testing, functional movement screening, nutritional analysis, body composition, etc. This has exposed many of my students to educational routes and potential careers that they normally would not have thought about. I am humbled when I have students return after graduating from university to let me know that they finished their degree and are now working in an industry such as physiotherapy or nutrition.
At this age, technology can also be a powerful tool to engage the students in the training process and educate them in various aspects of sport science. All of our sports teams use Hudl for performance analysis with the strength training classes using it for slow-motion video analysis of sprint and weightlifting technique. IronPath is used to evaluate the bar path in the Olympic lifts. PUSH bands are not used regularly but are used to explain concepts like bar speed and power development. We use Polar H7 heart rate monitors in conjunction with programs like Polar GoFit and apps like iThlete and iThlete HRM to track training intensity and loads and explain concepts like TRIMP and heart rate variability. Our students are also educated on how to use devices like the Just Jump mat and Freelap for physical testing. I am also in the process of transitioning away from programming using Excel and printed workout sheets to utilizing TeamBuildr in conjunction with iPads at each squat rack.
Our school does not have the luxury of having a full-time athletic therapist or physiotherapist. This has forced me to develop a strong trusted network of therapists across the city. We have developed open lines of communication that allow us to apply return-to-play protocols. I also need a simple method of developing injury rehabilitation templates for general injuries such as ankle sprains and patella-femoral pain syndrome. For this I use a web-based program called Medbridge. I have a number of templates set up that I can easily modify based on individual needs. I can send the rehab program directly to the athlete’s phone. They then follow the videos of each exercise on the program from start to finish.
CSCA: Were you hired as a designated S&C Coach without additional teaching duties?
SV: Yes and no. My position was initially posted with the job description detailing a mix of teaching, coaching and administration responsibilities. At the time we had some very forward-thinking administrators that had included the development of a 5000 square-foot High Performance Centre in an expansion to the school. My position was created to run the facilities, act as a strength and conditioning coach for teams before and after school and ‘teach’ strength training and fitness classes for the general population of students. The administrators were looking to hire a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist to fill this role. Most S&C coaches have not completed a teacher education program and do not hold a valid teaching certificate. However, in British Columbia there is a separate portion of the Ministry of Education that governs the Independent School system. In the Independent system you can obtain an Independent School Subject Restricted (SR) Teacher Certificate that will allow you to be eligible to teach in specific areas are that are specifically related to your post-secondary education and relevant work experience. With my work experience and Masters in Human Kinetics I was able to obtain a SR Teaching Certificate in the Health Sciences that includes classes such as active living, fitness and conditioning, health education, kinesiology, outdoor education, physical education and physical therapy.
One of my first tasks when hired was to develop a strength training and fitness education curriculum for our general population of grade 11 and 12 students. In the initial years of my job, I would come in before school to train our rowing teams and would then teach strength training/fitness classes and run the facilities during the school day. After school, I would do strength training & speed development sessions with the remainder of our teams. Once the general strength training classes were up and running the school brought in other PE teachers to instruct these classes. At this time I started up athlete-specific strength training classes for our varsity athletes. Students now have the option of taking a general fitness and conditioning class or an athlete-specific strength training class at the grade 11 & 12 levels. This makes for a weight room that is incredibly packed throughout the instructional day. My job now involves working entirely as a strength coach for the athletes at the school as well as my athletic administration role.
CSCA: Do you believe the creation of new S&C roles in Canadian schools are the product of coaches proactively demonstrating the need or the school creating the role based on what is happening in the US and other countries?
SV: I believe the creation of new S&C roles will be a product of both coaches proactively demonstrating the need as well as the school creating the role based on what is happening in the US and other countries.
Vancouver College was one of the first schools in the province to add a university-style weight room and hire a full-time strength coach. This was driven by and is very similar to what is happening in the independent system in the US. This is a trend that I suspect will continue in many of the independent schools across the country as schools try to differentiate themselves from one another and maximize the opportunity for their student- athletes to increase their athletic ability. I also know of a number of strength coaches that are actively driving this process in our province by putting together proposals to create similar positions at other independent schools.
The majority of strength coaches in the US public school system are certified teachers with a strength and conditioning certification. This is a structure that I can see happening in the Canadian public system. Some teachers like Josh Ogilvie (Burnaby South) have been doing this for years. However, if this trend is to continue, it will have to be driven by the teachers, sport coaches at the school or strength coaches who decide to enter the teaching profession. The BC Ministry of Education has recently revised their curriculum and have changed the physical education focus at the senior school level from games-based competency to healthy and active-living focus. At the senior school level they have added courses like ‘Active Living’ and ‘Fitness and Conditioning’ which should make the position of ‘strength coach’ easier to adopt in the public schools.
From speaking with teachers in the Canadian public system, the main barrier to this happening is the lack of facilities. This is the same barrier that coaches in the public system in the US must overcome. Space is the first requirement. I have been in a number of public schools in Vancouver that have the open space for a weight room, or already have a weight room that is already set up but is not optimally organized for training large groups of students. This could be a space that is as small as a classroom. For over a decade before I was hired, Todd Bernett who is our football coach at VC ran his strength training program for the team out of a converted classroom with three squat racks and platforms, a couple of benches and a dumbbell rack. So long as the school has space, the next step is acquiring the equipment. At first, this can seem like a daunting task as the cost of outfitting a weight room can seem out of reach. Most public schools in the US do this through fundraising efforts by the PAC, sport parents and coaches. There are now a number of Canadian companies like Fitness Town and Bells of Steel that are making affordable equipment like Crossfit-style rigs, bumper plates and Olympic bearing barbells in Asia. This has brought the price of equipment down and makes the cost of outfitting a weight room more realistic. New Westminster High School is a good example of a public school that has already done this.
A final opportunity for strength coaches to work in the school system is through the sport academy system that a number of the public schools in the province have begun to run. Sport academy programs where students attend school in the morning and focus on practice in the afternoon have been sports like hockey, soccer, lacrosse and golf. Although most of these programs do not have a full-time strength coach associated with them, most employ a private contractor to run their strength and conditioning training. In some of the academy settings that I have seen, there is definitely the opportunity for a full-time coach to be employed if a proper proposal was put together.
CSCA: Is there a provincial (or city) support network for others in a similar role as you?
SV: There is no formal provincial support network or organization currently set up. However, there is the National High School Strength and Conditioning Association (NHSSCA) in the United States. Founded in 2016, NHSSCA was has a very strong membership and runs both regional and national conferences. It does a great job of providing professional development specific to working in the high school environment and connecting strength coaches who have similar needs.
CSCA: Is there a difference in your typical work week between the fall/winter versus the summer? What keeps you busy during the summer months?
SV: The main difference in the strength training aspect of my job throughout the school year is how much training each team is doing. We have three sport seasons in high school: fall, winter and spring. In the fall, the amount of sessions football is doing is reduced when they are in season, while basketball and rowing sessions are increased in order to help prepare them for the upcoming seasons. In the winter the situation reverses itself and I do more in-season conditioning sessions with our wrestling team. Spring is the busiest season as I get all of the athletes. Track athletes are running a reduced number of sessions but football, basketball and wrestling are all in their off-seasons and most of my grade 8 athletes start in the weight room at this time. Rowing runs all year round. In the summer, I train the JV athletes three days a week from 9 am-12 pm and do the speed sessions with the varsity football team when I am done. The varsity football coaches run the strength training for the team in the afternoon so I don’t have to be there for the entire day.
The athletic director and Wrestling Canada IST manager roles keep me incredibly busy for the entirety of the year. The athletic director role is an ebb and flow throughout the school year of athlete registration, interaction with BC School Sports and other local athletic directors, team scheduling and conflict resolution. I have also been incredibly lucky that our administrators at Vancouver College have continued to support my role with Wrestling Canada and have allowed me the time to work and travel with the sport. As IST manager, I work to coordinate sport science and sport medicine service provision to our nationally targeted senior and NextGen athletes. These athletes are spread out amongst five training centres across the country. These services include strength and conditioning, physiology, nutrition, mental performance, performance analysis on the sport science side and physiotherapy, massage therapy, osteopathy, chiropractic therapy and physician support on the sport medicine side. We have an incredibly intelligent and hard working group of IST leads in each of the disciplines and local IST teams in each training centre that work to implement the program and provide sport medicine support directly to the athletes. The year typically begins after the World Championships in late summer or early fall. Debriefs are held with the national coaching staff, athletes and IST staff. The YTP is set by the High Performance Director (HPD) and gap analyses performed on each of the targeted athletes. Our IST discipline leads develop goals and work plans for the national program and each of the targeted athletes and I create budgets to support the program. In late fall the YTP and budget are presented to Own the Podium for approval. As the year progresses, IST services are delivered at the local level, during competition and training camps. We also run a number of IST-focused education camps for the athletes called Gold Medal Profile camps. It is my role to work with our HPD, national team coaches and national IST leads to ensure that discipline-specific programs are being rolled out at a national level, individual gaps are being addressed for each athlete, service provision is happening at an optimal level at the local training centres, communication is happening between our local service providers and national leads and contracts have been developed for all of our local service providers in the training centres. This requires that I facilitate a ton of communication between all parties that are involved. I am lucky that the majority of my role can be carried out remotely and takes place either during my spare time during the workday at Vancouver College or during the night time after my regular work day has ended.
CSCA: What do you see as being the future of the S&C role in public and private schools?
SV: I see their being an increasing number of strength coach jobs at the high school level Full-time S&C jobs are still incredibly limited in our country outside of the private sector. I am seeing more and more individuals that were interested in pursuing a career in strength and conditioning in this country get to their early thirties and not be able to find a job or “hit a ceiling” in the private sector. At this point, they usually make a career change. Working as an S&C coach in either the private or public-school system may offer another option if the coach structures their education properly and has the drive to develop their own program. Working in the independent school system may be the easiest route for the strength coach and would most likely offer the most latitude in funding for the position and strength program. For the reasons mentioned earlier these roles will most likely continue to increase in the immediate future.
If a strength coach is willing to attend teachers college and take on a combined role as a physical education teacher and S&C coach the opportunities are definitely there. Provincially, I am incredibly encouraged that the BC Ministry of Education has begun to shift the focus of physical education classes towards active living and fitness and conditioning at the senior school level. This should hopefully open up potential roles for the strength coach in the public system and funding for fitness equipment. S&C coaches must be willing to drive this process, but it does offer a number of benefits, especially as it relates to job security and pay. In addition to the fulfillment of working with, and seeing progress in, developmental athletes, a masters-level teacher in the public system with 10+ years experience makes the equivalent or above the upper end of the pay grid in the Canadian sport system. This also equates to what a full-time university strength coach earns. Furthermore, it offers complete job security and full pension. For these reasons alone it is definitely a route the young strength coach should consider when looking at potential career paths.