I don’t need to be the first to tell you that we are living through a very interesting time. A global pandemic taking shape and stopping everything we know…including sports! Who knew sports could be stopped?! Regardless of the current climate, let me walk you through some of the things I have experienced upon taking a new role in professional sport.
Earlier this year, I left the Canadian Olympic Sport system, and took a role in strength and conditioning and sport science with the Chicago Cubs. I had been working at Institut National du Sport du Quebec for 6 years, so I was fully immersed in the job and environment, and was involved with almost every sport that came through our Institute, in one way or another. In this article, I reflect on the similarities and differences in experiences that I noticed during my transition to professional sport.
Some Things Never Change
Firstly, one thing that doesn’t change in our field is the commitment of the staff toward the wellbeing of the athletes, and the enhancement of performance. The general principles of giving all of your time and energy to make sure athletes are cared for and supported is common across all of our different niches of sport. While this is more or less the standard of the industry, it’s not without controversy. The concept of work-life balance continues to be raised, especially as people in our field put more and more hours into their jobs. There are institutional choices that can be made to begin lowering the total hours worked, but the intentions may never change. No matter the jersey, Olympics, Pro, or College, most people who commit to this as a career embrace the concept of service. Service to the individual athletes, service to the team, service to the coaches, and service to the journey of high performance. Anyone who wants to serve others will always be there early to turn the lights on, and stay until it is time to turn them off. I saw this before, and I see it now as well.
Environment for Growth
If there is one thing I take from my time in the Canadian Olympic Sport network, it is the incredible environment of learning that is perpetuated. To be clear, this isn’t a slight on personnel in professional sport, who all invest time to further their personal and professional development.
What makes the Olympic environment so fertile is the intermingling of sports and professionals in common spaces. You get sports that require strength, speed, height, weight, aesthetics, flexibility, aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness, etc. There are so many different sports, and events within sports, that require varied strengths and weaknesses. Then within the staff, you have experts in strength and conditioning, therapy, medicine, biomechanics, physiology, nutrition, mental performance, and sport coaches. When you consider the problem solving in each discipline, across a wide range of sports and sport demands, progressing simultaneously, it becomes an incredible place to brainstorm. In addition, you have other institutes and centres around the country undergoing that same process, sharing the same challenges, who are willing to share what is and isn’t working.
There is never any holding back of information, or methods, because everyone is on Team Canada. The information that is deemed ‘best practice’ spreads, dare I say it, virally. Across sports, across levels, and across centres.
Everything that I have seen from my new colleagues suggests an equal drive to better themselves and implement creative solutions, albeit in a smaller community, restricted to mostly baseball.
Getting off the Train
The hardest part about making the move to pro sports was leaving the coaches and athletes that I spent so much time with. While it’s easy to say that certain opportunities are worthwhile for your own career path, it doesn’t make it easy to move on from a setting that has given you so much. While I undoubtedly gave plenty of time and energy in my previous role, it was returned to me in spades by the efforts and attention of athletes, trust and collaboration of coaches, and sharing and camaraderie of colleagues. As I mentioned in the first section, by and large, our field is made of people who choose to serve others in their pursuit of championships and gold medals. That doesn’t make it completely selfless though, as we too embrace the daily grind toward a greater goal. The athletes’ and teams’ goals become our goals. Their journey becomes our journey. Instead of one Olympic dream, we harbour tens and hundreds.
Now in my new role, it is helping to steward the goal of tens and hundreds of men trying to fulfill their dream of playing professional baseball for the Chicago Cubs. While I take this role on with great pride, I haven’t forgotten all of those other dreams I had the honour of contributing to in the past. I will be watching as they jump, sprint, shoot, flip, and lay it all on the line.
The Give and Take of “Perks”
Professional sports is often viewed as a context full of perks, and there is definitely some truth to that. Decisions can be made about the allocation of resources at any instant with thoughts only on “Can this help us win?”. Whether that is salary, buying new equipment, hiring a new service provider, or travelling. In many public sector jobs, like the Olympics, tactical, and many universities, budgets are very tight, and often controlled by many layers of administration, making these things very difficult to change. Salaries tend to sit in pay bands, with very clear criteria and timelines for increasing pay. Equipment purchases usually have a conservatively set, small annual budget, unless there is construction involved.
However, this does not make professional sports infallible. While these advantages exist, so does the disadvantage of short-term contracts. There are no professional sports where strength and conditioning coaches get permanent full-time positions. There is a lot to be said for the security of a job, for as long as you want it. There is also not a lot of standardization within the field. While teams tend to copy each other in many ways, the difference between a rich team and a poor team can have major impacts on the amount they wish to spend on salaries. So it is not true that all professional sports jobs pay above their cousins in other fields.
The topic of travel within and around work can come with many layers. There are some fundamental differences in the type of travel you might need to do. With Olympic sport, many competitions and training camps are international, while off-seasons tend to be longer. This means you travel less in your day-to-day (for most), but get the opportunity to see the world, at least for a brief moment. For myself, and many former colleagues, the ability to see Europe, Asia, South America, much of North America, etc. is incredibly rewarding.
Professional sport, and especially with their development leagues, are filled with frequent domestic travel, which people often tire from quickly. The rigours of packing over and over, trips to and from the airport, all to see the same cities you have throughout your life, loses its luster quickly. Then there is college, where you may travel only for a few competitions a year, and live a very stable lifestyle.
While international travel sounds much better, there is one factor I have failed to mention. That is the feeling of being part of a tribe. Constant travel, even if domestically, can often unify a group of people due to the many logistical issues that present themselves. Being part of a team that endures a certain amount of struggle and discomfort has been shown to increase connectedness within the group, over and over again.
Athlete and Coach Engagement
This is the last section I will address, as it can be one of the most important aspects of our jobs. As human beings, connection drives a lot of our experience. In Olympic sport, the connection to the athletes can become extremely strong. Most athletes pursue their Olympic career for at least 4 years, often times 8, and sometimes 12+. All of which is typically treated as a full-time job. This means you might be supporting some athletes, in their daily training environment, every day for a decade. That is powerful stuff.
Coaches can be similar, although in many Olympic sports, the lead coach might be in another part of the country, so it is not as frequent to build the same depth of relationship as with the athletes.
In professional sport, a player might have a career that is just as long. However, in the off-seasons, most athletes move to their permanent homes, and rarely train in the same place as their season. While there may still be some daily interactions, it is not the same as being in the same room, and sharing the training experience fully. As for coaching staff, you will likely meet many times a day, so this can generate a strong working relationship as you search for performance solutions.
There are many nuances to the practice of strength and conditioning, depending on the context in which you find yourself. This requires a lot of deep thought about the things you value most: security, travel, personal development, compensation, etc. Some things, though, seem to remain constant. Those are a commitment to serve, a willingness to learn, and the protection of the dreams for those we have the great fortune of chaperoning.
Some people might want to try all of these different environments at different points in their careers, while others might know exactly what they are looking for! I’d say I’m in the first boat.
Cory Kennedy is the Head of Strength and Conditioning and Performance Science (MiLB) for the Chicago Cubs. Before that, he served as the Strength and Conditioning Lead at the Institut National du Sport du Quebec, one of Canada’s Olympic/Paralympic Sport Institutes. He has a Master’s degree from Edith Cowan University, and a Bachelor’s from the University of Toronto.