Starting any new position is never easy. The feelings of uncertainty, incapability and ineffectiveness flood our bodies. The first few weeks or months of any position (whether paid or unpaid) are challenging and can be exacerbated in an elite sport or competitive environment.
The process of being an impactful and capable strength and conditioning coach should be one that is empowering, inspiring and grounded in a mindset of growth. For new people in the field, it can be intimidating and overwhelming which may and potentially cause good people to leave the field.
My primary hope with this article is to provide young practitioners with a model of how to grow in a way that best positions them to be both a capable practitioner and an impactful “teammate” in a team or training centre environment. I will expand on what capable and impactful mean in this context below and offer a model for consideration.
Second, I am optimistic that this will encourage thoughtful reflection amongst veteran coaches in supervising or mentoring to help guide young coaches in ways that will allow them to navigate the challenges, joys and fulfillment that one can experience working in this industry.
Creating a Framework for Growth
Here at the University of Waterloo, our students are busy! A week typically includes 20-30 hours of class, labs, assignments and social lives. Add experiential learning opportunities (like our student strength and conditioning program) on top of that and it creates a very time constrained schedule. There is a need to have a pragmatic approach toward helping our students graduate. It is not only important to make sure they leave with the necessary tools and confidence required to be a good practitioner, but also to save them time and stress during an already busy part of their lives.
I used the words “capable” and “impactful” earlier in the article and I wanted to present them again here with some more context.
Ultimately when our students graduate, I want them to be fully prepared to either continue their post graduate studies or go right into the field of S&C. This could be in a paid setting or in a post graduate experiential learning setting such as an internship with professional sports team or NSO. When talking with other coaches who have hiring authority, the following items are often mentioned as desirable when working with young coaches:
• Willing to learn and grow.
When thinking through this I came up with a quadrant system to help demonstrate:
a) Where young coaches currently are in their abilities and
b) Provide some objective steps needed to help them grow towards being more capable and impactful.
Being capable in the world of strength and conditioning means a practitioner having the ability to communicate, coach and cue (and continue to coach repeatedly) effectively and efficiently as a means of achieving a desired performance outcome.
When talking about communication with young coaches I’m really talking about their abilities to clearly instruct athletes about WHAT we are supposed to do and WHY we are asking them to do it. This requires young coaches to have robust understanding of anatomy, biomechanics, motor learning, physiology balanced with an ability to demonstrate/teach specific tools (exercises) to achieve a certain outcome. Understanding what you are doing/why you are doing it is Step 1. Step 2 is your ability to tell an athlete (or group/team of athletes) clearly, concisely, and confidently what to do. Practicing public speaking and gaining feedback from athletes on your clarity are good strategies to make sure you are delivering your message effectively.
Coaching is the process of helping athletes reach their desired outcomes in a manner that is safe, effective, and engaging. For young coaches who may not always know “where an athlete needs to go” this is always a challenging concept. Being a more capable coach requires you to understand the physical demands of the sport, what physical performance metrics relate to it and making sure the athlete can have an integrated understanding of the connection between physical capabilities and sport performance outcomes.
Being able to effectively cue movements mid-set and identify or ultimately resolve movement inaccuracies is a foundational skill for strength and conditioning practitioners. This requires young students to understand what specific movements should look like (with and without load/velocity) and have a “toolbox” of strategies on how to remedy movements that are flawed.
The following action steps may be useful in answering information related to what, why and how pertaining to programming and may aid students in becoming capable strength and conditioning coaches.
1. Understand what needs to be coached and why we are doing it:
• Understand exercise names/patterns and why they are chosen to achieve outcome
• Understand the way in which exercises are meant to be done to achieve desired outcome (isometrically, ballistically, reactively, dynamically at set tempo, etc)
• Be able to demonstrate both visually and verbally
2. Understand why improving a certain performance variable will positively impact sport performance or physical resiliency.
3. Know “success criteria” for movements and cue/coach any flaws.
• Was movement performed properly mechanically
• Was movement performed at specified velocity
• Was movement performed at proper recommended rep cadence
• Be able to regress and correct movements
• Know parameters on how, how much and when to progressively challenge movement to overload safely and effectively
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarity or support from a senior coach.
Self and Mentor Directed Feedback for Capabilities
I’ve often heard the term “what isn’t measured, isn’t managed”. Acquiring the range and depth of knowledge required to be a capable strength and conditioning practitioner can be a daunting task, but young coaches today have the luxury of having mentors to help direct them.
Self reflection and mentor guided reflection is a fantastic way to gain honest feedback on how you performed that day and more importantly how you can grow for the future.
And the end of this article I’ll provide an example of the daily coaching feedback form we use with our young student coaches to help direct their development.
When I think about an impactful student strength and conditioning coach, I think about an individual who is making genuine connections, someone who is passionately engaged in how the athlete is doing in and outside of the gym, someone who is cooperatively working to enhance the training experience and above all puts team before self.
For someone who hasn’t been exposed to a high performance setting, understanding the amount of detail, planning, support, organization and connection that is required to create a high performance practice environment can be surprising.
The goal to build trusting relationships between you and the athlete. Each of the below variables (when done well) can enhance that trust and increase professionalism.
• Be Prepared with Detail
o know the details of what is supposed to be done for the day. Athletes will always come to you and ask “how many reps” or do you “remember my weight from last week”.
o Know game/practice schedule ahead of time
• Be Organized and Tidy
o Assisting in making sure training space is set up for efficient training flow (essential for team training/multiple athletes)
o Being able to direct athletes to more appropriate and safe training areas when busy
o Know schedule for the day so you can plan ahead
• Be Supportive
o Assisting in setting up equipment for athletes (benches, boxes, barbells, plates)
o Assisting in taking down equipment for athletes
o Offering helping hand with spotting
• Make Connections
o Saying good morning/afternoon
o Saying goodbye and have a great day
o Asking how they are feeling today and if any injury concerns
o Following up on previous conversation from the prior week
o Knowing details of athletes lives you know they are proud of and willing to share with you.
Obviously, we want our students to be both capable and impactful but that is often not the case. We as program leaders could be faced with many scenarios.
• A student coach who is capable yet ineffective: i.e. a student who knows how to coach, cue and correct but doesn’t work on reinforcing a positive environment, helping the team or being engaged. Capable Impactful Incapable Ineffective
o Needs work on developing connection and being a teammate
• A student who is impactful yet incapable: i.e. a student who helps get set up, is an energy giver, encouraging but is missing the link on the specifics of coaching, cueing and leading.
o Needs work on being a better technical practitioner
• A student who is both capable and impactful.
o Needs direction on optimizing opportunities, expanding networks and expanding abilities
• A student who is neither capable or impactful.
o A conversation to be had with them on if this is the right environment
Having a model like this and collaboratively working with students to identify where they stand can help direct what they need to work on and aide in year end meetings and further guidance. But what does it mean to be capable and impactful.
“Athletes don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care” is a frequently used phrase that holds true. As strength and conditioning coaches, we are in a role that is never just a “one visit” situation. We are working with the same athletes and teams day in, day out and need to invest time into not only being capable of guiding the training process in a growth-oriented way but also positively impacting the collective training and team environment.
Impact without being capable can lead to unwanted (or even dangerous) results. Being capable without impact can lead to you not being a trusted resource that is a collaborative asset for the team. For those of you who are entering the field of strength and conditioning, it is important to remember that you need to grow as a practitioner that can deliver quality programming and coaching, while at the same time being willing to be part of “doing the little things” that create high performance and championship level environments.
My hope is that opening the conversation on both sides of the equation with mentors and coaches can create more specific direction-based development of young strength and conditioning professionals and ultimately keep passionate people engaged in a profession that can give us so much joy.
Andrew’s passion towards strength and conditioning started as a young aspiring athlete looking to play hockey at the highest level possible. After the reality of not playing professionally was realized, Andrew began the process of working towards coaching in sport through the lense of strength and conditioning. After completing both his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Waterloo, Andrew and his wife Michelle started their own company (NLPT Inc) in 2008 to help service the athletes of Waterloo Region. During that time, Andrew was also the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Owen Sound Attack (OHL) and also volunteered in various professional sport settings. In 2016 the opportunity was presented to Andrew to return to the University of Waterloo as the Interuniversity Strength and Conditioning Coach, as position he still holds where he directs programming and coaching with over 400 varsity student athletes and leads a team of 35 aspiring strength and conditioning coaches. Andrew is also the Development Strength and Conditioning Coach with the St. Louis Blues of the NHL, a consultant based position where he helps guide prospective players towards chasing their NHL dreams.
In his spare time, Andrew loves to be with his family (wife Michelle and son Leo), cook, playing hockey and golf and trying new projects around the house.