One of the questions I often ask students that are applying for an internship with the Winnipeg Bluebombers is “what do you think we do here?” Obviously a fairly nebulous question, but the answer can provide a lot. From the outside looking in, one might expect a strength and conditioning coach working in the CFL would be responsible for just that (S&C). But working with the Bluebombers has been much more than just S&C (whatever your definition/roles/responsibilities might be).
When I was hired for the position in 2017, it wasn’t because I had football specific insight and training experience. I’d never played football as a kid, and I had little experience working in it before starting. What I lacked in experience, I made up in work ethic and the ability to wear multiple hats, an important aspect in the Canadian Football League (CFL). Because I graduated with an athletic therapy degree, I could fit under the medical umbrella organizationally and split time between the therapy room and the gym. Being multifaceted in your skillset has become more popular as the profession grows, and other CSCA authors have written great articles on this topic.
A regular day in the offseason might start with a field speed session, moving into the gym for a workout, treating longer term rehab players, and then finally preparing for the next day or for the junior football team that also trains with us at our facility. On any given day in the offseason, we might have zero players in the building, or we might have 15 in the building. Each of them possibly looking for training instruction, nutrition advice, supplement education, table maintenance work, modifications for working around a sore area etc. With small staff sizes you had better be able to multi-task and know a little about a lot of things. This is no different than a High School S&C coach that has to wear 15 different hats. We just have the blessing (and the burden) of a bigger budget.
A regular day in-season looks quite a bit different. A normal day may start between 5:30 and 6:00 am, beginning with treatment for injured players. Some players are receiving entirely table-based treatments, some are working through return to play programs in the gym, and some players are coming in to start their day with a lift before practice.
The mornings are a good time for student interns to learn and ask questions because it is less chaotic and busy than the afternoon, post practice. Our S&C intern(s) and AT interns will both be in the gym in the morning observing and helping with the return to play programs, as well as taking players through their lift for the day. What usually jumps out to most of our students, is how similar the return to play programs and the regular workouts are. We like to think our programming philosophy as “Blurring the Lines” between rehab and training. You might think “well obviously, everyone does “prehab” exercises, or injury prevention” or whatever it is you want to call it. But being able to wear both a therapist hat and an S&C hat allows me and the other therapists to both coach exercise for a desired outcome or go into the treatment room and make a change structurally that may aid in pain reduction or improve movement in a joint or exercise.
Also in this regard, all our AT’s spend time in the gym learning the basics of S&C, so they understand what is required of our athletes to get back to full participation. If they see a player come in that has an issue that might be more strength related, they’ll know what to tell the player right away.
Once the morning sessions wrap up, players go into meetings, which give the staff a few hours to take care of admin tasks, cleaning up, preparing for the afternoon, or learning something new.
When practice wraps up, the players are free to go about their business as they see fit, as they are only required to work for 4.5 hours a day (except for travel and gamedays). This is usually the part that students don’t quite understand. How could you be a professional athlete and not live in the gym???
The reality is, most athletes recognize the importance of maintaining strength and injury prevention nowadays, but that doesn’t make it any easier when your joints hurt and all you want to do is sit in the hot tub.
A big part of an S&C coaches’ job in the CFL is motivating and encouraging your players to consistently workout. Some won’t need any encouragement, but some will fight you tooth and nail that they know their body and “rest is a weapon”. I believe this is where the art of negotiation plays the most important role. At the end of the day, I can’t actually make a player workout because of the league’s collective bargain agreement (CBA), but I sure can make them realize it’s in their best interests to do so. I’ve found peer pressure to work quite well for this.
Most days our gym will have 15-20 players working out post practice, and 8-9 players actively being treated, with additional players waiting for their turn for treatment on one of the tables. As a student this is a great time to see multitasking at its finest. Myself or any of the AT staff may be working with multiple players at the same time, either in the therapy room or in the gym, or both. Being able to keep one eye on the whole gym, and one eye on a player going through a return to play program will teach you to be concise with instructions and keep multiple trains of thought going at the same time.
At the end of the day, when most of the players are gone, we go through the treatments that occurred that day, any new assessments that were done, and catch up on any players that might need extra attention in the coming days. Again, because of this “blurred line” between therapy and S&C we can treat players more holistically, not working as two integrated departments, but as one continuous department with different spectrums involved. At no point in season or offseason should one aspect be completely left out, focusing only on “strength” or only on “rehab”.
This is evident in our philosophy, as well in our facility. Some of the best laid intentions of inter-department cooperation between therapy and strength staff run into issues due to location. If the weight room is another floor away or a building away from the therapy staff, a concerted effort must be made from both sides to maintain lines of communication. When things get hectic, (as they often do in pro sports), it may become difficult for those lines of communication to remain a priority. Zoom meetings, emails and texts may become more difficult to schedule, and that’s assuming both sides are willing participants in collaboration. This is why putting your gym right next to your therapy room becomes so important. On the busiest day of the year, I still spend half of the day in the therapy room talking to players and the other AT staff. Collaboration is inevitable because of the structural organization of our club, as well as the layout of our facilities. I believe this has become the norm in most newer facilities, but I still see a fair amount of college campuses with a new gym on one side of the campus and a clinic on the other.
All of this adds up to providing the best experience we can for the players and staff, and chasing better results every year. Wearing multiple hats provides multiple perspectives to look at any problem, and we pride ourselves on having a big hat collection.
Brayden Miller, MSc, CAT(C), CSCS, is entering his seventh season with the Winnipeg Football Club in 2023 leading the club’s strength and conditioning programs as well as being an Assistant Athletic Therapist.