Leaving a Legacy at UBC

Published On: January 29, 2019Categories: Interviews

Initial CSCA calls included some great discussion around the need and desire for greater collaboration and shared learning on a national level. This perspective was shared by CSCA representatives coast to coast. Compared to our neighbours to the South, Canada has a relatively small community of Strength and Conditioning Coaches working in the University environment. British Columbia has a number of universities with established S&C programs and full time coaches. We also have a number of institutions with part time coaches, coaches who fill the role of strength and conditioning coach and athletic therapist and coaches who are shared resources with other businesses operating in this space.  Every situation is unique and no specific structure is best for every environment. The important perspective is that an increasing investment is being made in the field of Strength and Conditioning and the investment is seen as being essential to the success of varsity programs.

Some amazing work is happening by University Strength and Conditioning Coaches across Canada. Their work is in part assessed by the impact their program has on the performance of the varsity athletes. From a sports science perspective this impact can be monitored and measured in a variety of ways. The real challenge faced by all S&C varsity coaches is the need to effectively service hundreds of athletes from a variety of sports with limited resources. With a lack of resources there is a need to be more resourceful. Coach development is one solution.

Joe McCullum is the Head Coach Strength and Conditioning at the University of British Columbia. It is a big job. Joe and his team service about 650 athletes across 26 teams. Their work requires them to integrate with 50+ technical coaches. The S&C program is also fully integrated with the universities sport science and medical team.  Joe has put in place a coach development model that clearly addresses the need for more resources. Along with his assistant coaches, he has developed a versatile team of student coaches, a strong culture and a shared understanding of expected contributions. While this team is making huge impact within the university setting, Joe’s focus oncoach development is providing significant benefits to the industry as a whole. Locally, the UBC strength and conditioning program serves as a pipeline delivering well rounded and versatile coaches into the industry.

Joe openly shared his experiences and influences that shaped his development as a coach and leader, his personal philosophies and in turn the approach he takes to develop student coaches both to address the needs of the department and the ongoing success of those coaches. No matter the stage of your career or current work environment there is some great learnings below from Coach Joe.

CSCA: Who have been some influencers and mentors in your development as a coach?

JM: I have many people that have influenced my development as a coach and many that still are.  When I was in university, my first S&C coach was Chris Doyle who is now at Iowa and whether he knows it or not, he was a catalyst in sparking my interest in doing this as a career.  When I moved back to Canada I worked out of a facility where I got to regularly pick the brain of Jim Miller.  Jim was our former national team wrestling coach who I met as a high school wrestler. He had offered to lead a session for our team leading up to the provincials and I remember thinking how cool it was that he would give his time to a bunch of kids.  Years later, I began working out of a facility that he ran and I got to soak up everything I could from him regarding coaching, business and life.  He is a black hole of knowledge. Tim Murdy and Ian Hyde Lay were both rugby coaches that I worked alongside with our U20 National Rugby team. They were both extremely open minded and supportive of my integration. I routinely pick the brain of Mark Uyeyama. Mark was my former roommate in University and  has had an extensive career in the industry.  He is now with the Minnesota Vikings. I chat with Carmen Bott and Paul Gamble almost weekly and every time they say something that isn’t a dirty joke it goes into my notebook. 

To be completely transparent, other than Chris Doyle every one of the people above are good friends of mine that are willing to chat at a moments notice.  Aside from them, the biggest contributors to my development are the staff that I am surrounded by. I try to hire people that have skills that I don’t so I can learn from them just as much as they learn from me. I learn daily through my interactions with my current associates like Tavis Bruce, Amanda Jones and all of our students. When they move on to other jobs, we continue the communication.  Guys like Dan Adams (Mariners Applied Sport Science), Ben Bahrami (McMaster S and C head) and Carl Bergstromm (Golden State Head Performance Coach) challenged me and put up with my curmudgeonly outlook on everything.  I feel it is very important for those in leadership roles to be collaborators.  Being surrounded by like minded individuals is important but surrounding yourself with people that have a different outlook on things will allow for greater growth. 

Lastly, some of my biggest influencers are the athletes I have coached and am currently coaching. If you engage with them on a personal level you pick up anything from little nuances to high level information. It is easy to get caught up in the science and technical side of coaching but the building blocks for successful coaching is the information you get from building good rapport and trust with the people you are working for and alongside.

CSCA: What was your career progression to landing the position of Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at UBC?

JM: After finishing playing football at Utah,  I started interning in the weight room and worked my way up to be an assistant for two years from 1999-2002. 

I then came back to North Vancouver and started working for Level 10 Fitness in North Vancouver.  I started at Level 10 as a personal trainer and finished as the  Director of High Performance and Staff Development. In my 12 years there I worked with athletes of all ages from amateur to pro including working with multiple national teams (sailing, wrestling, U20 rugby, snowboarding, etc). Throughout this time I continued working with some general population clients which I strongly recommend for anyone looking to get into coaching athletes. I had an amazing and supportive friend and boss in Anthony Findlay.  He gave me a lot of autonomy to do my thing and to challenge those around me. He would also allow for me to travel with national or club teams when needed which layered in great experience with different coaches, therapists, HP Directors and athletes.  We had one of the first integrated facilities around with a full scale performance gym and clinic.  This allowed me to work with some really skilled therapists and coaches. The time spent in an integrative environment was instrumental in my growth and understanding of how to link the recovery piece into my performance planning.  I also coached and volunteered 5-10 hours per week working with our local rugby club and  coached wrestling, rugby and football at Carson Graham Secondary.  This allowed me to work with large groups and to build my network.

CSCA: You have directed significant time and energy into coach developmentCan you share why you make this an emphasis of your work and how the UBC S&C Coach Development program has grown and evolved. 

JM: It became an emphasis at UBC out of necessity with my coach development focus originating back when I was at Level 10 Fitness.

Level 10 Fitness had always taken on students but it was thought of more as “community outreach” than it was actually development.  About half way through my stint at Level 10 I had an emergency back surgery that left me on desk duty.  At the same time, 4 students from UBC reached out about the possibility of an internship.  I took on all 4 and spent an entire term involving them in every aspect of our operations including procedures for opening and closing, coaching, programming, etc.  At the end of the term we ended up hiring 3 of them. They hit the ground running.  It is a no brainer that developing your staff is important, but the time our staff and I could spend with them was invaluable. If a dialed in student that can take a 1 hour meeting on any topic and turn it into 10 hours of productivity you are winning. 

When I got to UBC, Lisa Bonang and I worked to determined what is essential, what is useful and what is possible (build a staff, train the staff, give the staff opportunities). Given the magnitude of this undertaking, we knew that servicing 650+ athletes would require as much help as we could get and that getting the job done with one associate would not work.  We also knew that without additional coaches we could not develop the athletes the way we wanted. Our natural inclination was to develop as many coaches as possible.

Anyone that has come from a private setting where you work one-on-one or in small groups understands the level of service and individual attention you can give as compared to being in a team or multiple team setting.  It is not unusual for us to see upwards of 200 UBC athletes by 11am.  Knowing an effective coaching scenario is one on one or small groups, we needed to figure out how we could take that to the masses. We try to keep our coach to athlete ratio around 2:10-15 which is still not ideal. There are times where a lead coach can be working solo with a group of 30.  This is not without it’s problems as you are leveraging students with limited experience.  We know that the better skilled our student coaches are, the more we can deliver. 

When initially hired my direct supervisor was James Brotherhood.  He was absolutely instrumental in helping me utilize limited staffing budget to create a program to offer scholarships to develop undergrad and graduate assistants.  James was a conduit to the Kin department as well as the Canadian Sport Institute.  I had also worked with Dr. Maria Gallo when she was a rugby athlete and she happened to be our Head Women’s Rugby Coach as well as the director of our MKin program.  We began by recruiting students like Dan Adams who led a S&C club on campus and before we knew it we had about 6 undergrad students and 2 or 3 masters students.  The program has grown exponentially every year through word of mouth for the most part. Currently, we have 9 graduate assistants and about 15 undergrad assistants.  We are now able to attract excellent students that want to be immersed in this environment.

We meet every second Friday and have daily interactions to discuss important issues.  Our meetings may involve bringing in guest speakers from different realms in sport or cover topics such as program design, lifting technique or session planning.  We leverage our students to present at meetings so they get comfortable in front of the group and to share what they are working on currently.

When I first started there were huge cultural and logistical gaps that needed to be addressed as well. We are learning from past mistakes which is allowing us to give more professional development opportunities to our students. This is a key area for our success.  Students know that we have an open door policy but all questions need to be well thought out with the same expectation for any new ideas or deliverables they may want to present.

The biggest evolution occured when we realized that more staff is not better.  Instead of taking on everyone and anyone willing, we made the positions more competitive so that we can provide the selected students with the support they need. We also have more students layering in their class directed studies work with what their involvement with the varsity teams.  This gives them the opportunity to dive into a topic they are passionate about while forcing a better understanding of the topic.

Lastly, we take great pride in the success of our students going onto great career paths.  All of them are extremely grateful for the opportunities they received and are all willing to give back.  We often rely on former team members to come back and talk to our group. They often sit down one on one with them to advise them on their directed studies or to give some simple career advice.  Most of our students complete a directed study at least once and our hope is that their projects will leave a legacy for the next crop of students to take on and make better. The idea of giving back (whether it is our coaches or athletes) is a cornerstone of our successes.

CSCA: What have you found to be an effective method for developing confidence in early career S&C coaches?

JM: Educate them, encourage them and give them opportunities. 

At the end of the day, there are not a lot of times in your career where you can be immersed in this volume of coaching unless you volunteer with multiple teams.  By having 25 teams under one roof, our coaches are being exposed to a large number of athletes daily.  I know that this is not ideal as there are other important attributes to coaching. I put more merit into this as I know that we have a limited time with them as students and feel that if there is ever a time of life that one can afford to give this amount of time it is while they are a student. 

To give a little context,  the chance of getting 10 clients per week when you start in the private industry is pretty slim unless the business you work for is crazy busy year round.  We know that “the art” of coaching takes experience and we can expedite their development by giving them significant exposure to coaching athletes in a week. Obviously this lends itself to other issues, but when you have some key staff members that are on the same page and supporting the students we don’t feel as if we are just throwing them into the fire.

CSCA: UBC has a robust integrated team of sport science and sport medicine practitioners.  How have you approached working with the head technical coaches to ensure S&C programming is in alignment?

JM: The approach is totally dependent on the coach.  We have to remember that the S&C profession is truly new within the last 20-30 years.  Of course it has been around much longer, but as an industry the growth really probably did not start until the 2000’s. Having said that, we can expect (specifically in Canada), that many sport technical coaches have not had a lot of experience working in a high performance atmosphere with a skilled integrated sport team. 

In our setting, we have a mixture of coaches from all different settings, experience and education levels (PSO’s, NSO’s, club, pro and from bachelor degrees to PhD’s). Within that mix you have varied levels of understanding of what an IST can do. Everything starts with education both for our coaches and athletes and in our setting it is coupled with the ability to be hyper-organized. We need to be extremely organized and have the support of the sport coaches to run 20-28 sessions in a day. Once sessions are lined up we meet with coaches as regularly as needed to discuss what they would like to see for their team and what we can deliver.  Everything we deliver has different layers to it (whether it is sport sci, coaching, programming, etc).  For example,  if a coach wants us to do load monitoring, we chat with them and see what their knowledge level is on the subject and their willingness and understanding of how to use this data to shape practices as we would in the weight room or during field sessions. From there we will layer in more details and complexity.  Despite living in a time where everything needs to be immediate, we strongly believe in the need to explain the importance of looking at things over time.  If you can do “A” well, we will look at “B” and so on.  If you show the ability to skip forward we will not hold you or your team back if they qualify to progress. 

CSCA: You put emphasis on your coaches coming together to learn from each other. What have been some of the intended and unintended outcomes from these learning sessions?

JM: The intended outcome is to include the students in the marrying of what they would like to learn and what we think they need to learn. 

We start the beginning of the year asking some of our returning coaches what they would like to see and how they would like us to deliver things.  We have found that they want to be involved in the process so we may start the sessions with something as simple as asking them what they learned this week.  From there, it sparks discussion and more importantly camaraderie.  They begin to feel more comfortable having discussions with each other. This leads to more in depth conversations in the following meeting.

Last week I led a wrestling and tumbling session with the group. We had about 20 students attend the meeting and we prefaced it with letting them know they were welcome to watch if not comfortable.  We had a few new members to the team and we wanted to see who would take part. Everyone of them jumped at the chance and loved the session.  This is something that would not have occured in my first year or two and took time to get evolve.

Our grad assistants are a little older and they are all friends outside of work. They have get togethers, watch games together and enjoy spending time together even after the long days they may put in.  One of our GA’s defended his thesis today. There were 7 team members there to support him. It was awesome. I don’t want to say the students coming together to feel like they are part of a team is unintentional, but the level to which it has grown certainly is.

CSCA: If you were to do up a NOT to do list to help guide the development of student coaches what would be some of key items you would include?


  1. Avoid people that speak more about themselves than they do their staff or athletes/teams. Young coaches are hammered with the idea of searching out a mentor and to be honest I don’t always agree with this concept. It is not black and white when it comes to who, and when, you should learn from someone. I know this is heresy, but I have never been a fan of the idea of putting someone on a pedestal and unfortunately it is something we see a lot of in both the performance and business world.  When we do this, we tend to be nervous to challenge or question things.  I believe a key to performance coaching is the ability and willingness to think critically and to challenge ideas and people.  I am not saying don’t have a mentor but rather prefer the idea of working with someone that talks to you as if you are both on the same level. I feel it allows for greater output.
  2. Do your research and learn what confirmation bias is.  Don’t limit yourself by working with people with whom you have the same ideas around performance.  Seek out people who challenge you and force a deeper understanding of the “why”. Continue to surround yourself with like minded individuals but also have a think on things if everyone around you has the exact same opinions. We like to think that “great minds think alike” but there is an old adage from William Wrigley Jr that states “when two men in a business always agree, one of them is unnecessary”.  As a miserable old curmudgeon, this has always resonated with me.
  3. Avoid the idea that your learning as a coach is somehow way different than the way the athletes you work with learn.  Your knowledge will progress as you are able to tolerate the stresses put forth.  You need to figure things out on your own and avoid the infinite regression of people telling you what to do and when to do it.
  4. Don’t get caught up in social media when there are plenty of opportunities to get out and physically coach.  There is never ending information out there and it is not going anywhere.  As you get into your career your time becomes more and more limited.  Take the time when you can financially afford to and immerse yourself into coaching and volunteering. This time is imperative.
  5. Nothing is new. Just because someone took something that someone else figured out 20-50 years ago and wrapped it up into a “complete system” doesn’t make it the next best thing. The reality is if you adhere to the basic principles of S&C you cannot go wrong. If anyone in our industry was doing something groundbreaking that actually really significantly improves performance more than doing the basics well, don’t you think we would all be doing it?
  6. Avoid heavy systematic coaching environments.  If everything is handed to you how will you learn?  It is no different in terms of what we are trying to deliver to our athletes.  We want to give them the tools they require but they need to figure things out on their own.
  7. Be cautious of drawing from the elite.  I have worked with countless elite athletes but the masses I work with currently are still developing.  There are outliers but the idea of trying to replicate how the All Blacks or Usain Bolt trains with your high school or university team is crazy.  Take a deep dive into your situation and do a top down analysis to figure out what will give you the best results.
  8. Read on a daily basis.  I commit to read at least one full page daily on topics that include business, leadership, mental health, nutrition, etc. It can be research articles, journals, blogs or other formats. I keep a log of every article so I can go back to it or send it to our team, sport coaches, administration and IST.

CSCA: How do you see the profession of a University Strength and Conditioning Coach evolving over the next 5 years?

JM: Evolving needs to begin with administration and sport coach education. If we want the right people in the right positions we need to make sure those doing the hiring know what they are looking for and what options are available to them.

I am pretty sure that there are schools that do not have full time S&C staff and if they do the coaches are leveraged to either run a business to help fund the program or to teach part time to share the cost of salaries. At the very least, this shows that there is willingness to have these roles in place, but there is a cost to it.  The more coaches are pulled out of their environment, the less they can deliver for their teams.  If we want to build this a profession, we need professionals with full-time status executing key deliverables.

The students we have are amazing.  I love working with all of them but it has a cost associated with it and the administration needs to know this.  I strongly encourage taking on students, but we should not have to rely on them if we don’t have a staff that can support them.  This is not a knock on the profession, but the contributions of an S&C coach can be diluted if you don’t have an administration and sport coaches that support the role. Luckily at UBC we receive lots of support. 

As professionals we need to get away from chasing useless metrics and continue to evolve our way out of the title of S&C coach.  For the UBC technical coaches that are open to our support,  we are heavily involved in their programs including practice planning, load monitoring, sport technical work, building accountability and cultural frameworks, return to play programs, teaching fundamental movements.  Both strength and conditioning become a byproduct of doing all of these types of things well.

Special thanks to Coach Joe McCullum for sharing his approach and philosophies. Joe can be reached at Joe.McCullum@ubc.ca.  Check out UBC Performance’s Instagram to get a sense of the daily training environment, focus on staff development and the influence of Joe’s diverse athletic background on the department’s programming. Also be sure to visit www.gothunderbirds.ca to learn about other members of the team who work with and support UBC athletes.

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