Due to the various demands of being a strength and conditioning coach (i.e., working with different types of athletes with different goals) and evolving training modalities, it is natural to learn new skills over time. Some practitioners specialize in a specific area, while others opt to learn a breadth of skills in many areas. Areas outside the classic scope of strength and conditioning include: nutrition, psychology, physiology, biomechanics, physical therapy, performance analysis, and sport coaching. As a practitioner, I bounced back and forth between strength and conditioning and nutrition early in my career, eventually landing a job as a sport nutritionist at the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario. Initially, my job was exclusively related to providing nutrition services. After some time, patience, and organizational support, an opportunity presented itself and I was able to integrate strength and conditioning back into my job. Recently I have been exploring how to integrate services many would consider falling under the scope of a physiologist (e.g. blood lactate monitoring) into my own practice. My career so far has been an experiment in NOT “staying in my lane”. So how have I navigated cross-disciplinary service delivery without creating conflict with my colleagues? This article outlines why I have pursued the development of cross-disciplinary skills in my career, and some key points to keep in mind along the way.
Pros of cross-disciplinary development
First, I would like to highlight why I feel the pursuit of cross-disciplinary skills is worthwhile despite all the “stay in your lane” warnings I received early in my career. It is my opinion that the more things you can do, the more likely you will be able to provide solutions to problems. You will get better at your job because every discipline in our industry has the ultimate goal of improving health and performance. One of the primary advantages of approaching the pursuit of health and performance through various lenses is how it can facilitate outside-the-box thinking within your discipline. This will permit you to see problems in different ways. Building muscle requires more than just a certain type of training, it also requires a certain type of lifestyle and discipline. How are they eating? How are they sleeping? And more importantly, do you have the counselling skills to modify these behaviours? You are no longer simply providing services within a potentially arbitrary scope, you will be providing solutions.
Another advantage is that it will give you more opportunities to spend time and build rapport with your clients. These opportunities will also be in different environments, which helps give you a different look at the problems your clients are facing. Clients appreciate this as they see that you care about more than just what’s going on in the gym. For instance, actively looking to spend time with my nutrition clients away from the counselling desk was one of the best career decisions I have made. For strength and conditioning coaches, getting out of the gym doesn’t have to be complicated. Offer to hold a camera for a coach or scribe for a physiologist during a lab test. Learning new skills gives you new perspectives and opportunities, but you need to keep some things in mind.
Points to consider
There is some wisdom in the phrase “stay in your lane”. Our jobs are often more complicated than they appear. It can be tempting to think you could do someone else’s job better than them, but you would often be wrong. A good rule of thumb to consider through your cross-disciplinary development is to not assume a job is as simple as someone else makes it seem. The perceived simplicity is probably due to that person being good at what they do, not because it is easy per se. As such, take your time and start small. Collaborate with your colleagues to define the start and end of the service that you are responsible for. You are not trying to replace your colleague, rather, you are trying to learn a very specific skill that would be helpful for everyone (you, your colleagues, and your clients). There is a difference between holding a camera and being a performance analyst. You are just holding a camera to capture some data and that is okay. Think about it in relation to your area of expertise. If a therapist helped spot an athlete during a near max lift in the gym, this is helpful, but hardly makes them a strength and conditioning coach. Keep this in mind and you will satisfy many of the “stay in your lane” concerns.
This next one is a bit of a no brainer, but it is worth mentioning… try and BE HELPFUL! Do not try and provide a service that does not need providing just because it is of interest to you. If it does NOT need providing because it is NOT helpful, try and find something that IS helpful. If it does NOT need providing because it is already being provided, trying to provide that service could come across as not “staying in your lane”. An exception to this could be if that person has expressed that they want someone else to help out or take it off their hands. In which case, you could collaborate on that transition plan. Another part of being helpful is that you need to have the skills to provide the service adequately. Do your homework, learn from colleagues and practice, practice, practice. This applies to learning any new skills not just outside of your primary discipline.
Some people may not like to hear this next point, but you probably need to be a specialist AND a generalist. You need to stay on top of your own specialty. Your specialty is still where the majority of your value lies and how you will obtain and keep jobs. Even with my push to develop cross-disciplinary skills, I ensure I am also developing as a nutritionist which is still the bulk of work I do. Owning your own space also opens up doors for your colleagues to support you with their own cross-disciplinary space, without you feeling like they are not “staying in their lane”.
Lastly, keep in mind legal issues. Some services are classified as controlled acts within certain contexts. You must determine if the service you are considering is a controlled act, and if you are authorized to perform that controlled act. For example, in Ontario, blood lactate monitoring could fall under the controlled act of a “procedure below the dermis”. Registered Dietitians (RD) are authorized to perform “skin pricking” which allows me (as an RD) to monitor capillary blood readings for the purpose of health care, but not as a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS). It would also be possible to perform a controlled act through “delegation” from a physician. Point being, there are legal and ethical “stay in your lane” considerations when looking to learn new skills.
The pendulum swings back and forth. There was a time when every practitioner was a generalist and had to know a bit about everything. Then the industry undoubtedly benefited, albeit with some drawbacks from a new generation of specialized practitioners. Now I believe we are past the peak of “stay in your lane” as it has become more acceptable (and advantageous) to learn cross-disciplinary skills while still maintaining a specialty. It allows you to build rapport and solve problems as a “one stop shop” option, or provides opportunities to collaborate within interdisciplinary teams. However, with this approach comes potential service quality issues, redundancy concerns, and legal pitfalls. Managing relationships becomes paramount. Be helpful, take your time, collaborate, and learn some new things.
Kevin Iwasa-Madge, MHSC, RD, HPC, CSCS completed a Bachelors degree at the University of Guelph in Applied Human Nutrition, and a Masters degree in Nutrition Communication at Ryerson University. Kevin is a former member of the National Wrestling Team, and currently works as a sport nutritionist and strength & conditioning coach at the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario. He is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, ISAK – Level 2 Accredited Anthropometrist, and a High Performance Certified Member of Sport Scientist Canada.