Over 30 Years and Still Coaching: Part 1

Published On: August 15, 2019Categories: Career, Interviews

CSCA Director Q and A with Ed McNeely

CSCA How did you get started in the industry?

EM – I started in the high-performance world over 30 years ago. The landscape was very different, most sports were decentralized, with national team athletes training at their home clubs for most of the year and coming together for a short period of time for camps or competitions. Strength and conditioning as a profession did not exist in Canada and even in the US the NSCA was less than a decade old and strength coaches were still trying to gain traction as part of a sports team. The expectation at the time was that when you were brought in to work with a team or athlete you would be able to provide multiple services including physiology, nutrition, sport psych and strength training support.

I was fortunate enough to be at the University of Ottawa at the time. Al Reed was a professor who had done quite a bit of work on the original NCCP coaching education program and as a result had acquired some contracts to work with several National Sport Organizations (NSOs). I started as a volunteer during testing sessions, which eventually became a graduate student assistance opportunity and then a full-time job. Five grad students were working in the lab focused on sport performance. At one point we had 17 NSOs that we were servicing as well as several professional hockey teams.

Al was a great mentor and had a vision for sport science delivery in Canada that had a tremendous influence on how I have approached my career. He emphasized that our primary role was to make athletes and coaches better, not to contribute to academia. This meant that the work we did had to be relevant to the interests of the sport and done in a timely fashion. For instance, when we ran testing sessions it was expected that we would provide reports and one on one feedback to coaches and athletes within 24 hours.

Another thing that has always stuck with me is the notion that our primary job was to put ourselves out of a job. If we were effectively delivering services and education the athletes and coaches would become independent thinkers and understand the process of high performance to the point that they did not need us for basic services, testing or programming. This would in turn force us to continually be creative, forward thinking, and innovative to find what else we could be doing to help them get better. As they got better so did we.

CSCA What have been some of the challenges you have faced?

EM – The University did not value sport and the contributions that we were making to the sport system in Canada. We were writing and contributing to a lot of coaching manuals both for the coaching association and individual NSOs but because they were not peer reviewed journal publications the University did not see them as legitimate publications. Eventually it was decided that we should not be using University labs for sport purposes that did not lead to academic publications so Al Reed, myself and two other grad students decided to take the NSO contracts that we had and go private, so we started a business called the Ottawa Sport Science Centre.

One of the biggest challenges we faced in our fledgling business was that there was not enough funding in the Canadian sport system to make high-performance sport a full-time occupation. There are currently sports that have budgets for multiple full-time practitioners to provide sport science support. When I started the top sports were getting $10-$15000 per year for their sport science and sport medicine programs. This had to cover travel, salaries and any supplies or equipment needed and was spread across all disciplines, including doctors and therapists that travelled with the teams. 

While a lack of funding was a challenge it was also an opportunity. We needed to look for other income streams to supplement the high-performance sport income. We started opening our services up to recreational athletes and soon found that the growing world or masters age group sports was a great place to not only generate income but also to experiment with different training methods, educational programs, and technologies.

In addition to the masters athletes we did quite a bit of occupational work, developing fitness tests and standards, evaluating equipment and validating existing protocols for the RCMP, DND, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Correctional Services and several corporate clients who had their own emergency response teams in their manufacturing sites. This was a great learning experience and shaped the way that I view and approach testing with sports. Occupational test development demands a greater degree of rigour than what is typically used in sports.

Designing occupational fitness tests has to be done with the understanding that employees and unions may challenge the tests and standards in court so everything has to be defensible and follow the procedures to create bona fide occupational requirements. This whole area has exploded over the past few years, to the point that there are now tactical strength and conditioning certifications available. I would suggest to anyone given the opportunity to get involved in occupational fitness to take it. It provides a unique perspective on S&C that can be carried to other client groups.

One of the other challenges was technology. When I started in this profession personal computers were a new thing. There were few laptops and those that did exist were slow and had limited memory size. My first PC had a 20MB hard drive, smaller than most photo files today. There was limited software available for data collection and analysis so we still had to do a lot of calculations by hand. For instance, the power output data from a Wingate bike test was not automated. In order to perform a Wingate test the pedal was filmed, yes in some cases it was film, or video recorded and then played back and the number of revolutions in a 5s period was counted so that power could be calculated.

Even what would now be considered simple was sometime challenging. I remember one camp with Baseball Canada in the early 1990’s where I tested a group of 40 athletes on a Friday evening and had to provide feedback the next day at 11:00 am. In an effort to improve the quality of reports I had a state of the art portable ink jet printer. I was sure, based on advertising, that this would be a big step up from the slow, clunky, unreliable dot matrix printer. The ink jet printer held the promise of high-quality graphs and tables, something we had never been able to do well. Unfortunately, I hadn’t paid close attention to the printer specs. Between the paper tray that only held 4 sheets of paper and constantly jammed and the 2-3 minutes it took to print each page I was up all night printing reports, finishing them just in time to drive to the training facility for the coach and athlete feedback meetings. I got through the meetings but had to sleep in the car for a few hours before driving back to Ottawa.

CSCA Where do you see S&C going in the next 10 years?

EM – This is a tough question because where I would like to see S&C and where I think it will actually be are different. I would like to see a strong and active CSCA with a couple thousand engaged members who are active in the organization and advocating for further professionalism and acceptance of S&C as a profession.

I would like to see well established paid internship and apprenticeship programs, something beyond the short school credit placements that are often the norm. I hope there will be a system where the more senior coaches in the system provide mentorship opportunities for young S&C coaches. I hope we get to the point that we start to value a broader based education for S&C coaches that might include business and leadership education, critical thinking and communication, and coaching. I still find it perplexing that we want to call ourselves coaches but few have ever coached a team or participated in any coaching education.

I’m not sure how much of this we will accomplish in the next 10 years. I have been around long enough to know that in the Canadian sport system everything takes much longer than anticipated and that things are slow to change. Time is the biggest obstacle. With so many S&C coaches holding down multiple jobs to make a living or running their own businesses it is hard to find the time to commit to improving the profession. If we are patient and resolute in our desire to raise the quality and profile of S&C coaching in Canada I am optimistic that the CSCA can start to bring us together and that we can create a common vision for the profession moving forward.

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