Why Isolate When You Can Integrate? – A look at Strength & Conditioning in the Canadian University Setting

Published On: April 27, 2021Categories: Career

There are vast differences between the strength and conditioning departments in Canadian collegiate/University settings. These can vary from full-time positions, part-time staff, contracted trainers, and even volunteers. No matter what situation you find yourself or your school in, there needs to be a harmonious relationship and open communication pathways between the S&C coach and other members of the Athletic Department staff to ensure optimal results. Rapport is the key attribute needed from any group of people, especially those working for the common goal of improving others (athletes) and enhancing their experience while under your department’s care. Athletic departments, which include sport coaches, Athletic Directors (AD), Strength & Conditioning Coaches (S&C), Athletic Therapists (AT), and more, fall into the category of groups needing strong rapport to best serve the end user- the athletes. Strong communications and relationship can enhance this quality and the end results.   

From an S&C perspective, building rapport with the rest of the athletic staff is crucial. We need to ensure we have good communication with each member of the department, treat others with respect, and serve the athletes as best we can. After all, we are not simply meant to push athletes to their limits and improve their athletic performance. We need to ensure we have a good standing reputation throughout the department so that we can work as a collective unit to provide exceptional student experience for our athletes during their undergraduate/graduate varsity career. 

One thing we all know inherently, but bears repeating is this: it is much easier to build a relationship the more you are collaborating with someone and it is easier to share ideas, be honest, and work towards the betterment of your institution when having a good relationship with the rest of the staff. That is why no matter which scenario listed above your school is in, I think we can all agree that the more present an S&C coach can be within the walls of the institution, the more effective they can be. 

As discussed, the S&C landscape at the university level in Canada varies, but the one thing to keep in mind is this: an in-house strength and conditioning coach is better able to build these crucial relationships with the athletes, coaches, and other members of the athletic department. Building relationships can be maximized by performing daily check-ins, scheduling weekly meetings, making the time to meet with athletic therapy staff, and shifting from ‘isolated’ to ‘integrated’. 

Daily Check-ins 

We all know that investing in people and learning about them outside of their work/sport is the best way to build a relationship with them. However, I think the one thing that the COVID pandemic has also taught us is how invaluable in-person interactions are on a day-to-day basis. Being able to talk to one another, pop into each other’s offices, and get together to chat about things outside of sport are things I am sure we all missed over the last 12 months. As a full-time S&C coach at my university, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in a scenario where those are not a reality, regardless of the presence of a pandemic or not. Seeing my fellow coaches on a daily basis and communicating via in-person meetings has been a huge plus. 

Daily check-ins are a great way to hold each other accountable, make timely changes to weekly workload plans, and make sure everyone is on the same page. Many times in my career I had something planned in the weight room when the sport coach swings by and gives me a piece of info that makes me have to adapt (ie. they aren’t happy with the performance on the field this weekend and is going to run them in practice). With that new info I can then modify the session I had planned for the team to ensure we aren’t exceeding the pre-planned weekly workload volume. The same can be said on the flip side. If I notice the team was struggling that morning in their lift, or we had a really high-energy session, I can easily communicate that to the coaches before their training session so they know what kind of day their athletes are having and can adjust as necessary.  

Weekly Meetings & Planning 

The same can carry over to weekly planning sessions. If we look at all those small interactions on a daily basis, they can be life savers for you, and especially for the athletes on the receiving end. Now, imagine if you could be a part of the planning meetings to make sure you are on the same page right from the get-go and not scrambling to adjust every day. After all, the biggest struggle I hear from other S&C coaches is that the sport coaches are constantly altering workload (training too hard, not enough days off, etc). As a hired staff member who has in-person interactions, you could be a part of the planning process, give practice recommendations and be on the same page! 

I think one idea that we all need to keep in mind is an S&C coach should be considered as a part of the coaching staff for each of the teams they work with, not just the head of a separate department. Some of the teams here at TWU consider me to simply be “on their staff”, and not as a separate position. Having that “position” or title gives me more authority with the athletes, but also allows me to speak into training planning more with the coaches, which is a huge difference maker. 

Technology has helped us tremendously over the last year. The “boom of ZOOM” and other communication methods have made it easier to stay in touch, share info and whatnot from distances. Yes, these weekly meetings can happen from afar as a hired-out S&C coach. However, as we all have now experienced, truly understanding and sharing ideas and getting proper feedback from everyone (not just the speaker) requires human contact and this is better accomplished with someone working “in-house” and having the ability to be in-person. 

Integrated Support Team (IST) meetings are an effective use of communication where the head sport coach, the head AT and other staff members can chat about what happened on the weekend, any updates moving into that week, etc. We have done that here at TWU with some of our teams and it helped us come up with a plan for training and lifting together, and the athletes reaped the benefits. We stayed healthier than we had ever been and the progress we saw both in the weight room and sport context was fantastic. These meetings take 15-20 min, but were gamechangers for our athletics department. Now I understand that hosting weekly IST meetings with every team may be a large commitment, especially at larger schools, but investing that time is well worth it so all staff are developing athletes similarly, instead of tugging in various directions.  

Athletic Therapy/Staff 

Those meetings with the sport coach and therapy team are invaluable. I cannot state enough the value of meeting frequently with your team’s/school’s AT to go over athlete’s situations, changes, and updates. Miscommunication happens in any job, but for some reason it is exponentially increased when 18-23 year old athletes need to deliver a simple message from the therapist to the S&C coach on what their injury is and what the contraindications are. (“They said something about squats. Maybe don’t do them? Or they might have said to do them. I can’t remember”. Ugh).  

What better way to stay in touch with any new occurrences and make sure you get the right message than to have some face-to-face communication? Yes, getting weekly email updates is awesome, there is no doubt about that. But having the kind of relationship where you can go chat with your therapy team about something you don’t understand or about something you are seeing from a movement limitation/restriction is vital to ensure you understand the situation and actually help the athlete rather than do further harm. This can once again be in the form of a weekly meeting or daily check-in. If you find yourself in the same fortunate situation I do where our Therapy Clinic is in the same building and less than 50m away from the weight room, then simply telling the athlete to go back and clarify their situation is very convenient. Or you could always go run over to the clinic when you have a spare minute to double check any piece of info you were wondering about.  

These meetings/check-ins with athletic therapy (or any other facet of your department- Dietitian, Sport Psych, etc) help foster the relationship as well as show them you value their opinion and show are willing to be a member of the team.  

Isolating vs Integrating  

Contracting someone to come in and ‘train’ your team is better than having nothing set-up in the realm of strength training, don’t get me wrong. When you bring someone in who doesn’t promote your University culture and values the way the rest of the staff and athletes do, it doesn’t allow for optimal communication and follow-up with coaches and staff.  

Having a contracted coach can be extremely helpful, but they may not know what else is going on with your athletes due to their own time-constraints. A contracted coach may not have any idea what is happening in training, in classes, or even games. They simply don’t know the environment and culture as well and therefore have a harder time keeping everyone in line with these values and working towards the same mission. When trying to optimize your athletes and create a high-performance culture within your school, you need to have someone there to help guide it who lives and breathes it as well. 

Now if you find yourself to be in this situation as a contracted coach, a couple action steps to help improve your understanding would be: 

  • Keep communication lines open with sport coaches so you can easily ask about training schedule/loads 
  • This can be through emails, texts, or in-person meetings. It may add more time to your day, but it will be well worth the effort as you will be more effective in the weight room with the athletes when you understand their sport demands 
  • Learn about the school you are at  
  • Don’t just treat it like another stop in your day, but try and dive into the culture, the environment, and the classes
  • Speak to student-athletes about what it is like to go there and their thoughts on it 
  • Talk to coaches about the culture they want to build and how they do it in their context so you can match the message 

A Varsity Only Space 

We all know that trust is a huge component of buy-in for athletes and coaches, which in turn leads to overall better rapport. What better way to build trust than to be relatable and available to each athlete, which is very hard to do when only working in the space for a few hours a day. Being there all the time allows you to create the culture you want, and your Athletics Department needs to optimize athletic and holistic development. Athletes need that consistent stability and presence to oversee their development and be there for them no matter what. I cannot tell you how many times an athlete has knocked on my door or asked to chat after a lift, only break down about something that is happening in their personal life. Now I am not advocating for S&C coaches to serve as a counsellor, but when that deeper level of trust is created, it strengthens the relationship and enhances the culture set by the coaching staff and Athletics Department.  


So, what do we need to do? As an athletic administrator, hire a certified S&C coach to work in your school. Even if it is part-time to start. We need to get more S&C coaches working not just for athletic departments, but in them. Have people that are immersed in the culture, invested fully in the development and livelihood of the athletes and coaching staff.  

As a contracted or part time S&C coach, I encourage you to submit a budget-based proposal to the department imploring the staff to create a full-time position within the department. Explain how being immersed enhances relationships, culture, and athlete safety and performance. This will not be an easy task, but one that will be worth it, not only for you (job stability) but also for the students and staff you are working with. We need more full-time S&C positions within U-Sport Athletic departments across Canada. We need these coaches to be seen as assistants to the team, not some outside source or “the weight room supervisor”. We need to grow sports in Canada in general, and it all starts with certified Strength & Conditioning coaches being a part of the same team.  

Author Bio

Cole is the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, and a member of the CSCA’s Digital Communications Committee.  He has a strong passion for fitness, nutrition, strength & conditioning, and sports. He loves to help educate athletes on how to take their game to the next level and work with them on getting them to where they want to be. He also loves to learn and better himself everyday!

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