Challenges the Best Female Strength Coaches Face

TAGS: strength & conditioning, Strong(her), sports performance, female coaches, elitefts.com, Elitefts Info Pages, Mark Watts

Collegiate strength and conditioning is one of the most competitive job markets for any young professional. The number of aspiring strength coaches compared to the job availability is grossly one-sided. Add the fact that the field is male-dominated and you will see the obstacles a female strength and conditioning coach must go through.

In this four-part series, we will get to know these women and gain some valuable insight on how they got started in the profession, their training philosophy, their challenges, and their advice to other strength coaches in the field.

In part one of this series, we looked at the competitive athletic background of these coaches and how it affected their career paths. In part two, they talked about their general methodology and the principles that guide their training of athletes. This article will delve into the challenges these women face in the field and on a day-to-day basis.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced and continue to face as a strength and conditioning coach?


Because of NCAA time constraints, it is likely that over the course of a year no other coach spends as much hands-on time with student-athletes as the athletic performance coach. Despite the inevitable athlete-to-coach bond that formulates over hours of hard work and sacrifice, we must always remember that the sport teams we work with are not ours. The bottom line always begins and ends with the head coach; your agreement or disagreement with their philosophies is irrelevant. As a supporting branch of a team, it is your duty and responsibility to echo the message of your head coach to their athletes.

Most sport coaches will present a workout or exercise to the athletic performance coach that they believe will help their team compete. It is also likely that this request may conflict with your ideal training plan. Perform this request with energy and belief to gain the trust of your sport coach, and then get your preferred exercises in another training session. Trust is a two-way street and in order to receive you must first give.

Being a female in this field naturally has its challenges. It was a trying time for me when I started my first full-time position at USF. I was a 23 year-old female trying to gain trust and confidence from my student-athletes and sport coaches. There were a lot of age and gender stereotypes that I had to overcome. In order to overcome those challenges I knew I had to be very intentional about how I presented myself and it also forced me to work even harder to prove that I could do my job well. I learned that while I had a strong knowledge base in program design, thanks to my education and internship experiences, I had some growing to do to improve my approach in dealing with people — especially sport coaches. I’ve learned that while I may have designed a great plan for what I need to do with a team, I need to be flexible enough to alter some of my plan to fit the philosophy or requests of a sport coach.

Another challenge can stem from the culture of the sport and the underlying perceptions within that culture. I believe that every sport has its own unique culture that will have some influence on the priorities of the coaches and athletes and as a result will have some impact on how I need to approach what I do with a team. Ultimately, I am a support staff member to their program and sometimes I have to die to myself and a certain vision that I may have to better accommodate what the head coach wants. I’ve learned to make necessary changes that will not compromise my two major priorities for training athletes while also gaining the trust and building relationships with coaches and athletes. Successful coaching is largely based on building relationships and the old saying: “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is so true. Although I’ve gotten better with it over time, my biggest challenge to this day is still patience. Naturally I’m not a very patient person so sometimes it is a challenge for me to be patient and remember that this is all a process, that we’re all a work in progress and working through different challenges.

To me, the easy part of our job is writing programs and teaching exercise technique and progressions, the most challenging part is working with people. Don’t get me wrong, I love the athletes and coaches that I work with but dealing with so many different personalities, levels of maturity, and attitudes and desires towards training has its challenges. However, communication that builds trust and enables me to work through differences yields some of the most rewarding moments in my job. Watching an athlete grow and mature in their character, work ethic, and confidence as a person and teammate is a big part of why I love my job.

Time management is a big challenge for a strength coach. We often have multiple teams, workout groups, and practice responsibilities throughout the day, in addition to managing a facility and departmental responsibilities. On top of that, we are expected to be high energy at all times. It is tough to balance all these responsibilities without an organized schedule, which is what I depend on. I make sure I block out time throughout the week for all my “normal” responsibilities—lift groups, practice, etc.—then I set aside time for office work, meeting with coaches, and my own training. Having a routine that works and that is communicated to coaches and athletes has allowed me to be much more productive with my time.

One other challenge I have worked on over the years is balancing relationships with athletes, coaches, administrative staff, and my own personal life. As the strength coach I reach out to all of my coaches daily and I make sure I speak to every athlete at least once during a workout. I want everyone to know that I have their best interest in mind. Oftentimes, we live in the “dungeon,” but unfortunately, when you’re “out of sight, out of mind,” people forget to tell you important details or updates with a team or athletic department. Finding time to maintain these relationships is tough, and continues to be a daily challenge. Also, every team and coach has a different personality, so relating to and motivating each one is unique and important.

 

One of the biggest challenges is respect. We constantly battle certain stereotypes—not just as strength coaches, but also with being a female in a male-dominated industry. My hopes are that one day our field will be respected just as highly as athletic training, that athletic administration will truly know and understand what we do, that we will be financially compensated for our efforts, and finally, that more females will assume director or head strength and conditioning coaching positions. There are only a few females in that capacity right now, but we are moving in the right direction. We have coaches like Andrea Hudy, Stacey Torman, Heather Mason, Raychelle Ellsworth, and Meg Stone to thank, just to name a few.

Please remember that I was relatively one of the first groups of females hired in the field. There were only a handful of us. Meg Stone was who I wanted to be. She was the first female strength coach to ever run a football program. I wanted to be the second.

In 1996, I was fortunate to get the assistant strength and conditioning job at Nevada-Reno. Nevada was a job that I wanted not because they needed to fill a minority quota, but because I was good at what I did as a strength coach.

In the beginning of my career, I had to work my ass off and prove myself that I was a great coach. The best thing I ever did was compete in powerlifting and strongman during my collegiate coaching career. It gave me huge credibility with my athletes, both male and female. For example, three months into my new job at UNR, football went to a bowl game in Vegas, and I had NASA nationals in Vegas. Stepping on that charter plane with two huge-ass trophies for best lifter and first place, along with two world records, erased any doubt the football players might have had. They knew I was no joke! Respect is earned, not given.

The second biggest challenge was dealing with old school administration at BC and UNR. The best athletic director I ever worked for was Gene Smith at Arizona State. He treated the Sports performance department as a big part of athletics, unlike BC and UNR which, at the time, treated us like we were the red-headed step-child.

The third biggest challenge was being inherited by a new head strength coach and learning to grow thick skin. Where to start…

After his interview, the whole athletic department thought he was a douche, except for the AD who ultimately made the hire (as a favor). He who will remain nameless told me to my face that “Women should work with women’s sports.” He doubted that I could squat 450 (because that would mean I could clean 380…what the hell was the correlation?), he completely disrespected the current and former strength staff in front of athletes, and the best of all, I was told that I was men’s basketballs’ “hoochie mama.” That man was lucky I didn’t kill him! Needless to say, I left and worked for the best boss in the world at Arizona State: Joe Kenn.

When starting out in Universities 15 years ago, the biggest challenge was convincing all the sport coaches of Olympic sports to support and allow me to put their team on a weight lifting program. This required me to educate every single sport coach about weight training and what it could do for their team. I promised them if they’d agree to make strength and conditioning a part of their regimen/game plan, which meant make it mandatory, that they would see an improvement in their athletes. Today that challenge isn’t quite so frustrating. However, we still continue to educate the athlete and sport coaches why we lift. I truly believe that we are the key to whether an athlete continues to grow and improve in their sport or stay as they were when they first entered as a freshman.

“What you see is what you get” is something I say to freshmen and especially to females. Their bodies are finished growing, so while their skills may be slightly altered by the sport coach, their actual speed, explosiveness, ability to jump, and body mechanics will only improve by gaining strength and the only way to get stronger is to lift weights. It is very simple!

Embrace what we have you do in the weight room!

One of the biggest challenges that I face is handling the amount of administrative responsibilities as well as the number of athletes that I am responsible for. Working with a small staff is an inevitable challenge that most strength coaches will face at some point. It can be frustrating and overwhelming, but I have leaned on my mentors to help me learn and grow in those times. I’ve learned to delegate and use smaller tasks as opportunities to teach my interns and help them develop. Also taking time to have a life outside of work keeps me balanced and makes me a better overall coach.

One challenge is getting fathers and male coaches to see that I'm a qualified strength coach even though I'm a woman. Despite informing them of my education and practical background, it's never enough until they see some "proof."

Off the top of my head, one challenge is developing a personal coaching voice and style that evolves and changes as we develop as coaches. In addition, at one point you will end up explaining your specific job role vs. being mistaken for an athletic trainer (ATC/Sports Med) and asserting that we work with BOTH male and female athletes. Finally, as a woman, balancing family lifestyle with strength coach career demands can be difficult at times.

Work-life balance as always and on the job: managing the varied needs and philosophies of sport coach and administrators as it relates to sports performance.

My own thought as a female who worked in football was that I needed to try to work much harder than my peers to prove myself, which is not always the best way to go about doing things.

One of the biggest challenges I have faced as a strength coach has been being a young female in this field and gaining the respect of some of my male athletes. You kind of have to be a hard-ass and show them up sometimes to put them in their place. You have to prove to a majority of the guys that you know what you are talking about. You have to “walk the walk.” As I have moved on in the field, it has gotten a little bit easier to gain that respect faster. One challenge that I have just started to face is the thought of having kids. I don’t know if this an issue for other female strength coaches but now that I am getting older, I would like to start a family and the one question I have started to ask is, “is it ever a good time for a female strength coach to get pregnant?” As everyone knows, being a strength coach takes a lot of time and there are a lot of nontraditional hours. So will I even have time for kids? Will I be okay with possibly missing out on part of my teams’ training during or right after the pregnancy? I guess for us, as female strength coaches, it is slightly different than for males and this is one thing that I will be dealing with in the near future.

Getting student-athletes to eat often enough, at the right time, and with the purpose of fueling and repairing the body is a challenge due to time management (or lack of), funds, and convenience.

Rules regarding summer workouts for fall sports (other than football) make it difficult to ensure student-athletes are adhering to the workouts or are prepared and acclimatized for their fall preseasons. Adjustments such as allowing sport coaches to require summer workouts if the school is paying for the student-athletes summer school (including online), even allowing the sports performance coaches to require student-athletes not attending summer school to report their adherence to the summer programs (such as run times or weights lifted) would be of great benefit in preparation for fall preseasons.

Finally, the rampant knee, shoulder, back issues, and injuries that incoming freshmen bring to programs is an issue. When we start out with these serious limitations our role changes from developing sports performance to managing injuries.

Being the only female in a male dominated career and the only female on staff in my entire career has proved difficult in addition to constantly having to prove that I do know what I’m talking about and I can perform at my level (of strength). Just because I can’t lift the room doesn’t mean I’m not willing to try to do what the big boys are doing. Since I’ve been coaching so long, the older male athletes respect me and try to teach the younger ones, but I still have to prove to them that I know more than they think they know and I do have something to teach them in the weight room. I have to earn their respect. I have to earn respect from administrators, again, just because I am a female, and show that I belong here. They need to see that I am a valuable asset to the athletic program, the female athletes and the male athletes.

Background images of lifters' hands courtesy of Kenneth Richardson.

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