For the last 20 years, I've been committed to working as a strength and conditioning coach. But all things must come to an end, and new chapters must begin. Notice that I didn't say all good things.
In this month's article, I'll talk about why we (you, now) are fighting an uphill battle as strength and conditioning coaches at the college level. I hope this doesn't come off as just another old man griping about the way things used to be. If you know me at all, you know that I'm an optimist, but I find more concerns in collegiate strength and conditioning than reasons to be optimistic.
The Weight Coach Era
Strength and conditioning is still a young profession. Without delving into the profession's history, it's so young that some of the early coaches are still coaching today. Buddy Morris and Boyd Epley are still employed. With a profession as young as this, we can still learn what it was like to coach when they began the profession.
Back then, it was mainly just football teams lifting. Often, the head coach would say, "Go see the ‘weight coach.’" At one place where I worked, my head coach was an older, former NFL head coach, and he still had this mentality. He referred to me as the weight coach and would tell the players to just make sure they saw the weight coach that day. There is a certain beauty in the simplicity of this relationship. I trained the athletes to be bigger, stronger versions of themselves, and the coach basically left me alone to do that.
Then we got a new head coach, and his stance was what we've run across all too often: “Do what I did when I played.” This is still a hangover from the weight coach era. The scary thing with this mentality is that it will prevent us from progressing. There is a reason why we don’t do exactly what we did 20 years ago. We've learned and grown. When we sell ourselves as the old-school coach, we're doing a disservice not just to ourselves but to the entire profession.
Everything that we're doing now is just stealing from the past, but that doesn't mean that we aren't bringing anything new to the plate. Consider how much more most strength coaches know now about the human body than most knew 20 to 30 years ago. I know one can't effectively measure this metric, but as someone who was around 20 years ago, when you were either HIT or not-HIT, I promise you that we're beyond those debates.
This weight coach era is still persisting, and you must be the change if you want to be a respected member of not just a coaching staff but also an athletic department.
Ani Asmara © 123rf.com
Enter the Science
As strength coaches progressed, smart people started entering the profession. We started to understand topics ranging from injury prevention to psychology. I often look at the University of Missouri staff 15 years ago. They had multiple coaches working on their doctorates (or similar degrees) in multiple disciplines.
At this point as a profession, we were on the right path, and many strength coaches were becoming part of the administration. We saw an explosion of strength coaches being named assistant and associate athletic directors. At the time, I saw a lot of promise in the profession if the trend would've continued.
As with any trend, I do believe the pendulum swung too far in an education-over-practical-experience direction. Too many strength coaches didn't train and didn't know what it was like to train to the point of exhaustion. I'll never argue that puking at every lift is a good idea, but I will argue that until you know what it's like to push yourself to your physical limits then you will never know what it feels like to be in the athlete's shoes.
All great strength coaches are part meathead, part scientist. We must know how to blend science and art, and many young strength coaches knew the books but were afraid of the test.
Pavel Konovalov © 123rf.com
Moving to the Medical Field
As we grew in our science background, many strength coaches started to flirt with doing work that was previously in the realm of athletic trainers. To me, this was an awesome thing for us as a profession because we started to look at injury prevention even more seriously.
With any growth, there is always pain. This is where I'm very concerned about the profession. We're still at the crossroads of the weight coach and the medical practitioner. Today’s weight coach is the guy who is the hype man on the sidelines with his sleeves rolled up. I'm not judging this person. Much of our jobs are to motivate people. If rolling up your sleeves motivates your team, go for it. If you're doing this for your ego, please stop because then we have the medical side looking at us like we're a bunch of children.
The juxtaposition of meathead and scientist is a hard way to make a living. Too often, I see a coach motivating his athletes with unconventional methods. This is great, and often we all talk about how to best motivate our athletes for games, practices, or lifts. But how often do we worry about our secondary audiences? Do we think that the best way to gain more respect in this world is to head-butt an athlete during a football game? Once this moment is caught on TV, it can't be undone. The athletic director and vice president of the school that employs you may never take you seriously as a professional when they see this type of behavior.
In addition, we must understand that athletic training isn't our enemy, but they're taking oversight of many strength departments in NCAA athletics. This is a disturbing trend that we can't overturn without working together as professionals.
I wrote about this many times before. Once we become part of the medical team, there will be no going back, and we will be answering to an athletic trainer who may not understand what it's like to be under the bar fighting for one more rep. Is this where we want to be?
I don't think the profession is in a good place, and I see a few ways out. First and foremost, any school that makes money from athletics is just an entertainment company. I've always wanted what was best for my students, but they are just pawns in most schools' games.
What is the goal of revenue-producing sports? To make revenue. The sad fact is that it has become akin to a circus, as we give the athletes new locker rooms, new shoes, and the coolest equipment, but if they don't win, the coaches will be fired and the new coach will chase off some of these athletes. The strength coach may be protected if he or she is part of the medical staff, but this is just job security and will in no way make that coach better at making an impact.
I have left collegiate strength and conditioning because I'm concerned with where we're going as a profession. I still want to be a positive force for the profession, but I'm not sure how to help. I'll try to keep being a voice of change for positivity.