With Hank McDonald

The Intern

Over the past few months, I’ve given more thought to something that I’ve known for quite some time. This fact is that every day I'm surrounded by opportunities to learn. Working in the UTEP Iron Mine (a 10,000-square-foot weight room), I'm surrounded by educational material, ways to motivate athletes, weight room organization, equipment maintenance, programming, the care of injuries, new exercises, ways to communicate with athletes, and whatever it is that needs to be learned. The possibilities are limitless. What bothers me about this though is that there are so many people who say they want to become strength coaches but are unwilling or don’t know how to take advantage of all the learning opportunities available to them. In fact, they shoot themselves in the foot and hold their own knowledge and coaching ability back by not seeking out opportunities to learn. Instead they want to blame more experienced coaches for not spoon feeding them everything they think they need to know.

In an effort to help myself understand the thought process of coaches at different levels and how they have learned throughout their careers, I asked Hank McDonald to help me interview coaches at different levels of our program (intern, graduate assistant, full-time assistant, and head coach). Each of these coaches has been successful at his respective position and has something to offer from a learning standpoint.

The first person we interviewed is John Persons. John has been an intern with us for the past year and will now be moving on to take a second internship at Mississippi State University.

DA: Could you give us a brief description of your career history?

JP: I’ve been an intern here at UTEP for the past year. I had to fulfill an internship for my undergraduate program and I knew I didn’t want to go into personal training. One of my professors arranged for me to do my internship here.

DA: So what is it that makes you want to be a strength coach, or did you just wake up one morning and say, “I think I want to be a strength coach today?”

JP: I actually didn’t know for sure that I wanted to be a strength coach until doing this internship. I enjoy being part of something that is helping make people better. And I really enjoy working with athletes who want to put in the effort to get better.

HM: So what is your ultimate career goal?

JP: Ultimately, I want to be a head coach, but right now I just want to focus on getting a graduate assistant position.

DA: The first time you were in charge of a group of athletes, what was your outlook going into the workout and how good of a job do you think you did after the workout was over?

JP: I was very nervous. Until you’re there, you don’t know how to prepare for it. You actually videotaped that workout and I couldn’t believe how bad I did. Watching you or Coach Davis, you guys are always loud and giving a lot of direction. I just stood there and said, "Let’s go."

DA: What is your biggest challenge when working with athletes?

JP: With some teams, it’s keeping them focused. With other teams, it’s about knowing how to read and understand what they're telling me.

DA: Yeah, you have to know when to listen to athletes and how to tell when they’re full of it. That’s part of coaching. And you’ll have athletes who know how to manipulate the system.

HM: There’s always the chronic complainer, the one who always has some sort of issue when he does certain exercises.

HM: What aggravates you the most about coaching?

JP: Athletes who have bad attitudes or quit when things get hard. These guys bring the rest of the team down.

HM: If you were writing a program for a team, what would be the primary thing that you would be trying to accomplish?

JP: It depends on the time of the year, but number one would be keeping them healthy and on the field.

DA: What would you do to keep them healthy?

JP: A lot of the prehabilitation stuff that we do.

DA: Coming out of college, do you feel you were prepared to be a strength coach?

JP: No, definitely not.

HM: What could be improved on the academic side to prepare you for this?

JP: Nothing. You really have to have on the job training. I don’t really think you can prepare for something like this in the classroom.

DA: What would be your advice to students looking to be strength coaches at the college level?

JP: Be prepared to hate your life for a while.

HM: Paying your dues?

JP: Yeah. Give up on the idea that you deserve anything. Give up on the idea that you’re better than anyone. You’re going to be someone’s bitch. You’re going to be a janitor and at the lowest level.

HM: What has your evolution as a coach in the past year here at UTEP been like?

JP: The first big thing was being videotaped when coaching volleyball and being in charge of the workout. After watching that tape, I basically decided to just throw away everything I thought I knew about coaching. I started watching other coaches and emulating how they worked with the athletes, especially Coach Davis.

DA: What have you learned at UTEP that will help you the most in your career?

JP: Working hard and being consistent. I didn’t appreciate time off until I started working here. I guess the long days have made me tougher.

HM: Twelve hour days and unpaid!

JP: Yeah, you definitely don’t do this for the money!

HM: Do you think that after being an intern here, you're prepared to be a graduate assistant at another school?

JP: Yeah, I’ve learned enough here that I’m ready and prepared to move on.

DA: This is something I never thought about when I was at your stage, but think about your entire career for a minute. You’re going to be a graduate assistant and then an assistant for the next five to ten years, making you around 30 years old. Then you will be a head coach for fifteen to twenty years, putting you in your 50s. You still aren’t to retirement age. Do you keep coaching at that age?

JP: I don’t really think that far down the line. I guess it depends on where I am and if I have a family or not.

DA: Can you see yourself retiring as a coach?

JP: Yeah.

DA: How do you think the athletes would react to a 65-year-old strength coach?

JP: Unless I was all washed up, I think they’d be fine with it.

DA: You work out on a regular basis. How much do you think you get out of your own workouts that you can carry over and use as a coach?

JP: Mostly from a motivational standpoint. I know what I want to hear when I’m under the bar and I try to use that with the athletes.

HM: How would your experience under the bar affect your programming? Would you stick to things you’ve done in your own workouts or would you try new things?

JP: I would stick to the things I’ve seen the coaches here at UTEP use. I’ve seen these things work. I don’t have anything unique.

Hank McDonald has been involved in collegiate strength and conditioning since 2010 and is currently an assistant strength coach at the University of Texas at El Paso. He earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and rehabilitation from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and is currently pursuing his master’s degree. Hank is also a competitive Olympic style weightlifter competing in the 85-kg weight class. He can be contacted at hjmcdonald@utep.edu.