With Hank McDonald

The Graduate Assistant

In an effort to understand the thought process of coaches at different levels and how they have learned throughout their careers, Hank McDonald and I interviewed coaches at different levels of our program (intern, graduate assistant, full-time assistant, and head coach).

In the second installment of this series, we interviewed Takeshi “TK” Sasada. TK began at UTEP two years ago as a volunteer/intern. This was completely on his own will and not for college credit. After volunteering for a year, we had a graduate assistant opening and hired him to fill the position. TK is now moving on to Baylor University to perform a second internship.

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

TK: I began in 2010 at the University of Toledo and worked there for about seven months. In August 2010, I came to UTEP to get my masters in kinesiology. At that point, I started here as an intern and then a year later was promoted to be a graduate assistant.

HM: So why do you want to be a strength coach?

TK: I played football in Japan. One night I got together with some of my former teammates and we were discussing how we could help our university (Nagoya University) win a championship. Each of us decided to go separate ways and learn different aspects of creating a championship team (strength and conditioning, sports business, coaching, etc.). Then in the future, we will come back to Nagoya University and work together to win a championship.

DA: So basically, you're all going to try to get back together and create an ultimate Japanese football team?

TK: Yes!

DA: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome as a coach?

TK:  Language. English is a big challenge for me, and I’m still trying to get better. I’ve been in the US for three years and I keep getting better.

HM: Besides the language barrier, what’s the most difficult part of the job for you?

TK: The biggest thing is knowing how to control the athletes. When I started, the athletes didn’t want to listen to me or give effort, which caused me to realize that I wasn’t being effective. I started to be stricter and also find time to talk to the athletes so that I would understand what they were thinking and they could understand what I was thinking.

DA: So you were trying to figure out how to be a better leader?

TK: Yeah, a better leader, educator...and just a better coach.

DA: Outside of coaching, are there any experiences in your life that have helped shape you as a coach?

TK: I was a high school physics teacher before I began coaching. Teaching is very similar to coaching. I had to find ways to motivate the students to want to learn physics. This is the same as being a strength coach.

HM: Because your background is in engineering, has this affected your knowledge as a coach such as viewing things differently?

TK: Not directly but the thought process is similar. I’m always thinking logically. I always try to find the reason why to do things (exercises, sets, reps). I don’t just do something because someone said to or because I saw it on a website. I want to know how those things affect performance. This is the same as engineering because we always have to find the reason.

DA: What about looking at different techniques of exercises? Does having a background in engineering and physics help you understand biomechanically sound technique by looking at different angles?

TK: Yes, because if you understand simple physics, anatomy, and biomechanics, you can understand movement better.

HM: When writing programs for your teams, what is the primary goal you are trying to accomplish?

TK: The two main goals are to improve sports performance and injury prevention. So I have to understand the sport. I have to understand movement, activation speed, energy systems, and injury risks.

DA: When you first arrived as an intern, do you feel you were prepared to be a strength coach?

TK: No. Even now, I can do better. I need to continue to learn.

DA: What have you learned here at UTEP that you will take with you in your career?

TK: There are so many things.

DA: Just give me the one thing that will help the most.

TK: I learned how to put together an entire program. I had seen all the parts such as the warm up, speed work, and lifting, but now I know how to put everything together.

HM: What would be your advice to students who want to be a strength coach at the college level?

TK: Be active in your learning. Try to learn everything that you can. Observe sports and try to do any exercises that you don’t know. Sports are about experience and knowledge. There are different philosophies. The best coaches have a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge, so we have to try different things. You have to be open-minded. So I’m going to try CrossFit.

DA: Please tell me you didn’t just say that.

HM: I have nothing to say! Go back to Japan, TK!

DA: Hey, if we all get fired, we may have to go to a CrossFit gym to find work.

DA: You train hard and do a lot of different stuff. How much do you think your own training affects you as a coach?

TK: I can’t coach unless I do it.

DA: Why? It doesn’t take going out and running stadiums to make you knowledgeable as a coach, so why do you think you have to do that as a coach?

TK: I have to know what they feel. If I were an athlete, I wouldn’t want to listen to a coach who didn’t or couldn’t do what he was making me do. I don’t know if the athletes actually care or not, but that’s how I feel.

DA: I think they do care. I’ve had a number of athletes tell me that they look up to me because of how I train and that they don't respect other coaches who they know don't work hard in the weight room.

HM: What about appearance? You and me definitely aren’t the biggest guys in the weight room.

TK: Yeah, some athletes do care about that.

DA: When you’re thinking about your career, can you see yourself coaching until you retire? By the time we retire, the retirement age may be in the 70s. Can you see yourself coaching athletes when you’re at that age?

TK: I don’t know. I’ve never been 70 years old. I can't be sure about the future, but I want to keep coaching as long as I can. Some coaches have goals of being in the NFL or working at major Division I schools. I love coaching, but my goal is to help make athletes better. There are many ways to do this—nutrition, athletic training, programming. I want to learn more about training, how people adapt, and the different theories of training. I want to study more in depth and learn how to apply that knowledge. I may try to get my doctorate. But I really want to keep coaching at the same time. It all revolves around my goal to help athletes get better.

DA: When you say that here in the US our goals are to be head coaches at the Division I level and yours is to focus on getting athletes better, are you saying that we have the wrong emphasis here and that we're focused too much on our own careers and not the athletes?

TK: Some. There are other factors for becoming a head coach besides sports performance such as networking. As we have discussed before, the question is how do we show improved sports performance?

HM: Here we assume that the best teams have the best strength and conditioning programs.

TK: Which ignores genetics. Some teams just have great athletes. Sport coaches and their game tactics also play a huge role in winning. So how do we determine who the best coaches are? By how many bowl games they've won? It's so difficult to see if the wins are from strength and conditioning or not. I would like to find a way to make this clearer, to know that I helped improve an athlete’s performance.

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.