With Hank McDonald

The Head Coach

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).

For the third part of this series, we talked to Kirk Davis. Coach Davis has been the head strength and conditioning coach at UTEP since 2004.

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

TK: I’ve been coaching for twenty-five years. I started when I was in London (for the military) as a volunteer assistant at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre with national weightlifting team coach Keith Morgan. From 1992 to 1996, I was a volunteer at Akron University and was promoted to a full-time position in the summer of 1996 under Dan Bailey. In 2002, I came to UTEP and was promoted to head coach in 2003.

DA: When you were a student assistant, did you have a degree?

KD: No, I just had my experience as a weightlifter.

HM: What motivated you to become a strength coach?

KD: As a strength athlete, that’s what we do. We’re in the gym every day. I was always good at kinesiology, anatomy, biology, and chemistry. Because of my competitive years (weightlifting), I got a late start, so I didn’t become a strength coach until my late twenties. I always thought I wanted to be a doctor, physical therapist, occupational therapist, nurse—it didn’t matter. I just knew I was geared toward the health field and helping people. When I started at Crystal Palace, it didn’t even dawn on me that it was a real job. When I went to Akron, I realized I could get paid for it. I sort of just fell into it. Having a competitive nature helped as well.

DA: Do you see yourself coaching until retirement, or will you make a career change?

KD: When I was a student assistant at Akron, my mentality was to persevere in this field until I got a full-time position. It didn’t matter to me if it took two years or even ten years. That was what I wanted to do. When you get into it though and see the whole picture, I’ve become disillusioned with it in some ways. To be honest, I don’t know. I enjoy working with athletes, but with all the bullshit and politics that I have to put up with, I just don’t know. I’m intelligent enough to do something else where I can make as much or more money, have more respect, and work fewer hours. I think God has a plan, but I’m not sure what that plan may be. I do know that I love what I do.

HM: Do you think age can be an issue when relating to the athletes?

KD: Mentally, I’m fine, but the physical side can catch up to you. My energy level isn't the same as what it used to be. I’m a type A, intense guy, and I use to always be 100 mph from the time I got to work until the time I left. Now, I realize that if I’m going to continue to do this, I have to find a way to rest my body and mind from the stress of the job. All in all, I don’t think age should matter. As far as relating to the athletes, I think that because you're around them every day, you will pick up on the current trends.

DA: What is the most difficult part of your job?

KD: Dealing with sport coaches. Without question, it’s number one on the list. My biggest complaint is that we work as many hours as any sport coach with far less pay and we still get far less respect. Everyone who walks through the weight room doors thinks that it’s just a weight room and it’s easy. Plus, we’re fighting all the fads that come around. They don’t get that we’ve been doing this for twenty years just like they've been coaches for that long.

We don’t tell them how to coach their team, but they feel they know enough to tell us how to do our job. Part of the problem is that we're really separated from being a part of their staff and they view us as being separate from them. Another thing they really don’t understand is that we work with several hundred athletes each day, but all they see is what happens with their team.

HM: What’s the biggest challenge when working with athletes?

KD: The lack of respect they have. I think it stems from parenting or lack of parenting. Some kids only have one parent, and some don’t have either parent. I do think parents should be stricter. Kids are allowed to get away with too much. We do a disservice by letting them do what they want. They learn that they can be disrespectful and not listen to what we say. Some of the problems also come from the technology of today. All the information they want is at the touch of their fingertips, so a big part of my job is providing the bells and whistles to get them to buy in to what we're trying to do.

DA: How important was your experience being a weightlifter to what you do as a strength coach?

KD: I think any competitive experience is valuable. It doesn’t matter if you’re a weightlifter, powerlifter, football player, or track athlete. It helps you understand what you’re doing. It’s helped me immensely. My experience gives me an advantage in teaching technique. One thing I’ve realized is that I don’t need to focus on teaching lifting as much as I need to focus on other aspects such as speed work.

HM: When you first started as a coach, do you feel you were prepared to be a coach?

KD: I think I was prepared for what was expected of me. Looking back, at each step I’ve been at (volunteer, student assistant, full-time assistant), I thought I was ready to be the head guy. Now, I don’t think I was ready to be the head coach even when I got that position.

DA: Do you think coaches need to train themselves to be good at what they do as coaches?

KD: You need to be somewhat fit. You need to at least try the things the athletes have to do so you know what it’s like. It’s hard for the athletes to respect me and believe what I’m telling them if they know I’ve never done it.

HM: Do you have any outside life experiences that have helped shape you as a coach?

KD: Being in England helped me understand the different mentalities that people bring to the table as well as different philosophies. Europe is much more blue collar than the US, and the further east you go, the more blue collar it becomes. Technique was important, but work ethic held a much greater role. Athletics in Europe was a way to better your life and get out of poverty. In the US, most people already have it pretty nice, so doing well in athletics isn't as important.

Side rant

KD: I believe everything in life is 75 percent mental and 25 percent physical. You can have anything you want or be anything you want, but there’s a price to pay. Probably 90 percent of people aren’t willing to pay that price. They say they are, but they really aren't. I’m probably not in that 10 percent.

At the end of the day, is it really what you want? I feel that way about weightlifting. I feel like I wanted to be on the Olympic team and I almost made it, but I look back and can see all the things I could have done better. Diet is definitely one of those things. I had the attitude that it didn’t matter what I ate. Basically, you can talk about it or you can do it!

HM: When you take a look at young coaches just getting into the profession, what do you see as their biggest weaknesses? (This question is getting personal.)

KD: I think lack of experience is the biggest weakness. This creates a false sense of confidence. They think they are better than they are. It wasn't any different for me when I was a student assistant. Plus, in this profession, we are all stubborn and egotistical, which leads to not being open-minded, thinking we have all the answers, and being too proud. Ultimately, this all comes from a lack of experience, and it all leads to not learning and thinking outside the box. Tim Beltz was a graduate assistant when I was at Akron. Tim was someone who realized that he needed to learn from others. This has led him to becoming a successful strength coach with the University of Pittsburgh’s basketball team.

The next thing is young coaches try to take things straight from the book or classroom to training athletes, but that isn't the real world. I remember traveling to Nebraska as a student assistant and Boyd Epley saying to keep it simple. That’s what I try to do.

DA: What do you think is the most important attribute an assistant coach should have?

KD: I think the number one priority is to love what you do and care about the athletes. It isn't just me, me, me. That’s doing a disservice to both the athletes and yourself. I want assistants who love being a strength coach and are passionate about being a strength coach. They have to care about the athletes like they're their own kids. And they have to be willing to make hard decisions when those athletes step out of line.

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

KD: Check your ego at the door. Be open-minded and willing to learn. Have a passion for what you do. You have to love what you do. At every stage of my career, I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid for doing this job. Money shouldn’t matter. If you’re money driven, this isn’t the place to be.

DA: Over the course of your career, what do you think has helped you learn the most?

KD: Experience without question. Every year that I’ve been a strength coach, I think I’ve thought differently than the previous year. I use to be a weightlifting only guy and that’s definitely not the case now.

HM: Do you ever look back at your career and think, “Why the hell did I do that?”

KD: Absolutely! I use to have a soccer team do heavy singles in a full squat-style snatch. I basically maxed them out without saying that it was a max day. Now, I think is it more risk or reward? I was convinced that it was the right thing to do. Now, I look at it and think, “Man, that was stupid!” I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I do have a strong work ethic and I have common sense. I don’t have unrealistic expectations of what athletes can and can't do.

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.