With Hank McDonald and Chisan Jones

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 fourth and final installment of this article series, we decided to change the pace and hold a roundtable discussion between the three full-time assistants here at UTEP. Joining Hank and I for the roundtable is assistant strength coach Chisan (CJ) Jones.

Why do you want to be a strength coach?

DA: I started out as an architecture major and didn’t even know this profession existed. At the time, I was becoming dismayed with architecture. I then read an article in Sports Illustrated and saw that this job existed. I liked the idea of being able to help people and do something that I liked doing. From there, it has become a passion. I love everything about it. I love the process of getting better.

HM: I didn't have any idea that there was such a thing as a strength and conditioning coach. While at a junior college, I was working as a personal trainer and didn’t realize that you could even get a degree in exercise science until I talked to a guy I was working with, Todd Brown. I decided I wanted to get the hell out of New Jersey, so a buddy of mine and I decided we would apply to the University of Hawaii. If we were accepted, we would pick up and go. I had to take various strength classes while I was there and they were taught by strength coaches. So I bugged the hell out of Tommy Heffernan until he let me be an intern. I still wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a strength coach, but I ended up falling in love with it, the culture, and helping athletes.

CJ: I always enjoyed lifting weights and having the opportunity to help people get better. I took a weightlifting class at Texas State and saw a wanted flyer for a student assistant strength coach to work twenty hours a week. I worked more than this and realized that I enjoyed helping others get stronger.

What are your career goals?

HM: For me, I would love to be a head guy one day. I don’t know when that will come. It may be ten years down the road at a large university or a small program. I’m not ready for that yet.

CJ: I want to be a head coach at the university level. Even being the head guy at the professional level would be nice. I don’t know when it will happen, so I’m just trying to get experience right now.

DA: I want to be a head coach. I’m in a position now where taking a lateral move, even if it meant a $5000 increase in pay, wouldn’t be worth it. I’ve got to step up to make a big difference for myself and my family. If it’s going to be a lateral move, it’s got to pay considerably more than I make now or put me in a program that will improve my chances of moving toward becoming a head coach. I either want to be a head coach for a football only program or an Olympic only program, not a combined program. There are too many other issues that don’t allow everything to work the way it’s supposed to work. I want to be in one or the other. The pressure and time commitment are different for both, and I don’t really know which one would fit me the best.

What are your retirement and back-up plans?

CJ: I’ve thought about it. I’m only 28, so I’ve got some time. I know I’ve got to find a job where I can save some more money and put away more because right now I’m living paycheck to paycheck. It’d be really nice to draw a paycheck and be able to travel the world.

HM: I’m just trying to get by.

CJ: Yeah, I'm just trying to get out of debt.

HM: Get out of debt? I’m just trying to get out of the month! I think I need to find a woman who’s doing very well for herself. I’m use to the grind of being a strength coach. You’ve got to have a plan for the future, but I think if you’re looking too far into the future, you forget about the present. Right now, I need to survive.

DA: OK, I’m going to go a whole other route with this.

CJ: Yeah, I know you are.

DA: I haven’t thought about the financial aspect of retirement at all. When I’m looking down the road as I’m getting older, can I see myself doing this until retirement? The way our economy is going they’re going to keep pushing up the retirement age. It used to be 65, but I think it may be higher now. By the time we get to retirement, it’s going to be 70, 72, 73, if not 75. Can I see myself doing this at that age? To be honest, I can’t. Even in the lower 60s, I can’t see myself doing this.

CJ: So do you have a back-up plan of some sort?

DA: No, that’s my problem.

CJ: I feel you have to have a back-up plan, so that’s why I stayed an extra year in school to get my certification in teaching. That way if strength and conditioning doesn’t work, I can go find a teaching job. I also did this in case I wasn’t able to get into strength and conditioning. The collegiate setting is a hard place to get into. I have friends who want to be in the collegiate setting but have been unable to find jobs and have to work as personal trainers.

HM: You’ve got to prepare. Maybe have plans A through E. Sometimes things are just out of our control. What if the entire staff gets let go? There isn't any guarantee that you'll get picked up somewhere. You could spend two years just trying to get back in. What do you do? Go to a Division III school? A high school? IAA? You might not be able to go anywhere.

DA: You guys are too pessimistic.

HM: It’s just being realistic. You’ve got to have a back-up plan.

What are your outside life experiences?

HM: A lot of my experiences come from where I’ve been. I played sports when I was younger, got into personal training, found out you could get a degree in this, and then found out I could be a college coach. My work ethic came from my mom. She was always very tough on me and pushed me to succeed. I also always wanted to be the best at everything I did and, if I wasn’t, my mom was pissed and I’d hear about it.

CJ: My parents are divorced and my mom raised me. That really molded me into the man I am today. She’s a very strong woman, very determined, and a hard worker. She would do anything for us. I carry that over to how I work with the athletes. I feel like they’re my kids even though I’m only 28. That’s one of our roles when they’re here at school. We have different roles as a strength coach—disciplinarian, counselor, and parent.

My mom had three jobs and taught us that if we wanted something we had to work. She taught us to work hard and pray. I remember she had a quote that she would ask us to say to her every day—“I love you all the way around the world and back. You can do anything with education and the Lord.” I actually have that tattooed on my body. That is something I draw from day in and day out. Also, not having a dad helps me with male athletes in the same situation. They know they can come to me for advice or support.

DA: I started out in a strongly liberal architecture program at Drury College. That really helped mold my thought process and how I think about things. If we're squatting, I don’t just look at it as a squat day. I look at it as why are we squatting today? How will it affect what we are doing tomorrow? What type of squat are we doing? What else is in the workout that will be affected by squatting? I take a very comprehensive approach as to how I look at things. It was the same way at Drury. I didn’t think that way before I was in that program. I actually had a professor who drilled into our heads what the feeling of a corner was.

Being 19, I thought she was nuts. I looked at a corner as two walls, a floor, and a ceiling coming together, but she wanted to know how the corner made us feel when we looked at it or how we felt when we were in the corner. That really molded my thought process. Now, everything I see, I understand that it relates to something else. I write my programs the same way. Other coaches can look at them and think it’s just random training, but it isn't. I’ve tied in everything I put in the program because everything we do in training will somehow affect every other aspect of training.

What is the primary objective of programs?

CJ: Sports enhancement, injury prevention, and mental toughness. I look at how I can develop the athletes through all aspects of the program that I’m writing. I look at it long term.

HM: You always have your primary objectives such as injury prevention, strength, and speed. But I think it depends a lot on the team you’re working with. I like looking at a team without having a lot of information about them. This way I have an unbiased view of what needs accomplished. You can do a needs analysis and write an amazing program, but does it translate to the field? You’re still trying to improve everything, but if you find one area that needs the most improvement, you can make a big difference. Sometimes it’s out of your hands though. Sport coaches may make other demands of what they want. The athletes might not buy in. These things make a big difference in what the team will get out of the program.

DA: I look at it as simply as I can. As someone who tends to make things complex, this is one thing that I simplify. What is the one thing that affects everything else that no athlete has when they get to college? They’re all weak! They don’t have any semblance of strength. Even the ones who seem strong, when you consider where they should be four years down the line, they aren’t there yet. Yes, you have to train speed, flexibility, agility, injury prevention, and special exercises, but all of that is second when I’m looking at new athletes. All new athletes are extremely weak, even seniors. I don’t think they've developed the strength they really need. Obviously, things change at different points in the year, but I always try to keep strength in the picture.

CJ: I see that with basketball, but I think sometimes you even have to go before that. Some of these guys just need to learn how to do a body weight lunge or a pull-up. Some of these guys have never lifted a weight in their lives, so I can’t even get to lifting yet.

DA: Some of that is just knowing how to use your body. But even then, sometimes it just isn't knowing how, but it’s having the strength to hold your body in the proper position to do those body weight exercises. Whether it’s with body weight or actual weights, it still boils down to getting stronger.

HM: Also, nowadays we no longer have athletes. We have specialists. Kids don’t go out and play anymore. They don’t play multiple sports anymore. They just focus on the one sport they’re good at. So they can’t do these simple, body weight exercises because they’ve never had to do those things.

What is your training style or philosophy for teams?

DA: Strength coaches always look at other coaches as “powerlifting guys” or “weightlifting guys.” If you call me a powerlifting guy, I take offense to that.

CJ: What are you, man?

DA: Personally, I’m a powerlifter. But as far as my teams go, I’m training athletes. It’s an athletic program. I don’t prescribe to powerlifting stuff though I used to. I don’t prescribe to weightlifting stuff, CrossFit, P90X, or whatever anyone is using. I use what I think is best for the team that I’m working with. I work with volleyball and track, which includes five different groups. They all squat. Except for the distance runners, they all do cleans. They don’t all bench. Volleyball doesn’t bench, which to a powerlifting guy would almost be sacrilegious. I’ve completely cut it out of their program because it doesn’t make sense for them to do it. They do dumbbell bench with their elbows into their sides to protect their shoulders as much as possible, but they don’t use a bar at all.

I do Olympic style squats and powerlifting style squats. Before coming to UTEP, all I believed in was the powerlifting style squat, but after coming here, I implemented more weightlifting style things into my workout for political reasons. Now, I see a need for Olympic style squats because you don’t get near enough quad development from a powerlifting style squat, and I don’t know that single leg work is enough to get the job done.

The exercises I use are all general exercises. They aren't specific to anything they do in their sport until I get to the special exercises. Volleyball and the javelin throwers do a lot of pullovers. Is there any need for a shot putter to do a pullover? No. They are never in that position. They don’t have any need to be in that position, and they don’t need to train in that position. Hammer throwers use a close grip snatch. By close grip, I mean really close. It’s not identical, but the first time I saw someone do this, I immediately thought that it looked like he had just thrown a hammer. Do I need anyone besides a hammer thrower doing this exercise? I don’t believe any other athlete I work with needs to do that exercise.

The special exercises are curtailed to the sport. Most of the work I do though is general in nature to the sport. With periodization, I handle each team differently. I determine what each team uses by taking into consideration training age/experience, how long I’ve worked with them, and the schedule I have to work with. Some teams use linear periodization, some use block periodization, and one uses a modification of triphasic training. Some of this is limited by the demands that the sport coaches have placed on me.

HM: To me, it depends. I’m a weightlifting guy, but I don’t use weightlifting templates with my teams. My programs are determined by what the primary objective is combined with keeping the sport coaches happy. I like to use an undulating model. It basically comes down to what I can do to help them the most. I use a weightlifting style squat because that is more similar to an athletic position. They aren't in a wide stance on the field.

DA: I’ll try to refrain myself from commenting about that.

HM: (laughs) That’s fine. It’s my opinion. I like full range of motion because I think you should be able to move as an athlete. I want you strong from your lowest position to your highest position. I’m not huge on doing a lot of hypertrophy work, except at the very beginning. I keep my reps primarily below six. I want to get them strong, but I don’t need to put a ton of muscle mass on them. I really train the athletes to be fast and explosive. I’ve utilized Tendo units to regulate bar weight based on speed. I’ve used a lot of upper and lower body plyometrics.

Most of the movements I use are pretty classic. We squat, bench, clean pull, row, and lunge. Even with speed work, we start on a wall and learn proper mechanics. Once they master the wall, we work on mechanics while walking. When do we sprint? We sprint once we master walking with proper mechanics. In my mind, the biggest improvement in speed comes from fundamentals. I don’t use a lot of bells and whistles. I don’t care what the kids see at all the private training facilities. If the fundamentals don’t work, I would be the first to admit it.

CJ: I typically use linear periodization. I’ve thought about doing other things, but I just try to keep it simple. I try to get them stronger and improve flexibility. I use whatever I can to help the athletes make improvements. I teach them how to warm up properly. The athletes don’t have a clue as to how to do these things. Really, each team is different and your training style should adjust to the team. You have to deal with demands from the sport coaches. Some teams are more advanced than others.

What is your floor presence/coaching style?

CJ: I’m excited. I’m intense. I’m a teacher. I use a hands-on approach. I try to be positive. You always have to be excited to help the athletes. If the coach is lackluster on the floor, the athletes will approach their training the same way. Some people are yellers. I am, too. I like to be intense and attack the weights. You also have to be positive and try to teach the athletes. You have to teach technique. Sometimes I think we get caught up in tracking the workout and forget to teach. Sometimes I have to just put the clipboard down so that I can teach athletes the correct positions that they need to be in.

HM: For me, it depends on many things. Sometimes the sport coach wants you to act a certain way. If I’m assisting another coach, what does that coach expect from me? With football, you have to be loud and get in their faces. But if I do that with tennis, they might start crying.

CJ: But if they know that’s how you are, it’s more acceptable. I try to bring the same intensity that I use with football to every team I coach. That’s just how I am.

HM: I try to figure out what the team will respond to best. If it’s a team that responds to yelling and getting after it, that’s what I do. But if they don’t like that, they won’t want to work with you. You have to understand the personalities of the athletes you’re working with. The big thing I’ve learned this year is to just be myself, but at the same time, me being me depends on who I’m working with. Different teams with different individuals need to dictate the floor presence of the coach.

DA: I coach according to the group I’m with. For example, with cross country, I’m a cheerleader. I’m just keeping them happy because I know that the last thing they want to do is come in this weight room. They just want to go run. I really try to just keep them happy by making it fun and throwing a lot of stupid comments in. I don’t even know what I say half the time, but I have them smiling and I have them sprinting from station to station and they enjoy it. With the same group, I had some people showing up late, so I talked to them and they were almost in tears. So when training, I try to make it easy on them by shifting my mentality to what will help them out. With volleyball, I don’t have to be militaristic because I know I can trust them. They’ve earned my confidence. With football, if I have a group of screw ups, I run it like the military. I don’t give them an inch. It also becomes real motivational because I know they don’t want to be there. But if it’s a group of hard workers, I let my guard down a little, focus on technique, and let them work.

What is your biggest challenge as a strength coach?

DA: My biggest challenge is trying to be a people person because I’m not. In the weight room, I’m good, but if you take me out of the weight room, it’s a whole other situation. This is a people driven profession and you’ve got to be good with people. Whether it’s the athletes, the sport coaches, or the administrators, you have to be able to relate to people well. Unfortunately, once the weights end, I don’t relate to people well. That’s something I’m always trying to work on and something that would help me out a lot.

HM: I don’t think I have any one big thing. It kind of depends on the situation. I’m a young strength coach, and I think I have a lot of little things that I need to work on.

What is your biggest challenge with the athletes?

DA: First, I don’t take attitude issues or disrespect issues well at all. If you give me attitude, you may see the door. You’re going to see my bad side when that happens. The other thing is relating to them in a non-athletic way—getting to know them as people. Some I relate to very well, but the majority of them, I don’t. That’s where I struggle, which goes back to my people skills. I think the better you know the athletes, the better things will work. That doesn’t mean I’m hated. I’ve had athletes who are constantly in trouble tell me that they don’t ever want a different strength coach. They like working with me and they know what I do helps them. I don’t think I’m bad with them. I just think that I can be better.

HM: I haven’t been here as long, and I think when I first got here, I was tested a lot. I had to earn their respect. It’s tough coming in as the new coach because the older athletes were comfortable with the past coach and are a little more resistant to change.

CJ: I don’t like attitude. I don’t take being disrespectful. I look at my job as a chance to teach the athletes how to be accountable. I try to teach them that they can control their effort and their attitude.

What is the biggest challenge with sport coaches?

DA: My biggest challenge is dealing with the lack of understanding of what we do as strength coaches. They either buy in to the next craze like CrossFit or less weight with more reps or they have their thirty- or forty-year-old biases because that’s the way they did it back then. I’m good at talking to other strength coaches about technical things in strength and conditioning. I’m OK at talking to athletes and bringing it down to their level, but I’m horrible at the middle ground. I’m either over the top or not even close. So when I’m trying to explain things to sport coaches, they don’t get it because they don’t have a physiology or biomechanics background. I also hate having to be politically correct all the time. With a lot of sport coaches, you can’t tell them anything that happened that might be negative because they blow it out of proportion. I’m more matter of fact and willing to be honest, but sport coaches don’t like that. I’m not good at making everything cushy and nice to please them. It just isn't me.

HM: My challenge is working with the micro-manager. You have to be detail oriented in this profession, but when someone is always looking over your shoulder and telling you how to do things, it makes things difficult. They also don’t always know what they want. It seems like some of them change what they want from the strength coach on almost a weekly basis. I also hate the PC thing. I love this job and also understand that collegiate athletics is a business. I’m fairly straight forward but have found that many of them want you to be buddy-buddy rather than business like. I’m not great at playing that game. They also have no idea what our job is like. They think we are only here to serve their sport when in reality we work with multiple teams. I’ve had them tell me that we have great hours working in athletics. I had a coach tell me the other day that he thought I only worked from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. They have no idea that we work anywhere from ten to sixteen hours a day.

CJ: We do work a lot. I think we should have good dialogue with them. I think we need support from the coaches. We need their trust.

HM: I think a lot of that gets lost. If they really trusted us, they wouldn’t micro-manage us.

Were you prepared for a full-time position?

CJ: I don’t think anyone is prepared. I don’t care who they are. Actually, I think that’s for any job. Since I was already at UTEP before I was hired, I think my transition may have been a little easier. The biggest thing that really changed for me was the title. There are always new things that you didn’t know about when you step into that position.

HM: You try to be prepared. Your previous employers want you to be prepared because you’re a reflection on them. When I first got to UTEP, my head was spinning for the first couple months. In certain aspects, I was prepared, but in others, hell no! I think there are huge stepping stones between the different levels in this profession. From an intern to a graduate assistant to a full-time position, it isn't even close. Coaching really isn’t that different, but it’s the behind the scenes issues that you don’t see until you’re there.

DA: I was an intern at Arizona State under Rich Wenner, and I always wondered to myself why he didn’t do certain things differently. I thought I was completely ready. You don’t realize why people do the things they do until you’re in their shoes. There’s a lot that goes on that you don’t see until you’re in that position. When I was at VCU, I had multiple teams as a graduate assistant. If I would have stayed at VCU, could I have been a full-time assistant? I think I could have because I was pretty much already serving that role. But coming to UTEP, it was new. The sport coaches I was working with already had their own ideas on training. I thought coming in that I had the liberty to make changes as I saw fit, but I found out that people don’t like change. So no, I wasn't ready to take this job as a full-time coach. From a programmatic standpoint and a knowledge standpoint I was ready but not for the political side of it.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve gotten more and more responsibility. I haven’t taken on more teams, but I have tremendously more responsibility because all the coaches I work with have learned they can trust me so they expect more from me. If I would have had the same responsibility my first year here, I don’t know if I would have made it. You aren't ready for the next level until you’ve done it.

How does your own training affect your coaching?

HM: I’m a weightlifter, and I don’t look at it as it has an impact on what I do with my teams. Personally, I do what will help me the most on the platform with the snatch and clean and jerk. I do think it helps when they come in and see me training. Then they know I practice what I preach. I’m not the biggest guy in the room, but when a big lineman sees me lift more than him, he learns that I know what I’m doing and that he should listen to what I’m saying.

CJ: I like to try things out. If I like it, then I’ll use it with the athletes. I do think that when athletes see you lifting, they tend to buy in a little more.

DA: I’m completely different from you guys on this. As a strength coach, you had better train. You better know how to train. There’s so much I get out of my workouts that I can take to training the athletes. I’m a powerlifter, and if it doesn’t help with the squat, bench, or deadlift, I toss it out. But if I’m working with a football player who’s trying to squat 500 lbs, how am I going to teach him how to do that if I’ve never done it? How is a 200- or 300-lb squatter going to teach someone to squat 500 or 600? There is so much more involved in the lift at that level that you don’t understand until you’ve done it. These lifts aren’t even in the same world. That’s just the doing it part of it.

We also ask our athletes to be committed and work through demanding schedules of being an athlete and a student. If they show up one second late, we punish them. So if we're asking them to be committed and disciplined, we should be as well. We should never miss a training session. It’s not always easy with our schedule, but there’s a way to do it. I’ve lifted as early as 3:00 a.m. and as late as 9:00 p.m. because I’m committed to what I do. I’ve seen athletes when I’ve left late at night and they ask me why I’m leaving so late. When I tell them it’s to train, they can’t believe it. Does that affect me in other areas of my life? Probably, but that’s how I’ve done it. If I ever get to a point where I can’t train because of injuries or whatever else, I don’t think I could be a strength coach any longer. I’m not going to be that guy who tells people what to do but can’t do it myself. My training is the most valuable thing I’ve done for myself from an educational standpoint. I’ve learned how to be a strength coach by getting under the bar, not by reading books. And I feel I’ve read my share of books.

What are the biggest weaknesses of young coaches and do you have any advice for becoming a strength coach?

HM: I’ve been humbled this year. Since I’ve moved up, I realize I don’t have all the answers.

CJ: If you have all the answers, you’re in trouble. You have to be a sponge and absorb everything you can.

DA: They don’t put out the effort to learn and they want everything spoon fed to them. I never had anyone give me information unless I asked questions. They aren’t proactive in finding books to read. Out of all the books on my bookshelf in the six years I’ve been here, maybe one intern has asked to borrow a book.

CJ: It’s difficult being a student.

DA: But you can still do it. I was on the elitefts™ Q&A every single day as an intern and as a student trying to see what guys like Dave Tate, Buddy Morris, Tom Myslinski, Paul Childress, Jeremy Frey, or James Smith were saying. And when you go home at the end of the day, it’s not the end of the day. That’s the time to go learn. That’s the time to get some reading done. They also just go workout instead of train. They don’t plan or have goals for their own workouts.

HM: My advice would be to get out of the classroom, get an internship, and start learning.

CJ: You’ve got to get out on the floor. You can’t learn to teach a squat in the classroom.

HM: The books have an ideal way to do things. You have to be able to take it to the real world.

DA: Number one is get under the bar! Get under the bar and train and learn training. Also, be proactive in learning. Ask questions, read books, and read articles. Finally, be willing to work for free. That’s the nature of this field. It may not be right, but that’s the way it is and you’ve got to put in your time.

CJ: You’ve got to put in your time. Be an intern and take advantage of the opportunity to learn.

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.

Chisan Jones began as a student assistant at Texas State University in 2004. In 2009, he came to the University of Texas at El Paso as a graduate assistant. In 2011, Chisan was hired as a full-time assistant and now works with the UTEP men’s and women’s basketball teams.