elitefts™ Sunday Edition

For this month's article, I'll lean on a former intern of mine, Hank McDonald. Hank is now an assistant strength coach at the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP). He started working for me about a year and a half ago. Luckily, he was interning at the University of Pittsburgh and needed more experience, so I was able to give him a home to coach while he worked on developing himself further as a strength professional.

I've asked Hank to write his thoughts as a young strength coach, so below you'll see his words uninterrupted by me. At the end, I'll add my thoughts on how we can empower younger coaches to learn what Hank has learned while pushing them further.

Looking back on past experiences, there are many things I've learned on my way to becoming a strength and conditioning coach. This not only includes the science and theory involved but also life lessons, character-defining moments, experiences, and viewpoints that help a coach to develop his own personal philosophy on training and his role in coaching.

Spread the aloha

In Hawaii, there's a phrase “spreading aloha.” Yes, aloha is used to say hello and goodbye, but it can also have many other meanings. These meanings can be different for every individual, such as spreading the joyfulness of life with others or helping another simply because it's the right thing to do, or it can simply be a way of life that is evident in the islands and their culture.

As a coach, I think it's important to remember that you are there to help your athletes, interns, and staff. This isn't only limited to the weight room! A coach is in a position of authority and responsibility, and for many athletes, he may be the closest thing to a parental figure some have ever known. If my athletes need help, or if I can help them in any way, from technique in the weight room to academics, moral support, or advice, my door is always open. I'm truly thankful for my time in Hawaii and Tommy Heffernan and his staff, whom I consider lifelong friends. They went out of their way to teach me not only in the weight room but also about life. They helped me to succeed.

Put it in your toolbox or toss it

While at Notre Dame, I learned the phrase “put it in your toolbox or toss it.” This is a phrase I've personally taken to heart, and I now use it quite often. While at Notre Dame, I had the opportunity to work and learn from everyone on the Olympic strength staff. It was the first time I had really noticed different coaching styles and philosophies. Every coach has his own style of coaching and his reasoning for why he utilizes certain equipment and movements in training, but simple observation can be an invaluable learning tool. Whether it's your organization of the athletes, your presence on the floor, or the programming or equipment you utilize, put it in your toolbox if you like it. If you don’t, toss it!

Don’t be afraid to try something new

Be open to new ideas, and think outside the box! There isn't one perfect way to coach, program, or train. If you’re an Olympic lifter, try incorporating some aspects of powerlifting. If you've never tried HITT training, give it a shot. Try using bands and chains or change tempos. Think about movement patterns and the anatomy and physiology involved and try developing something new. The only way to know if something works or doesn’t work is to give it a try. If you have a theory, test it and learn something new.

Be an individual

In this profession, there isn't one cutout of the perfect strength and conditioning coach. Coaches come in all shapes and sizes, colors, beliefs, and backgrounds. Some are quiet and laidback, some are energized and loud, some are extremely scientific, some are philanthropic, some are drill sergeants, and some are just meatheads. There isn't one perfect coach. Along the way, you're going to encounter a fair share of criticism, whether it's positive or negative. It may be about your training philosophy, your coaching style, or maybe even your haircut. If it's positive criticism meant to help you or a suggestion, be open to it. If it's negative and meant to put you down, have a thick skin, shrug it off, and forget it! A good friend of mine, Adam Gentry, told me, “Good things happen to good, hardworking people.” I believe this is true and it's something I find myself saying quite often.

Be ready to adapt

In this profession, things aren't always going to go perfectly according to plan. You may have written the most incredible program you've ever designed, but fact of the matter is it just might not work out how you expected, and you have to adapt. You may have a completely different opinion of what sort of training you want to do with a team and what your sport coach wants. Times will get changed without notice, and training may just be canceled all together some days. You have to be able to adapt and still figure out a way to get your job done!

Keep your eye on the prize and sell out

Set a goal, figure out what you're going to have to do to reach that goal, and do it. For example, if you want to be a strength and conditioning coach, you may have to move all the way across the country. You may have to work long hours and holidays and get a second job to make ends meet, but if you truly want to reach your goal, you have to be willing to make sacrifices. Good things don’t come easy, and the road to reaching your goal may not always be straight ahead. Sometimes you have to take a detour. That’s just life, but always keep your eye on the prize and don’t let anything stop you."

I'll touch on each of Hanks points:

Spread the aloha: Remember, as a head strength coach, not only are the athletes going to follow your lead, but so is your staff. Find ways to make them want to work. I try to send my staff home early when I have a chance. This may seem small, but we work a ton of hours. If I can get some people out early so that we aren’t always here for twelve hours, they'll be more productive when they are here.

Put it in your toolbox or toss it: Hank talked about how we each have our own favorite exercises. While this is human nature, don't be afraid to learn from your staff. If an intern brings a new thought, run with it. Not only will it motivate the younger staff member, but maybe we can learn something from the younger guys.

Be an individual: Something Hank didn't touch on here, but should have, is this—you will never please everyone! I work with seventeen head coaches. There isn't any way they will all love what I do. Accept that and work with what you have. If you try to please everyone, you will just work too hard and get nowhere.

Be ready to change: Amen. Is there much I need to say here? How many times has a coach said, "We had a bad practice today, so kill them in the weight room" or my favorite, "I ran them hard. Could you not have them do any lower body today?" When these questions/statements are made, be ready to adapt or you won’t be in the profession very long.

Keep your eye on the prize and be ready to sell out: As a young coach, it can often be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. As the mentors of these young people, we need to keep their heads from spinning or exploding. I remember when I couldn’t afford to eat (it isn't fun). I was lucky that I had mentors who helped me any way they could. Be that mentor for your younger staff members. Some will choose to leave the profession, as it can be tough, but for the ones who make it, they, and we, will be better for it.

Now sell out! In other words, work hard. My men’s basketball coach is an awesome coach to work with and he is always on top of things. I often just sit back and watch at practice, and I'm always amazed at how he sees things that I don't. It reminds me of how I see the squat and he doesn't. The point here is create a culture of hard work and intelligence. Motivate and lead by example and your culture will be a strong one.