How to Make It Big: A Reference for the College Student Aspiring to Be a Strength Coach, Part II

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Assuming that you’ve read Part I, now it’s time to get our hands dirty in the application process. We’re going to assume that you’ve done pretty well in class, became a student member of the NSCA, and even attended a conference or two. Hopefully, your undergrad program requires that you complete an internship in the field before you graduate. In order to graduate, I had to complete a 100-hour on-campus practicum, a 100-hour off-campus internship, and another 450-hour internship. This was awesome because it really threw you into the fire while you were still raw (100 hours). By the time you completed your big one (450 hours), you had some real life experience to rest on. Because the last one is usually our last semester of college, it sets us up to get a full-time job or a graduate assistantship.

So where do we begin? Let’s start with the internship search. You have to ask yourself what you want. Assuming you want to be a strength and conditioning coach, ask yourself the following questions.

  • What setting do you want to work in? Division I? II? III? High school level? Private? Commercial?
  • Do you want to stay close to home?
  • What teams are you looking to work with? Football only? Basketball? Female sports?
  • Will you have enough money to support yourself if you’re not getting paid?
  • Are you willing to go wherever there’s an open spot?

Once you get past these issues, you can begin to look for locations that accommodate your needs. However, your “optimal” environment may not be exactly that. Shoot for the best, but always expect the worst.

1) Research your internship.

Talk to your professors and coaches about internship possibilities. Log onto ncaa.org and look for internship postings. Become a member of the NSCA and browse through the listings. Get on the cscca.org website (Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association) and look through their internship opportunities. There’s plenty out there, especially towards the end of each semester. There’s no excuse for not being able to find one. Remember, many schools will take free work.

And when you do find one, don’t apply for an internship just because it’s in sunny California, near the beach, or you know someone there. That’s an absolute insult to the staff. If you want to work or volunteer somewhere, make sure you know the following:

  • Program philosophy: What does the staff believe in? Inflated numbers or injury prevention? Big egos or perfect form?
  • Staff members: Who are they? What experiences do they bring to the weight room? Did any of them publish any articles? Write a book? I can’t believe when people get a great internship and don’t even realize the head coach wrote a book on the type of training he/she believes in. Do yourself a favor and read the book. That way you’re prepared on what it’s going to be like.
  • Type of training: Olympic lifting based? Powerlifting? High intensity? Or a hybrid of all three?
  • Intern program: Is there a formal one? Will you have to do presentations and projects? Are you going to learn anything? Or will you spend an entire semester making shakes and mopping?
  • Expectations: Is it paid? Are you working nights and weekends from dawn to dusk? Time off? What type of responsibilities will you have? What do they expect you to do?

The biggest thing you can do is talk to people who have already worked there. I strongly encourage the use of your school’s network when starting off. If your school has sent kids to certain schools, see if you can get in touch with them to get the real scoop. However, I can’t stress enough—break away from your network and start your own.

Charles Staley once said something along the lines of, “If something isn’t working, ask yourself what the opposite behavior is.” It’s the “do the opposite” principle. Applied to training, if something isn’t working, do something else. When it comes to networking, it’s time to travel the road less taken and build something for yourself and even your school.

Two of my internships were at places that my school has never placed anyone before. I didn’t want to be the kid stuck in the same network for the rest of my life. I wanted to get an internship based on my qualifications, not because “we knew someone there.” Hopefully, I did a good enough job to keep the connections that I made, especially since they were on the other side of the country. Be a pioneer. Do your own thing. Establish yourself! It will only benefit you in the long run.

2) Professionalize yourself.

This is an easy one, but yet we still don’t get it. Go through the following checklist to make sure you don’t lose a spot for not being professional.

  • Is your email address appropriate? Or is it something like I_chug_mad_beers69@email.com? Take the time to create a professional email address like your first initial and last name. Simple. Effective. Professional.
  • What’s your voicemail sound like? “Yo, this is ‘…’. Leave a message…peace.” Considering this will probably be the first impression a coach will get from you, make sure it’s professional. Switch to the pre-recorded messages or record your own. If you’re doing your own, record who they’ve reached, apologize for not taking the call, and ask for a name, number, and brief message. Again, something simple. But how many of us have stupid voicemails. Oh yeah, I really hate the ones that make you think they picked up the phone and you start talking to them only to find out it’s a message. Don’t do that. Thanks.
  • How about your Facebook or MySpace profile? Everyone can get on the internet and google your name to find out about you. It just happened to me. Thank God the first ten hits were all football related. Do you have to get rid of those internet profiles? No. Just make sure you fix your privacy settings and set them to “profile viewable to friends only.” Ever read about the high percentages of employers checking these social utilities to get dirt on their applicants? Unfortunately, it happens. No longer are these things for college kids. Faculty members, corporate employees, and anybody with a network uses them. Lesson—get rid of the naked keg stand photos.
  • Don’t recognize the number on your caller id? Let your voicemail get it. I made the mistake of picking up my phone while I was with my buddies in the cafeteria and answered the phone like, “Yeah, this is him. Who wants to know?” Turns out, it was the head coach of a school I applied for an internship with. Great start, eh? He wanted to set a date for an interview. I knew after that I had to really sell myself in order to get my foot in the door. You may never get a second chance. Start off on the right path.
  • How’s your body language? If you met someone in person, did you shake his/her hand? Or did you just slip them a wet noodle? What about your eye contact? Eyes down when meeting or speaking with someone is a sign of low confidence and an even lower level of professionalism. Grasp the hand firmly and shake it. Look them in the eyes and let them know it was a pleasure to meet them. Make yourself standout!
  • Follow the golden rule. This is the first thing you need to get a hold on. The 24-hour rule can be considered the golden rule of communication. Simply put, if anyone gets a hold of you whether it be through email, a voice message, or even a missed call, you MUST get back to them within 24 hours. Now, you don’t have to give a dissertation on the answering machine. If you’re pressed for time, just reply back, let them know you got their message, and you will get back to them with more detail as soon as possible. If a coach takes time out of his/her busy day to call you about a position, the least you can do is get back to them within 24 hours to let them know you’re serious about the matter.

After you establish contact, you can set up a time or place to interview. Don’t expect to get an internship if you waited two weeks to return a message. You think you’re the only one that applied for the position? Please. If it’s a big time program and the position was listed on the internet, you’re now just one of the crumbled scraps of paper sitting in the wastebasket. And yet people still wonder why they don’t hear anything back…

3) Prepare for the interview.

Once you’ve found an internship and sent your stuff out, hopefully you will get a call back. Don’t feel discouraged if you don’t. Many papers come in and sometimes things get overlooked. Remember first impressions though. If that resume you sent in had a misspelled word or missed comma, it probably went into the trash. No questions asked. If you can’t take the time to pay attention to detail on one piece of paper, how can a staff trust you with a group of championship caliber athletes to train? These little things always add up.

Now it’s time to sell yourself. Just because you look good on paper doesn’t mean you can coach, nor does it mean that you know what you’re talking about. Most hiring occurs right after the phone interview. It gives the coach the opportunity to find out more about you and to see if you’re the real deal or not.

Here are a couple tips to help you out:

  • Research the school. Know the history, who or what the mascot is, where the nickname came from, and any recent athletic achievements. Know everything you can about the school. Were they Bowl champions? Do you want to be part of a winning tradition? Or do you want to help turn a program around?
  • Make sure you have goals! They will ask you what your short-term goals are (get the internship, find a graduate assistant position, learn as much as possible, try different types of training, etc.) as well as your long-term ones (become a head strength coach or top assistant, get your master’s degree, run your own facility, etc.).
  • Know your strengths but really know your weaknesses. Everyone has strengths, but who is comfortable enough admitting their faults? Do you have much experience? Have you only worked with football? Have you worked with female athletes? Many times you can take you weaknesses and turn them into strengths such as caring so much about your athlete’s performance. I know I’m unable to continue my day in a great mood if my guys missed their final reps, got hurt, or aren’t performing to their full potential. Is that a bad thing? Certainly not. I think Dave Tate said we only have weaknesses when we fail to address what we’re not good at. Make your weaknesses your new strengths. Try to minimize the losses and maximize the gains.
  • Show them what you can bring to the table. Do you have experience with nutrition? Working with MMA fighters? Were you a college athlete? What separates you from the rest of the people applying for this position? Why should they hire you? What will you do for them?
  • Have a “philosophy” or know what you believe in. I had a coach tell me he doesn’t believe in having a philosophy because it’s something you only believe in for a certain time and it could very well change. Well, if you believed in one philosophy at one time, how come you don’t believe in it anymore? Another former coach of mine explained that he had a “methodology” instead of a philosophy because it’s based on science, not belief. I thought that was a great twist.
  • Just have a clue as to what you believe in. Keep it simple. Olympic lifts for power or dynamic box squats? Or both? Full body training or split? Remember the importance of single leg movements, torso training, injury prevention, exercise form and technique, and developing fast and powerful athletes. What will give us the most bang for the buck? Everyone wants to follow the path of water—the path of least resistance. What can we do to give us the most results with the least amount of work? What do you believe in? If you had a program, what are your program principles?
  • Understand the basic good/bad ways of handling issues. They may put you in a scenario of program design or dealing with staff issues. These are the “What would you do if…” questions. You will get these. Always act in the best interest of being a professional. Make sure you cover yourself on every corner.

Hopefully, you made it this far and killed your phone interview. You’re now on the right path to setting up your future as a strength and conditioning professional. Now what do you do when you show up? In my next article, I’ll show you how to make the most out of your internship, whether it’s the best opportunity of your life or simply not what you expected.

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