10 + 1 Tips for Strength Coaches

Having worked my way through the ranks to be a collegiate strength coach, I've picked up a few things that other coaches can use to improve their own careers. In addition, now that I've been a full-time assistant for nearly five years and involved in the hiring process, I can give insight into what coaches are looking for when hiring interns, graduate assistants, or even entry level, full-time coaches.

I've worked in five different collegiate strength and conditioning programs and have taken vastly different experiences from each. More importantly, I've learned from the advice given to me from the coaches in each of these programs.

Below are several points that seem to be forgotten by many coaches:

1. You're always interviewing for a job. Joe Kenn said this to me when I was at Arizona State University (ASU) as an intern in 2003. No matter where you are, you have to carry yourself as a professional. Whether you're actually interviewing for a job, attending a conference, or talking to the athletes while waiting for practice to start, you are visible to people who may have an influence on your future employment. Other coaches and even the athletes could be in a position to hire you several years down the road. The impression you make could be a lasting one.

2. Act like you're in the position you want to be in. This is similar to the last point. Jim Roney told me this when I was a graduate assistant. Basically, hold yourself to a higher standard. If you want to be a full-time assistant, don't mess around like the idiot intern who doesn’t care about what he has been hired to do.

3. Look the part. I never really understood this when I was younger. I never understood how looking a certain way affected my knowledge of training and my ability to coach athletes. Think about it from the athlete’s perspective though. Is a 300-lb offensive lineman going to listen to a six foot, 150-lb toothpick tell him how to squat 500 lbs? Will a female soccer player take the advice of a coach who is 75 pounds overweight on how to eat properly or lose weight?

4. It’s easier to find a job when you already have a job. I remember Tim Kontos saying this multiple times when I was a graduate assistant at Virginia Commonwealth. What’s more appealing to an employer—hiring someone who is actively coaching or hiring someone who is serving burgers at Bucky’s Burger Barn? Sometimes you have to take a job you don’t want in order to set yourself up for a better job down the road.

5. Utilize unlimited resources. I've always tended to be a geek when it comes to training knowledge, so when I got an internship with Rich Wenner at ASU, I was thrilled to have access to his library. Whenever I had down time, I took advantage and went through his collection. Before I left ASU, Rich told me to continue gaining as much knowledge as I could from as many sources as possible. This has proven infinitely valuable because I now have a vast knowledge from which to draw from depending on the situation at hand.

6. Don’t get stuck in one train of thought. I see this all the time with young strength coaches. Interns only know what they learned in class. Graduate assistants think the only way to train athletes is how they saw it being done in their internships (especially true when the internship was with a big time school). There’s more out there than the limited view of the classroom and a one semester internship. In fact, these experiences don’t even scratch the surface. Keep learning and making yourself better.

7. Watching YouTube videos doesn't constitute education. Watching clips of training from big time schools put to some hard rock or rap song doesn't help improve your knowledge as a coach. This is entertainment, not education.

8. Learn the importance of loyalty. When I got to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), this was very important to my current boss, Kirk Davis. I don’t know that I can put an actual definition on loyalty, but I do know that in all of athletics there is a lot of backstabbing that goes on to get jobs or look good in someone else’s eyes. Philosophical differences and personal opinions need to be tossed aside when discussing the program with other coaches or athletes. Everyone on the staff needs to work together as a unit, not as individuals. The entire staff needs to support each other rather than tear each other down.

9. Learn how to train and then go train. There is a big difference between training and working out. Athletes need to train but like to work out. We have a blood, sweat, and puke mentality, but this isn’t always the best way to train. I don’t want to diminish the imperative value of hard work, but feeling the burn and training for specific goals are two different things. You also need to train yourself. How do you expect the athletes to train with consistency and intensity when you don’t have that discipline in your own training? You wouldn’t let your athletes get away with taking three weeks off from training because their schedule got hectic, so don’t take time off because you're busy. You're the role model, so set a proper example.

10. Learn how the body works, both physiologically and anatomically. The human body is the fundamental element you work with as a coach. Learn it and understand it. Would you take your car to a hair stylist to fix the transmission? As a coach, you're training the body to work in a certain way. It would probably be a good idea if you understood things like energy systems, anatomy, adaptation, strength, endurance, speed, and recovery.

Bonus: Learn what strength and getting stronger actually mean. There is a great misconception about what strength really is and I think I’ve heard it all. Actually, I’m sure the line of people who have their own ideas about what strength is will never end. Every year, I see athletes come in who are regarded as strong, but they're unable to do a proper push-up, hold a bridge position, perform a good body weight squat (much less use weight), or hold posture while doing any exercise. Let’s get this straight—bicep curls and leg extensions don't constitute strength. I don’t care how much you improve your leg extension, you don't get stronger with this exercise.

If a male athlete can't squat double his body weight to full depth, he isn't strong. Period! I did this in high school, and I was one of the weakest guys on my football team. As coaches, I know that we all want to think our athletes are strong, but they aren't. We need to set a higher standard and have greater expectations about what should be and what can be accomplished. Along these same lines, if as a coach, you're impressed by what your athletes are doing in the weight room, you need to set a higher standard for yourself. Athletes aren't lifters. While some may get quite strong, your perspective of strength should be higher than what they will accomplish. If they're that good in the weight room, maybe they should switch sports and compete in weightlifting, powerlifting, or Strongman. Remember, we're training athletes, not lifters.