There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from completing a strength and conditioning internship. Being on time, asking questions at the right time, wearing appropriate attire, staying in touch with coaches, being vocal, and working hard are all imperative to a successful internship. There a few other major keys that should be better explained than a list of rules or a quick orientation from the staff you are working with.

Empty the Tank

What do you do when you start an internship that you realize halfway through is too big of a commitment? You finish it. No one cares how broke you are or how it was supposed to be 40 hours a week and now they need you for 70. No one cares that you have an hour commute or another job that is your only source of income. You may burn through most of your savings, lose a bunch of personal training clients, lose 20 pounds, have most of your lifts take a nosedive, and have to run on four hours of sleep to get the job done.

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If being a strength coach is that important to you, you will figure something out and find a way to get it done. Even if it is not the best environment for you, it’s best to push through and finish it out. Do not do the minimum amount of hours required and always arrive early. Give it everything you’ve got when you are there because it is a privilege to work with big-time Division I staff and athletes.

Most importantly, if you can get through that, you may realize nothing is nearly as hard as it once seemed and no task is too far out of reach. Give it everything you have, and you will be rewarded for your hard work somewhere down the line.

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Build Relationships

Being a young coach right out of college or still in college can be tough, especially when training college athletes. During my senior year of college, I volunteered with the strength staff at West Chester University. I was assigned to work primarily with the men’s club hockey team. Overall, it was a useful experience to get my feet wet in the industry.

One obstacle that I faced in that role was that a bunch of the hockey players lived directly next door to where I lived off-campus. Telling a kid to get lower in a squat or calling a guy out for skipping a set or exercise can be tough, especially when the weekend before they were hanging out on their porch asking you if you wanted to come slam some beers with them.

It’s important to develop relationships with athletes, but you walk a fine line when you are a young coach. Make sure you take an interest in them and their team but keep it appropriate. Make sure they feel comfortable asking you questions and they look at you as an authoritative figure. You should know the workout being performed inside and out before the lift starts.

Last and most importantly, make sure every athlete knows your name and you know their names — even if the coach never gave you a proper introduction to the team.

Walk the Walk

I am a big believer in education, certifications, and work experiences. Having said that, what I value the most is time spent under the bar. Screaming random coaching cues like “knees out,” “chest up,” or “tight” during a back squat just doesn’t cut it in my book. Take the time to break the lift down, clearly demonstrate the exercise, and explain why certain cues are important.

Learning how to deadlift while sitting in a classroom reviewing PowerPoint slides is very different than having 600 pounds in hand as you’re grinding out a max effort attempt. Spending time learning the lifts and putting in the effort to get stronger consistently will only make you a better coach.

READ MORE: So You Want to Be A Collegiate Strength Coach: The Pros

Nothing has prepared me for coaching in the weight room like spending years training with the passion to improve my own lifts. Knowing what the athlete is going through first hand will better help you understand how to coach and help them reach their potential. There is no doubt looking the part will help you gain respect and trust with athletes.

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I didn’t have a big-time athletic career to fall back on, so in college, I started competing in strongman to gain the respect of athletes and coaches. You don’t have to go to that extreme, but it is always useful to be strong when pursuing a career as a strength coach.

Open Your Mind to Different Philosophies

I spent most of college reading elitefts articles, Westside Barbell articles, powerlifting eBooks, and strongman training manuals to learn about strength and conditioning outside of class. Frankly, they heavily influenced my training philosophy at the time and still do today. Building the bench, squat, deadlift, clean, or “the basics” was the key to preparing an athlete in my mind.

During my time at Seton Hall University, I remember being sat down and grilled by the staff in an interview. The one thing I distinctly remember was being told, “There are a lot of ways to train an athlete. Just because we do something one way doesn’t mean it’s the only way it can be done. We just ask that you buy into what we are doing.”

After working with different teams, I realized there are a lot of ways to train athletes, and some work better than others depending on the resources and setting. Maybe a physioball leg curl is a decent alternative to a Romanian Deadlift or Glute Ham Raise because their low back could use a break. Maybe an athlete doesn’t need a clean to build explosiveness because jumps and throws are just as effective and are a little safer in-season. Maybe subbing in box squats for a college basketball player slightly above parallel isn’t the end of the world if he’s having trouble hitting depth.

At the end of the day, I’ve come full circle and still gravitate to my background in strongman and interests in powerlifting and Olympic lifting. Having said that, I have a much better understanding of what is really important, and that is making athletes better at their sports. Learning a system is great, but learning why you’re doing what you are doing and under what circumstances is much more useful.

Outside of earning something to put on your resume, getting a reference, or possibly receiving a letter of recommendation, there are some pretty big lessons to learn from grinding out time in the weight room coaching college athletes. The biggest key is experience.

Matt Cooney is currently the head strength and conditioning coach at Holmdel High School and operates Cooney Strength and Conditioning LLC. In 2014, he completed his bachelor’s degree in exercise science and minored in nutrition and dietetics at West Chester University. He has completed strength and conditioning internships at West Chester University, Seton Hall University, Monmouth University, and Rutgers University. He holds CSCS credentials from the NSCA, USAW Level 1 Sports Performance Certification, and is an ISSA-certified trainer. He has competed in over 20 strongman competitions, including placing second at the 2018 U.S. Strongman National Championships and was a member of Team USA at the 2018 Team World Championships.

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