Editors note: This is the first post in a multi-part series on "things you didn't learn in school" in which we'll explore the most impactful in-the-trenches lessons that a 20+ year S&C veteran has learned. Today's topic: relationships.
I can comfortably say that of all the decisions I make in a day, about 20% is influenced by what I learned in college classes. I would never say it is a total waste of time, and I know that somewhere in the recesses of my mind, there are sprinkles of college courses in how I do my work. But the other 80% is purely experiential and through specific certifications I worked towards after graduation.
The most prevalent thing I have learned after my traditional education is how to interact with people. Athletes, coaches, administrators, and support staff are all relationships that you will have to nurture. Your lifeline, your effectiveness and your longevity at any given job will be dictated by how successful and flexible you are with people.
1. The Athletes
Listen to me. Your athletes are your lifeline. They are the reason you get out of bed every morning. When it all goes down, the athletes are the ones on the field, on the court and in the water who are competing. Fundamentally, they are the ones who are putting food on your table, so you need to focus on them the most.
I have coached thousands of kids now, and I can comfortably say that I’ve coached kids from all walks of life. Super smart, barely could read, focused, totally unmotivated, rich, poor, freakishly athletic, totally uncoordinated and everywhere in between.
Not one of them is exactly like the other, and for a guy who has hundreds of kids each calendar year, I need to have an enormous tool kit to be able to reach each individual. I would love to say that there isn’t one kid who comes into my facility who doesn’t slip through the cracks, but I can promise you it’s not from a lack of me trying.
I remember my college time vividly, and I played half of my career for someone I loved, followed by playing the other half for someone I loathed. A coach can make or break someone’s experience, and because I have been on both sides of the fence, I go out of my way to reach each person.
You need to be dynamic verbally. I’ve said it multiple times in other articles, but you have to know how to say one thing fourteen different ways. Not everyone you come in contact with will have the same context, level of education or experiences you have, so you need to be able to speak everyone’s language.
A technique cue might make perfect sense to some, and sound like a foreign language to others, so you need to be able to rephrase, change directions and come up with a new way of saying things on the spot. Being a dynamic coach is about having mastery of your vocabulary and being able to draw on experiences, examples and hypotheticals at the drop of a hat.
2. Sport Coaches
You are going to work for some awesome people during your career. And, you are going to work with people who are rotten to their cores. Being able to navigate coaching relationships is vital to your own success.
It’s not just head coaches, either. You are going be dealing with, and potentially answering to assistant coaches, so you better have your politician’s hat on. When you are in the second half of your career like I am, you are likely going to be explaining yourself and trying to justify your points to someone who is considerably younger than you. It can be painful at times, believe me.
A perfect example would be our wrestling situation in my current job. We have a brand new coaching staff who are awesome. But the crew before them was very difficult to work with. The head coach didn’t have much interest in what I did, but made sure that one of his assistants was keeping tabs of what we were doing. So, I would have to program design alongside some young coach to meet their wants and needs for the team.
What made things worse was the three years I worked with this crew, the assistant coaches changed annually. So from a programming perspective, we would have to redesign our approach to fit their ideas of what we should do. The last of this crew would change his mind every few weeks, so we’d make program overhauls all the time.
What it did was create an environment of inconsistency, and to be real, distrust of what I was doing by the athletes. Because I would never throw a coaching staff under the bus to their athletes, most of last year was spent with radical design changes every few weeks and the kids were wondering what I was doing, not what the coaches wanted. It was a total and utter catastrophe.
What you will also find is some coaches think they know more about your job than you. So you need to be chivalrous and polite, yet direct and assertive when you have a disagreement. I was a “yes” man for a very long time, and to be honest, my athletes suffered as a result. It took years for me to finally stand my ground and put a coach in their place. You can be polite about it, but never let yourself get pushed around.
When it is good, it’s great. My current football coach and I have the perfect relationship. We speak every day yet he lets me make all the decisions for the team. This doesn’t mean he isn’t involved, he simply trusts the direction I am taking the program and gives me the space to implement my plan.
3. The Administrators
I’m one of the lucky ones. My current job situation is the best I have ever been a part of. My AD is a guy who totally gets it and has my back. He trusts his coaches and allows us to do our thing without hovering, micromanaging and getting in our way. He’s a pleasure to work for.
On the flip side, my last job was the most toxic situation I have ever seen, or ever heard of for that matter. I took the job and was part of a major resurrection of the programs and the department. We were thriving and as many of those situations end up, opportunities for others open up.
Quickly, the administration took on a new look, and new role players who didn’t have the same vision as those they replaced. My direct supervisor was the most unpleasant woman I have ever known. Her management style was based in creating fear throughout the department and to micromanage to the point where everyone wanted to pull their hair out. She was hell bent on creating the illusion of things being on the up and up to those on the outside, while stifling and burying the talents of those around her.
During one of my performance evaluations I was discussing to her how the athletes were my priority and I was quickly reprimanded and corrected that they are not the priority and came later on down the line behind coaches and others. She told me that my shirt being tucked in was more important than my approach to getting the kids strong. It was a twisted and sick display of an angry person who had been given too much power over others. Within six months of me turning in my resignation, there was almost a total exodus of the athletic staff. Over half of the head coaches were either fired or left on their own, and the revolving door continues to this day.
You are going to have to know how to navigate your administrators. They make the decisions about your employment so there will be a degree of making them happy that you will have to take on.
But if you do your job, and do it well, you can stay in the good graces with most of them.
4. Support Staff
You are going to be one piece to several moving parts when you sign up for a strength and conditioning job. Your relationship with sports medicine, equipment, academics, and advancement will all come into play as the days go on.
I personally think that one of the most important relationships you can have is the one you forge with your athletic trainers. Realistically, there should be a symbiotic relationship with you and them. We serve the kids, both sides, therefore you need to find common ground with your approach and theirs. When this relationship is strong and the lines of communication are wide open, the athletes benefit. When the relationships are not healthy, the athletes suffer.
Again, through personal experience I have witnessed the prosperity of a program and then watched a department suffer at the hands of feuding sides. Luckily, as I have been the head of programs for nearly two decades now, I have reached fast favor with sports medicine because I made it a priority. My relationship with our current staff is as good as one could hope for. My head of sports medicine is a veteran and truly loves our kids, so our relationship is effortless. We collaborate on a slew of projects, interact daily on who’s working through what injury and developing strategies to get our injured athletes back on the field.
But, when I was doing my undergrad and starting my very first intern job with strength and conditioning, the two sides couldn’t have been more at odds. Perhaps it was because the strength position was brand new to the university and the sports medicine side had become stale and old with the same players in the training room having been there for over 30 years.
What I do know was the two sides collided, which at times felt intentional, and our athletes suffered. Both sides would nearly purposely get in each other’s way so the credit couldn’t go to the other. It was poison. The only good that came from it was I learned this lesson out the gate, so I have been diligent in forming solid relationships with sports medicine early on. In fact, my closest friends from jobs that I have left, to this day, remain the folk I worked with on the medical side.
Additionally, you will be working with equipment, academics and advancement. Not to the degree of sports medicine, but these folks are a major part of your athlete’s life. You need to be familiar with these folks, cordial and know that the kids you are trying to win favor with (so they will train hard) are going to be spending time with these folks also. It’s human nature to talk. If you have an equipment guy who doesn’t like you or an academic advisor you keep locking horns with for whatever reason, that message will get back to the athletes. So take the time to make sure everyone is playing for the same side.
Relationships are the heartbeat of what you are doing. Like in a successful marriage, communication needs to flow smoothly so the household can thrive. Same goes in your work life. And, considering you will spend most of your waking hours at work, it’s imperative to be approachable, friendly and a team player.