What It Takes to be a Great Strength and Conditioning Coach: Perspectives from Veteran Coaches

   

Be so good they can’t ignore you! Education is just the beginning!

More often than not, strength coaches have significantly more education and experience than the minimum standard of a bachelor's degree in a health/science related field and a certification from the CSCCA or NSCA (always exceptions to the rules). A vast number of coaches have master's degrees, thousands of hours interning, and the whole alphabet behind their names...

...all of which leads to the all-too-often-used saying of "over-educated and under-appreciated."

Now times are changing, and this is a great field to be in. But it does not come without its fair share of pros and cons. You truly have to have a passion to last in this field. Questions to ask yourself before you dive into the wisdom of the best coaches:

  • Do you truly want to make it in this field? Because it will not be easy.
  • Do you want to be more than average, possibly great? Average is not acceptable for strength and conditioning.
  • Do you want to change lives and better this world? This profession allows you the opportunity to reach and impact more people than most.

If you answered yes to all 3, then read on.

Here are the words straight from some of the best of the best coaches in the industry on what it takes to be a great strength and conditioning coach. These are the coaches who have made it, the ones we all look up to and aspire to be like one day.

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Dr. John Rusin: Experience Wins

There’s a little something called experience that today’s strength and conditioning industry is lacking. In a day and age where we’ve never been more educated, we’ve also never been this inexperienced.

Don’t get me wrong, laying a foundation for your education in order to have a greater understanding for principles of exercise science, physiology, anatomy, and biomechanics is also a necessity for becoming a great coach. But where many coaches go wrong is that they never test and experiment on themselves first, as you are your own first client, and second, they lack an ability to translate their knowledge into action.

This is something that truly comes with putting time in coaching human beings in person, developing a coach's eye on movement patterns and preparedness to train, and streamlining the programming process.

Charlie Weingroff: "Stumbling" Upon Greatness

  • www.charlieweingroff.com
  • Director of Physical Development
  • Head Strength and Conditioning Coach, Canada Men's Basketball

How someone would determine a great strength and conditioning coach probably has as many ways as solving a 3-week chess match. What makes any man or woman great is predicated on context, their own lenses, and the lens of those around them.

I wonder too if it is even noble to use one's own lens in this discussion as any superlative word should always be bestowed and never openly accepted. But in the chase for greatness or whatever the word is or should be, I think stumbling upon the desired result as often as possible is the end point.

To "stumble" upon anything, it takes experience, trial and error, lots of mistakes, and the scientific method. Through experience and then identifying patterns of people, circumstances, and context, the great coach will not make the same mistake twice.

Applying that mental process is highly scientific as even one event of undesirable consequence can be avoided by trying something new or different. We can take this process to the clinical approach and social approach that always seem to surround a great coach always doing the right thing and getting great results. Figuring it out just takes time, confidence, and science.

Ron McKeefery: Stay Humble; Ask the Right Questions

  • M.A., CSCS, SCCC
  • Vice President of Performance & Education
  • PLAE

I think if you speak with the coaches that you consider great, each of them will tell you that they are not anywhere close to where they want to be. Coaches that tend to have success in this field are humbled by the sheer magnitude of information out there that they need to understand.

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To be a strength and conditioning coach you have to have an understanding of speed, power, strength, agility, ESD, balance, coordination, nutrition, skill acquisition, etc. In a career, you may arguably be able to master one discipline, but to say more than that is reaching.

I think that is what great strength coaches know: that as they continue in this profession they learn to start asking the right questions. They check their ego at the door and are on a relentless quest for knowledge while keeping their motivations for doing so on the betterment of their athletes and themselves as a practitioner. Not for likes on social media.

Lee Taft: Develop Coaching Eye; Keep It Simple

Aside from knowing the “Big Rocks” which are extremely important - programming, exercise execution, coaching, cuing, etc. - the two areas I feel make great strength and conditioning coaches are:

  1. Developing the “Coaching Eye”: The coaches that understand landmarks are the ones that assess and address most accurately and timely. If coaches can “see” how athletes should be moving in the weight room during speed and change of direction, they make fewer guesses and make more accurate decisions.
  2. Great coaches keep it simple: It isn’t that they are not capable of being more diverse, in-depth, and creative, it’s just they understand how simplicity aids in the learning and development process for their athletes. They would rather have their athletes master the fundamentals than struggle with the complex. 

Todd Hamer: It's More Than Wins

  • Head Strength and Conditioning Coach, Robert Morris University

Being a great strength coach is one of the most rewarding and important jobs for anyone in our society. I realize that many will think I am exaggerating the importance of what we do, yet I disagree. A great strength coach is a great educator and will send better young men and women out into the world to do great works.

Yes, winning is what gets us our raises. Yet if we make our athletes better all around people, then they will not only win, but they will also move on to be more productive members of society. So my long-winded answer to what it takes to be a great strength coach is as follows:

  1. Be a great educator
  2. Be a great leader
  3. Be a great human
  4. Care for all of those in your care

Do these things, and you will be great. 

Gary Schofield Jr.: Know Who You Are

  • ATC, CSC
  • Director of Strength And Conditioning, Greater Atlanta Christian School
  • Co-Founder Board of Emeritus NHSSCA

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What does it take to become a great strength and conditioning coach? It is a question often asked by our interns and college students. I am not certain I qualify to answer that question as I am still in pursuit of becoming my best. When I entered the field of strength & conditioning, I believed I knew it all. Over 20 years later, the only thing I now know is how much I DON’T know.

We are always growing, always learning, always striving to be better for those we serve. However, there are a few pieces that serve as a foundation to good coaching.

You need to establish your identity. As my good friend, Jeremy Boone states, “You can’t outperform your self-identity.” Too often, coaches identify themselves by what they do before they establish who they are.

The Japanese term “ikigai” attempts to define the reason we wake every day. It has to be more than a job, bills, or supporting a family. It is the sum of what you love to do, what you are good at (born with or worked at), what the world needs, and what you can get paid for. It establishes your mission and vision for what you wish to become.

For me, my mission is to engage, educate, and empower athletes to improve athletic performance and pursue a lifetime of wellness. My vision is to help reveal how great each of us were created to be. With a mission firmly in place and the drive to fulfill a vision, a coach can establish core beliefs (behaviors) and core values (actions) that provide authentic impact and not just look nice as words on a page.

To become great at any profession, you need to separate who you are (your purpose) from what you do (your goals). It’s often stated that life is “all about relationships.” Your purpose comes from the relationships you have with your family, your soul, and your world.

Eight behaviors define my purpose:

  • Belief
  • Excellence
  • Wisdom
  • Discipline
  • Perseverance
  • Positive attitude
  • Service
  • Passion

These behaviors allow for core values to be applied to what we do as strength and conditioning coaches.

Professionally, I strive daily to provide my athletes actions that support a belief to Do No Harm, Move Well, Move Strong, Move Fast, and Thrive (allow athletes to enjoy the process).

I believe there needs to be a return to a focus on the art of coaching. Athletes respond to coaching, not programs. In the end, it’s the connections that count, not the weight lifted.

Final Words

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Summarizing, to be a great coach and person, prepare to show up early and stay late. Remind yourself that every day you have to have dedication, consistency, and a sense of meaning.

You have to realize what you do each day helps in its own way, even if we don’t see the immediate progress we want. We are building buy-in little by little; it is a slow-cooking process.

You have to have an amazing group of friends and family that supports you; this allows you to be the best you, so you can help others see the best in them.

A great strength and conditioning coach understands there is much more depth to this profession than just knowing exercises and how to implement them. That does not mean you can slack off on the programming and implementation part, but realize that it is only one piece of the puzzle.

The great coaches coach the heck out of the exercises and their people. They are always coaching. They are extremely adaptable to any situation and can always modify, adapt, and overcome.

Part of the fun in strength and conditioning is changing lives and molding the minds of the athletes to become the best that they can be both on the field and in daily life. Seeing how successful your athletes are both professionally and personally when they come back to visit is the best gift we receive.

This is what it takes to be a great strength coach.

“Iron sharpens iron” 

About The Author

Ryan is the Director of strength and conditioning at Pro Performance RX In Morgantown, West Virginia. Ryan has been working in the private sector with hundreds of youth athletes for the last 5 years. He is always excited to talk training and dig deep into the Why. Never stop learning, growing and adapting. In the great words of Bruce Lee be like water.

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