No, seriously, I’m asking; I don’t have the answer, though I ponder this often.
The topic of early specialization and long-term athlete development has been targeted as a hot topic lately in our profession – rightly so. We know that athletes who specialize too early are more likely to experience burn out and seem to have less longevity in terms of skill development and injuries as well. Whereas those athletes who wait to specialize and, instead, build movement skills in other sports seem to last much longer and play at a heightened level (more “rounded” in their skill set).
What if we apply this logic to strength and conditioning coaches and their development? This article will look into this topic from my viewpoint and experiences. Hear me out and then you decide, but let me know your thoughts below.
*Disclaimer – I am, in no way, saying that I am completely right on this matter. I am simply stating what I have experienced and providing my opinion.
Ready, Set, Go
Take a walk with me down the typical career path for (collegiate) strength and conditioning coaches:
Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science –> Internship(s) –> Graduate Assistantship –> Assistant Strength Coach –> Head Strength Coach –> Director of Strength & Conditioning
Most of us started with our heads in as many books as we could find (between our own training sessions, of course). There’s nothing wrong with that at all, as that is what needs to happen in order to gain the knowledge necessary for the job. However, the practical component is lacking, so we then get some internships “under our belt.” Hopefully under good mentors who teach us what they have learned and who can point us in the right direction when we leave.
Now we need to take on more responsibility; maybe even run a team or two of our own. Enter the Graduate Assistantship role – where we get that responsibility. Now we’re putting time into as much practicality as we can handle, while attending to graduate studies – most often in exercise science, again.
From there, we then, hopefully, move up the ladder to an assistant position where we gain more responsibility, though not much more than when we were a graduate assistant. After a few years we might get lucky enough to earn a Head position where the level of responsibility is a great deal more; budgets, scheduling, and more now come into play.
Lastly, the top dog, the Director of Strength and Conditioning. Usually, in this role, you would come second only to the Athletic Director. This is the role that many ambitious, young strength coaches want as their ultimate career goal. I certainly commend you for wanting this, as it’s a role that I always thought I wanted and still do. In this position, you’re now running the whole show; the entire staff and all sports are your responsibility. you must make sure all cylinders are running well, always.
So, now we have a good understanding of a typical career path in the profession. I think the issue arises during the time when the young strength coach enters their internship and graduate assistantship positions. It is during this period of time when the practical learning of the profession take precedence over the science/book portion. By all means, you should still be reading in this stage, but not 100% of it should be related to the field. One could consider earning a Master’s degree in something other than exercise science as well, though some programs require you to be enrolled in these courses to become a Graduate Assistant.
As I said, this comes from my own personal experience and observations, so I can tell you that most coaches in this stage still have their heads in the books. Consider this the early stage of specialization. Is this too early?
What if, during this stage when they’re learning more practically, they read books that are not directly related to the profession, but still make them better coaches in some way. Or maybe this “non-related” knowledge doesn’t make them better coaches (as in better AT coaching), but makes them better at their job (for the non-coaching, administrative tasks). This would help to build their skill set in other areas. Who knew that, as a strength and conditioning coach, you may have to – talk to people that aren’t athletes, balance a budget, give presentations, attend social events, write recommendation letters or proposals? The list goes on, but you get the point, or maybe you don’t yet…
Vary Your Skills
Just as athletes must build a large movement skill set, so the strength coach must build his/her skill set to be able to effectively perform in all aspects of the job, not just programming and coaching.
I have followed a similar path, at least in the beginning, to the one outlined above. I thought I was pretty smart and good at what I did (coaching/programming). Fast forward a few years and I was sick of reading about strength and conditioning and starting to feel burned out because all I did was related to training; reading, work, training myself, etc. I also began to notice that I was lacking in pretty much every other area of personal development. It was then that I realized I needed to start building my skill set in other areas like presenting to groups (still my main focus, but I’m getting better) and learning about psychology tactics (Cannot wait for Coach Bartholomew’s book to come out!).
Little did I know that having a passion for writing, outside of my job stuff, would actually benefit me down the road when I worked at NSCA Headquarters. I had enough talent in writing (and my knowledge base) to be asked to co-author chapters in the 4th edition of the Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning.
I find myself reading more on these other areas now than I do on strength and conditioning material. I wonder if it would have served me better to do so earlier in my career?
Find some new passions and areas of interest outside of programming and coaching to learn that will make you a better coach, or better at the other aspects of your job that are not coaching and programming. There are many things you can learn that, at first, may not seem related, but will absolutely build a stronger skill set.
If you’re still not convinced and are good with just reading and learning about strength and conditioning (with no outside influences in knowledge), all the best to you. It is my belief that it is better to be “well-rounded” and have knowledge in multiple areas from which to use, but that’s not to say that the job cannot be done without this “outside” knowledge.
Looking ahead, you may have to have skills in areas you would never have thought, so it’s better to get ahead of the game (like I did with writing). Below is a list of resources that may help you get started.
The Flip Side
Everything has multiple vantage points, so I can also see the other side – where it could be good to solely focus on strength and conditioning right from the beginning and throughout one’s career. Of course, the more knowledge, practice, and experience in something, the better off you’ll be. However, my main argument is to prevent burn out and to provide an idea for younger strength coaches to become more diverse in their skills and knowledge. Not only would they probably be more enthralled in their work, but they would be more marketable than the traditional skill set “the next guy” possesses.
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