By David Watts (Strength & Conditioning coach at the Queensland Academy of Sport) and Matt Jay (Performance Manager at EXOS) 

Young S&C coaches face a multitude of challenges on their way to finding success in this extremely competitive field of physical preparation.  It is a relatively young profession based in a culture of high performance and excellence which means that it will continue to evolve and adapt for many years to come as we search for the optimal way to prepare athletes for competition.  Due to this constant evolution and the competitive nature of the job it can be difficult for the young S&C to feel like they are making any progress towards their goals.  As such the following post aims to outline a possible path to finding success in S&C.

First and foremost, we need to understand the realities of finding employment as an S&C coach.  If the Australian city of Sydney is used as an example and the goal is to work in high performance, then the following table below summarises the total number of possible positions available.

David WattsWith so few opportunities available it is key to making sure that a sound plan is put in place to maximise your odds of finding success.  This involves choosing appropriate and recognised methods of developing your abilities and finding a way to stand out from the crowd.Even with the best possible circumstances, there may only be a total of 43 positions available in the entire city of Sydney.

There are three primary ways to progress yourself towards employment.  The first of which is education.  Due to the high level of competition in this field, the possession of a master’s degree has become the expectation rather than simply a desirable attribute.  Completion of a specialised S&C or sports science master’s degree is highly beneficial as it develops your critical thinking skills and provides you with a strong working knowledge of the physiology and biomechanics underpinning the adaptation process.  However, an important caveat to this is that nobody wants to employ an S&C Einstein who is emotionally unintelligent, can’t coach movement and is unable to control large groups of athletes.  While knowledge is power, practical experience will almost certainly trump education.  Therefore, while you are studying, get to work developing your hands on coaching skills if you also want to become employable.  Internships are excellent for providing you with the opportunity to get some hands-on experience.  During an internship, you should be in a position where you can learn from more experienced coaches and build valuable relationships with these senior staff members.  Over the last couple of years, both professional and Olympic sporting organisations have initiated a range of paid internship programs but it should be noted that the competition for one of these positions is tremendous.  For example, the GWS Giants AFL club recently received over 100 applications for their intern position.  Therefore unpaid internships may be a more viable option.  Some may argue against voluntary positions but quite simply they are a reality of this profession.  Before taking on one of these unpaid positions, you should make sure that you are gaining knowledge and hands-on experience in return for the unrewarded effort and help that you are providing.  Occasionally being sent on a coffee run is fair play but don’t waste your time in positions like these if all you are doing is filling water bottles all day long.  If you aren’t growing and learning during an internship, then don’t waste your time, there are more fruitful ways that you can develop your skills.

This leads us to the final method of developing your coaching capacity and that is through informal self-directed learning.  Mastering the ability to drive your own development is the single most powerful thing any single person, regardless of their profession, can do to achieve long-term success.  There is no excuse for being uneducated anymore.  We live in a world where all the answers you seek are simply a few clicks and keystrokes away.  All you need to do is ask the right question.  This kind of informal learning also extends to the practical side of professional development.  Simply writing and following your own programming is one of the best ways to develop an understanding of different training methodologies.  Furthermore, putting yourself through advanced strength and conditioning sessions develops what, Jason Weber, from the Fremantle Football club, calls ‘athletic empathy’.  As a result, you come to fully appreciate what it ‘feels’ like to complete high-intensity sessions and this allows you to coach from a place of genuine understanding and enhances your facial validity.

Finally, informal learning can even be extended into the coaching world.  One of the most common excuses regarding hands-on experience is ‘…but I don’t have any athletes to work with in order to develop my coaching skills’.  However, this simply isn’t true.  There are plenty of athletes out there looking for assistance with their physical training.  Go and find a local sports club and offer to run a session for them once a week.  You benefit as you get to develop your coaching skills and they benefit by receiving formalised physical training for their club members.  Best of all, you will be working with athletes who possess a lower level of movement skill.  They will challenge your cueing and teaching methods, forcing you to quickly and dramatically improve your coaching skills if you want to create change.  So don’t let yourself off the hook so easily, there are ways of getting coaching experience, you just need to get out there and start coaching.  This is the most important aspect of becoming a great S&C coach and should not be neglected.

It should now be clear that there are many ways and means to develop your abilities as an S&C coach. During this time of development, it can feel like you’re putting in an extraordinary amount of effort without actually achieving any success but you need to be able to sit with this discomfort of growth as you develop the skills and knowledge required.  David Joyce recently tweeted ‘don’t be in a rush to be successful, be in a rush to be excellent’.  If all you are doing is meeting expectations and waiting for a magical opportunity to come along then you’re going to be waiting a long time.  Make yourself remarkable by constantly striving towards excellence.  Make sure you have the knowledge, the practical skills and the ability to coach.  It will take time for the opportunities to arrive but when they do make sure that you are ready to seize them.

“Outliers are those who have been given opportunities and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” – Malcolm Gladwell

Mentors

Once you’ve committed to delivering excellence, regardless of the level that you are currently working, the next step is to find an experienced mentor who can develop you further as a coach.  A good mentor will keep you on the right path by challenging and questioning your methods while also providing examples of how to solve certain problems.  While books and courses are great, neither comes close to providing the same level of insight as an experienced mentor.  Every single successful S&C coach will happily tell you about the mentor they had during their developmental years who provided the guidance they needed to prosper.  No one goes it alone.

Mentors come in a variety of forms and each type helps you in a different way.  The first of which is ‘the specialist’.  These experienced practitioners possess an exceptional level of knowledge in a specific area that you do not enjoy the same level of acumen.  Seek out these types of practitioners when you want to turn a weakness into a genuine strength.  The next is ‘the connector’.  They help to connect you to people you may not yet have met and they happily float your name out into their extensive network of contacts.  The connector can be highly influential in your career but we’ll discuss the value of connection in detail later in this piece.

Mentors can even just be someone who provides you with the drive to be better.  We call this type of mentor ‘The Motivator’.  They build your confidence, support your endeavors and give you the energy to keep going when all you want to do is quit.  They remind you ‘why’ you went down this path in the first place and they are able to elicit a strong emotional connection to your primary values.  The final mentor to be mentioned is ‘the challenger’.  Quite simply, they challenge you to be better, day, after day, after day.  They force you to justify your actions, to realise your faults and to come up with innovative solutions to the problems that you encounter.  ‘The challenger’ can test your resolve at times but if you take the right perspective you can see that these people will make you infinitely better in the long term.

While there are many different types of mentors finding the right one or combination that works for you is extremely important.  If your highly motivated but simply struggling with application ‘the challenger’ or ‘the specialist’ will provide the most value.  You also shouldn’t think that a mentor has to come from the same field or sport. Effective growth requires a wide network of mentors. Different people see different aspects of us as we progress in our careers and handle the opportunities and challenges along the way.  So as you go out to look for a potential mentor think about the people that inspire you, will provide you with assistance and reach out to them. Be professional in your approach and choose a method that is appropriate to the situation but don’t be intimidated or afraid to reach out to prospective mentors.  The worst thing that could happen is that the prospective mentor is too busy to handle your specific problem, and they may politely decline or point you in the direction of someone who may be able to help in their absence.  Finally, as you begin to search for a mentor be mindful of the shirtless guru selling their methods as revolutionary.  To take from Grant Jenkins, ‘Gurus create disciples, good mentors offer guidance but encourage you to think independently and shape your own path and journey’.

If you cannot see where you are going, ask someone who has been there before.” – J Loren Norris

Creating a Network of Connections

With an experienced mentor guiding the way the next step is to actively develop a broad network of connections in order to dramatically increase the chances of opportunities coming your way.  People are often daunted by networking and believe it requires inauthentic, uncomfortable behavior.  Realistically, when done appropriately, networking is actually the exact opposite.   Good networking simply involves the genuine act of seeking to engage with others to share ideas and create a mutually beneficial connection.  Mutual is the key word here, so make sure you bring something to the table. Networking is so key in the world of S&C because who you know and the impressions you make can open many doors.  Often it’s not what you know but who you know that gets you through the door.  Knowing the right people can move your resume to the top of a large pile or even let you know about a job opening before it’s advertised if it’s even advertised at all. So that means we have to make an effort to build relationships that are meaningful, mutual and long lasting, as you never know when these relationships may provide opportunities.

When you begin to actively build your network of connections you should first review your current circle of influence.  These are the people that you already have strong relationships with, they already influence you, and you them.  Determine how exactly they have shaped your practice, are they helping or hindering? Is the relationship mutual? Do they push you forward or pull you back? Through this review process you can make decisions about the people you surround yourself with and if you’re not surrounding yourself with people who will challenge you, then you’re ultimately limiting your own development.

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” – Jim Rohn

Now that you know the limitations of your current connections try to figure out which people you could viably create a relationship with in order to strengthen your network.  This can include peers at the same level, coaches who are currently working at the next level from where you are situated and finally the senior coaches who have had proven success for a long time.  Peers working at the same level can be extremely valuable connections.  This is due to the fact that they will often be dealing with the same challenges that you are and they may have come up with novel solutions to the problems you are experiencing.  Those at the next level will have an appreciation for the struggles that you are going through, since they will have recently gone through them as well, and furthermore they can provide perspective on the work and time required to get to that next level.  Finally, the senior coaches with long term success will most likely be the ones who will be able to provide you with the career progression opportunities.  It is important to understand that this will only happen if you have shown them that you have true potential as a coach and you have worked hard to create a strong relationship with them.  Respect and trust are earned, they are not given.

One of best places to create new connections is at S&C specific conferences.  When attending aim to meet five new people every day.   Breaks between lectures aren’t a time to take a break.  In a professional manner start a conversation with a potential connection and ask them if they want to grab a coffee or even a beer.  Be audacious, be brave and step up to meet the people who could be essential to your career. Be genuine in your approach and you will find that most secure coaches will be willing to share and help as much as they can.

Lastly, regardless of the profession, we know that diverse relationships are crucial to success.  As such we want to create networks that are interactive, engaging and diverse. Create a network that challenges you to get better and includes a diverse group of people, from diverse industries and diverse locations.  Some of these connections may seem remote to your present career or contemplated future, but they can give you perspective, provide transferable skills and introduce you to new networks. Connect with people from all walks of life that are good at what they do.

We hope that this piece has provided some insights and ideas for any young aspiring S&C coaches and we would encourage you all to take responsibility for your careers, be proactive and make yourself remarkable.