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Learn Early and Often: Lessons from My Internships

Candice Walls
Jul 14, 2021

“The expert at anything was once a beginner.” – Helen Hayes

I want you to take a minute and think back to the moment you thought you wanted to be a strength coach. Do you remember the excitement? Do you remember the dreams that you had? Do you remember how hard you worked to land your first internship? Do you remember walking into your first conference and seeing everyone with different polos and thinking to yourself, one day I will work for that school? 

I remember all these thoughts and dreams. I remember the butterflies I felt as I walked through the door on the first day of my first internship. I remember the sweaty palms I had when I drove halfway across the country to the big city for my second internship. 

I also remember all the people that I crossed paths with on my journey. Without them, none of what I have done throughout my career would have been possible. The most critical years of my career started with internships and my graduate assistant position. 

So here is my story of why internships and your graduate assistant positions are valuable. It is not a very flashy story. It is a story of mistakes, heartbreaks, lessons, and above anything else a story of the opportunities that people gave me throughout the years. Enjoy! 

Wake Forest University 

Demon Deacon Lesson #1: Butterflies are good 

"I am so nervous. What if they don’t like me. How are the athletes going to be? Cory will kill me if I mess this up. Take a deep breathe you got this.”

These were all of the thoughts racing in my head that first morning in the summer of 2008 at Wake Forest. As I stood there I was parlayed with fear of the unknown. I was entering my senior year at Berea College and had to do a summer internship for class credit. A friend of mine had done an internship at Wake Forest the summer before and he suggested I try it out. In my head, I had a mission that summer. I was going to learn all I could, train hard for my upcoming senior season, and do such a good job that I got a recommendation like my fellow classmate. 

As the side door swung open, I took a deep breath. One of the other intern coaches walked in with a smile on his face. “You’re Candy, our new intern? It’s your first day right? You are probably a little nervous. I felt the same way on my first day. Butterflies are good, shows how important this is to you. Come on in!”. Just like that with butterflies in my stomach, my career started. 

Demon Deacon Lesson #2: Get out of your comfort zone and learn something new 

“Again. Again. Again.” were the words that I heard all summer long from the legend I was working under as he sat in his chair with his sandals and khaki shorts watching me with an empty bar awkwardly trying to master the snatch. I had made the mistake of asking Coach Reeve to coach me up on my Olympic lifts. What I did not know was how much of an expert this man was. I also did not know the power of repetition. I was a senior in college, and I was upset that I could not take this simple 45-pound bar and get it above my head. All I wanted to do was impress this man. “How could I do that if I could not even do a simple snatch? How could I coach the athletes if I couldn’t do it myself?” As all these thoughts kept going through my head he kept saying “Again. Again. Again.”. 

Coach Reeve was the first true strength coach I had ever been around. So honestly anything this man told me was gold. I just wanted to be great, I wanted to make a mark like this man had. So, if I needed to hoist this bar over my head until my arms fell off, I was going to do that. What I did not know in that moment was he was teaching me so much more than the snatch.

He was teaching me a lesson that carried with me the rest of my career. He taught me that it is okay to step outside your comfort zone and learn something new. You may not be great at it at first but keep trying till you get it.

In the words of Coach Kazadi “nothing great in life didn’t come without a little time and pain”. 

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University of Texas:

Longhorn Lesson #1: The Power of a Recommendation 

“I have sent out over 100 resumes. Why haven’t I heard back from anyone? I only have 2 months left before we graduate. I thought if I did a great job last summer, I would have whatever internship or graduate assistant position I wanted this summer.”

I said to my teammate as we sat in our dorm room the weekend after our season ended. “I’m trying not to panic but I really want to be a strength coach. I think I could be good at it. I guess if it doesn’t work out, I could always go overseas and play.” 

It took me switching majors 5 times to finally decide after my junior year what I wanted to do. Believe me, my parents, coaches, and professors were a bit concerned about how my professional career was going to play out. They knew basketball was coming to an end and real life was about to hit me. After applying to what felt like a million places and not hearing anything back, I started to become discouraged. I kept thinking back to the summer of 2008 where I told myself that if I worked hard for those 3 months life would take care of itself after that. Funny how childish that sounds.

One month before graduation, I received the best email of my life. The University of Texas replied and offered me a summer internship. The coach there said he knew who the Director was at Wake Forest and that if I had done a great job there, I would do a great job with them. This was the first time in my career I experienced the power of a great recommendation. So, I decided to intern at Texas for the summer and play ball in the fall overseas. I would live off my graduation money and soak in a power five internship. Life was working out. I had done it. I was going to be a strength coach after all! 

Longhorn Lesson #2: Sacrifices come with the territory

“You aren’t Candace Parker, you know that right? Do you want to be a director by 27 or have to be an intern again at 27? It’s your choice. We can help you reach one of those but not both”.

Those words still sit with me to this day. I sat in Coach Maddens office as he laid out the cold hard truth. My heart was crushed with one dream but burning for another with his 5-minute conversation with me that July of 2009. He was right though. I needed to put my childhood behind me and start my adulthood. 

Within 24 hours I made a choice. I put the ball up and extended my summer internship to the whole year. I knew I had to get a side job to be able to afford to live in Austin and do the free internship with the Longhorns. The next conversation with him went like this “So you did a great job this summer. Anyone can be good for 2 months, but can you be good for 12 months?” In my head, I thought challenge accepted

The Citadel:

Bulldog Lesson #1: Grace is beautiful and setting multiple alarms is a MUST 

“11:30am, no way, how in the heck did I sleep until 11:30. Wait Candy you need to get up ASAP you have to be in by 12.”

These were the thoughts racing through my head as I felt the sun beaming on my face as I lay in bed. Sheer panic rushed through my body. How in the heck could I wake up every morning the past 3 months at 4:30 am and the one day my boss gives us until 12:00pm to be in I oversleep. 

“Coach D I am so sorry. I must have fallen asleep without setting an alarm.” Were the words I said as I sat across from The Citadel legend. He was a man with a personality the size of Texas. He would give you the shirt off his back but in exchange, he carried an extremely high standard for those around him. I knew I had disappointed him. He had given us the morning off, and I had dropped the ball. I said to myself “What am I going to do? This man is going to fire me. I have never been fired. Where would I go? The University of Texas had given me a great reference and now I have let them down.” 

Yes, folks, I was going into a complete spiral as Coach D sat across from me in complete silence. 

He slid a piece of paper over and said I need you to sign this. My heart stopped. I was thinking well this is it, I am done. I looked down at the sheet of paper and it had a box with a description of my first infraction on it. After I signed the paper stating that I agreed that I had been late he sat back in his chair and gave me what I call Coach D look and said “So this is going to happen. Every morning for the next 5 days you are going to arrive here an hour before groups. You will sweep and mop the floors. If you miss or are late any of these days, we will have to talk.” I just shook my head. 

As soon as we were dismissed from work that day, I drove straight to Wally World and bought two alarm clocks. That night I set my phone alarm for 2 different times and I sat the clocks in different areas in the room. No way was I going to mess up this second chance he gave me. Looking back on that situation it seemed so simple but the lesson I learned there was deep. I learned that grace is a beautiful thing, and the three-strike policy saves lives. Also, that a weight room floor being mopped every day is a killer back workout, and Pen and Paper Strength should add this in. 

Bulldog Lesson #2: Details matter 

Coach D handed us lifting templates and asked us to open a blank excel document. He then went on to tell us the following:

You will have two days to finish this project. You will be allowed three mistakes. If you have more than three mistakes you will get a new template and start over. Oh, and by the way you are not allowed to help each other or ask me any questions. Good luck!” 

“This is simply great! Why in the world did I not pay attention in my computer class in undergrad. I know we went over how to do formulas and all this fancy stuff Coach D wants us to do on here. How am I going to get this done in the next two days?” These were the thoughts racing through my head as I sat in the back GA office staring at my screen. 

Two days, tons of Dunkin Donuts coffee, one all-nighter, and a million tears later I had my template on Coach D’s desk. Within five minutes I was back at my desk with red all over the template. The anger and hopelessness I felt at that moment were abundant. He had given me a new template, told me the power lives in the details, and said to start over. Once again, I sat down and started what seemed like a hopeless project. Another two days, one all-nighter, tons of country music, and several inappropriate words later I placed my second template on Coach D’s desk. After only two red marks and a smile from Coach D, I had done it. You would have thought that I had won a gold medal at the Olympics. 

That project made me realize that you should always be resourceful, and YouTube is your best friend. Also, that the power of networking is huge. Coach D said we could not use any of our staff to help but he didn’t say I couldn’t call coaches from other schools to help me. It also showed me the power of being determined no matter how overwhelming the project or task is. Above anything, though it showed me that details matter and you should always have people in your corner to hold you accountable for them. 

So why am I telling you this? 

As I reflected on these stories, I shared with you, it made me think of a quote I heard at the Mullen High School graduation. Robert Brault said, “Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” This rings true to every story I shared with you. Each one of these experiences at the time seemed to be small but as I reflect 13 years later, I realize that each one of the lessons has affected the way I coached and mentored individuals.

During the years I shared with you above, I grew tremendously personally and professionally. I made several mistakes but learned from each one of them. I met several people throughout my journey that took a chance on a small-town girl from Kentucky. Without their grace and sternness, I would have never landed my first full-time job at Baylor. 

For all of those in our field remember those moments that you had as an intern. Remember them so it keeps your fire lit as you grow older and wiser in the field. Remember those moments for the sake of the young professionals that you are mentoring. Remember that as interns and graduate assistants we are supposed to mess up. The older coaches are then supposed to redirect those mistakes and help guide the new generation of coaches. 

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