Per USA Today, the highest paid collegiate strength and conditioning coach in the country is currently pulling in $675,000 before incentives and bonuses. You may dream of that big payday, or you are happy with where you’re at now, but there’s no denying that that high-paid job would be nice.
For the rest of us either as young coaches or seasoned vets, that massive salary is not a reality. It’s also not why we got into this profession. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t work just as hard. Days of waking up at 4:30 A.M., being on the floor all day and getting home no earlier than 8 P.M. six to seven days a week are the norm. We do this because the large majority of us love what we do. Whether that’s because we get a chance to be in a weight room all day and throw weights around or we love the process of improving others’ lives and their performance endeavors - it’s an extremely gratifying profession.
As someone who has been a full-time salaried strength coach at the high school level, to an unpaid intern who moved across the country to chase a dream, and currently a part-time paid graduate student who also is a full-time strength coach, I have experienced that spectrum of salaries that are too well known in the strength and conditioning industry. Each job has had its own unique challenges and opportunities. Hopefully my story about the varying salaries I have experienced and how I found a balance between work and quality of life helps you do the same.
I had it made. I got my dream job as soon as I finished my undergraduate work. I was able to go back to my hometown and work for my high school alma mater. I was making a full-time salary with benefits and I got all holidays off. I was 23, single and didn’t have many other responsibilities besides doing my laundry and overseeing the athletic development for an entire high school. If it sounds great, it was. But something was missing.
I knew I could hang onto that job for the rest my career if I wanted to. I could continue to work, eventually retire, and be comfortable doing something I loved. That’s where the issue lies. I knew at that time I didn’t want to be comfortable. This was the time in my life when I knew I could sacrifice the joys of making a good amount of money and having an unusual great quality of life for something that would challenge me and force me out of my comfort zone.
The decision to pack up and move halfway across the country to be an intern at a major university was not an easy one, but my goal was to expand my career and learn as much as I possibly could. I gave up the riches for an unpaid internship working 12 to 15 hours a day. I had completed several internships before as a undergrad, but nothing compared to this. After the first two weeks I had calluses on my knees as a result of the cleaning we were doing - I absolutely loved it. I found a great amount of satisfaction in the hard work and the accumulation of knowledge I was quickly gathering on a daily basis. However, working for nothing wasn’t sustainable, especially in the Silicon Valley, so I needed to find something that could pay the bills.
My next and most recent adventure took me back to another alma mater, this time at the university I did my undergrad at. This opportunity was a chance to continue to do what I love, work full-time, get my masters degree in education, and be a part of a great program. I would be paid a part-time stipend as a graduate assistant, but it really didn’t matter to me as I saw this as an opportunity to have 100% focus on the team, the job, and my studies. Outside expenses other than getting bills paid doesn’t have its place yet, and that’s okay by me.
For me, I still have it made. I tell this story with the understanding that no one career path is the same, especially in the strength and conditioning industry. But every opportunity and every experience is what you make it. I know I will want to have a family one day. I know I’m going want to spend every non-working second with them. When I’m ready for that, my goals will change, and the job I look for will align with those goals. Until then every opportunity is what I make it.
So what’s most important? Is it chasing a big time dream job in hopes of one day making that six-figure salary, but sacrificing being able to coach your kid’s little league team or being able to attend that happy hour with your friends? Or is it finding a school or organization that isn’t as demanding, doesn’t pay as much, but allows for more free time doing the things you enjoy? That’s a personal question you’re going to have to answer for yourself, but it all starts with having a clearly stated goal as to what it is you want out of a career in strength and conditioning. If I have learned one thing in my short career as a coach, it's that every opportunity is what you make it. I have found happiness and quality of life in every situation regardless of what I was being paid, I just had to look for it.