3 Steps to Advancing Your Career as a Strength Coach

Each year at the large coaching conferences put on by the NSCA and CSCCa many coaches speak on the topic of progressing a career through the S&C industry. Beginning as an intern you mop floors, wipe down equipment, clean up chalk, refill protein shake coolers, and wash sweaty towels. If you are lucky, you get to actually do some hands on coaching within the first six months of interning.

After completion of one or several internships some of us were fortunate enough to be awarded a graduate assistantship (GA). This is the point in your career where you work entirely too many hours, go to school full time, live almost entirely off of peanuts and Muscle Milks as your main source of sustenance, and yet somehow learn to fall in love with the strength coach lifestyle. As a GA you develop new techniques, become a more proficient educator, and learn an unruly amount of knowledge that it is nearly impossible to find an open piece of paper or sticky note without a random training technique or exercise progression on it.

Once becoming a GA, perhaps you will find an opportunity to be hired as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach. Gaining that first full-time assistant position is key to continue linearly in the field. You will have finally “made it” as a full time strength and conditioning coach in college. However, months or years down the road figuring out where to go from there is the puzzling next step many of us have encountered.

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I began working at Northwestern State University in March 2016. We have a staff our four (two full time, two GA’s) and a weight room that can hold, roughly, thirty athletes at one time. Many people would label this university a stepping stone. With insignificant funds for new equipment and no budget for continuing education we are challenged with a few obstacles to overcome in regards to growing our department, as well as continuing my own development as a young professional. The following are a few tips and tricks that I have used to market our department, and to help our industry grow as a whole:

Step 1: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You

This goes without saying, but if you want to become a top tier strength coach, you have to put in the work with your athletes by being present through their entire athletic development. Being at a lower level program shouldn’t reflect a lower level of work. If you are not at the “big time” then make it “big time” where you are at.  Bust your butt and develop your athletes to fulfill their personal potential as athletes, students, and people. Going to extreme lengths to ensure that your athletes become the best person they can be will not go unnoticed.

Step 2: People Need to Know Your Name

Multiple times in my life I have attempted to sell myself to people. When I was a high school athlete looking for a college track and field program to be a part of I emailed every single coach I could think of. I did the same thing when I was a strength and conditioning intern when I was in search of a program to GA for. Prior to my appointment to my current position I did absolutely everything within my power and budget to get my name out to as many strength and conditioning coaches as I could. I drove to conferences several states away to meet coaches if only for a brief second, visited nearly every college program in my region, and connected with every coach I could find on all the major social media platforms to open up a form of dialogue with them. It is not enough to simply apply to jobs and ask your references to call the person in charge of the hiring process. You as a young professional, you have to be willing to get your hands a little dirty and put in the work to make sure people are going to recognize the name on the top of your resume after reading through dozens if not hundreds of other applicants.

Step 3: Make Sure You Do Not Fall Behind the Curve

As many of us know the industry is a forever an evolving entity. If you still go into your offseason thinking you can run a simple 5×5 squat, bench, and clean program you may need to crack open a book and get up to speed. As much as my wife gets mad every time a new book shows up on our doorstep I continue to buy everything I think will help me get to the next level in my coaching career. Education is the key to continue linear growth as a professional. If you are an intern looking for a GA you should know how to write an effective program and control a room full of athletes. As you progress from GA to assistant you need to get more in-depth with your knowledge base. This doesn’t entail that you have to run a program based purely off of results from Catapult or that you need to go out and drop excessive amounts of money on Tendo units for VBT. What it truly means is being able to open up the proper dialogue with your sports coach where you can explain every variable of their athletes training that will produce the greatest benefits on the field, which will in turn create a trusting and cohesive relationship. The step from assistant coach to head coach is one I have not yet taken.

From what I have observed in my career the head coach deals more and more with managerial duties. Some departments have heads that don’t even coach anymore. I’ve seen programs where head coaches’ main duties are to manage the coaches who work the floor while they deal with fundraising, budget, scheduling, and a whole host of other responsibilities. As an assistant you worry about your facility and how you can work to improve it. To gain firsthand experience with budgeting, financing, and fundraising you should work with your head coach to better understand how they work within their managerial role that will better prepare you for the day that you are in that same role.

Going to a clinic or conference can do wonders for your continuing education and build your professional network. I highly recommend that you save up and go to one of the larger ones each year or hit two to three of the smaller state level clinics. You’ve got to spend money to make money, and in this industry the spending tends to all happen at the beginning when your only form of monetary compensation are Nike Dri-Fit shirts and possibly enough food to fend off starvation.

Bonus Step: Do Something That Isn’t Strength Coaching Related

Part of continually growing in this industry includes not getting burnt out. When you have the opportunity to get away from the office and spend time with your family or hang out with your friends, DO IT!

While a majority of your career is asking “how high?” when someone tells you to jump, it is imperative to fulfill your needs so that you can perform properly as a coach as well.

At some point in your career 60-80 hour work weeks will become routine for you and your family. It happens and we all deal with it, but it doesn’t need to be a reality for the entirety of your career. If you have competent interns, GA’s and assistants, then take a Friday off and go on a weekend trip with your family. Currently I work a lot from home in my down time because my wife and I had our first child and I want to see her and make sure she knows who her daddy is. This freedom will not always be the case and I know many coaches don’t have this luxury, but I will be taking advantage of it as long as I can.

Professional development doesn’t stop when you reach the next step in your career. Some people say it’s part of “the grind”, but I don’t like to refer to my job as “the grind.” That term implies something negative that you have to get through. We get to do the best job in the world on a day to day basis and really influence the lives of every person that we encounter.

Take your job seriously. Be so good they can’t ignore you. Strive to better your craft day in and day out. Last, but not least, turn off coach mode when you leave the office and enjoy some time with the people you surround yourself with.

— This is a guest blog from Zack Nielsen, Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning, Northwestern State University. Nielsen is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is a Level 1 USA Weightlifting coach.

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2 Comments

  1. Carnadi Ford October 28, 2016 at 11:40 am #

    Now, what if you are a volunteer strength coach that has enjoyed it so much that now you are looking to change careers? Is this even possible as a full time dad and engineer, volunteer strength coach, head freshman football coach, and part time competitive power-lifter? LOL I have a lot on my plate, but lifting and teaching others about lifting is my passion. I would love an opportunity to change professions from an engineer to a full time strength coach.

  2. John Conti November 2, 2016 at 9:53 am #

    Great write-up Zack! As an assistant strength and conditioning coach at a small D1 school, I could not agree more with every point you made. I tell all of my athletes and students to “be undeniable”!

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