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If You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going! (A Strength Coach Story)

Nate Harvey
Nov 14, 2017

When I was 14 I remember my dad telling me that there was a profession called "strength coaching."

He told me how people got jobs in athletic settings and had to help athletes get stronger and faster. At this point I had already been lifting for two years and I think he could tell I was hooked. This conversation basically set the wheels in motion that I was going to be a strength coach. And that was that. So when I hear people say they found a passion for the weight room in college, I have to laugh a little.

Fast forward a few years to my college days at SUNY Brockport. I was playing college football for Rocco Salomone and basically living my dream. Looking from the outside it’d be easy to say “it’s just DIII bro, relax” but this was my NFL. I had become even more obsessed about my training and the quest for the ultimate program. The one advantage of not having a designated strength coach was I had to research and experiment with everything. Going into my senior season I was trying to figure out how Mike Alstott was training because he was so big, explosive and still agile. I had to find out what he was doing. If you had talked to any of my teammates at the time they may have said there was a man crush there but we won’t get into that.

One day, I came across an article that mentioned that he used chains with his bench and squat movements. This led me to the internet and eventually to an article by Louie Simmons and then Dave Tate’s Periodization Bible Part II. If you haven’t read this you need to. All the concepts in the article made perfect sense to me and made my obsession with training even greater. I couldn’t consume enough info on the Conjugate training system. My suspicions of the method were confirmed through my senior season. I had never felt that explosive, strong and maybe most importantly not beat to hell all year. After the season I gave myself a week out of the weight room to rest then went in to test my bench and see where I was at. I was only 10 lbs. off my all-time best! Anyone of you who have gone through a season and come back in a week later to train know this struggle and how much of an achievement being within 10lbs of your best is. It’s HUGE!

So now I’m 21 years old and feel like I’ve found the secret formula to training but I really have nowhere to implement it. My obsession with coaching had only grown stronger throughout college. I had to get into the S&C field to put this thing to action. I landed an internship with an NFL team right after undergrad (2001) and thought that was going to be my ticket in. I remember going in to talk to the head guy for my first interview and seeing some bands on the wall. I asked him “oh cool you guys use bands in your training? I was just reading about how you can use accommodating resistance on bench and squat to make the athletes more explosive...” He kind of looked at me like I was crazy and said “Na, we don’t get that into it here, we just stretch with those…” This was my first inkling that not many people were onto the conjugate method and implementing it may be a little foreign to people.

I remembered reading another article from Dave that had talked about being new in the field and keeping your mouth shut until it was your program. So, that’s what I did. Filled water coolers, loaded plates; all the typical intern stuff. The weird thing was I thought there would be more teaching involved at this level. This was not the case here or any level; you have to take it upon yourself to learn. No one wants to hold your hand and make you learn. I know some coaches who do a great job at teaching their interns and preparing coaches but my point is YOU have to take responsibility for your acquirement of knowledge. Being in this situation was a good experience because it opened my eyes up to this fact.

The NFL internship didn’t lead anywhere immediately. I was eventually offered a very low paying part time job with that same team but I would have been required to relocate while my fiancée was finishing graduate school so I declined. I know my college advisor and everyone I knew thought I was crazy and probably a little disappointed in me but I’m a family first person. If I was going to make it in this business it wasn’t going to be at the expense of those that meant the most to me.

Now I was out of the field and back home in a verrry rural area. I had to drive a half hour if I wanted to go to a commercial gym. There was nothing around, including any jobs I wanted. I was also certified in Physical Education so I was substitute teaching and coaching high school football, which was an amazing experience but it wasn’t getting me where I needed to be.

The one thing I had going for me was my passion for training and expanding my knowledge in the field. All the information I needed I was able to find on I was on the site multiple times a day reading and absorbing training information from world class coaches and strength athletes and it was all free. Not only was I learning but many times being validated in my training philosophy which was huge because there was no one in my immediate circle who even cared about training. To have this resource at my disposal at the time was a major player in my eventual career path.

At some point you just gotta jump!

We picked up and moved to Buffalo, New York, bought our first house and I started pursuing my graduate degree in Exercise Physiology. I didn’t have a job lined up or even an exact plan of action. I just knew we had to get somewhere that I could have a chance to break into the field. Thankfully my wife was on board and helped me ‘burn our ships’ so I could peruse my dream. This was "do or die" time! I knew this was my last shot at this and this time there was A LOT riding on my success.

Surround yourself with great people.

I had applied for a GA spot in UB’s Sports Performance department during my application process for grad school but didn’t get it. I had known of Julia Ladewski and her role at UB from reading Elite over the past few years. Once I got settled into my classes and a part time job to help with Bills I reached out and thankfully she let me come in and do some observation. Sometimes if they aren’t going to pay you, you have to go for free. This may seem unfair but in this profession that’s how it works. I continued to help out in the department any way I could for a few more months.

For my final grad school internship I was set to intern at UB under Cheyenne Pietri and his staff. It looked like things were starting to fall into place. I had learned a ton, I was progressing through a typical path to coaching until I found out a week before I was supposed to start that Pietri was leaving. This was another great coach I had learned about from reading Elitefts so there was a slight amount of panic at this point. All I could do was roll with it though. A couple weeks later we found out Buddy Morris had taken the head job at UB! Whaaat!? Coach X from Elite was going to be my final internship supervisor! To say I was obsessed with Buddy’s coaching log on Elite over the couple years leading up to this point may be a small understatement. All the methods he wrote about made sense to me and lined up with my Conjugate background. They gave a great example of how the system was being implemented with high level professional athletes. One of the first things Buddy did was bring in Paul Childress to help with the strength portion of the team’s training. So after reading and studying the content on Elite for the past 6 plus years we now had 3 of their team members that I got to learn from and eventually develop friendships with. We also had Ryan Groneman (Groni) there who had Joe Kenn as his strength coach when he played at Boise State. Groni is the best hands on coach I’ve ever seen. His kids get it because he does. As you can see this little mid-major conference school had an absolute juggernaut of a strength staff.

From there, Buddy eventually hired me on and got my foot in the door. I spent the next 9 years at UB and worked my way up to Head Strength Coach of Olympic Sports. I’m not going to list all of our accomplishments here, if you want to read about it check out my coaches log on Elitefts. I say ‘OUR’ because they are really the accomplishments of the amazing kids I got to work with. We had some absolute killers come through our weight room who I would put up against anyone as far as work ethic is concerned.  Looking from the outside one might think I just walked into this great situation. I completely understand there are people that have a harder road than I did but you need to know these things don’t just happen. While I was in grad school I commonly put in 90 plus hour weeks between class, studying, volunteering, working part time jobs and training. I was usually on campus by 6 am and home somewhere after 10pm. Many times this meant training at 4am in my basement. I never missed a training session. Looking back I know I put my marriage in jeopardy with the time I was spending away from home, this wasn’t on purpose but I knew doing the things I was doing was the only way I was going to make it.  And like I said before, I had no other option at this point, plan B was gone.

Over my years at UB I dealt with a little resistance on the whole Conjugate training for athletes thing but I knew it was the right thing to do. After a couple years I had proof. After a few more years, I had MORE proof. I don’t say this in spite, my point is ALWAYS put your athletes first. I knew this was the best thing for them so I stuck with it whenever possible. I was living the dream, I had made it! You are going to have to compromise your philosophy at some point because as a strength coach you serve too many masters. You technically are under your department’s administrator, but in reality are under athletic trainers, head and assistant sport coaches for every sport you work with etc., you get my point. I didn’t realize how much trying to please all these outside influences was effecting me until I got away from it.  With all this outside influence you are going to have to compromise at some point. Just keep the kids first and you can know you did the right thing.

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The End of ‘The Dream’

My friend Todd Hamer has said before, 'at some point you will get fired." As much as I respect and admire Hamer for what he has done, anytime I saw him write this in my head I said ‘FK that sh$t Hamer, not me!’ Looking back there was writing on the wall that started when we had changeover in administration but I’m too loyal and optimistic to buy into this stuff while it’s happening. Or I would just explain things off to myself as results of other things going on.

I’m not going to go into details of how things were handled but the night before they told me I ended up calling my supervisor to question him on some things and my wife heard some of the phone call and we had a feeling things might not go well the next day. The next day at work my suspicions were confirmed. I was done. I did 95% of everything right. I got along with staff. I helped decrease injury. I worked long hours without complaining. I put my student-athletes first. We won…a lot. All the things you’re told coming up to do were taken care of and it didn’t matter. Sometimes even if you won’t admit it (you were right Hamer) things are out of your hands no matter how hard you work at it.

Worst text, EVER

On my way home that day I got a text from my wife. I never text and drive because I know I’m too uncoordinated to do both, but today was an exception. As soon as I saw it was from her my heart dropped. I opened it and she texted “I hope you’re doing better today, I’m thinking about you." I don’t know who the asshole is that stuffed chopped onions under my seat but someday I will find him and it won’t be pretty! The only thing I could think of was how I dragged her up to Buffalo, bought a house we could barely afford, risked everything and blew it. Most strength coaches live paycheck to paycheck. I let my family down chasing my own selfish dream. Now, of course they didn’t see it this way because they are awesome but this is the dark shit that will go through your head. Just like Hamer said, you will get fired. It will be terrible.

Take a couple days... regroup. Do your best not to panic, this is easier said than done. Here’s what I did and I think it was extremely valuable. We were starting a deck on our house at the time, financed by the way. So that afternoon I drank some of my special brew pre-workout coffee, cranked some Hatebreed and worked myself to exhaustion the entire weekend while the kids hung around outside with me. I didn’t have time to think about the mess I was in because I had to focus on not cutting my fingers off or smashing them with a hammer. The only thing I stopped for was to eat, drink more coffee and write down ideas that came into my head on how to move forward. I didn’t start taking action on anything until the next week. I had at least 4 pages of notes and ideas. This whole process let me step out of the situation and have a plan of action when I came back in. When you do get back in, go like hell. Don’t dwell on the past. Stay focused on your plan and execute everything you wrote down. Even if you're not sure exactly where you’re going, the momentum you get from acting on your plan will lead to new ideas and give you more momentum. This is when things will start to fall into place. You will get distracted, people will tell you your ideas won’t work and you will even tell yourself the ideas won’t work; don’t think just act. When the resistance increases, push harder.

Elitefts Sponsorship and the Underground Strength Session

A few months prior to my departure I had achieved another long time goal of becoming a sponsored Coach with Elitefts. I had contacted Dave with a business question in January and by February they brought me on board. I was traveling to Columbus to attend their Sports Performance Summit so I got to visit the compound for the first time while I was in town. There are a few pieces to the puzzle that made my coaching career possible, the knowledge I gained from Elitefts is in the top 5. It was kind of strange to actually physically be in this place that I had gotten so much from and had such a huge influence on me as a coach. It was a bit overwhelming but at the same time I knew I was in the right place. Once again, I had found more of my people!

Fast forward to May and they announced they were holding an Underground Strength Session. These are events they hold for team members to come to town and train and exchange ideas. It’s like corporate team building events but for meatheads, instead of stupid role playing activities we get to destroy some weights, eat and talk. It’s the perfect getaway for a strength coach. I knew coming to this event would help me immensely because there would be so many great minds there not only from a training perspective but from a business perspective as well. I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do at this point and was starting to think about some private sector and business ideas, etc. I had to get there. I took a ton of great info and ideas home from that weekend.

Literally on my way out to my car to leave Matt Goodwin, Director of sales pulls in and asks “hey, we may have a spot opening up here, would you be interested?” Not sure Matt realizes how close he was to being kissed that day but I’m sure he would have kept his mouth shut if he did. After almost 20 years of following and supporting this company and what they stand for and gaining so much from them, I’m now onboard and able to give back to them and do for other people what they did for me. This is my Jason Newsted moment!  Click here if you didn’t get that reference.

If you’re going through hell, keep going!

I guess my whole point of this article is great things do happen and it may not seem like it at the time.  What you think is your ‘dream’ situation very well may not be, you’re just too distracted to realize it. Had this opportunity been presented to me while coaching I would have jumped at it in a second. You will need some help along the way, I mentioned a couple things but there are many more. Surround yourself with great people not for selfish reasons but to help you better serve others. If I hadn’t sought the knowledge I did, I would have been worthless to my athletes. If you are an aspiring or current strength coach, things will get real bad at some point. The key is to keep pushing and keep moving in a positive direction, even if you’re aren’t 100% sure of what that direction is, just keep the momentum moving forward. I will leave you with this…any great thing that has happened in my life, personal or professional usually comes right at the point I think I’m about to break. If you think the catapult is about to snap, keep working and you’ll get shot into something you never dreamed of soon enough!

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