Views From the Driver’s Seat: What I’ve Learned as a 24-Year-Old Head Strength Coach

Becoming a head strength & conditioning coach at the college level at 24 years old is a rare opportunity.

Becoming a head strength coach with the opportunity to build your own program pretty much from scratch is even more rare. Once the warm and fuzzy feeling wears off from seeing your name on the office door Monday morning, the real responsibilities start crashing down on you like a bad PR attempt. Suddenly, that comfy leather chair you’ve been daydreaming about since you were an intern scrubbing dumbbells at 5 a.m. starts to feel a little hot. The phone starts ringing, programs need writing, e-mails need answering. Oh, and you have a department meeting in 10 minutes. Did I mention that you’re now in charge of 20 sports as a “one man show?” Every day I go to work I am faced with new challenges, fires to put out and opportunities to attack from the moment I walk through the doors which, as we all know, can be hours before the sun comes up. I am beyond thankful for this opportunity and I would like to share with other young strength coaches what I have found to be the 8 most important lessons I am learning in this crash-course in leadership.

1. Establish Standards

Whether you are an intern or a head coach you should know without hesitation what your program standards are. By standards, I don’t mean goals. Goals are where we want to be. Standards are what we do on a daily basis. These are the non-negotiable pillars of your program that have your personality (and now your brand) written all over them. When I stepped into the head strength coach role, I immediately began working on establishing my standards. I held a meeting with each team prior to their first training session where we discussed standards of our program.  The athletes and coaches knew from day one what was expected of them. What I mean by this is if you want a group to start behind the line, then you must voice that clearly from the start and not back down from it. If you expect shirts tucked in, then you better have the same reaction whether it is the starting QB or the freshman long snapper who shows up untucked.  One point of caution I would highlight is be careful what standards you choose. If you lock yourself into a million rules and expectations, you handcuff yourself in moments when flexibility may be necessary. Keep it simple and keep it consistent. Your athletes should know, come hell or high water, this is who we are.

2. Find Your Voice

This was something I struggled with when I first began coaching. While I was interning for Todd Hamer at Robert Morris University, I heard the expression “your coaching personality is the larger than life version of your normal personality”. This stuck with me for more than one reason. First, you don’t always have to be the hype man. I repeat, you don’t always have to be the hype man. I think sometimes young coaches (myself included) can confuse being loud with coaching. Make sure your athletes understand what is being asked of them and give them the opportunity to ask questions. This often means repeating something 3 or 4 times just to be sure it’s perfectly clear to the athletes. Can I go “0-100” and get the room “lit” as I hear from my athletes on a daily basis? Yes, absolutely I can, but I also pride myself on being able to reach as many athletes as possible on their level. To me, finding your voice is really about finding your identity as a coach. There is nothing wrong with bringing the juice, I enjoy cranking the music and letting it rip just as much as any other coach in our field, but it is more important to be an effective communicator and an educator.

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3. Manage Expectations

Now before anyone gets upset about the heading of this section, I do not mean be anything less than the best coach you can be. What I do mean is be aware of your environment. This includes budget, staffing, athletes, coaches, scheduling, etc. I know when I took this position, a million ideas were running through my head. I wanted a nutrition area that athletes could visit after they had checked in, got their HRV and body comp readings, completed their 15-station dynamic warm-up and movement prep routine, and perfectly executed their individualized velocity based training program. The reality of the situation is much different when you have 20 teams, five racks, no staff, no budget, and athletes with little to no real training experience. The realities of your situation should shape your philosophy to an extent. This ties back to your relationship with coaches, administration, etc. Don’t promise the world to your coaches and administration on day one. Come in, get your athletes stronger, and grow at a sustainable pace. This is the best approach to avoid falling into the emotional roller coaster of the difficulties that come with building a program and coaching in general. For me, this meant implementing programs with movements that I was extremely confident teaching and coaching and worked well in a team setting to avoid wasted time during sessions. I went directly to our exercise science department and started looking for interns, but I also screened those interns heavily before I made my hires. Budgeting is still up in the air, but with the little money I do currently receive I am sure to buy things that will be used EVERY DAY. Would I love to buy 3 tendos, pit sharks, and some GPS technology? Absolutely, but that isn’t in the best interest of anyone right now. Manage your expectations and under promise so that you can exceed others’ expectations of you when you overdeliver.

4. Plan, Don’t Script

At a school that has never had a strength coach, squeezing one more thing into the packed-schedules of sport coaches wasn’t exactly high on their priority list. This means I am faced with situations where the script has to get thrown out the window. I’m sure all of us have these times, but I think as a young strength coach they can be even more pivotal in our development. When a coach flips the script on you and says you have 20 minutes to do a “hard but not too intense blood pusher workout” (whatever that even is), are you going to have an answer? I have found that even when I am initially programming, I am always doing it with plan B in mind. This applies to exercise selection (if you only have 1 reverse-hyper and 2 plyo boxes like me) and SAQ layout –  I plan for the masses as Coach Zach Houghton preaches religiously. Be prepared to get the text (if you’re lucky) 15 minutes before a session that says “hey coach, we’re going to cancel lifting tonight”. These are all realities of being a new strength coach and serve as learning moments for me every time they happen. Plan your day, but don’t live and die by the sheet.

5. Speak the Language

As strength coaches, we must maintain a commanding demeanor and that’s great…when you’re dealing with a room full of athletes. Abraham Maslow said, “To a man who has only a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail.” I think he wrote this specifically for strength coaches without even knowing it. I learned this lesson the hard way in my first administration meeting. I came in jacked up and ready to walk out with a blank check for whatever needs I had. Spoiler alert: I got nothing but a reality check and some confused looks from administrators. It’s important to be able to clearly communicate on the level of your audience and use buzz words and language that resonate with them. When you’re meeting with administrators, talk dollars and safety. Again, I think this is where being a young head strength coach is a double-edged sword. I have no problem relating to the athletes, but relating to coaches and administrators who are old enough to be my parents? That can be a little more challenging. If I can interact professionally with them in their space and use their language, I can earn respect and ultimately have a better shot at getting what I want. The best ways I’ve found to do this are to be overprepared (bring numbers, figures, and be prepared for questions), show up to practices/games (TIME is the highest valued currency), listen to their concerns (you’ll learn what’s important to them very quickly) and always have a notebook and pen when you go to meetings. These things sound like common sense, but you would be surprised how far active listening and deliberate language can take you in getting what you want.

6. Listen, Lean and Learn

As young coaches, our biggest assets are the veterans of the iron game. I talk to my mentors at least twice a week to pick their brains. Ask the questions! I’ll gladly admit I texted one of my mentors yesterday just to ask what brand of med balls they use because ours are breaking. They are your mentors and friends for a reason and if you don’t have one, get one. They are your lifeline, and you can’t be afraid to use them. Surround yourself with people who make you better both in our industry and outside of it. If you don’t already, listen to every podcast or video you see posted by the leaders of our industry…they are usually where they are for a reason. After you listen or watch the videos, look for recommendations on what they listen to or read and here’s the kicker…actually read it!

7. Develop an Appetite

One of the biggest things I’ve learned in my short time as a head strength coach is how much I don’t know. I’m not only talking about training, I’m talking about budgeting, planning, organization, individual sports, and everyone’s favorite…paperwork.  The only way to fill those gaps is to develop an appetite for knowledge. Take it in anywhere you can, and seek out the answers to your questions. Google is your best friend. I’m not embarrassed to say I’ve googled everything from budget sheet templates to the rules of field hockey. Your education needs to be comprehensive and well-rounded. As a young coach, it’s easy to fall into the habit of reading all the new strength and conditioning related books that come out. Here’s the reality of it. If you’re a young strength coach and you can explain every in and out of tri-phasic training, but can’t speak to a room of athletes about leadership, overcoming adversity, or even give advice on budgeting your money, you’re only getting half of the equation. It’s great to know the science; it’s vital to know the science, but it’s also important to recognize and accept that coaching happens on the floor with 18-22-year-olds who are looking for guidance in life whether they admit it or not. With that in mind, read things that make you a better person, a better leader, and ultimately you will become a better coach.

8. “Bloody Knuckles, Calloused Hands, and a Fire in your Heart” – Ken Mannie

If you entered this field for any reason other than to help your student-athletes become the best version of themselves, I’d politely ask you to stop wasting our athletes’ time. Head down to the nearest commercial gym, and become a personal trainer for Joe Schmoe who wants to “tone up” for his old frat brother’s wedding by “working out” once a week for three months. In our field, we don’t have time or room for “I” guys. We are blessed to have the best career in the world and the least we can do is give back to the best of our abilities. At the end of the day, you have to be willing to fight for what you want, work relentlessly until you’re able to get it, and enjoy every minute of along the way. Empty the tank daily for your athletes and they will meet you halfway. I keep a note on my computer that reminds me to “Leave Empty” every day.

Conclusion

I will be the first to tell you I am blessed to have the opportunities (not challenges) I have in my current role. I am not, however, naïve enough to think I know even close to enough to stop learning and growing. As I build this department, I will continue to grow as a person, a leader, and as a coach. As the future of our profession, young strength coaches have a responsibility to take advantage of the resources available to us. From books and podcasts to clinics and webinars, the amount of knowledge that is out there for us is at an all-time high and laziness is not an excuse for ignorance. I would urge young strength coaches like myself not to wait until the opportunity arises to start getting ready because you never know when it will come. I hope sharing these quick lessons that I’ve learned in my young career will help other young coaches along the way. At the end of the day, we must invest in ourselves and everyone we encounter, take responsibility for our entire domain, and improve daily. Until next time….Coach Kitch.

Coach David Kitchen is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Twitter and friend him on Facebook.

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