One of my favorite quotes that is making its way around the strength and Conditioning field recently is “make the big time where you’re at.”
I believe it's extremely important for small school strength coaches, who often work with limited staff, resources, and time, to embody this mentality in order to grow as a coach and department.
As a small school strength coach, it's easy to get frustrated when you look at the top programs in the country that have state-of-the-art facilities, full staffs, training tables, and everything else you could possibly imagine to provide to their athletes. At William Jewell College, a small NCAA Division II institution, my staff and I aim to provide our athletes a “big time” strength and conditioning experience, despite having limited staff, resources, and time with our athletes.
In this article I'll discuss common hurdles that small school strength coaches likely face, and more importantly, offer some ideas on how to do more with less and make the big time where you’re at.
In my opinion, one of the worst things you can do as a coach is to have a poverty mindset and use your situation as an excuse for not meeting expectations and growing as a coach and department. Coaches with a poverty mindset often look at others in “better situations” and say things like “it must be nice” and “I could do that too if I had the staff/resources/facility/etc”. This mindset fuels negative behavior and limits your development as a coach and ultimately, your athletes.
Instead, approach every limitation as a chance to think creatively and be a problem solver, not an excuse maker. A leader I like to follow for personal development is Jocko Willink, a former Navy Seal, author of Extreme Ownership, and host of the Jocko Podcast. He encourages leaders to respond to problems or limitations with one word, “Good.” Have a small staff? Good—that's a great opportunity to work on coaching large groups. Don’t have money to buy new equipment? Good— that's a chance to be creative with the equipment I do have. Only have 30 minutes to train your team? Good— that's a great reminder to keep it simple and master the basics.
The mindset you bring to work every day will largely determine the growth of yourself as a coach, your department, and your athletes.
For my first 18 months at William Jewell College I was the only strength and conditioning coach on staff, and I was in charge of 20 teams and over 400 athletes. To address this problem, I focused on educating our sport coaches and administration on why a strength and conditioning graduate assistant position would be a valuable asset to the athletic department. Most of those conversations centered around how an additional certified strength coach will improve our student-athletes’ safety and training experience, not about how it will take work off of my plate.
When talking to administration and coaches it is important to clearly communicate the problem, bring solutions to the table, and be open to compromise.
If you do not have solutions and all you do is complain, you run the risk of looking like you are not cut out for the job. Lastly, you need to write a professional proposal to present to your administration. This proposal should clearly outline the problem and your ideas for a solution in a professional manner that shows you are more than a meathead strength coach. I am fortunate enough to have supportive coaches and administrators who accepted my proposal and allowed me to hire our first graduate assistant position in August 2017.
Another way to grow your staff is to create an internship program and look for volunteers in your community. Utilize your exercise science or physical education department to look for students who are interested in strength and conditioning or related fields and show them the value of working with and learning from you. At William Jewell College we do not have an exercise science program, but we always keep our eyes open for athletes that are interested in the field. We are lucky enough to have five interns this semester who have progressed from simply cleaning equipment to helping run groups. Lastly, reach out to the private sector gyms in your area. Many of those coaches are working part-time and would love to get the extra experience on their resume.
When working with limited equipment or space it is important to consider the versatility of your current equipment or equipment you are considering purchasing. If you are operating on a limited budget, do not purchase equipment that offers limited exercise potential. Our equipment at William Jewell College consists of the basics: racks, barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls, and a variety of bands. Possibly the most versatile equipment you can have in your facility are jump stretch bands.
I'm a huge promoter of jump stretch bands because they are cost-effective, come in a variety of resistances, have zero footprint, and have limitless exercise potential. One example on how we use our jump stretch bands is our band belt squat exercise, which has the athlete squat with four bands looped around a belt and anchored to a heavy dumbbell on the floor. The bands allow our athletes to perform this great exercise without the price and footprint of a Pit Shark or other belt squat machine. We do not have anything fancy, however, our equipment is versatile and allows us to program numerous exercise variations that keep our athletes progressing and engaged in training.
Limited time to train athletes is another challenge often found in a small school setting. At William Jewell College, we have to schedule our training sessions around the athletes’ class schedules and practice times, therefore, a lot of our training is condensed into blocks from 5:30-8:00am and 3:00-5:00pm.
Our challenge as a strength staff is to maximize training for each athlete, while at the same time get as many teams through the weight room as possible. To excel under time restraints, you need to be organized and have standard procedures that your staff and athletes can execute efficiently. Some things to consider when programming workouts include equipment set-up logistics, time spent using particular equipment, workout flow from one team to the next, and what you can coach and administer safely and effectively.
Another way you can maximize your time is to utilize technology to help with data management, reporting, and other time-consuming tasks. We made the switch from Excel to TeamBuildr in January 2018 and have already saved a substantial amount of time due to the data collection and reporting features it offers. We also use technology to connect with our athletes, monitor their recovery, and get their feedback on how we can make their experience better, all in a time-efficient manner.
Working at a small school provides many challenges for a strength coach, especially in regard to limited staff, resources, and time with your athletes. The best coaches do not use those challenges as an excuse, but rather an opportunity to be creative and grow as a coach. Besides, to borrow from Brett Bartholomew’s book Conscious Coaching, nobody else wakes up in the morning worrying about your problems. Find ways to do more with less, overcome your limitations, and make the big time where you’re at.
Bartholomew, Brett. (2017). Conscious Coaching: The Art and Science of Building Buy-In. Omaha, NE: Brett Bartholomew.
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