Collegiate strength and conditioning is a profession with far more applicants than there are positions; therefore, you must discover ways of making yourself stand out from the competition. Make no mistake; landing a job in the collegiate setting is a definite competition. So, how do you set yourself apart from your peers? I am going to detail some necessary steps in order to exceed the standards and be prepared to progress within the collegiate strength and conditioning setting.
Before I go into the professional preparation aspects of succeeding as a Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach (CSCC), I feel an obligation to discuss the personal traits and abilities that are coveted within the CSCC field. These include the ability to communicate (verbal and written, to an individual or group), attention to detail, a high level of initiative, and above all else… integrity.
The ability to convey a clear and concise message while communicating, both verbally and in writing, is imperative to succeed in this profession. Successful communication is not only important to coaching student-athletes, but integral in working with coaches, sports medicine professionals, administrators, and the media. Many of these previously mentioned groups require a different style and tone of communication. Developing your ability and confidence to speak to individuals and large groups will enhance your ability to coach, interview, land a job, and progress within the field. Universities are going to hire those that can represent them well in the public eye, and communication plays a big role in this. Speaking is a skill that requires dedicated practice.
Attention to detail is the ability to accomplish tasks completely and accurately, no matter how big or small. Keep in mind, no part of being a CSCC is insignificant. Those with such ability clearly demonstrate their value to current and prospective employers. To harness this ability, it should encompass your entire life, not just your time in the weight room.
Initiative is the capacity to energetically assess and initiate projects independently. Employers desire individuals that are self-motivated. Earning a reputation, and having documentation of such, will go a long way in separating yourself from other applicants. Supervisors want people that can and will go beyond the job requirements.
Integrity refers to possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles and/or professional standards. It can also be defined as “honesty.” Experience and knowledge can be gained over time by those with the desire, but integrity is who we are. Maintaining one’s integrity requires constant vigilance, but only requires a momentary lapse in judgment to be lost.
I will tie these traits into the professional aspects of strength and conditioning in the following section.
Attaining the proper education is not only the first step, but also paramount for the CSCC. The proper education consists of an undergraduate degree in an exercise science-related field. Such a degree is imperative because it forms the foundation of knowledge that underpins the profession. An exercise science-related degree affords the capability to practice an evidence-based approach to strength and conditioning. What exactly is “evidence-based”? According to published research, evidence-based refers to “a systematic approach to the training of athletes and clients based on the current best evidence from peer-reviewed research and professional reasoning” (1). In other words, your programs and methodology agree with the literature.
Just receiving such a degree is not enough; you should endeavor to excel within the program. Just scraping by will not demonstrate that you have a solid understanding of the principles necessary to be a successful practitioner, nor does it act as evidence of a high level of attention to detail and initiative. Also, academic success as an undergraduate is necessary and can be measured by your grade point average (GPA). Your GPA should be over 3.0 to be considered for acceptance into most graduate degree programs. Attaining a graduate assistant position is often necessary in order to progress to a full-time job as a CSCC.
A graduate degree in an exercise science or related field in order to progress within the profession is becoming increasingly more common. Many assistant CSCC job advertisements state, “Master’s degree preferred.” Although preferred for the assistant CSCC, it is more often than not, mandatory for a head CSCC position. Pursuing and earning such a degree would be in the best interest of professional preparation and a sign of initiative.
In addition to earning both an undergraduate and graduate degree, is the need for further education in strength and conditioning related areas. This further education will often be on your own time and under your own initiative. Professional certifications, courses, workshops, symposia, conferences, and personal study all fall under this heading. Many of the world’s brightest minds and most successful strength and conditioning coaches present at these courses, workshops, symposia, and conferences. Attending these events can help provide an excellent learning opportunity to help bridge the gap between theory and practice. Conferences also afford the individual the occasion to meet and speak to these respected professionals. Take advantage of any chance to network. The more people you know—and more importantly the more people that know you—the greater your opportunities within the field.
Personal study is an often-overlooked area. This area refers to activities like reading relevant literature and books, site visits, practicing program planning and design, and becoming proficient in executing the various exercises and movements you will be prescribing. The journey of discovery only begins with our formal education. You must continue to investigate and learn if you wish to remain relevant.
National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) Membership: Membership in related professional organization is very important to your professional development. Benefits of being a member of the NSCA include access to current research and practical application that covers a variety of important subjects that will assist you in continuing your education. Membership publication benefits include, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Strength and Conditioning Journal, NSCA Coach, Personal Training Quarterly, TSAC Report, NSCA’s Basics of Strength and Conditioning Manual, and a variety of online educational materials. As a member, you can also receive discounts on NSCA events and certification exam registration.
NSCA Certification: Certifications are another great way to improve your education and demonstrate proof of your commitment to your development in this field. Some certifications, like the NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®) require many hours of study to prepare to take and obtain this certification. This intensive study will afford you a better understanding of the principles and methodologies that form the foundation of the strength and conditioning profession. A majority of full-time jobs, along with many internships and graduate assistantships, now prefer, if not require, at least one certification in order to be considered for the job. Certifications are another way to prove your attention to detail and initiative.
Practical, hands-on experience is a requirement for the strength and conditioning profession and is vital to your success and longevity in the field. This experience includes executing and coaching the various exercises and routines that are implemented within the profession, leadership, along with familiarity of weight room management, and working within a collegiate athletic department. These areas are the foundation of being a CSCC. First, you must not only be able to demonstrate the movements and routines you will be coaching, but you must be a “technician” of them. Becoming proficient will require years of dedicated practice. Seeking out the help of experts will greatly enhance your chances of mastering these exercises. Your proficiency is a direct representation of your attention to detail and initiative.
Coaching: Coaching prescribed movements and routines is another area that will require years of focused commitment. In order to become adept at coaching, you must place yourself in a coaching situation with successful veteran strength and conditioning coaches. Observation and practice will enhance not only your ability and confidence to teach technique, but your ability to recognize and correct mistakes. The time you commit to practicing this is directly correlated to how quickly and efficiently you learn. Remember, when coaching a group of collegiate athletes, they consider you the subject matter expert; do not let them down. Teaching many of these exercises, especially the weightlifting movements like cleans, snatches, and jerks, is not something you can talk them through. You must be able to demonstrate the movement correctly, explain it, and then coach them through the movement. Being a “technician” in regard to all aspects of coaching greatly increases your chances of progressing within the profession.
Leadership: Leadership refers to influencing others to accomplish an objective and directing an organization in such a way that it operates in a more coherent and cohesive fashion. Your ability to communicate effectively and your integrity will contribute greatly to your leadership potential. In order to realize this potential you will need hands-on experience in leadership situations.
Weight room management: Weight room management refers to organizing the room, staff, and schedule in such a way to as to ensure the most efficient use of time and resources. This is another area that will require time and practice to become proficient. The most specific experience to becoming a CSCC will come from the collegiate setting.
Internships: Internships provide an excellent means of introducing a young, aspiring strength and conditioning coach to the field. During an internship, you will get the opportunity to work alongside veteran strength and conditioning coaches and observe how they coach technique, manage the floor and athletes, write their programs, and display leadership. Just participating in an internship is not enough to ensure your progression within this profession; you must exceed the minimum requirements by maximizing your time and volunteering whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. You will receive a great deal of education as part of the curriculum of most internships, but do not rely solely on this; seek out additional opportunities to learn. In addition, by enhancing your coaching ability, it displays your enthusiasm and initiative for strength and conditioning. As mentioned previously, your time carrying out the duties of a CSCC is directly correlated to how quickly and efficiently you learn.
Excelling in an internship is a great way of establishing a reputation as a good strength and conditioning coach. Impressing your supervisors not only provides great references, but can open up job opportunities as well. A successful internship is often correlated to your contribution to the strength and conditioning staff, or better yet, their perception of your contribution. In order to contribute, you are going to need to have an obvious desire to work and learn. The skills and traits that strength and conditioning coaches are looking for from their interns is the ability and confidence to demonstrate and teach exercise technique properly, the ability and confidence to communicate to individuals and groups, a keen attention to detail, and an untiring level of initiative.
Often, if you wait until the opportunity arrives before learning how to carry out the requirements it is already too late. You must constantly prepare for the demands of this profession.
It is time to pursue a graduate assistant position once a successful internship, an undergraduate degree, NSCA Membership, and a CSCS® certification are all completed. These positions are very competitive. The criteria applicants are assessed on include grades, communication, experience, and references. I mentioned the importance of grades previously not only to qualify for graduate school, but as evidence of an attention to detail and initiative. Your communication will be assessed during the interview process, specifically your ability to clearly articulate yourself. Experience will focus around internships and volunteer work related to collegiate strength and conditioning for the most part. Your references will be very important to verifying your experience, qualifications, and traits.
Finally, always do your best. You must leave a positive impression with your current employers. Prospective employers will contact them, how will they describe you?
Contributing to the Profession
Contributing to the profession is a great way of demonstrating your value to potential employers. Publishing articles and presenting at conferences are a couple of great ways to contribute. Peer-reviewed publications are the obvious “gold standard” when it comes to articles, but there are other ways that can strengthen your résumé and communication skills. These include trade journals, websites, and newsletters. Writing is definitely a skill that requires dedicated practice. In addition to practicing, one should seek the help of professionals who are proficient at writing.
Presenting on strength and conditioning-related topics is another great way to exhibit your communication skills and knowledge within the field. It also demonstrates your confidence. Standing on a podium and presenting your thoughts, programs, and understanding of the science to sport coaches, scientists, your peers, and even student-athletes is a serious undertaking that requires much practice to become proficient and comfortable. Public speaking is another good way of getting your name out there, along with further separating yourself from your competition by exhibiting your initiative.
When applying for jobs, follow the instructions exactly; they were created for a reason. The application process is your first opportunity to demonstrate your ability to follow instructions. Your inability to do so will most likely result in you being eliminated from the applicant pool.
Besides following the instructions, make sure you meet the minimum qualifications. For example, do not confuse “required” with “preferred.” With regard to qualifications, make sure your résumé is up to date and accurate. Your résumé is your first opportunity to demonstrate your experience and your integrity. There is no “grey area” here, you either did what you listed or you did not. Make sure to list everything you have done, and be honest about it. Remember, people will hire those they believe they can trust.
Your cover letter is of great importance. This letter is a simple summation of who you are and why you are the right choice—not a regurgitation of your résumé. This is an opportunity to demonstrate your communication skills, so a high level of attention to detail is imperative. It is advisable to seek help and guidance with preparing this letter. Mistakes will often lead to being eliminated from the applicant pool. Common mistakes include listing the wrong institutions or addresses, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors.
When you reach the interview stage, there are two formats you may encounter: the phone interview and the on-site interview. The phone interview requires you to demonstrate highly developed verbal communication. The on-site interview requires this as well, but in addition you will have a face-to-face meeting with your potential employers. It is crucial that you appear and conduct yourself as the professional you wish others to recognize you as, because first impressions are a reality. Thus, dressing for success is highly advisable. What does this mean? At a minimum, it means semi-formal attire (e.g., collared shirt, slacks, dress, skirt, etc.). Formal attire (e.g., suit and tie) is preferred. You must convey the image that you are a professional. Arriving in a t-shirt and thread-barren shorts does not convey such an image. Remember, first impressions are paramount to success.
Not only should you appear to be a professional, you must conduct yourself as one. During the interview, speak clearly and concisely; do not rush your answers, think before you speak. Try to offer specific answers rather than hypothetical responses. In other words, tell them what you have done rather than what you would do.
The interview process is also a chance to interview the interviewer(s) and show your interest in working there. Make sure to ask questions. Research the school, athletic department, and strength and conditioning team. Most school websites will have a great deal of information available. Be prepared to answer such questions as, “what do you like most about our university/athletic department,” “what can you tell me about our strength and conditioning philosophy,” and “why do you want to work here?” Your responses will demonstrate to your interviewer(s) your level of interest for this position.
Once full-time employment is attained, the journey is far from over. You must continue to hone your craft following many, if not all, of the principles and ideas mentioned in this article. The value of NSCA membership cannot be overstated, as this can provide access to networking opportunities, further education, and numerous events to expand your professional development. Never stop looking for ways to improve your abilities, your department, or your profession. Strive to leave a trail of success and positive impressions wherever you go.