by Allen R. Hedrick, MA, CSCS,*D, RSCC*E, FNSCA
Career Series September 2016
Although it may sound like a cliché, I am honored to be asked by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) to author on article on how to build a successful long-term career as a strength and conditioning coach. The NSCA has played such a significant role throughout my career, from breaking into the field and continuing on to where I am in my career today.
My career began 25 years ago as a graduate assistant strength and conditioning coach at Fresno State University while I was pursuing a Master’s degree in Exercise Science. Fittingly enough, I learned of the opening at Fresno State via the NSCA. How I ended up at Fresno State is a story in itself. I had applied and been accepted for graduate school at Brigham Young University (BYU). However, the head strength and conditioning coach there at the time, Chuck Stiggens, could not guarantee me a position right away in the strength and conditioning program.
Literally, just a few weeks before we were set to move to Provo, UT to attend BYU, a graduate assistant position at Fresno State University was advertised on the NSCA website. Since I am from California and because my wife has relatives in the Fresno area, it made sense to apply for the position. After interviewing with Roberto Parker, who was the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach there at the time, I was offered the position and ended up spending three years at Fresno State where I achieved my Master’s degree and built experience working in the strength and conditioning program.
This leads me directly into my first bit of advice. I do not know how many times in my career someone who has just earned an undergraduate degree has contacted me asking about how to break into the field. My first bit of advice is that you have to continue on with your education and acquire a graduate degree in a related field (e.g., exercise science, kinesiology, strength and conditioning, etc.). As I share with those who have reached out to me, the profession is far too competitive; in most cases you might not be seriously considered for an entry level strength and conditioning coaching position without a graduate degree.
As I explain to them, if an assistant strength coach position opened up at Colorado State University-Pueblo (where I am currently employed) I would likely receive at least 40 applications. Of those 40, well over half of those applying would have earned a Master’s degree. The first thing I am going to do with those 40 applications is to put them into two piles, those who have earned a graduate degree and those who have not. Those who have not achieved a graduate degree are no longer in consideration for the position.
I made the decision to acquire my graduate degree from Fresno State, rather than to attend BYU where I had been accepted, for one reason: I believed that gaining the experience right away in the strength and conditioning program at Fresno State was more important than the added prestige of graduating from BYU. By that I mean that, on a national level, graduating from BYU is likely to be more impressive to most people than graduating from Fresno State. However, for those people who were going to be reviewing my résumé and making a decision to hire me or someone else, I believed they would be more impressed with the fact that I had gained experience working in a collegiate strength and conditioning program and less concerned with what school’s name happened to be on my diploma.
That brings me to my second bit of advice. You need to earn a Master’s degree and you need to gain experience working in a strength and conditioning facility while you are earning that degree. The ideal situation is when you can be selected to fill a graduate assistantship position and be compensated for working in the strength and conditioning program while earning your graduate degree, like what I was able to do at Fresno State. However, the reality is that there are a limited number of those positions available. As a result, you may have to volunteer your time working in the strength and conditioning program. Initially you may not be filling any bigger responsibilities than cleaning the facility. However, if you are persistent, work hard, and continue to show up, oftentimes your position will grow into something more meaningful. Do whatever you have to do to begin building your résumé with practical experience in a strength and conditioning facility.
Why is gaining this practical experience so important? To go back to the example of the 40 applicants applying for that open position, I eliminated a portion of those by weeding out applicants who had not yet earned a Master’s degree. Why hire someone with only an undergraduate degree when I can hire someone with a Master’s degree? Scanning through those applicants left under consideration, the next thing I am going to look for is those who have practical experience working in a strength and conditioning facility. Why hire someone with a graduate degree with no experience, when I can hire someone with a graduate degree who actually has working experience? For me that is an easy choice.
I now have a pile of applicants left who have a graduate degree and practical experience. Out of the 40 applicants I originally started with, I have eliminated those who do not have Master’s degree or practical experience. My pile of qualified applicants is getting into a more manageable number to review, but I still have one more criteria to eliminate additional applicants from consideration. I will next look at the applicants left who have a graduate degree, practical experience, and have earned the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®) certification through the NSCA. Why hire someone with a graduate degree and practice experience but who is not certified when I have several applicants who meet all of the criteria I am looking for? Having that certification further separates those who I will consider for the position and those who are no longer in the running.
Of those candidates remaining, I will contact their references to hear from those who actually know and have interacted with the candidate. Of greatest interest to me will be to speak to the person who supervised them during their practical experience setting. I will want to hear about their coaching experiences, how they interacted with their athletes, their level of expertise, and the amount of responsibility displayed. This means that during your practical experience you need to make an excellent impression on your supervisor(s) because they are going to be the final determining factor as to if I decide to interview you for the position or not. If I get a good review of you from them and you meet all the previously discussed criteria, then more than likely I am going to at least take the time to call you and speak to you directly.
Up to this point, we have talked about how to get your foot in the door as a strength and conditioning coach and the criteria I will evaluate in the hiring process. Now we will assume you have your foot in the door and you have been hired for your first position as a strength and conditioning coach. Congratulations, but now the emphasis shifts from getting the job to keeping the job. As I mentioned early in this article, this is a competitive profession, with lots of qualified individuals who are ready, willing, and qualified to take your job. Just because you have the job does not automatically mean you are going to keep the job. One of my responsibilities as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach is to provide my athletes with the best possible staff.
As a result, you have a responsibility to the coaches and athletes you work with to continue to improve as a strength and conditioning coach. One of the things that I like most about the profession is that new information (especially from scientifically based peer-reviewed journals) is constantly being published. There are conferences and clinics held on a regular basis where highly qualified strength and conditioning coaches, exercise physiologists, and others related to the field discuss a variety of topics related to strength and conditioning.
I have said this for a long time now, if I ever believe I have developed the perfect program, or that there is no room for improvement, that is a clear sign that it is time for me to retire. I have been working in the strength and conditioning profession for 25 years and I constantly adjust the programs I provide to my athletes each year. For example, I recently read an article discussing intraset rest periods during a hypertrophy cycle. The information in the article made sense to me; I called one of the authors and spoke to him further about the article, and then implemented the intraset rest periods within the hypertrophy cycle that I provide to my football athletes. Based on the success I have had with these adjustments within the football program I will integrate the intraset rest periods into the hypertrophy cycles of the other teams I work with in the coming months. You can always improve the quality of the program you provide to your athletes year after year.
In regard to conferences, if you talk to coaches who regularly attend conferences, they will tell you some of the best learning opportunities occur not just in the formal presentations but in interacting with other strength and conditioning coaches between sessions in less formal settings. Most strength and conditioning coaches are always willing to share information with others in the field, if not in person then over the phone of via email. Just remember, in these situations you have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Another big benefit of interacting with strength and conditioning coaches in these settings is that oftentimes, when applying for a job, it is not just what you know but who you know. Think of it this way, if out of the 40 applicants I originally started with I am able to reduce that number down to 10 using my previously mentioned criteria. Out of those 10, I remember having had a long conversation with one of them during lunch at the last conference I attended, that individual is likely to have the upper hand in being the one selected to fill the position.
One technique that I have used effectively for many years to improve myself as a strength and conditioning coach is to determine an area that I want to learn more about. Then I will research information related to that topic and publish an article discussing that subject. I enjoy researching an area of interest and then writing an article based on the information provided in the research. For me, it is a good learning tool and publishing is a good way to promote yourself. I can honestly say many of the experiences I have had as a strength and conditioning coach (i.e., speaking internationally, serving on the NSCA Board of Directors, and being named the NSCA Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year) are directly or indirectly related to the publishing I have done throughout my career.
Speaking at conferences or clinics can serve the same purpose for you. Determine a subject matter you would like to speak on. Perform the necessary research to be able to make a presentation that provides valid, up-to-date information. This way you better your own knowledge base on the chosen subject and share that information with others in the profession, which is really what the NSCA is all about. And, of course, speaking at a conference or clinic is another great way to promote yourself. You never know, there may be someone in the crowd listening to you who may be the key to you getting that next opportunity.
I can say in all honesty that for me there is not another profession I would choose over being a strength and conditioning coach. I enjoy helping my athletes improve their athletic performance and I enjoy working with the coaches and athletes towards attaining a common goal. Perhaps even more important, this career path allows the opportunity to improve self discipline, work ethic, and the ability to work together with teammates and coaches. All of those attributes will be of value to them in both their personal and professional lives.