So You Want to Train Tactical Athletes: Becoming a TSAC Facilitator

by Anthony M. Soika, MS, CSCS,*D, TSAC-F,*D
May 2013

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This career series article focuses on the calling of the tactical strength and conditioning facilitator. It touches on the drive, commitment, and dedication necessary to work with tactical populations.

Beginning the Journey

To embark on a career training athletes is to step in quicksand. If you enter this field for the right reasons, it will become a part of your self-identity that you can never shed. I am not talking about a fun job that you get addicted to; I am talking about a transformation of who you are as a person.

Making a Difference

One of the unique and rewarding aspects about a career in strength and conditioning is that every part of the job is done with a purpose. A young student choosing to major in marketing might find the concept of branding or advertising to be interesting or well-paying, but I suspect they seldom pursue it with aspirations of changing lives. When you train an athlete to succeed, you do more than improve their strength or speed; you improve them. 

Years ago, as the owner of a sports performance clinic, I had a family bring me their daughter, let’s call her Sue. Just 11 years old, she was 4’ 9” and 168 pounds. Her parents wanted me to make her a better softball catcher. A little digging revealed that during 5th grade, Sue struggled with running the mile in gym class. During the fall semester, she completed the mile run in 32 minutes. Given that the average adult can walk a mile in 15 or 16 minutes, one can imagine the comments aimed her direction 15 minutes after the slowest of her peers had finished. 

I accepted Sue into our program, but made it clear that the first step in her journey was going to be improving her overall fitness. By the end of the first summer, she was able to run three miles at an 8:28 pace. When her class ran the mile in gym the following fall, she was the first female finisher. When they ran it again in the spring, she was first overall. By 7th grade, her days of being bullied were behind her and by 9th grade she was 5’ 5” and 125 pounds and a varsity starter. In 11th grade, she was being recruited to play college softball and was often found correcting football players who were squatting incorrectly in the weight room at school. Sue had gone from being the “fat kid” in school to the definition of a winner.

To extrapolate that to the tactical setting: beyond merely changing a person’s outlook on life, those of us who deal with the tactical population have a very tangible and far-reaching effect.

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In the case of an infantryman, not only is his success or failure going to affect his life, but the lives of those with whom he serves. His failure could mean death, and his death could mean mission failure, which could affect his entire country. Lastly, there is the national government’s investment—tens of thousands of dollars or more—in training and equipment to consider. The effects of training a firefighter, police officer, or member of the Border Patrol are no less significant.

Is It For Me?

Breaking into the field of strength and conditioning can be a challenge, but it is far from impossible. To gain a foothold in the industry it takes commitment; and if your goal is to be truly great, that commitment had better border on the religious. My first job as a Division I strength coach required a Master’s degree and paid $20,500—less than I made as a young enlisted man in the army four years earlier.

This is not to say that you cannot make a good living training athletes. The Tactical Strength and Conditioning (TSAC) setting in particular has a broad range of jobs and income possibilities. I have met firefighters who are little more than fitness buffs and volunteer to oversee the physical training in their firehouse. Conversely, no matter what your specific job at any point in time, active duty military personnel are paid according to their rank and years of service.
 
If you are committed to working with tactical athletes, there is a position for you somewhere. Civilian contractor positions exist if you want to instruct in the U.S. Army’s Master Fitness Trainer course. Special Operations Command has positions all over the country. Police and sheriff offices are beginning to have dedicated personnel who oversee physical training.

If you are intrigued by the notion of training athletes for a living because you think there will be wealth and fame, tell me this: who was the strength and conditioning coach of last year’s Super Bowl champion? How about the strength coach who trained the 5th Special Forces Group? Or, the elite FBI Counter Terrorism task force? Well, so much for fame. 

Are you intrigued by the money? That Super Bowl champion strength coach makes an income comparable to an army colonel – and it probably took him as long to get where he is as it does to become a colonel.

Years ago when I left active duty the first time to return to college, I became friends with a guy down the hall in my dorm, we will call him Steve. Steve was an 18-year-old freshman and I was a 25-year-old junior. We happened to both be Exercise Science majors. Four years later, I was the strength coach at a university in Florida and Steve came down to intern for me. He was a gifted coach, especially when it came to running mechanics, where he could draw from his years of experience on a national champion track team.

I offered to call Tom Moffitt at Louisiana State University or Terry Jones at the University of Alabama and try to get him a quality grad assistantship that would catapult him to success, but he was not interested. In his words, anyone with a degree had a right to expect $30,000 a year so a job like mine did not appeal to him. By this time, he was 23 and I was 30 so I tried to mentor him a bit. I asked why he selected his major and what his goal was. He had no goal and he majored in Adult Fitness because he enjoyed working out.

He hit the job market and within six months was selling cars at a Hyundai dealership. After a few months of that, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve as a Physical Therapy Assistant and got a job as an aide at a physical therapy clinic making $9 an hour. Working 40 hours per week over a full year minus two weeks of vacation is about 2,000 hours. You do the math: he was out of college a year and a half and making $18,000 per year doing a job that neither excited nor challenged him. By this point, he could have been completing his graduate assistantship and his Master’s degree and likely had a line on an entry-level coaching position in the Southeastern Conference. Instead, he was doing laundry at a physical therapy clinic. The moral of the story? Have a plan and do not be too proud to start at the bottom. 

Why I Did It

My interest in training athletes began like many coaches: those who can, do; those who can’t, coach. I couldn’t, so I coached. I was not gifted enough to make it to professional hockey so I decided that if I could not be an athlete, perhaps I could train them. This clarity of direction did not come to me the day I walked onto the University of Minnesota campus, so do not be frustrated if it takes you time to find your niche. I began college as a Pre-Law major, switched to Exercise Science, then to Russian, and finally back to Exercise Science. 

Mind you, I began college in 1987 during the height of the Cold War when everyone thought the next conflict would be between the East and West. I began college thinking that if I could not make it to the National Hockey League (NHL), I would serve in the military, so Russian seemed like as good a major as any. The reality is that you are who you are, and I was all about sports. The fact that I was not very big or very good lent itself to me becoming all about finding ways to get better. Thus, a strength coach was born.

Years later in the military, I recall marveling at the antiquated fitness test that required doing full sit-ups. In 1989, any college freshman could tell you that sit-ups were bad for your back, but the army was still doing them. I promised myself that if I ever got to a point where I had some rank and influence, I would try to change the Army Physical Training Test. When I got my officer’s commission in 2006, one of the goals I set was exactly that. 

I wanted to make a difference. Today at 43, I’ve done tens of thousands of sit-ups in my career and in 2013 I’ve missed at least five days of work in my career due to back trouble that the doctor blames directly on excessively tight hip flexors. Roughly $1,100 of your taxes has been wasted paying me while I was too hurt to go to work. The army needs someone who understands the science behind human performance as well as he understands soldiering. Many people know one or the other. Many people are in the army and “really into working out.” However, it is not the same. The army needs strength and conditioning professionals. I wanted to help bring about that change.

Training tactical athletes, whether soldiers, firefighters, etc., is just like training a team to win the Super Bowl, except there is more at stake.

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That, and only that, was my reason for becoming involved with the TSAC program a few years ago. 

What Is The Way Forward?

I am fully aware that you did not begin reading this to hear about the life and times of Tony Soika. You want guidance in how to break into and become successful at training tactical athletes. My first piece of guidance is “don’t be Steve.” Do not fall into the trap of feeling entitled just because you have a college degree. I read an article recently that said a Bachelor’s degree has become the new high school diploma. A significant portion of the population has them. When you apply for a job, everyone else applying for that job almost certainly has a degree as well. The question therefore is not “are you qualified?” If you were not, you would not have gotten the interview. The question is, “what sets you apart?” 

The number-one thing separating candidates is experience. If there is one pattern that I have seen on résumés over the years it is this: many students have the part-time job at a health club, and that is fine; but then when it is their senior year and they need an internship, they do not challenge themselves. They just use their gig at the health club as an internship. Their supervisor signs off on their form and they head off toward graduation and the future beyond. 
When I read that résumé, it might as well say, “takes the easy way out when faced with a challenge,” or “doesn’t like to leave his comfort zone.” Sure, it is cheaper to stay in your current apartment. It is intimidating to move across the state or country for an internship with Special Operations Command, or Las Vegas Narcotics, or the Chicago Bears. But nobody ever died from being intimidated. The person who commits fully in an effort to learn can come and work for me any day. I can teach and mold that person. They will listen. They will try. This person is the professional equivalent of the athlete who leaves it all on the field. Be this person!

It has been said that it is not what you know, it is about who you know. Finding a job through a strong reference is less about being connected per se and more about your skill and character being vouched for by someone skilled enough to know a good hire from a potential problem. Imagine this: you are in charge of strength and conditioning for the 5th Special Forces Group and you have several résumés on your desk, all vying for an open position. If you have never personally met any of them, the logical thing to do is to mitigate the risk of hiring an incompetent employee by listening to the recommendation of someone accomplished in the industry.

Still, being connected by itself should not—and normally will not—gain you a position. So, what will gain you a position? As we said, a college degree is a start, but it is only that, a start.

Certifications

The gold standard in certifications for those who aspire to train athletes has always been the NSCA’s Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®). The specialty certification for those who work with tactical athletes is the Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator™ (TSAC-F™). A certification by itself does not mean you are an expert; but just like a college degree, it means you have a foundation of knowledge.

Experience Is Key

Experience comes in two forms, and they are both important. The first being how deeply engaged you have been in strength and conditioning programming, especially for the population with which you hope to work. The second, less required than helpful, is whether you have ever been a part of that population. Simply put: if you want to be hired to train firefighters, it helps if you have been a trainer and it helps if you have been a firefighter. When pursuing experience as an aspiring coach, you have multiple avenues. Not every practicum or internship is advertised. Like I said, those of us who have been at this for a while want to see go-getters. Do not be afraid to cold-call an organization asking to volunteer. Everyone can use free help so aim high, find a good mentor, and learn all you can. 

When I first began attending NSCA conferences, I made every effort to get to know the more experienced coaches who spoke. Over time, friendships were built and at future conferences, it was just two colleagues talking shop over dinner. The moral of the story: learn and learn, and do not ever stop learning. NSCA Membership can provide the opportunities to learn and attend these industry-specific events to help with your professional development.

Summary

There are great careers out there to be had for those willing to work hard. This industry requires a commitment on par with that of the people you hope to train. If you have a knack for science and you are the caring sort of person who thrives on seeing the junior varsity kid make varsity, this field might be perfect for you. 

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Anthony M. Soika, MS, CSCS,*D, TSAC-F,*D

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Captain Tony Soika has a unique background in both the military and strength and conditioning settings. He is currently in his second tour as a compan...

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