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.
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.Tweet this quote
Training tactical athletes, whether soldiers, firefighters, etc., is just like training a team to win the Super Bowl, except there is more at stake.Tweet this quote
That, and only that, was my reason for becoming involved with the TSAC program a few years ago.
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.
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 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.
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.