by Eric McMahon, MEd, CSCS, RSCC*D and Jeoffrey Dean Diaz Aggabao, MS, CSCS
NSCA Coach February 2023
Learn about a unique path into strength and conditioning from J. Aggabao, the Associate Athletic Director of Sports Performance at Santa Clara Univers...
Learn about a unique path into strength and conditioning from J. Aggabao, the Associate Athletic Director of Sports Performance at Santa Clara University (SCU). Aggabao shares insights on coaching pathways and hiring, with NSCA Coaching and Sport Science Program Manager, Eric McMahon, that includes service in the United States Navy, working in the National Football League (NFL), and progressing into a department leadership role at SCU. From networking in the strength and conditioning field to beyond the campus and athletic communities, this episode speaks to various career stages, from aspiring strength and conditioning coaches seeking their first jobs, to experienced professionals aiming to become effective leaders. Reach out to Coach Aggabao on Instagram: @j.aggabao, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org | Find Eric on Instagram: @ericmcmahoncscs or Twitter: @ericmcmahoncscs
Learn about a unique path into strength and conditioning from J. Aggabao, the Associate Athletic Director of Sports Performance at Santa Clara University (SCU). Aggabao shares insights on coaching pathways and hiring, with NSCA Coaching and Sport Science Program Manager, Eric McMahon, that includes service in the United States Navy, working in the National Football League (NFL), and progressing into a department leadership role at SCU. From networking in the strength and conditioning field to beyond the campus and athletic communities, this episode speaks to various career stages, from aspiring strength and conditioning coaches seeking their first jobs, to experienced professionals aiming to become effective leaders.
Reach out to Coach Aggabao on Instagram: @j.aggabao, or by email at email@example.com | Find Eric on Instagram: @ericmcmahoncscs or Twitter: @ericmcmahoncscs
“The big thing with that, for me, is that in the long run, when they start going to other positions, one, they have the title, and they have a salary benchmark that they are going to be able to use as they negotiate or try to progress in their career.” 5:25
“In talking to tactical strength coaches these days, I mean, just the vast knowledge that they bring to the table and are able to present to our service members is where the value lies.” 13:55
“Be the best version of yourself wherever you're at in your current situation. People will notice, people will remember, because once again, we're in the athletic world. Coaches will move on, but if you make an impression, they're going to remember that.” 19:20
“Now I've shifted my goals to perhaps becoming an executive member of an athletic department, or becoming an AD one day. And so those are the things that now, as I progress in my career, I'm trying to take those steps.” 25:05
[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:00:04.33] Welcome to the NSCA Coaching Podcast, season 6, episode 19.
[00:00:10.30] Being the best version of yourself wherever you're at in your current situation, people will notice, people will remember. Because once again, we're in the athletic world, coaches will move on. But if you make an impression, they're going to remember that.
[00:00:26.59] This is the NSCA's Coaching Podcast, where we talk to strength and conditioning coaches about what you really need to know, but probably didn't learn in school. There's strength and conditioning, and then there's everything else.
[00:00:37.52] Welcome to the NSCA Coaching Podcast, I'm Eric McMahon. Today we're joined by J. Aggabao, the associate athletic director for sport performance at Santa Clara University. J, welcome.
[00:00:49.72] Thanks for having me. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.
[00:00:53.64] Man, we connect quite a bit. You reach out from time to time when you're trying to make the most of your staff there at Santa Clara. I've learned a lot about your program and excited to dig into your background today. I want to kick things off, tell us about your role at Santa Clara, that associate AD job title is really elevated for this profession, and how'd you get into that role?
[00:01:18.55] So getting into the role, that was actually an interesting one. I first heard about the role on Instagram. Let's see, it was the fall of 2020, in November, flying to a funeral, sitting in Salt Lake browsing through IG. And I saw that there was a job posting for an associate AD position. And you don't see those every day, so that automatically piqued my interest, and I started texting and calling around to see if this was actually a thing. Come to find out, the job was wide open, people were interviewing for it. Got my name in the mix, and one thing led to the other.
[00:01:58.09] Currently, in my role, the big synopsis of it is that I oversee the sports performance for all of our student athletes here, some 450 plus student athletes. We do not have football, so our two biggest sports, considered our A tier are men's basketball and women's soccer, women's soccer having been one of the most successful programs in our schools history, won the National title I think in 2021, and then made it back to the Final Four perennial contenders in the NCAA tournament.
[00:02:33.56] Basically, in my role, I have to oversee and put together a staff to service the needs of all of our student athletes, and then really coordinate with our senior associate AD of health, wellness, and performance, working with athletic trainers, sports medicine, other departments around campus, operations, you name it. Just really trying to, as our AD says, give our students the best holistic student athlete experience available to them.
[00:03:03.54] And so the biggest thing for me has been building the staff since I got here. I think that was my first big challenge. And now that we are, what I would consider, fully staffed, now it's trying to figure out how we can continue to build and make additions as we go along the way.
[00:03:21.04] So you are right in Silicon Valley. That is a high rent district, that's an expensive part of the country, and strength and conditioning salaries haven't always been on that level. Is that a challenge for you, in a hiring position, to find strength coaches to come out there and be part of your program? How have you dealt with that?
[00:03:44.21] I think, historically, it would have been a challenge. When I first got here, as associate AD, the staff consisted of a director of sports performance, an assistant director, and two part-time positions. What we've been able to do, as there have been changes to the staff, is elevate those positions. And so my staff now consist of two assistant AD positions, I have Brianna Kanz, working with women's soccer, and Allison Papenfuss, working with men's basketball. Those two positions were elevated from assistant director and director to both assistant AD titles. With that comes, obviously, the monetary increase for compensation.
[00:04:28.32] Then we were able to bring in and still maintain a director of sports performance, elevated the pay there as well. And then, really, Santa Clara helped out with the assistant director, that is our lowest paid position. And the University has stuck to the rules that have come out. And according to our University, the lowest paid you can be for a full time coach is $62,000. Now, granted, that is not a lot for Silicon Valley, but in looking at some of our competitors in the area, I've seen coaches getting paid high 30s, low 40s, mid 50s, and these are people that have been coaching even longer.
[00:05:09.18] So for me, it's really about trying to look at the comparables, once again, in our area, but then also trying to elevate financially these positions. So our two assistant ADs, granted, once again, in the big scheme of things, they are not making a ton of money. They're making six figures, but they're making six figures in Silicon Valley. So that is, I'd argue, a survivable salary. And the big thing with that, for me, is that in the long run, when they start going to other positions, one, they have the title, and they have a salary benchmark that they are going to be able to use as they negotiate or try to progress in their career.
[00:05:48.05] The biggest thing, for me, is trying to take care of everyone on our staff. Obviously we can't all pay them the same amount, but doing the best we can and really having the support of our administration. When I said I looked around at some of our other competitors in the area, I was actually just talking about it the other day, their head Olympic strength coach, I believe has an assistant AD title, is making north of $150, and when I look through the roster of their staff, the next highest paid person is making $62. And, to me, that's a shame. And I'm not putting that on the head strength coach, but I'm putting that on the administration, the organization, how is there such a salary disparity between your staff members? And, to me, that's kind of where the challenges lie.
[00:06:36.55] And I think we've done a good job, the Athletic Director, Renee Baumgardner, has been very supportive of what we're doing here and trying to build our program up. We're very fortunate that she had extensive experience at Oregon, and saw how they built up and valued sports performance. And she worked closely with Jimmy Radcliffe when she was actually a sports coach. So she sees the value in sports performance and mental health. Our sports psychologist and athletic trainer, she sees the value in everything that we do for the student athlete experience. So she's been very supportive in getting us to the funding for these positions.
[00:07:16.89] You clearly pay attention to the environment you're in, just based on how you answered that question. And it is unique, in that I know when we've talked about this, salary comes up a lot around this profession. We're always talking about how we can better ourselves. You do see different job titles, you talked about that elevated job title status allowing for higher pay in a part of the country where it's needed. I think we all that's a huge gap.
[00:07:54.89] One thing that jumped out when you were talking about Santa Clara that is a powerhouse in women's soccer. How is that different from a culture and environment you have experience working in the NFL? And a lot of college programs thrive on football, and this is a more broad athletic experience coming from your department at Santa Clara.
[00:08:18.96] Yeah, I think it's been unique. Just historically speaking, and maybe some other people of the profession can prove me wrong, but when football is at the school, they are, realistically, the alpha. That's where the money goes, that's where the money comes from. And so they have, for lack of a better term, free reign, or they get preferential treatment. Here, it's pretty cool that the best team on campus is a women's sport. This has historically been the best team.
[00:08:52.96] Jerry Smith, who's been here, I believe, for 35 plus years, the head coach, has been to the tournament, I think, 30 plus times, sweet 16, multiple. He's just very successful and has built a great culture. And because he sees the value of all the other teams supporting his sport, bringing out the crowds, the student athletes, the professors, the students, you name it, bringing everybody out, he also really does make a concerted effort to support all the other programs on campus.
[00:09:26.39] And I think that's been, for me, a really good lesson to collaborate and work with others. In the University setting, I'm not just working with the athletic department, now I am serving on the Staff Senate as a member for an interim period. I don't think I could see myself doing this full time. But working with others on campus, and that's something I learned from him, just seeing how he's worked with everybody else to truly elevate the experience for everyone.
[00:09:57.59] Yeah, I think that's really interesting. We talk about these elevated roles, strength coaches moving into AD type positions, how does that integrate with the rest of the University? I went to a D3 liberal arts institution, and so I think that mentality comes through at those types of schools more often than maybe at the Division I level, but speaking to the value of strength coaches and leadership roles, there's a whole University out there, other professionals you can connect with that can spread positive light on your program. And so I think it does speak volumes. And I do think it's really cool diving into the women's soccer versus football comparison. Obviously, a huge culture difference, but it really does shape that University.
[00:10:50.45] Let's go back to the beginning a little bit more. I see you are a veteran of the Navy and you're from Guam, and that led you down a path towards strength and conditioning. Tell us that story.
[00:11:03.37] So I first moved to the US in '97, I was in high school. After September 11, I believe I was a freshman in college at the time, I decided that I wanted to serve our great country, and I signed up for the US Navy. When I joined and went to boot camp, I weighed 122 pounds dripping wet.
[00:11:29.53] Over the course of my five year career-- really, when I first went on deployment, that's where I got into the strength and conditioning, lifting, doing the head things when you're on deployment and don't have a lot of time-- or sorry, I mean don't have a lot of other things to do, but you have a lot of time. So training, lifting weights, going down that rabbit hole. And I put on size, felt the value in training.
[00:11:55.94] And when I got out, I went back to school. At first, I thought I wanted to become a sports agent. I don't know why, but I started down the sports management route. I realized that just wasn't for me. I moved over to the kinesiology department, and actually started out as an athletic training student. During that time, I had to take a weightlifting class or strength and conditioning class under David Lang, rest in peace. He used to be the director of strength and conditioning at Washington State University. And fell in love with the weight room, started volunteering there, was able to work with a football team, volleyball, baseball, you name it. Typical intern duties. And just went down that rabbit hole.
[00:12:38.57] From there, I progressed to try to find a GA position, but the reality, and I think a lot of other young strength coaches are finding this challenging in this day and age as well is, there aren't a whole lot of graduate assistant positions for the number of applicants out there. So my very first year, I had no opportunities and actually stayed at WSU as a paid intern. The following year, I was able to move on in my career and went to Illinois State under Jim Lathrop. Interned there, and that's how I started getting my career going.
[00:13:12.22] No, that's cool. I think it's interesting, we hear a lot about tactical strength and conditioning on this podcast when we're talking to folks working in the military or in public safety. And occasionally, we do run into coaches that are working in sport that served. Do you have any insight or thought on things you just wish were a little bit better on the strength and conditioning side when you served? And maybe we're already making that headway today, but just to go back on your experience, where do you where could you have seen benefit from strength and conditioning in the military?
[00:13:50.81] Well I think the education piece is the biggest part. In talking to tactical strength coaches these days, I mean, just the vast knowledge that they bring to the table and are able to present to our service members is where the value lies. I mentioned, starting to train while I was in the military, I didn't know what I was doing. You bench, you squat, you pull some program off of YouTube, but that's the reality. Or you listen to an older, more experienced sailor, in my case, but there was no real education.
[00:14:20.83] And so I think these days, having seen the quality of the programming and the quality of the coaches that are available to our service members, that's what was missing. As the field continues to progress, I think that will definitely help elevate the service members' experience, and lower those injury rates that are so prevalent.
[00:14:44.28] So want to get into programming and training a little bit and things you're seeing in the field. What are some of the current trends and topics that you're paying attention to that you think other coaches should dial in and learn a little bit more?
[00:15:02.58] Well, that's a great question. I think there is a lot going on in the profession, a lot of different things, as far as knowledge, availability, a ton of technology. I would encourage a young strength coach to really figure out what piques their interest, and then go down that rabbit hole and hone in on those things. Yes, I definitely believe in having a generalized understanding of everything that's out there, but find something that really draws and hits on your passion and helps you focus in on that. Because I think if you're really passionate about it or it's something really piques your interest, you're going to be more willing to learn and reach out to people and connect with people that share that same passion and interest.
[00:15:49.23] And some may say that might pigeonhole you, but for me, it's not that. I think it helps connect you with other people that are really like minded in that specific area. You can still be a generalist and expand on other things. But if you can find something that you're really passionate about, I think that helps elevate you as a coach as well, and can help elevate those that are also passionate about that particular subject.
[00:16:16.16] Yeah I think the field in general, especially when you're implementing strength and conditioning across so many programs, you can't necessarily focus on one training style or coaching style. You have a lot of different variables at play and being able to tap into all those, but how you acquire those skills over time and how you become a true generalist is pursuing your interests and pursuing your passions. And through that, like you said, connecting with the people that really engage you and invigorate you towards learning more. I love that.
[00:16:54.27] I think how you answered that, that's such a growth mentality of, and great advice for, our young coaches. We have a lot of young coaches listening in, I have a couple interns that tune into these podcasts that are current undergrad students. What advice do you have for them about pursuing next steps? First internships, GA positions, making a good first impression.
[00:17:23.45] Be the best where you're at. I know it sounds corny, but if you approach every day whatever you're at, your undergrad, you're currently an intern, your whatever it is. The one thing I learned early on was not to keep looking to that next step. My biggest thing was, wherever I was at, I was going to be the best I could be. That didn't mean I was the best GA or best intern or whatever, it was just the best version of myself. And so I think that would be my biggest piece of advice, is that if you invest the time and energy into being the best version of yourself in a given location, I'd like to think, and maybe this is wrong, but people will notice. And when people notice these things, they help expand your network and put your name in the mix for different things.
[00:18:16.90] While you're also going through that, I think it's also valuable to work on genuinely expanding your network, developing relationships with peers in the field, other interns from other schools. Maybe there are GAs that are currently at your school while you're an intern. Talk to them about their experiences and get to know them as individuals, and then see if they'll connect you with other individuals at other schools. I think that's the biggest thing, when I first came to Santa Clara, was to help my staff try to expand their network. And for me, the value of network is tremendous. It's not just about jobs, but it's about knowledge.
[00:18:57.45] I mean, just yesterday I was texting with Dr. Brian Mann about BPT and doing an in-service with my staff. And I met him, when I was an intern with the Rams, I reached out to the University of Missouri and their coaches. And they introduced me to him, and that's how we expanded that network. And so I think the biggest thing is, I'll hit it again, is just being the best version of yourself wherever you're at in your current situation.
[00:19:26.52] People will notice, people will remember, because once again, we're in the athletic world. Coaches will move on, but if you make an impression, they're going to remember that. My first job after I got fired by the LA Rams was with the Toronto Argonauts. My name was recommended by a gentleman who was our d-line coach with the Rams. He had coached with the head coach, Mark Trestman, when they were with the Raiders together. And he knew the GM early in his career. And so that is how I got in the mix for that job. And he told him what he thought about me and what I'd be able to do for them. And so I never talked to him about helping advance my career or anything like that, he just saw what I did on a day to day basis, and he believed in it.
[00:20:14.40] Yeah, that's awesome, making those connections. I think back to grad school, and people that were students at the time, fellow GAs, fellow young coaches, we all had big hopes and dreams. And we still stay in touch, and everybody who were talking to, they're still in the field today. Some are professors, some are coaches, some are in pro sports, some are in youth sports.
[00:20:40.08] And I think one thing I've learned is that what you're planning when you're a student, when you're an undergrad, when you're a grad student, it's not always the same exact path that you end up on. I really thought it was cool going into your bio, and you've been all over the world. Obviously with the Navy, growing up in Guam, coming to the US, joining the military, and working in the CFL, NFL, private sector, and now college. Is that something that you-- always took that generalist approach? Or did you have one destination in mind when you looked at strength and conditioning?
[00:21:27.04] That's a great question. When I started out as an intern at Washington State University, my goal at the time-- this was 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. My goal was to come back and become the head strength and conditioning coach for football at WSU, one day. And the reality that is, that is no longer even in my mind. That's not even something I desire. I was fortunate enough, after grad school, to become an intern with a Rams in Saint Louis at the time and would go on to spend four years with them. And during that time, my mindset shifted. I was like, professional football, this is all I want to do. I love it, I think I'm pretty good at it, cool. I get fired.
[00:22:23.28] That year, I decided to go on a, I guess, continuing education journey. I actually was still under contract with the Rams, so I was getting paid, and blessed to be in that financial situation. I went from California to Colorado, did a couple of visits there. Then I went on a longer trip and went to Texas Tech, LSU, Alabama, the Dolphins. Worked my way all the way up the coast, Washington D.C., Philly, New York. Visiting college coaches, football strength coaches, Olympic, you name it. And at that time, I still thought that, you know what, football is where I want to be and it's where I should be.
[00:23:03.76] And so when the opportunity for the CFL came about, I thought it was great. Took it, ran with that for two years, at the time, still football, but then kind of just got jaded with it. I was away from my wife for six months at a time. Full disclosure, that led to some difficulties in our marriage, because the reality, you're away for a long period of time, it gets challenging. I came home, went into the private sector, still working with football. High school all the way to pros, I'd have a lot of the guys from the Rams come over and train, would still have that. Had some highly talented high school guys, it's pretty cool now. They're in college, I get to watch them play college football, got to work with those guys.
[00:23:48.27] When this job came open-- I'll backtrack a little bit. In the fall of 2020, I decided that if I was going to continue in my career, I needed to expand my options. And that was really because, in talking to other coaches, a lot of the coaches we've seen, or at least older generations, not a ton of them have retired as strength coaches. You hear of coaches going back to high school administration, going into medical sales, whatever it may be. At the time, there weren't a ton of coaches retiring within the profession.
[00:24:29.26] So I decided to work on getting my MBA. And then when I saw this job open up, I was reinvigorated and excited to explore a different opportunity. Now don't get me wrong, I still coach, I'm still on the floor, but I am slowly transitioning into a full-time administrative role at some point in my career. I still work with baseball and volleyball and in men's golf, which comes in as well.
[00:24:56.41] But having my MBA, working with an AD that really empowers her staff and her leaders, and then working with others in the university setting, it's changed my goals. And now I've shifted my goals to perhaps becoming an executive member of an athletic department, or becoming an AD one day. And so those are the things that now, as I progress in my career, I'm trying to take those steps. So I got the MBA out of the way. Now, do I need to get my doctorates? Or what do I need to do to align myself with this type of career progression, where I can see myself as an administrator finishing off the rest of my career?
[00:25:39.06] That really connects well with what we were talking about before of leading your department, that elevated associate AD role, I think it's something that some coaches listening in might think it sounds crazy to say, I don't want to be coaching on the floor forever. I think we've all been there, where that was the be all and end all, and we looked at the head strength and conditioning coach role as exactly what we wanted.
[00:26:06.07] I love that story, how you wanted to be the head strength coach at your school, and now that goes nowhere in sight. And I think the takeaway there is that goals do change. I know you're in the middle of this process now, but what skills and what knowledge do you acquire now along this leadership path that maybe differentiates from what you were taught becoming a strength coach?
[00:26:33.92] I think really honing in on the communication piece has been the biggest part for me. Learning to communicate within the athletic department, and then expanding that to the university setting, and then, as well, speaking with the boosters and those that fund and support our programs. Being exposed to that a lot more is kind of what's come with the territory. And that has been my focus.
[00:27:07.73] This is kind of a roundabout way of telling the story, but I went down the rabbit hole of learning how to play golf. Our AD was a golf coach, loves golf. My boss has been golfing for a couple of years. And last June, I started going down the rabbit hole and started golfing. Well, I got pretty addicted. The AD finds out and says, if it's in your means, you should join a country club. And after a while, I decided to do that, I pursued that. And the reason, she said, you will not regret it because of the people you meet and the network you make outside of the athletic department. That will expand your abilities, your skill set, and your opportunities for life. And she's not wrong at all. I mean, in the first couple of months, going out, playing different tournaments, you meet so many different people.
[00:28:03.13] The reason I went down this rabbit hole to tell the story is that last Saturday I was at a golf tournament, going to the member lounge afterwards, we're hanging out. I've seen this guy around, we've never really introduced ourselves to each other, we just start talking. Come to find out he's been the lead counsel for the University of California system, that means all the UC schools, and we went down the rabbit hole of talking about lawsuits, NCAA, regulations that have come about, the different lawsuits he's had to deal with strength and conditioning, sports performance in particular, athlete death, or whatever it may be.
[00:28:42.20] And so we've expanded this, started going down that rabbit hole, and then he introduced me to another lawmaker so I could understand a different aspect of it. So yeah, as an associate AD, I'm not in the room hearing all these conversations, but now I'm being exposed to the thought process of individuals that are in those rooms and the c-suite level executives that help push regulations forward, or help make these different decisions. And I think, to me, that's been the value, is just learning to communicate with a much wider range of people from different walks of life.
[00:29:24.18] Expanding your network, I think it's a theme. The theme comes through again and again in this episode, from strength and conditioning knowledge experts, subject matter experts in the field, to people you meet out on the golf course. It's funny, I worked with a coach years ago who would always joke that big business deals happen on the golf course and tried to learn golf, and I don't think it was his game, but he definitely always tells that story of you got to find your own path to make these connections. But that is really cool. I think that's actually really interesting from how it connects to the NCAA and some of the things that we're talking about here at the NSCA on the collegiate coaching advocacy side, I'm definitely going to have to pick your brain on that.
[00:30:17.82] Yeah, I think it's something that's not for everyone, that's the reality. But if that's something that is in your wheelhouse or you desire, then yeah, I'd definitely suggest looking at expanding networks in different ways. And it can start small, like on your campus. One of the first things we did when we came to campus, we brought Allison Papenfuss and Bri Kanz on board as our assistant ADs. I have two women in my top roles.
[00:30:49.54] And so I thought it was just natural to connect with a women's group on campus that's trying to empower young women to be comfortable in the weight room and train. And so we've been able to host multiple events in our weight room in conjunction with this group, and just reach out and expand our network within the university setting. And get more eyes on what we're doing and educate more people about what we're doing so we get even more support.
[00:31:17.87] J, man, a lot of nuggets in this episode. Really appreciate you being with us. What's the best way for people listening in to reach out and connect with you?
[00:31:27.29] I think the best way to get a hold of me is Instagram or email. I'll give you the Instagram, because a lot of people reach out that way. It's just j.aggabao. And then if you want to get a hold of me on email, it'll be firstname.lastname@example.org.
[00:31:51.15] We will add those to the shownotes. J Aggabao, Santa Clara University. Thanks for being with us. To everyone listening in, we appreciate you. And we also appreciate Sorinex Exercise Equipment for their support on this podcast.
[00:32:09.03] Thanks for listening to another episode of the NSCA Coaching Podcast. We value you, as a listener, just as we value your input as a member of the NSCA community. To take action and get involved, check out volunteer leadership opportunities under membership at nsca.com.
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[00:32:27.73] This was the NSCA's Coaching Podcast. The National Strength and Conditioning Association was founded in 1978 by strength and conditioning coaches to share information, resources, and help advance the profession. Serving coaches for over 40 years, the NSCA is the trusted source for strength and conditioning professionals. Be sure to join us next time.
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