Jessica Burke - NSCA’s Coaching Podcast, Season 7 Episode 8

by Eric McMahon, MEd, CSCS, RSCC*D and Jessica Burke, CSCS
Coaching Podcast July 2023


Jessica Burke is an experienced collegiate strength and conditioning coach, most recently at Penn State University, as well as a personal trainer. She joins the NSCA Coaching Podcast with a unique perspective on the state of the strength and conditioning profession. Burke shares her professional path with NSCA Coaching and Sport Science Program Manager, Eric McMahon, including rewarding work as a personal trainer outside of her responsibilities on campus. This episode explores the value of work-life balance across the coaching profession. Should we debunk the “hustle culture” model of the strength and conditioning coach lifestyle? Listen to learn about this topic and more. Other topics covered include strength and conditioning coaches having a presence on social media and training foundations for youth and female athletes.

You can follow Jessica on Instagram: @coachjburke and TikTok: @coachjburke | Find Eric on Instagram: @ericmcmahoncscs or Twitter: @ericmcmahoncscs

Show Notes

“I definitely encourage people to work with the sports that they’re passionate about but also keep that door open, because working with them and working with golf, it definitely has made me a more well-rounded coach and given me the ability to just connect with more athletes.” 2:40

“It takes a level of grit to get into this profession and stay with it.” 8:33

“For me, it was making that really in-depth knowledge really accessible for general population and then also providing a really positive message surrounding food, surrounding exercise, things that I really needed to hear when I was in my early 20s and just cutting through the noise of diet culture, because it is really loud.” 10:45

“I think the science and the nitty-gritty is a huge part of our profession, don’t get me wrong, but the ability to connect with broad groups and types of people is the thing that makes coaches effective.” 20:18


[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]

[00:00:04.21] Welcome to the NSCA Coaching Podcast, season 7, episode 8.

[00:00:10.11] I think the science and the nitty gritty is a huge part of our profession, don't get me wrong, but the ability to connect with broad groups and types of people is the thing that makes coaches effective.

[00:00:25.90] 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.

[00:00:36.72] This is the NSCA Coaching Podcast. I'm Eric McMahon. Today, we're joined by Jessica Burke, a performance coach at Penn State University. She's had a few stops along the way at various universities and excited to catch up with her. We ran into each other at the CSCCA National Conference last year and have stayed in touch. And Jess, great having you on.

[00:01:01.21] Thank you so much. I'm really excited to be here and chat with you so.

[00:01:05.31] Why don't we kick this thing off. Tell us about your role at Penn State. What sports are you working with?

[00:01:10.26] Yeah, so at Penn State, I work with women's lacrosse, men's and women's gymnastics, and then men's golf as well. So a really good mix of sports and athletes.

[00:01:23.86] Awesome. So do you feel like that's something that coaches should aspire to working with a mix of athletes? I know there's a big culture in this field around I'm a football guy or I'm a baseball guy. Where do you see that in terms of getting experience?

[00:01:43.95] Absolutely. So I definitely see both sides of the coin. So just a little bit about my background. I played lacrosse for a while and then club in college as well. I've coached high school lacrosse for about 10 years, and so lacrosse is a really big part of my background. So working with lacrosse has been really special and something that I really deeply understand.

[00:02:08.02] But on the flip side of that, I mean, to be completely candid, before I got to Penn State, I had really limited gymnastics experience and knowledge. So when I interned at Michigan, I had the opportunity to work with gymnastics a little bit there, but that was really the depth of my experience. So coming in and just kind of being thrown into this sport that is absolutely insane in the best way has been great for my development as a coach.

[00:02:39.56] So I definitely encourage people to work with the sports that they're passionate about but also keep that door open, because working with them and working with golf, it definitely has made me a more well-rounded coach and given me the ability to just connect with more athletes.

[00:02:56.31] So you've been at some big schools. I saw stops at Purdue, Michigan, now Penn State. Do you feel like the coaching day for college strength and conditioning coaches is maybe different than it was years ago? Getting into the culture of coaching, it's a sun up to sun down profession.

[00:03:17.94] Do you feel like that's the way it is today? I know you guys have a pretty good sized staff there at Penn State.

[00:03:23.94] Yeah, I think everywhere has a different has a different vibe and a different process. I think it's really common for smaller schools where you're managing a lot of teams and you're spending your entire day on the floor to be there from that sun up to sun down and the culture is very much pay your dues, get in earlier than the boss, leave after he leaves, things like that. I'm really fortunate because the schools that I've worked at have been some bigger universities, and it just gives you a lot of autonomy as in, hey, do your job well, be at the things that you need to be at.

[00:04:01.53] And here at Penn State, I'm really lucky because the people that I work with are really supportive of all of us having a personal life and all of us having some work-life balance. So I definitely have heard experiences from other coaches where it's been a very overwhelming day every single day. But where I'm at now, I feel really lucky in terms of that.

[00:04:25.56] I feel like when you say work-life balance and having a personal life, that's something that a lot of coaches maybe don't connect with that well. I joke that I was in professional baseball and a lot of players or people would be like, hey, man, do you golf? And I'd be like, well, not really. I've made my career came from my hobby initially, so all my time gets sucked up into that, and I don't think we-- I joke with Mary Kate Feit at Springfield, and we go back a number of years that we're still working to find our hobbies and things that maybe would be in our personal life.

[00:05:09.54] But I wonder, what do coaches need to hear about building more habits just to fill your cup in different areas? How do you feel about that?

[00:05:26.28] I think it is a learn through experience kind of thing. So this was not my initial plan. I did not come out of undergrad with a kinesiology or exercise science degree. I have a very different educational background before I got my master's. So this was a spur of the moment life decision, right? I figured out what I wanted to do after I got out of school.

[00:05:49.41] So I worked really, really hard all the way through my 20s just working as much as I could, getting as much experience as I could, absorbing as much information as I could, and I'm really lucky that I had a lot of mentors that told me, hey, you need to slow down. You're going to run yourself into the ground before you know it. And being 25, you don't want to hear that, and you're like, well, you're just old and you have no idea what you're talking about.

[00:06:16.54] And then you do it for a few years and you're like, oh, these people had a really good point. So it was a lot of learning through experiencing. I definitely have hit that wall a few times, and like I said, I'm really lucky to be surrounded by a lot of people that remind me that it's OK to, not only have a personal life, but take care of myself.

[00:06:43.21] Like I find myself going in apologizing that I have to go to a doctor's appointment or my coworkers laugh and they're like, go. Take care of yourself, have a life. Take care of yourself as a person.

[00:06:53.69] So I think the culture is hopefully changing for the better a little bit, and I think it's just perpetuating that message from coach to coach. Like really just saying it out loud. Like, it's OK to go home early if you were here 14 hours yesterday and getting that stuff out there, because it doesn't need to be the whole hustle culture model of work yourself into the ground every single day. It's how I got to where I got, but it's not sustainable for the long term.

[00:07:28.45] I'm glad you said that word sustainable. It's something I've thought a lot about in this profession, because we push ourselves really hard. We ask our athletes to push beyond their limits. We want them to be bigger, better, faster, stronger than they are coming in and we hold ourself to that same standard. But there comes a point, like you're saying, of knowing our limits to be able to stay fresh in this profession. Stay energized by this profession so that we can keep giving back.

[00:08:05.11] Because if we give all of ourself to it and just drown ourself out of the profession, even though our intentions are good, right? We're trying to work hard and do this the right way, then we don't have anything to offer our athletes or our schools or what we're in, and that really takes away from us. I think that's a really great point that you make. There's a lot of young motivated professionals.

[00:08:32.08] I think it takes a level of grit to get into this profession and stay with it. So early-- I don't want to call it career burnout but that realization in your mid-twenties or maybe crossing into early 30s, I can think a lot of coaches start processing that and start thinking about those challenges about how is this going to look in 10 years from now or 20 years from now. I think that's really real.

[00:09:01.39] I want to ask you about your social media. It's a different message than what you see typically in collegiate strength and conditioning. You talk a lot about body image and diet habits, and some of the things that maybe you hear on the personal training side of the fitness profession. But I think it's really positive and encouraging, and where does that message come from for you?

[00:09:28.27] I appreciate that. So I think that message comes from-- a big part of it is what I needed to hear when I was an athlete graduating college, and I think it's true for a lot of people at very different points in their lives. But when I started creating content and started thinking about the voice that I wanted to have and the people that I wanted to reach, the number one question was like, well, who am I creating this content for?

[00:09:57.47] And I think a lot of strength coaches create content for other strength coaches, which is great. I follow a lot of really qualified professionals on Instagram and things like that and get a lot of really quality information from them. But for me, I decided that wasn't really the avenue that I wanted to take. I wanted something that could show my personality, and I wanted something that could bridge the gap between the level of expertise that we see in strength and conditioning and general population, right?

[00:10:29.78] There's such a divide between what you need to be a personal trainer and then what you need to be a strength and conditioning coach. And the specialization, of course, is different, but in the grand scheme of things, we can really apply that knowledge to a much broader population. So for me, it was making that really in-depth knowledge really accessible for general population and then also providing a really positive message surrounding food, surrounding exercise, things that I really needed to hear when I was in my early 20s and just cutting through the noise of diet culture, because it is really loud.

[00:11:10.42] And as we know, anybody can create an Instagram or a TikTok account and say whatever they want. And chances are if they look good or if they have a good physique, people are going to believe them. And so I really saw a need for that in general population just in terms of getting the right information out there and then kind of having fun doing that.

[00:11:34.78] It makes me think a lot about where strength and conditioning fits within the fitness profession, and we're talking about culture a little bit here, but it's easy to get away from the fitness culture in the coaching world, right? We're coaching. We're in a collegiate environment, we're surrounded by coaches, we have motivated athletes.

[00:12:00.65] But when we go back to our education, there's a lot of those elements of fitness and exercise science that we have to learn to get to that coaching profession. And when I see your content on Instagram, it does really take it one step further beyond the collegiate weight room, where if our parents were on there or someone out in out in general pop, general population just trying to get fit and healthy, they would be inspired by that. And it'd probably be pretty cool that this is a collegiate strength coach putting that information out there.

[00:12:39.59] So it's a really powerful message that I know from a program standpoint, we separate coaching from personal training at the NSCA, but that's more administrative. Really, there is a connection there. And I want to ask you about your business. You have a virtual personal training business that you also manage clients.

[00:13:00.29] Yes.

[00:13:00.78] How did that get started?

[00:13:03.00] Honestly, I think it got started out of a need, to be quite frank. At the beginning of this profession, you work a lot of hours for not a lot of money. And I think that for me, it was, how can I take my skill set and build something that can be my own that's not dependent on how many hours I spend in a weight room, and also, I really enjoyed it.

[00:13:30.22] I think, like a lot of people, my first kind of job in exercise science in this world was personal training. Was working with clients, and I know there's a lot of people in strength and conditioning that scoff at personal training. They think of it as like the lower peg on the totem pole, right?

[00:13:53.25] And I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed connecting with clients. I really enjoyed applying the knowledge that I had to these clients, because it isn't that different at the end of the day, right? I mean, there is a reason why athletes look in shape and move well and feel good, and those are some principles that we can take over to general population as well.

[00:14:18.01] So it started as a need, and then I really figured out that I love connecting with people. That is the primary reason why I love coaching. And so through the social media and through running my own business, it just gives me the opportunity to help more people, to work with more people, and to connect with more people.

[00:14:37.32] I think a lot about coaching salaries and the challenges early in professions, and many of us do have stops along the way in the private sector. Some of that's private sector performance coaching or combine training, things along those lines. But I think back to early on. My first job in fitness was at a fitness club, an exercise club where you take on personal training clients and maybe aspirations to get into sport, we often think of that as a stepping stone, of moving away from that.

[00:15:17.98] But I do think it comes full circle later in life or for a lot of coaches, and we're seeing growth in the private sector-- significant growth right now of coaches doing exactly what you're doing, where you have your pool of athletes, you have your institution that you work for, but you also manage a business and are entrepreneurial outside of that. And so I think that's really cool. It really expands your ability to have an impact and be inspiring as a professional, and that's something-- I know when I got into this, I was inspired by the profession because it helped me get on the field as a football player.

[00:16:09.86] Maybe you can relate to that as a lacrosse athlete.

[00:16:12.91] Absoluely, yeah.

[00:16:16.91] Something inspired us to go down this path and really commit ourselves, because if we're not committed, we're not going to make it in this, right?

[00:16:24.38] Absolutely, yeah. And now you have an opportunity to be that inspiration for other people but taking it beyond the college weight room, that that's really great. I think that's-- we keep hammering on strength and conditioning culture in this episode, but I think it's something to think about for coaches out there. If you've never really considered working in the private sector, why is that?

[00:16:49.60] Why wouldn't you want to become more entrepreneurial? Try to make more money. Maybe that's something that isn't the goal at various stages but probably will be at other life stages for all of us.

[00:17:06.03] I spent a lot of time in the private sector as well performance training. And I think like you said, we keep hammering on culture, but there's always this-- and when people read my resume or whatnot, they're looking for that collegiate experience, especially if you're applying for collegiate jobs. And there's this divide between private culture-- or private training and strength and conditioning at the collegiate level.

[00:17:38.64] And the thing that I find so funny about that is so much of my growth as a coach, so much of my adaptability to situations-- I don't know the extent of your private sector experience, but if you've ever trained an entire high school football team on a field with mini bands and eight kettlebells, you learn a lot about yourself and your adaptability as a coach. And so I think the private sector provided me with a ton of skills that I just wouldn't be as effective as a coach as I am now. And I never want to write it off the table because I did enjoy it.

[00:18:18.36] I do love working with kids. I like working with high schoolers. There's so much work you can do with them and on yourself as a coach that really, for me, was invaluable. And so I hope that we see that trajectory of private sector growing a little bit and getting a little bit more connected as a profession, right?

[00:18:42.03] Yeah. There's coaches like you today that maybe didn't exist that are doing both, right? Working at the college level, but also doing some private sector training. But there's also coaches who are working as adjunct professors or consulting in different areas, and it definitely is a shift, but I think it goes back to something that you mentioned earlier. You pushed yourself really hard in your 20s, and there probably is a time to be really committed towards refining your skills, testing your limits, see what you want to do, where you want to work.

[00:19:28.53] I think of a cardiac rehabilitation internship I did as an undergrad in college. Probably knowing that wasn't the environment I wanted to work in, but I was testing the waters a little bit.

[00:19:40.82] Yeah, of course.

[00:19:42.03] And it's something that I do think back on those experiences, the things that broaden you and make you a little more well-rounded as a professional, but I do see this shift. Coaches are doing more today. They're seeing beyond the walls of their institution. That doesn't take away from what we do, I think is the message.

[00:20:06.58] That doesn't take away from you as a performance coach at Penn State, and what you're saying is that it actually makes you more effective.

[00:20:16.33] Absolutely, yeah. I think the science and the nitty gritty is a huge part of our profession, don't get me wrong. But the ability to connect with broad groups and types of people is the thing that makes coaches effective, right? And there is no limit to how much practice you can get with that. And just by reaching out to people on social media, talking to people, accepting clients, learning what people are struggling with, learning what their pain points are, I can understand my athletes a lot better and it makes me so much more effective of a coach.

[00:20:53.92] So I hope that people view these things as opportunities rather than distractions or something that, like you said, takes away from your identity as a Penn State coach. For instance, like I have a lot of athletes that I coach their parents that follow me on social media. And they're like, I love your message. This is so great.

[00:21:17.75] I wish more kind of coaches were outward about their experiences in life or their struggles with diet culture or I think it's so important for athletes to see that the professional in this space that is supposed to have it right all together still gets tripped up on diet culture. So I think there's a lot more good that can be done with it than negative in terms of taking me away from my work at Penn State, because it all is just one cohesive experience, for me at least, so they just kind of fit hand in hand.

[00:21:57.71] Yeah, I think it's really cool. I think it's really-- I mean, I've never heard anything like that before of a collegiate strength and conditioning coach working with their athletes' parents.

[00:22:09.92] A lot of them follow me on Instagram. They reach out all the time, and I mean, we have a lot of really awesome parents, but they're awesome.

[00:22:19.18] How cool are those Thanksgiving conversations when talking about how training is going and you have the same strength coach. That is so cool.

[00:22:30.40] Yeah, no, it's funny. Usually, I give my athletes crap in the weight room. I'll be coaching them and I'll be like, hey, your mom just followed me on Instagram, and they get a kick out of it. So no, it's a good time. It's funny.

[00:22:46.69] Let's jump into some training. You mentioned working with high school athletes. You obviously work with high level collegiate athletes and then some folks that are older beyond the college age years. What are the areas, let's start with college.

[00:23:03.19] When freshmen or first year athletes are coming into programs, what are some of the trends or areas that you're seeing that are maybe some of the biggest gaps or differences from what you'd expect?

[00:23:17.30] Yeah, I mean, a lot of my athletes are female athletes, right? That's definitely the majority of the athletes I work with at Penn State and just have worked with, because I think for a while, this was very much a man's profession, and so a lot of private sector people were very excited that there were female coaches and they wanted their daughters to work with somebody who understood the female body. So I mean, I'm working with a lot of these female athletes, and the great thing is that girls and women are lifting earlier in life, especially if they're athletes.

[00:23:51.29] That is the great thing that we are noticing. The unfortunate part of that is the quality is not always there. The groundwork has not always been done before we started to load the barbell. So while I love the fact that girls are spending time in the gym in high school and things like that, there definitely is this gap between coaching at that level where males might not need as much instruction or as much monitoring and are a little bit stronger naturally and just pick it up more naturally, and there's not necessarily that focus on, like I said, the groundwork, right?

[00:24:34.78] I have a lot of girls that come in that tell me they squat over 135 pounds and then I put them under a barbell with no weight on it, and I'm like, there's no way we're putting any weight on this barbell. A lot of mobility issues. A lot of things that have not been addressed because I think we're so excited that girls and women are finally getting into the gym at a young age that we haven't necessarily done that groundwork beforehand, if that makes sense.

[00:25:02.68] No, totally. I think that's the themes there earlier access to strength and conditioning across the board that shows growth of the field, but we need more quality at the youth levels in terms of the type of coaching that athletes, particularly young women, are getting access to. We are seeing a shift in sport culture with more opportunities for female athletes, and maybe strength and conditioning is further down the line of filling in that area, but I think it's a really positive message to highlight that. It's interesting, something when we talk about high school strength and conditioning on this podcast, when we talk about collegiate strength and conditioning on this podcast, the term block 0 comes up pretty often.

[00:25:55.94] Just the big house power Joe Ken, block 0 programming. But it's more of the mentality of block 0 programming.

[00:26:04.07] Correct.

[00:26:04.68] But when you think about that and where that comes from, there's a different zero point for or male athletes like you're saying versus young female athletes that don't really get the same exposure to the weight room, and I think that's a really interesting phenomenon to unpack, because it just shows so much opportunity for coaches to have a huge impact.

[00:26:35.53] Absolutely.

[00:26:36.49] Working with scholastic high school, middle school athletes. So do you do you have a lot of groups that you work with in that scholastic age range or is that something that you've seen just build over the years just through the access to young college athletes?

[00:26:58.87] I mean, obviously like I'm not working with like high school or middle school athletes now because I obviously can't. But working, when I was in the private sector you kind of saw it, and now I just have this different lens of being on the other side of the coin. So I used to be giving athletes to collegiate strength and conditioning coaches, and now I'm getting athletes from private sector performance coaches.

[00:27:28.46] So that shift has been interesting because for me, when working with like middle school and high school athletes, especially females, fundamental movement patterns are the most important thing that I focused on and just assessing mobility and talking to people about talking to young girls kind of about their body and how it moves and how it's supposed to move and ranges of motion and what ranges of mobility are normal and that all ranges are normal. Things like that and educating the athlete about their bodies, because we as young women, I didn't pick up a weight until I was 19 years old.

[00:28:06.50] We don't have access to that kind of information, and then so now, I'm on the other side of that lens, and I do get-- I want to say that there are definitely a lot of really qualified private sector coaches that send me amazing athletes that already know exactly what they're doing and I don't even have to pretty much look at them for four years because they've been taught how to move and that's been ingrained in them really well. But then I do get athletes that haven't been taught how to move and haven't been taught about their bodies and what different movements should feel like and things like that. And so I think seeing it with this lens is really interesting, right? It's very different.

[00:28:49.72] Yeah, I think it's really cool, and I like that you have experience really across the lifespan but you apply it most directly at the college level with a population of female student athletes that are underserved by our profession, historically, and we continue to make progress there, but I like that you champion that message and really try to take things forward. And now, this has been cool. This has been cool to talk with you, learn about your path and the profession, both on a traditional strength and conditioning trajectory, but some of the other areas that you do that I don't always hear when I'm around the country talking to different coaches.

[00:29:33.23] Jess, we talked about your Instagram. Would you share that with us for our listeners who want to check out your content?

[00:29:40.31] Yeah, so my Instagram is just @CoachJBurke. So that's Coach J B-U-R-K-E, and I'm also on TikTok now, which apparently the kids are doing it. So I'm trying to stay current. I don't know. We'll see how that goes but same username and my email and everything is all on there for anybody that wants to chat or wants to connect. I love talking with new people.

[00:30:06.05] Awesome. That's Jess Burke. Performance coach, Penn State University. Talked about private sector strength and conditioning, we talked about collegiate strength and conditioning, the development of young female student athletes in the weight room and areas we can improve as a profession. I think we unpacked a lot.

[00:30:27.75] We talked about culture today. Jess, thanks for being with us.

[00:30:31.26] Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Everyone tuning in, we appreciate you. And thank you to Sorinex exercise equipment. We appreciate their support.

[00:30:40.76] Hey, everyone. I'm Dr. Tim Suchomel, the chair of the NSCA Sports Science and Performance Technology Special Interest Group, and you just heard an episode of The NSCA Coaching Podcast. This show brings about excellent discussion right to the core of the NSCA's mission to bridge the gap between scientific research and application. If you want to learn more about the many advancements in the areas relevant to today's practitioners, subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform.

[00:31:08.60] Also, join the discussion in the NSCA Sports Science and Performance Technology sig on Facebook. Go to NSCA for more information.

[00:31:16.40] [MUSIC PLAYING]

[00:31:18.71] 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.

[00:31:37.40] [MUSIC PLAYING]

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Eric L. McMahon, MEd, CSCS,*D, TSAC-F,*D, RSCC*E

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Eric McMahon is the Coaching and Sport Science Program Manager at the NSCA Headquarters in Colorado Springs. He joined the NSCA Staff in 2020 with ove ...

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