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Guide to Strength and Conditioning Career Development

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Today’s strength and conditioning coach is faced with numerous challenges with career advancement and, without a roadmap, the average professional will find themselves leaving the profession in 10 years. Strength and conditioning, especially at the college and professional levels, is very competitive and difficult to find opportunities in. Youth levels and private facilities are growing, giving new and veteran coaches more options, but the profession is still saturated and in need of better compensation and more effective ways to hire qualified candidates. The purpose of this Academy Guide is twofold: to show those who are new to the field a general career progression and to help experienced coaches assess their skill sets. The strength and conditioning profession has a bit of an identity crisis over roles and responsibilities, but the need for quality coaches is greater than ever.

University Student and Former Athlete

The path to strength and conditioning usually begins after one’s career as an athlete ends. Some athletes reach an advanced level of sport and quickly start entering the strength and conditioning field much later in life, while some university students bring their course knowledge from formal education at the collegiate level. Strength and conditioning coaches can range from those with no degree in sport science to those with PhDs in the subject area. How far one pursues academia is up to the individual, but a combination of formal education and hands-on experience is recommended. If one chooses to work with athletes, they need to decide if they want to train them, study them, or both. Those who are able to teach, coach, and research are few, but several high-profile coaches are able to do all three successfully. Utilizing workout software is one of the easiest way to save administrative time coaching and researching, leaving more time for face-to-face interactions with athletes and students. 

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Formal coursework with sport science will provide a backbone of education for coaches, but experience in training others requires time and guidance. At the sensitivity level, coaches who have had great strength and conditioning experiences as athletes will have a distinct advantage over those who have had poor experiences. Exposure to great teachers and mentors through practicums or short internships helps guide student strength coaches who are pursuing human performance to the career course that meets their passion. Upon graduation, coaches should be prepared to take an examination for certification, such as the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist designation from the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Strength and Conditioning Intern or Graduate Assistant

After graduation, students may find themselves placed in very entry-level positions with scholastic programs or with private facilities looking to exchange work experience for stipends or lower waged jobs. Those coaches who want to further their education can become graduate assistants or starting-level strength and conditioning coaches, with a role that may vary from observation and basic job duties to coaching entire teams. Depending on the organization’s size and budget, intern-level jobs can range from disappointing to life-changing. It’s important for coaches to interview for roles they know have a reputation for developing coaches, not jobs that just prevent a resume gap. It’s vital that coaches talk to former interns in detail and know if the same people are there when applying for a job.

Designing training programs in an athlete training software can help with the administrative burden of managing multiple athlete workloads. During the period of time spent interning, coaches should focus on continuing education or formal studies to grow in knowledge. While interning, the coach may have to work part time or full time, as several positions are volunteer. If coaches are not financially able to do an internship due to conflicting hours, sometimes the career can lead to other options in fitness and wellness. Coaches should expect to relocate for opportunities, including internal positions in strength and conditioning. The job market in strength and conditioning may force a coach to move several times in their career. Knowing in advance the volatility of career change means a coach must think about entering the private sector in sports performance or be involved in sales or similar roles in the commercial side.

Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach

A steady full-time role preparing athletes will likely encourage more education and experience, while demanding competent coaching and training design. Assistant strength and conditioning jobs usually mean working under a head coach directly or being trusted to work independently with a team or individual athletes. Outside of training, coaches are expected to continue their education by reading and networking with domain experts, as well as attending conferences and seminars. Additionally, during the early career of a strength coach, new skills such as learning sports technology, applying research, budgeting, and reporting are expected. Assistants may learn to work side by side with other coaches or work solo and develop self-reliance on their own existing skills. The role of an assistant strength and conditioning professional ranges from entry-level intern to potential elite athlete trainer. Athlete Dashboards allows coaches to give each athlete the individual attention that they deserve.

After two to five years, coaches may find themselves offered opportunities to coach with another organization providing better talent and/or compensation. Depending on the role, a young coach can expect to spend at last three years at an assistant level before becoming a full-time strength coach, depending on their resume. Several coaches have become full-time head strength coaches in their 20s, while some of the best international strength coaches remain assistants for their entire career because they find joy on the floor, teaching and training athletes. It’s uncommon to find strength coaches who are past the age of 40, since long hours and demanding job requirements don’t mesh with family priorities.

Head Strength and Conditioning Coach

When a strength coach achieves the role of head strength and conditioning coach, they may become a coordinator of other coaches at a college or oversee one team with assistants doing most of the coaching duties. Head strength coaches are not just experienced or master coaches, they are also administrators of their strength and conditioning programs. Head strength coaches in major football programs earn large salaries, and it’s expected that the first million-dollar strength coach will come about in the near future. Head roles require the ability to develop and find coaching talent. Most of the applicants for assistant positions will pass through the desk of a head strength and conditioning coach.

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Head Strength and Conditioning Coaches take high level views of teams. Organizing teams into training groups for group monitoring make athlete tracking more efficient. The career span of a head strength coach can range from a few years all the way to retirement age, depending on the desires of the individual. Head strength coaches may change sports and/or the level of sport every few years or stay at one level for their careers. Often those with Olympic sport backgrounds find themselves working in team sports because they have the sport science knowledge and skill set for national teams. Head strength coaches are definitely leaders, and often present at conferences and workshops to guide the future of the profession with their experience and knowledge. A head role requires more than just the ability to organize other strength coaches; it also demands the ability to navigate through political turmoil and know when ethical leadership is in order. The safety and well-being of athletes is usually guided by support staff, and head coaches should make a top-down effort to have all coaches respect athlete health.

High Performance Manager or Associate Athletic Director

After years supporting a strength and conditioning program, some professionals enter a leadership role in sports performance. The modern sports team or college program is evolving faster than job descriptions can keep up, and several teams and governing bodies are struggling to keep their organizational charts clear and functional. For example, a director of performance may oversee the medical department, while some medical professionals may make decisions on strength and conditioning roles. Several positions oversee both the strength and conditioning departments and the medical staff because they are led by a sport scientist or former team coach. High-performance manager or athletic director roles are more political and consist of managing interior departments—they’re not often coaching jobs unless they encourage dual responsibilities. Just supporting an athletic director or overseeing a sports team is typically more than enough responsibility for a coach. When you’re managing large groups of athletes, Team Access Point is a helpful tool for monitoring and intervening in training programs

Healthy and effective strength and conditioning roles depend on lobbying and the support of higher-up professionals. Having a former strength and conditioning coach as part of an administrative council is instrumental for the growth of the field and the success of sports. Coaches are key components of athletic development, and strength coaches often work more with athletes than the team coach, especially at the collegiate and scholastic levels. Therefore, involving strength and conditioning coaches in the management or administration of the field is extremely important for the career to be appreciated and compensated fairly. In order for the profession to evolve properly, it’s vital that the role of a strength and conditioning coach be grounded in pedagogy and supported by science—not the other way around. Applied roles are about converting biological science principles into actionable plans that incorporate best practices, research, and the ability to coach athletes as individuals.

Grow Your Skill Set to Develop Your Career

Experience and expertise matter in the world of strength and conditioning, but don’t forget that coaching is a people business. Strong interpersonal skills and the capacity to collaborate and work as a team member should be established early in a coach’s career. The ability to coach is only one area that matters in the profession. Budgeting, administrative duties, and leadership qualities that foster cultural changes are expected today. The modern strength and conditioning coach has more responsibilities than ever, and teams and organizations need dynamic and adaptable employees. The future of strength and conditioning will be more competitive, as only so many jobs exist, but those who make sacrifices and dedicate themselves to their career will have more opportunities than those who don’t invest in networking and education.

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