In this career series article, Coach McHenry provides a path for education, certification, knowledge, and networking essential to excelling as a successful high school strength and conditioning coach.
There are two different ways to become a high school strength coach; you can become a certified teacher (preferably in Physical Education) or you can be hired to work as the strength coach after school and during the summer. While getting your Bachelor’s degree, some colleges and universities will require that you take education classes which will allow you to graduate with a four-year degree and qualify you to take a test to become a licensed teacher. Other colleges and universities will have the teaching education program and the specific content area included together.
The difference being that in the first example you will graduate with a degree in Physical Education and then have to go back and take teaching education classes to fulfill the student teaching requirement; whereas, in the second example you will have a degree in Physical Education and have completed your student teaching requirement before you graduate. For those coaches who have a four-year degree and do not have the teaching requirements, check with the local college to see if you can take the classes necessary to become a teacher. Along with a degree, each state has a test to become a licensed teacher. Having a teaching license in one state does not carry over to another. Check with the local department of education for state laws.
If you are an academic teacher, the salary and benefits package can make for a comfortable living. It can also give you stability not seen in other coaching professions. One of the most important factors of being an academic teacher is the connection made with the students on a day-to-day basis outside the sports realm. Being an academic teacher will require you to teach a full load (i.e., seven classes that are 45 minutes long, or three classes that are 90 minutes long) and then coach when the school day is done. You will be paid as a teacher and as a coach. Coaching pay is by season (fall/winter/spring) and is not part of your regular salary.
The Dedicated Coach
As a strength coach who comes in after school, the benefits and salary will be limited. Each school will have different requirements and responsibilities for an outside coach. A number of states require a coach who is not an academic teacher to go through a background check and a coaching class. Talk to the athletic director to determine your workload and for which teams you will be responsible. The more teams and responsibilities you have, the higher the pay range will be. Normally, coaches that are not academic teachers do not receive health benefits and are only paid for the seasons that they work in the weight room.
My Coaching Path
I was fortunate that my first strength coach position required only a Colorado Teaching License and a National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®). There were many coaches who worked at the college level who held a Master’s degree and a CSCS® and not licensed teachers. There were also licensed physical education teachers who did not have a CSCS® so they were also not considered. When I changed high schools, there were more than 100 applications for my position; however, only three applicants had both the teaching license and the CSCS®.
The CSCS® will give you an exceptional professional advantage and separate you from those who only want to “work in the weight room.”When I first started teaching, I worked at an elementary school and a middle school, and then I would drive to the high school to coach football and open the weight room after school in the off-season. When I was hired as the high school strength coach, I had to quit coaching a sport so I could have the weight room open before and after school for all the teams. Now I open, coach, and supervise the weight room before and after school. During school hours I teach four classes that last 90 minutes.
This enables me to develop and coach strength and conditioning programs for our athletes in all sports. Having responsibility for the strength and conditioning programs before and after school allows the sport coaches free time to work on sport-specific plans while I supervise the strength and conditioning programs. It works well for the athletic trainer because he and I can talk about the students who are injured and watch for injury trends.
At first, I missed working after school as a football coach. However, the more teams I worked with the better I became as a strength coach. Now, the diversity makes my job exciting. I get to work with a variety of sport teams including football, golf, swimming, gymnastics, basketball, lacrosse, and wrestling, to name a few. Another great challenge is the range of working with eighth graders who have never lifted before as compared to working with high school seniors who are preparing to compete in college athletics. Although they may play the same sport, their programs are completely different.
Twenty years ago when I was in college, classes such as kinesiology, exercise physiology, and biomechanics were not as prevalent. In fact, the only people who took those classes were going to medical school. It was not until two years after I graduated with my undergraduate degree and I started looking for a Master’s degree program that these courses of study became the standard. Today, there are numerous universities that offer a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate degrees in exercises sciences and related fields. The numbers of educational opportunities offered today are endless. Find a program that will meet your needs and allow you to see all the different options that are available.
Finding and working as an intern in a strength and conditioning program will give you a great advantage and will be invaluable when you start applying for full-time positions. The best approach is to find a mentor that will give you experience and a quality education at the same time. I was lucky to work with several experienced personal trainers and strength coaches, and was able to learn from them. This experience provided networking opportunities that led me to other strength coaches who allowed me to work under their supervision so I could expand my knowledge
Attendance at National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) conferences is another way to expand your knowledge and networking. This is a major benefit of NSCA membership as events and symposia can provide limitless opportunities to network, expand your knowledge, and discover job opportunities. I still remember my first NSCA National Conference in Denver, CO. The following year, I took the USA Weightlifting course where I met several other strength coaches who would later attend the National Conference in San Diego, CA. At my second National Conference, I took the CSCS® exam and followed up with the coaches I had previously met. We stayed in contact and they introduced me to other coaches; this led to my first presentation at a NSCA State Clinic. Each conference I attended improved my educational level and as I networked with more coaches, more doors were opened for me. I volunteered to help at a NSCA Coaches College Conference in the early 1990s and was allowed to present.
I knew the only way to get better was to become involved, so I applied to be on the NSCA Education Committee.
Three years on the committee helped me meet more coaches and gave me more opportunities. I became involved with the NSCA and through that involvement my career as a strength and conditioning coach has improved.
I knew the best way to develop myself as a presenter was to start small and work my way up. I knew most of the coaches so I would receive honest feedback. I also listened to those speakers at the NSCA National Conference who I felt were the best in their area. I took their style, mechanics, and tips to better my own presentations. After I felt comfortable at the local clinic, I volunteered to speak at a regional conference. Finally, I presented at the NSCA National Conference as part of a panel. By having a distinguished group to work with, it gave me the confidence to speak on my own. The more I presented at local, state, and national conferences the more opportunities I got. This included two trips to China and one to Puerto Rico.
After my Education Committee term expired I volunteered to be on the High School Coaches Special Interest Group. While working with this group I was asked to write a chapter for the NSCA’s Strength and Conditioning Manual for High School Coaches. I wrote two chapters on my own and collaborated on a third. This experience showed me how to write for a wider audience. With the final copy in hand, I talked to a publisher and showed him that I could write. I pitched my book idea and co-authored it with another coach. Our book was accepted and now we have two books and a video about strength training. Because I enjoyed writing, I looked for other opportunities within the NSCA to become involved. I am currently an Associate Editor for the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and have written for the NSCA’s Performance Training Journal.
An organization is only as good as its members. What do you want from the NSCA? What are you willing to give to the NSCA? Every time I have volunteered to be on a committee, helped with a project, or wrote a paper, I have gained from that experience. To be a quality strength coach you have to keep learning and expanding. Reading, going to conferences, and meeting other strength coaches has helped me develop into the coach/teacher I am today. Even the little things, like sitting down for coffee with other coaches to pick their brains for ideas, or reading a wide variety of scientific journals, it all helps me to continuously grow.
The NSCA helped me get my first job because I was a CSCS® and a licensed teacher. The professional connections that I have developed over the years are priceless and have given me opportunities to become published, visit other states, and go around the world to speak and learn. It all started by networking with coaches who attended the same conferences I did.
My words of advice: go to as many NSCA conferences, clinics, and workshops as you can, volunteer to help at these events, meet as many coaches as you can, and never stop learning from those coaches.