In this career series article, Coach Krause discusses the five essential steps on the path to a successful career as a professional strength and conditioning coach.<br />Now is a great time to become a strength and conditioning coach. The field of strength and conditioning is exploding in all directions, opening up new and exciting job opportunities in ...
Now is a great time to become a strength and conditioning coach. The field of strength and conditioning is exploding in all directions, opening up new and exciting job opportunities in high schools, colleges and universities, at the graduate level, in professional sports, in performance facilities, and in the military—and the opportunities are continuing to grow.
When I was breaking into the field 15 years ago, there were only graduate assistant jobs with the prospect of being hired by a college or university, or by a National Football League (NFL) team (most high school strength coaches also served as an assistant football coach at the time). Strength and conditioning positions in the National Hockey League (NHL), National Basketball Association (NBA), and Major League Baseball (MLB) were just beginning to be developed. That was only 15 years ago. In just over a decade, the strength and conditioning profession has expanded with an increased demand for qualified strength and conditioning coaches in all arenas that require safe, progressive strength and conditioning programs for their athletes.
Serving as the Strength and Conditioning Coach for Major League Baseball’s Cincinnati Reds for the past 12 years has taught me firsthand what is needed for success as a professional strength and conditioning coach. Since the bulk of my experience is in Major League Baseball, points related to the culture of a sport will be specific to professional baseball in this article. However, the personal qualities needed for success and tips for preparing to enter the world of strength and conditioning can be applied across many professional sports, including the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Soccer (MLS), and National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).
I do not know where you are in life—graduating from high school, attending college, or in the process of changing careers—but for me, I started to understand myself, and what I wanted to do when I got out of the military. But at some point, you need to figure out that you want to become a strength and conditioning coach and help others maximize their physical potential. The days of transitioning from a sport coach to a strength coach are limited or are already over. Sports teams are requiring and only hiring certified strength and conditioning coaches to care for their athletes.
For example, if you think one day you want to be the person in the MLB who oversees the whole organization, major and minor leagues, the one who designs and implements the strength program, conditioning program, core program, running and speed program, flexibility program, nutrition, performance testing, and handle the administrative duties for the in-season, off-season and spring training, this is not something you can just jump into. Above are five things you will need to do (that will be covered in further detail later).
Since I have been through the process, I will share my journey to the world of strength and conditioning in professional sports. In high school, I was a three-sport athlete and always knew that I wanted to work in sports in some capacity. Since I did not have money for college, I joined the Marine Corps Reserves to earn money for school. When I attended college, I chose the Sports Medicine and Exercise Science track in the College of Education at East Carolina University. While there, I worked multiple sports, worked every camp they would allow, wrote many letters to strength coaches, and did whatever I was told to do by my superiors.
By the time I left East Carolina, I had my Bachelor of Science degree in Sports Medicine and Exercise Science, Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC) Certification, United States Weightlifting Club Coach Certification (now a Level 1 Sport Performance Coach Certification), CSCS®, and Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation/Automated External Defibrillator (CPR/AED) Certification. From there, I went to the University of Central Florida (UCF) as a graduate assistant strength coach and worked as many sports as they would give me, worked camps, served an internship for the Chicago Cubs (MLB), helped with a mini-camp for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFL), and received a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology. I was then hired as a full-time assistant at UCF for two more years and, through my Cubs connection, got a job with the Pittsburgh Pirates (MLB) for three years. Currently, I am with the Reds in my 12th year.
Before you decide that you want a career as a strength coach for a professional team, you need to understand how to prepare yourself, the expectations of the position, and the personal qualities that will help you succeed. The following provides greater detail of the five steps previously mentioned that are essential to being a successful strength and conditioning coach:
Five Essential Steps On The Path To A Successful Career As A Professional Strength And Conditioning Coach
Choose the college or university program that offers an exercise science track. Some exercise science tracks are in the school of education and others may be in the departments of exercise physiology, kinesiology or sports medicine. I chose the exercise and sports medicine track. The sports medicine influence has benefitted me greatly since about 10% of my job is Phase 4 rehab, which is important when dealing with return-to-play criteria and working in partnership with your medical staff. Once you have earned your degree, you are ready for certification.
Professional teams will require a minimum standard of at least the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) CSCS® certification to be hired as a strength and conditioning coach. Check the NSCA website and order the materials necessary for you to prepare for the test. The MLB has set a new standard for rookie ball. At the rookie ball level, a strength coach must have earned the CSCS® certification, but at the double-A through major league levels the strength coaches must also be an NSCA Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach (RSCC). There is always a potential for liability when working with professional athletes. Sports teams that employ million-dollar athletes hold you liable if an athlete is harmed due to your instruction or advice.
As a protection, the MLB requires that each coach purchase liability insurance. To practice as a strength and conditioning coach in the MLB, you must have the minimal level of personal liability insurance, as offered through the NSCA. As an MLB strength coach, I am a Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach (RSCC) and hold this recognition with Distinction (RSCC*D). This shows your future employer that you have the CSCS® certification and you have had a minimum of ten years of full-time experience working in a sports team environment.
The registry also ensures that you are up to date with continuing education modules. Continuing education is essential for keeping current on all aspects of strength and conditioning. Experience working at personal training and performance facilities would not qualify as continuing education approved by the registry, but working in college sports would. To learn more about the registry go to the NSCA website.
3. Internship/Graduate Assistantship
You have earned your degree and are now certified. The next step along your path is gaining experience. It is time to put your knowledge into practice. The best way to learn the ropes is to observe and work under the tutelage of a certified strength coach. Working under a strength coach who is not certified will not provide you the level of expertise and practical experience necessary for success at the professional level.
Although most curricula at the college or university level require an internship as part of your degree, you will need more targeted, specific experience working with sport teams. In order to succeed, individuals must be willing to work for an extended period, and for long hours under the supervision of a certified strength and conditioning coach, preferably one that holds the RSCC recognition. It is likely that a one-semester internship will not give you the expertise, experience, and confidence you need to perform at the professional level.
Find an opportunity that will challenge you and allow you to get involved, such as applying for a graduate assistantship or working at your local high school, college, or university. Most professional sports teams have internship positions. But you should know upfront that there may be one or two internship positions and hundreds of applicants. Be prepared to fill out many applications; you will most likely not get your first choice. Remember this is a process, so you must be patient, persistent, and ready to do whatever the position demands.
I remember writing many letters to Division I and professional strength coaches while I was an undergraduate student. I have 33 manuals sitting on my office shelf that were sent to me by strength coaches who were willing to help young people become successful in the profession by sharing their knowledge. Of course, as in any walk of life, you will run into a few strength and conditioning coaches who think they know everything. Some will think they have the “secret” and will not speak to you.
But most of the coaches in this industry are knowledgeable, hardworking, and willing to help. It is because these strength coaches act with professionalism and collegiality that our profession is increasing in respect and growing in opportunities. Get yourself involved and listen, listen, listen.
Remember, you have just reached the tip of the iceberg and have much to learn, so listen to your mentors, and follow directions. If you cannot do these two simple things, nobody will be willing to recommend you for a job. An internship or graduate assistantship provides the perfect entry into the field, offering you the opportunity to get firsthand experience and begin the next step.
4. Network to Find a Job
Now you have to hustle. Hopefully during your time gaining entry-level experience you were also networking, attending NSCA conferences, and introducing yourself to colleagues and other sports medicine professionals, such as certified athletic trainers, physical therapists, sports dietitians, and sports medicine physicians. The advantage of being an NSCA Member is having access to a broad network with relevant job listing/opportunities, events and symposia specific to the profession, and in earning strong recommendations by attending these events.
Another avenue for job opportunities is to regularly check online sources. The NSCA has a site with job postings at www.NSCA.com. You can also look on the websites of each of the professional sports teams. For instance, check the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Coach Society website (PBSCCS) www.baseballstrength.org. This is where most baseball teams post jobs. Understand that the jobs posted on this site are mostly minor-league, entry-level jobs. If baseball is the path, you hope to take, unless your hometown has a minor league team and you have a job lined up with them, plan on moving. When you land a job with a minor-league baseball team, you will be assigned to a city where one of the minor-league teams is located. An important consideration when contemplating a career in any professional sport is that you will be moving more than once during your career. This leads to Step 5.
You have your degree, your certifications, and you now have experience. During your internship, graduate assistantship, or entry-level job, you should have learned that being a strength coach means long hours, many consecutive days without an off-day, modest salaries, limited family time during the season, keeping complete records, paperwork, managing people, and lots of administrative duties that have nothing to do with working with your athletes.
So, you still want to be a head strength coach for a professional sports franchise. Understand that this job will be very different from working with high school students or college student athletes. Once you get to the professional ranks, you will no longer have a teacher-student relationship. You will have a professional working relationship. Your athletes will be working professionals earning salaries, and you will be a professional earning a salary. This distinction will affect the relationship between you and your athletes.
If you are the type of coach that needs more control of your athletes and used to barking out orders, expecting the athletes to follow them without question, working at the professional level is not for you! The culture of each professional sport is unique, but some facets are common across the board. At the professional level, you work in a setting where you must interact with owners, unions, agents, front office personnel, coaching staffs, and medical staffs. In baseball, your athletes will range from 18-year-olds to players in their early 40s.
Players will be at different stages of their careers and most of them will have some type of injury history. You will need to earn trust—the trust of your owners, general managers, coaching staff, and medical staffs. You will be called into meetings to explain, or sometimes defend, your ideas in a way that these team members understand. Remember, it is their careers and their livelihoods; your job is to help them be the best that they can be. The organization needs to believe that you have their best interests at heart and players need to feel that you care about them and their careers before anyone will buy into your programs. Each member of the organization must be convinced that you are committed!
To be successful as a professional strength and conditioning coach you need to use all of your knowledge, all of your creativity, all of your energy, and all of your patience to get through every day. If this sounds exciting to you, start with Step 1 and go for it.
It is a grind, and it is not easy. But I LOVE it.