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Principles of Performance Series Part 3: Professional Development

For better and for worse, the internet has changed the landscape of how we live our day-to-day lives more dramatically than anything we’ve ever really seen. While this applies to virtually any profession, the internet has profoundly changed the landscape for the coaching industry- again for better and for worse. In the digital era we have been provided an infinite resource to study through, while also permitting the ability to see directly what the top professionals from across the globe are doing. Breaking into this field around 2013, I was fortunate to be a part of one of the first generations of strength coaches to be able to utilize Twitter and Instagram for information sourcing and professional development. And ten years about a decade later I can say with certainty- if you aren’t optimizing the social media platform, you’re dramatically compromising your reach, and likely, your opportunities.

Where we discussed more of the tangible side of things in parts 1 and 2 of this series, in this installment, we’re going to take a look at the developmental side. I think it’s important to start this out by saying that a coaching position is an educational responsibility. In other words, irrespective of which side of the coaching industry you fall under, it’s imperative you treat your role as one that is facilitating understanding and growth. Therefore, if we are responsible for teaching and developing athletes in this sense, it’s on us to stay sharp with our knowledge, continue to diversify our approach, and stay receptive to new ways of doing things.

1. Do the work, share your work.

I fucked up quite a bit for myself in my late teens-early twenties. Among many other things, one of the mistakes I made early was not taking my education seriously at all; to the point of being kicked out of school 3 classes short of graduating. But once I got my reality check, I knew I had to hit the gas, and so I just started searching out everything I could on all things human body and performance. About 72 hours and countless sheets of notes later, I had formed my first semblance of direction and had formed my “Mount Rushmore of Strength & Conditioning”- Eric Cressey, Andrea Hudy, Mike Boyle, and Al Vermeil. I was ravenous, anything I could get my hands on I would consume. People think I’m facetious when saying this, but I genuinely have learned more about my work through Google, YouTube, and social media platforms than I ever did in a classroom.

Point blank, these coaches changed the trajectory of my life based on their willingness to share. Being someone who did not find value (at least initially) in the academic setting, I feel like I have an obligation to produce as much quality content as I can, because if I can provide for one person what that Mt. Rushmore group provided for me, I can justify every second of time that I’ve put into content production.

If the first part of this (doing the work) isn’t in place, then sharing your work becomes a moot point. I know this is probably perceived as counterculture, but I believe working your ass off should be a requirement, especially when you’re young. Self-preservation is necessary but does not apply as much when you are in the first 10 or so years of your career. I’ve never been naturally talented at many things, but I’ve always worked very hard at what matters to me. So perhaps I’m a little biased here but working my ass off has changed everything for me. Even when I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going, I just put my head down and worked myself to exhaustion. At some point, sweat equity becomes a requirement for growth.

Sharing your work becomes equally important as you go along, and for a couple of reasons. A few years back I started to see my social media pages as a real-time archive for my work, or as a mobile resume in a sense. I want to promote an image of myself that, even when I’m not “looking for a job”, I have content and material up there that is insightful, informative, and provides an honest reflection of who I am as a coach and person. Since taking this initiative, I can say with 100% honesty that every single opportunity I’ve been fortunate to have- podcasts, presentations, job offers, collaborations, etc. have all been a result of social media engagements. Beyond that, I think we have gotten to a point where we have started to build a resource that is really starting to help others develop as professionals, and that’s something I am very proud of.

As my man Mike Boyle put it- “steal good shit from smart people”. I have taken so much from social media platforms over the years, and not only that, but have had so many coaches take time out of their day to answer my dumbass questions without hesitation. Moreover, there are so many coaches (Les Spellman & Cici Murray, Stu McMillian/Altis, and Matt Solomon/Science for Sport to name a few) that are sharing their entire playbook for the field to see. I think this trend in “sharing the work” is phenomenal, and the least that I can do is play my part in paying it forward. Doing the work is the commitment to self, sharing the work is the responsibility to others.

2. Create your own opportunities, be your own hero.

The biggest detractor to today’s society is the reluctance for people to take initiative for problem solving. I’m sure I’m starting to sound like an old man shaking a stick saying that, but I really believe we are becoming our own biggest limiting factor. As it applies to our field, we gripe about low pay, a lack of opportunities, and being undermined as professionals. But then turn right around and follow these gripes with claims of being overworked, tired, and self-claims of how “basic” our work is. I just don’t think this is a logical way to approach evolving our field. You are not a victim, and you are always in control of your outcome, it just comes down to what you’re willing to do (or sacrifice) to get to where you want to be.

Luck is where opportunity meets preparation, and between those two variables the only one we can control is the preparation. Opportunities will come, but if you forgo the aspect of preparation, you won’t be ready when those opportunities present themselves. In this case, it’s nobody’s responsibility other than yours to create your outcomes. Tying in the points outlined above, this is where social media shows its full value… anyone, from anywhere in the world can stumble across your page at any given moment. If and when that right person crosses your page, what will they say? Do you provide material that will make them inclined to reach out to you directly? Do you have the infrastructure to make a jump when something does materialize? I think about this stuff all the time and it sounds anticlimactic, but I promise you all of these possibilities are inextricably linked to doing the work, making it visible, and being exceptionally confident that there is nothing too big for you. If you can capitalize on those things, just give it some time and let the rest fall into place.

Understand that the ball is always in your court, and every day presents a new opportunity to build something. External reliance is the silent killer of growth, and while nobody can do everything on their own, you need to be mindful of how much autonomy you have. While it appears more comfortable to have others (i.e., a business) assume risk for you, recognize that you are still assuming risk in that if they fail, you will be without any structure. This is where seeing yourself as the business can become advantageous, even if you’re formally employed by someone, you are an independent business that is temporarily wearing someone else’s logo. Make it a priority to do the best work you can for your employer, but also look to take full advantage of what they can provide for you. You can build your autonomy quickly, and it becomes transcendent when you see what you can do without the reliance on others to make it happen.

3. Generalist to specialist

If you hop on strength coach twitter on just about any given day, I can all but assure you you’ll run into one of these debates…. Trap bar vs. Olympic lifts, quote tweets talking shit about pro athletes training videos, or how we should go about LTAD (long-term athletic development). And while these debates are fine in nature, my point of contention is this- over half of our industry is BELOW THE POVERTY LINE… so in the grand scheme of things, do these items really matter?

I am fiercely committed to growing this industry, both in terms of our perception and reputation, but also tangibly in regard to pay and job opportunity. Something I’ve speculated on is how narrow our scope of practice is, yet we still tend to have a high level of education and work history to qualify for even mediocre job opportunities. As I see things from where I am in this career now, I believe our low pay and our limited opportunities falls squarely on us, and we need to figure out how to create and demonstrate more value.

My time at VHP has afforded me so many things, but nothing more profound than the skillsets I’ve developed based on the demands of the population we worked with. Having such a wide range of athlete types (even within a small community) and especially having to work with so many injuries prepared me in a way I couldn’t have ever envisioned for myself. In essence, it allowed me to become the “ultimate generalist”, which has set me up to now work towards becoming the ultimate specialist. I have always been on a sport performance track, and despite working exclusively with the military population while I was at VHP, I always tried to take the situations I was faced with and just project how they could translate to sport setting. What I’m finding now is that the effects of injury and the problem solving that was required at VHP has given me a great ability to look at conventional sport performance from a slightly different lens. And I think this is something that will give me a true advantage in years to come.

I cannot encourage young coaches enough to embrace being a generalist. Not only is this necessary for exposure’s sake, but it is essential for developing perspective. Having a wide spectrum of athlete types, training goals, injury/medical histories and personality types will give you the impetus required for learning and growth. Become a highly efficient problem solver, you want to be equipped with versatility before density, because you never really know how effective something is until you can experiment with it across multiple populations. Over time, this will slowly build your training philosophies and priorities, which you can then craft into your own “system” or method.

4.) Structure Your Learning

I’ll keep this one short and sweet, but I think it should be a priority for every coach to designate time throughout the week that is purely dedicated to learning. This can be structured a million different ways, and I would encourage you to put something together that is realistic and conducive with your lifestyle. But sharing what has worked for me, I generally shoot for the following:

-(+) 90 rule: I’ve talked about this a few times, but I shoot for a +90 minutes of dedicated study/work time each day. This is in addition to standard work hours. The reality is this, if you clock in and clock out when everyone else does, how are you going to separate yourself? It doesn’t need to be a full 90 minutes, at least not at first. Just allocate what you can and be disciplined to hitting that mark more days than not.

-Listen to 1 podcast and read 1 article per week

-Have 1 phone call per month with someone you see as a mentor/role model.

-Attend 2 continuing education events each year.

-Archive social media posts: This is another low hanging fruit anyone can adopt. When I see things throughout the week on social media that grab my attention, I archive them. Then, I designate 30 or so minutes every Friday evening to go back and read or watch the post attentively. This has been surprisingly very beneficial.

5.) Bet on yourself. Always.

The most critical component of professional development is a willingness to take risks and maintaining a certain level of defiance. It’s important to break the mold of dogma and go against the grain at times. I feel like most people under achieve not because they’re incapable, but because they accept a low bar of standard. When we hit what we believe to be the mark of acceptance (or standard) it fundamentally changes our drive and willingness to step outside of our norm. This is what allows complacency to set in and with complacency comes distorted expectations. In other words, we stop pushing ourselves and then get bent out of shape when evolution or progression slows.

Be willing to take the risk for that job opportunity, be exceptionally confident in what you do and what you can offer. If you stay within the lines all the time you will never be in a position to shape your own perspective. Without new stimulus or environment, you can fall into the trappings of comfort and this is again where most people start to slip. The way I see it is this, I am perfectly comfortable with setback and failure, but it must be at my own doing. I never want to be in a position where I have to undo the consequences of other people’s thinking. In a sense this is nothing more than taking the training wheels off- I want to be in control of my outcome as much as I can be, and that requires being willing and able to bet on myself when the time comes.

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