Repairing the Broken Image of the Strength Coach
I went to a wedding in New York about three years ago, one of the many that I reluctantly went into hardly knowing a single person in attendance. This was in the fancier, upscale parts outside of the city and for all intents and purposes was the most lavish wedding I’ve been to. At one of the cocktail parties, I found myself in another awkward, unwanted conversation with someone much older and much wealthier than I was. He asked what I did for work to which I replied a “strength and conditioning specialist” … we tend to emphasize the “specialist” part to those who are of higher social status and don’t know anything about our work. He paused for a second and then condescendingly said “oh wow! What honorable work young man!” … as if I told him I thread clothes for homeless people from recycled material or some shit. Needless to say, I absolutely hate New York city.
The overlooked and often subjugating perception of strength and conditioning coaches is far from a secret. We are the first to be blamed and the last to be acknowledged, we’re only discussed in public forum for negative stories, and the first to be fired from just about any university/pro/team setting. As unfortunate as this is, I believe there is more explanation to these circumstances and stereotypes than we’re often willing to discuss. Moreover, I think there are some more efficient ways we can go as an industry to improve our path ahead. With the challenging times presented to us all in these last few months, I believe it’s more critical than ever that professionals in an industry frequently classified as “expendable or superfluous” sharpen their damn tools. We can’t control the way others perceive us, but we sure can influence the reputation we give them to go off of.
Pillars of Prudence
No different than anything else, I always look in the mirror before looking out the window. Speaking to the general state of today’s strength coach, I believe there’s a ton of work we can do for ourselves before we demand or expect improved perception from the outside world. With that, these are the three pillars I believe we should start to work from- educated, healthy, and human.
1.) Educated and Credentialed
Being educated is unequivocally the centerpiece to our profession, or frankly, any profession in my opinion. If we want people to take us seriously, or god forbid recognize the complexity to our work- we must be educated on the subject. There’s just no excuse or counterpoint on this in my mind. Our work is highly sophisticated, and there is a great deal of complexity to truly understanding the applications of human performance. We need to make this more visible to those on the outside looking in. If people think that the start and stop of our work is loading up a bench press and screaming in kids’ faces, who the hell should respect us?!
While the credentialing part of this is largely governed by the specific tracks we follow (strength & conditioning- NSCA-CSCS, physical therapy- 92 years of school + 10,000 hours of observation), credentialing should never be undermined. No, having alphabet soup lettering behind your email signature doesn’t validate you as a coach, but it certainly demonstrates entry-level capabilities. Nevertheless, try to hone in on what you see for yourself big picture wise early in your career. Of course, this can/should remain malleable, however, having an early jump on what you ultimately want to do gives you a great advantage of more time to learn the craft. And in either case, strive to attain the gold standard certifications of your respective industry- do not become complacent with entry-level standards. Once you check that box, seek out how you can become a contributor for them.
All in all, I think this (education) is the cornerstone to everything- our reputation/ perception, our employment opportunities and salaries, and, most importantly just committing ourselves being truly better at what we do. We must continuously strive to be better. My routine is the 90-minute rule. Every day when I get home I shower, hang with my dogs and unload for an hour. Then I head up to my office for 90-minutes every weeknight. For me, if this does nothing else, it keeps me honest and routinized with my work. Some days I go in there and literally accomplish nothing, other days, I’m productive start to finish. But no matter how I feel, I’m pretty religious with this.
90-minutes a day x 5 days/wk. = 7.5 hours/wk. = 30 hrs./month = 360 hrs./year. 90-minutes may seem excessive, but it’s the concept that matters… if that number for you is 20 minutes, 40 minutes or whatever, just do more than what you’ve done up to this point and build from there.
2.) Healthy and in shape
Easily the most mind-boggling argument coaches routinely get into… “do you need to look the part?” For god’s sake yes… yes you need to look the part. Nobody should misconstrue “look the part” for “competitive body builder physique with pro athlete abilities”. Look the part means just that- look the damn part. You wouldn’t go to a dentist who doesn’t floss their teeth, so why in the hell should someone expect to be a strength coach and not lift weights?
Coming off my pedestal, we live in a world that values image and “look” above just about anything else. As such, it’s our responsibility to adapt and acknowledge this. The way you look will inherently influence almost anything in life, but certainly your physical appearance will be evaluated in an industry that is built on physique and physical performance. I would also recommend considering how you present yourself on social media, albeit for exercise videos, educational content, or for otherwise. Twitter and Instagram have become the ultimate evaluation tools of our society. Consider this for how it applies to your atmosphere and your population, because it isn’t the same across the board.
I work with a population that very much lives by the philosophy of “let me see what you can do before you tell me how to do it”. While there are of course outliers, I think for the most part this is a very fair way of assessing things. Appreciating this, I’m always sure to get my lift in when the athletes are circulating the gym. I think this is important because it shows them not only that I practice what I preach, but in a sense, can help validate some of my talking points/instruction. Again, don’t take this as “if you’re not the strongest in the room you can’t talk about improving strength”. This is a conceptual framework but allowing your athletes to see you in motion can help develop rapport.
Speaking to the health portion, I think this is something that gets overlooked by a lot of the S&C community. Because our world is built around strength, speed, power, etc. general health components can slip through the cracks. What I’ve learned about making general health and wellness concepts a talking point with my athletes is demonstrating that I care about them the person as much as them the athlete. We need to be committed to the athlete’s goals as they relate to performance, yes, but don’t be too quick to put athletes in a box. Ask them about their family/relationships/friends, inquire and coach them on sleep and stress management, be there as an emotional outlet when needed. Showing that you’re equally committed to improving their longevity and well-being can go a long way. Besides, if athletes aren’t healthy, does it really matter what their 40 time is?
3.) Be a Human
When we’re considering the image of strength coaches, there is a long history of outlandish narratives we need to work through. I believe a significant yet simple part of this is just being human. Not just that but presenting ourselves as nothing more than who we truly are at heart. Authenticity goes a long way, especially with athletes. I think a part of the reason we become relegated to titles like “get back coach” is because we have a tendency to assimilate what we think our image should represent. Have conversations that go beyond talking about macros and PR’s. Before you try to “fire your athletes up”, it’s ok to take 5 minutes to crack some jokes and just bullshit. We need to diminish the barriers before we can repair perception, and authentic conversation is a great step in the right direction. Remember, you’re not running PT at Boot Camp… you’re there to help them get better at what they do and foster a safe and enjoyable environment along the way. (PS- This is especially the case for those of you working at the high school level…)
I don’t need to cite anyone individually to paint a picture here, but we all know the crazed, manic coach stampeding the sidelines with ravenous energy getting the team “hyped”. Although this isn’t my approach, I typically reserve judgement on these guys/girls. Why? Well, because I don’t know them personally and therefore don’t know how much of a charade the energy is. If this is genuinely who they are, and the team genuinely galvanizes around that, then what’s the problem? If it’s fake, the athletes will be the first to see through it and disassociate from the coach. Case in point, if we do things to draw attention to ourselves just for the sake of doing so, we are directly feeding the stereotype that we’re all trying to break- strength coaches are just lunatics in a polo who bludgeon kids into the ground. I hope I can speak for the industry in saying- we’re a hell of a lot more than that.
I absolutely love my career and my profession. I know this is the expected, cliché thing to say, but no really- I love this shit. My work is something that electively occupies about 80% of my time to the point that I feel uncomfortable doing non-work/career related things right now. I know this is temporary, and I don’t want this to be forever. I consider myself in the peak velocity growth point of my career- very little real life obligations or responsibilities, and ample time/resource/energy to learn as much as I can and build from it. But to my point, after sabotaging my undergraduate course work and university learning opportunities, I set out on a plan at 23 to effectively “learn in 10 years what it takes most 25 to cover” Well, it’s because of this origin that I feel so indebted to give back to my profession. I didn’t learn my anatomy and biomechanics from textbooks or lecture halls (initially), I was learning from the likes of Eric Cressey, Mike Boyle, Dan Pfaff, Al Vermeil, etc. on YouTube and social media.
I was raised in this profession by the ones who were doing it in the trenches in real time. I believe that in a roundabout way, this has actually helped me tremendously. I feel like I had a somewhat reverse engineered upbringing. But nevertheless, I believe that everyone should take pride in the work they produce.
And in a field as unique as the one we represent, I think we should take some additional consideration to how we can actively shape and construct the applications and reputation of this industry for the years to come. That way, 50 years from now when some young strength coach goes to an overpriced wedding in NYC, they won’t be perceived as doing charity work and living a life of poverty.