The strength and conditioning industry is rife with bullshit, misapplication, and more coaches than jobs. Sunny disposition aside, the glass is half full, as opportunities for growth and development abound.
Books like Supertraining and POWER are excellent educational resources. Year round local and national S&C conferences provide opportunities to learn from world-renowned presenters. And let’s not forget the traveling seminars like CrossFit Football which routinely expand minds and drop knowledge bombs!
Sadly, even in the midst of these amazing resources, the opportunity to ask questions or discuss is often ignored. Case in point, maybe 1% of our seminar attendees crack the proverbial bone and ask questions until the gym shuts down.
Information gleaned from books and takeaways from presentations are a great start, but real knowledge is gained through conversation, and these opportunities are rarely formal. They must be created.
This isn’t a bunch of theory. I’ve experienced the difference firsthand. In fact, here are four conversations that fueled the fire!
Mike Hill- Georgetown U.: 6/2012
Summer 2012, @Cali and I were running the sexiest gym of all time, and were gearing up for #OccupyStrength in Baltimore. Looking to bring the action, we gathered a misfit gang of unfit CrossFitters and began treating them like a sports team. We renamed class time as ‘practice’, hit team breaks after training, and even created a Sexy uniform. This was to give them a taste of Game Day and being a part of something bigger than themselves, an element I thrived on as a college athlete and coach (and felt was missing in our gym.)
At the same time, I completed my final season as DIII lacrosse coach at Marymount U. The direct focus on strength versus sport during the #Occupy prep really dialed me in on an insatiable passion for strength-centric training opportunities. Although Marymount had me walk the line between sport and strength coach, it wasn’t enough. I needed to raise the stakes. I drive across the Potomac River to Georgetown University, and through one of my #Occupy athletes (a former Georgetown athlete), I connected with Head Performance Coach, Michael Hill.
Hill’s S&C coaching journey took him from Iowa to California, eventually rooting him in D.C. From over a 100 emails Mike sent out to S&C coaches country-wide, Georgetown was the only one that answered. Thus, he graciously chose to answer my call since he was once in my shoes. (I will also add that Mike receives hundreds emails a year from young coaches looking for a shot, and goes out of his way to answer every one.)
The Takeaway: Ownership
The conversation was my first exposure to Division I athletics. Mike very accurately portrayed the challenge make it as strength coach at that level. Most schools had an assistant or intern program that limit the opportunity to develop. Your coaching spirit is sacrificed in the name of blindly following suit. However, Mike gave me two opportunities in one shot: the chance to assist with the sport I love (men’s and women’s lacrosse) while leading my own teams (men’s and women’s crew).
From this seemingly innocuous conversation, the major takeaway was to take ownership and become my own coach. From assisting, I experienced the programs behind the high stakes teams, while with the crew teams, I had the chance to fail, learn, and develop my own systems. Hill stated, “When a team is yours, it is yours to lose.” This motivated me to dial in, be creative with connections to athletes and sport coaches, and seize responsibility for my athlete’s performance. A Power Coach must own their athlete’s performance. Nothing in competition is a mistake; it is a failure to prepare. Like all good preparatory activities, this takes reps.
This one stands out because I know dozens who would NEVER open their doors for some random, inferior coach off the street. Initially, I was looking to intern, but it led to an actual job where I could apply the assessment tools and texts @John assigned us, while gaining invaluable Power Coach experience.
In a way, Mike was paying forward to the coaches that helped him progress, but he wasn’t looking to donate. I encourage you all to do the same.
John Welbourn- Power Athlete: 6/2013
On June 1, 2013 in Austin, I finished my first week in the weight room of a nationally ranked D1 collegiate football program, where my knowledge and experience was insufficient for this crossroad.
In this new environment, athletes were not applying the performance-driven, orthopedically sound approaches, but unlike previous assignments, I was not tasked with actual coaching, just spotting and recording daily numbers. I faced an internal, moral crisis between NCAA violation or an athlete’s ACL.
At the end of my rope, I called John to discuss observations and his experience at Cal. This conversation realigned my focus, and ended with a great Welbourn one liner, “Open mind, tough skin.”
The Takeaway: Turn Shit into Sugar
Something positive is in every negative situation. Constantly appearing in this conversation were two words, opportunity and observation. Turning the difficult circumstances into an opportunity depended on how I looked at it. I was unable to coach individual athletes, so I broadened my perspective and intensified my focus. Instead of keying in on individual racks, I observed the whole weight room for patterns, attitudes, and limiting factors across the board. Initially, all I saw were performance detracting, orthopedically unsound trees, but my conversation with John helped me see an opportunity-rich forest.
The long, long call showed me not to take this shit personally, never wait for a moment to ask a question, and seize opportunities to observe positives and negatives everywhere. My lack of control over most circumstances shouldn’t stop me from making most of them. Over the following 2 months, I learned to connect with athletes, regardless of stature, experience, or shoe choice (Vans were frowned upon). Through a broadened perspective, I learned not only to see the whole athlete, but also how a program affects a team. Most importantly, I improved my social intelligence: to effectively communicate with athletes and discuss strength and conditioning in-depth with opposing viewpoints.
Raphael Ruiz – AXIS: SWORD AND SOUL SOLUTIONS: 2/2014
This next conversation pulls from my time Raphael Ruiz and AXIS down in Tampa, Florida. The daily structure was straight out of the League of Shadows. It was built to break you. We would train 5 days a week in the AM, lecture midday, then coach in the evenings. Saturday mornings saw Surf and Turf beach/swim workouts, if we weren’t rearranging the entire weight room once every 3 weeks.
There were A LOT of new movements which we had to execute AND coach. This meant knowing set up position, communicating execution, and knowing where and why athletes will fail. One new movement in-particular fascinated me: the staggered squat. Despite my new movement detective powers, I couldn’t quite see the big picture.
Not wanting squander even the most trivial opportunity while I was there, I asked the Ruiz about this during one of the high school girl volleyball lifting sessions. He laughed as he sat on box and handed the class reins to the other coaches. Casually, he rolled into a whole breakdown of the X-Axis and squat development.
The Takeaway: Respect the Process
“…athletes learn about themselves..” – The Ruiz
During the impromptu lecture, he casually dropped that knowledge bomb.
With the uncoordinated high school volleyball girls training around us, he had a dozen examples of limiting factors the staggered squat would attack. He even reverse-engineered their court performance into the squat and through the warm up.
While lost on the group (I’m convinced coaching 16-year-old girls is impossible), every movement is an opportunity for an athlete to understand the connection between mind, body, and performance. Athletes want things fast and easy, but athletic development is a process. Every rep is building a foundation for them to continue to expand their athleticism.
My take away from this conversation? Like athletic development, developing as a coach is a process, and every assessment, session, or conversation contributes to it.
Raph had an intuitive feel for his athletes that allowed him to adjust programming on the fly, and there was no way a textbook or YouTube clip could describe what I was witnessing during this apprenticeship. Fortunately, this conversation jump started my awareness for the remainder of my time at AXIS.
Every coach should strive to develop a similar intuition. To accelerate your development, serve as an apprentice. The hours will suck, the pay will be minimal to nonexistent, and they may even try to kill you (true story). Know this: in the end, all of the time and bullshit will lead to a higher understanding and put you one step closer to mastering not only coaching, but yourself. It’ll all be worth it.
Mark Watts – Elite FTS: 5/2014
At this point, I was curious to see the path other strength coaches had taken to develop and secure a position. There are far less college strength positions than coaches, so how does one separate themselves from the pack? The old, “not what you know, who you know” was seemingly the only way to get a job in this field, and if who you know isn’t willing to take action, are not well perceived, or they don’t know anybody, how the fuck are you supposed to get a job?!
Not one to leave my fate in other’s hands, I sought insight from a coach who had been through it all, Mark Watts.
The Takeaway: Keep Moving Forward
Mark didn’t bullshit. This industry is in constant change, both in the evolution of information and the fact that if a head coach is fired or losing, shit rolls down hill. Sport coaches even like to stick their nose into programming. There isn’t much a strength coach can control. Trying to wrestle away control, micro-managing, or focusing on the negative distracts from the big picture: The Athlete.
Mark instead directs energy to the athletes via connection and leadership development, both skills that are personal in nature, not statistical. A coach can move with the chaos if the focus remains on the long-term growth of the athletes as people, not stats. This will create endless opportunities that elude other coaches. His passion for this approach really comes out during both of his appearances on Power Athlete Radio (Episode 62 and 90).
Mark helped me focus on the difference between a coach and Power Coach: taking an athlete where they cannot take themselves, and more importantly, setting them up for long-term success once their playing days end.
Empower Your Performance – Conversations Are key
Experience-based knowledge must be sought. Find a way to initiate the conversation (but Don’t Be Weird ™, and if they take the time for you, soak that information up and run with it as far as you can.
It’s not enough to surround yourself with like-minded individuals. Vacate that comfort zone and seek others with different experiences.
You don’t always have to agree with them. Who knows? You may learn something new.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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