TweetThe Odyssey of a Collegiate Strength & Conditioning Coach
By Jerold Gaitan, Strength & Conditioning Coach, Texas State University
This article is designed to give future strength & conditioning coaches a better insight as to what it takes to get your “foot in the door”. I’ve seen the question posted over and over again. People are quick to throw out answers based on their experiences and that’s great. But do you believe everything you read? Is the person giving you the advice a “guru” or a “yoda”? Is it the 22 year old “sports performance coach” at Big Time Franchise Inc.? Jim Wendler and I spoke about this concern and we decided that I would write an article dealing with this issue – in an attempt to help young coaches such as myself get started. Who the hell am I you ask? I am a nobody but I have and am going through what you will be going through. I am writing this so that you don’t commit the same mistakes that I did and hopefully get on the right track sooner. Without further ado, take a walk with me….
I got started pretty much the same way everyone does -- in high school. The first kid in the weight room and the last one out. We didn’t have the luxury of a strength and conditioning coach so there was tons of “bad” lifting going on everywhere. My buddy and I taught each other how to power clean by looking at pics in a book (so you can imagine our form) and on any given day we’d fry our CNS with about 30 reps of cleans or snatches. Then we’d go bench press for a half hour – way too heavy, nice and slow on the way down, with a 40-50lb spot on the way up. Legs? Squat? Oh, we did those sometimes with about 500lbs on our back going down maybe a quarter of the way. Whatever, we lifted like crap, had no clue, but I was absolutely in love.
Next came college. What do I want to do when I get older? I was 18 and I had no clue. Strength and conditioning coach? What the hell is that? Is it the personal trainer at “Your Bodies Curves” with 21” guns and 19” quads? Definitely didn’t want to be that guy. I couldn’t give up the dream of playing football so my genetically declined self went to a Division III university just to play football. The only thing good that came out of this was, again, we had no strength coach. This inspired me and my best friend Ted, to begin reading and watching everything we could. Our mistake, we didn’t question it. Instead, we just “got under the bar” and did it. Then we acted like strength and conditioning coaches and made our team do the same thing. This was great because I actually started coaching athletes. Was I perfect in my teaching technique? Hell no! This inspired Ted and I to suck it up and approach the Head Strength Coach at a Division I-AA university in our city. He let us sit in and watch his athletes training sessions and he actually helped us design a better template/workouts for our football team.
For two years I was a Health Education major and I had no idea what the hell I was going to do with that degree when I graduated. My parents were pissed. I didn’t care because I was having fun working out, skipping class, partying, etc. One day I just woke up and said, if I stay here, I am never going to leave here. I knew by this time that I wanted a career “working” with athletes. I transferred to a school in Massachusetts that offered Athletic Training. This is a very deceitful title. I thought it really meant training athletes. Dead wrong on that one too. I was fetching water bottles, taping ankles, and listening to wimps ***** about being hurt (no disrespect to ATCs—to each his own). As an athletic training student however, I back doored an internship with the New England Patriots. That was a great experience but I was more fascinated with their training regime than fetching water for them. I would sneak away and hide in the weight room to see what they were doing. Chains, bands, and a ton of things I’ve never seen before were being implemented. I was confused and amazed. Seeing that made me decide that I wanted a career in the weight room – this guy was making money actually “training” the athletes. I left the internship, continued with athletic training ( I was almost done with my degree) and picked up a concentration in exercise science.
Ok, so to this point I have already screwed up. I didn’t meet as many connections that I could have. I also didn’t read and research as much as I should have. I definitely should have volunteered at a big time Division I university. Boston College was only 25 minutes up the road and UConn was an hour south. I blew those opportunities. If you are getting into the field and you are in college, find a big time university, if you can, and volunteer. Yeah, you’ll just be loading and unloading bars but you’ll be amazed at what you will learn.
The next step. You want to be a collegiate strength coach, you are going to have to get the CSCS certification. Stupid? Bullshit? Absolutely, but what are you going to do? Suck it up and regurgitate what you read back on a piece of paper. Remember, don’t believe everything you read. Just because they say to train a certain way, doesn’t mean you have to. I can’t even tell you how many great strength coaches do not have this certification or let it expire but unless you really know somebody, get it.
Another thing, look for a graduate assistant position. Not only do these jobs require a certification, but most of them require a master’s degree. Begin this process during your undergraduate years. Check out the employment section on www.ncaa.com and even at Elitefts.com. They will usually post graduate assistant openings there. Start mailing head coaches letters of interest and try to get a feel for whether or not they will be looking for a GA come the next academic year. Another great way is to actually call the GA, at the university of interest, and see for yourself where they are at in the program.
I was just about to graduate and I had no idea what I was going to do. None of my requests regarding a graduate assistant position had been answered. I started filling out graduate school applications and just figured that I would volunteer as a strength and conditioning coach wherever I landed. I was fortunate enough to get a call one day by my best friend Ted regarding the other GA position opening at the university he was working at – Temple University. Well it’s Temple, but hey it’s a GA position as a strength & conditioning coach. I would have preferred Arizona State, FSU, Florida, Texas, but beggars can’t be choosers. So off I went. I graduated with a BS in May and began working at Temple in June.
Temple University was an experience, let me tell you. The Director of Strength and Conditioning was brilliant, but he was burnt out. Seven years and not one winning football season will definitely do that to you. Oh, and the lack of support from the Athletic Department was also a contributor. We were an undermanned staff and worked our asses off. Here's where I got my first “glimpse” of the hours a collegiate strength & conditioning coach worked – 40hrs? Hahaha. 50hrs? Haha. 60 hrs? Ha. 70hrs +? Yeah, we were GA’s and in our contract it said we were only supposed to work 20hrs a week! We were on the grind. In a typical week, we would work 50-60 hours and then go to class!! I absolutely loved it though. This is where it will make or break you. If you can’t handle it here, there’s no chance you can handle the real life of a Head Strength Coach. The fact that we were so understaffed, actually worked out as a benefit for us GA’s. On top of working with football and basketball, we were given teams that were our sole responsibility – we designed the workouts, monitored their progress, and dealt with the coaches. This was a great learning experience. I learned how to design workouts, how to periodize them correctly, and how to handle the coaches.
Mistakes I made up to this point. I didn’t ask enough questions. My boss was great but I started asking him questions too late. I was scared to ask because I didn’t want him to think I didn’t know what I was doing. But I definitely didn’t know everything then and I still don’t know everything now. Whenever I did ask him a question I got a full out 50 minute lecture and I learned a lot. He was the first person to turn me onto Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell. I began reading this stuff and was amazed. I didn’t however, go with my instincts and try to find people I could talk to about this stuff.
Another thing I didn’t do was try to find seminars and conferences with people like the Elitefts.com staff. I slacked on this but you should start looking now and attend as many as possible. My boss also handed me the book “Supertraining”. “What the hell is this?” I thought. It’s the Bible – begin reading it now. While you’re at it, pick up Science and Practices of Strength Training, Fundamentals of Strength Training in Sport, and Programming and Organization – all available at www.elitefts.com. If you can’t afford it, go to the library. If they don’t have it, look for interlibrary loan – your library will get it from another library. Also, start keeping a journal of what you read. I made this mistake and now I am in the process of going back through all these books and taking notes – it really sucks.
Still with me? Ok now I am finishing up my master’s degree and I am desperately searching for a job. The fact that I did not get out and establish a network of people in the field or develop contacts is killing me. I am getting passed over for every job, mainly because I didn’t know anybody. I learned the hard way – In this field, its all about “who you know”. It really, really, sucks but its life. There are a lot of good coaches who get screwed over for jobs because they don’t know anybody. Meantime, Joey Nevaliftalot gets a job at a big time SEC school because his daddy knows such and such. So, what do I do now that I can’t get a job at a university? I did not, and refused to work at a franchised training facility because I despise them – that's another article all in itself. An internship position opened up with a Major League Baseball team and I was fortunate enough to get the job. I really wanted to work with football, but I this was the card I was dealt.
Baseball experience…hmmm…I’m not going to go into a whole lot with this one. I loved it and hated it. Loved being on the road with a professional baseball team – I loved the life. Games, beer, women, all that was great. Having to follow a strength and conditioning program that someone else designed sucked. Especially when the program was so basic and awful. But, I was getting paid to follow it, so I did. I stayed with the team for just about the entire season. When the collegiate jobs started opening back up, I started applying. I was offered to stay on board for another year but the pay wasn’t guaranteed for the off-season, I had no health insurance (which I desperately need because I am a mess), and I didn’t want to work with professional players. I wanted to work with college kids that actually “got after it” (trained hard) and I wanted to design my own programs. I applied for every job that was offered and heard back from three schools. After the interviews, which is an insane experience, I decided on Texas State University where I am currently at – in my first year.
One huge thing that I have learned is how generous people are to help you out. This just became clear to me this week after 7 years. I went to Dave Tate’s seminar in Boston and was amazed at how helpful he was. I spoke with Jim Wendler on the phone and he made me actually feel comfortable. He didn’t barrage me questions and make me feel like a dumbass – he encouraged me and offered me words of advice. I had a question for CJ Murphy about strongman training so I sent him an email. He actually wanted me to call him to talk about things and was more than helpful. I emailed a big time Division I-A strength coach, an absolute leader in the field, this week just to see how things were going. I didn’t think he would actually respond, but he did. He actually offered me advice and I was amazed that he took the time out to respond to my message considering how hectic his life must be. I wrote an overview about the Boston seminar, and just today, Sean Donegan of Bad Attitude Gym sent me an email saying he is right in Dallas, TX and he’d be more than happy to answer any question I may have. He also told me to feel free and come workout with them anytime!! This was just in 1 week!! Imagine if I would have been doing this 7 years ago when I was in undergrad!
The last thing you are going to have to get used to you when you first start out, is the pay. It sucks! The rewards however, are great. When one of your athletes smashes a PR, from doing your workout, his face and your feelings are priceless. So what if your buddy from back home is making $70,000 a year. Call him and ask him what he did for work today. Analyzed data, stared at computer screen for eight hours, wore a suit and tie, and went home. Well, I wear mesh shorts and sneakers to work, train collegiate athletes indoors and outdoors, travel to games and watch them live while you watch them on TV. You can keep your job! My happiness is much more important than a monetary figure. If you think the other way around, this isn’t the field for you!
Finally, I would like to thank my mom and dad. I have struggled and am still struggling and without their support, I would have never made it this far. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been “stuck” and had to ask them for help. They have really made my “dream” possible thus far and I really hope to repay them someday!
Enough with the sappy shit – get under the freakin’ bar, meet people, read everything, get a credit card (haha), and live a happy life – doing what you always wanted to do, making athletes the best they can possibly be!
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