Jun 6, 2017Clear Path
Leading an NCAA Division I program requires drive, dedication, and a willingness to learn. By laying the groundwork early, strength coaches can create their own lane to this level.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.
Most strength coaches will tell you there are one or two jobs across the country that, if vacant, they would always throw their hat in the ring for. The Assistant Athletics Director for Athletic Performance role at Stony Brook University was that position for me.
I grew up on Long Island, just 20 minutes from Stony Brook, and I’ve followed the growth of the athletic department throughout my career. It was tough to leave my previous position as the first-ever Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Mary Washington, but working at Stony Brook was a dream job for me. Athletic Director Shawn Heilbron’s mission to provide student-athletes with transformative life experiences resonated with me, so I am fortunate and proud to be at Stony Brook.
The jump from running a strength program in NCAA Division III to Division I can feel big, but I have felt at home here since day one. Part of what made the transition so smooth was the legwork I put in to get this job. I’d like to share the steps that I took so other strength coaches can replicate them. And as I wrap up my first year at Stony Brook, I’ve already learned a lot about leading a D-I strength program-lessons I’m happy to pass on.
LANDING THE JOB
Laying the groundwork for getting a D-I head strength coach position starts in the classroom. At minimum, strength coaches should have an undergraduate degree in exercise science, physical education, or kinesiology.
However, more and more jobs at the D-I level are beginning to require an advanced degree. For this reason, I recommend that all coaches climbing the ranks complete a master’s degree. There are some great graduate programs available in exercise science, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and sports administration that will help you on your way to becoming a D-I head strength coach.
Not unrelated to formal education is certification. To even get past the first stage of the hiring process in D-I, you must be certified by either the NSCA (CSCS) or CSCCa (SCCC). Having one or both of these credentials shows that you have the baseline knowledge to be considered for a position.
Beyond that, I encourage you to make yourself stand out by considering two additional types of certifications. First, think about one that’s practical. For example, USA Weightlifting (USAW) offers a hands-on course that emphasizes the Olympic lifts and compound barbell movements. Obtaining the USAW credential will show that you have competency beyond the textbook and can adequately demonstrate foundational exercises in the weightroom.
I also advise you to consider a niche certification if you want to make it to the D-I level. Find something you are interested in that makes you unique, and pursue specialized education in that area.
Since I have always had a passion for sports nutrition, I completed a certification in nutrition from the International Sports Sciences Association in addition to the certifications I already mentioned. This has helped me develop a secondary area of expertise and ensures that I can bring something new to my department. For other coaches, it could be a speed, Functional Movement Screen, or yoga certification.
Once you have the recommended degrees and credentials, get busy networking. Building and sustaining relationships with other strength and conditioning professionals is extremely important, and it’s one of the most underrated and underutilized tools you can use to get hired in D-I. Down the road, you never know when these connections will work to your benefit. You might network with a coach who ends up being part of the hiring process at a school you are interested in. Or you might develop a relationship with a strength coach who could put a call in for you to an athletic director they worked under. What you know is most important, but who you know can get your foot in the door.
You don’t have to go out of your way to network, either. If you travel with a team, chances are you regularly get to meet other strength and conditioning coaches within your conference or around the country. You would be surprised how many of these coaches would welcome the chance to sit down and bounce ideas off you-all you have to do is ask.
Making these connections has always been a priority for me, and it’s something I’ve continued at Stony Brook. For example, on every road trip with the men’s basketball team, I try to catch our opponent’s strength coach for a chat during shootaround.
Simply meeting with other coaches to talk shop is great, but it’s important to maintain these relationships and check in every so often throughout the year-not just when you’re job hunting. Congratulate a strength coach you’ve been networking with when you see that their team had a good win or when they post something you enjoy on social media. With Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, e-mail, and texting, there is no excuse nowadays for coaches not to keep in touch with each other.
Getting the right education and certifications and networking with coaches are some of the steps you can take to position yourself to land a D-I job. But there is one more piece to the equation, and it is perhaps the most important: Make the absolute best of your current situation.
I think a common mistake young strength coaches make is focusing too much on what they want and ignoring what they have. You should always have high aspirations, but don’t let them get in the way of doing a fantastic job where you are-whether that’s at a high school or small college or as an assistant. Those who are always chasing the next job rarely leave an impact at their previous position.
No matter what level I have been at, I have always treated each job the same way. I woke up with a passion for getting better every day, and I was willing to do anything for the good of the program. For example, I started the strength and conditioning department from scratch at UMW, so I had many obstacles to face, and I often had to think outside the box to solve problems. Plus, I had to develop relationships with people on and off campus to keep things running smoothly. All of these experiences prepared me for the additional responsibilities of my current job at Stony Brook, and the positive attitude I’ve maintained along the way has helped me tremendously in my first year here.
So let’s imagine you’ve finally landed that D-I head strength coach position you’ve been striving for. Now what? Begin your tenure by devoting ample time and energy into adapting to your new environment.
Once I was offered the job at Stony Brook in June 2016, it was a pretty quick turnaround to my start date. The biggest initial priority for me was getting to know the athletes, my staff, and the sport coaches.
My first order of business was introducing myself to the teams that were staying in town for the summer, which were men’s basketball, women’s basketball, football, and volleyball. I then shared my plans for the rest of the summer and let the players know how excited I was to work with them.
I think there is a misconception that D-I and D-III athletes are significantly different when it comes to strength and conditioning. The reality is that athletes at both levels train hard, want to get better, and seek to give themselves a competitive advantage.
There is a difference, however, in the amount of time you get to spend with athletes in D-I due to the size of your strength staff. In D-III, I was the only strength coach. So if a team was in the weightroom, I had to be there. This meant I couldn’t run separate warm-up or agility sessions outside. But since I have a staff of six at Stony Brook, it allows me to be present at practices and games and offer several training windows to teams throughout the week. I can also dedicate more time to a smaller group of athletes and be involved with all aspects of athletic performance.
After I made my initial connection with Stony Brook athletes, my next step was getting to know my strength staff. I began by taking the time to sit down with each coach to hear about their goals and how things were going with their teams. Then, I had a group meeting to lay out my goals, expectations, and team responsibilities going forward. I was fortunate to walk into a department that was already full of good coaches, and I’ve been able to hire two new staff members and two graduate assistants over the past year, so the transition has been smooth.
Along with getting to know my staff, I needed to know more about the logistics of the current operation (i.e., scheduling, purchasing, etc.). When walking into a new strength setting, it’s important to do an honest evaluation of the program without your ego getting in the way. Take a few weeks to get feedback, watch workouts, and develop a better understanding for how things work before ripping everything apart. If certain things are working well, keep them the same. If they aren’t, change them.
Once I built a foundation with the athletes and strength staff at Stony Brook, I set up meetings with sport coaches I would be working with to get a head start on plans for the fall semester. Any time you start working with a new slate of sport coaches, it is important to establish trust right off the bat.
When meeting with a coach for the first time, take notes on what they are looking for and what their previous experience has been with strength and conditioning. Some coaches at Stony Brook had worked with a different strength coach every couple of years, while others had seen more consistency. After I listened and took notes, I put together a program for each respective sport and set a follow-up meeting with the coach to present my ideas. I always try to connect the head coaches’ mission to what we do in the weightroom, and I believe they appreciate that.
SET AN EXAMPLE
Of course, once you get accustomed to D-I, it’s no time to rest on your laurels. Now that you’ve reached your desired level, focus on being the best leader possible.
I believe a strong leader is someone who puts his or her staff members in the best positions to succeed by utilizing their strengths and helping to develop their weaknesses. The director of the department should set expectations and standards but also allow their staff to be creative and take ownership of projects.
For example, one of my staffers at Stony Brook oversees our internship program. He comes up with the curriculum and interviews all the candidates when we have open positions. If I were to hand him my plan for the internship program and do all the interviews myself, he would be less attached and committed to the operation.
The same goes for program design. I give my coaches freedom to put together training regimens as they see fit for their respective sports, as long as they fall within our core principles. If I were to dictate a program that they had to implement, it would not be executed with the same devotion and passion.
Additionally, I believe it is important to lead by example. I try to put myself in my staffers’ shoes daily and remember the good and bad leadership that I’ve experienced throughout my career. The coaches and administrators that inspired me the most were hardworking, honest, and always gave it to me straight. Therefore, I aim to replicate those traits with my own staff.
One particular area where I try to lead by doing is in professional development. As coaches, it is important that we not only develop and research in the areas of strength and conditioning, but in leadership, as well.
Half of what I read is related to leadership, time management, and personal development. The content of these books is usually not part of a strength coach’s college curriculum, but it is essential for coaches at any level. Some of my favorites include:
• The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier
• Leaders Eat Last and Start with Why by Simon Sinek
• Slight Edge by Jeff Olson
• How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
• 5 Levels of Leadership by John Maxwell.
Further, I invest in professional development for my entire staff. I believe this is critical for the success of our program. Currently, we do a Skype session once a month with strength coaches from around the country. It has been a great way for us to learn from our peers, expand our network, and get us thinking. Next year, I’d like to continue this trend and host a strength and conditioning seminar at Stony Brook. My staff members also have the opportunity to attend a strength and conditioning conference each year, and they are encouraged to conduct site visits at other schools.
Obtaining a D-I head strength and conditioning job is a great goal for a strength coach to set, and it’s certainly attainable with the right prep work and attitude. However, it shouldn’t mark the end of your growth as a performance professional. We can always continue to learn, improve, and grow, no matter what level we are at.
Now that I’ve been at Stony Brook University for about a year, I have my eye on the future. First and foremost, I want to continue to develop relationships within the department and the athletes I work with. I believe that is the key to long-term success.
That being said, I have some more concrete goals centered on improving athlete performance. From a facility standpoint, we are looking to add turf to our weightroom, so we can have space for speed and agility work in the winter. Additionally, we are researching equipment that could help us quantify bar speed, as well as some new technology for tracking workouts.
Since I have a passion for sports nutrition, I’ve focused on that area, too. In the past year, we added a fueling station for our athletes, which allows us to provide healthy snacks for them every day between classes, practices, and workouts. A common issue I’ve seen throughout my career is athletes struggling to grab healthy food on the go to meet the demands of their busy schedule, and the fueling station has eliminated this issue for us.
We also added a Performance Nutrition Coach, Chris Algieri, MS, ISSN, to our staff who meets with athletes individually and as a team to help them improve their performance. His education, combined with his experience as a professional athlete, have been tremendous assets to our student-athletes and our athletic performance department. We hope to expand our nutritional offerings in 2017-18.