Jan 29, 2015
From Good to Great

A veteran head strength coach shares how he helps his less-experienced assistants become great coaches.

By Tim Wakeham

Tim “Red” Wakeham, MS, MSCC, CSCS, is Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports at Michigan State University, where he has worked since 1996. He is a longtime contributor to T&C and can be reached at: [email protected]. You can also follow his blog, Until Lambs Become Lions – Red’s Coaching Blog, at: timeredwakeham.wordpress.com.

At Michigan State University, where I oversee the strength and conditioning programs for 16 Olympic sport teams, the majority of our staff is inexperienced. Aside from our one full-time assistant, Molli Munz, we have one three-quarter-time paid intern, a quarter-time graduate assistant, and a host of student volunteer interns who work part-time and are new to the profession.

Needless to say, training over 400 Spartan athletes is challenging with inexperienced assistant coaches manning the weightroom. Many head strength and conditioning coaches likely face similar situations in their own departments.

Relying on mostly young coaches and volunteers means I am continuously playing the role of teacher. In addition to my overall goal of training our athletes to put them in a position to dominate their competition, another objective of mine is to develop my staff into great coaches.

I believe that in order to become a great strength and conditioning coach, you must get to know your athletes as people, teach them as students, train them as warriors, motivate them as competitors, and lead them as players. These are the goals I want my staff to strive to meet every day. In this article, I share how I help each of my new staff members to reach these goals and become great strength and conditioning coaches.


I describe training as a “neck down” process and coaching as a “neck up” process. In other words, we focus on the physiological aspects first, then the psychology of motivating athletes. Before learning to be great coaches, my staff needs to know what it means to be great trainers.

The first step we take is to put our new coaches through a rigorous 10-set workout consisting of some of the most challenging exercises our athletes perform. The men and women of Michigan State athletics work hard, and I want our coaches to gain a sense of respect, some empathy, and a true understanding of what our athletes go through on a daily basis. After all, there is no better teacher than experience.

During their first three to four days on staff, new coaches view short video clips of the exercises we use in our training programs. After studying the videos, an experienced staff member demonstrates the exercises before our new coaches practice the exercises themselves. During this time, Molli and I observe, correct, and polish their technical execution.

Once a coach has been deemed competent in all of our exercises, I have them observe myself or Molli training a group of athletes before they take a turn training one of our veteran athletes themselves. Our experienced athletes are excellent trainers as well, so I ask them to provide the new coach with feedback about how the workout unfolded.

After our coaches have demonstrated that they understand the basic execution of our exercises and are capable of training our athletes to do them, I sit down with each coach for a casual one-on-one discussion. During the meeting, I explain our larger goals and the design of our workout plans.

In a nutshell, I outline that our first goal as strength and conditioning coaches is to decrease the chance and severity of injuries. Our second goal is to enhance our athletes’ performance potential. And both are accomplished through implementing a proven physiological enhancement program that they will learn more about in the coming weeks.

I keep things casual so the coaches don’t feel intimidated or like they’re being lectured to. My goal is to initiate a discussion so the coaches feel comfortable asking questions.

Next, I review with the coach their role(s) in the department, daily tasks they are expected to complete, and my periodization training plan. I also review our workout design areas and the system management areas we consider when creating our teams’ programs. They are as follows:

Workout Design Areas – Strength – Power – Specificity – Anaerobic capacity – Cardio-Respiratory efficiency – Speed development – Flexibility – Morphological – Histological – Neurological enhancements

System Management Areas – Measurement – Overload – Planned variety – Rehabilitation – Movement/skill efficiency – Physical recovery – Mental rejuvenation – Emergency

Lastly, Molli and I have assembled a packet of studies and peer-reviewed articles that we give all of our coaches. The packet includes articles on warming up, body composition, specificity, injury prevention, gender differences in training, periodization, plyometrics, recovery, and more. The goal is to help our coaches understand different exercise physiology theories and how we practically implement each of them into our training programs.

Ongoing development is an important part of growing into a great strength and conditioning coach, so we don’t stop teaching our coaches how to be good trainers after their first few weeks on the job. Our coaches are continually taught through informal meetings and small group teaching sessions led by Molli and myself.

Our coaches continue learning to be good trainers indefinitely, but once they have grasped “neck down” training, I shift my focus to teaching them to be good coaches from the “neck up.” I believe there are three roles a good strength and conditioning coach must fulfill: Being a good leader, teacher, and motivator. I mentor our coaches in each of these areas with a carefully created plan and passionate energy.


Out of the three roles, being a leader is my favorite to teach. My leadership philosophy is to be a self-assured optimist who inspires, nurtures, and pushes athletes to accomplish our mission to dominate the competition.

I preach that leaders must be confident. Specifically, I define leaders as people who have presence and take a stand. They charismatically plant their flag in the sand and say, “Follow me.” I use real-world stories, concrete examples, and leadership “assignments” to teach the different characteristics of a leader.

One of the leadership assignments I’ve used to teach presence to my coaches is my “leading from the center challenge.” In this assignment, a coach leads a workout while standing in the center of the room, where they must stay throughout the workout. It teaches the coach to project energy by emphasizing tone, volume, and emotional expression.

I’ve also used a “silent presence” assignment where I challenge a coach to lead the room without saying a word. Research says that 80 percent of communication is nonverbal. This statistic suggests that leaders can still energetically command without using their voice. Through this assignment, my coaches learn to use eye contact, facial expressions, posture, and animation to lead with presence.

Another facet of leading involves pushing and challenging athletes to constantly be at their best. I know through experience how heavy a training load our athletes can handle and what their running speeds and conditioning times should look like. They are realistic standards and I encourage my coaches to verbally challenge our athletes to achieve these marks.

Leaders must also be direct. I instruct my coaches to speak directly to athletes–not to others–about what they need to work on. For example, I require that our coaches use names when confronting any athletes they are working with. Instead of saying, “You guys have to work harder” to a group of athletes, my coaches say, “Tommy and Jimmy, you two have to work harder and here’s exactly what you need to do to accomplish that.”

While my coaches are told to be direct when confronting athletes, I also preach that it’s a leader’s duty to be able to be confronted without losing their cool or getting defensive. This type of open exchange makes the flow of dialogue optimal. I don’t accept recurring demonstrations of anger or passivity. I model and expect mature communication.

A leader must also take responsibility. I tell my coaches that regardless of who’s to blame for a poor outcome, it’s the leader’s duty to take responsibility and fix the problem. My favorite saying is, “What you see is what you coach.” I have little respect for and do not accept leaders who blame others or make excuses for bad outcomes.

Connected to this is mental toughness, which I define as the ability to accomplish the mission despite distraction. To teach mental toughness, I use a particular training scenario I dreamed up after reading the book Lone Survivor, written by U.S. Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell.

Once a year, on a conditioning day that involves competing in sprints against teammates, I call out the wrong winners. The losers of each race must complete a penalty run before the next one starts. To keep things realistic, at first I only penalize the wrong winners of close races so that it’s difficult to tell if the winners are purposely being victimized. Then I gradually become more and more unfair in my declaration of winners.

At the beginning of the session, the athletes just give me nasty looks when I get a call wrong. But after losing a couple more races and having to endure additional penalties, some start raising their voices in protest. By the end of the session, there are always a few athletes who are ready to explode.

At the conclusion of the workout, I bring everyone together and ask, “Do you think what I just did was unfair, an injustice, and a setback?” They all answer, “Yes.” I ask, “Do you think these undeserved hardships will be the only unfairness you’ll face this season, during your athletic career, and throughout your life?” They all answer, “No.”

I explain that I wanted to see who had the mental toughness to stand tall through the unjust distraction and who could continue taking steps forward with a granite jaw, saying, “Distractions will not deter my focus, divert me from my mission, or defeat me.” Our athletes and coaches always walk away from this day with greater focus and determination to be their best, regardless of adversity and circumstance.

I also teach my coaches that to be an effective leader, they must be selfless. I explain to them that leaders get their people (in this case, Spartan athletes) to accomplish the mission (in this case, to dominate the competition), and they take care of their people while they accomplish the mission–in that order. This is something I learned from Eric Kapitulik, a U.S. Marine who created an outstanding leadership development training company called The Program.

I try to catch my coaches acting selflessly for the mission or for the athletes they are working with. When I see them staying after practice to help an athlete with extra training, I applaud their actions as if they had won the lottery.

Focus is another important facet of effective leadership. I explain to my coaches that if they have too many points of focus or too many goals, their level of commitment to any one of them will be as shallow as a mud puddle.

Finally, I push my coaches to take action. Just telling an athlete to be more courageous doesn’t automatically make them more bold. However, taking initiative to schedule extra one-on-one training sessions with the athlete is the type of action that will likely result in more determined performances.


While being an effective leader is a huge part of being a great strength and conditioning coach, teaching and motivating are important as well. A coach cannot lead if they don’t understand how to teach and motivate others.

Teaching: My personal teaching philosophy is to be well educated about the strength and conditioning field, and open to new ideas. To be a good teacher, you must also be a good student. I constantly conduct research to find what’s true and what’s new so that I am knowledgeable in relevant coaching areas. I expect my coaches to do the same.

Among my resources are various journals, Web sites that post coaching science abstracts, an online forum for strength coaches called Supertraining, and publications like The Journal of Pure Power and Training & Conditioning. I also talk with many of the top sport practitioners around the country and am a voracious reader of books on management, sports pedagogy, sport psychology, and exercise physiology.

Motivating: I use one-on-one and staff meetings to lecture my coaches on the theory and practice of how to inspire and motivate. In my opinion, good coaches motivate by doing three things.

First, they build great relationships with their athletes. This means taking the time to listen and discover their unique personality and motivational triggers. It also shows the athletes that you care about them as people. I ask my staff to build this rapport with student-athletes by attending their competitions, offering extra training sessions, visiting those who have undergone a surgical procedure, checking on those who are sick, and listening when they need someone to talk to.

Second, good motivators catch athletes doing a good job, and they remark on it. It’s been my experience that accomplished athletes are highly motivated. To help our Spartans feel accomplished, my coaches celebrate their achievements by offering compliments written in a personal e-mail or text message, or publicly.

One example of a public compliment is through the ringing of our Winner’s Bell. I had a big brass bell similar to the one the Navy SEALs use in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training installed in the middle of our weightroom. Engraved on the bell is the SEALs motto we adopted, “It pays to be a winner.” Every time an athlete achieves greatness–giving the best effort or having the best technique during a lifting session, for example–our coaches have them ring the bell and everyone in the room cheers and applauds.

Third, I ask my staff to give our student-athletes opportunities to weigh in on certain decisions about their training. Intrinsic motivation theory suggests that those who have an internal locus of control are highly motivated. I use the following example with my coaches when discussing this: If we asked one of our teams to lift at 4:30 a.m., perform their most hated exercises, while wearing their least favorite color, and listening to their least favorite music, how motivated do you think they’d be?

We all agree that few would be motivated to work very hard. So I encourage my coaches to consult teams and team captains regarding lifting partners, music played in the weightroom, planned variation, and unloading days.


I am a firm believer that what gets measured gets done. So Molli and I provide ongoing evaluative feedback regarding each of our coaches’ development throughout their careers here.

We evaluate their performance as coaches and the results of the athletes they train. Specifically, did the coach engage, motivate, and challenge the athletes to progressively overload? Was the coach detailed in their explanations and were the athletes technically sound? Was the coach demonstratively passionate and were the athletes vigorously partner coaching their teammates?

Our coaches are all accountable to each of these program underpinnings. The result: a group of great strength and conditioning coaches.


My management philosophy is to discover the strengths, weaknesses, motivational triggers, and unique learning styles of each of my coaches, then assign everyone to the optimal roles for them. First, I sit down and have a personal conversation with each coach. I try to discover their unique qualities so I know how they fit into our Spartan culture and how I can optimally instruct, communicate with, and motivate them.

Another way I get to know my coaches is through administering the Myers-Briggs personality test and sometimes the Clifton StrengthsFinder test. These tests provide information about whether people are loyal, hard workers, good listeners, detail oriented, thick skinned, competitive, thorough, creative, and more.

I don’t use the test results to form conclusions about an individual coach because I don’t believe in pigeonholing people. However, the tests do give me a knowledgeable starting point from which to manage.

I tailor my management approach and each coach’s role in my system to accommodate their strengths and needs. For example, if one young coach is a great organizer, I’ll assign them responsibilities in this area to motivate them. If another flourishes with consistent encouragement, I’ll verbally support them often. My objective is to put my coaches in a position where they have a lot of opportunities to do what they do best.

Additionally, I manage by providing unambiguous direction without smothering control. In other words, I give my staff structure, boundaries, and standards, then let them get to work the way they see fit. I do oversee from a distance and I am their lifeline if they need one, but I don’t steal their opportunities for self-discovery and learning.

The most important component of my management philosophy is to demonstrate genuine personal care. In my opinion, I manage people first and systems second. Plain and simple, people like to be cared about. I promote a staff culture where we genuinely care about each other on a personal level, which makes work fun. My staff spends time together outside of work, competes in everything, and jokes around. We listen, give advice, and always have each other’s backs.


The Michigan State University strength and conditioning department employee manual is one of the first pieces of literature our coaches are asked to read when they arrive on campus. It gives them a look at what we expect from them and what is most important in the Spartan weightroom. Below is a list of the categories included in the manual.

– Mission statement – Leadership philosophy – Coaching philosophy – Coaching plan – Training underpinnings – Prioritization of general tasks – Front stage/Backstage notes – Strength and conditioning policies – Weightroom rules – Opening duties – Closing duties – Cleaning/maintenance duties – How to coach the room (group coaching) – How to bring an athlete through a workout – How to lead a conditioning session – How to assist during a conditioning session – Acceleration, speed, and agility cues – Emergency action plan – How to recruit – How to handle discipline – Exercise/finishers list – Olympic lift breakdown

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