It’s a great time to become a Strength and Conditioning Coach. The field of strength training is expanding in multiple directions, opening up new and exciting job opportunities in high schools, colleges and universities, graduate assistant positions, professional sports, performance facilities, and the military. And the opportunities are growing! When I was breaking into the field 15 years ago there were only graduate assistant jobs with the prospect of being hired by a college or university or a NFL team. Most high school strength coaches also served as an assistant football coach. Strength and conditioning positions in the NHL, NBA, and MLB were just beginning to be developed. That was only 15 years ago. In just over a decade the strength and conditioning coaching profession has expanded with an increased demand for qualified coaches in all sports that require safe, progressive resistance and conditioning programs for their athletes.
My experience as the Major League Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Cincinnati Reds for the past 12 years has taught me firsthand what is needed to be a successful professional strength and conditioning coach. Since the bulk of my experience has been in MLB, points related to the culture of sports will be specific to professional baseball. However, the personal qualities needed for success and tips for preparing to enter the profession of strength coaching can be applied across many professional sports, including the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS, and NASCAR.
I don’t know which stage of your life you are in, just graduating from high school, attending college, or changing careers. Personally, I started to understand what I wanted to do when I got out of the military. Regardless of what stage you are in, at some point you will need to decide that you want to become strength and conditioning coach and help others maximize their physical potential. The days of transitioning from a sport coach to a strength coach are limited and/or over. Professional baseball teams are hiring only certified strength and conditioning coaches to care for their athletes and these individual are responsible for improving the health, performance and safety of every player in the organization, major and minor leagues. MLB strength and coaches have a lot of responsibilities. They design and implement programs for strength, conditioning, core, running mechanics, speed, flexibility, nutrition, performance testing, in-season, off-season and spring training conditioning, and oversee the administrative duties of their job. It takes time to develop the skills, competencies and experience needed to carry out these responsibilities. You can’t graduate from college, even if you finish at the top of your class and expect to be prepared to adequately handle the duties of a professional strength coach. The following suggestions should help you prepare for a position as a professional strength and conditioning coach.
1. Earn a degree in exercise and sport science or sports medicine.
2. Join the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach (CSCS).
3. Find a graduate internship, graduate assistantship in a university or professional sports setting so you will have an experienced coach to mentor you. Just because you work out, doesn’t mean you have the scientific knowledge, training, and experience to effectively perform the duties of a professional strength and conditioning coach.
4. Network, network, network to find a job.
5. Be committed to the profession. Commitment is essential for success if you want to work in a professional sport setting. The hours and work can be demanding, so it is important that you are aware of the time commitment and work requirements before pursuing a career in professional sports.
Since I have been through the process, I will share my journey to become strength and conditioning coach in professional sports. I was a 3-sport athlete in high school, and knew that I wanted to work in sports in some capacity. Since I didn’t have money for college, I joined the Marine Corps Reserves to earn money for school and enrolled in the sports medicine and exercise science program at East Carolina University. While there, I worked in multiple sports, and worked every camp possible. I also wrote several letters to strength coaches, and did whatever I was told to do.
When I left East Carolina, I had earned a BS degree in Sports Medicine and Exercise Science and had become a certified athletic trainer (ATC). I also earned a Level 1 Sports Performance Coach Certification from the US Weight Lifting Club, became a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), and obtained a CPR AED certification card. I then enrolled at the University of Central Florida (UCF) where I served as graduate assistant strength coach and earned a Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology. While enrolled at UCF, I worked as many sports and camps as they would allow, completed an internship with Chicago Cubs, and assisted with a mini camp for the Tampa Bay Buccaneer. Upon graduation, I was served as a fulltime assistant strength coach at UCF for two years. Then, using my connections with the Cubs got a job with the Pittsburgh Pirates. After three years with the Pirates, I was hired by the Reds, a position that I have held for 12 years.
Before you decide that you want a career as a strength coach for a professional team, you need to understand how to prepare yourself, the expectations of the position, and the personal qualities that will help you succeed. Based on my own experience, I have outlined five steps that I consider essential to success.
Five Essential Steps on the Path to a Successful Career as a Professional Strength and Conditioning Coach
1. EDUCATION. Choose a college or university program that offers an exercise science track. Some exercises science tracks are in the school of education and others may be in the departments of exercise physiology, kinesiology, or sports medicine. I chose the exercise and sports medicine track and it has helped me immensely since about 10% of my job involves Phase 4 rehab, which is involves return to play criteria and working with the medical staff. Once you have earned your degree, join the NSCA, and access the NSCA website (NSCA.com). This site will be a resource to you from day 1 to the end of your career.
2. CERTIFICATION. Professional teams require a minimum standard of at least a NSCA, CSCS Certification. Go to the NSCA website and order the materials needed to help you prepare for the test. MLB has recently set new minimum employment standards for coaches at each level of play. CSCS certification is the minimum requirement for those working in rookie ball. From AA through the Major Leagues, coaches must be CSCS certified and registered (RSCC). There is always a potential for liability when working with professional athletes. Team teams that employ million-dollar athletes can hold you liable if an athlete is harmed due to improper instruction or advice. Thus, MLB requires coaches to purchase at least a minimum level of personal liability insurance thru the NSCA. I am a Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach and hold the registry with Distinction. (RSCC*D). The registry indicates to your current and future employer that you have the CSCS certification and you have had a minimum of 2 years of fulltime experience working in a sports team environment. The registry also insures that you are up to date with continuing education modules (CEU’S). Continuing education is essential for keeping current on all aspects of the profession, and the NSCA provides many avenues through which CEU’s can be earned. To learn more about the registry go to the NSCA website.
3. INTERNSHIP/GRADUATE ASSISTANTSHIP. Once you have earned your degree and become certified, the next step is to gain practical experience. It’s time to put your knowledge into practice. The best way to learn the ropes is to observe and work under the tutelage of a certified strength coach. Working under a strength coach who is not certified will not provide you the level of expertise and practical experience needed for success at the professional level. While most college and university curriculums require that students complete an internship as part of degree requirement, you will need experience with a sports team. Successful interns and graduate assistants work long hours and for many months under supervision of certified coach. It is highly unlikely that a one-semester internship is going to provide the expertise, experience, and confidence needed to perform at the professional level. Seek opportunities that will challenge you and allow you to get involved. Apply for a graduate assistantship and volunteer at your local high school, college, or university. Most professional teams have internship positions. But know upfront that there may be one or two internship positions and hundreds of applicants. Be prepared to fill out several applications and don’t be upset if you don’t get your first choice. Applying for an internship in pro sports is a process. Be patient, persistent, and ready to do whatever the position demands.
I remember writing several letters to D-1 and professional strength coaches as an undergraduate student. I have 33 manuals sitting on my office shelf that were sent to me by strength coaches who were willing to help young people become successful in the profession by sharing their knowledge. Don’t expect a positive response from every coach. There are a few who think they know everything. Some think they have the ‘secret’ and won’t speak to you. But most are knowledgeable, hardworking and willing to help. It is because of these strength coaches who act with professionalism and collegiality that our profession is increasing in respect and growing in opportunities. Get involved and listen, listen, listen! You have just reached the tip of the iceberg and have much to learn, so listen and follow directions. If you can’t do these two simple things, nobody is going to recommend you for a job. An internship or graduate assistantship provides the perfect entrée into the field, offering you the opportunity to get firsthand experience and begin Step 4.
4. NETWORK TO FIND A JOB. Now you have to really hustle. Hopefully during your time gaining entry-level experience you were also networking, attending NSCA conferences, and introducing yourself to colleagues and other sports medicine professionals, such as certified athletic trainers, physical therapists, sports dietitians, and sports medicine physicians. A broad network is essential for helping you learn about job opportunities and earn strong recommendations.
Another avenue for job opportunities is to regularly check on-line sources. The NSCA has a site with job postings at www.nsca.com. You can also access the websites of each of the professional sports teams, and log on to the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Coach Society website (PBSCCS) www.baseballstrength.org. Most baseball teams post jobs on the PBSCCS site. Most of the jobs posted on this site are minor-league entry-level jobs. If baseball is the path of choice, and have a job lined up with your hometown team, plan on moving. When you land a job with a minor-league baseball team, you will be assigned to a city where one of their affiliates is located. An important consideration when contemplating a career in professional sports is that you will be moving more than once during your career. This leads us to Step 5.
5. Commitment. You have a degree, are certified, and have experience. During your internship, graduate assistantship, or entry level job you should have learned that being a strength coach means long hours, consecutive days without an off-day, modest salaries, limited family time during the season, and lots of administrative duties that have nothing to do with working with athletes. Strength coaches are also required to keep complete records, complete a lot of paperwork, and manage people.
So, you still want to be a Head Strength Coach for a professional sports franchise? Understand that this job is very different from working with high school or college athletes. Once you get into the professional ranks you will no longer have a teacher – student relationship. You will have a professional working relationship. Your athletes are working professionals earning salaries and you are a professional earning a salary. This distinction will affect the relationship between you and your athletes. If you are the type of coach that needs more control and are used to barking out orders, expecting the athletes to follow them, working at the professional level is not for you! The culture of each professional sport is unique, but some facets are common across all sports. At the professional level, you work in a setting where you must interact with owners, unions, agents, front office personnel, coaching staffs, and medical staffs. In baseball, your athletes will range from 18 year olds to those in their early 40’s. Players will be at different stages of their careers and most have some type of injury history. You will need to earn trust—the trust of the owners, general manager (GM), coaching staff, and medical staffs. You will be called into meetings to explain or sometimes defend your ideas in a way that these team members understand. You also have to earn the trust and respect of your athletes. It is your job is to help them improve performance, reduce the risk of injury and prolong their careers. The organization needs to believe that you have the team’s best interests at heart and players need to feel that you care about them and their careers before anyone will buy into your programs. Each member of the organization must be convinced that you are committed!
To be successful as a professional strength and conditioning coach you will use all of your knowledge, all of your creativity, all of your energy, and all of your patience to get through each and every day. If this sounds exciting to you, start with Step 1 and go for it! It’s a grind. It’s not easy. And I LOVE it.
Matt Krause, ATC, RSCC*D
Major League Strength and Conditioning Coach