Interview with Former MLB Strength and Conditioning Coach
Rick Slate – Marlins 1992-2001, Mets 2003-2010, Braves 2011-2017
In an attempt to help current and future PBSCCS members understand the evolution of the position of strength and conditioning coach in professional baseball, the PBSSC is posting interviews with former strength and conditioning coaches in the field. This month’s interview is with Rick Slate. “Slater” has 33 years in strength in conditioning including 6 at the collegiate level, 25 in MLB and 4 in the NFL. A native of St. Augustine, FL, Rick has a BS degree in Sports Management (1989) and a MS in Athletic Administration (1992) from Florida State University, He holds numerous certifications including RSSC*E, CrossFit Level 1, SFG Kettlebell Instructor Levels 1 and 2, USAW Club Coach Level 1, USTF Level 1, FMS Level 1 and CPR. He is also involved with the NFL Combine providing assistance with the Functional Movement Screen as well as a member of the Senior Bowl.
Rick’s coaching career started in 1987 as Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Florida State University under College Football Hall of Fame Coach, Bobby Bowden. During his six years at FSU, the football team had six consecutive 10 wins seasons and six Bowl Game appearances, the basketball team made it to the Sweet 16 and the baseball team appeared in the College World Series. Rick was the first strength and conditioning coach of the Miami Marlins, joining them in 1992, one year before their inaugural season, as Minor League Strength and Conditioning Coordinator. He was the Marlins Major League Strength and Conditioning Coach for nine years (1993-2001) and a member manager Jim Leyland’s 1997 World Series Championship team. He was the Major League Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Mets for 8 season (2003-2010), worked with Hall of Fame catcher, Mike Pizza, and helped the Mets win the NL East in 2006. Rick’s last position in MLB was as Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Atlanta Braves, a position he held for 8 season (2011-2017). Rick worked with another Hall of Fame player, Chipper Jones, while in Atlanta and helped the Braves win the NL East in 2013. In 2018, he returned to football as the Assistant Strength and Conditioning coach for the NFL Las Vegas Raiders and helped usher in another first year team.
PBSCCS caught up with Rick a few weeks ago and asked him the following questions:
PBSCCS: You had the opportunity to work with three legendary figures in the game, Bobby Bowden (FSU), Jim Leyland (Marlins) and Jon Gruden (Raiders), in three very different sports. What did you learn from each that helped shape your coaching philosophy and methods in both sports?
SLATE: There were many lessons. One was to truly show you care about your players. Players will have success and failure on the field and in life. Treat them with respect and try to be the same when they are going good and when they struggle. Players want to play hard and give their very best every day. They want to know that their coach has their back. Players always knew that Coach Bowden and Jim Leyland and Jon Gruden always had their back. Players respected these coaches and understood that their goal was to get more out of you than even you can imagine. That has also always been one of my goals regardless of where I taught and coached. I strive to let every player know that, if they fell short of their ultimate goal it wasn’t because they had not put in the work and were not physically prepared. My goal was to have a positive impact on the development and career of every player by making sure that they were physically and mentally prepared to give their best every time they stepped between the lines.
Another lesson that I learned was the importance of assembling a knowledgeable and cohesive staff. Bowden, Leyland and Gruden were not only great leaders, they had great assistant coaches. Having the opportunity to sit by them, listen and learn was better than any book, or weekend certification. Their life lessons and experience were vital in my overall development and the type of coach and person I wanted to be. Third, these guys never quit, they always prepared, always took accountability, always gave praise to the players and other coaches. Finally, I had the opportuning to see that all of these coaches were winners. They were champions in life and on the field. They were masters at both. They demonstrated that the opportunity to address your players should not always be about wins and losses. It’s also about the life of each player and coach and the responsibilities that they have for each other, the organization and their families. Without question, the opportunity to be around these three men has been eye opening and the best education I ever obtained.
PBSCCS: You also had the opportunity to work with four Hall of Fame players, Andre Dawson, Mike Pizza, Chipper Jones, and Tom Glavine. What did you learn from your experiences with each that you would share with developing players to help them improve their game and advance to the next level?
SLATE: I learned to respect the game, the difficulty of the game and how to understand the game by actually watching players play, prepare, adjust, manage stress and struggle. I learned to stay out of the way. When working with players like Gary Sheffield, Andre Dawson, Livan “El Dugue” Hernandez, David Wright, Jose Reyes, Edgar Renteria, Al Leiter, Jeff Conine and the entire 1997 World Series team, “simple works”. When designing strength and conditioning workouts, Everyday Day Drills (EDD)work. The fundamental approach that each of these great players took complimented the entire strength and conditioning program from warm-ups, running, food, dietary supplements, etc. They all were committed to mastering simple. These guys bought into the daily expectations and lifting goals. There was a general focus, but the program and workouts were adjusted to meet individual goals, needs and abilities. They earned the right to have some freedom in their workouts. We had open communication and high levels of respect for what was in their best interest for success and longevity. There was no magical program, it was a series of Connie safe, sound and productive movements that was portable and sustainable at home and on the road. Players can teach you a lot about programming if you are willing to listen.
PBSCCS: You have worked with elite players at the highest levels (college, MLB and NFL). Are there any differences or similarities in the way that they approach the game and training that might help strength and conditioning coaches?
SLATE: Fundamental’s work, especially when players understand, own and master them. As soon as young coaches can figure out the secret is that there is no secret you got a good opportunity to make a difference. College, MLB, NFL you are dealing with people first, athletes second. Truly know your people first. Gain their trust, give them the respect they deserve. Once you have that you will be able to teach, coach and, mentor them. Let them know how much you care about them as a person. I see it every day with other coaches, they are gifted at their sport, they might not love the strength and coaching aspect as much as you. That’s fine. Simple quote I always tell other strength coaches, “No Player, No Job.” Find a way to program the absolute minimal amount of work. They master their craft on the field, not in the weight room. You offer a small impact to allow them to get strong enough, whatever that enough may be. Super weight room guys regardless of their sport usually aren’t successful. The guys that truly make a difference and make a career out of it, have found and mastered the sweet spot. Both on and off the field.
PBSCCS: What is your training philosophy when it comes to working with athletes at all levels and sports?
SLATE: Find your voice, know when to teach and don’t over coach. It’s ok to let them figure it out on their own. Let them fail. If they ask you a question, ask them the same question to create a learning opportunity. Master communication and understand the what’s their WHY. My philosophy has little to do with lifting weights, that’s the easy part. Pick it up put it down, don’t make simple complicated, you can truly make this rocket science and never launch the rocket. I’m not that smart. I’m not going chase numbers and poor movement quality just to post something that has no true value and benefit. If it doesn’t transfer to the field don’t do it. There are too many weekend certifications that might help the general population, and that great. However, I doubt the reality of some of this stuff making a difference at the MLB or NFL level. There are better ways to impact your organization and players.
PBSCCS: What advice do you have for coaches working with high school athletes and how does it differ from what you would give those working with college and pro athletes?
SLATE: It always comes back to fundamentals. You can’t go wrong. You can’t over think push, pull, squat, hinge, and carry. Trust and master these movements. Provide simple cues and focus on simple everyday day drills. Your program should support the type of team and its style of play. Program simple unloading periods where they just play and prep. Have a set number of training opportunities; if you miss one, no one cares, just don’t blast them.
PBSCCS: You have been in pro sports almost 30 years. What advice do you have for someone contemplating a career as a strength and conditioning coach in college or professional sports?
SLATE: Be mobile, i.e., willing to move. You will be hired to be fired. You won’t retire with the team the originally hires you/ Get the minimum number of essential certifications that hold water in the industry. Employers, players and colleagues who know the field will not think you are smart just because you have a lot of letters behind your name. Network with leaders with similar certifications; they have a tremendous number of quick resources. Realize you will live in a hotel more than your house, ride more buses and planes than you can count, eat dinner at 11:00 pm every night, check into a city and not know where you are, or the hotel you just checked into. I can honestly say that I have never had a real job. I would not trade the life I have had for anything; even with the sacrifices that my family and I have made. I’ve been hired, fired and rehired several times. The best job I ever had was the one that I had. I have enjoyed the friendships made, wins and losses, teaching and coaching opportunities, program building and implementing and the opportunity to watch players develop and be successful on many different levels. The relationships that you build with the support staff, equipment guys, athletic trainers, PT’s, doctors, front office staff, stakeholders and owners are tremendous. I don’t think there is a job in the world that connects with this many people. Strength and conditioning coaches have an opportunity to impact and communicate with every member of the organization.
PBSCCS: Is there anything else that you would like to share with the Society members?
SLATE: I am a fan of MLB and support the PBSCCS. The impact and opportunity that coaches have are making a difference in the game. Coaches should to strive to continue to expand their impact at the major league level, in player development and in the Dominican Republic academies that have a wealth of under developed potential talent. Stay true to your sport and players. Baseball is without question the hardest game to play and master. Understand that you can truly impact the assets that your responsible for. The members and strength of membership in the PBSCCS is truly the bedrock of the society. PBSCCS leadership should set standards, goals and expectations and give the members a voice. The game is transitioning into data and different forms of sports science. Make sure that you are focused on what actually makes a difference. Humans play the game; human teach and coach the game and human pay to see the game. The Society started out like most things with an idea from 4-5 coaches, don’t forget your past while chasing the future.
PBSCCS: Is there anything else that you would like to add in closing?
SLATE: Yes, several of the first MLB strength and conditioning coaches – Gene Coleman, Fernando Montes, Steve Odgers, Bob Aleo, Brad Andres, Jon Gruden, etc. have truly impacted this game. During my time in the game, they were good friends, teachers, communicators, mentors, leaders and students of the game. They were like Bobby Bowden, Jim Leyland, Jon Gruden and the 100 or so other coaches that I have crossed paths with. They gave me the opportunity to learn and sharpen my sword. Thank you all, it’s been an honor.