I can still remember my interview for my first collegiate strength and conditioning job. The “whoa” moment (for better or worse) happened when both the head and assistant athletic trainers brought me down to the prospective strength performance area for the student athletes. As we walked by a sign that read “Storage”—a sign that still stands today—I remembered the phrase “have an open mind.” Lo and behold, they opened the doors and we were dead smack in the middle of a storage closet: 600 square feet of mops, ladders, low lighting, dirty floors, and a random array of equipment donated from the rec center as they started to bring in new equipment of their own.
To this day, I am extremely grateful that the university decided to give me the position as the first strength and conditioning coach in school history and placed me in charge of programming for more than 400 student-athletes. This once-in-a-lifetime experience molded me into the coach I am today, and any new coach offered a similar opportunity to start a program should do so—IT IS CAREER-CHANGING.Starting a strength and conditioning program from its bare bones may seem like a challenging task, but it is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done as a professional, says @bigk28. Click To Tweet
Five and a half years later, we now have a completely renovated weight room double in size, four fully functioning multipurpose racks (which may not seem like a lot, but it is light years from where we started), some of the top technology you can find in the field, and the experience of training teams that have won 44 conference championships, including three national championships. Starting a strength and conditioning program from its bare bones may seem like a challenging task, but it is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done as a professional. In this article, I will describe the six essential steps that I believe you need to take to build a successful sports performance program from scratch.
Meet With Your Athletic Director, Senior Administrators, and Business Manager
This might seem obvious, but it is the absolute first place you need to start: meeting with the people that control your budget as a department. While this may be a question you want to ask in the interview (yearly budget, small- and big-item budget, etc.), an administrator might not give an accurate answer since they may not be sure exactly what it takes to build up a sports performance facility. For example, our business manager told me on my first day that I had $1k to use on small-budget items and $1,500 to use on bigger items—this was nowhere near close to what was necessary to make the facility functional for an entire university.
Be prepared going into that meeting. Have a wish list of every single item you can imagine to make the perfect (for the time being) sports performance facility for you and your situation. Label item quantity, possible vendors to order from, and 3–4 prices from different companies to show you’ve done your homework. Again, they might not discuss this in your initial budget meeting, but at least you’ll be prepared when the time comes.
The first big-ticket items I asked for were flooring, multipurpose racks, multipurpose barbells (that we could use for Olympic movements) and bumper plates, says @bigk28. Click To Tweet
This is not the time to hold back on what you think you need; ask for as much as possible and let them tell you what works and doesn’t. The worst thing you can do is have $10k worth of equipment needs but only have the courage to ask for $1k, and then the administration happily approves, thinking you were going to ask for a lot more. Go in asking for $10k and have them bring you down to $5k—trust me, it’s the right approach.
These are the people you need to sell your vision to because they will be the ones who ultimately control what comes of your sports performance facility. Just to give you an idea, the first big-ticket items I asked for were flooring, multipurpose racks, multipurpose barbells (that we could use for Olympic movements), and bumper plates. Those items I mentioned are all I need to run my strength and speed program.
Meet With Sports Coaches
Emails can seem taxing later in your career, but they will be your best friend when you’re new in the department. If you think that you’ll just sit back and have coaches knocking down your door, dying for their kids to work out…it won’t happen.
A handful of coaches may reach out to you because they had experience with a trainer in some form in the past, but odds are, if you start at a school with no prior sports performance coach, the sports coaches will have little knowledge about who you are and what you actually do. So, show initiative: Send out emails to every coach on campus, giving a brief introduction of who you are and what you want to meet about. Take care of the coaches who get back to you right away; those are the ones who will buy into your program immediately. There is no need to chase coaches down—when they are ready, they will come find you. (You will have enough to worry about in your first couple of weeks on campus as it is.)
When you meet with the coaches, just talk to them conversationally and ask about their program. Show interest in them and their athletes, as they are the most important part of your sports performance program. Have your sports performance plan ready as to what you would do with their team. This plan doesn’t have to be anything specific, but it shows coaches that you have already started the process of planning for their team. Some may want their teams in the weight room right away, some may want to have their teams only do “recovery sessions” on their field of play, some may just want a quick dynamic warm-up to get their teams introduced. Whatever the coach wants, say “Yes, coach! Sounds great!” You do not need them all-in on every aspect of your program from day 1. Just like any relationship, it takes time and building trust to have people all-in on what you do.You do not need coaches all-in on every aspect of your program from day 1. Just like any relationship, it takes time and building trust to have people all-in on what you do, says @bigk28. Click To Tweet
To this day, I continue to add different aspects of sports performance for all my teams and coaches. Whether it’s a new warm-up, new weight room plan, nutritional meetings, etc., you will be able to add in aspects of your program as time goes on. At Adelphi, I had six teams jump onboard right away for the first semester. By the second semester I had 12, and by the next year I had 19 teams working out in the sports performance facility.
We will talk about battles you will fight along the way, but you have won a big battle once you get all of your varsity sports participating in the sports performance program. Even if all teams don’t buy into your program, don’t sweat it. Fully commit to all the teams that commit to you. Those teams know where you are, and if they are interested, they will reach out to you. You cannot waste time on teams that don’t want to buy in when you could instead be focused on those teams that are already fully committed to your program.
Post Job Openings for Assistant, Graduate, and Volunteer Assistant Coaches
This will be a big ego check for a lot of coaches, because for some reason we want to do it all by ourselves. We don’t think that anyone can train teams like us and we don’t want to ruin the brand-new program we just launched. This is my best advice to coaches who are starting a new program or find themselves as the only full-time coach at their school: YOU MUST DELEGATE RESPONSIBILITY OR YOU WILL STRUGGLE. I say this from firsthand experience.
For my first three years at Adelphi, I was in the weight room at all times for every single lift group. I remember some days I would get into the weight room around 4:30 a.m. and wouldn’t leave until 9:00 p.m. This is not safe or smart for you or your athletes. Although coaches don’t like to admit it, you can NEVER give 100% effort working 10–16 hours a day. Trust me, I tried it and failed miserably. I was never happy, I dreaded getting up each day for work, and after eight hours of groups I was beyond exhausted and just muscled through to the end of the day. That isn’t fair to you as a person, and it isn’t fair to the athletes who always expect you to give 100%.
I learned a lot through my first three years at Adelphi, and I am glad I went through this grind to realize this isn’t the answer, and no coach should have to experience it. Go back and talk to your athletic director or assistant athletic director about the budget for your assistant coaching staff. To start at Adelphi, I was given a small stipend and credits. It may not seem like a lot, but there are people of all ages in the field who are eager for experience. Make sure you do your due diligence and thoroughly dive into each candidate’s background to find out the best you can about what type of person you are bringing on your staff. You can teach anyone your philosophy, so it’s more important to find people who are passionate about the field and have an open mind to learning new ideas.
You and your assistants don’t always have to agree, and, in fact, it’s good to challenge one another, but your message to the coaches and the athletes must be consistent. I was so glad (for many reasons) I got married at the end of my third year, and we had our newborn son in my fourth year, because it forced me to let go and delegate. The most important thing in my life is my family; I love my job, but you will never get back the years with your kids when they are younger. BE SMART; DELEGATE! It will be the best thing for you, the department, and your athletes.
Keep Your Programming Simple
On to the fun stuff. When you first start at a new program, you’ll want to make individual programs for every single team. You’ll want to show them you care, and an individual program for their specific sport is a step in the right direction. In my opinion, however, sport-specific training is one of the most fraudulent terms out there, used by people who don’t have a grasp on what they are doing, or who are trying to make a sale.
If you make a general plan, keep it simple. Odds are that most of the athletes you train have a very low training age and will make progress no matter what exercise or program you give them. With regard to the term “sports specificity,” I always ask the question, “What sports require you to be fast, explosive, strong, agile, mobile, etc.?” The answer is all of them.
If you have a rack, a barbell, bumper plates, and space to sprint, you can put together an amazing sports performance program, says @bigk28. Click To Tweet
Determine what your program’s basics will be and master those basics. If you have a rack, a barbell, bumper plates, and space to sprint, you can put together an amazing sports performance program. Stay away from the gimmicks (they don’t work anyway). As the years go on, the specificity of the program turns to the individual athlete. I judge my program based on the team’s commitment, maturity level, and training level. If they show me full-blown commitment and a high maturity level, and make progress on each movement, I will start to make the program more “advanced.”
Once athletes show me the appropriate strength improvements, we move on to more complex training methods. But in your first few years, speed (sprinting), movement efficiency, and strength should be your primary focuses. Every other quality will benefit from mastering the qualities mentioned.
Define Your Culture
This will go a long way in determining how successful you are at the school that hires you. It doesn’t matter if you have the perfect sports performance program: If you do not show the athletes and coaches how much you care about them, not only as players, but as people, you will never get them to buy in. Take it upon yourself to get to know the athletes as people. Meet with teams before you begin your sports performance program to set expectations. Like the programming where you want to keep it as simple as possible, you want to follow the same principles here.
For me, the message was simple: show up on time, be respectful to your coaches and your teammates, and give 100% of what you had for that day. Sit down with the coaches and assign team leaders for the sports performance area. These are the athletes you will lean on to check the pulse of the team and help right any wrong that you may be experiencing. Today, kids want to know the why when they do any activity. Take the first few minutes to explain your workout and the why behind each movement.
If you can’t explain the why…don’t do that exercise. Everything in your program should have a purpose that you should be able to explain at any given moment. Will every athlete or coach agree with your program? The answer is simply no, and if you expect 100% buy-in, you’re lying to yourself. By the way, it’s okay that they don’t; but they should respect what you are trying to help them accomplish and that is to be the best possible athletes in their respective sports.
I tell every single one of my athletes, “This is your program, not mine…I give you the tools to paint, but you paint the masterpiece.” At the end of the day, the athletes will determine how successful the program is. As long as you put an honest effort into doing the best possible job, then you are doing everything you can. I simply relay the message to each team that if they don’t want to train, then don’t come. No hard feelings, but I only want people that have bought in 100% and want to reach their genetic potential. Not everyone will be weight room All-Americans and that’s just fine. We don’t want them to change who they are. We just want what’s best for them. SHOWING YOU CARE WILL BE THE CORNERSTONE OF BUILDING YOUR PROGRAM.
Failure Will Happen and It’s Okay
One of the biggest learning curves as a coach is that you will fail; and those moments could potentially be the best of your career. Failure is how we learn! We will not be perfect, and that is fine. It is through failure that we learn what works and what doesn’t. My failures, not my successes, are the reason I have improved as a professional every single year. Even in my 10th year in the field, I continue to make mistakes—but the best thing I do is acknowledge what I did and figure out how I can improve going forward. Constantly reevaluate yourself and your program and always be ready to admit when you are wrong or where things can be better.My failures, not my successes, are the reason I have improved as a professional every single year, says @bigk28. Click To Tweet
A Recipe for Success
To close, building a sports performance program from scratch will be one of the most—if not the most—rewarding experiences of your professional career. If you go from working with multiple teams to working with just a few, it will be one of the easiest transitions you may experience. By following the steps above, I have built our program to be one of the best in the country. I will continue to adapt and grow because we need to constantly improve as professionals. Remember, delegating responsibilities, keeping your program simple, and showing everyone that you care will be some of the main reasons you have success at your new school.
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