Freelap Friday Five with Tim DiFrancesco
Tim DiFrancesco is the president and founder of TD Athletes Edge. He graduated from Endicott College in 2003 with his B.S. in Exercise Science and Athletic Training. He went on to the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he earned his doctorate in physical therapy in 2006. Upon graduation, DiFrancesco spent three years working as a physical therapist in the outpatient sports medicine clinic setting.
From 2009–2011, DiFrancesco held the position of Head Athletic Trainer and Strength & Conditioning Coach with the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA-Developmental League. In December 2011, he became the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the NBA Los Angeles Lakers. While traveling with the Lakers from 2011–2017, DiFrancesco built TD Athletes Edge, which started as a series of online channels for top fitness and health guidance. After leaving the Lakers in 2017, he dedicated his full-time efforts to building up the physical training location of TD Athletes Edge with his team in Salem, Massachusetts.
Freelap USA: What are the pros and cons of working as a strength coach in the professional sports setting?
Tim DiFrancesco: I think the pros are the ability to impact an athlete’s process and the results of their process at a really high-energy, high-performance level, where you have these athletes who are very, very skilled, and who rarely need you to help them do that skill. Once you recognize that, it can be really satisfying to say, “Okay, that’s my role here, and I’m actually doing that.” Often it doesn’t take a lot. That’s one of the pros that, once you recognize, I think you realize you don’t have to do a ton to make sure that they’re doing the right things to support their ability and skills.
I think you also typically have lots at your fingertips. You have lots of exposure to different things that are “on the cutting edge” that will be brought to your attention. In other locations or environments, you might not have these things as readily available.
Some of the cons are that a lot of times you aren’t as able to assist in places where you probably or may have the skill set to help. Often, there are people brought into those situations who are very narrowly focused experts in a certain space, and they’re in charge of a certain area that you might be able to help with, but you don’t always get to impact it much.
Sometimes you have to pick your battles with things. You have to learn that while you’d love to do A through Z with an athlete when they come in, you might only have the time or engagement level to get to A through D. You need to know what to plan and program for A through D that gets you the biggest bang for your buck and be okay expectation-wise. You can’t get discouraged that you didn’t get to Z. While you only got to D, you did get something valuable, or whatever you could, out of it. This can be frustrating at times, but it’s just a mindset and an expectation change.
Freelap USA: What are the biggest types of strengths needed for each aspect of the job market, pro versus private? What distinctions would make a person better for one job or the other?
Tim DiFrancesco: At the pro or high-performance team sport level, you will need to be very flexible, very adaptive, and ready to mold yourself to each day as it flows. You need to understand that planning out very far in advance in that environment is very, very difficult and usually not effective because things change on a day-to-day basis so rapidly.At the pro or high-performance team level, you’ll need to be very flexible and adaptive and ready to mold yourself to each day as it comes, says @tdathletesedge. Click To Tweet
On the other side of that (and this goes for both levels), you have to understand what it takes to be an A-plus teammate and really understand that you’re working within a team of really skilled people to help an overall agenda. I think the other piece, too, is just being really enjoyable to be around. At the pro sport level, you are sometimes around those people for 18 out of 24 hours in a day if you have to travel and do all this other stuff. If you’re not enjoyable to be around, that’s going to be really tough on you and everybody else.
In the more private sector, I think the big keys are an understanding of your audience: what their challenges are, what their needs are, and what their expectations are. You have to be really good at hearing that stuff out to be able to then serve or create a service that provides that. I think that’s really critical. In the private sector of this industry, you need to be very good at giving people detailed, nuanced, and skilled coaching on what they need to do in their rehab or training process. You also need to be really good at helping them through the process, motivating them, and helping them to be accountable to the process.
I sometimes see people with the mindset: “Well look, these people are paying me, so therefore, that should be their accountability. That should be their motivation.” No. To do the job really well, you have to bring some of that accountability too and meet them in the middle and figure out how to motivate them, and I think these are some of the big things.
Freelap USA: What should coaches consider before they make the hardline decision to take that university or pro track in their career?
Tim DiFrancesco: I think it really comes down to where your gut and your heart are. Those two tracks are different—they are both high-performance sport environments—but they are different. There will be fewer touchpoints that you’ll have on your team of athletes or an individual athlete at the pro sport level. If you’re really geared more toward making deep, indelible connections with individuals within a team and within a team as a whole, and you have this large amount of time and patience for repetition to work with these people and get to know them and be a part of the process, I think that a university-based environment is much easier to do that in.
Typically, the pro level is little bit more cut and dry. You’re doing a job. You’ll make connections, for sure, but it’s going to be in a different way. Typically, it is a little harder to make those really deep, long-lasting connections and really feel like you’re impacting everything for this individual or this team at the highest level.
Freelap USA: What would be the optimal situation for coaches working in the pro sport ranks? In other words, is it possible for things to change in pro sports to facilitate a better experience for those coaches in that setting?
Tim DiFrancesco: Those opportunities and those situations and environments are out there. They can exist. I just think it starts from the top down. If the people who make the hires for a sports medicine or a performance and SMC staff basically do that because they’re just saying, “Well, we need to fill these positions, and we need to make sure we have pretty good people who know what they’re doing,” then that’s as far as they look at it. It’s a lot harder than working under somebody who says, “I really value these people. They’re extremely critical to our success, and we’re going to trust that if we bring in the right people, what they say they need or how they say things should go from their end is what should happen.”When management cuts costs by cutting staffing type positions, they usually pay for that type of approach another way in the long run, says @tdathletesedge. Click To Tweet
They also need to say, “We’re going to pay what it takes to get the right people in here.” Instead, what it often comes down to is GMs or management within an organization saying, “Look, we’re spending the millions over here on these people. We need to cut costs somewhere.” And a lot of times, oddly, they choose to cut it from those staffing type positions and they usually pay another way in the long run for that type of an approach.
Freelap USA: What are some skills that you find coaches could use to manage their time optimally for a better work-life balance?
Tim DiFrancesco: One of the biggest things to work on, and it’s an admitted work in progress for me, is being really aware of the ability to interact, connect, motivate, and just be a coach of some sort. That coach could be a strength coach. It could be a physical therapist. I consider a coach anybody in the spectrum of sports medicine and performance and rehab.
You have a finite amount of time and ability to give yourself to, help, and interact directly with another human being in a way that is part of a greater purpose and process. Knowing that, and knowing you want to do that at the highest level possible, requires you to give yourself enough of whatever it takes to recharge on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
I’m a work in progress, by all means, but I think being aware of it and recognizing that you just need to find what it is that recharges you is essential. In my case, I disengage from a lot of human interaction from time to time and just let myself recharge. It enables me to then be there and be present with every human as I’m serving them. For me, it is getting space away from other humans and time with myself to just debrief and unwind. I usually only need brief periods of time to get that.If you’re not good at interacting & connecting with your teammates, colleagues, and/or players, you’ll hit a plateau at some point in your ability to really excel, says @tdathletesedge. Click To Tweet
Recognizing and having that ability to be present and be truly there for the person that you’re in front of is just what it comes down to. Anybody can be great at writing an excellent program—a program that looks perfect or is in a great facility with all the bells and whistles—and doing all the right stuff from an X’s and O’s standpoint. However, if you’re not really good at interacting and connecting with your teammates, your colleagues, and/or your players, then you will hit a plateau at some point in your ability to really excel.