When Coach Keith Ferrara got his first university strength and conditioning job, he literally had to build his program—and facility—out of a storage closet. Read on to discover the six essential steps he took to successfully build a collegiate sports performance program from scratch.
By Carmen Pata
Here is what I see as a thoroughly confusing problem, not only in sports, but in the business world as well. We spend so much time and effort learning how to be really good at our job or profession, but nothing teaches us how to become a leader in those positions. Just think about it for a moment: If your education is similar to mine, then we both have a master’s degree in exercise and sport science on top of an undergraduate degree in a related field. Looking back at my curriculum in undergraduate and graduate school, I took classes on nutrition, anatomy, and physiology, coupled with all sorts of exercise testing, prescription, and theory.Everything I had learned and accomplished prepared me to apply for a head coaching position but did nothing for me once I was hired as a head coach, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
Everything I had learned and accomplished prepared me to apply for a head coaching position—but the same education and experience that made me look like a good candidate on paper actually did nothing for me once I was hired as a head coach. Ironic? Yep. Here I am, finally the boss. I get to make all the decisions. I could do what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it. And do you know what made the job even better? I had an assistant, which meant I had someone to whom I could assign all the work that I didn’t want to do. Happy days, right?
Well, no, not really.
Everything Works Until It Doesn’t
Despite my years of education and experience, nothing had prepared me to actually be in charge. And, at first, I was a really bad boss. I don’t know what happened, but being in that position of authority caused a brief bout of amnesia and I forgot all the lessons that I’d learned working in a woodworking factory in my hometown. Before I knew it, I was micromanaging, and being overbearing and untrusting on top of it.
This was a really easy trap to fall into simply because I was a more accomplished coach than the other staff members. I knew more about physiology. I knew more about psychology. I knew more about the training theories we used. And, I was better at getting the athletes to do what was programmed. My thought process centered around the belief that if my staff couldn’t get it done right or perform the task at my level, then I’d have to do it myself.
Now, being a better coach than the rest of your staff doesn’t necessarily mean that you are prepared to be in charge. Think about that for a second. I received a promotion because I was good at my job, but my story isn’t unique. When we all start out in our professions, we spend our education learning how to do our job to the best of our natural ability—but we never learn what to do once we’re promoted to those higher levels. Consequently, once that advancement is offered, we keep doing the exact same things that helped us get the promotion in the first place—working hands-on (micromanaging), doing everything ourselves (overbearing), and checking in with our staff much too often (untrusting).Being a better coach than the rest of your staff doesn’t necessarily mean that you are prepared to be in charge. Think about that for a second, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
Here are three things I wish someone had told me when I first received that promotion, but I had to learn the hard way. Each of these three tips has helped me become a better head coach.
Become Really, Really Good at Asking for Help
Early on in my head coaching tenure, I really didn’t have any idea what I was doing. All of a sudden, I had to do budgets, risk assessments, staff evaluations, and more previously unknown things than I can even remember. All the feelings I had about this uncharted administrative world didn’t matter—the fact is, I needed to do these unknown tasks because they were now part of my job. So, I struggled with my newfound duties and responsibilities, which I’d never learned about during my education or in any of my prior roles.
Professionally speaking, this was a dark time for me. I was finally in the position that I wanted—I was the boss—but I was suffering from the negative stress and found myself wishing I could return to being an assistant again. Email after email landed in my inbox telling me I wasn’t following the minutiae of policies and procedures we were supposed to know about, even though no one ever told me or directed me where I could learn about these requirements. It didn’t matter: I was in the position for all of four days before I received a nasty email scolding me about a procedure I hadn’t followed.
Looking back on that situation, it was not like I was exposing athletes to immediate and life-threatening danger. I hadn’t accidently sent out a list of login credentials and passwords. I hadn’t carelessly downloaded a malicious computer virus. The issue was that I’d neglected to tell a vendor that we are a tax-exempt institution and was therefore charged $0.87 in tax on a purchase. That one error started a chain reaction of eight emails, two phone calls, and an eight-minute in-person scolding. If paying $0.87 in taxes caused that sort of reaction, what would happen if I made a real mistake with actual consequences?
It wasn’t until I was getting berated by our athletic director about making this mistake that I realized I had no clue how to do the job I’d been hired for. Even worse, while I didn’t have an understanding of how to do this job, I also didn’t feel like I could talk to the AD about it. Now that I was on everyone’s radar, it felt like instead of receiving support to pursue the things that I excelled in, people were trying to catch me messing up so they could remind me about each thing I’d done wrong.
What I’m going to say next is very embarrassing, but for a while all I did was just enough to get by. I wasn’t taking any risks. I wasn’t experimenting. I wasn’t trying to grow and improve myself or my staff. I wasn’t doing any of that; I was just trying to do my day-to-day tasks without drawing any extra attention to myself. All of this is the exact opposite of how I have tried to live my personal and professional lives. By acting this way, I felt that I was becoming a diminished version of myself—and, more importantly, that I wasn’t fit for the position I held.
Finally, I was fortunate to have a conversation that changed everything.
Just like it happens day-in and day-out in every gym, someone needed a spotter. Although I was working in my office and there were plenty of other capable people on the floor lifting, there was a knock at my door and a man I’d never met asked me for a spot while he was benching. Maybe he came to me simply because we were the only two people in the gym who were clearly not college-aged lifters. After his reps, we began the typical small talk that happens after you have just trusted a complete stranger to save your life if the lift goes wrong. It turned out that the man I spotted was the new commander of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (ROTC) on campus. As he reminded me, the ROTC program is there to prepare people to enter the United States military as officers.
Among the first topics in our unfolding conversation was what the cadets would do for training. We talked about the typical style of physical training (PT) and the obstacle course, but what stood out to me was the confidence course. Unlike the obstacle course, which is timed, with students scored on their performance, the confidence course is never timed and most of the challenges are very difficult to complete by yourself. Instead, the cadets learn that in order to pass and score well in the confidence course, they have to help each other.
Interestingly, the commander said that those cadets who are exceptionally strong, fit, or athletic, and who can complete the course by themselves, slowly find themselves ostracized by the rest of the group. That is, until they start helping others complete the course.
Reflecting on this, I wondered if I was in a similar situation. Here I am, strong and proud, doing everything on my own and struggling with it all. So, I did a little experiment—I offered my help. Starting small, I talked to our coaches. I asked them what problems they were having and tried to help them fix these issues. In the course of helping the coaches solve their problems, we talked about the administrative issues I was having. Guess what? While helping our coaches find solutions to their problems, I was getting solutions to my problems. It took some time, but after a while I wasn’t on the radar where people still tried to catch me making trivial mistakes. I felt like myself again: I was taking risks, I was experimenting, I was trying to grow and improve myself and my staff. Finally, I was again fit for the position I held.I made a conscious decision at that moment to create an environment where my staff felt comfortable coming to me and asking for help, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
I made a conscious decision at that moment to create an environment where my staff felt comfortable coming to me and asking for help. It takes a lot of courage to go to your boss and tell them, “I’m struggling. I have no idea how to do this.” Being able to ask for and accept help has been one of the qualities I try to develop because, as the Army displays in the confidence course, all of us need each of us.
Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying for you to hire incompetent people. Not at all. You have to hire quality people, encourage them to take risks, and put these staff members into situations where their professional skills, education, and background will not be adequate. Sure, you can let your staff struggle with situations that they have never been prepared for. This is something that I still do, at least for a while. I want them to feel the struggle and give them the time and freedom to use their creativity and talents to find the solution. Then, after a while, I come by and ask the staff member a simple question: “What can I do to help you do your job better?”
Learn to Talk Last
A classic example of this plays out on TV, in movies, and in real life: In a boardroom, executives sit by rank. The most senior people sit closest to the head of the table, while the most junior people sit farthest away. One person comes in, sits at the head of the table, and says: “Here’s our problem and this is what I think the solution is. Now, what do you think?”
Is anyone surprised that the boss’s idea usually passes with an overwhelming amount of support, regardless of how good or bad the idea actually is? Of course not. When the meeting is over, everyone goes back to their area and talks about the decision. Some are happy, others are disappointed, and many are resentful. They are resentful because they had a better idea, but they never had a chance to express it. Sure, the boss asked, “Now, what do you think?” But we all know that doesn’t work. Once the boss presents their idea, who will have enough courage to disagree with it?
So how do you take advantage of letting people be heard? Learn to be the last to speak and to actually hear what other people say. This is not an easy skill to learn. In his lifetime, South African president Nelson Mandela had a reputation for being a great mediator and a wise leader, attributes he credited his father with teaching him when he was young. Mandela’s father was a tribal leader, and whenever there was an issue in their community, all the other leaders would gather in a circle, the problem would be brought to the group, and everyone would state their opinion. Ultimately, the person who had the final say would be the last to speak—and this skill, waiting to be the last to speak, is one that Mandela credited as key to his growth into a world leader.How do you take advantage of letting people be heard? Learn to be the last to speak and to actually hear what other people say, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
Which brings us back to you and your staff. I’ll assume you didn’t just hire a bunch of “yes men,” but people who see the world a little differently than you do. These people are going to use their range of educations, experiences, and backgrounds to come up with different ideas or solutions to the issues that challenge your team. This is why diversity is important: to produce different solutions. Let your staff pitch their ideas before they can be influenced by your thoughts. You just might be surprised when they come up with an idea you would have never thought of.
Understand Your Real Responsibility
As assistants, it’s our responsibility to get really, really good at our jobs. We apply all that formal education and our past experiences to become the very best coach we can be, and we are responsible for getting results. Our athletes (and their sport coaches) want to see improvements, and they demand that we provide those results. What I’ve learned, however, is that this very thought is the exact opposite of what constitutes a head coach’s job. We are no longer responsible for the results—we are responsible for the people who get the results.
There is a lot to unpack in that sentence. From my experience, the further up the promotion chain you go, the less time you spend doing the job you were originally hired to do. In our case, it means the less time you spend actually coaching athletes. Because we have to spend more and more time doing all of our other duties, we find people to help do the things we don’t have time to do anymore. Once we start getting people to help us, we start putting in guidelines and policies (or at least I did).
In my mind, I had to make sure that everyone who helped me worked within the plan for the program. Before too long, it felt like everyone was bogged down and my staff was asking me questions about every little thing. This happened because I imposed so many rules that they needed to follow, and the staff didn’t want to make a mistake and get into trouble.
Like I said, we do have to have some sort of boundaries. You just can’t walk into a bank and have the teller withdraw a million dollars when you only have $5 in your account. Nor should someone simply have carte blanche to do whatever they want within a program as an assistant. But the first thing that a new head coach should do is set up an environment where people cannot just survive their work day, but thrive in it. The real job of a head coach is no longer to simply get results from the athletes, but to take care of the people who are in charge of getting results from the athletes.The real job of a head coach is no longer to simply get results from the athlete, but to take care of the people who are in charge of getting results from the athletes, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
I’ll be the first to admit that people in our profession are very unique. We have decided to go into a field where working 60+ hours a week is the norm. We have decided to go into a field where having a master’s degree is a preferred job requirement, but we are not even remotely compensated for that educational achievement. We have decided to go into a field where many of us are being evaluated by people who do not understand our area of expertise.
In spite of all of these negatives, an overwhelming majority of us decide to stay in this field. Sure, we might change jobs, but we stay in the profession. That says something about the type of people strength coaches are. We shall pay any price, bear any burden, and meet any hardship because we really want to teach people to…what? To power clean? No, that’s not it. We choose to suffer these because we believe that there is something more noble than simply working for a paycheck. We believe in our own ability to teach other people to become the best possible version of themselves.
This profession is hard enough, and we don’t need the extra stress of a micromanaging head coach to compound it. What we do need is a head coach who will support their staff and help them grow professionally and personally along the way. When your staff feels supported and taken care of, then they have better interactions with the athletes, who will then have better workouts. When people have better workouts, they have better results, which makes everyone happy. All of this will happen when you realize the real responsibility of being the head coach is to take care of your staff, since they are the ones who have the most interaction with the athletes.
Use It Wisely
Now that you have gotten your head coach position, you are truly in a position of leadership and authority. You have the power to make other people do what you say, but you also have the responsibility to take care of the people in your charge. It’s not always an easy thing, to spend time teaching and nurturing people, and sometimes it blows up in your face. This is why you need to have the one universal trait of leadership: Courage.
Listen to people who have done things truly heroic, putting their lives on the line. When soldiers, police officers, and firefighters are asked why they rush into dangerous situations to help their colleagues, their response is almost automatic: Because they would do the same for me. Courage isn’t some magical attribute that some people have and some people don’t. What gives people courage is the knowledge that someone else will place themselves at great risk for them. Knowing that gives you the confidence to put yourself at great risk in return. In other words, your staff will take risks for you and your vision of your program only if they know that you will expose yourself to risks for them in return.
It takes courage to let a new staff member run with a new project. It takes courage to admit you made a mistake in a staff meeting. It takes courage to let other people voice their solutions to a problem and actually use their ideas. This is why being a true leader takes a lot of courage.If you want to be a leader and be fit to hold the position that you now have, you have to let people struggle and grow, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
There is nothing riskier than letting one of your assistants struggle taking a team when you know, deep down in your heart, that you could do better than they can. But we all know that, unless there is struggle, there is no growth. Assistants don’t want to stay assistants forever, so they are going to have to grow—which means you have to let them struggle. If you want to be a leader and be fit to hold the position that you now have, you have to let people struggle and grow. But, as they grow, so will you.