By Carl Valle
I have easily invested six figures into continuing education over my career, and wasted half that money chasing the wrong conferences and popular seminars. Now that online options are growing, the trend is more frequently to buy videos on demand instead of making the trek out to a workshop or convention. I believe that coaching education is the most important part of growth after getting your hands dirty, and now that education is big business, the options are overwhelming.
Is There Something Wrong with Coach’s Education Now?
There have been three iterations of decay with coaching education. We are now in what I call the “Alchemy” period, where the information isn’t witchcraft, but it’s certainly not real sport science. Coaches need a blend of applied sciences, craftsmanship, and honest people management in education, not cult propaganda or subliminal infomercials for additional education or products.
Currently, many of the workshops and conferences I attend are the last of a dying group of resources, meaning the rest of educational options are not worth a day trip, never mind a week of hotel stays and days of flight travel. Some conferences like the Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group’s Sports Medicine Conference are long gone, as sustainability is hard for organizers. Organizations like the NSCA have recently revived their offerings with some amazing lineups of thought leaders, but overall, the climate is rather thin on quality.
The good news is that more than enough education exists for sport or performance coaches, and most of it is affordable and worth every penny. Instead of listing what I believe are the best resources, I will break down all the possible choices for consuming education, and give my two cents on what to look for. Some of my biggest career accomplishments are directly attributable to some fine individuals, and many of my biggest failures were from trusting information that may not have been accurate.The problem with coach’s education is there’s easy access to information, but a scarcity of wisdom. Click To Tweet
Coaches are special people that do amazing work with athletes, but it’s a business and it entails more than simply teaching a sport skill or getting someone faster. I am a massive fan of coach’s education because it’s usually an unselfish act of sharing, but it’s also a political and financial arena subject to infection from hidden agendas, so we need to careful.
The primary problem with coach’s education is that information is easy to access, but wisdom is a scarce commodity. Social media is not the culprit; it’s just the fan to the flames of misinformation. Years before online education, when 35mm slides preceded slick PowerPoint presentations, we had the wrong people involved as well. No golden age exists, just the same problems repackaged differently. For change to happen, coaches must make better choices to reinforce high standards and allow lesser information to die off. If coaches buy smarter, the quality of information and the value of education will rise, but only if this is done collectively.
What Apprenticeships and Mentorships Really Are
You can obtain the most important education by simply getting into the weeds and volunteering. Most coaches can’t do this now, and I wish that I had done this for multiple years and sacrificed more. My biggest regret in life is that I was soft out of college and felt pressured to enter the workforce to be independent, when I should have simply just worked for peanuts or for free longer.
The gap I had was experience, as my own athletic career consisted of half amazing coaches and half charismatic recruiters with lousy training. Since most of our own personal experience as an athlete shapes our future coaching methodology, we are sometimes doomed to repeat the wrong history or fail to apply other coach’s gifts. It’s a comfort to apply someone else’s system, but trying to replicate Michael Jordan’s game without his talent is an exercise in futility.
Many coaches resort to graduate programs in college coaching, living in poverty for a year or two, and learning the ropes from more experienced coaches. Some coaches start at youth levels, such as high school or club levels, before moving to advanced levels. Either way, working as an assistant and slowly being handed bigger responsibilities is straightforward and works.
It’s tempting to want to grab control of the ship, but a few years of simply shadowing someone is good enough to get a framework for what needs to get done and what may help solve problems in training and teaching. Many coaches now want to skip the assistant coach process and be rock stars early, and this is a dangerous avenue. Each athlete deserves the best coach available, and rushing through development as a coach is just as bad as rushing an athlete through a training program.Rushing through development as a coach is just as bad as rushing an athlete through training. Click To Tweet
Having another coach mentor you means they are committed to doing whatever is needed to help you over the course of a career, not a week of lectures or a few semesters of volunteering. The churn and burn of rubber stamping “certificate of completion” or “template letter of recommendations” do help with getting a job, but most of them fail in helping you do a job better. Great coaches find a way to do the job better. Unfortunately, a lot of coaches promote themselves as having better ways to train, and most of them either honestly believe their own hype or simply look for ways to feed their ego.
If you want a true mentorship, spend a full season working with a team and taking notes, and the rest will fall into place. Sometimes a coach will need a short or long sabbatical later in their career to continue to grow, and those transitions are very powerful for experienced coaches that find themselves thirsty to get better. Either way, mentorships are not just for young coaches; they are never-ending relationships with other coaches. I call my colleagues from time to time, and when I was struggling 10 years ago, my peers pulled me out of a bad slump. No coach is a superhuman, and asking your peers for help is more powerful than any course or conference.
Online Courses and Video Products
Most of the online education available is not worth investing in, but several options exist that are tremendously helpful and extremely valuable. Online education offers a lot of lectures and recorded presentations that enable a coach to tap into different experts from around the world, but be very picky. Several webinars and similar educational opportunities exist, and it’s up to the individual coach to decide what is helpful. A good takeaway is to see if one or two videos really make you change your program, not just excite you for a few hours with new terminology or concepts. The best online resources are simply inexpensive collections of presentations from conferences that you were unable to attend.Countless professionals buy into the medium of education instead of the quality of education. Click To Tweet
Another good train of thought is to evaluate the quality of information regardless of the convenience. Many products exist that focus on the notion that coaches will want them because they provide a way to learn while in your pajamas, and countless professionals buy into the medium of education versus the quality of education. A video with poor sound quality and no access to its slides and supporting material is just a cheap way to leverage a lot of eyeballs.
If you wouldn’t attend a presentation live, having it at your fingertips—regardless whether they are great coaches or great presenters—is a bad idea. The same standards and expectations of quality from videos should exist as from live events. Having them more accessible and cheaper is only an advantage, not a point that allows for compromise in educational content.
Books, Blogs, and Research
Priorities for coaches outside of working in the trenches should be reading the studies that are relevant and staying literate in hard research. Coaching experience transforms general sport science into applied performance. Books help you see the big picture and nail down a topic that matters, or widen an area of knowledge with different chapters from different experts. Books and research should be a quarter of your investment from a time and budget standpoint.
You can organize research PDFs and journals in many different ways, but I think the Papers app is the best way to keep everything easily accessible. When you read research, it provides you with checks and balances to intuition, as humans can be biased with their gut feelings and other hunches. Research may not be necessary for coaches at youth levels, but as performance demands increase, so does the need for evidence to support your ideas. Coaches can point to results countless times, but those improvements often would have happened anyway with any reasonable program and the acquisition of the right talent. With Researchgate and Google Scholar providing so many free studies, coaches shouldn’t view research as a luxury item.
Reading material that’s outside of sports performance maintains, and promotes, intellectual health. Reading should be about learning, not keeping up with the Joneses to appear “initiated.” Don’t read books just because everyone else is reading a certain author—read the text because the information can help the athletes you work with. I wrote how “Not Fooled by Randomness” was a good read, long before the “Antifragile” craze, because the person who suggested it was sincere, and not trying to get more followers on Twitter.
Reading outside the box should be for personal enjoyment, maintaining balance in life, and staying grounded. Finding books outside of the sport or field of performance to appear “creative” or “innovative” is common, but we still have much work to do within the typical boundaries of our profession. Half of my books are about sports performance and track and field, while the rest are a mix of general sciences with a few pleasure subjects such as cooking and war history.
Blogs are an enormous educational opportunity but, like any medium, you need to vet them. I regularly read five online resources a month, and use trusted coach’s social media feeds to find good reads from time to time. Because blogs are free, they are sometimes too influential on younger coaches who don’t know how to evaluate education that is on the internet. A sound way to inspect a blog is to ask what the person wants to convince the reader of, and how does that information jive with today’s best practices. If they have a good argument, stop and see if it challenges your beliefs or reinforces them. Though they are simply online writing, blogs are a part of education, and if they are popular it’s likely because their information has value.
Workshops, Conferences, and Seminars
I attend fewer and fewer conferences every year. It’s not that I don’t need more education, it’s just that I have given up on the format and goals of most conferences. Scientific congresses are different, as they tend to be pure representations of the current sport science. However, too many other conferences these days are more about attending a rock concert than presenting deep information. Most presentations are about the presenter, not about training or rehabilitation. Too often, the presentation is either an infomercial for more education from the speaker or an advertisement for products and services from a sponsor.
Speaking of sponsorships, I am a big fan of sponsors who support the general market and donate to conferences, but I am reluctantly accepting of sponsors for specific sessions because they turn into promotional presentations. It’s fine to support methods and equipment for training, but it should be tasteful and only a minor part of the speech, not a focal point. Companies should invest in conferences not as a fast way to get sales, but because promoting the value of key training and rehabilitation principles is a smarter way to develop a larger customer base than trying the rapid techniques of selling from conventional reps and tradeshow exposure. Focusing on thought leaders and explaining the value or results of a method or product is much better than working on dated marketing options.Companies should invest in conferences to promote the value of key training and rehab principles. Click To Tweet
Workshops are not seminars, and seminars are not conferences. The difference between a seminar and a conference is simply the size and format of the venue. Conferences are usually very large and semi-annual or annual, and seminars are more like tours, meaning they are likely available repeatedly at different cities. Seminars are usually more intimate and have only one or a few speakers that educate on the same topic over time, thus making them intensive enough to provide a certification or similar. Conferences usually provide a total contact time for continuing education credits, not a right to perform a specific type of manual therapy or provide specific training methods.
Workshops are a more hands-on education, meaning they are more about getting people involved with the instructor than just straight lectures. Hands-on sessions are sometimes part of a seminar, but the best workshops are usually those that deal with only hands-on training and program design. Sometimes a master coach will review actual workouts and break down training design, and this is far more helpful than typical roundtable discussions.
The final benefit of a conference is that getting out to another city to meet and network is sometimes a perfect respite for the soul. The issue is that many coaches, especially those that enjoy the party scene too much, turn the conference into a bar-hopping routine and essentially use the education period as a paid vacation. Not only does this hurt the profession as a whole, but it is foolish to visit another city and miss out on an opportunity for professional enrichment.
Visiting friends and having a nice social time is part of the mental recovery side of coaching, but taking things too far is not a good idea. Networking is about meeting new people and sharing ideas, not a way to artificially inflate a resume or pick brains at a time that most coaches are trying to learn too. While it is perfectly fine to meet up with coaches willing to share their experiences, some just want to be learners for the day. Because they constantly get calls and emails for advice when back home, sometimes they just want a break when they’re away.
Facility or Coach Visits
My own experience is that a random visit to see another coach while in town or a longer stay for a coach or a team is a great way to see the small nuances for those who have already been coaching. Some private coaches call a week-long visit or a brief shadow session more than what it is, but the truth is stopping by a facility and chatting, or even going through a formal course over three to five days, isn’t different than a small seminar. However, putting down your visit to a college or team as an apprenticeship or mentorship on your resume is embellishing the truth—watching someone train or speaking to a coach is not a deep educational milestone.
To get the most out of visiting a coach, college, facility, or team, schedule it properly. Shadowing people while they work is invasive, and I hate it myself. Trying to serve two masters—helping educate a coach by sharing your process and attending to athletes at the same time—is hard. When I visit, I just want to watch and I try my best not to even talk to the coach or be close to the action where the athlete feels encroached upon. Simple observation and debriefing post-visit is enough to give value to a short shadowing session, but asking for more is asking too much from the coach or staff.
Most of the experience when visiting is to watch how a coach manages people, not only to view the workouts. People usually want to see other coach’s cue and “fix” techniques, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be there at a time when acute and radical changes show. My issue with visits is that short stays often disappoint the visitor, as good coaching is for the most part a gradual “slow cooking” versus quick magic acts. When visiting, most coaches look to see compliance and culture, and the way athletes interact with staff. I visit during training camps to get into the deep details of things rather than trying to skim a few “pointers” here and there. There’s nothing wrong with adding a few quick tips or tricks of the trade, but still focus on knowing the principles of the profession, rather than “hacks” or similar.
Budget and Plan Smarter with Coaching Education
Don’t worry that you are missing out if you can’t attend a conference or don’t have a budget to get all the books you want. Education comes mainly from experience, and there are enough freely accessible resources that coaches have more than enough information at their fingertips. In fact, we are in the information age, and are more likely to be overloaded than the other way around.
A good idea is to choose one or two live events a year and focus on relationships with those who attend the conferences you find rewarding. If your discussions are better in the hallways at conferences, just pick up the phone and call those people you repeatedly see. Education is a vast opportunity and, with a little due diligence, it’s not difficult to invest in direct sources and quality options.