By Eric Udelson
The months following college graduation and being shooed into the real world can be a challenging time for anyone. This is especially true for those in fields where there is no one straightforward pathway leading to the professional world and earning a living. Landing a great job in the field of human performance can happen via many different routes; however, there are some fundamental steps that you must take so you can appear as a particularly valuable up-and-coming strength and conditioning coach. Preferably, over the course of a few weeks/months, you need to form a plan of action that effectively maps out your journey to ultimately obtain your dream job.
This article aims to provide the essential steps to take for those who aspire to be in the field of human performance. I have implemented many of them into my own plan for going forward in my career.
The Field Is Competitive – Start with Education
Obtaining a secondary degree through enrollment in graduate school is a crucial step for any aspiring performance coach. This is because, whether you want to work for a team or private company, they will most likely want to see that you have garnered skills and knowledge past that of a bachelor’s degree, especially with how competitive the job market for performance coaches is. Every professional team has only two or three performance coaches/sport scientists, which affords these teams the privilege of only taking on the most skilled and most knowledgeable coaches.Whether you want to work for a team or private company, they will most likely want to see that you have garnered skills and knowledge past that of a bachelor’s degree. Click To Tweet
Essentially, the first phase of becoming a high-level performance coach is to acquire basic education on the human body that can be used in a multitude of fields. In my case, this came in the form of human anatomy and human physiology classes during undergrad as part of my PT major. Without a solid base of knowledge of the human body and its processes, it is difficult to develop a deep understanding of human performance in athletics. You must be aware of which muscles are being worked and which anatomical movements are being utilized so they, as coaches, can make corrections. This enables the athletes to develop correct form for a given exercise, which could ultimately help them avoid injury.
After undergrad, it is important to become educated in the more specialized areas that specifically pertain to sports science. To do this, the best option is to enroll in a graduate program. As mentioned before, as a candidate for a job in performance, your value and appeal are far greater if you are bolstered by multiple degrees. These show that you have put in years beyond a traditional bachelor’s degree to master your craft. At the same time, of course, to become even a proficient coach, you must have plenty of practical experience with coaching athletes. This doesn’t change the fact that an awareness of both the basic and more advanced concepts concerning sports science must occur first.
Obtain a Master’s Degree in the Profession
Of course, finding the right school for your graduate program is also of great importance. For me, the process was similar to finding the right college in terms of my comfort with the location and size of school. However, I felt that I placed far greater focus on the curriculum the program provided and how well that matched up with my interests.
For instance, I found some programs that were labeled “Master’s in Exercise Science,” but when I did more digging, the career paths the program offered were vague and did not directly relate to sports performance. Ultimately, I found a program that allows for multiple different pathways, but it defines in its curriculum that one common avenue students take is that of sports science. This meant the program devoted a segment of its classes to sports-science-type material.
Another important consideration in choosing the right program is the potential for connections, which can, in many cases, directly or indirectly lead to a career after you complete the graduate program. While concept knowledge is the foundation for any performance coach, establishing your network of professionals will be more important for landing a desirable job. Ideally, if you can establish a network, you will have people to connect with as soon as you complete your degree, as opposed to earning your degree and then having to essentially start from scratch.While concept knowledge is the foundation for any performance coach, establishing your network of professionals will be more important for landing a desirable job. Click To Tweet
While still deciding between schools, I was able to establish connections with people in one program, and I was fortunate enough to get a graduate assistant position in athletics at the university I will be attending. This opportunity for quality, practical experience while I attend classes was crucial for me, and it ultimately made my choice of school an easy one.
Along with a graduate degree to your name, it is also necessary that an aspiring performance coach consider obtaining certifications. Like the added appeal created by a graduate degree, having special certifications proves to those hiring that you are knowledgeable. It also shows that you are willing to put in a significant amount of time toward your passion of sports performance.
Many coaches agree that the first certification you should pursue is the CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist). It is widely considered step 1 for working directly with athletes to enhance performance.
The certification test’s content is formed around the book, “Essentials of Strength and Conditioning” (4th edition). The book is pretty long and densely packed with material, but it is essential that those who want to pass the exam get through it in its entirety. Ultimately, the studying period consists of considerable time and effort over multiple months for most people, but if spaced out correctly, it can be very manageable.
So how do you give yourself the best chance of passing on the first try? The first step after registering for the CSCS is to determine the amount of time you need to study so that you’re fully prepared to crush the exam. The NSCA website provides a basic chart for the length of time needed to study—it considers whether you already have practical experience or a bachelor’s degree that involved health science. Regardless of your starting position, however, you should map out your studying so you can progress at a steady pace for maximal absorption of the information.
For instance, in my case, I had earned a bachelor’s degree in health studies and had a few semesters of the BU DPT program under my belt, which proved very helpful on the exam. Fortunately, a lot of the beginning sections of the book covering human physiology and gross anatomy were review for me. However, even with my previous education, I still had to devote around two months toward my preparation to feel fully prepared come test day. Ultimately, there is no shame in taking as long as you need to prepare so you can ideally pass the exam on your first try and not have to retake it, which requires an additional fee.
Get Focused and Schedule Your Study Times
In terms of my actual preparation during the two-month period, I first wanted to get through the entire book before worrying about practice questions. My schedule involved trying to get through a chapter every day, which allowed me to organize my thoughts around a set of certain concepts during one sitting. This method is great for thorough absorption of the material and maximal understanding of the concepts.
The reason you need to be so thorough is that most of the questions on the exam are application-based and necessitate a deep understanding of the theories. In other words, there will not be many questions that simply require you to recall a specific piece of information (i.e., What is the rest period with exercise that involves the phosphagen system?). Instead, most questions involve multiple concepts. These types of questions require a deeper understanding of the subject than a mere surface-level understanding involving memorization of individual facts.
In addition to devoting each day to one chapter of concepts, another method that contributes to maximal information absorption is creating an outline of notes from each chapter. My routine was to get through around three chapters and then create an outline for those chapters. (I found that making the outline for more than three chapters resulted in too much information at one time.)
The purpose of creating a separate outline is so that, at a later time, you are able to look over the material in a timely manner while still getting a thorough summary of all the important concepts that might show up on the exam. Ideally, your outline should be much easier to digest than the book. It should be in your own words and be void of any fluff information that isn’t essential to the concept being discussed. With this in mind, the outline must have headings, bullet points with sub-bullet points, and bolded/underlined words to stress the importance of the key ideas.
Once I felt like I had a comprehensive understanding of the book’s concepts, the next step in my preparation was working on practice problems because getting used to the type of question and level of detail is instrumental in being prepared for test day. It took some time to experiment with different sites and programs that offered free questions, but ultimately, I found that the vast majority of the questions on those free sites did not represent the level of difficulty of questions on the actual CSCS exam. This is not to say these free questions did not have any use—they proved helpful for reinforcing very basic concepts which may help those just starting their preparation.
I found the best source of questions that were actually representative of questions on the test was the NSCA website. Unfortunately, it will cost you a fair amount of money per question. However, it is undoubtedly the best way to simulate taking the exam as far as the level of difficulty of the questions as well as practicing the ritual of answering a large amount of questions consecutively.
This aspect of preparation may be overlooked, but I found that building my mental stamina was more important than I had initially thought. The exam requires you to answer around 90 questions and then, after a short break, answer another 100+. With this in mind, I believe mastering the NSCA’s practice questions should be essential to your overall study plan.Mastering the NSCA’s practice questions should be essential to your overall study plan for the CSCS certification exam, and don’t overlook building your mental stamina. Click To Tweet
I studied diligently for around two months and two weeks, and when test day arrived, I was feeling anxious but confident that I could showcase my grasp of the material. Most questions on the actual exam required a fair amount of thinking and the usage of multiple different concepts to arrive at what I believed to be the best answer. There were, of course, some questions that caught me completely by surprise. They didn’t rattle me too much, however, as there are essentially infinite possibilities for questions that can be derived from a 700-page textbook that is densely packed with material. Ultimately, I found the exam relatively challenging, but it’s very manageable if you employ the right preparation during the correct time frame.
Get Experience So You Can Start Coaching
Besides gaining a graduate degree and earning various certifications, what can an up-and-coming performance coach do to advance their own competence while also presenting themselves as a valuable candidate for a job? From meeting various people in the industry to discuss career trajectory, I have found that jobs value practical experience or internships that are representative of a setting that you want to be part of in a full-time role.
First, simply spending time in high-level settings that are well organized and employ science-based methods can be crucial for development as a strength coach. By just witnessing the normal functioning of a facility, you can take note of what you like or maybe what could be improved, which then immediately gives you a more informed opinion on how strength and conditioning facilities should be run. Additionally, during such internships, it is important to connect with the main coaches involved with the team or company and pick their brain regarding their strategies for enhancing performance and how they articulate their methods to their athletes. Again, by taking notice of your S&C coach’s specific plan and strategies for improving athletes, you are developing your own knowledge and examining which of those methods yields results and which may not.
For instance, on a basic level, some strength coaches who train college soccer teams may go extra light with load when in-season, while others may try to continue their player’s strength and power gains while threatening to cause unnecessary fatigue. Besides their strategies, I like to observe a coach’s demeanor, delivery of information, and general tone set with their players. To me, these interpersonal skills are all important because an athlete’s perception of a strength coach is arguably more determined by that coach’s personality/demeanor than by the specific methods that coach employs.
Something I have learned is that there are multiple ways to command respect from your players and motivate them to be dialed into the weight room. I have been an athlete at the mercy of a “yeller” S&C coach who does not allow any fooling around, and I have witnessed a more reserved coach who, without raising his voice or overcompensating, had his players completely locked in and committed to being productive with their lift/practice.There are multiple ways to command respect from your players and motivate them to be dialed into the weight room. I aim to form my coaching style around my personality. Click To Tweet
When I think about what type of performance coach I aim to become, I first consider my personality and plan to form my coaching style around that. The thinking behind this is to avoid overcompensating and employing communication/mannerisms that are in conflict with my true personality because that will create a feeling of disingenuity. I believe if I am simply myself, it will result in better communication with athletes, since they typically pick up on any false personality immediately and will most likely react negatively. At any rate, having quality time observing your superiors interacting with their athletes before you need to be responsible for your own athletes is an essential step.
Continuing Education – A Life-Long Pursuit of All Great Coaches
When pursuing a career in the arena of human performance, the most difficult part is undoubtedly getting started. As mentioned in my previous article, I made the switch from physical therapy to performance, so in essence, I had to start from scratch with my plan of action to land the best job possible. Although it took me some time and energy to formulate this plan, I eventually got there and felt confident in my direction.
The best method to go about this is reaching out to respected people in the field and simply meeting to chat about career trajectories. That way, you will be more familiar with the various paths taken by established coaches and sport scientists. Then it is time to take action.
Of course, there are many ways to land an incredible job, but in order to be perceived as a valuable, skilled candidate, it is crucial to first earn a graduate degree at a program that matches your interests. This is then followed by earning extra certifications like that of the CSCS, which means studying effectively while managing your time efficiently. Finally, you will want to get a large amount of practical experience under your belt in the form of an internship or graduate assistant position.
At this point, bolstered by a vast knowledge of the field, experience with athletes and seasoned coaches, and a network of professionals willing to help, you should be ready to go after your dream job. As an aspiring sports scientist myself, I aim to follow these guidelines so I can ultimately follow my passion of working with elite athletes while making a real difference in the world of human performance.