Paypal investor Peter Thiel has long argued that despite the American love affair with competition, truly great businesses are actually built upon monopolies and that “competition is for losers.” Entities engaged in perfect competition race to the bottom in price until there is no profit left to capture by either side.
Case in point: Modern airlines compete furiously for passengers and now profit less than $1 per passenger (any additional profit is a product of excess fees). Total market size for aviation: $581,000,000,000 annually. Now contrast this to Google, whose proprietary technology has made it the only true game in online search (65% market share worldwide), with greater profits than all the airlines combined at $35 billion for 2019, despite the significantly smaller market size of digital advertising relative to aviation. While these business-world examples are not perfect lessons for a strength coach who wants to improve their career, if we don’t learn our value now, we will continue to be undervalued in the future.
Coaching Capital in Modern Strength and Conditioning
So how is a monopoly built? Thiel argues that all great businesses are built on a secret—something you know to be true that others disagree with you on or have yet to realize. When the opposition knows what you know, they copy you, and most or all of the advantage is competed away.
In parallel, Oaktree Capital investor Howard Marks often describes the concept of the price being “baked into” an asset or security. Following the crowd—investing where the masses invest—bids up the price until there is no value left to capture. He argues that successful investing lies in having the courage to go against the grain, but also having sufficient judgment to know whether the masses are avoiding it because it’s actually a dumb idea!
Sport is no different. There is a constant arms race between teams to gain a competitive advantage. Organizations attempt to unearth “secrets” currently unavailable to other teams, be that an original tactical scheme, training technique, recovery tool, or method of processing and interpreting data. Early adopters enjoy a competitive advantage over the opposition, the opposition figures out what is going on, they either match or nullify the innovation, the advantage disappears, and the cycle repeats itself ad infinitum.
The University of Nebraska strength & conditioning program of the 1970s is a classic example of this in action. At the time, the program was truly cutting-edge, and it coincided with a time when the Cornhuskers won two back-to-back national championships and never dropped below a nine-win season the entire decade. Look at the program now: It’s still a quality program, but the rest of the world caught up by copying them. Many high school programs are even using the same algorithms and scoring from Nebraska today, from testing companies who license the calculations. The goalposts have moved, forcing teams to innovate in other ways.
So, what does this have to do with strength and conditioning being broken? Well, all support staff (including strength and conditioning) serve the broader mission of the organization: to win. If the clearest route to success lies in innovation and uncovering hitherto unknown competitive advantages, it is incumbent upon every member of the team to uncover them where they exist within their area of expertise. We must invest time, effort, and resources into the arms race. We will not stumble our way into the next big thing.
Coaching Better Requires Better Coaches, Not More Hours
Numerous businesses in the “real world” understand the value of research and development (R&D) and invest vast resources into making it happen. The annual U.S. military budget for research and development now exceeds $150 billion. Google dedicates a full 20% of the work week to the pursuit of free projects that will push the company forward; if you’ve ever used Gmail or Google Maps, you’ve benefited from this initiative. Warren Buffet spends 5-6 hours per day just reading and gathering information.At its worst, the collegiate system of strength and conditioning is set up to produce coaches who get better and better at delivering the same program year after year. Click To Tweet
Now let’s contrast this to the average collegiate strength and conditioning coach. Most coaches spend around 12 hours per day at the facility, for a total of 60 hours per week. The following are estimates based on my experiences and those of my colleagues in the collegiate sector:
- 30 minutes for lunch per day, and we’re down to 57.5 hours.
- Take away eight hours per day for time spent on the floor coaching, setting up, or breaking down sessions, and we’re down to 17.5 hours.
- Estimate one hour per day for using the bathroom, transitioning between training locations, and other miscellaneous activities like correspondence and interacting with coaches, equipment maintenance, budgeting, etc., and we’re down to 12.5 hours.
- Take another hour per day for programming, planning, data gathering and processing, and meetings. Now we’re down to 7.5 hours.
- Spend three hours per week training yourself, and all that is left is 4.5 hours per week.
That’s 55.5 hours spent IN the system, and only 4.5 hours spent ON the system.
Coaches spend less than 8% of the working week on learning, developing, and innovating for the future. (It might not even be this much, as I tried to use generous estimates.)
If you’ve been coaching any appreciable amount of time, you probably know a veteran coach who has been in their post for 20+ years. They’re well-liked, and their interpersonal manner with the staff and players is effective, but the program simply doesn’t change. Rather than 20 years’ experience, it is simply one year of experience repeated 20 times. At its worst, the collegiate system of strength and conditioning is set up to produce coaches who get better and better at delivering the same program year after year.
And the time that we do have available to innovate comes piecemeal throughout the week: 30 minutes here, 15 minutes there. The more distributed this time becomes, the harder it is to use it productively. The natural reply may be that dedicated coaches should take their work home with them to make time, but the average coach is already overworked, with a strained family life and deteriorating physical and mental health. More work on top of that is not the answer, and it typically just leads to coach burnout, dissatisfaction, and staff turnover.
Beyond Football Strength and Conditioning
Those coaches on the Olympic side are doubly set up to fail by being assigned an inordinate number of sports and athletes to oversee. Double the responsibilities and you double the administrative load of scheduling, programming, testing, and meetings. We expect breadth not depth from our coaches. It is tough to get lost in the weeds and push the envelope of a program when it competes with multiple other sports where there are 100 athletes for every qualified coach. The relationship between athlete numbers and coaching quality is an inverse one, and institutions that want to develop Rolls Royces need to understand that they cannot achieve this with a production line mentality or budget.Institutions that want to develop Rolls Royces need to understand that they cannot achieve this with a production line mentality or budget. Click To Tweet
There are a limited number of productive working hours in the week. It follows that every hour spent IN the system (any activity unrelated to long-term innovation or development) competes for time spent ON the system (unrelated to the day-to-day operations but serving the long-term competitiveness of the organization). There is, of course, a place for both, but the balance clearly needs to shift if we are truly about what we say we are. Three primary barriers currently block the path:
- Schools have an economic incentive to maximize the number of athletes per strength and conditioning coach within legal, moral, and logistical limits, to maximize the number of “on the floor” hours per day and move the greatest number of athletes per day through the gym. Most schools secretly believe, but would never publicly say, that a bountiful supply of labor and telling the staff to just work longer and harder is a much cheaper solution than hiring more qualified coaches or building weight rooms that can handle larger volumes of athletes.
- Glaring inefficiencies exist at nearly every level of every athletic department, in even the most well-staffed and spacious weight rooms. Physical preparation is always an afterthought, at the mercy of class schedules. Endless repetition of the same session for small groups repeated throughout the day is the norm.
A staff member relayed to me one example of a nationally ranked team in which there were two coaches and interns on the gym floor for every athlete in the group. If the expectation is that all coaches are on the floor for every session, it only exacerbates the waste of time and energy. Ask yourself: If the head coach had to deliver the same practice six times per day, how long do you think it would take before a new class schedule was worked out? I would guess not long.
- There is a broken culture that prizes activity over productivity. In a highly competitive field like strength and conditioning, it can be easy to succumb to the pressure to be seen to be working. More hours on the floor, more hours in the facility, ABC—Always Be Coaching. The conundrum is that while research, innovation, and working on systems are less-tangible forms of work than guarding your desk, the most successful performance directors in the field make their salaries for their influence exerted and contributions made outside of the weight room.
So, what must change? First, we must force institutions to realize that the prevailing wisdom is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Saving money by flooding the floor with interns and GAs looks good for athlete ratios but is simply adult babysitting in disguise. The closer the ratio of athlete to strength and conditioning coach can be brought in line with that of sport coaches, the greater time and attention to detail the athletes will receive and the more the program benefits.
For those coaches who are salaried, the standard practice of hiring the lowest level of competence and paying the lowest wages that you can get away with is great for balancing the books, but it hijacks the ultimate goal of long-term development. As much as institutions like to tell the story that their high-performance system is theirs, the truth is that when the senior staff members leave, it leaves with them, forcing the department to start all over again from square one. If the seats on the bus are always changing, the program will never gain any momentum.
Commit to a High-Performance Model
True high performance should be about hiring sufficient coaches to give each athlete the care and attention they need to fulfill their potential in every factor of their athletic development. Clear their path of unnecessary and repetitive work. Pay them enough to make them want to stay. Is money the only factor? No, but it’s a major factor when your staff live paycheck to paycheck. Play the long game, outspend the competition, and you’ll take this issue off the table.True high performance should be about hiring sufficient coaches to give each athlete the care and attention they need to fulfill their potential in every factor of their athletic development. Click To Tweet
The argument that “the money simply isn’t there” falls on deaf ears when coaches see buildings being built that run into the tens of millions of dollars. If “you win with people,” why don’t we allocate a portion of donations to sponsoring staff positions, giving bonuses or raises to the staff, or funding long-term education? The truth is probably simply that donors want to see their name on a building, not a person, but institutions should be more forthright in advising donors on where they ought to spend their money.
Second, institutions must understand the long-term value of innovation. If we are not creating and respecting time, education, research, staff development, and innovation that moves the team toward its stated mission, we are not serving the athletes at the highest level. A few minutes of reading grabbed here and there and a couple of weekend seminars per year will not move the needle.
I’ve personally implemented the policy that before we add anything else to the schedule, we block out half a day per week for each coach. The expectation is that they remove themselves from the building, make themselves unavailable to the athletes and other demands on their time, and work on a project that moves the department forward. These are presented to the team on a “midterm-ly” basis, and we incorporate the best into the departmental structures on a permanent basis.
Where inefficiencies exist, you should remove them whenever possible. Anything that can be done once should not be done twice. Exert as much influence as possible on the institution to organize class schedules around training and competition, not the other way around. The school pays each athlete tens of thousands in tuition alone to excel at sport when representing the university, let’s see the scheduling reflect that.If a technology doesn’t offer more insight for the same amount of work, or the same insight for less work, save your money. Click To Tweet
Furthermore, systems and technology should be implemented where possible to automate repetitive tasks such as data collection and processing. If a technology doesn’t offer more insight for the same amount of work, or the same insight for less work, save your money.
Invest in Performance Gyms – Not Equipment Showrooms
When checks are being written for new facilities, let’s be honest that equipment manufacturers and recruiters often do more to drive weight room design than strength and conditioning staff. “One of every machine” typically trumps floor space and athletes flowing through the facility. The footprint of a four-way neck machine for guys to do a couple of sets of neck once per week could be occupied by as many as four athletes every session every day if it was another rack. Forgoing cardio mezzanines, country club locker rooms, and other recruiting eyewash means you can add to the square footage of the gym and bring down the unnecessary repetition of work.
The best example of weight room efficiency I have come across was a nationally ranked program from Texas that reduced their physical preparation work during the off-season and pre-season to one session per day. All hands on deck, focus and intensity for 2-3 hours, then handle all your other business for the day. If you could cut just one two-hour session from your day, you could replace that with anywhere from 60-100 pages of reading. Three sessions per week? Forty weeks of training per week? You’re now reading an extra 12,000 pages per year. For reference: War and Peace is 1,200 pages long.
That is a LOT of learning and development that gets lost to needless repetition. Do we all have the potential to run just one session per day? No, but many inefficient teams can, and we can all make more time for much-needed innovation and streamlining regardless of our resources.
Lastly, the culture within collegiate strength and conditioning is overdue for much-needed change. Humans have a habit of orienting their behavior toward what gets rewarded. If “hard work” is what catches the boss’s eye, don’t be surprised if coaches try to one up each other by spending longer and longer at the office.Humans have a habit of orienting their behavior toward what gets rewarded. Click To Tweet
The Results Only Work Environment, or ROWE, is not new in the business world, but it is extremely rare in the sporting world. In a ROWE, staff are free to dictate the duration and schedule of their work. They are not rewarded for hours, only for productivity on an agreed-upon set of metrics.
I would suggest that player availability, speed, strength and power outputs, reinjury rates, and swiftness of return to play relative to historical averages are good places to start. The indication is that such an approach doesn’t actually reduce hours worked. They’ll work hard regardless; the work is fun, and there’s simply a mandatory amount of work that coaches and athletes have to perform to be successful. But the “results first” mentality encourages efficiency, creativity, and momentum and reduces staff turnover.
Take the Road Less Travelled
If you’re reading this and thinking “this sounds like a lot of work” or “but nobody else does it like this,” that’s the point. Small improvements or variations on exactly what the opposition is doing secures a marginal benefit at best. Unless you are already the champions or perennial challengers, marginal change will not cut it.
Wholesale change is required, particularly in a field where contracts are short, and results need to come fast. Rapid improvement will be earned by those with the courage to do what everyone else isn’t doing, and who exercise the judgement to pick winning strategies and see them through to their logical conclusion.
Down the road, we need to collectively make a change for the profession to be valued and to mature. You don’t have to leave a job or boycott, just remember to be firm on what you believe so the next person that replaces you is in a better situation. If we all do that, in time we will all be better off.
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