Going into my second season as a Minor League Baseball strength and conditioning coach, I had high expectations for what the year would bring. Having time to reflect on year one and think of what changes and improvements could be made for year two was an exciting thought process; however, come March 15, COVID-19 had shut down spring training only a month into the hands-on portion of year two.
Looking back at what is now just a little more than a full year ago (and what I very wrongly believed would be a two-month to maybe three-month period), there were two ways to take this time frame. The first way was to accept that nothing was going to take place in person, at least for a short time period, and rest on your laurels. The other way was to take time to reflect, learn, and connect even more than in a normal year.
Having this time as a reflection period, among other things, I’ve learned and realized plenty about myself. Even more so, I’ve used the time to consider what it is like to be around elite baseball overall and to truly understand and explain the experience better.
One of the first things I learned, and will likely always continue to process, is the cost of an asset. Part of what can help you transition into professional sports and constantly improve in the realm is truly understanding the cost of players, coaches, and the overall organizational structure. Although sports are a game no matter the level, professional sports organizations are just as much a business.
This business aspect also separates professional coaches from college and high school coaches. While strength and conditioning coaches are paid more than college or high school athletes, in professional organizations strength and conditioning coaches will not be paid as much as most—if not all—professional athletes they work with.
Referenced below are some of the largest-ever signed contracts from the big four American sports leagues.
Out of the top 100 sports contracts, 96 are in the American big four sports. While these top numbers are quite exorbitant—and honestly, it’s tough to fathom just how much money they really are—this truly shows the value of the assets you work with while in professional sports. Even the league minimum contracts ($563,500 for MLB, $898,310 for NBA, $510,000 for NFL, and $700,000 for NHL) are no small figures.
Looking at the minimums and maximums shows you the range that professional organizations value their players at from a cost perspective. While not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, where college football has most strength and conditioning salaries listed as of this past year, only seven of the Division 1 Football head strength and conditioning coaches were slated to make at or above the minimum American big four sports players’ salary. In total, 11 were slated for $500,000 or higher, 23 for $400,000, and 38 for $300,000. These 38 coaches make up the top 30% of the 130 teams, and this does not even include pay for assistants. Again, while this is not perfectly apples to apples, it should help you better understand the cost of assets.
Knowing and truly comprehending that the athletes you work with in your organization will almost always be paid more than you is a crucial piece to doing a proper job. While it is possible to take risks, they must be well-measured and calculated at all times. No matter what, you will likely always earn less than the athletes you work alongside, and your organization, not your athletes, will pay you directly for the work you do.
Patrick Mahomes signed his mega deal during this time, and other stars in leagues continue to sign large deals as well. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the environment, some strength coaches have been furloughed or laid off because of the pandemic. At the end of the day, both of these things are business decisions and need to be understood and respected. They are part of the risks that come with being in a professional organization; it is a business first.
Expectation vs. Reality
Keeping in mind all that I’ve previously stated with regard to costs can help you understand some of the realities of working in professional sports compared to the expectations you might have when looking from the outside in.
Understand that it is almost entirely unlikely you will ever be your own boss within the realm no matter your title. Someone somewhere will always be above you, whether in your own department or in another. That is the reality of professional sports organizations: They are big, and they are businesses. That does not at all take away from how great they are, but rather serves as a reminder of what the organization truly is that you work within.
Also, when working in pro baseball and especially in the minor league levels, there is a high likelihood of living in no fewer than 2-3 different cities every year. If you want to work in Minor League Baseball, you need not only love the job you do, but also the game of baseball. Games are played nearly daily, and you will likely be away from home most of the year. Sure, spring training might be in Florida near the beach, but do not at all mistake it for spring break. Enjoy any and all family time you have either at home or when they visit. It is very likely that between your off-season home, spring training facility, and season affiliate, you will live in three different places unless you move near your spring training facility.If you think that you have all of a sudden ‘made it’ as a strength coach just because you have been hired by a professional team, think again, says @sgfeld27. Click To Tweet
Furthermore, while a job in Minor League Baseball is an occupation within a professional organization, for many coaches it is only the beginning of a long journey. If you think that you have all of a sudden “made it” as a strength coach just because you have been hired by a professional team, think again. Making it merely starts with the job you have, and you can quite easily lose it for a short time or forever if you fail to do your job well. The hard work only begins as you start your career, so do not take for granted where you are. Remember what got you there no matter where you are within Minor League Baseball and know there will always be aspiring coaches who want your job. Even if it is only a rung on the ladder, it is the most important rung in that time.
Using the four-coactive model within professional sports, many of the best professional athletes excel at some combination (if not all) of the technical, tactical, and psychological aspects of their sport, yet may lack in the physical domain. Especially in baseball, a highly skillful and strategic sport, this has the potential to ring true where you do not have to be the most physically dominant specimen to reign supreme. All coaches at all levels face pros and cons, and many say that if they had ideal conditions, they would do the job in certain ways.
Not all professional baseball players (let alone all professional athletes in general) will be the greatest physical athlete or have the urge to be. It is normal human behavior. Work with what you have to the best of your ability and do not let that hamper what you can do. And to those who assume otherwise about the professional level, ask around and learn about it—it can be surprising the similarities that are found from level to level.
This paired with understanding the asset cost and risk/rewards of professional baseball means you will not always have the most groundbreaking, new type of programming. Plenty of work may follow some of the more basic programming around, and there is nothing wrong with that. As it is, most great programming is founded on the same basics and principles.
Lastly, in most organizations (colleges, for example), the strength and conditioning staff spends most of the year together in the same location. Professional baseball, however, does not work that way at all. The only time a full strength and conditioning staff is guaranteed to all be in the same place at once is during the busiest time of the year at spring training, and that does not guarantee there will be much overlap or work with the Major League staff. Instead, in Minor League Baseball, the staff you will be with the most is the affiliate staff you are slated to work with. At most, as a full strength staff, you might get up to three or so months together in a year between spring training and off-season camps.
So, you’ve just landed your first job at a big organization within professional sports. You’ve made it, step one to reaching your goal, or maybe your goal is even complete—now what?
Maybe you are working in an organization with someone you have looked up to or you are in your first year while others there are in their fifth year or beyond. No matter the situation, it is definitely possible to feel like a fish out of water, and you may begin to question yourself some. Understand it is perfectly normal and okay to feel this way—many people do. Josh Bonhotal covers imposter syndrome really well and gives a great understanding of what it truly is.
Realizing you may feel the effects of imposter syndrome is necessary to give you the awareness to work with it. You probably are not even the only one feeling that way where you are. Keir has spoken to this many times, saying to forget about having it as best as possible and just go and do.
At the end of the day, you will never know everything, but be aware of what you do know. Use what you know to be the best you can, and remember you are not alone in feeling doubt. The best thing is to do the job well—it does not have to be perfect. For those who have considered writing or using social media more, the same principle applies here.
Time of Year
As a professional baseball strength coach, there is only one time of year where you are guaranteed to be working with your athletes, and that is during the season. That means unless guys are in with you during the off-season, baseball is the priority at absolutely all times, and being healthy and able to perform as much as possible is their number one need.
When looking at programs for different coaches, sports, or times of year, for example, exercises, sets and reps, tempos, and other nuances may change, but principles remain. From an outsider’s perspective, there is the chance that programming could look “boring” or “risk averse” due to the nature of games occurring nearly daily. Flip that when looking at colleges or private sector coaching, where it may look the opposite when they have guys during the off-season.
While there are some opportunities to get guys in during the off-season at the professional level, the norm will be having guys in during the season. When it’s the off-season, unless there is a camp going on, guys will often want to head back home. Like coaches, they are most likely away from home most of the year.Knowing games will be no fewer than six days per week with upward of about 21 straight days’ worth of games makes programming tricky, but structured, says @sgfeld27. Click To Tweet
Overall, working with the baseball schedule is the biggest hurdle to creating effective programming. Knowing games will be no fewer than six days per week with upward of about 21 straight days’ worth of games makes programming tricky, but structured. While pitchers have a more set schedule of when they will pitch, position players will likely see more game action throughout the week that has to be worked with. All players will practice nearly daily, too.
Working within a professional baseball organization means working primarily during the season when baseball games are at full speed and completely the main priority. This also means off days need to be exactly that—off. The only exception to a true off day is when that day is also a travel day depending on the league and schedule.
There also will only be one time when travel is not at all overnight: spring training. This time is the most hectic portion of the year, though, as guys fight for jobs and ramp up toward the season. Additionally, all of the minor league players will be in the same place all at once now, as opposed to spread among their affiliates.
Once affiliate teams take shape and seasons begin, the season schedules look more like those of Major League seasons. However, there is one big exception: travel to and from home and road sites. While Triple A affiliates can travel by air for some, like Major League clubs, these are commercial flights and likely the first flights out.
All other affiliates travel by bus when they are on the road, and Triple A ones will also travel this way plenty of times. On the road, the bus is all there is for transportation, so between getting to a gym, lunch, and a game, there is only one option. Add in the fact that bus drivers have schedules they must follow, and there is only so much time that can be allotted to team activities like going to a weight room.
For Minor League baseball, the travel schedule can be one of the bigger challenges to work with when setting a schedule for strength and conditioning. Especially when on the road, there will be challenges to work with to ensure programming is done well. Although it is not travel or controllable, the weather also is a factor in scheduling and travel. Always be ready to adapt at any moment.
Maxing Out Is Overrated
One of the lessons that I took home after interning with Cressey Sports Performance, my first experience around some of the most elite professional baseball players, is that picking days or weeks specifically to use for max testing is not necessary. This lesson still resonates with me because it is something that I never would have considered part of a good program prior to that; truly a 180-degree shift in my mindset. Before that, I had no reason to think it was unreasonable to take time to occasionally find a true 100% and build percentage-based lifting off of that.
Being inside the sport, this also should come down to realizing that you are working with your athletes in season. Using a week when they are playing and the sport is more important takes away from their abilities. Velocity-based training devices provide all necessary feedback to ensure strength training is done well and monitored at all times. Proper monitoring can make testing far less important. Now, this is strictly from the weight room perspective: properly dosing max speed work is a crucial part of an overall holistic program.
As strength and conditioning coaches, it is written in our job title that we help athletes get strong. However, this might be one of the easiest duties of the job. While powerlifters and Olympic lifters are athletes, they are not the athletes we work with, so there is no need to chase maximal strength development. Because of this, constant monitoring with velocity-based training devices gives us all that is necessary, rather than using any in-season time with athletes to max out and test strength qualities.
Optimal, Not Maximal
Knowing the difference between optimal and maximal will help with success in both the long and short term.
At no point during an in-season professional program will you have the opportunity to have a maximal workload off the field. As previously mentioned, baseball is the priority, and that takes the maximal load with games nearly daily. While a true optimal load may never be figured out, the goal remains to optimize as best as possible. Additionally, travel details do not make the demands any easier. Making every session and contact of as much quality as possible should always be the goal.At no point during an in-season professional program will you have the opportunity to have a maximal workload off the field…the goal remains to optimize as best as possible, says @sgfeld27. Click To Tweet
Creating an environment that allows for two to four quality sessions in a week is imperative to a successful minor league program. Whether it is a weight-room session or a speed session, the goal should always be to work with on-field performance as best as possible. There may be sets or reps left in the tank, and that’s okay—it’s better to have guys feeling good than feeling fully spent. While pitchers may have time to recover between outings, plenty of position players have far fewer days off.
As strength and conditioning coaches, our goal should always involve optimizing athletic qualities and overall performance as best as possible. With a long season filled with games nearly daily, and travel schedules that do not make it any easier, striving to optimize every second in our domain is key.
Always the Intern
Before I landed a full-time job, I somewhat jokingly thought I would be forever the intern, stuck doing so much of the job’s busy work. Of course, this is far from an uncommon path within our field, which has led others to think up ways to fix this.
While having a professional (or any) job may mean you have graduated from the role of intern, it does not mean your work ethic should change. I will always remember a mentor telling me that when you do get a full-time role at a club, be the person who does more than their job calls for. Be that person, so whenever you leave your job for the next one, the people you left behind realize all you did for your organization, especially in roles that went beyond your specific job duties.
No matter what, no matter how far you make it, never lose the work ethic. There is always someone to work with and/or work for. Never be too big for the little things. Just because the job you have may not be the one you want forever does not mean 100 or more others would not line up to take yours from you in a heartbeat.Do not lose the drive you have as an intern once you leave that role, says @sgfeld27. Click To Tweet
In professional organizations, between players, staff, front offices, and more, there are plenty of moving parts. There will always be something to do and a way to pitch in. Be ready at any time to help and do not lose the drive you have as an intern once you leave that role.
As Best as Possible, Take Everything in
Working in any big sports organization is unique and working in baseball provides some of the most distinct opportunities and situations. From big league guys with more than 10 years of experience at the top level and close to 20 years playing professionally, to guys within organizations who have been there for 40-plus years, there is a wide range of experience and people to be around. Although some minor leaguers may not even be 20 years old, there is a full spectrum of people and players to work with.
If you are early in your career and have the chance to be near people with 5-10 years or more in, no matter their role, their insight can be absolutely invaluable. It’s not always the easiest thing but learning to listen more and take in as much as possible early on is a phenomenal way to gain insight that can enhance your understanding of professional organization structures.
Depending on your role as a minor league strength and conditioning coach, you may not get to work hands-on with big leaguers, but you still may be in close proximity to them. The chance to be near these pros and see their work ethic up close provides some of the greatest learning opportunities. Taking it all in and learning from it for yourself and your athletes can help lengthen careers. Some of the best lessons athletes learn may not come from us directly, and providing examples can help show them what they have a chance to become.
Furthermore, if you ever have a chance to be around executives or front office people, try to understand the different outlook they have. While we tend to get used to our view as strength coaches from our on-/around-the-field perspective, it is great to understand the overall picture of an organization and realize there is far more that goes on beyond our narrow scope.
One of the greatest things that comes with having a job in the professional sector is the instant credibility that you receive as a coach. Deserved or not, having a professional organization give you the opportunity to represent them will most likely result in others automatically believing you are a more credible source than if you were some random strength coach without the same type of backing.
While networking is good, it will really only be worth your time if the connections you make are meaningful and therefore truly help you create a network. Pratik Patel puts this more succinctly than I do, and it is advice that needs to be heeded and understood. Sure, this could be a way to add yourself to a list of possible future candidates when other jobs open up; it is also a way to find other people who might be worth adding to your own staff. It’s taken a while to truly understand what people mean when they say it’s not who you know, but who knows you. (I know without my Cressey Sports Performance internship I would not be where I am today.) Make sure with whomever you meet, barring mentor/mentee relationships, that you can at least provide or attempt to provide good value in return.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the upcoming year will end up far different than years past, when it was possible to meet coaches in the area. Another benefit of reaching out to coaches in the area for the club you are with is you may save money on an away gym by finding a good weight room if it allows. Even if you are unable to get into a weight room, there will still likely be great coaches within the area. Do not discount those who work at high schools, and there are likely many high schools around some smaller areas. Among others, Mark Hoover and Graham Eaton (so long as you can understand his thick New England accent) are great guys to know and learn with.
Use your position to your advantage to know as many great people as you can and learn all you can. Especially with all the travel that the position provides, the opportunities to meet others are ample.
Self and Family Time
Last, and anything but least, are relationships and time with your family and yourself. Without a doubt, these are of utmost importance, even if they do not affect your job directly.
As it is, accepting a career in professional sports is amazing, and no doubt something I will likely always want. However, almost everything comes with a price. Deciding on a career path is a unique decision for each and every situation, and pros and cons change with every circumstance.
In baseball, unless you are at the Major League level (and even for some at that level), you will most likely be away from home for more than half of the year. A normal Minor League year now spans from around Valentine’s Day to beyond Labor Day. Off-season camps can account for another month as well. Between being at the spring training facility and affiliate season, there is a real chance of being in multiple locations that are not home for eight or nine months.
In professional baseball, the climb to a level that can change that is not necessarily overnight, let alone guaranteed to be anywhere close to fast. Cherish every minute you get to be around friends and family, because it is not nearly as much time as you think. Being home because of the pandemic likely reminded you of this.
If you choose to be in professional sports of any kind, you likely are goal-oriented, or at least want to win a championship; however, do not let that ring chase be the only thing of importance. Nobody likely has the ability to keep you as grounded as your spouse, and it is crucial to always remember that. Give your most important relationship the attention it deserves and needs. Take the time to nurture it while on the road and especially when back at home, since that time is limited.Do not forget to take time for yourself, either. Off days don’t happen often…if all it involves is taking a day to get away and refresh your mind, then do that, says @sgfeld27. Click To Tweet
And do not forget to take time for yourself, either. Off days don’t happen often, and not always when you’re home. You will not always be able to do much, so if all it involves is taking a day to get away and refresh your mind, then do that. Do not forget about yourself or your family, no matter what. Thinking about heading back for the upcoming season makes this feel and seem far different than ever before. Maybe that’s due to being recently married and having a year at home, but it provides a great reminder to not take the time for granted.
Being a strength and conditioning coach is a great job and holding a strength and conditioning position within professional baseball is an amazing opportunity. It’s an exciting time to have the chance to return for a third spring training here in the very near future.
No job will ever be perfect, and regardless of how much we all talk about the art and science of training, strength and conditioning roles in professional sports are still just jobs within big organizations at a simple, descriptive level. Furthermore, balancing the art of training and the understanding of the business you work in is very important for learning to succeed.
There is no need to fear what you may or may not know because learning will always occur. Understanding where you are and forging strong relationships are among the most important things you can do. This will help lead you to success within the role and help make the job as fulfilling as it can be.
More than anything, though, do not forget to take and enjoy all the family time you have, because it will always be finite.
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