By Bob Alejo
While we watch and wait for the NCAA to commit to stronger legislative language regarding performance unit hiring practices and oversight (specifically in strength and conditioning), I know for sure we can act in the interim to protect student-athletes (SAs) in ways that would go far in creating a safer performance environment. We can accomplish this fundamental goal while, at the same time, shielding the university from allegations of negligence and poor practices. Accurate oversight and evaluation of our positions require these three elements:
- An observation done in a timely manner.
- A clear definition of what the job actually is, and is not.
- A comprehensive performance review from the supervisor.
The ability to evaluate the strength and conditioning coach’s performance on the job definitely stretches beyond staying on budget or having weekly staff meetings. To my knowledge, the criticism, public narrative, and perceptions of our profession have never been due to a coach going over budget or not scheduling enough meetings. Right?!Gauging a S&C coach’s job performance goes beyond staying on budget or having weekly staff meetings. Click To Tweet
Additionally, we talk endlessly about educating the administration on what we do so that, at some point, we can stop the ridiculous notion that sport coaches are more knowledgeable than us in our scope of practice. My response to that long-running conversation is… How has that worked so far? We’ve been talking about this for at least 20 years!
Lastly, clearly outlined certifications, job responsibilities, and professional standards and guidelines have been served up as a task for the NCAA, NSCA, and CSCCa to create. Although there is no doubt that a great amount of obligation rests on those groups, in no way does that mean that practitioners themselves aren’t accountable for paving the road to a great professional setting.
To be fair, it’s important to note that the senior staff member with oversight of strength and conditioning historically has the entire athletic performance team fall under their domain. This represents a sizeable group—overseeing three to four athletic teams, student services, and a few other collaborative projects as well. That’s understood. You could argue that time constraints limit the ability of senior staff to thoroughly investigate the integrity of the strength and conditioning unit and other members of the athletic performance group. This is not understood! Why? Because it’s for the safety of the student-athlete, strength and conditioning unit, athletic department, and institution.
Strength and conditioning coaches have long supervised exhaustive workouts as behavioral consequences (tardiness, absence, violation of team rules), causing abnormal physical training reactions from this physical activity with no performance-related goal. Or, in other cases, comparable drills or workouts are demanded with the aim of improving or creating mental toughness. These potentially hazardous exercises—which have been proven hazardous in some cases—are not what we are trained to do. They’re not our area of study or expertise, and they’re not in our scope of practice.
How, then, do we best document our department’s subject matter proficiently? How do we fortify the lines of defense against probable hazards for the safety of the student-athlete? What measures do we take to safeguard the institution from preventable negligence?
Expectation of Observation
You can try to create the template for a great performance review (structure, questions, goals), but if your supervisor does not watch you in action, the review is just guesswork. That would mean all activities—including outside-the-weight room activities, leadership, and citizenship—not just weight training workouts. I certainly don’t want, and didn’t want, a review based on NOT watching me work!
As the coach, you must agree upon (and anticipate) a reasonable expectation of the supervisor’s observance of the various modes of training that you implement. That would mean, for example, evaluating training sessions from start to finish. There are not just brief glimpses of training, but the entire session and other full sessions throughout the year. A lot can happen during a session that would give valuable insight into a coach’s demeanor and intent.A lot can happen during a session to give valuable insight into a coach’s demeanor and intent. Click To Tweet
We have all been involved in workouts that started out in a less than beneficial way, but ended with thunder, as well as those sessions that started out like gangbusters but then fizzled like a Roman candle on the Fourth of July. A baseball scout would never evaluate a hitter as the next Joe DiMaggio just because the one time they saw him play he went two-for-four with a homer! No, they need to see the kid hit in all kinds of situations, and dozens of times. In the same regard, it makes sense to observe a coach more than just a few times in a year for the purposes of a review and formal documentation.
For instance, the environmental temperature, for me at least, is different from the start to the finish of a session. The beginning of warm-up is my time to talk things through, while low-moderate level activity is happening. I check in with easy questions, make eye contact with each athlete, and go through what is expected for the day.
When the athletes hit the platform, the mood changes and intensifies. Now it’s time to realize what’s next: Don’t be surprised when loads are added. The focus increases for two reasons: intensity and safety. Once platform work is finished and supplemental training is approached, the intensity and safety issues are still at play. However, to say the level of engagement with dumbbells, tubing, and machine work is the same when high-pulling 100-150kgs from the ground or having 200kgs on your back isn’t being honest. My point is that there are different temperatures and atmospheres involved here, where only a full view of the workout will enable a comprehensive review of the session.
Over the course of a week or month—especially considering that a yearly plan would include off-season, pre-season, and in-season training and practices—we all would agree that the atmosphere (program status, mentality, personality) is a constant ebb and flow. Here again, a supervisor would have to see these weekly, monthly, and seasonal changes to have a clear idea of a strength and conditioning coach’s ability to adapt and administrate through good and bad training sessions, energetic and dull practices, wins and losses, and the dynamics of integrating training, while staying on the same page as the sport coach.
How about the everyday adjustments to training sessions that everyone but US takes for granted? Here’s an interesting example: A sport coach hired his own S&C coach (paid for by his sport’s budget) to design a program and work with his team, but he wanted the strength and conditioning staff to supervise the training when “his” coach was unable to attend. Athletes were programmed to perform 20lb goblet squats. Upon seeing an athlete unable to perform the exercise with the prescribed weight, the supervising coach told the athlete not to do the exercise.
When the sport coach saw the athlete waiting for others to finish, he asked why the athlete was not performing the goblet squat. The supervising coach said that she was unable to perform the exercise with the prescribed weight, so there was no reason to go any further. The sport coach then asked why she wasn’t instructed to use a lighter weight, to which the supervising coach replied, “I don’t know what the person who wrote the program had in mind as Plan B. They might have wanted a lighter weight, body weight, a corrective exercise, a different leg exercise, a one-legged alternative. They might have seen something I could not. The prescription was a 20lb DB, that’s all I know. I didn’t write the program so I couldn’t possibly know what the alternatives were.”
It’s true. We know immediately what our philosophical terms are when an adjustment should be made mid-session, or even mid-exercise. They occur on-the-spot and are implemented at the speed of the flow of the room. It’s an art to do it effectively, judiciously, and without disrupting the rhythm in the room or on the field. I’d think an administrator would want to know that this quality is handled well since it’s critical to SA health and safety. I know I would want to know that if I was the Senior Associate AD with oversight.Over hours of observation, the personality of an S&C coach becomes clear, as a coach and a person. Click To Tweet
During these hours of observation, the personality profile of the strength and conditioning coach becomes very clear. Not just as a coach, but as a person. Interactions with coaches, student-athletes, recruits and their parents, other departmental employees, and visitors become a strong indicator of the practitioner’s demeanor outside of warm-up, sets, reps, and sprints! Too many times we hear about strength and conditioning coaches acting poorly and not in the best interest of the student-athletes, team environments, or the athletic department’s mission:
- Berating or intimidating student-athletes.
- Presenting themselves as less than a role model for student-athletes (unprepared, shabby dress code, bad language).
- Being disliked by the teams they work with, rendering them far from a motivating force.
- Acting impersonally to other teams not under their supervision.
- Not cordial with other department personnel.
All of this could be prevented (by early detection of potential problems or proactive dismissal prior to a major issue) if personal observation was a formal process.
In all good conscience, I cannot avoid the one critical thing that comes from a senior staff member personally observing workouts: Viewing and gaining firsthand knowledge of workout sessions led by the strength and conditioning coach that are detrimental to the health and well-being of student-athletes. This is by far the No. 1 reason why senior staff must be engaged with the athletic performance unit, particularly those leading physical training.Appropriate oversight of training and testing sessions could go a long way in preventing injuries. Click To Tweet
Here’s a newsflash: Catastrophes happen, sometimes with critical injuries or preventable hospitalizations. There’s no need to point out when and where. These are symptoms of a bigger problem—oversight. If there was suitable third-party scrutiny (administration) of training and testing sessions, during predictable times of the year when tragic occurrences take place, perhaps these issues could be completely prevented.
Watching actual sessions, student-athlete engagement, and the good citizenship of a coach is absolutely empowering when: a) defusing possible health-threatening activities; b) relieving someone of their job who is clearly not in line with the department and institutional mission; or hopefully, c) strongly supporting the practitioner as a model leader of student-athletes, whose management of health and welfare delivery has been comprehensively evaluated and who has operated at the highest standard. As unfortunate as items a and b are, all three (a, b, and c) protect the institution and all involved from being labeled as dysfunctional, as well as lacking control or that critical caring eye.
So, you can see that a thorough observation of the strength and conditioning staff consists of more than simply standing on the perimeter of the weight room for a few minutes once a month. I will tell you this: Given some of the tragedies and alleged lack of standards that have been in the news recently (and in the past), my hope is that senior administration makes this a mandatory part of oversight for those whose job description includes monitoring the S&C staff.
A Scope of Practice Sit-Down
Does the strength and conditioning coach carry out runs or workouts as consequences for missed tutoring sessions, or being late for appointments/class/practice? Do they direct training that is labeled or designed to create “mental toughness”; meaning sessions not part of the normal training program or goal? Would they be solely responsible for medical care while implementing and supervising workouts in risky environments?
These responsibilities have been taken for granted, but given recent allegations, perceptions, and incidences, there couldn’t be a better time to make a stand or at least make clear where our training, experience, and knowledge begin and end. We must absolutely discuss these and many other “scope of practice” issues, and the window to make an impactful stand is beginning to close. That stand includes drawing the boundaries for others, and by that, I mean the strength and conditioning coach is in charge of, well… strength and conditioning! Not the sport coach, or anyone else lacking those skills and that expertise. We are the experts!
It’s important to know exactly what “scope of practice” means. It is no casual term. As described in the NSCA Strength and Conditioning Professional Standards and Guidelines document:
The legal responsibilities and professional scope of practice for Strength and Conditioning professionals can be subdivided into 2 domains: “Scientific Foundations” and “Practical/Applied.” Each of these involves corresponding activities, responsibilities, and knowledge requirements (refer to Appendices 1 and 2): Scientific Foundations—Exercise Sciences (e.g., Anatomy,Exercise Physiology, Biomechanics, Sport Psychology); Nutrition. Practical/Applied—Exercise Technique, Program Design, Organization and Administration, Testing and Evaluation.
The NCAA has limited its ability to support the strength and conditioning profession in this area mostly because the two supporting bodies—the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCa)—cannot agree on simple, codifying points regarding professionalism and job responsibilities. Despite the NSCA having Strength and Conditioning Professional Standards and Guidelines (the CSCCa has a Code of Conduct, but not a standards and guidelines document), the NCAA and, apparently, some of its institutions, have ignored the existence of this document.
How do I know this? Look what has happened at schools nationwide and even in your own personal instances, as well as quotes in the media. Well, YOU don’t have to ignore this document. In fact, it should be on the table in between you and your supervisor when you have the sit-down about this issue. Here it is, before you enter the room.Whatever environment you’re in, tailor your scope of practice document to that specific situation. Click To Tweet
Take this document and add to it. Whatever environment (administrative structure, facility, DI/II/III) you are in, you should tailor your scope of practice to that specific situation. Create a document that is clear and concise, without ambiguity. The selling point is that this document protects the student-athlete, and collaterally, the practitioner, the direct report, the department, and the institution.
Look at the following examples from the Standards and Guidelines document and the suggested modifications and points specific to your place of employment:
Appendix 1. Strength and Conditioning Practitioner Definition.
Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists are professionals who apply foundational knowledge in a practical setting to assess, motivate, educate, and train athletes for the primary goal of improving sport performance.
Nothing here points to or states that consequences for poor SA behavior should be doled out by the strength and conditioning practitioner. In fact, the primary goal is “improving sport performance,” which no extra, unscheduled, unprogrammed tasks will provide.This would be the place to make note of that.The S&C Practitioner definition doesn’t mention giving penalties for poor student-athlete behavior. Click To Tweet
Appendix 7. Emergency Care and Planning. Emergency Care and Coverage.
- All necessary emergency equipment should be at the site or quickly accessible.
Don’t let the administration tell you that the athletic trainers or the athletic training room is close by. Are you kidding me?! Every weight training facility should have at least one AED in the room, and bigger rooms should have more! An addendum of well-placed emergency equipment should be added here.
Standard 3.1 Program Supervision and Instruction.
Strength and conditioning programs must provide adequate and appropriate supervision by well-qualified and trained personnel, especially during peak usage times.
This standard goes on to say the strength and conditioning coach must “have a clear view of the entire facility” and must be close enough to the athletes “to be able to see and clearly communicate with them” for quick access if they need assistance. Many of you are understaffed and overcrowded, which can only mean three things:
- A recommendation to hire more staff,
- A stronger recommendation to reduce the number of teams training simultaneously, or
- A recommendation for a larger facility.
This point needs to made clear in this document. Remember, we are talking liability and negligence here, and your name is on the weight room!
Again, this might be the most important meeting and document to procure. Clearly detailed, tailored specifically for a given setting, and agreed upon, this collection of basic tenets of the tasks to be performed sets the table for future conclusions as to what is and what isn’t done.
A Comprehensive Performance Review
You’ve heard me say this before: Get a comprehensive performance review. This is different than the one that is historically and typically given to the S&C department. It is one a supervisor cannot perform unless they are actively involved and digging deep into the day-to-day operations of the unit.
Make the review difficult to perform! First of all, the Director of Strength and Conditioning should have a strikingly different review than the assistants. It should be detailed in terms of department-wide leadership, to say nothing of the leadership and mentoring of the staff. Assistants will have separate and different duties among them, and the review should reflect and evaluate it.
The following excerpt is from an article I wrote titled, “How to Fix What Is Wrong with Strength and Conditioning.” Granted, this section largely applies to the review of the Director’s position, but you can see where the assistants are very involved in what could also be part of their review.
“Comprehensive performance reviews: It appears that the reviews of those involved in mishaps or grave incidents aren’t conducted until after the fact. In many instances, somebody critically evaluates certifications, detailed job history, or any insight as to what is actually happening in real time on the job (training, testing or conditioning protocols, Emergency Action Plans or EAPs, etc.) for the first time! And, because the senior staff member doesn’t have the necessary knowledge in the strength and conditioning environment, the performance reviews are neither comprehensive nor accurate.
The proposed Associate Athletic Director will know exactly what to look for and how to evaluate a coach or staff in relation to athletic performance; no class, forum, or management course can teach that. Reviews asking, ‘Have you established training priorities,’ ‘Do you schedule teams appropriately,’ and ‘Are you fiscally sound,’ are way too general to make any relevant or important recommendations to the Athletic Director or silence uninformed critics. And, data? It’s hopeless to think anyone involved in athletic performance could be reviewed without being evaluated on metric standards!
We need comprehensive reviews because what we do depends on great detail and folks should have a clear understanding of that. With a detailed review, the performance evaluation also becomes an educational document. The following pertinent information is an example of what the Associate AD would gather after a comprehensive performance review:
- An evaluation by each head coach in the athletic department of the perceived skill, effort, and intent of that team’s S&C coach, as well as that coach’s perception of the Director’s personal and specific influence and relevance to the respective team.
- This will lend some insight into the efficacy of the Director’s leadership, mentorship, and vision of the strength and conditioning program.
- Any strength and conditioning program’s No. 1 priority is to first provide a service to the student-athlete and secondarily to the coach if the athletic department is student-athlete centric. There should be some value and evaluation of that service if the Director of Strength and Conditioning is to be all-inclusively evaluated.
- An evaluation given by each member of the strength and conditioning staff regarding the Director’s leadership.
- (For the Director of Strength and Conditioning) A reasonable expectation of the Associate AD observing the Director of Strength and Conditioning’s staff meetings and strength and conditioning sessions.
- Performance program auditing starts with agreed-upon standards and operating procedures relating to athletic performance (exercise selection, program design, intent, results, etc.) and, in turn, the coach is evaluated based on those standards. Clearly, if there are no standards, there is no true evaluation.”
Look, everyone wants to think they’re the greatest at what they do. The reality is that unless you are given an objective evaluation by someone who cares about you and what you do, you won’t likely see the small dents in the armor that matter.
The comprehensive performance review should be as important as any document produced by the athletic department because it relates directly to the health and welfare delivery system. Now, you can see how in-depth I feel the review should be and let me say why again: Because it’s for the safety of the athlete, strength and conditioning unit, athletic department, and institution.The safety of the athlete, S&C unit, department, and institute depends on a full performance review. Click To Tweet
The three previously mentioned highlighted areas are cost-free, but pay out huge dividends for all involved. I would call this overdramatic if it wasn’t true. If this sort of assessment dynamic can improve coaching, SA, and senior staff performance; proactively protect those charged with the health and welfare of the SA; and in the worst-case scenario, save a life, who in their right mind would decline it?