By Carmen Pata
When I was getting into this field, being an intern was simply a fancy word to describe the worst jobs in the gym. We had to set up the weight room or wherever we were running that day. Clean up everything once the athletes were done. Wash and fold towels. Clean and organize the facility at the end of the day. And please don’t forget the paperwork that needed to be entered into the computer.
One of the best things you can ever do to advance your program is to set up an internship program. However, in order to have it survive more than a semester, you will have to structure it so it’s more than simply having interns show up, clean, and fold towels. A position like this at a school may have been fine 20 years ago, but with the growth of our field, there are more entry-level internships than ever before. We have to be able to offer prospects more than just our grunt work.One of the best things you can do to advance your program is set up an internship program, but make sure interns do more than show up to clean and fold towels, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
Don’t get me wrong—all of the duties I mentioned are important and need to be done. You just can’t expect people to line up at your office door to do these jobs simply because they get to work with you and have the name of your university (or business) on their resume. Well, maybe you can if you’re at a D1 program that competes for national titles every year, but the rest of us don’t have a line of people waiting outside our office.
The question comes back to: How do you get quality people to apply for your internship? The answer for this, like most things in life, is to have a well-thought-out plan. Here’s mine.
Begin with the End in Mind
In my nearly 20 years’ experience, I’m sure I’ve gone through situations very similar to what you are going through. I understand that when you start an internship program, you just need someone to take care of some of the busy work for you so you can focus on bigger picture problems. Here’s some advice. It’s something we have all heard before, but need to keep on hearing. Begin with the end in mind. Since we are talking about developing an internship program, when someone has completed the program, do you know what skills you want them to have? It’s a simplistically difficult question to answer, I know.
At first, I wanted the people leaving my program to be good coaches. That’s hard to do, since becoming a good coach is something that takes much longer than the semester or two that people are in the internship program. So I took a step back and decided that, at the end of the internship, these people needed to be ready to step into a graduate assistant position. That idea might mean different things to different people, but from talking to other coaches, I noticed these same skills kept surfacing.
- Ability to talk to all sorts of people.
- Ability to explain the basic concepts in strength and conditioning.
- Programming experience.
- Ability to coach groups without direct supervision.
- Some supervising or mentoring experience.
- Ability to critically think about different exercise programs.
With these ideas in mind, I started laying out a plan to develop undergrad interns with the help of our assistant coaches. The first attempt at this was simply too much thrown at people too fast, and it was very unrealistic. We kept refining these ideas over the years and came up with this current version of the progression for interns.
We coach up the interns on how to talk with the athletes and help the interns fix their nonverbal communication. These interns eventually take group warm-up, cooldown, and stretching sessions while being supervised by our professional staff. During formal and informal staff meetings, the interns must be able to explain the basic ideas of the force-velocity curve, the size principle of motor unit recruitment, and the basic ideas behind energy systems. Ultimately, the interns have been successful if our pro staff feels comfortable to “accidently” not show up for the workout and the interns have to do everything themselves.
Building off the previous semester, now these interns will have a new level of responsibility. The second semester interns have to complete an annual plan for a team and create their own workout templates. They need to explain some of the more abstract theories, like the stretch shortening cycles and the sliding filament theory, then apply their use in training sessions. These students also supervise the cleaning of the gym and make sure any collected data is entered correctly. Finally, the second semester interns are in charge of specific teams or groups.
The few times that we have undergraduates who have been in the program for this long, they get treated the way I treat a graduate assistant. They create content for our social media channels, they are invited to all meetings with the sport coaches and the athletic department, and they are given full responsibility for one of the lifting groups. What I mean by full responsibility is that these interns create the lifting, agility, conditioning, and nutrition programs. Of course, nothing is implemented without first being approved by the professional staff.
Create the Curriculum
The majority of the interns we get are in the program because they need class credit. It took a long time for me to understand that, to help put the academic minds at ease, I needed to talk their language. My formal education is rooted in biology, not education. I knew what I needed from the exercise science department on my campus, and that was student interns. I knew what the interns were going to get out of their time with my staff and the athletes. What I didn’t know was how to communicate all of this in a way that career educators could easily understand what I needed or how the students would benefit and be evaluated.
There was one word that I needed to learn that would have eased the frustration of failing to communicate. That one word was curriculum. Developing a curriculum—writing down the course of study for these interns—changed everything for me. All of a sudden, I was taken more seriously by all the department chairs I talked to in order to get interns. First, it started with exercise science students, and then it progressed to people who studied nutrition. Now I am talking with our psychology department to get students who can help me set up mental health data and RPE scores.Developing a curriculum—writing down the course of study for these interns—changed everything for me. All of a sudden, department chairs took me more seriously, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
Whatever direction you want to take your internship program in is fine as long as it saves you some time and effort. Just take some advice: When you are talking to academic departments, make sure you at least say the word “curriculum” as you describe what your plan is. Even better, have something written out on paper. There are all sorts of examples and templates you can find if you do a quick Google search, and they all have these three things in common:
- Expected Outcomes: What the students will have learned when they have completed their program.
- Learning Experiences: How the students will have chances to apply what has been learned.
- Assessment: What and when the students will have their knowledge tested to make sure they have retained what was learned.
Don’t Make It Miserable
Were you ever miserable working in a job? I’m not asking you if you had to work a bad job, but whether you were actually miserable while you were working. I had a bad job in college working in a woodworking factory. I worked there during the summer months in an old building. Since there was a lot of machinery and hazards, we had to wear steel-toed boots, heavy jeans, protective jackets, and a mask over our face, and there was no air conditioning in the building.
Now that was a bad job. It was hot and dusty, and I did mindless assembly line shift work. Yes, it was a bad job, but I wasn’t miserable. There were some great people I met there, the management was involved with the labor force, and we had a competition between shifts for the group that was most productive. Sure, the job sucked, but at least the eight hours I was at work were enjoyable even if the work wasn’t.
It was an amazing learning experience for me. Sure, I learned the value of taking pride in your work, but even better, I learned how to make sure your staff is not miserable. Starting right off the bat, no one felt anonymous there. Everyone was involved in some way with everyone else.
Everyone, from the janitors to the board of directors, ate together in the dining hall at lunch. At the shift change, some, if not all, of the management group would come down to the punch clock and either welcome the people punching in or thank the employees punching out. It seemed trivial at the time, but the owner of the company came up to me at the end of my shift, looked me in the eye, shook my hand, and told me “Carmen, I appreciate the work you are doing.” No one felt like a nameless face in the crowd.
People felt relevant there, too. As part of the training process, they told us how our job on the factory floor impacted the delivery drivers and the teams that set up our products. Everything that happened on the factory floor impacted our sales force, which rightfully bragged about the quality of our products and how we fulfilled our promises. This ultimately affected the amount of sales they made, which impacted our bank accounts. We all understood our part in the grand scheme and how what we did affected everyone else.
The final thing that was not typical in this woodworking factory was that the management actually asked the labor force for their feedback and suggestions. There wasn’t the stereotypical quota that we had to fill each day—there were high expectations that we would get our work done on time and correctly, but we were given chances to assess ourselves and find better ways to do things. It was evident right away that the opinion of the management team was not the only way we would be evaluated on our successes or failures.
I left that summer job a little over 20 years ago, but I still use the ideas that I was taught there to make sure my staff are not miserable during their time with me.
- No one is anonymous: The interns are recognized on our main athletics web page, they go to all team meetings I’m invited to, and they are promoted on our social media accounts.
- No one is irrelevant: The interns are shown how their work contributes to the success of the athletes and their teams.
- No one is solely dependent on my opinion: The interns are taught how to critically evaluate their own actions and results, then decide if they need to adjust what they’re doing or continue.
Attract the Right People
The more experience I get in hiring people, the more I believe in the old adage that you reap what you sow. When I hear other coaches complain about their interns or staff, I often wonder how they recruit these people and why they hire them. After all, if the job posting is basically asking for anyone to fill the spot, don’t be upset when anyone applies for it. You reap what you sow. On the other hand, if your job posting is written so people with more than just the basic qualifications and with the right mindset and drive apply, then you are planting better seeds.Write your job posting so people with more than just the basic qualifications and with the right mindset and drive apply, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
One of the best examples I have of this is what happened a little over a 100 years ago in England. As the Age of Exploration was drawing to an end, there was one last hurdle that mankind had not cleared: reaching the South Pole. On his second attempt in 1914, Ernest Shackleton needed to recruit a crew of men to undertake the perilous journey to Antarctica with him. Although he was well-funded and well-supplied by the British government, he needed the right kind of men to take the trip. Legend has it that he ran an ad in the London newspaper The Times. All it said was this:
MEN WANTED. For hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.
Looking at this posting through the now-standard HR posting style, it seems laughable. There isn’t any language about the minimum or preferred requirements or education. Intentional or not, this job posting was written brilliantly. If they had tried to list all the duties and expected skills those recruits needed, the posting would have been much longer and would probably have turned off some of the people it was meant to recruit.
In fact, the expedition ran into difficulties that nobody expected. One hundred days away from their intended arrival location, their ship was encased by pack ice and eventually crushed. While some members of the crew left with Shackleton for an 800-mile trip to try to find help, everyone else waited on the ice-covered ocean with high temperatures of below-zero degrees for five months before they were finally rescued. It’s an amazing story about the human will to survive, and even more amazing when you realize that at the time of their rescue, the entire crew had survived.
You’ll reap what you sow. Shackleton didn’t just need a crew of 56 men for his trip. He needed the right 56 men. The right men were the ones that wanted this job for more than money, experience, or a safe return—they wanted it because it would give them excitement, danger, honor, and recognition.
When I decided to run my internship program, I put what I learned from the Shackleton expedition to use. The posting for my internship is written to attract the people who are the right fit for us. The people who are willing to work long hours in a loud weight room with minimal compensation and the expectation that they are constantly learning. These people will make a long-lasting impact on the student-athletes’ lives and the quality of the athletic performance program itself. Since I started using language like this, we have had fewer applicants for the internship, but the quality of the people who do apply has significantly increased.
So folks, these are some ideas to help you set up your internship program. Looking back at the way I began my program, I wish I had heard this advice before I started. Unfortunately, I was so desperate to get some help that I just took on anyone who showed up. Was that ever a mistake. Sure, I had a few people who were there helping, or at least they thought they were helping. All the issues that happened in those first few semesters of my internship program were my fault because I didn’t understand the principles that I just shared with you.When I began my internship program, I didn’t take the time to hire people who would fit in with what we were doing. Now the job posting is written to attract the right people, says @CarmenPata. Click To Tweet
I was so busy that I didn’t take the time to hire the people who would fit in with what we were doing. They complained about the hours, the music, not working with the teams they wanted to work with, and not letting them coach highly complicated movements like a power clean. They were miserable and so was I.
Then, suddenly, I didn’t have any applicants for the upcoming semester. After talking to the Chair of our Exercise Science program, I discovered that the department was not advertising our positions anymore because of the poor experiences their students were having. Finally, I heard back from the coaches and employers that the former interns had gone to. It was heartbreaking news: These interns who I had mentored were not prepared to be coaches. That was a professional low spot for me. But I changed all of that with the same ideas I just shared, and I know they will work for you, too.