By Bob Alejo
After years and years of interaction with general managers, front office staff, associate athletic directors, and sport coaches, and hundreds of conversations with colleagues within and supporting the strength and conditioning (S&C) profession, I’ve arrived at a conclusion. After a preamble surrounding some thoughts, I will detail a solution that will create more authority, proper status in the athletic performance arena, a much bigger impact on what our profession can provide the student-athlete (SA), and a career move that will pay it forward to those still carving out a career in strength and conditioning.
My hypothesis is this:
If an experienced and accomplished strength and conditioning professional is an Associate Athletic Director/Athletic Performance—senior staff reporting directly to the Athletic Director whose only task is to supervise the strength and conditioning unit—then student-athlete health, welfare, and performance will be a comprehensive service and the strength and conditioning field can flourish.
There are so many hypocrisies and contradictions that surround our profession and the places we work: the perception of the strength and conditioning coach and their place on the tiered performance ladder; the way that many of “our own” have plenty of critiques and complaints, but offer no thoughtful solutions or action; the fact that our typical supervisor (the one reporting to the AD) has very little knowledge of what we do/how we do it/why we do it, yet reviews our performance on a departmental document. Honestly, very little has been done to remedy these obstacles and other issues. I’m still confronted with the same problems and questions that challenged me 30 years ago, and I’m not the only one!
Fighting for the Future of Strength and Conditioning
As Kurt Hester pointed out on his Facebook post (and my hat off to him for inspiring me to expand on his thought), we cannot rely on or wait for the NCAA to remedy our situation. I, and probably every coach reading this, have heard of or told a story about how we think the NCAA can be staggeringly behind the times in our specific area and those areas that support us. From the 30% protein rule that has thankfully gone away to strength and conditioning deemed “voluntary” by sport coaches as a strategy not to exceed the weekly time allotment decrease in Athletically Related Events, the NCAA has collaterally handcuffed practitioners. Therefore, they aren’t providing the optimal environment for student-athletes, even though the intention was otherwise.The NCAA isn’t providing the optimal environment for student-athletes, although it means to, says @Coach_Alejo. Click To Tweet
Bob Bowlsby, Commissioner of the Big 12, could very well be the biggest help for all of us. At this year’s Big 12 Media Day, he mentioned that the NCAA will be looking at S&C coaches and what “they can do, how they’re supervised, and the like.” FootballScoop.com characterized Mr. Bowlsby’s discussion as the NCAA looking specifically at “…certification processes and hiring practices, as well as subsequent oversight after hiring.” Mr. Bowlsby is the chairman of the NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee, but I’m hoping his public statement and subsequent meetings will have great ramifications for all collegiate strength and conditioning coaches.
If, and when, the NCAA looks into hiring practices, oversight, and certifications, I believe that S&C practitioners, current senior staff in direct supervision of those units, and athletic directors must be present so that there is candid and honest dialogue, some of which will be uncomfortable. If these specific people do not attend and actively participate in the discussions, the task force will be merely feigning an attempt to improve athletic performance delivery systems, prevent performance miscues, and increase safety for student-athletes.
Certification Is Not the Problem
From my perspective, certification for strength and conditioning is a must. For the record, certification is a great step towards credibility for the profession, if it is through a credible certifying body. Let’s for the last time dispel all the “certification doesn’t mean nothin’” crap. In 2003, when I was a presidential candidate for the NSCA (uncertified) and an ardent critic of certification, Don Chu explained it perfectly to me that certification was a condition of candidacy.
We sat down over coffee and he gave me a thorough explanation, in the simplest terms: The certification says that the coach meets the minimum requirements necessary and, as in other professions, in no way indicates or implies that the people certified will be great at what they do. Fourteen years later, I have repeated that conversation many times. That discussion convinced me enough to take the test.
Now, unlike those non-credentialed folks typing away at a blog about what a waste of time the CSCS or any “letters” are, I have the credibility to critique the test. I’m certified and I have firsthand experience with what the test is like, how hard it is, and the pluses and minuses of the content. To restate what I hope never happens to any practitioner, let alone someone not certified: A coach will quickly find out how much a certification “means” when he/she answers “No” to a litigator who asks, “Are you certified to do your job?” during an investigation into a workplace accident that resulted in a serious injury. However, I would also add that I assume no certification of any kind would dismiss or acquit someone from an act of gross negligence.
Educate yourself—no CSCS, SCCC, MD, PhD, ATC, CPA, or PT necessarily means that you’re good at your job or that you have the maximum knowledge available to perform your job! All of us in the S&C profession can attest to folks that have those credentials and fall into the class of “How did they pass the test?!” Simply put in a way that we can all understand, having a driver’s license does not imply or ensure that you’re a good driver.
Yet, history has proven that all the certs in the world do not make us policymakers, give us full reign over our area, or raise our status in the performance model. It’s a safety and professional mechanism, but it does not guarantee respect or authority.
Student Athlete Health and Welfare
Student-athlete health and welfare is not a part-time, convenient, compromised, or diplomatic thought. However, it is my contention that student-athlete well-being is sometimes marginalized in just those ways in the strength and conditioning area. As S&C coaches, we all have at one time or another (and more times than we care to hear) had a sport coach suggest, cajole, or demand we perform or not perform an exercise or drill for their team.
It’s not surprising that the person who has their name attached to the win-loss record makes suggestions that they think will make their team better (healthier, faster, more conditioned). Professionally, however, these should be in-depth discussions: ATCs, PTs, supervisors, ADs, and MDs should be present when applicable. It is, after all, a very important suggestion brought up by someone who is considerably removed from the physiology, biomechanics, and analytics of strength and conditioning.
A professionally held forum with an aim to come to the best conclusion for the student-athlete and the team’s future success should provide the best solution. Sounds good, huh? Now, let me tell you how it typically goes: You end up having to acquiesce to the sport coach’s request for no other reason than the administration condones the idea because “It’s their (the sport coach’s) program.” Few meetings and little debate, but plenty of narrative.
We often hear the slogan, but it’s not really in effect: “Hire people and let them do their job.” Is it that difficult to answer the question, “Is it in the best interest of student-athlete health and welfare to have a certified subject matter expert decide the content of the strength and conditioning program or someone not certified with limited knowledge?”
Don’t Kid Yourself—We Are Part of the Problem
It’s not lost on me how difficult and precarious it would be for an S&C professional to not only damn the NCAA for its lack of support for the S&C profession, but to also positively criticize the very administrative structure that supervises, employs, and compensates them. I’ve been there; it’s tough to keep my mouth shut when I see wrong things in an area of my expertise. Nonetheless, what did Mark Twain say?
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”
There must be accomplishments (solutions, proposals, meetings with policy makers) and not just activity (rants, complaints, idle chatter). Have there been hundreds of emails and phone calls to the NCAA and conference commissioners proposing better administrative structures in our area? Have there been hundreds of meetings with school administrators about the same topic? My guess is there haven’t been. But if there have, then it’s painfully obvious it’s not enough.
Speaking out about a better system is only one of two necessary steps. For my proposed solution to work, the obvious must happen—a strength and conditioning veteran must step up and into the senior staff role. It’s a choice that a rare few have made. There’s not much to say here except, if you feel that strongly about your career and profession and how it could be so much better, this is the perfect time to make your move!
Finally—A Solution and What It Looks Like
Quoting myself in an August 16, 2017 Op-Ed post:
“Until the direct report of the S&C Unit is an S&C veteran/expert at the senior staff level (Senior Associate AD), the oversight of the Unit cannot be supervised or managed comprehensively leading to a less than fully functional and highly effective S&C department. This subject matter expert with S&C oversight should have immediate and unfettered access to the Athletic Director and be responsible for S&C only; no sport or event responsibility.”
“An experienced & accomplished S&C veteran in a senior staff position would eliminate many problems.”
Let me tell you why I say that most of the current athletic department structures are “less than fully functional”—it’s because the S&C departments are supervised by someone without full knowledge of what we do.
Many problems we face are the result of poor direction and support because those overseeing S&C lack subject matter grasp. An experienced and accomplished S&C practitioner in a senior staff position would eliminate many of those problems. And, I’m certain beyond any reasonable doubt, with a keener focus on the performance, health, and welfare of the athlete by way of the proposed supervisor’s skill set—not the assumption, dismissal, or whimsical suggestions by those who couldn’t possibly know what we know—we can have a staggering impact on decreasing catastrophic incidences.
Here’s how the proposed Senior Associate Athletic Director position would put our profession forward at warp speed:
Top of the list—an Athletic Director who is all in!
How else could this administrative change happen? As I have said in no uncertain terms, it all starts at the top. There is little argument that the closer to the top we are, the best chance the student-athlete has to see their physical and performance needs met and, yes, the better off we are. Hopefully, you can see by now (some of you readers by experience) that, if this setup is to work and if the job description is what I’ve designated, then the Athletic Director is one helluva leader and carries the torch for the last bastion of real SA health and welfare. Not to be left out, the chancellor or president of the school sets a huge example as well.
What I mean by an Athletic Director who is all in:
- Hires the right person for the position by way of adhering to strict job qualification standards during a thorough committee vetting and gives them autonomy—real trustworthy autonomy—to perform the job.
- Shows full support to the S&C department. The AD will fully support S&C by giving the subject matter expert the final say in strength and conditioning related issues.
Unfettered access to the Athletic Director
Of course! If providing “…college athletes with the best environment for safety, excellence and wellness” is as important to the schools as they say it is (it’s the slogan on the NCAA Sport Science Institute’s home page), then the Athletic Director would want weekly updates and bi-monthly meetings directly from the person whose department has the most effect on physical well-being and whose staff has a direct barometric reading of the entire athletic population.
First-hand knowledge with no ambiguity or uncertainty. Correct me if I’m wrong, but many of us would say that, due to the workload of the current senior staff member covering strength and conditioning, by the time valuable information makes it to the “right desk” it is a watered-down version of what the Director of Strength and Conditioning wants to be understood. Think about it: It’s surprising that the only department on campus whose staff literally has “hands” on every SA multiple times during the week (I would love to debate those who believe otherwise, any place, any time) does not directly report to the Athletic Director at many institutions. Additionally, no one can send a more impactful message about the needs, concerns, and concepts of the S&C department than a certified, expertise-relevant, S&C practitioner.
The position covers only strength and conditioning (if not the entire athletic performance group), with no additional responsibilities
Haven’t we read or heard this statement enough: “My strength and conditioning coach spends more time with our players than anyone!” So why would there be any additional duties?! This position will be covering every student-athlete’s performance- and health-related issues; up to 500+ athletes in some cases! Imagine the kind of support and attention the Associate AD for Athletic Performance can provide to everyone involved if they only have one focus.
I’m going to back up a moment and give those involved in the current structures an even break. Typically, the senior staff member covers not only strength and conditioning, but the entire performance group—sports medicine, sports nutrition, sport psychology, and sports science. It’s easy to understand the staggering challenge of having a working knowledge of exercise physiology, performance nutrition, and preventative/rehabilitation science, to say nothing of time available to critically supervise those areas. Wait…that doesn’t include the fact they could be responsible for two to four sports (more at smaller schools) and event responsibilities!
Referring to the previously mentioned job descriptions for senior staff members, where in that description can student-athlete health and welfare get the attention it deserves? Make no mistake, staying fully apprised of the status of 500+ athletes will be an incomplete task if there are additional duties to attend to.
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.
I don’t know how else to say this—S&C needs a direct supervisor, without any other agenda or responsibility, to jump up and down on the Athletic Director’s desk when we know what is best for the student-athlete in terms of performance, health, and safety. If the answers to questions contain an optimal solution for these three previously mentioned issues, then we have an agreement. Support is crucial when a sport coach or anyone outside of the strength and conditioning unit tries to dictate strength and conditioning methods and philosophies in addition to or contrary to what is in place. It’s a simple solution: Let the person most knowledgeable in the area make the decision.
Support mechanisms must be in place to prevent damaging the integrity of the S&C unit, and the performance group as a whole. For example, under ordinary conditions, not allowing coaches to hire or work with S&C practitioners outside of the department. Similarly, these mechanisms should have a longer reach during times when an area supporting S&C is compromised. For instance, when an athlete rehabilitates outside of the athletic performance group against the wishes of those involved—this is a horrible situation for streamlined communication and it fosters a lack of trust in the skills of department practitioners who directly affect the S&C area.The solution is simple: Let the person most knowledgeable in the S&C area make the decision, says @Coach_Alejo. Click To Tweet
No one would underestimate the value of trusting a supervisor who has “been there, done that.” An additional voice with a similar viewpoint offers helpful alternatives, providing a valuable underpinning—a mentorship, if you will—to what will be a great unit. Whatever form the support takes, no one will be able to say that the final analysis came from a lack of experience or understanding. (Though that’s not to say that the Associate AD’s decisions will always be viewed favorably by the S&C department.
I don’t know one S&C coach who has the last sign-off on a hire. Someone higher up (and there are many above us) has to “OK” the hiring. Sadly, when an incident occurs in relation to the S&C area, the media reports the symptom of a poor structure (e.g., an uncertified coach, risky practices, etc.) and not the cause (who signed off on it?).
Now, I don’t say this to dismiss a coach who is less than forthright about his credentials, a coach who is responsible for errant training practices, or a coach who recommends an unqualified hire as a result of incomplete background work. The culpability is clear there. Rather, I want to point out that making a proactive intervention, instead of trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, is a better solution.
If you are running over nails and getting flat tires, replacing the tires is not the answer!
With the proposed Associate Athletic Director in place and the Athletic Director supporting the system, misinformed or unqualified hires will significantly diminish. As much as I’d like to, I hesitate to say “alleviate” poor hiring practices. Human error is still involved and even the greatest organizations make mistakes in this area. However, no hiring practice will be influenced or overlooked solely by a sport coach’s recommendation or any recommendation that could potentially damage the integrity of the department and university.
Hiring is based on the ability to deliver a great performance product, service to the SA, and the thoroughly investigated integrity of the candidate. The hope is that this IS the sport coach’s recommendation! Doesn’t it always come back to what’s in the best interest of the SA?!
Now, hear me out. Policy recommendations listed by the “Inter-Association Consensus Statement on Best Practices for Sports Medicine Management for Secondary Schools and Colleges” in the document, Independent Medical Care for College Student-Athlete Best Practices, was a topic at the 2016 NCAA Safety in College Football Summit. For a look at the documents, recommendations, and attendees, click on the link. (Side note: It is disappointing to see that, of the 70 participants, not one collegiate S&C coach was listed, and “off-season safety” was not an agenda item. I’d be interested in knowing if it was an invite-only event.)
Principle Nos. 7, 9, and 10 are of particular interest, as they clearly show the sports medicine arena separating itself from influence by anyone outside of its services delivery system and expertise. S&C coaches take note:
“9. An athletic trainer’s professional qualifications and performance evaluations must not be primarily judged by administrative personnel who lack health care expertise, particularly in the context of hiring, promotion and termination decisions.”
A concept for us has a precedent! “Anyone who lacks specific expertise in the area of strength and conditioning for athletic performance cannot be the primary, authoritative figure(s) influencing or determining issues of ‘hiring, promotion and termination…’”! A collegiate health care and performance delivery system must be “athlete-centric.” This means the main reporting line should be to the Associate AD in charge of strength and conditioning and not anyone else.
What am I saying here? Exactly what I wrote! Hey, I didn’t say it was an easy fix and I’m not the one in charge of figuring out how the dynamics of this type of system work. This is an institutional responsibility, and it’s obvious that it can be done. Most schools have proven there can be a separation of health care from wins and losses or coaching changes. It’s a widely held practice to retain ATCs during coaching changes and losing seasons. There is no good reason why athletic performance can’t follow the same principle.
Speaking of principles, there are no compromises in principled thinking—principles cannot be influenced. Will there be difficult discussions with sport coaches and some administrators? Absolutely. In cases of dissention, obstinacy, or no good ground for objection, there is one question that can end it: “Do you want the most knowledgeable strength and conditioning coach available, who has an evidence- and science-based program, to optimize the health, safety, and performance of your team?” That answer is non-negotiable, without a “Yes, but…” option, and it is best finalized by the Associate AD in that area.Doesn’t it always come back to what’s in the best interest of the student-athlete? Click To Tweet
My solution is not an easy one, but I believe it to be the correct one. It doesn’t mean that strength and conditioning coaches don’t have some difficult decisions to make. Some will have to wrestle with the idea of leaving “the floor.” Some like the idea of being connected to the head coach of the sport, and it makes sense financially in some situations. There might be some that take exception to the detailed performance review I illustrated.
The members of the profession will have to iron it all out. But if you pause for a moment and remember some of the conversations that we’ve all been involved in or heard about, it would seem more coaches than not can benefit from the sort of system I’ve discussed.
Moving Forward the Right Way
Frankly, we cannot blame the NCAA for a coach’s or institution’s lack of common sense or due diligence. It is the member institution that is culpable. In no way am I implying that a supervising coach is excused from the responsibility of student-athlete safety. Instant liability is in effect when any coach is overseeing SA activity. Nor am I saying there couldn’t be some version of what I described: An S&C coach connected to a head coach under the right conditions or the proposed Associate AD still performing hands-on duties as a senior staff member.
What I am saying, and as Coach Hester and Mr. Bowlsby suggest, is that it’s the evaluation systems and hiring practices that need the closest scrutiny to safeguard against bad things happening. And, while a valid certification is requisite, professional integrity and our rightful place in the performance delivery system hinge on whether we have an impactful, authentic senior staff position on every campus.