By Bob Alejo
There is no shortage of coaches looking at rep charts, sleep strategies, “If you could only pick…” questions, and power clean technique articles, but I believe S&C folks should spend more time on professional development. And by professional development, I mean your “brand” as a Unit and a Director, and perhaps the future brand of those on your staff. For those working with and around you, that working “brand” will be the only acceptable standard by which environments are born, decisions are finalized, strategies are created, and performances are improved. Likewise, it will put administrators on notice of how tightly you run your system, thereby making them responsible for proper evaluations.S&C folks should spend more time on professional development, and by that, I mean your unit’s brand. Click To Tweet
All of this is the reason I am outlining a few recommendations that you should include in the Management Handbook of your department. This is an operations manual that will separate you from the other departments at your institution, and that you should carry and add to throughout your career!
While I target my suggestions here to collegiate athletics, a management system is no less appropriate or important at other levels. Collegiate and professional athletics are big business and, although some institutions may not fully operate under that guise, it shouldn’t stop those in strength and conditioning from running their business like a business person. Take care of your business—run your business!
A Living, Breathing Document
I call it a “Management Handbook,” but you can call it what you want. Just make sure you have something in writing that becomes unchallengeable, laying out how things run in your unit. It’s the best thing to protect you, your staff, the athletic department, and the university; frame it that way when you deliver the finished product to the administration.
Organization of this document brings discipline (not discipline as in consequence for bad actions): unit order, clear guidelines, and a verified process. So, this document is not simply a collection of test protocols and job descriptions, stapled together, and presented to your supervisor. Instead, this document should outline everything from daily processes (opening and closing procedures, facility rules and regulations, noted casual meetings among department personnel) to hiring processes (itineraries, vetting processes) to year-end staff evaluations.
I won’t show the entire package our former staff put together because the uniqueness of your institution determines some of your content. However, some content is non-negotiable. Let’s look at some of the areas I believe your handbook must contain.
Two performance reviews (PRs) are necessary to make your position a solid, administrative one:
- The reviews of your staff by you, including your review by your staff, and
- A comprehensive review of you by the senior staff member with oversight of your area.
If it’s important to the institution to have employee reviews (the institution mandates some reviews, not the athletic department), then make them important and comprehensive. Expect more from them even when the university or the athletic department does not. This begins with a responsible, thorough review of the Director by the supervising senior staff member with oversight of the S&C unit.
The Director of S&C shouldn’t receive the same review format as sport coaches, sport supervisors, or other administrators (event management, equipment department, etc.). There is very little relevant context for S&C departments in those formats. If reviews go on file, then I don’t know about you, but I’d want mine to be damn good and to clearly articulate my skill set.
The virtue of getting a detailed review from your supervisor is that they will have to understand what you do, how you do it, and why you do it; they will have to observe you and your staff for a reasonable amount of time; and they will have to learn the environment (“culture” is the term these days) in which you work to put all of it into context. The review assures responsibility on both of your parts, and that is great for you and your staff.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but most administrators with S&C oversight rarely make an observational visit to the training facility (defined as one time a month for 60 minutes or more) and may never observe a complete conditioning session on the field or court. Yet they review your job performance, which becomes a department document! Basically, they review you and the staff sight unseen—a near-impossible validation. My suggestion gets them (supervisors) involved. Here is a suggestion of how you, as a director, should expect the unit supervisor to evaluate you:
- An evaluation of each head sport 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 providing a service to the student-athlete and only secondarily to the coach if the athletic department is student-athlete centric. There should be some assessment of that service if the Director of S&C is to be all-inclusively evaluated.
- An evaluation given by each member of the strength and conditioning staff regarding the Director’s leadership.
- A reasonable and concise expectation of the Associate AD observing the Director of Strength and Conditioning’s staff meetings and strength and conditioning sessions.
Nothing says “professional standard” like a comprehensive review of an employee’s performance. As we talk about data being important, essentially this is the verbal version of Big Data. Aside from statistical training evidence—which isn’t the only metric in performing the best job—there is no better way to evaluate individuals (parts of the whole) and thereby the unit (the whole).
As a director, ask better questions to get better answers. Questions such as “What can we do better as a unit?” and “How can you improve as a coach?” are what I consider “soft” questions with too much wiggle room. For instance, “As a unit, do we find urgency in small details (worn bench cushions, proper attire, etc.)?” or “On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate yourself on a) use of physiology in programming, b) communicating with the ATC of your teams, and c) discussing training block goals with the head coach of your teams?” are less ambiguous and definable inquiries.You can never have too much information to make informed decisions. Click To Tweet
In addition to the basic questions that come along with reviews, you might want to add these in:
- An evaluation by each head sport coach in the athletic department of the perceived skill, effort, and intent of that team’s S&C coach.
- An evaluation given by each member of the strength and conditioning staff regarding the Director’s leadership.
- Different questions than the ones asked by the unit oversight. These will be posed to the staff by the Director.
- Performance Program Auditing: Nate Brookreson, Director of Olympic Sports at NC State, defined this for me. It begins with agreed-upon standards and operating procedures related 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.
- Agreed-upon personal goals.
- Detailed: dates to completion, mid-year expectations.
It’s likely that you will have to craft different reviews than what the department gives you for your staff and your supervisor to evaluate you. Even if the department is resistant to a new form you might design, use the old one and the one you create. Jason Veltkamp, former Cleveland Browns strength coach and former Director of NC State Football strength and conditioning, utilized the department’s performance review and administered his own more-detailed review for his staff. His version was much more effective, as it was applicable to our world. As I say, you can never have too much information to make informed decisions.
Nothing says professional or legacy-building like an educational curriculum. We had a few different things that added to our educational piece while at NC State.
- We Skyped in practitioners from the performance world bi-monthly or so, and a few of my contacts that had some analogous dynamics in the workplace outside of athletics.
- Our staff meetings (which included the football S&C coaches after January; I met with them in the fall separately) always had a research and leadership piece on the agenda—a roundtable of sorts.
- Prior to the last NSCA National (2017), as a staff we presented four posters on our training and data gathered from our teams. So, learning to write an abstract-like summary, gather data, and present it was a near year-long process.
- And lastly, we chose books to read two to three times per year. These related to leadership, decision-making, and workplace issues, but not in the world of athletics.
I really thought the staff was getting enough information from the usual suspects—and prospects—in books, social media, and conferences, and I didn’t want to be redundant or lazy and Skype those folks in at regular intervals. Then I challenged myself to think about who could be a valuable interviewee, but not be in our field.
Billy Gibson, the drummer for Huey Lewis and the News (young dudes, think Back to the Future soundtrack), was/is an Oakland Athletics season ticket holder whom I could count on seeing many times a year when I was an Oakland A. Over the years, we became good friends and I figured he was a perfect fit for our staff to speak with: He works on a team that can only be fully functional if he does his job and makes others better. I had great questions as well: What do you do when there is a difference of opinion on goals and processes? What happens when one person becomes “bigger than the team?” How do you manage the day-to-day expectations of an elite level performance? What does your team do when someone is not performing to the team standard? Learning that the strength and conditioning profession parallels other professions was a valuable view through different eyes.Challenge yourself to identify some valuable people to interview who are not in the sports industry. Click To Tweet
My former staff proudly displayed four poster presentations this last summer at the 2017 NSCA National. But their preparation started a year or two before that, when we began and then standardized unit testing procedures. This made the data reliable and valid across all sports; all testing was research-grade. That way, we did not have to redo any test that we might want to use in a research paper because it was already validated. Also, if we used a test for more than one sport, it would enable us to reliably compare test scores between teams.
Just as importantly, we tested our own programming against our own teams’ performance results. Essentially, we correlated our own training theories and ideas to the results of our own test batteries. This adds up to a few things:
- It verifies the work that is being done, positively or negatively.
- It takes the guesswork or opinion out of statements from those we work with outside of our area of expertise, such as “I’m not sure our team is in great shape” or “We weren’t as strong as we’ve been in the past.”
- It not only holds the S&C coaches accountable for results, but the sport coaches as well, in that a knee-jerk reflex to assign blame to an S&C coach for a poor season will become an undeniable document.
You’d think reading a book on top of the daily and monthly staff duties would be very difficult, but with a reasonable timeline, it’s not. A chapter or two each week is doable and makes for a great discussion, sometimes dominating a meeting. Yet again, we steered clear of physiology and training books and concentrated on human interaction, team work, and trust. Books such as The Best Place to Work, Grit, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and Why We Make Mistakes were not only popular, but seen as applicable to our profession and our personal lives as well.
Education consistency for your staff will be a model example of paying it forward, while at the same time staying current and therefore relevant in the industry.
You never want your boss (assistants, take note here) to answer, “I don’t know,” to any question concerning the activities of their department or those they supervise. Naturally, “I don’t know” is an embarrassing answer for the Associate AD if the Athletic Director asks a question about the goings-on of the strength staff they supervise! The quicksheet is another bi-monthly communication tool, which generally serves to update the recipient on what’s happening in your area.
I do think it’s your responsibility to inform the supervisor above you of your unit’s affairs, and not the supervisor’s responsibility to seek working knowledge of your operational procedures. As illustrated, “quick” is exactly how you present the material. Using the earlier example, the Athletic Director would and should be satisfied with: “The wrestlers lift in the morning Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and test in two weeks, after which there will be a short taper before the upcoming tournament. They are a great group to work with by all accounts.” It is also helpful to include what athletes have accomplished, what they are working on, and important upcoming dates. You never want your supervisor to say (assistants, take note here also): “You should have told me about that!” Be creative, thorough, and short with this document.
Again, yes, those who have oversight of the strength and conditioning unit aren’t up to speed with what we do and why we do it—pretty much all the way up the executive chain. And once more, how do we think they will know about our work unless we communicate it?! Set meeting schedules and report generation are very informative and educational, as are in-place formalized documentation structures.
I divide my reporting structure into three categories: daily, monthly, and yearly. Clear and concise rules the day when all involved understand the reporting responsibilities. The sport science performance research that was part of our yearly reporting scheme is unique to a basic reporting structure. We knew that we wanted to make it part of our job description as a unit, and therefore made it a reportable item. You should list any project in the reporting scheme, even if it changes year to year.
As you can see, there are shared responsibilities. Some part of this puts the greater responsibility on the Director, as they create the “report flow.” I say that’s good. Secondly, creating this document, showing the initiative to gather information, and welcoming discussion all show a willingness to be part of a team. It leaves little room for anybody to say: “I didn’t receive the information” or “We should’ve met prior to this to ensure a successful event.” As Sandy Alderson, the New York Mets General Manager, once told me, “Push the paper!” It’s a wise motto.
Anyone should be able to walk into a weight room or observe an outside training session and know who the strength and conditioning coach is. And, by that, I mean it better not be because of the screaming and yelling!
Let’s start with apparel. When you walk into a store or shop, you know without question who works there and who to ask for guidance. As Merriam-Webster defines it, a uniform presents “an unvaried appearance of surface, pattern, or color.” With great apparel and shoe deals at schools, there should be no shortage of cool stuff to wear.
It’s fairly easy to see that the person giving training directions, exercise cadence, or motivational rousing is probably the strength and conditioning coach. But what about when coaches aren’t coaching, but just walking around campus or the hallway? Who you are should be clear, no matter where you are. This brings up a couple of points:
- Rep the unit. Wear the strength and conditioning unit’s shirt/short/pants/sweats. It doesn’t mean that everyone must have identical threads on each day, but they should wear S&C-issued gear.
- Save your team’s gear for the team’s events. It’s always flattering—and I’ve never taken it for granted—to be included in a team’s swag order. If I’m not mistaken, my first one was shoes from the women’s volleyball team in 1984! However, if it’s logo apparel with the team’s name, you shouldn’t wear it when you coach. First of all, you’re the strength and conditioning coach, not a member of the swim team. Secondly, when the swimmers leave, the lacrosse team may not get fired up by a coach in a swim team shirt, all school spirit aside.
- Tuck it in. Old school or not, hold yourself and your staff to a “neater” level. Wear clean shirts, as wrinkle-free as an adult would wear, and tucked them in. This raises the seriousness of the atmosphere, and should go along with athletes wearing school-sponsored and team-issued gear while in your “house.”
Looking sloppy on the floor is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder, but it’s sloppy nonetheless. To be taken seriously, dress the part. It’s sort of like showing up in a suit at a semi-casual function: It’s OK to be the best-dressed at a party.
Description of Services
Until those who supervise us have a great grasp of what we do, we need to be the ones to educate the senior staff and those with oversight over our area about what it is we do. This one-page summary ends up being a little bigger than a Post-It, with very short descriptions, nothing scientific or wordy, just a list of what we (you) do. My array has seven categories (notice Injury Management, not Prevention). I will not hold you to the number or titles of the categories; nevertheless, the focus should be on being definitive and very short.
The theme is no different than the other things I mention. Hold yourself and your staff to a higher standard than the rest of department, create a professional face for yourself as an administrator and for the unit, fashion an example for the staff that empowers them (“This is how we roll!”), and develop a structure they can put in their leadership files. Then, when push comes to shove, you have a definitive document that describes what you do and what you don’t do.
College athletics is big business, but some people view our area much different than that. Let’s embrace business-like processes and evaluations to the degree that other departments also want to adopt the structure that we create. You never know, someone just might view you as a leader in a much bigger picture.
*I created the Quicksheet, Report Generation, and Services Description formats with the help of Tom Thomas, a management expert.