Tips for Becoming a Strength & Conditioning Coach

A Growing Industry

With over 6,000+ sports related graduates in the UK alone every year, strength & conditioning is now one of the fastest growing industries in both the UK & Ireland. An online search of the UKSCA website or UK Sport will produce roughly 30-40 job adverts, with 10 of them being in professional or high performance sports.

If you are starting out as a newly qualified Strength & Conditioning Coach or you have decided to change direction in your life and retrain to enter the world of Sports Science, Olympics lifts and A Skips,  then what follows is some advice that I had been given along my journey and also tips that I have developed over 20 years as an S&C Coach.

1. Understand the Industry

Most of us join this profession because of our own passion for training and the thought that it would be a good way to make a living, coupled with the attraction of working in what appears to be the glitz and glammer of professional sport. However, professional sport is all embracing and will eat up 6 days of your week, including many evenings and weekends. While the industry is consuming, it is rewarding once you are willing to put in the effort. Over the course of my career, I have travelled to 10 different countries. I have made friends all over the world that have inspired me to continue to learn and develop, and have shared their ideas and philosophies with me. I have developed life skills more so than S&C skills in many cases through dealing with tired, moody athletes or difficult coaches/managers.  I have often had to juggle commitments and miss out on many personal events. In some cases, I have been S&C, Sport Scientist, Nutritionist, Team Manager and Kit Man for the squad on tour as we had limited staff. But that same tour was in a small area of Italy where we got to eat wonderful food, play great opposition and practice a new language.  You won’t get paid a great deal unless you join a major club or sporting organisation, which only happens if you have experience and are ready at the right time. I don’t mean lucky, I mean ready – “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

For me, one exciting trend is the amount of jobs appearing in the area of youth development. Here, you can see the fruits of your labour, not only in changing a young person’s athletic ability, but to also see their confidence grow as they mature into adulthood. Each day with a youth athlete is different as both their body and mood change rapidly as they try to figure out where each limb belongs in space. This can be challenging but very rewarding as you see that young athlete make their senior debut or play for their country knowing you were a piece of the jigsaw in their development.

There is going to be an increasing demand in the market for S&C coaches in schools and communities, and programming for and training kids that are not in sports teams or clubs. As more and more academies are being set up, it will become harder for kids that are on the fringes of squads, or those that play sports but are not deemed elite in any of them. These kids will need to be catered for and also the thousands of kids that are not drawn to a sport, but will need physical activity. I feel this could be very exciting and interesting as you could be responsible for setting up a Long Term Athletic Development System and Physical Literacy Pathway that embraces all levels and genders.

2. Be Sensible

It is very important you pick the right course for your education. There are many different avenues into S&C whether that is through a governing body or university. Pick a course that is going to give you practical skills or give you the opportunity to attend lots of workshops as well as providing you with a strong theoretical base. I still don’t think there is any better course than those offered by Setanta College for this.

Study anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, coaching science in detail. The more you understand how humans work, the more you will understand how to prepare the athlete. Its easy to get hung up on the nice stuff such as programme design, planning and periodisation but throughout your study and career, the fundamentals of science will be your base for all the other variables.  If you plan on studying beyond Degree level then become proficient at reading journals and using Microsoft Excel. This can save you a lot of time along the way and Excel is fantastic for developing Programme templates, Monitoring Templates etc. Some of you may find excel daunting but there are loads of tutorials online and on YouTube that make it easy.

Find a mentor that will challenge you and develop your thoughts and opinions. Don’t just bounce around networking for the sake of it. If you are linking in with another coach or an expert in the field, have some questions ready and some ideas to bounce of them so as to maximise your time.

3. Be Humble and Honest

Remember qualified does not mean competent. Your education is only as good as how you put it into practice. Question other coaches systems and programmes, but do so in a professional and respectful manner. Don’t get caught up in criticising an exercise or a programme on social media as you don’t know the context behind it. I have interviewed many twitter experts for jobs who couldn’t coach an exercise or deliver a session to the athlete in front of them. When putting your Curriculum Vitae together, don’t lie on it. We all put a little bit of salt and pepper in there but make sure you can back up what you have said you can do. For instance, in many interviews I have been part of, the interviewee has said they are proficient in functional screening. Then when they are asked to show some screens they have used they get tongue tied. It’s OK to say you don’t know the answer but you are keen to find out more about it.

Never judge a programme or exercise until you understand the rationale behind it.

4. Get Your Foot in the Door

As mentioned earlier, be ready when an opportunity or job comes up.  Getting your foot in the door can be hard so make sure you have the necessary skills, or you are developing the necessary skills when a door opens. Getting ready may require you to do a lot of volunteering across different sports and codes. Newly qualified coaches want to jump straight into a paid role as they have spent a lot of money on their education, but jobs are not always there and if you don’t have coaching experience it will be harder. I would encourage volunteering as you are completing your studies so that you can develop different skills and have experience in different areas of this profession.

Make sure to log your coaching hours. In an interview situation this can be useful. Instead of saying I worked as a volunteer at this school with this team for 6 months, you can highlight that I had 6 hours coaching per week across 6 months with this group. That’s 144 coaching hours. This looks better than 6 months.

5. Be Versatile/Adaptable

One of the biggest lessons I have learned about this profession is that the key to success is versatility and adaptability. It is quite straightforward to put the perfect training plan or session in place on paper and then a timetable changes, the athlete gets injured or the coach has eaten into training time with an unplanned player review. Be ready to change and adapt the plan. Instead of thinking there is no point in the session now as I will have to modify it heavily, change your mindset to :

  • What do I need to get from this session?
  • How can I maximise the time I have?
  • How can I make it fun for the athlete ? (Who may also be annoyed that the session has changed).

Be versatile and adaptable in your nature,  as each sport or athlete you train will have different demands, different training ages and different philosophies. You don’t have to compromise on your philosophy or values, but you must be able to shape them to fit the coach and team you are working with.

6. Think Outside the Box

If you are going to work with youth athletes or children, spend time with Teachers, PE Teachers or those working with youth groups such as scout leaders etc. They may be able to give you ideas on controlling large groups of kids or may have fun and novel approaches to teaching their curriculum content.

Pick the brains of successful people, whether that is in business, education or other industries. The S&C profession is pushing more coaches into the realms of self-employment so understanding basic business, accounting and organisational structures will not help here but is almost necessary.

7. Set the Tone for Your Athletes

Getting buy in or setting your standards for a new group or athlete can be daunting for both the inexperienced and experienced coach. Be transparent and fair with your athletes and you will always have their respect.  Set the non-negotiables from the start such as time keeping, intent in training, respect for the facilities, everyone cleans up after training, etc.

Here are 3 simple rules to follow as a coach:

  • Be Prepared – Have a Plan, and have a Plan B
  • Be on Time – Have your session set up and ready before the athlete arrives (where possible).
  • Reflect – How did that session go? Why did it not run smoothly? What are my athletes thinking?

You can watch our full Strength Training for Youth Athletes series with Paudie here.

Learn more about the courses offered by Setanta College here, or download our brochure below.

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