Bigger, Stronger, Leaner

Important Traits of Successful Strength, Conditioning, and Performance Coaches

Working as a strength and condition coach and performance and mobility specialist is a challenging occupation by nature. Being a proactive, accountable leader and providing challenging, effective strength and conditioning programs and quality coaching is an imperative requirement in the progression of athletic capability and advancement. Because of the degree of professional aptitude, skill, and expertise needed to advance athletic excellence on and off the field of play, strength and conditioning coaches must retain and exercise numerous fundamental traits and characteristics that are crucial and imperative to the lasting success of the strength and conditioning coach and their athletes.

Public opinion on the success or failure of a head sport coach is based almost entirely on won/loss records. Too many times, the strength and conditioning coach can be part of the “too much credit” and “too much blame” syndrome that is pervasive in coaching. Every coach understands this dilemma when they pursue coaching as their chosen profession. However, there are many behind the scenes responsibilities that are important in building and maintaining a successful program. It truly takes the efforts of an entire athletic department to give a team and coaching staff the opportunity to be successful. I believe that individual coaches seen as successful exhibit certain characteristics that are similar to other successful professionals.

My working definition of a successful strength and conditioning coach is a professional who:

1. Ignores traditional job descriptions

These coaches are willing to take on jobs and tasks when help is needed, even if it outside of normal responsibilities. They go above and beyond the call of the normally accepted job description. Successful strength and conditioning coaches find opportunities to help their athletes, teams, or athletic departments by giving that extra little bit. Some do this without being asked and will never seek recognition for their efforts. Examples of this would be speaking at booster club functions or helping prepare a facility for a competition.

2. Exhibits great energy, passion, and enthusiasm for the job

These coaches are always bringing an aura of positive energy when working with their athletes and teams. When you walk into these coaches' training session or practice, there is a coaching style and energy that makes you want to work out with that group of athletes. These coaches are not necessarily loud or outgoing, but the athletes can sense that the coach cares about them and their team and desires to provide them quality coaching. These coaches carefully watch their athletes during training and provide them effective feedback and instruction whenever possible.

3. Exhibits a professional attitude and demeanor

When you visit these coaches, you quickly recognize, are drawn to, and gain respect for their knowledge and skills based both on the quality of the training program and the instruction to support that program they provide. They publicly praise both their athletes and staff for the hard work and dedicated effort they provide. They show respect for their coworkers in the athletic department and throughout the training facility by how they interact with them.

4. Always learns and evolves

Rarely satisfied with success, the best strength and conditioning coaches I know evaluate every phase of their program. When any phase of a program looks like it needs some repair or enhancement, these coaches seek advice and opinions from staff and other professionals, even when it may run counter to their current thinking. Successful coaches follow proven processes but work to find innovative ways to improve the process. Coaches who stubbornly rely on what has worked in the past may be the last to realize that athletes, teams, and coaching staffs have changed and new approaches are needed. A successful strength and conditioning coach is willing to give up the good and reach for the great by trying, failing, and reevaluating.

5. Always pays attention to detail while never losing sight of the big picture

Successful coaches are aware of how small issues affect their athletes and, eventually, can affect even their best-laid plans. The smallest details regarding discipline, training, and recovery are always examined. However, there is no shortage of information, training philosophies, and ideas that strength and conditioning coaches must wade through and decide which, if any, fits into their program. With all of this available information, it is easy to get lost in all the noise. Borrowing and applying a quote from the founding father of Delta Force, Charlie Beckwith, successful strength and conditioning coaches remember that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing (Delta Force: The Army's Elite Counterterrorist Unit, HarperCollins, 2000).

When I reflect over the last 20+ years that I have been fortunate enough to spend in the strength and conditioning field, the first thing that comes to mind are the many outstanding individuals who have taken the time to help and mentor me during my career. There are several qualities that all of these individuals have; I will use these qualities as an example of what I think makes a successful strength and conditioning coach and performance and expert.

First and foremost, as cliché as it sounds, a good coach must possess a tireless work ethic. One thing that you learn right away as a student or graduate assistant is that this is not a Monday through Friday 9–5 job. My observation has been that not many strength and conditioning coaches were talented, elite, natural athletes during their playing days. Most were blue-collar hardworking over-achievers who had to outwork their competition to be competitive. Many of these individuals discovered early on during their athletic careers that the weight room was a way to compensate for a lack of natural abilities, that by outworking your peers in the off-season, you had a chance to level the playing field. Usually, the quest for physical excellence leads to an equal desire to understand the scientific principles behind the technical mechanics and application of strength and conditioning. In the truest sense, you become a lifetime student of the field, your development and evolution as a practitioner never stops.

As important as work ethic and desire is in the process, developing a sense of humility keeps you grounded. If you are around the field long enough, there is going to be a time when you as the strength coach get way too much of the credit when things are good and way too much of the blame when things are bad. Having humility allows you to deal with both situations. It is important to realize that what we do as strength and conditioning professionals is just part of the process, a very important part, but still just a part. Humility also means constantly striving to make your program better by learning from others in the field, and then giving them the credit. In many ways, the field has become very specialized and segregated and, in some ways, the core never changes. It is impossible to be an expert in everything from Olympic lifting to functional movement training, so learn from those who are the experts and determine how you can integrate this information into your training program.

A few other characteristics or traits that come to mind when thinking about good coaches whom I know are things like patience, compassion, and empathy. We are after all, working with other people's sons and daughters! Treating athletes how we would want to be treated, or how we would want our son or daughter to be treated, is a standard we should strive for.

The first and foremost characteristic I believe a good strength and conditioning coach should have is a balance between his/her personal and professional life. Having a career in strength and conditioning demands a lot of hours during a workday and weekend/holiday sacrifices. Finding the balance by communicating and setting up appropriate boundaries and priorities with the sport coach is paramount in being successful in life—both personally and professionally.

The next characteristic or trait in my hierarchy of what makes a good strength and conditioning coach is care for the athlete's development. I firmly believe the athlete you are working with wants to know how much you care before they care how much you know. Honestly, listening to the concerns and opinions of the athlete helps build a trusting relationship. With this trusting relationship, you will trust the athlete to provide a quality effort. Conversely, the athlete will trust that you have taken their needs into consideration. Being able to relate to and understand the athlete gives the coach credibility.

Another characteristic of successful coaches is to communicate what the expectations are before starting a training program. Demonstrating to the athlete and non-athlete alike that as a strength and conditioning coach you understand not every athlete or loves strength and conditioning will take some pressure off of them to fake it, and it has been my experience that athletes work harder within their own abilities instead of trying to match the athletes in the room who really enjoy training and have been doing it longer. Approaching the athlete in a realistic way has created the buy-in that I need to run a successful strength and conditioning program with any of the individuals I am responsible for.

After the athletes know you care about their individual and team development, establishing expectations and boundaries by being firm, fair, and consistent is imperative. What is a standard for one must be the standard for all or credibility is lost or destroyed. My 3 expectations for all of the athletes I work with are as follows:

  1. Arrive on time, and if you are going to be late, communicate ahead of time.
  2. Be willing to receive coaching to perform the lifts correctly and proficiently.
  3. Provide the effort required to be successful.

The consequence for not being willing to follow the expectations is the same for all; dismissal from the privilege of coaching and using the weight room for the day. I believe we are only as strong as the weakest link, and it is usually the weakest link that does not communicate or put in effort. I do not feel that the rest of the team who are making an effort to use the benefits of strength and conditioning should be subjected to the athlete who is not. In my experience, this approach has created athlete accountability and has placed the responsibility of the quality of the team workout on me and the quality of the individual workout on the athlete; which is where I feel the responsibilities of those respective categories should fall. When the athletes and non-athletes see they are going to get out of the workout what they put into it, they work harder and I as the coach can give credit where it's due. When that happens, they are fulfilling the expectation of showing up, being shown the work, and then doing the work to the best of their abilities. It is empowering to the athlete, when the ownership of their individual workouts is “on them” instead of me as the coach. This approach has created a competitive environment within the team where the workouts are intense, and we can get an incredible amount of work accomplished. We as the coach cannot perform the workouts for them!

I believe it is also good for the athletes to see the coach workout from time to time if the coach's schedule allows. Being able to practice what you preach to an athlete adds to your credibility and makes the coach more “real” instead of them potentially thinking “he wants me to do what?” There is a great benefit to the athlete to see you struggle through heavy squats or miss a deadlift much like they do from time to time. To reiterate, I believe in being able to relate to the athletes so that they are more likely to buy in to what I am teaching. For me, it works equally well with my male and female teams when they can watch me workout. I feel working out in front of the athletes also shows them that athletic activity does not have to stop when they step off the field/court for the last time. If they enjoy lifting and training, I encourage them to recreationally participate in weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, martial arts, competitive adult sports leagues, and so on. Having been a collegiate athlete, I understand that when a high school, collegiate, or professional athletic career is over, there is a great sense of loss, but that loss can be turned into another direction as well. Although their athletic careers have ended, they can still find some other means to remain physically active, driven, and competitive.

Regarding administrative responsibilities, I believe that the strength and conditioning coach needs to keep a healthy working relationship with the athletic training staff and the sport coaches. Whenever I am in the process of writing the next workout progression for any of my athletes or non-athletes, I review past programming, conduct extensive research on innovative ways to integrate new movements, look for input from other experts in the field, and carefully review the strengths and limitations of the individuals involved. Only after extensive review of past successes and failures, do I make a sport-specific training program that will make that team stronger, more powerful, and successful. I want and place a tremendous value on the mental and physical health and wellness of the athlete, so I continuously concoct, contemplate, and collaborate with others in devising innovative training programs and nutritional models that I may not have thought of and believe will advance athletic excellence. In my particular case, I need to carefully review all athletes and their current trend of limitations, weaknesses, and injuries. In the case of a severe restriction in mobility or acknowledged injury, my goal is to get that athlete back to playing as quickly as possible, so discussing the “why” of the injury and the “what I can do in the weight room,” as opposed to only seeing a written report, may help to mitigate that particular trend of injury and helps our athletes stay on the field/court.

The strength and sport coach relationship is also important. I acknowledge that when a strength and conditioning coach gives input on the workouts of their team, there can be the adage of “a little strength and conditioning knowledge makes sport coaches think they are also strength coaches.” Unless, it is something that could lead to an injury for the athlete or does not make sense for that particular workout, I will find a way to incorporate the suggestion of the sport coach. Asking the “why” question and getting the explanation from the sport coach will help in developing the plan for the team and help you as the strength coach create a safer sensible alternative if the aforementioned circumstances occur.

Last on the list is continuing education and professional development. I say this with caution because I recognize there are all kinds of fads to try when it comes to strength and conditioning, and I do not advise that because it is important, whenever possible, to rely on scientifically based approaches to training. Attending conferences, networking with other successful strength coaches, watching other athletes or teams train, and letting yourself be coached by another coach are all valuable tools that have served me well. There is more than one way to coach, so learning others' coaching cues or exercise modifications is just another tool to help the athletes you work with. I do suggest keeping up on the scientific research and trying or modifying what you read to suit the needs of your teams. The beauty of that is if you tried an exercise and it did not work as you had hoped, you have the power to modify it. I enjoy doing martial arts, I have seen the benefits it has had on my own body, and I have incorporated some of the pre workout exercises utilized for preparation into my athletes’ warm-up to help improve hip/back, shoulder, and ankle/knee mobility.

Because of the professional aptitude and skill needed for success in the field of strength and conditioning, I highly recommend, support, and practice the use of the DOMINATE method — it can be used with any type of workout — lifts, runs, agilities, you name it. It is like lifting Mad Libs: DOMINATE is the base sentence, and you fill in the blanks. Here are the eight principles, explained in detail below.

  • Disciplined
  • Organized
  • Motivated
  • Innovative
  • Navigate
  • Accountability
  • Trust
  • Execution

Here is the breakdown:

Disciplined:

What does it mean to run a disciplined program? It means crossing the little T’s and dotting the little I’s. Little things are important, and little mistakes can turn into huge problems in a group setting. For example, one group goes the wrong way.

Everyone, players and coaches, must be all in, team first, all eyes on the same prize. Group workouts are all about the team, and you cannot be an individual and be successful in this type of training.

Disciplined training also means sticking to the rules and regulations that you have set forth for your team. It means no compromise for one player over the other, or one coach not pulling his weight. In other words, stick to your guns!

Organized:

To run an organized program, you must have these key elements in order to make it work. You must take time to set up a weight room for optimal flow. Exercise selection must be equally demanding. All lifts must be treated with the same attention to detail. One lift is not more important than another in terms of execution.

Coaches must know exactly how to execute the plan (workout) and players must know exactly what is demanded of them. Flow is crucial and cannot be interrupted. When organizing group workouts, your team priorities must be at the forefront of your planning. Group selection is also very important. You cannot have two strong athletes and two weak ones in the same group.

Coaches must also know how to adjust to the group coming to their station. If one group is larger than another, you may have three people three-deep with one group, and four people three-deep for a larger group, ensuring that the players all get the same amount of prescribed reps.

Motivation:

Motivation is providing a reason to act a certain way. Everyone is working hard (acting a certain way) toward a common purpose that will make a common man do uncommon things.

The players and coaches must understand what you are trying to do (achieve) with your program, and with every workout, achieving that goal should be their motivation. The players and coaches must be excited and ready to attack these workouts from every angle. You should be able to cut the intensity with a knife.

Innovative:

To provide your athletes with optimal workouts, you must be innovative in your approach to writing and executing your workouts. Do not do things because other people do them. Do them because it is going to help you achieve your team goals, fix your teams weaknesses, and make your athletes better.

Every team has a life expectancy of one year. Every team’s needs will be different, and you must tailor your workouts to fit those needs. There are many ways to skin a cat, like maybe using strongman exercises once a week, high pulls instead of cleans, etc. Find a way and get it done!

Navigate:

Along the same lines as innovation, navigate your way through all of the BS. Sometimes I feel that there is just too much information out there. We are not reinventing the wheel. Do the things that you know are right and that you believe. Don’t follow the herd. Sometimes the science will take you one way, and the training and hard work will take you another.

You must always remember that we are training athletes, not weightlifters, so find a way to make your athletes better. Follow your team’s needs, not someone else's.

Accountability/Trust:

These two words are inseparable. You cannot be accountable and not trustworthy, or trustworthy and not accountable. It is who you are, whom you choose to work for you, and who you choose to put on that uniform representing your team.

This is probably the most important factor in group training success. If your coaches are not accountable for counting reps, coaching technique, etc., how can you trust them? Same with the players — if they are cheating reps, can you trust them to carry the ball? When training in a group setting, if you cannot trust EVERYONE involved, you have no chance of success. This is by far the most important principle, no matter what your team is doing.

Execution:

A mode or style of performance. Have a plan. Let everyone know how they fit into that plan. Set up everything needed to perform that plan. Then execute that plan. Perform it. Own it. Be great.

Building on the DOMINATE method, I suggest that whatever you choose to do with your team; even if you see another coach doing something and think you would like to try it—I recommend learning the science behind what you want to incorporate so you can give a reason to justify what you are doing in the event you get asked; and at some point you will. Answering, “Because I said so” is not as credible as compared to “holding a static stretch for 20–30 doesn't result in microtears as does ballistic stretching, as injury risk greatly increases with ballistic stretching as compared to static stretching methods.”

Stay Strong,

Brett Place

References for this article include:

ww.journals.lww.com

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