Advice To New & Young Strength & Conditioning Coaches

By Rob Shaul, Founder


1. “Athletes” not “Clients”

This is more than a semantic difference and will change the way you think about the people you work with, how they think about you, and how you direct your career in the years to follow. “Clients,” tell you what they want, and you do it for them. You tell “Athletes” what they need and they work for you.

Early on you’ll need to decide whether you want to be a “trainer” with clients or a “coach” with athletes.  I chose “coach” and recommend you do the same.


2. “Training Sessions” not “Work Outs”

The difference? Training sessions are planned, progressed, goal-oriented, part of a bigger program to increase outside performance. “Work Outs” are random, isolated, and often aimed at making the “client” feel good or look good. You want to coach “Training Sessions.”


3. You’re not a Friend

The best thing you can do for your athletes is not to be their friend. Nothing is personal. Performance and effort are everything. It does not matter what they think of you personally, or if they “like” you. Performance improvement is everything for a coach – it is all that matters. Improve the performance for your athletes, and you’ll always have a job. Being “liked” does matter for Personal Trainers – where performance doesn’t matter. But you chose to be a coach.


4. Choose your Athletes

You will be happiest coaching athletes who use their fitness for outside performance – and that performance has consequence. I.e. – if they don’t perform, they don’t play, or lose their job.

“Consequence” is your professional friend. It makes your programming and coaching better – because if your athletes don’t perform, you’ll lose your job too. Consequence also culls the non-committed athletes from your gym – and you’ll coach committed people who simply work hard.

These jobs are rare – and the only place they consistently exist are in high school and college weightrooms.

Pro athletes are not required to use the teams strength and conditioning coaches and the top pros – the stars – usually have their own trainers. Many pro team strength and conditioning coaches are miserable because of this. Same is true for many of the tactical coaches attached to special forces units. Most SOF units have “big boy rules” for fitness and many operators don’t use the staff coaches.

I’ve personally taught a programming course at a Tier 1 unit where the on-staff coaches worked with support people, not the operators. The coaches were miserable.  I have been able to choose my athletes at MTI, but many private gyms can’t. In my experience, the happiest, most fulfilled strength and conditioning coaches are at the collegiate level.


5. Programming is Everything

Coaching motivated athletes on the weightroom floor is fun – but the real “meat” of what you do will be the academic and other programming work long before the training session gets to the floor. Starting out you’ll likely be implementing another coach’s programming – but you should still at a minimum, be training your own personal programming. I can’t tell you how many master-degreed interns I’ve had at MTI who did not understand the basics of progression or programming. It is everything.


6. Read. Then Read Some More.

Voracious professional reading is the single “secret” to MTI’s success. Start with the textbooks and quickly move to programming-focused books from real coaches. I cannot stress enough the value of reading to your success as a coach.


7. Get Time on the Floor

Professional strength and conditioning is an art – and a big component of this art is learning how to efficiently, effectively and safely coach athletes on the weightroom floor, or really any situation. Early in my career I personally trained soccer moms, coached groups of 100+ through ski fitness classes, and volunteered at multiple high schools. There’s nothing like working with a group of 100+ in an open gymnasium or 45 high school freshmen in a crowded high school weightroom that will teach how to use a commanding voice, quickly group athletes, position yourself to monitor safety and learn training session flow and efficiency. You can’t read how to do this. You have to do it yourself. Rarely was I paid for this work – but no place did I learn more.


8. Train Your Own Programming

I’ve yet to meet a good strength and conditioning coach who wasn’t a gym rat. If you don’t personally like to train, don’t become a strength and conditioning coach. If you like to train, train your own programming first. In your job you’ll likely have to coach someone else’s programming. But in your personal fitness, do your own stuff. You quickly learn to spot the mistakes in your programming when you are the lab rat.

Later, when you are doing the program design for actual athletes, still do your own stuff – do it before the athletes – to find mistakes and make adjustments ahead of time.


9. Beware the Circle Jerk

The fitness industry is full of “Circle Jerks” made up of celebrity coaches and other experts hocking each others’ stuff. It goes something like this: Coach A writes a book. Coach B writes a glowing forward for the book. Coach C does a glowing review of the book. Coach A has Coach B on his/her podcast where Coach B promotes his/her product or program. Coach C has Coach A on his/her podcast to discuss Coach A’s book. Coach A writes a glowing social media post of Coach C’s program/product. You get the idea. Worse, when you end up buying Coach A, B and C’s program/product, you’ll see lots of fluff and little substance. Beware.


10. There Are No Short Cuts

One of the many frustrating things about program design is “everything works, but nothing works forever.” I’m constantly trying new techniques, unique pieces of equipment, etc. and 99 out of 100 times the “new” either doesn’t work or after a quick initial bump, stops showing improvement. The storage area in my gym is full of this stuff and what remains are the barbells, plates, dumbbells/kettlebells, plyo boxes, ropes, and sandbags. There is no quick shortcut to mission-direct fitness. It takes solid program design and lots of simple, hard, work.


11. Careful of Righteousness

First in others. Find a coach who swears by kettlebells and nothing else? Another who swears by CrossFit, or PX90, or bodyweight or TRX or Oly lifting or whatever, and nothing else? Beware these guys. There are many ways to skin a cat.

Second – in yourself. If you finding yourself swearing by kettlebells, or power cleans or box jumps, or whatever, and nothing else …. you’ve fallen into a common coaching trap.

Constantly challenge and test your own exercise choices and program design. Probe hard for weak links, too-complicated exercises, hard to explain theory, and cut, cut, cut. Every time I’ve been righteous about an exercise, piece of equipment or programming theory, I’ve been proven wrong.


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