So you want to be a strength and conditioning coach?

As a university professor, I often ask students who are undertaking a degree in Exercise and Sport Science if they want to work with elite athletes. Typically, about a half of the class put their hands in the air. This isn’t really surprising when you consider the glamorous image of being involved in elite sport, either professional or Olympic sports. However the stark reality is that, by its very nature, elite sport doesn’t provide enough jobs for the vast number of students graduating with a bachelor’s degree.

The careers that flow from a degree in Exercise and Sport Science (or equivalent) vary, depending on which country we are talking about. In Australia, most graduates find themselves working in clinical exercise physiology with a general population requiring rehabilitation from injuries or illnesses. Some of these graduates may end up working with athletes, but rehabilitation from injuries in high level sport tends to be delivered by medical professionals.

For the Exercise and Sport Science students who are determined to forge a career in elite sport, what are their options? One option would be to become a head coach, but that requires vast knowledge and experience in a particular sport. Another option is to go into sports medicine e.g. sports doctor, which requires extensive post-graduate study in addition to exercise and sport science. Other than that, there are two main options: sports scientist of strength and conditioning coach.

» Related content: Vern Gambetta shares his tips for young coaches on the job market.

Sports science as a profession

Sports science as a job involves working as part of the support team with various coaches and medical staff to inform coaches of best practice in training and competition. The main disciplines that a sport scientist can specialize in are sports physiology, biomechanics, skill acquisition/motor learning, and sport psychology. It is very rare for experts in these areas to be employed full-time in high-performance sport, so many sports scientists work for a University, and may do some consulting with sports teams or individual athletes. A growing field of sport science is performance analysis or data analytics, which has evolved from the boom in technology, which provides a massive volume of data. The analyst’s job is to collect data, manage it, interpret it, and provide insights to coaching staff to inform training or competition tactics. It is essentially a number crunching job.

It is important to understand that generally, sport scientists do not communicate directly with athletes. Rather, they provide information to coaches about how to train and compete more effectively. To become a sport scientist, a post-graduate degree is usually required, and may involve 2-4 extra years of University study or research to gain a PhD.

Strength and conditioning coach as a profession

The S&C coach works along-side sports coaches and other support staff to physically prepare athletes for the demands of their sport. The scope of practice for the S&C coach includes the development of fitness qualities. These can be classified as strength (maximum strength, power, reactive strength, and strength-endurance), speed qualities (acceleration, maximum speed, speed-endurance, change-of-direction, and agility), and endurance qualities such as maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max), and anaerobic or lactate threshold. The S&C coach may also design and implement training programs for flexibility, mobility, modifying body composition (eg. increasing muscle mass, loss of body fat), and for injury prevention. The capacity to implement warm-ups and cool-downs, as well as recovery sessions, and the monitoring of fitness and well-being are all roles the S&C coach can undertake. The S&C coach may also be called upon to assist medical staff with rehabilitation programs. Although a S&C coach may be able to assist with advice on nutrition or massage treatments, these are examples of activities that may fall under other specialized professions. Therefore the S&C coach has to be careful to work within the scope of practice for which he or she is qualified.

An important point is that S&C coaching can be much more than just working in the weight room. Although there are definitely jobs for strength coaches who specialize in strength and power, the S&C coach may be much more valued and employable if he or she possesses knowledge and skills across multiple areas relating to physical preparation for sport. Another crucial point that distinguishes S&C from sport science is that it is about coaching. This means that the S&C coach does work directly with athletes in the weight room, field or track. It also means that the S&C coach needs to have excellent instructional and communication skills to convey the physical and technical requirements of training sessions.

The skillset of an S&C coach

So this leads to the question of what attributes the S&C coach needs for the job? Here is a list I have identified:

  • Program design and coaching for all the fitness qualities mentioned above
  • Analysing the demands of unfamiliar sports (conducting a needs analysis)
  • Designing and delivering recovery protocols
  • Designing annual plans and periodized programs
  • Coaching pedagogy and instruction skills
  • Communication skills (to work collaboratively with other staff and to motivate athletes)
  • Selecting and implementing appropriate fitness tests
  • Monitoring training load and athlete wellness
  • Designing and implementing injury prevention programs
  • Designing and delivering rehabilitation programs
  • Research skills to extract evidence from various resources for best-practice
  • Knowledge of various disciplines of sport science
  • Use of technology (monitoring tools, computer skills)
  • Understanding the high-performance sports environment

To develop these attributes and improve employability as a S&C coach, I believe there are four key areas that need addressing:

  1. Knowledge in the relevant disciplines relating to S&C. This includes all the sport sciences, as well as in pedagogy (theory and practice of teaching and how these influence learning)
  2. Coaching skills to effectively deliver training sessions
  3. Experience in S&C coaching. So much can be learned from experience, and employers will prefer a coach that has “been there and done that”. This experience may require voluntary work in the form of an internship or placement in sporting organizations.
  4. Relevant qualifications include formal University education eg. Bachelor of Exercise and Sport Science, Master of S&C, and specific S&C certifications eg. CSCS, other S&C accreditations though various National bodies for S&C eg. in the United States, Australia, and the UK.

University education can be very general in nature, which can be a disadvantage because it doesn’t cater for the specific knowledge and skills required for S&C coaching. But it can provide generic skills that can be used in many careers, including S&C. An example is the ability to find evidence to inform practice, and to communicate this to others. Regardless, I believe that it is possible for University education to target the necessary attributes required for S&C coaches to maximize their employability.

At Federation University Australia, we have created a new Master of S&C that caters for the required knowledge, coaching skills, experience in high-performance sport, and qualifications desired by sporting organizations. It involves a combination of face-to-face classes (rather than online delivery), practical classes relating to all fitness components, and placements with sports organizations. It is especially suited to students who have a bachelor degree in Exercise and Sport Science (or equivalent), but need the specific knowledge, skills and experience to enhance their employability.

Hopefully this post has armed you with the background to develop a strategy to achieve a career as a S&C coach. Good luck.