Opportunities Abound—Consider Your Strengths
By Jim Kielbaso
The field of strength and conditioning has exploded over the past 10-15 years, and more people are wondering how to become a strength and conditioning coach than ever before. Unfortunately, most young professionals simply don’t know what options are available, where to start, or what it will take to get there. Because of this, many professionals end up moving on to other career pursuits. The purpose of this article is to give you a basic understanding of the strength and conditioning profession, what is available, and which paths are typical for each scenario.
Opportunities Available to the Strength and Conditioning Coach
Strength and conditioning job opportunities are typically found in four main career areas:
- Professional sports
- Collegiate sports
- Private setting
- Volunteer or part-time positions
Entrepreneurship has become an ever-important aspect of this profession, and having a great business idea can open up additional career paths such as speaking, writing, web-sites, product development, product sales, and more. Those areas are not the typical paths, so we won’t be spending much time talking about them. Keep in mind, however, that an entrepreneurial spirit can open the doors to a wide variety of additional opportunities in this field.
The Power of Networking
Most strength and conditioning coaches who have been in the game for more than a few years have worked very hard to get where they are. Almost all have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a related field and at least one major certification. Many coaches have a master’s degree, own multiple certifications, and have done internships or graduate assistantships to gain experience and connections in the Strength and Conditioning world. Like any other profession, some coaches simply fall into incredible positions and may even be ill-qualified for the job. Most, however, are “connected” to another coach. When that coach gets a new job, he often takes “his people” with him.
University of Tennessee Strength Coach Ronnie McKeefery puts it best: “Networking is an absolute must when you’re trying to break into this field. Knowing the right people can move your resume to the top of a large stack or even let you know about job openings you otherwise wouldn’t have known about.”
There is no objective way to determine who the best strength coaches are—there are no win/loss records attributed directly to the Strength and Conditioning coach—so “who you know” plays a big role in how many opportunities come your way. Unfortunately, many good coaches lose their jobs because they are connected to a sport coach who loses his/her job. That’s part of the game, and it’s the state of the profession. If that’s not appealing to you, you may want to find a job outside of college or pro sports.
More and more, sport coaches are learning about strength and conditioning and developing their own opinions about training. If you hope to work with a sport coach like this, your training philosophy better match his/her opinion of what works: The sport coach is in charge of the team and he/she may carry a lot of weight in the hiring/firing process; if you do things in a way that contradicts the coach’s beliefs, you’re probably not going to be hired. This reality has gotten many coaches to reevaluate what is important to them, and compromises have been made in order to keep jobs. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it is a part of the profession.
Nearly Endless Options
If you’re just starting out and have a real passion for strength and conditioning but haven’t gotten too far into the business, you need to know that there are many options and paths to choose from. If you just want to be part of the scene, there are endless opportunities. There are a lot of schools, teams and athletes that would love some free or very inexpensive help. If you want to get paid, however, there are fewer opportunities. And, if you want to make a lot of money, your path is even narrower. That’s not to say that there aren’t good jobs out there, but there are a lot of quality coaches vying for a relatively small number of coveted jobs, so it’s very competitive. No matter which path you choose, you’ll probably have to pay your dues, unless you’re one of those lucky people who fall into a perfect situation.
“Putting in a lot of hard work and spending time developing as a coach is an absolute requirement,” says McKeefery. “This is a tough job, so you have to be willing to work. If hard work and long hours are a problem for you, this probably isn’t the job for you.”
You also need to keep in mind that not everyone is a good fit for this profession and different personalities fit better down certain paths. You don’t want to be the square peg trying to fit into a round hole, so it’s a good idea to figure out which path presents the best opportunities for your strengths. As you read through the rest of this article, you may connect with certain aspects of each job. Try to be very honest and objective about which environment you are best suited for. The coach who is perfectly suited for college football may be the wrong person to work with professional basketball players. An incredible Olympic sports coach may be terrible in a business setting.
You also need to understand that each situation has pros and cons. Working with professional athletes may be your dream because you love Sports Center. That dream could be completely shattered when you find out the realities of the situation. You may start out being driven in one direction, but don’t be surprised if your outlook changes as you mature in the profession.
Let’s take a look at some of the opportunities available in the field and the most common paths taken to get there. While you read, think about which situations you’re best suited for. Also keep in mind that there are always combinations of these positions available, and you may have an opportunity to create your own job in certain situations.
How to Become a Strength and Conditioning Coach in Professional Sports
(Salary range: $500/month–$300K+/year)
To some people, this is the pinnacle. To others, it’s a terrible situation. There are a very limited number of jobs available in pro sports, so you’ll certainly have to pay your dues, get to know the right people and be in the right place at the right time to make it happen. Professional sports have evolved to the point that the athletes often have more power than the coaches, and some coaches aren’t right for that environment.
The path to success in professional sports is generally to pick one sport and go full tilt in that direction. You’ll probably get pigeon-holed early on as a hockey guy, football guy, basketball guy, etc., so be sure you like the sport you’re dealing with. That’s not to say you can never switch sports, but once you’re in, you’re kind of in.
Like college coaches, many pro coaches start out as a Graduate Assistant or intern for a collegiate program. From there, they often intern or volunteer for a pro team to get a foot in the door. Sometimes a player you’ve worked with puts a word in for you to get you into an organization. Once you get a foot in the door, it’s much easier to move ahead. It’s pretty common for a part-time coach or intern to be promoted to assistant coach if he/she is doing a great job. From there, many assistant coaches move up to a head coach spot when one opens.
MLB seems to have the largest number of opportunities, but many of them are internship positions with minor league teams. Inexperienced coaches have the opportunity to get jobs in pro baseball, and it can be a good learning experience if you are lucky enough to work under a good coach. It can also be frustrating because moving upward in an organization is difficult and competitive. The people at the top of the ladder typically stay there for as long as they can.
In baseball, you generally go from being an intern with a minor league team to being a minor league coordinator and finally to MLB head strength coach. Many teams hire from within, so it’s often a game of attrition: How long can you wait for a good job to become available?
“I spent time in three different organizations waiting for an opportunity to present itself, but it never happened,” says Nick Wilson from the University of Detroit Mercy. “I stuck around baseball as long as I could, but when a college position became available, I knew I had to jump on it.”
Your ability to connect with coaches and athletes will often outweigh your knowledge, so keep in mind that you have to be the right fit if you’re going to make it very far in baseball.
The NBA, NFL, MLS, and NHL are a little different because there aren’t many lower-tier or minor league positions available. The path noted above (intern–>assistant–>head) is similar to the path taken in collegiate sports. The big difference is that most “farm” systems of these sports simply don’t have full-time strength and conditioning coaches… yet. That may change in the future.
To get into one of these sports, you typically have to pay your dues for a while, making very little money, working very hard, traveling A LOT, and connecting with the right people in order for it to pay off. More importantly, you typically need to ride the coattails of a coach or high-profile athlete to get into a good position. For example, you may be a volunteer coach for an NFL team just at the time that the assistant Strength and Conditioning coach gets a new job. If you’ve done an outstanding job, you might get the Assistant position. From there, you may become great friends with the Defensive Coordinator. The next year, that coach may get a head coaching job for another team, and he may bring you with him because of your relationship. That’s a typical situation, but it doesn’t always work perfectly.
You also need to understand that pro Strength and Conditioning coaches are often hired and fired depending on how the players feel about you. It’s not uncommon to see a coach get hired or fired in pro sports because a star player either loved or hated him/her. It’s also not uncommon for someone to get hired by a professional team because he/she had developed a relationship with an owner or high-level manager. That’s certainly not typical, but you just never know how things might work out in professional sports.
If pro sports is your true passion, you’ll probably need to start out by volunteering for a team. Call the strength coach and ask if you can be involved in any way. If you’re lucky enough to get your foot in the door, take advantage of that opportunity by working your butt off. Hard work will often impress someone, and that could give you the opportunity to take the next step in that sport.
You’ll almost always need a strong educational background to land a good pro job, but there have also been plenty of ex-players or personal friends that get hired.
The NFL typically has one head strength coach and one or two assistants. Many teams are going with a speed coach instead of an assistant. Because of the schedule, NFL jobs require the least amount of travel and often have the most authority over the actual training the athletes engage in.
The NBA typically has one head strength coach, and some teams have intern positions. Travel can be grueling because you’re on the road most of the year. Not many NBA strength coaches have the authority to “make” a player train, so developing relationships is very important.
Not every NHL team has a full-time strength coach; many are also athletic trainers, and most have additional responsibilities such as minor league training or making travel arrangements. The MLS is still in its infancy. Most teams have someone working on fitness, but the quality of the position varies greatly from club to club. MLS and NHL have plenty of room for growth in this area.
How to Become a Strength and Conditioning Coach in College Sports
Salary range: $500/month–$300K+/year
There are certainly more opportunities in college athletics than professional sports simply because there are more colleges than pro teams. Many colleges also employ more than one strength coach, and some employ several. There seem to be two distinct paths here: football and everything else. There are now several basketball-only Strength and Conditioning Coaches, but the majority of college coaches can be divided up by football and what they call “Olympic sports.”
In either situation, you always need a degree and national certification (usually NSCA or CSCCA), and most coaches now have a Master’s Degree and experience as either a Graduate Assistant or intern. If you want to get into college Strength and Conditioning coaching, you’re definitely going to need to pick between football and Olympic sports and work on getting a G.A. spot or internship. Getting a G.A. position at a large school is quite competitive, so you’ll need to make connections early and talk to college coaches about upcoming opportunities. Many G.A. positions are filled internally by former athletes, so you need to network heavily to get your foot in the door.
If you’re just starting out, try to get your experience at the biggest school possible, especially one with a good athletic program. That’s not to say you can’t get a fantastic experience at a small school with a great coach who gives you lots of responsibility; you can. Unfortunately, Athletic Directors (who are frequently doing the hiring) are often pretty uneducated about this, and they love to see successful sports programs on a resume, even if you didn’t do that much there. So, when choosing a Graduate Assistantship or internship, look for a big school or one that will give you plenty of hands-on experience.
“Having a resume is not good enough anymore,” comments McKeefery. “My last job listing, I had over 400 resumes, and 97% of them had a degree and certification. Having the education is a given. You must have practical application and experience.”
You may also want to look at the track record of the coach getting his people better jobs. Some coaches don’t help very much in this department, while others do everything they can to help people succeed.
Similar to pro sports, football Strength and Conditioning coaches often attach themselves to a coach and ride him as far as possible. With that in mind, a perfect scenario would be to become the assistant strength coach at a large school where the assistant football coaches have a good shot at being a head coach in the future. Keep in mind that when that coach moves on, you may be taken along for the ride.
If you really want to get into football strength and conditioning and you think you’re the right fit, contact as many football strength coaches as possible while you’re an undergrad so you can land a good G.A. position. G.A. positions are often filled a year in advance, so do plenty of networking by attending clinics and making phone calls to meet coaches.
Once you get a G.A. position, don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s going to be happy times for two years. On the contrary, most G.A.’s get worked to the bone, so get ready to put in some serious work. A Graduate Assistantship is basically a two-year interview just to get a recommendation. Of course, you get your graduate school paid for, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get a job. You still have to do a great job and impress the head coach just to be in the position to have a favorable recommendation.
In general, Olympic sport strength and conditioning coaches are more laid back and focused on teaching an intern or G.A. how to be a great coach. These G.A.’s still work their butts off, but it’s generally a different attitude. There are often more jobs available because many schools have multiple Strength and Conditioning Coaches working with Olympic Sports, but those usually aren’t the huge-salary jobs. There are many excellent opportunities for quality female coaches in this setting, because many female sports want a female strength coach. There is a lack of quality female strength coaches, so good ones can often have plenty of opportunities.
The road to a big-time job can be long and full of ups and downs. The big-money jobs are typically associated with college football, so you have to be attached to the right coach and be willing to make a move when the timing is right. A typical path to the top involves several moves, so your family needs to be on board early in the process. It is common for a G.A. to get an assistant coach position and work there for a few years before getting a head job at a medium-sized school. If things work out well at that school, and your head football coach wins a lot of games, you might get the opportunity to follow him to a big school and a big-time job. From there, the program better keep winning, or you can lose that job as fast as you got it. Some guys will win a National Championship one year and lose their job the next (yes, it has happened), so don’t get too comfortable in any position.
Keep in mind that head strength coaches often do the hiring of assistant coaches at large schools. Athletic Directors are usually involved and will probably be part of the interview process. A.D.’s at smaller schools are much more involved in the hiring process. In both situations, a call or recommendation from another influential coach can often go a long way toward getting you an interview. If you don’t know anyone at the university, it’s very difficult to get noticed in a stack of resumes.
Don’t be too discouraged if you don’t even get an interview for a job. Many jobs get posted but have basically been filled internally. It’s not often that a great job gets posted and the school has no idea who they’ll be hiring. Again, networking is the key here.
How to Become a High School Strength and Conditioning Coach
Salary range: $10/hour–$100K/year
The high school scene for strength and conditioning is very interesting and very different from state to state and region to region. There are some states such as Texas, California, and Ohio where strength coaching jobs are fairly common in high schools. In other states, there may not be any school-sponsored positions. High school jobs are often filled by volunteers, assistant coaches, or sub-contracted employees who fill part-time positions to help a school. Most often, physical education teachers fill the role by default. Still, there are schools in certain areas that have multiple full-time coaches with large budgets and the full support of the administration. Private schools usually lead the way in funding these positions.
Helping at a high school can be done for a single team or an entire school. If you’re volunteering your time, you need to decide how many kids you’re willing to work with or how much time you can put in. Interestingly, many high school sport coaches are even more controlling than college coaches when it comes to strength and conditioning, so you have to be prepared for different personalities.
“I believe High School Strength and Conditioning is a great opportunity for newcomers to strength and conditioning,” says McKeefery. “If you combine that with a teaching position, you have a stable income and time at your disposal. With that financial stability, you can use the extra time to network while being able to practically apply what you learn with your athletes.”
Unfortunately, the high school scene has been inundated with sub-par programming from poor coaches. This often happens because the sport coaches choose a program based on marketing hype or because an unqualified coach fills the position. With all of the information available today, it’s almost unbelievable to see what some sport coaches come up with, but it’s the reality of the situation.
Landing a Job
To get a job at a high school, a strength coach usually needs to win the respect of a sport coach or A.D. Sometimes a degree and experience are necessary. In other situations, you just need to be the friend of a coach. If you’re looking to be a part of a program and have the time to volunteer, it’s possible to get your foot in the door of many schools.
Some schools fund the strength coach through school funds while others pay with booster club money. If you think this is a setting you can see yourself fitting into, think about getting your teacher’s certification. It doesn’t mean you have to teach, but it certainly opens a lot of doors in public schools.
How to Become a Strength and Conditioning Coach in a Private Setting
Salary Range: $10/hour–over $200K/year
Over the past 10 years, more and more opportunities are springing up for strength and conditioning coaches in private settings. You can be a personal trainer who works with a few athletes, or you can run a complete business focusing exclusively on athletes. Entrepreneurs have established businesses like these all over the country, often focusing on a specific niche of the market. Some businesses focus on football combine training, while others are geared toward soccer or hockey players. Some deal mainly with younger populations, and others strictly run camps. You can pick your niche or spread out and train lots of different athletes. The key here is that you get to create your job and decide who you’re going to work with as long as you can get them to pay for your services.
You can operate an independent facility or be part of a large network of training centers. Athletic Republic is the largest chain in the world with over 160 centers, but there are also smaller chains. Athletic Revolution offers franchising opportunities for those who like control over how their business looks and feels.
Some training centers make good money, but most have found that this business does not have a very high profit margin. You can make a very nice living, but there aren’t many people getting rich in this business. Even the most successful facilities in the country supplement their income with personal training, nutritional supplements, or information products. It’s a difficult business, and the use of a consultant or outside expert is highly recommended when getting started. Many new facilities go out of business quickly because of bad decisions made early in the process. I have consulted with several facilities, and it’s amazing to see the mistakes that put people out of business. Again, Athletic Revolution (and personal training franchise Fitness Revolution) can provide business solutions to ensure you are efficiently running your business and allowing you more time to spend in the coaching aspect.
The surge of private training centers has created a lot of jobs for young coaches, however, and this segment of the field is expanding faster than any other. It is a great option for a young coach who may not fit into the college scene, can’t get a foot in the door in pro sports, or doesn’t have the demeanor to work with large groups of high school athletes. One of the most difficult aspects of this job is that you need to be nice enough to get people to pay for your services and stick with you yet demanding enough to get results. People who can talk comfortably with different athletes and parents and have the ability to make training somewhat enjoyable can just about write their own ticket in this industry. Many college and pro coaches lack these skills, so don’t underestimate how difficult it can be to run a successful sports performance business.
Most private facilities require a degree in the field and a certification from a nationally accredited agency such as the NSCA, NASM, or ACSM, but each business will have its own requirements. Doing an internship at a facility is probably the best way to get a foot in the door, but completing a graduate assistantship or internship at another facility is also a great start. These facilities often have a decent amount of turnover, so they hire on a fairly regular basis. When there is a job opening, the owners often hire coaches they don’t know very well, so opportunities abound, especially in metropolitan areas.
You’ll usually make the most money in the private setting when you own the business, but there is certainly a downside to ownership. The first, and most obvious, is the financial risk of spending a lot of money on a business and having it fail. Other downsides include having to do marketing, paperwork, accounting, and hiring and firing of employees. It can be difficult to find good employees you can trust, and this is a huge source of stress for many business owners. The upside is that you’re more in control of your career, and you can reap whatever financial rewards come your way.
It’s OK to be an employee if you feel that is where you fit the best. Not everyone needs to own a business, and the additional money may not be worth the stress.
Many gyms or fitness facilities have personal training programs, and these trainers always have the option of working with athletes. It’s a great option to do personal fitness training most of the time (to pay the bills) and train a few athletes as well; this is a very common situation. You don’t have to train athletes exclusively to make this work. You have to weigh your options and choose the best path for yourself.
Interning or getting experience at a private facility may also help you move into the college or professional setting. For example, Total Performance Training Center in Wixom, MI, has had several interns/employees move on to full-time college positions, paid college internships, or GA positions at major universities. Sometimes this kind of experience can really benefit you because you bring a different outlook to the table. Again, it all depends on your personality and determination.
How to Become a Part-time or Volunteer Strength and Conditioning Coach
Salary Range: Negligible
If you just want to be involved in athletics, there are a ton of opportunities to be connected without it taking over your life. A great option is to have another well-paying job that you enjoy and volunteer with athletes on the side. You may even get paid a little for your time, but it doesn’t have to be a full-time job. This can often keep things interesting for you and not turn training into a burden because you have to do it all day, every day. If you only spend a couple hours a week volunteering at a high school or with a sports club, you’ll probably continue to stay excited about it and keep the enjoyment factor high.
Many high schools, and even colleges and pro sports teams, love volunteer help from qualified coaches. Limited budgets often cause staffing problems for athletic programs, and a qualified volunteer can be a huge help in many situations. That doesn’t mean you can just call up an NFL team and ask to volunteer in the weight room. You still have to be qualified, and you need to network. Once you get to know a strength coach, you might have the opportunity to talk about being involved in some capacity. If you’re not asking to be paid, it’s always easier to bring this up.
I hope this article sheds some light on how to become a strength and conditioning coach, including the most common paths in the strength and conditioning profession and what type of person would excel at each. Of course, every coach has his/her own path, and there are many ways to achieve a goal. The point of this article was to show you the most common paths taken by coaches to get to each position.
To sum it all up, here are the things you need to do to become a strength and conditioning coach:
- Get a great education: at least a bachelor’s degree, probably a master’s degree
- Get certified by a nationally recognized organization
- Learn from great coaches and hone your coaching skills
- Network with as many coaches as possible
- Seek opportunities and jump on them when appropriate
- Work hard and put in long hours
- Do an outstanding job training athletes day after day
- Have a little bit of luck
If you do all of those things, you’ll certainly have opportunities in this field. If you have the right personality and meet the right people, you’ll probably get a decent job. If you work really hard, do a great job, and have a little bit of luck, you just might hit it big and become a leader in the field. Whatever you hope to achieve, I hope this article sheds some light on how to become a strength and conditioning coach and helps you choose the path that suits you best.