– Derek M. Hansen –
Over the last five years, I have noticed some gradual changes in the role of the strength and conditioning coach at the professional sports level. Some of my thoughts are based on casual observations, but also frank discussions with coaches who are currently working in the professional ranks, or coaches that have moved on from the pros to other levels of sport – mostly college jobs. But one thing is clear: The strength coaching profession of today is not the same challenge as it was 15 to 20 years ago. There are some emerging realities in professional sports that make it a different world, and one in which coaches may have to re-invent themselves. While some coaches interpret these changes as the result of innovations and progress, others – especially strength coach purists – see it as a step backwards away from the art of coaching and the development of a true coaching position.
Key changes and trends include:
1. Restructured Collective Bargaining Agreements
A number of professional sports leagues have restructured their collective bargaining agreements in favor having less off-season commitments for the players. For the most part, player unions have negotiated less mandatory practice and training time for players during the off-season. Some sports have reasoned that the wear-and-tear of extra workouts needed to be curtailed, inferring that contact sport athletes training extra days in the off-season would lead to more injuries and concussions. The sad part is the negotiators threw the baby out with the bathwater and did not allow the teams to condition players in the off-season for very long periods, even though good training helps to prevent injuries – not create them.
The NFL example is the most alarming. Previously, the players had 14 weeks of off-season training to prepare for pre-season and in-season competition. This has been shaved down to nine weeks, with only about three or four of those weeks dedicated to actual strength and conditioning work. Yet, fans are alarmed when the injury rate for the latest season is greater than previous years, with a larger number of big-name players having season-ending injuries. In fact, when some of the most serious injuries are considered – such as ACL injuries – 27 pre-season and 23 in-season ACL injuries (50 total) were recorded for the first three months of the 2013 NFL season, on pace for the highest number on record. Some would argue that the higher number is a result of the NFL clamping down on helmet-to-helmet hits, encouraging defenders to hit below the waist. However, the vast majority of ACL injuries were classified as non-contact injuries.
With strength and conditioning coaches having less mandatory time with the athletes in the off-season, one can only wonder what kind of shape the athletes show up to training camp in. If athletes haven’t completed the proper amount and intensity of training in the off-season, one could reasonably expect that these athletes could be at greater risk of injury due to fatigue and strength deficits. Assuming that all of the athletes will ensure their fitness is appropriate for the demands of training camp is naïve at best. The question is, what can the strength coach do to mitigate the negative impacts of less mandatory off-season training? Strength coaches who want to show their value to the organization must find a way to maximize their time with athletes, while not going overboard and creating injuries in training that would preclude the players from participating in actual team practices. If athletes are left to their own devices for the majority of the off-season time, strength and conditioning staff must build a cohesive relationship with each individual player to ensure buy-in to the program, a degree of mutual trust and a greater probability that the team complies with the workout plans sent out at the conclusion of the season.
2. The Hiring Process
Strength coaches are not evaluated using the same parameters as other sport coaches. Head coaches are evaluated on wins and losses. Assistant coaches and position coaches are evaluated on the statistics of the athletes they supervise. Strength coaches could be evaluated on how strong, powerful and fast their athletes have become under their programs. However, the majority of team administrators do not track this type of data closely. More often than not, strength coaches are hired based on their relationship with a sport coach. When a head coach is hired, he typically brings on board a strength coach that he was worked with previously. There are rarely any exhaustive interview processes where strength coaches are grilled on their knowledge, experience, philosophy and effectiveness. As a result, I would hazard to guess that a good number of effective strength coaches are not represented in the pro ranks. More than ever, it’s more about “who” you know, rather than “what” you know.
Don’t get me wrong. There are a significant number of good, qualified strength coaches who have the knowledge base, education, experience and the connections to gain employment in the pros. However, it would be naïve to assume that every head strength coach has paid his dues and earned the opportunity to work with professional athletes. Of course, this could probably be said of any industry where style often takes priority over substance. It leads us to the question, should the modern strength coach spend more time sucking up to head coaches, updating their LinkedIn profile, creating YouTube videos, upgrading their education or working on their craft? Unfortunately, the prudent strength coach may want to work on all of these fronts to ensure that he or she will have a fighting chance both practically and virtually should a position become available.
3. Technological Advances and Data Mining
Technology is prevalent in all aspects of our lives and sport is no exception. It is not enough for a pro strength and conditioning coach to simply plan and implement effective training sessions. The strength coach of today must surround himself with all different forms of technology to not only help him carry out the job, but also give the impression that he is on the cutting edge of the profession and doing everything necessary to stay ahead of the competition. Once again, I am pretty certain that team management and even the head coach do not have the knowledge and experience to assess the proficiency of a strength coach. They do, however, notice the bells and whistles. This is particularly important in an age when there is little to no athlete development going on off-season or in-season and training resembles little more than circuit training or body building sessions (i.e. biceps and triceps).
I had an interesting conversation with a prominent pro strength coach recently where I was asking him if his team had bought one of the new diagnostic systems for time-motion analysis. He was very frank saying, “Do I need to buy it? No! But if I don’t buy it, everyone else has in the league has bought it, and we have a bad season, I could look like an idiot and it could cost me my job.” This is known is a form of technological peer-pressure in my assessment. Not much different than if you still have a flip phone and everyone else is sporting the latest iPhone. Not cool. In a world of smart-phones and artificial intelligence, you don’t want to be considered the old, dumb strength coach.
Aside from the hardware acquisitions, more and more pro strength coaches are clamoring to collect reams and reams of data. If you are not a data miner, you are apparently missing the boat. Information on heart rate, heart rate variability, sleep quality, perceived soreness, perceived exertion, miles covered, direction changes made, functional movement scores and the number of bowel movements in a day (I just made that one up – but I’m sure someone records it) is the hot topic. All of this data is crunched and munched and thrown together with an algorithm to produce some grand number that tells us how ready an athlete is to shock the world on the playing field or how likely they are going to get injured. Another pro strength coach laughed all of this off when talking to me last year saying, “So what happens if we evaluate a key player a day or two before the championship game and our magic equation tells us to not put him on the field because he might get injured. If I take that information to my head coach, he’s going to think I’m a moron.”
Some think that the technology and data mining has been used to cover up a strength coach’s inadequacies, and I’m sure that is part of it. If you are actually working on coaching, individualizing your workloads, implementing rehabilitation protocols, communicating with coaching staff and constantly adapting your work to the situation at hand, you will not have time to record Dartfish videos, sample OmegaWave readings, number crunch GPS data, implement subjective surveys and sort spreadsheets. Or, you will need a staff of no less than four to six minions. Thus, are we to believe that modern pro strength coaches are not permitted to do the work they need to do (i.e. coaching) and are simply left to integrate all of these other activities to justify their existence? This may be closer to the truth.
Another interesting aspect has been the creation of Sports Performance Managers and Sport Science Directors in both professional sports and upper level college sports. It’s almost as though the term “Strength Coach” is a dirty word, with that title representing something beneath the current crop of technophiles. The question is, are we getting smarter and such titles are warranted given the value of services being provided? Or, are we over-stating of the value of such staff and employing smoke and mirrors in an effort to give the false impression of performance enhancement for the amount of money being spent on salaries and hardware?
4. Injury Management and Risk
The ongoing mantra of the pro strength coach has been and will always be, “I don’t want to get blamed for hurting a player.” Team coaches never get fired for running players too long in practice, trying to get extra reps in or proving a point with punitive workouts. But if a strength coach has someone back squat or jump off a box and an athlete injures a knee or their back, guess who is going to get blamed? You know it: The strength coach! A legendary strength coach once told me, “They never gave me credit when we won a championship, but I certainly heard an earful on the rare occasion when a player got injured in one of my training sessions. Take home message: “If you are a strength coach, you had better be careful when training these million dollar investments known as pro athletes.”
As a result, many strength coaches have settled in to a steady diet of low to moderate intensity work that typically make the athletes sweat, breathe hard and give the impression of high intensity. Balance training, suspension training, bodyweight circuits, kettle bell complexes, stationary bike intervals, monotonous agility ladder drills and other benign training methods make up the majority of work. These exercise routines can create a burn and churn the stomach a bit, but nobody is getting faster, stronger or more explosive. They are keeping the athletes in a holding pattern, which I like to refer to as “Safe House” training. Nobody gets hurt during our sessions and we will deliver the athlete to the playing field, court or rink when the time comes for an actual game. Witness protection for pro athletes – what a concept!
But if no one is getting hurt in the training sessions, why are injury rates staying the same or increasing in professional sports. And, these fabulous pro training methods that are trickling down to our youth athletes are supposed to help prevent injuries at that level. However, younger and younger athletes are requiring surgical procedures for torn ligaments, ruptured tendons and broken bones that were unheard of 25 years ago. The demands for actual sport seem to be increasing while the demand for quality training – with progressively prescribed maximal loads, velocities and recoveries – seems to be decreasing. As a result, injuries prevail with no end in sight.
A balance must be struck between the need to train appropriately and the need to manage risk for professional athletes. Ongoing positive adaptation can only occur with progressive overload. Detraining will occur in situations where the athlete is not challenged in an organized fashion. Risk of injury escalates when an athletes is not fully prepared for the speeds, forces and durations of work required at the professional level of competition. These are all basic concepts of athlete preparation that must be part of a professional strength coach’s approach to training high performance athletes. Technology, credentials, certifications and fancy titles cannot adequately make up for poor coaching.
5. Talent Identification Reigns Supreme
More and more effort is going into identifying the next Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Derek Jeter or Wayne Gretzky. If you can successfully choose the right players for your pro sports franchise, it can be a license to print money for all those involved. This includes the professional strength coach. In a profession where wins and losses tell the whole story, talent in a particular sport supersedes all other qualities. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are not the most impressive physical specimens on the football field. But anyone who is on their team (or coaching from the sidelines) has an opportunity to win a Super Bowl every year because of their specific skill sets. Strength coaches should take a page out of the book of Phil Jackson. If you have the luxury of being involved with a team that has exceptionally talented superstars, it can enhance your chances of being labeled a coaching genius or guru.
So how does a strength coach contribute to the process of selecting the next great talent? In most cases, basic physical ability must be part of the overall evaluation. It is good for an athlete to be in the ballpark of physical means. It is not necessary for them to be the fastest, strongest or most powerful. If anything, too much pure natural athletic ability can be a hindrance that stunts the growth of other valuable qualities such as persistence, skill, discipline and creativity. Remember that Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith were not even close to the fastest football players to play at their respective positions. However, they are the all-time career leaders for yards receiving (Rice) and rushing (Smith), as well as the top two all-time touchdown leaders (Rice with 208 and Smith with 175). Michael Jordan was not the highest jumper and Wayne Gretzky was likely not the fastest skater. Their physical gifts were bundled with other traits that made them great.
The strength coach has the unique position of observing athletes in a different light than other coaches. A strength coach is provided with an opportunity to evaluate an athlete outside of their element – the competition arena – and take notice of some key aspects of greatness including work ethic, competitiveness, attention to detail, body awareness, leadership and an innate ability to determine what works for their own particular circumstances. These qualities can be gleaned from how an athlete takes instruction in the weight room, how they prepare for a drill, how they receive feedback after a technique, how they compete against their peers, how much effort and time is spent on recovery methods or how closely they monitor their diet. These are just a few examples.
In situations where a strength coach is researching and evaluating an athlete prior to a draft scenario, the coach can make note of the above-mentioned qualities in pre-draft workouts, interviews and testing. However, they should also take the time to speak to a previous strength coach to get a feel for the athletes’ tendencies, habits and preferences in training scenarios. All of this information will increase the probability that the team’s ultimate choice will be a good one and an intelligent investment. The key to all of this is that the strength coach cannot rely on video footage, heart rate data, EMG readings, accelerometers or tendo machine output. They must rely on the powers of observation, communication and intuition – qualities that must be present in every great coach.
The question that arises from all of these trends in the strength and conditioning field is, “Is the traditional strength coach position becoming redundant and irrelevant in professional sports?” A close friend of mine had an interesting observation regarding the changes to the Strength and Conditioning profession, asking:
What if owners and general managers start asking, “Why am I paying $350,000 a year to employ a full time strength coach when there really isn’t much training going on? Injuries are still at an all time high! Why don’t I just pay a consultant $100,000 to come in for the six weeks of off-season training, training camp and some in-season visits? The players seem to prefer training at home with their personal trainers anyways.”
It’s definitely a fair question. Why not contract out? But perhaps in an era where player salaries are in the tens of millions per year and head coaches are making $5 million or more per year, a measly strength coach salary doesn’t even show up on the radar. It will be interesting to see how this trend evolves further. In the meantime, the strength coaches occupying the existing jobs in professional sports have to keep re-inventing themselves, hope for wins and maintaining their network connections. As we know, nothing in professional sports in guaranteed.
I’m assuming that many strength and conditioning professionals will view my article in a negative light. There will always be those that think they are doing everything right and nothing needs to be improved. I am hoping that my observations are taken seriously and interpreted as a need to become aware of the realities of the profession. Good coaches will always be good coaches. However, they must be aware of the need to improve in other areas that may yield a smaller benefit, but may be perceived as key innovations for success by those paying your salary and providing you with your next contract. Conversely, sport scientists are not enough. You need good coaches in the trenches, working on a daily basis with athletes, developing trust, mutual respect and a “feel” for what needs to be prescribed on a given day, for a given exercise and a given athlete. Scientists and computer software cannot do that.
Those that do not take heed of the winds of change may very well be left behind regardless of their past accomplishments and affiliations. Ironically enough, the rules of the technology industry are applying to all other sectors of the economy – including the world of sports performance. So, do you want to be “Apple” or the “Dell” of strength coaches? It’s really up to you.