Continuing from Part 1, I have provided six more points that I feel will guide your sport performance internship to success. As in the first article, I am not providing specific details on the day-to-day operation of an internship program, but rather a general framework and mind-set for mentoring your interns in a manner that will serve them well in their future.
7. Embrace Technology But Don’t Be a Slave to It
Technology is and will continue to be a big part of the sport performance field. What was once covered by the simple stopwatch has now been replaced with a plethora of apps and equipment that could fill an entire room in your training facility. My job as a mentor is to show interns the importance of understanding the role of technology in athlete development while ensuring they do not try to substitute good judgment and sound decision making with a gadget or a computer application. Through the course of an interns’ time with me, we will make them aware of what types of technology are prevalent in the industry. We review the pros and cons of the technology, and go through a cost-benefit analysis with our staff to make sure they are all familiar with the process of reviewing technological acquisitions on a practical level.
When faced with significant budget limitations and time constraints, it is amazing what you can get done with very simple technology. For example, we got very handy with a high-speed video camera shooting at 240 frames per second to evaluate ground contact times during jumps and sprints by simply counting frames. In rehabilitation, we were able to measure these ground contact times to determine relative elastic power contributions of a healthy leg versus a recovering leg following surgery. For only $400, the high-speed camera solution gave us significant confidence in our rehabilitation process by providing both biomechanical (visual) proof and temporal confirmation of a successful return-to-competition case. We tell our interns that technology is not about spending a lot of money. It’s really about being innovative with whatever technology you can afford.
8. Force Individuals to Communicate and Think on Their Feet
Almost anyone can do a boring presentation with PowerPoint slides and put an audience to sleep. It happens with 90 percent of the presentations I see at conferences these days. People have perfected crappy presentations, reading off of their own slides. However, very few people can think on their feet and be spontaneous during a presentation or speech. We know from experience that we would rather listen to someone who is spontaneous and charismatic, as opposed to robotic and predictable. Thus, we encourage all of our interns to draw on the spontaneous and entertaining sides of their personalities when communicating to each other and athletes. In some cases, we have to drag these characteristics out of their souls, kicking and screaming, before we really start to see a positive transformation.
Every week during our classroom sessions, we are pushing individuals to communicate their ideas. Some weeks we would have spontaneous five-minute presentations from interns where they would have to draw a topic out of a hat randomly. No preparation and no visual aids aside from a marker and a white board. Some presentations were painful initially, but very soon we had some great presentations with exceptional flair and innovation. On other weeks we would have debates on training topics and force individuals to purposely present on and defend a concept that they didn’t believe. In some cases, they had to defend a training method that they absolutely abhorred. It was great to see the interns think on the spot and come up with good arguments for horrible training ideas. I believe it truly made them better coaches by forcing them to see another perspective that they truly didn’t support. By forcing our interns out of their comfort zone, we made them more adaptable to their environment and, ultimately, more effective coaches and human beings.
9. Give Individuals Responsibility Beyond Their Experience
Some programs love to give their interns the most menial tasks such as cleaning up the weight room or making protein shakes for athletes. The common rationale behind delegating these tasks to interns is that they aren’t experienced enough to actually coach athletes, or they simply have to do the grunt work as part of the trials of being a lowly intern. While I understand the logic behind this approach, I also believe you have to give your young intern coaches some responsibility to allow them to not only learn, but also rise to the occasion. More often than not, I am pleasantly surprised by how well the majority of intern coaches perform in circumstances that may seem beyond their abilities. By demonstrating to the interns that I trust their abilities, it empowers them to do exceptional work. Of course, I do not put them in a situation where failure is a certainty. We provide them with adequate training and knowledge to allow them to succeed. By giving them greater responsibilities, it brings out the best in these individuals and makes them feel as though they are a valued member of the coaching staff, and not just a lowly weight room cleaner.
10. Let Your Students Teach You
I am a big proponent of the notion that we can learn from everyone. We do not always need to seek out known ‘experts’ for every morsel of knowledge that we ingest. As an example, I make a point of always asking each individual interns their thoughts on what they see in a technical session or how they feel about the plans we have assembled for a particular team. Their perspective, whether right or wrong, teaches me about how individuals respond to what I have prescribed. If they understand the intent or goal of an exercise very easily, it tells me that I am on the right track. If they have problems comprehending my planning process or reasoning, it makes me work harder to simplify things even more. In many ways, I use my intern group as a ‘focus group’ or ‘test screening audience’ to determine if I am on the right track with my progressions, instruction cues and overall training concepts.
I also use my interns to keep me up to date on new consumer technologies, trends for young people and even pop culture. Many of my interns have schooled me on the finer points of social media as well. Because I don’t have the time or energy to seek out information on many of these topics, my interns serve as an information gathering service that keeps me up to date on new developments in the world outside of performance training. I even use my interns to help me keep on top of the pro sporting world. I will have a number of professional teams call me for help from month to month and I’ll ask my interns, “Who are the big name players for that team?” Because I can’t stay on top of every pro sport and every team, my interns help break down the personnel for a team and their history. It’s also great experience for a young intern, knowing that he or she can have a hand in the well being of a pro athlete or team. Sharing in the learning process makes the bonds and commitments much stronger as we know we are in a mutually beneficial relationship.
11. Don’t Be Afraid to Connect on A Personal Level
It is common for head coaches to keep all relationships on a ‘professional’ level. There are little to no side conversations about personal interests or hobbies, with all communication directed at the job itself. This is a very efficient arrangement that ensures that staff and interns are keeping their eye on the ball and not casually talking about their weekends during peak periods of training. However, I am a believer that during down time, it is important to learn more about all of your staff and interns on a personal level. Again, we are speaking to the concept of building trust, loyalty, commitment and establishing a strong connection amongst team members. The more you know about a person, particularly on a personal level, the stronger the connection you will establish, the greater loyalty you will build and the more you will care about each others’ well being. While these are qualities that don’t appear to exude ‘strength’ and ‘toughness’, these are the exact qualities that build a more robust program with good people.
All of my interns are welcome to call or text me at any time of day if they need anything from me. I regularly have my staff and interns over to my house for social visits. Most of them know my wife and kids on a personal level. If someone needs help, we do not hesitate to act as part of their extended family and offer support where we can. As I mentioned previously, by connecting on a personal level, we are able to create a ‘safe’ environment where individuals feel comfortable in sharing their personal thoughts and concerns, but also gives them confidence to perform on an exceptional level in the work place. There is no fear of failure or embarrassment when you are in a safe place.
12. Don’t Forget to Have Fun!
I have left the most important point to the end. Above all else, we must teach our interns to have fun when working with athletes. This doesn’t mean that they are horsing around during training sessions. However, it does mean that they should derive significant enjoyment out of the work they are doing and don’t be afraid to project this energy on to the athletes. You don’t have to look pissed off and angry to get results when coaching athletes. If they see you are having a good time, it puts them at ease and brings out the best in their performances.
As a staff, we encourage each other to joke and make fun of one another. It is all in good fun and everyone knows that going in. We help to develop a thick skin for our interns, but also convey a sense of levity and amusement. Not every program is going to enjoy the thrill of one of their teams achieving a national championship or have one of their athletes move on to a professional sports career. Hence, we must have a sense of perspective and intrinsic enjoyment on a day-to-day basis in our jobs. There will be good days and there will be not-so-good days. Our job as mentors should be to emphasize the importance of celebrating the good days and not dwell on the low days. If that means breaking out into a spontaneous game of staff dodge ball at the end of the day, then we take time to bolster our team spirit with ridiculous games. My staff and interns loved to play our own form of soccer-tennis to feed our competitive instincts. Because we all were poor at soccer and even worse at tennis, it was a level playing field with lots of humility involved and, fortunately, very few injuries. It certainly made it easier to spend long hours at work and gave us something else to laugh at ourselves about. Most importantly, it brought us together under positive circumstances.
The intent of my article is not to tell people how to run their internship programs. Every one will have a slightly different approach to passing down their skills and knowledge. I am simply sharing the key points that I feel have made my internship program an important step in the development of many great young coaches. It is also the reason why we have no problem recruiting more good people for our program. It’s not simply about coaching and building knowledge. It is really about bringing good people together with common goals and creating a positive experience for them. I could argue that we provide better content for our interns than most places, but that is not the real reason for their success. Most importantly, we are providing fertile ground for personal development and growth. In that way, we can say our interns develop ‘organically’ – which seems to be a big thing these days. This is an important point also because we cannot genetically modify people into good coaches. It has to happen naturally.
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