Top Ten tips for surviving as a professional team S&C coach

With university systems the world over producing sport science and human movement graduates at a rate that far exceeds the number of positions in professional sport I thought I'd pen a few thoughts on the essential "stuff" nobody tells you about at university.  Essentially this article is targeted at those who aim to be, or already are full time S&C coaches in professional sport.  

Check out my Top Ten Hints for getting a Professional S&C role if you are trying to get a gig!

Firstly, put my perspective in context.  While I am an S&C coach first and foremost, in my current position I am the the department manager for sport science / medicine for Fremantle Football Club (AFL).  For me, that means that it is imperative that I have the ability to delve into the intricacies of running mechanics and lifting protocols at an individual level, but also have awareness of the broader team issues around me and how my staff, conditioning objectives and protocols, the sport science / medicine culture and the schedule all impact on the environment.  Even in jobs I've had where I was only responsible for S&C, many of these issues were still critical to my performance and long term sustainability.

Be very effective S&C coach is part of a management team, and he / she must make that team better for their presence and contributions.  Nobody can do it on their own.  Militant, fanatical, "one eyed" S&C coaches who think they know everything don't survive!  Equally nor do spineless, poorly educated ones!

Here's my top ten tips, really the stuff nobody tells you about, for surviving long term in professional S&C.

1. Never compromise your integrity
Integrity is the basis of your personal and professional existence...this should never change nor be compromised.  Integrity represents the "line in the sand" which may not be crossed.  Here are a few of my non-negotiables;

Honesty…in everything you do; data collection and management, decisions you make, everything!
Respect...have fun, "take the piss", but always remain respectful of the individual.  Football departments are generally a fairly tough place to work, with this in mind particular respect must be paid to females, same rules as above applies, just watch the language (I'm old school).
Effort...if you commit to the job and accept the remuneration - do the job to the best of your ability, no excuses.
Humility…never be a big head!  Big heads make big targets and they get knocked off!

2. Choose your battles
Like raising kids, or dealing with your partner, fighting every little spot fire that ignites in a management team will not help your program.  Understand the battles that are really important to win and go after them.  When there are issues of lesser importance let them go.

3. Know exactly what is required
Collect data, analyze it and the opportunities you have, then develop a simple, concise and practical program.

I've seen plenty of young coaches implement advanced programs, when what is really called for are some fundamentals.  Implement the program that is needed, not the one you'd like to run.  Do what needs to be done, not what is nice or "popular" at the moment.  Avoid "trendy" practices like the plague.  It doesn't matter if it's not what all the cool bloggers are what you need to do to get your program moving.

4. Prioritize communication with the Head Coach
Learn to speak "Head Coach"!  Every coach has their own way of communicating to the outside world, and they generally have their preferred way of receiving incoming information.  Learn their terminologies, mannerisms and vocabulary.  Make them comfortable and confident in what you are about and you will have less interruptions. 

A specific tip, don't go throwing massive spreadsheets on their desk and expect that the world will be fine.  Ask first if they have a preference for how they like to see data.  Some don't care, while for others it is a big deal.

My experience has been that while on the surface Head Coaches may know moderate to limited amounts about physical preparation, if you listen carefully they all have good insights...and you need to be alert to these and work with them not against them.  Again, not dissimilar from making a marriage work, ensure they understand your terminology, clarify...don't dumb things down, and where possible educate.  My experience has been that this generally achieves good results.

Finally, ensure what you think is required, is what the Head Coach wants.  Sometimes these can be quite disparate end-games.  Get on the same page with your Head Coach early.  This is a critical area of communication.  I can guarantee if you don't get this right you will have a massive headache on your hands.

5. Get your athletes on the park and keep them there
In team sport nothing matters more than keeping star players on the field.  The odds are if your stars are on the field you will have more chance of winning.  So that means, if you need to leg press your star player because squats are aggravating an old injury...that's what you do.  If you have a bicep femoris issue that lacks strength in isolated testing, I can guarantee it won't work in complex movement, so hit it hard in isolation until it is at an acceptable level, then move to something more functional.  Doesn't sound as pretty as some of the "functional movement" diatribe that gets regurgitated endlessly on the internet, but I assure you addressing the issues you have by the most clinically accurate method possible will get the job done.  

NB: Don't misconstrue the point above.  You may have a plan for the greater development of a player that bubbles away under the surface, but short term you may need to action a simpler plan in order to get a timely result (see next point).

6. Take what you can when you can
In team sports you get small windows in which gains can be made.  Those windows include off and pre-season blocks, and periodically rehabilitation windows.  Prepare well and execute them with clinical accuracy.  Get as much "buy in" as you can from both players and staff before you start.

As an aside, my standing rule with rehab is that I send the player back better than I got him.  From the moment of the injury, every element of a players performance beyond the injury is targeted for an immediate upgrade.  

7. Network
Talk to other professionals.  Stay up to date with research and books, but the vast majority of advanced learning comes from other professionals.

8. Think systematically
The one thing I am convinced of after such a long time in pro sport…there is never one way to achieve anything.  Long term success is the only proving ground for a system.  

When confronted with a problem refer back to first principles.  Check out my basic Philosophies here for an idea on what I defer back to when challenged. 

Work on designing and developing your own Training Model and stick to it as closely as possible.  A good Training Model describes your system for developing athletes.  Just ensure you are open enough to incorporating new ideas. 

9. Integrate
As I noted above, you can't do this alone.  Integrate with skills coaches and medical staff, and understand how those staff members can assist you to get your program to where you want it to go.

10. Work to live…don't live to work
S&C jobs aren't the "be all and end all" of existence.  Unfortunately the job demands a lot and at times we can act like there is nothing else in the world (my wife would strongly agree with this).  I've seen plenty of marriages break up and kids left with bits and pieces of visitations because of S&C commitments.  Make sure you look after your family and stay healthy. 

NB: I haven't perfected this one…its still a work in progress! 

These tips are my opinion and clearly they relate to the less technical elements of the job.  That said, these insights are what I wish I knew when I started.  I hope this article helps young guys on the way up keep a balanced approach to the role, and produce sustainable results.



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