Differentiation in an Over-Saturated Job Market

Be so good

You have finally earned yourself a seat at the table for an in-person interview to secure your dream job. You are sitting down with four other professionals, and during a series of detailed questions, they finally toss you a softball by asking, “What makes you different than other candidates?” In several of the strength & conditioning interviews that I have been a part of the candidate usually responds by talking about their passion, energy, and love for the career. They say how they do not view it as a job because it is their passion and that leads to them doing good work. Sometimes, they even talk about their “JUICE” in great detail. However, they do not realize that every other candidate says this same thing.

Passion, energy, and “JUICE” are not meaningful enough to secure you the job especially in an over-saturated job market like Strength & Conditioning. There are thousands of coaches out there and only a handful of jobs that open every year. In fact, I was talking to one of my mentors at a prominent Division 1 program and he has 200 applicants for 1 assistant position! The question candidates must ask themselves is, “How do I rise above the competition and differentiate myself from other candidates?”

  1. Do Thorough Research

You should know everything there is to know about the institution and individuals that you are interviewing with. You need to research deeper than surface information. What is the department’s mission statement, departmental structure, recent successes, recent news stories, etc.? Can you then expand on this information to either form connections with your interviewers or have deeper conversations than other candidates who did not do their thorough research? Doing thorough research in order to build a relationship and strong conversation during the interview will make you a memorable candidate.

  1. Have a Plan of Action

They already saw your resume, cover letter, and references. Therefore, you need to bring a plan of action to the table. Not programs or accomplishments from your previous job, but what you plan to do if you are offered the job. If you know what teams you will be working with, show the interviewer what your first 60 days on the job will look like. What are your goals and initiatives? How do you plan to make an immediate impact? What value will you bring to the department right away? A plan of action shows that you have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish, and that is very attractive to employers.

  1. Ask Thought Provoking Questions

At the end of every interview, the tables are turned and the interviewee gets to ask questions. The worst thing a candidate can do is only ask logistical questions about start date, salary, and job responsibilities. Take this opportunity to learn more about the internal dynamics of the department, introduce more of your ideas, and figure out the future of the job.

What do you enjoy most about working here? This will give you several different opinions of what your future co-workers value about their jobs.

Have you ever thought about increasing your YouTube channel so athletes have access to exercise videos when they are off-campus? Asking questions about an initiative that you have thought of shows that you can bring value to the department right away.

What are some opportunities for growth in this department during the next few years? This will give you a good gauge on how the department is trying to grow, and it will let the interviewers know that you are interested in a long-term commitment.

Making sure your questions continue the conversation and build the relationship between you and the interviewers will guarantee that your interview is memorable.

Conclusion

In an over-saturated job market, you may have a 1 in 200 shot at getting your dream job. Therefore, you must make sure you differentiate yourself. Passion, energy, and love are not enough to set you apart from 199 other candidates. Dig deep in your research in order to form connections and strong conversation, have a plan of action detailing the value that you will bring to the department, and ask questions that help you understand the dynamics of the workplace as well as highlight the value that you will bring to the department. If you want to earn a permanent seat at the table, you must have tangible qualities that let the interviewer know that you are the best candidate for the job.

The Looser You Are, The Faster You Move

lnc loosen up

Sometimes being tight is a good thing. Tighter relationships with your athletes and coaches, tighter systems that are more focused, and tighter staffs that collaborate.

However, tighter is not always better. For example, the tighter the muscle, the more likely it is to get injured. The tighter the rubber band, the more likely it is to snap. In order to thrive, a lot of people need to actually focus on becoming looser.

I had the privilege of talking to a prominent CEO last weekend, and we had a good conversation about stress management. He was discussing how he operated under high stress almost every day for the first 5 years of owning the company. He was trying to run a tight system that would allow him to have his hands in everything. He was always worried about what his investors thought of the companies projections, if his staff liked him, and if his customers were satisfied. All of these worries weighed so heavily on him that he came close to burning out. As the CEO and creator of his company, he could not afford to let that happen. He had to change something. When I asked him what he changed, he said, “I loosened up. I realized that the looser you are, the faster you move”.

As soon as he “loosened up”, he saw instant results. He delegated more and let his staff operate independently. He realized that not all customers will be fully satisfied, and he could easily fix any issues customers had. He changed his tone with his investors to be more open and honest, not idealistic. His looser attitude allowed for more creative thinking, more progress, and more peace of mind.

Being looser allows you to open up your mind, expand your thinking, and look at things from a broader view. Looser allows relationships to grow because you are not stressed about them. Looser permits staffs to collaborate by creating an open environment that encourages new ideas. Looser decreases stress, which enhances peace of mind and clear thinking. If you want to progress faster, loosen up.

The Art Of Mentoring

Mentorship Pic

Justice Thurgood Marshal once said, “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody – a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony, or a few nuns – bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”

Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is because I stood on the shoulder of giants.”

Mentoring has been and always will be a crucial piece to the success of future generations. Resources are more available now than they ever have been in the past, but there is no better resource than a good mentor who takes a genuine interest in the growth of their mentee. At its best, mentoring can be a life-changing relationship that is centered on the growth and development of a young professional. In order to maximize the relationship, the mentor should do the following:

  1. Show a consistent, genuine interest in the growth of the mentee

This may sound obvious, but far too often mentors make their mentee a low priority. When stuff comes up in work or life, the mentoring gets put on the back burner. Great mentoring is a consistent, compassionate effort.

  1. Force independent thinking

“If you catch a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man how to fish, he eats for a lifetime”. Mentoring is not about just helping a young professional find their next job. It is also not about creating a clone of yourself. Great mentoring is about teaching, and then forcing the mentee to think independently in order to develop their own philosophy. The person standing on the shoulders of a giant is never the same as the giant.

  1. Mentoring is a 2-Way Street

It has been shown in social science studies that the most successful mentoring relationships include a large amount of reciprocity. As coaches, we always say that we should never stop learning. That learning can come from other professionals that are both more and less experienced than us. We need to operate with an open mind and not an ego. Great mentors always value the opinions and knowledge of their mentee and create a 2-way relationship.

Great mentoring can ensure a promising future for a young professional. In order to   make sure the mentoring relationship thrives, a mentor should make sure to show a genuine interest in the growth of the mentee, force independent thinking, and create reciprocity in the relationship.

Uncommon Advice for Young Coaches

There have been a lot of pieces written with advice for young coaches. The only downside is that a lot of times these are written by older coaches preaching to their younger counterparts like parents. Too many times, youth is discussed with a negative connotation along side words like inexperience, raw, or impatient. That what everyone says, right? “Millennials are always so impatient.” What young coaches should be asking, however, is, “How can I use my age as positive tool for my growth?”

  1. Relate to your athletes

Let’s face it young people get along a lot easier with other young people. Coaching is all about building relationships, and that is easier to do when the two parties are close in age. However, this DOES NOT mean be their best friend. You need to maintain the coach-athlete relationship that should operate on trust and solid communication. Young coaches should focus on building strong relationship, and use those relationships to enhance the training environment.

  1. Operate at a Fast Pace

Most of the time, younger professionals are better with technology and can operate at a much faster pace than their older peers. USE THIS TO YOUR ADVANTAGE. Be active on social media for both learning and exposure purposes. Exposure does not mean showing off. I mean use the proper platforms to share your knowledge and communicate with other coaches. Just because you are young does not mean that you do not have any value to bring to the profession. Add value across different platforms, and embrace the fast pace technical arena that you are comfortable in.

  1. Be Ambitious

Just because some coaches say that you need to do several internships, earn your stripes, and grind your life away does not mean that that should be your goal. I have seen too many young coaches go through 3-4 internships because some grumpy 40 year-old recommended it. Get an internship and work as hard as you can to get a Graduate Assistantship. When you EARN that, work as hard as you can to become an Assistant. After that happens, do the best job possible so that you can become a Director. Be ambitious and go get what you want out of this life.

From one young coach to others, our age is an advantage if used properly. We stand on the shoulders of giants, yet are not supposed to be clones of the giants. Be ambitious, be energetic, be innovative, be awesome.

3 Tips for In-Season Programming

As Winter sports are entering post-season competition and spring sports are approaching conference play, strength coaches must deliver great in-season training programs. Competition, increased practice volume, travel, school, and the pressure to win are all significant stressors added during the season. Because of this, in-season programming becomes one of the most delicate aspects of the job. My in-season programming is always guided by 3 main principles; constant communication, consolidate your stress, and implement an adaptable program.

  1. Constant Communication

During the season, the sport takes priority over all. The strength coach’s primary job to is TO DO NO HARM. In order to reduce the risk of injury as best as possible, communicating practice plans, lifting plans, recovery plans, and game plans between sport coaches, strength coaches, and athletic trainers becomes the most important piece of in-season success. Weekly meetings to make sure that everyone is on the same page are a staple of most successful programs. Constant communication between the strength coach and athletic trainer can help injured athletes get back on the field/court quicker. Knowing the practice plans can help the strength coach structure their program as to not overload the athletes on what is supposed to be an easy day. This goes into the next in-season concept of consolidating your stress.

  1. Consolidate Stress

Charlie Francis always preached the High/Low training method. This means that your hard days need to be hard and your easy days need to be easy. This ensures that athletes actually recover properly in between hard effort days. A lot of times in-season, athletes stay in the moderate effort zone, which is not beneficial over the course of an entire season. Therefore, I recommend communicating with the coach to make sure that the practice plan and lifting plan are in harmony. For example, I like to have a hard practice and a strength based lift four days before the game. The day after is a lighter practice with an optional mobility session in order to make sure that the athletes recover from their hard day. Operating in a High/Low fashion ensures that athletes are exposed to the proper stress in good sequence to ensure sustained success throughout an entire season.

  1. Implement an Adaptable Program

The biggest concern of in-season program is the amount of stressors that the athlete experiences. A strength coach must be adaptable when it comes to programming in order to account for these stressors. I always like to use ranges in my programming. Whether they are rep, weight, or percentage, using ranges allows the strength coach to make sure that each athlete is working with an appropriate load for that day. For example, 75% in-season is very manageable except if an athlete did not sleep much and then had a tough practice both physically and mentally. Programming a percentage range of 70-75% allows the fatigued athletes to adjust while still achieving the desired training adaptation. I have also used rep ranges in the past. I assign a percentage for 3-5 reps and watch the set. If I see that technique or speed is dropping off at rep 3, I will stop them there. This ensures that we are getting all quality reps and not putting the athlete at risk of injury. Due to the amount of stressors in-season, having a rigid program will not benefit the athletes. As a coach, we must be adaptable to ensure we are putting the athlete in the best position to succeed.

In-season training is always tricky because of the physical and mental stress of competition, increased practice volume, school, and training. Therefore, a strength coach must be very creative with their in-season program. Following these 3 keys to in-season programming will help ensure the sustained success over the course of a long season.

4 Strategies to Prevent Burnout

professional-burn-out

Burnout has always been a problem in Strength & Conditioning, but it is just now becoming an actual topic of conversation. Strength & Conditioning is a profession of long hours, low/moderate pay, high stress, and heavy emotional involvement. It is also a profession filled of prideful people leading to the long hours being a badge of honor. I have heard several coaches who brag about being at work 12 hours a day for 6-7 days a week. We have also heard coaches who preach that people should not complain about the hours because this career is a privilege. However, what we do not hear very often is coaches discussing how they maintained a career as a strength coach all the way to retirement. Longevity is simply not part of this career.

The absence of longevity is usually accredited to the low salaries across the profession. While this is partly true, psychological burnout has caused many great coaches to leave the profession too soon. There was a great thread in the NSCA College Coaches Facebook group that discussed burnout and that is what got my wheels spinning. I believe that preventing burnout comes down to doing 4 things; taking care of your health, having a social network outside of strength & conditioning, finding a hobby, and taking time to unplug.

Practice What You Preach

As professionals that focus on the physical and mental development of athletes, we often forget about the physical and mental health of ourselves. There are a ton of strength coaches in collegiate athletics that are down right out of shape. Far too often, we forget about the conditioning aspect of strength & conditioning. That is because when work starts to take up our entire day and the stress builds up, we forget to eat healthy, we do not have time for a full workout, and we definitely do not make time to do cardio. You take these issues and add in the standard 6 cups of coffee strength coaches usually consume and the physical effects that stress has the body and you are in trouble. Another side effect of this profession is poor sleep habits. Due to early morning workouts or late night games/travel, strength coaches are usually sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation leads to poor recovery from workouts, bad hormone health, a weak immune system, and decrease cognitive function. Unfortunately, coffee cannot always fix this problem. Aside from a regimented sleep routine, I always recommend taking something like melatonin or ZMA that will help improve quality of sleep even if the duration of sleep cannot always be there.

In order to sustain a healthy career, we must maintain our physical health by having a healthy diet, staying on a good workout program consisting of strength training and some form of cardio, and maximizing our sleep quality. It comes down to the old phrase; we cannot take care of others unless we take care of ourselves first.

Broaden Your Social Network

Networking is the foundation of the strength and conditioning profession. It is how you get jobs and grow professionally as a coach and a programmer. However, in order to grow as a human, you should try to develop a network of professionals outside of strength & conditioning. This will provide you with fresh opinions, new topics of conversation, and a new realm of thoughts and ideas. For example, one of my best friends here at Maryland works in finance. He is a former athlete and a good workout partner, but our conversations rarely consist of all the ways to get bigger, faster, or stronger. We talk a lot about personal finance, which has helped me ensure that my modest salary goes as far as possible. We also talk a lot about stress management, successful mindsets, and staff management. These are all topics discussed amongst strength coaches, but getting the opinion of a financial analyst introduces me to new ideas that work in his profession.

My former boss always told me that his biggest asset was being friends with a lot of businessmen. I never quite understand this until I found myself in the same situation. Expanding your social network outside of strength and conditioning professional leads to refreshing ideas and wealth of knowledge.

Find a Hobby Outside of the Weight Room

I was on the phone with one of my former interns today and we were discussing this burnout solution. He asked me, “What if my hobby is lifting weights?” He is definitely not alone, but I believe that is important to find a hobby that is separate from work. This does not mean that it cannot be a physically active hobby. For example, I know a lot of strength coaches that do some form of martial art as their hobby. This is a perfect option because it is a hard physical workout, it is a great stress relief, and it is a hobby that allows you to meet a lot of people outside of the athletic department. I did Muay Thai when I was Graduate Assistant and I met some incredible athletes at that gym that had very different backgrounds than my collegiate student-athletes. Also, punching and kicking a heavy bag or other people as a hobby really gets rid of stress quickly.

I also know a lot of strength coaches that fish and hunt as their hobby. Again, this is a great physical activity that takes you outside of the weight room and allows you to escape the daily rigor of strength and conditioning. Another option, which I have recently gotten involved with, is woodworking. When I first moved to Maryland, I wanted to build something for my new apartment so I went to Home Depot and got the materials to make a standing desk. The desktop is made of pine boards, and the legs are black steel plumbing pipe. While the final result looks good, it was the process that made me fall in love with woodworking. Putting on some music, cutting, sanding, and staining wood made for some very relaxing nights that helped ease the stress of the job.

Again, I love the strength coaches who love to lift weights and master the craft. However, in order to prevent burnout and enhance mental health, I believe that having a hobby outside of the weight room is very important.

Unplug

There are numerous books out there that talk about the increase and influence of technology. I could go on and on about my thoughts on using too much technology. And yes, I do understand how ironic it is that this post in on a blog that will be shared on various social media platforms. However, it is important to unplug whenever you can. You do not always have to be listening to a podcast, looking at social media, reading blogs and articles, or watching YouTube videos. It is perfectly fine to just relax when you have time.

My fiancé and I went for a long hike today with our puppy, and our only communication was with each other and nature. We took a few pictures (see below), but did not use our cell phones for anything else. We did not check email, we did not text or call anyone, and we did not discuss work. We simply took time to be human beings and unplug from the daily grind. Unplugging is the most important thing to do for mental health, and there are also a lot of physical benefits, especially when discussing sleep quality.

Keep the Flame Burning Bright

There is a ton of research out there regarding burnout prevention strategies. The 4 above are ones that I have made an active effort to do, and they have helped a lot. Being a Strength & Conditioning Coach means long hours, low pay, and a lot of emotional energy. Due to a blue-collar culture, these job traits have always been treated as a badge of honor. However, as we make an active effort to improve the sustainability of this career, we must share this knowledge right along side of all the physiological information we currently share. This career has great potential if young coaches can keep their flame burning bright all the way into retirement.

hiking

Early Sport Specialization: The downfall of American youth sports

sport specialization

When I worked as a strength coach at a private training facility, I had a 12 year old kid that showed up for his workout and looked dejected. This was very rare for him so I asked him what was wrong, and he told me that his parents wanted him to pick a sport. This kid was a tennis player, swimmer, and basketball player and he enjoyed all of them. When he came in for workouts, he did not care about what he was doing, he just wanted to do something active. In short, he and his parents had very different mindsets. Therefore, I told him, “Do not pick one, and play them all. Also, if your parents disagree, I am more than happy to talk to them.” It was not a fun meeting with the parents at first, but I explained to them what I will discuss in this paper. Early specialization is not good for youth athletes, and will lead to more negative than positive outcomes.

Sports specialization is defined as intense training in one sport while excluding others (1). Many parents and coaches push their kids in this direction with the thought that their child has a better chance of becoming an expert. Ericsson et al identified 3 stages in becoming an expert musician; start at an early age, specialize and increase participation, and full-time commitment (1). Ericsson et all also specified that expertise is reached through “deliberate practice”. This is defined as “practice activities that were effortful, low in inherent enjoyment, and purposefully designed to address current area of weakness” (2). Ericsson et al also argued that deliberate practice must occur during childhood because it is a period of enhanced biological and cognitive development (2). While the research based evidence by Ericsson et al supported early specialization, one must remember that these studies looked at musicians and chess players. These activities do not involve the same physiological demand and development of athletics! A lot has changed since research started looking into early specialization specifically in sports.

In the U.S. between 1997 and 2008, the percentage of children 6 years and younger participating in an organized sport increased from 9% to 12%. Also, 77% of high school athletic directors across the country reported an increasing trend in sport specialization. Furthermore, the United States Tennis Association found that 70% of junior tennis players started specializing at an average age of 10.4 years old. This percentage increased to 95% by the age of 18. However, reports also show that athlete satisfaction ratings decreased substantially in players older than 14 years (1). Several studies support the negative psychological effect of early specialization. Swimmers and ice hockey players who specialized early retired earlier than those that specialized later in life (1). Junior tennis players who quit at an early age reported having less input in their training, higher perceived parental criticisms and expectations, and lower levels of extrinsic motivation. Finally, elite Russian swimmers who burned out blamed psychological fatigue and general health (1). The psychological challenges imposed by early specialization also effect the social development of a youth athlete.

Research suggests that intensive training at an early age limits the development of social skills. Studies have shown that youth athletes involved in specialized training demonstrate less helping and sharing behavior and great antisocial tendencies than other athletes. Furthermore, early specialized athletes have report social isolation, rivalry, lack of free time, and sacrificing or missing social opportunities as consequences of their sport career (2).

Physical Consequences

Early specialization interrupts the natural physiological growth of a youth athletes. By placing consistent, unvaried demands on an athlete during the most important development stage in their life, they miss out the development of natural athletic movements that could be learned through other activities (site this). Unvaried activity also increases the risk of over use injury.

Whether it be repeatedly serving in tennis or repeatedly throwing a baseball, these motions on under-developed should increase the risk of structural damage substantially. In fact, a study found that youth pitchers who pitch over 100 innings per year (about 11 full games) are 3.5 times more likely to be injured (1). Other studies found that pitching more than 8 total months per year also significantly increases risk of shoulder and elbow injuries (1). Finally, it was shown that peripubertal athletes are more likely to suffer structural injuries because their bodies are in vulnerable states of growth.

Due to psychological and physical factors, late specialization is much more beneficial for an athlete. It has been shown that the great number of sports participated in during the development years, the less sports-specific practice was necessary to acquire sport expertise later in life. Early diversification provides the young athlete with valuable physical, cognitive, and psychosocial environments and promotes intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

When I was growing up, my friends and I played all sorts of sports and even made some games up. We all ended up being good high school athletes and a lot went on to play collegiate sports. The research and statistics show that early specialization hinders the physiological and psychological development of a youth athlete. Parents, sport coaches, and strength coaches need to realize that general physical activity for youth athletes is better in the long run than intense, specialized training in one sport. It is a culture that is controlled by everyone except for the athlete. Therefore, it is up to us physical performance coaches to spread this knowledge to end the early specialization epidemic!

1). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3658407/

2). http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13598130902860507