It is a simple but factual statement; interns are the future of the coaching industry and current full-time coaches need to act like it. The Collegiate Strength & Conditioning profession revolves around a built-in hierarchy; unpaid intern, GA/Part-time, Full-time, and then various title differences such as Assistant, Associate, Head, and Director of Strength & Conditioning. Every coach climbs this ladder, and it’s beneficial because you are always learning from those above you. This ladder is also what helps several young coaches get jobs if they network properly. However, this hierarchical structure comes with consequences. It is not uncommon for full-time coaches to look down to interns and only think of them as free help.
I had an amazing internship at University of Michigan. Thanks to that coaching staff, I was taught programming principles, movement technique, and given a lot of responsibilities that helped me develop as a coach. This type of mentorship continued as a Graduate Assistant at Northwestern University. However, the more interns I met as I was progressing through the career ladder, the more negative stories I heard about their experiences.
One of my interns at Maryland told me that during his previous internship, he was only allowed to set up, clean up, and record numbers. He was never allowed to actually coach, there was no education curriculum, and he was even told not to ask questions. Another intern that I met told me that a previous staff actually called him “the help”. The ironic thing is that older coaches usually do not learn this behavior on their own. More often than not, they were treated the same way as an intern.
Robert Sutton published a fantastic book titled The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. The title is blunt and the content is unbeatable. In summary, Sutton believes that one asshole employee, no matter their ability in the workplace, can ruin the potential of an entire department. He has two tests for identifying an asshole in the workplace; “Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target” feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him-or herself? Test Two: Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at people who are more powerful?” Treating interns poorly and flexing full-time authority definitely passes Sutton’s two tests. Also, this type of negative treatment of interns spreads to create a negative work atmosphere for all employees, even the assholes.
The problem has been identified, and now we must look for solutions. The general solution is that we stop playing the seniority card and start playing the mentor card. Mentoring is not about authority, but it is about education. Mentoring is about providing the generation below us with the skills and knowledge to grow and contribute to the profession. Three ways to do this are through an educational curriculum, hands on supervised coaching, and constructive performance reviews.
Every intern program should be based off a thorough, educational curriculum. The curriculum should include teaching strength and conditioning methods, movement technique, programming principles, exercise variation, on-floor coaching style, testing protocols, and coach-athlete communication. The curriculum should start with the most fundamental strength & conditioning principles and progress to more complex topics like advanced programming and coach-athlete communication. The curriculum should also include networking assignments. For example, here at Maryland, the interns’ first assignment is to meet with one sport administrator, one head coach, and one athletic trainer to discuss and write about the relationship between their respective role and the S&C coach. Also, we make the interns visit 3 other S&C staffs in the DMV area. The goal here is to introduce them to other staffs, see how other departments operate, and see different collegiate settings. Assignments like these force the interns to network and help them build relationships they may have never thought they had access to. Another integral part of the curriculum is presentations. Whether it is a program presentation or topic presentation, forcing the interns to stand in front of the entire S&C staff and present helps build communication skills and confidence speaking to a group. All intern curriculums should finish with resume workshops and mock interviews. As full-time staff, we need to make sure that our interns are prepared to take the next step up the ladder and be successful.
Hands On Coaching
A lot of times, strength coaches are hesitant to give up the reigns of their program to an intern. However, it is up to us to make sure the interns know enough to take the reigns and succeed. An intern will never develop as a coach if we do not let them actually coach. The first couple weeks, the full-time staff should educate the interns on the premise of the program, technique cues, workout flow, and team dynamics. Then the interns should be allowed to take a small group of athletes. If there are a couple of injured/modified athletes, the intern can start with those. If I ever have a large group of freshmen, I let the interns take the main group because they are usually more self-reliable. Either way, the interns must be responsible to coach a small group of athletes. Towards the end of the internship, the intern should have to conduct an entire team workout. This includes pre-workout communication, all on floor coaching, and post-workout communication. I like to completely stand off to the side and observe, which gives the intern a sense of ownership. After all coaching sessions, the full-time coach should review the interns’ performance and give them constructive points of improvement.
Honest & Constructive Performance Reviews
This is a must-have in any internship program. The mid-term review is crucial for the development of any intern because they still have time to work on things. The review should be a collection of thoughts of all full-time coaches. Some coaching characteristics should then be compiled into a rating system (we use a 1-5 scale 1 being poor and 5 being excellent). These includes things like enthusiasm, work ethic, asking questions, building relationships with athletes, adaptability, dependability, and ability to handle stressful environments. Then there should be open answer questions that analyze the interns’ ability to communicate, use proper resources, knowledge of strength & conditioning, and professionalism. The intern coordinator should present these reviews to the interns, and they should give each intern 2-3 things to focus on improving immediately.
The final evaluation is very important for the intern moving forward in their career. It should review the same characteristics as the mid-term review in order to assess improvement. However, it should especially focus on the 2-3 characteristics that were emphasized during the mid-term review. Most importantly, the final review should include a constructive conversation about what the interns need to do in order to advance in the profession. The intern should leave the final review knowing that both parties did what they had to do in order to maximize the experience, or what they could have done differently to make it a better experience.
It is known that a problem in the Collegiate Strength & Conditioning profession is the treatment of unpaid interns. A lot of times, they are treated as free help and they spend an entire semester setting up, cleaning up, and obeying. Unfortunately, full-time coaches use their power to boss interns around and demean them for no good reason other than to flex their authority. Like Robert Sutton says in his well-known book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, one asshole can ruin the dynamics of an entire department. Instead of full-time coaches using their power to control interns, they need to start using their knowledge to mentor interns. Our internship revolves around 3 things, an educational curriculum, hands on coaching, and honest, constructive performance reviews. All great leaders came about because of great mentors. In order to improve and secure the future of our profession, we must throw away the power struggle and accept our role as mentors for future coaches.