There are many reasons you should listen to what Justin Keogh says but our favourite is: he combines his academic qualifications with the ability to compete in Strongman events at the age of 40! In other words, he can talk the talk AND walk the walk. This is Part 1.
When I was younger and completing my undergraduate degree, like many of my peers I had aspirations to work with high performance athletes as a full-time strength and conditioning coach. While this did not work out completely the way I had envisaged, I feel that my journey may help many other aspiring strength and conditioning coaches in their search for a career in this most competitive and challenging but rewarding industry. Below are some of my main tips for you to gain meaningful employment in this industry:
1. Obtain relevant university degrees and accreditations
This is an obvious one, so make sure you select a university with a strong emphasis in its content and within its staff in the sports science and strength and conditioning area.
If the research staff there have links with national sporting teams, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), state academies etc even better, as the possible placement, employment and research opportunities you may receive will be invaluable.
You also need to ensure that such courses are either Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA) accredited or have applied for ESSA accreditation, as it now appears that ESSA accreditation will be required for Australian sport scientists in the future.
You should also look at doing specific strength and conditioning courses, with the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association (ASCA) being the obvious group in Australia. The ASCA offer Level 1 courses several times each year in capital and other major cities as well as generally at least one Level 2 course each year.
These courses supplement the university content and will expose you to some of the key strength and conditioning practitioners and researchers in your areas.
Make the most of these networking opportunities and don’t be afraid to ask questions in these courses as well as at university, as one of the biggest challenges for academics and practitioners is trying to remember each student from the hundreds and thousands they may teach over the course of several years. So make sure you stand out for the right reasons.
2. Attend conferences, seminars and other courses
Make it a commitment to learn new things each day, week, month and year.
Conferences, seminars and other courses are a great way to do this.
One conference you should attend each year is the ASCA International Conference on Applied Strength and Conditioning, but there are many other conferences that offer great learning opportunities, with student prices often quite reasonable.
Beyond regular strength and conditioning conferences, seminars and courses on a variety of training approaches, injury prevention, coaching, recovery, nutrition, long-term athlete development, disability sport, Masters games, social media, business development etc may all be useful in helping you become a more successful strength and conditioning coach.
Make sure you go into all of these learning opportunities with an open but critical mind.
3. Your own exercise experience
If you wish to be a strength and conditioning coach, it is imperative that you have a good background in as many strength and conditioning systems and training styles as you can.
This is not just a theoretical knowledge of these lifts but experience in performing these lifts, and an attitude to continually perform them with better technique and to lift greater loads or produce greater power outputs. In terms of resistance training, the absolute basics are the general bodybuilding exercises and the three powerlifts (squat, bench press and deadlift).
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You also need to have a good background in the Olympic lifts, plyometrics and ballistic lifting (squat jumps, bench press throws). Some knowledge around alternative loading strategies such as strongman implements, sleds, kettlebells, sandbags, bands and chains etc as well as a variety of instability and core stability approaches would also be advantageous.
For conditioning, beyond long, slow distance work, you should be have performed a wide variety of interval training approaches, small-sides games, hypoxic training options etc.
This experience is vital as before you instruct members of the general public or athletes in any of these forms of training, you should be proficient and safe in performing them yourself.
A large part of the respect that you need to have from your athletes and other coaching staff boils down to you being proficient in these strength and conditioning activities.
Most successful strength and conditioning coaches do this by continuing to train hard so to stay strong and fit.
An example of this is Dr Dan Baker who a few years ago deadlifted 220 kg for 5 reps at the age of 46 years.
4. Work part-time in the area during your undergraduate studies
Many students require money to live on during their studies these days. I see little point delivering pizzas or working behind a desk at a service station when you can gain some valuable experience in a gym or with a sporting team for similar pay.
While the gym industry has changed a lot since I was an undergraduate in the early-mid 90s, being a part-time gym instructor or personal trainer during your undergraduate degree is a great learning experience that greatly assists you translate theory to practice and develops your adaptability.
In a recent meeting with Julian Jones, the Head of Strength and Conditioning at the AIS, he described the importance of adaptability as he believed that this is required at all strength and conditioning sessions but is something very difficult to embed in university courses, meaning the only way to develop this is through practical experience in working with a range of people.
5. Practical placement opportunities (high performance vs local teams)
While we all wish to work with high profile teams and athletes, I would argue that this is not always the best learning experience, especially in undergraduate situations.
Often in high performance teams, your role will be limited to assisting in a small area, such as weight room work with the academy squad, with all of the programmes written and the athletes not always keen to listen to the advice of a young kid whose maximum deadlift or squat is less than what they bench press for reps.
Therefore, more of these placement opportunities often involve observation rather than real hands-on experience and decision making. Further, some students get a little star-struck with the elite athletes they see and do not always make the most of even these observational opportunities.
On the flip side, getting a strength and conditioning position with a local level sports team can be a great learning experience.
In these situations, you will often be the only sport science type person on the coaching team, meaning that you are also considered the expert on nutrition, sports psychology and other sports science areas, and will have direct roles with the sports medicine professionals who diagnose and rehabilitate your players’ injuries.
This means you quickly have to develop a range of inter-personal skills in not only getting the most out of the players, but also to develop effective working relationships with the coaching, sports medicine and administration staff, not all who will initially share similar views to you.
Your ability to gain and maintain employment in this industry is highly contingent on these inter-personal skills, so these more involved, lower level work opportunities generally allow you the best chance to develop this.
Justin Keogh is an Associate Professor of Exercise and Sports Science at Bond University and has adjunct appointments with Auckland University of Technology and the University of the Sunshine Coast. At the ripe old age of 40, he still competes in strongman competitions. Follow him on Twitter @DrStrength4Life.