University of Minnesota

Tips, Advice & Warnings for Coaches Looking to Work in the US

If you’re a Strength & Conditioning Coach it is almost impossible not to have a dream about working at a top US college: the packed stadiums, unbelievable training facilities and a seemingly unending conveyor belt of incredible athletes. 

So we asked the the Associate Director of Football Strength & Conditioning at University of Minnesota, Chad Pearson, how one might get into the ‘system’. Here are his thoughts. 

I received an email from the great people at propelperform asking me if I would be interested in writing a piece for their website. 

Immediately, I felt quite honored.  Half way through reading the initial notification I was thinking of which direction I would go.

I feel confident speaking about long- and short-term planning, speed development and programming, teaching weight lifting techniques, and even some coaching psychology.  However, the request was for information into how an International strength and conditioning coach could work in the US college setting.

“Cool”, I thought, this could be really interesting and informative… But then I looked outside my window in Minneapolis, Minnesota and saw about a foot of snow still on the ground and it’s late-March!  Perhaps I should look into job openings down in Australia!

But I digress.  Here are some of my recommendations, thoughts, and struggles of an International coach (and any young coach for that matter) finding a job in this career.

1. Know Your Why

What is your “Why”?  Why do you want to be a strength coach?  Last year I read Start With Why, an amazing read authored by Simon Sinek.

I will not spend much time regurgitating the vast amount of knowledge I was able to take from that book, but it is a must read. In Sinek’s book, he was able to differentiate the “Why’s”, the “What’s”, and the “How’s”.

To tell me that you want to be a Strength Coach so you can create programs and train some of the best athletes in the world is strictly telling me WHAT you do. Don’t tell me “What” you do or “How” you’ll do it, tell me WHY?

It is not easy to come up with your Why.  My first few attempts, however hard I tried, still came out as What’s and How’s. Look deep into yourself and find your Why.

2. Know What You’re Getting Into

This is a tight-knit community that we Strength and Conditioning Professionals live in.

There are 1,000 NCAA member institutions; a large majority of them have a strength and conditioning program.

However, 236 of these schools are Division III and they will be lucky to have more than one strength coach (if that).

Division II has 149 schools; most of these will have strength coaches, some even with a staff of 3 or more.  Division I (FCS) has 125 schools; these universities will most likely have around 3 strength coaches for football with the possibility of an additional staff that works with the Olympic sports in addition to football.

And finally, Division I (FBS) with 120 schools.  A large majority of these schools with have a football staff of five coaches and numerous other staff members for Olympic sports.

Suffice it to say, there are hundreds of strength and conditioning positions.  However, (and not to scare anyone) there are thousands of individuals in the US still trying to get a chance on any open positions.

The next issue you must be aware of is financial.  If you want to be a Strength and Conditioning Professional for the fame and fortune, then I am very sorry to inform you that this is not the right place.

The average pay for an assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the Division I level is generally in the $28,000-$40,000 per year. And that’s with the understanding that you already have a Master’s Degree in an exercise/physiology related field.

Of course there are many exceptions that are higher and even some that are lower.  The FBS football programs tend to pay a bit higher than other programs but also come at the expense of job security.

If the football team doesn’t win and win often, there is a chance the head football coach would be dismissed.  If the head football coach is dismissed, so is, most likely, the Strength Coach.

If this has not yet scared you away and you wish to continue with the remainder of this article, great, because I do come bearing some pleasant news.

With the exception of Division I (FBS) programs (read: football strength and conditioning programs), there are numerous opportunities in the Intern or Graduate School capacity of strength and conditioning.  I will briefly explain the exception of the FBS Football Programs later in this article.

3. Make Yourself Visible

An International coach trying to get into the US college setting is a difficult task, however there are a few things that can aid in your situation.

One must make themselves visible to coaches.  Here is a step-by-step approach to just one way to make yourself visible:

  • Get on the Internet
  • Find the school/athletics website
  • Go to staff directory
  • Find the strength coach
  • Email him/her

It’s truly that simple.  Introduce yourself and give a short description of your background or experience.  Mention why you decided to reach out to this particular coach. Have some specific questions. Thank them ahead of time and that you are looking forward to their feedback.

You can also interact with many coaches in social media, be it Skype, LinkedIn, Facebook, Strength Performance Network, or my personal favorite, Twitter (certainly feel free @chadpearson42).

I follow many coaches that are putting out incredible information daily and will often interact with anyone whom I may have a question or comment for.  My ego will never be big enough to think that I am unable to learn from just about anyone.

An even better way to make yourself visible is through an internship.

I was fortunate early enough in my life that I knew I wanted to be a strength coach and luckily had a connection to get an interview with Chris Doyle at the University of Iowa for a summer internship.

Iowa Football

At age 20 I truly had no clue about how much I didn’t know.  I understood the lifts, the sprints, the drills but truly had no concept of planning and long-term training.  But I took a LOT of notes, read a lot of books, and learned quite a few new names of people to educate myself on.

This visibility I created with the staff at Iowa opened the doors for me and for another coach to take a chance on a kid with no other previous experience other than a summer internship (note: I was at one of those Division III schools without a strength and conditioning coach).

Eric Klein, the head strength coach at Southern Illinois University was that coach. Klein is now the head football strength coach at the University of Minnesota and has continued to keep me in his employ since 2006.

Internships are not a glorious thing.  Long hours, early mornings, equipment set-up and tear down, stocking coolers, cleaning everything and I mean EVERYTHING.

Until you’ve hand scrubbed nearly 300 bumper plates, scrubbed chalk from squat racks, and wire-brushed barbells for an entire afternoon, then you haven’t quite reached C.C.C (Certified Cleaning Coach) status yet.

The pay is nil, save for a few oversized T-shirts, some shorts, and maybe a pair of shoes.

But as I alluded to prior, you didn’t get into this profession for the glory or the money.

An internship is experience and this experience, more than any other quality is what a coach is most interested in when hiring a new coach.

Perhaps you hold an internship for a summer, a year, or even multiple years just be aware that there are many young coaches who would give about anything to have that position.

Be patient with the process, the world doesn’t owe you anything.

I don’t care how many books and authors you can memorise or how many years you were a personal trainer, know your role and work your butt off.

The next step and possibly even a simultaneous step is that of Graduate School.

Graduate Assistant coaching positions are hard to come by these days due to the NCAA’s limit of coaching staff size (still more to come on this topic). If you are fortunate enough to obtain a Graduate Assistant position, great for you! However, this information is for those who didn’t.

Being a graduate student can be a great time to do an internship.  The class load is usually lighter and as an intern you might be able to create a more flexible coaching schedule in order to make particular training sessions.

As long as you keep an open line of communication and are present when expected, this type of internship can be great.  You are getting an advanced degree and working with athletes in some sort of capacity.

The unfortunate difference between this and a graduate assistantship is that you will need to pay for school out of your own pocket.

A daunting task for anyone but a step that could truly advance your career.

I’m sure there are many opportunities for an International student academically and financially here in the States.

4. Bring Something To The Table

Strength coaches will often want to hire someone that can add something of value to the program.  Perhaps you have experience with a certain well-respected coach and can utilize that knowledge to better the program.

Maybe you have experience with a particular form of technology. Do you have experience with readiness indicators by the likes of OmegaWave? Do you have experience with GPS performance and data management or analytics?

There is a budding community of programs utilizing this form of technology and being that Australia and the UK seem to be about a decade ahead of us over here, there is a need for experienced individuals in this capacity.

Are you willing to say that you can specialize in a particular aspect of training and programming, be it Speed Development, Energy System Development, Olympic Lifting, Power Lifting, FMS, or even Excel wizardry?

Find your niche and exploit it.

Make it “your thing” and do everything you can to learn everything about that topic.  Who are the firm advocates and who are the firm critics in that topic?  Find out why each feels that way and learn from both because they both might just be right.

Understand the sports being played and coached.  Understand the physiological demands of the sport(s).  Understand the strength coach’s philosophy, does it match your own? Will a different philosophy than yours make you a better and more well rounded coach?  What does the head sport coach expect and demand of their teams? What does the head sport coach expect and demand of the strength and conditioning staff? Finally, what can you do to aid in the development of your team(s)?

Final Thoughts

So, as a final message to all aspiring International coaches and students interested in obtaining a job in the US collegiate system remember these key factors:

Know your “Why”, this goes well beyond the scope of strength and conditioning.  Knowing why you are in this profession will definitely help any possible questions a future employer may come up with. It will also be a primary reminder as to why you wanted to become a strength and conditioning coach in the first place.

Get connected and make yourself visible to the coaching world.  As I have mentioned, this is still a fairly tight-knit community we work in here and you may find yourself engaged in conversation with Coach A who mentions something he learned from Coach B and now you have another branch in your learning tree.

Reach out to these connections, put aside your ego and you will soon realize that the more you learn, the quicker you understand how much you still do not know.

Do not be afraid to take a pay cut for an internship somewhere that can make you a better coach.  International students are at a disadvantage initially, but you may have certain advantages when applying for Undergraduate or Graduate studies.

Make an attempt to make yourself known and your chance of a good coach wanting to hire you is improved significantly.

Lastly, find your niche.  Bringing something to the table is about the best way to gain an advantage over another in a similar position as you.  Stay well read and well rounded as a coach, but find something in particular that with enough study and effort it will become yours.

I have a close personal friend who often states that if you really want something, anything at all, then you need to be unreasonable in attaining it.

If you really stop and think about it, that is exactly what happened before everyone at the top of his or her respective field was doing. Strive to be the best but understand that you never will be. Be unreasonable in your attempts to become the best.

Good luck to all of you and someday I will see you on the sidelines.

Chad Pearson is the Associate Director of Football Strength and Conditioning at the University of Minnesota.  Email him at cpearson@umn.edu or follow him on Twitter: @chadpearson42.

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