Grow where you are planted
Grow where you are planted: make the big time where you are. You’re in your dream job, you just don’t know it yet, or, maybe, you don’t want it bad enough. Your problem is that you think the grass is greener on the other side. Everyone has heard that “the grass is greener on the other side”, or some variation of the saying. It sums up the mindset of coaches in a day of social media, advertising, and ego, where we are defined by the school you work for, the equipment we have access to, the size of the staff, and who we train. Yes, we all must start somewhere in the coaching profession, and often it isn’t at the perceived top. When you consider the landscape we ‘see’ how great everyone else has it, and causes you to feel insecure about your job because it isn’t good enough. It leads us down a never-ending rabbit hole of trying to upscale jobs, short term contracts, moving your family around, job insecurity, and potential burn out, or leaving this great profession.
Instead, I think of two sayings, one that our Head Football coach (Jeff Cummins) has said to me in my years at Acadia; “grow where you are planted”, and the other by legendary strength coach Ron McKeefery “make the big time where you are”. With time energy, and focus on developing your own yard, you’ll reflect five to ten years from now, and realize that you’re in the job of your dreams, one that everyone is chasing. More importantly, you will have created an impact on thousands of people, created a legacy and grown the profession. I’ve fortunately had this experience personally, and feel that I’ve taken a job and made it into a job that would be sought after I leave (if I ever do). It’s not easy, but if you’re looking to have a big time job, there’s no better way than making it yourself. You’ll need to show the athletes, staff & coaches you care, learn how to build a big-time staff on a dime, and be entrepreneurial to realise long term success.
Show everyone involved you care, and focus on doing the best work possible at your current position. Don’t work with the goal of leaving for something bigger, it’s completely transparent. Coaches often fall into this second bucket, where they take a job to use it to springboard to the next job. They never truly connect with athletes, coaches and admin, because their foot is always half out the door. You need to be fully vested in the job, and more importantly, the athletes you’re currently working with. To do this, it shouldn’t be overly complicated. First, dedicate time and energy to your athletes. Show up early, stay late, setup the weight room every time, and reset it all the time. Your space may not be the best yet, but it will eventually once coaches and admins know that you’re the real deal. They’ll want to invest in you to help you grow.
Make sure you take the time to connect with coaches and athletes outside of the weight room. Just because it’s an entry level job, doesn’t mean it requires little effort. Go to practices, watch games, go with coaches to lunch or dinner. A good book titled “Never Eat Alone” reinforces the importance of using social time to build connections and relationships. Yes, you will need to put in an obscene number of hours, but if you build a staff of your dreams, you’ll be able to push leadership downhill and become more manager.
Build your dream staff.
When I first arrived at Acadia, I was the only person on staff to handle ten varsity teams, consisting of three hundred varsity athletes. It’s easy to be frustrated that you are under staffed, overworked, and can’t provide the level of service you think other people at big institutions are getting. Instead of leaving to a bigger staff, create the staff of your dreams where you are. Doing so will only solidify trust with your athletes and coaches that you’re fully invested in their development and performance. With the value that you bring in terms of coach:athlete ratio, and being able to do more, you’ll create opportunity for increased financial support. The key is finding people who are passionate about what your goals, and mentoring them to have the skills to expand the service you are providing your athletes. Early on, I reached out to our department of Kinesiology and connected with professors that taught courses covering theories of exercise prescription. Approach these professors, whether they are at your school, or an institution nearby. Most university students lack practical experience, so provide them with an experience, not just showing them what training looks like, and how to clean up. If you take an approach of servant leadership, you should be presenting a service to the professor where their students can augment their skills and more polished graduates who look great on their degree program.
What you should be looking for in potential staff/interns:
1. Reliability: having additional stuff should increase the level of service you offer, not cause headaches for you as a coach when they’re absent. Be careful taking the eager beavers. If they’re already volunteering for several other groups, then tread carefully. Once midterm time hits, they’ll be quick to leave you in a bind to keep up with other priorities.
2. Great people: no one wants to listen a jerk, or someone who is only there for themselves. If you wouldn’t want to hang out with this person, then neither will your athletes. Having a great person, with a diverse personality will allow them to adapt and relate to each individual athlete. Take the time to get to know potential interns, since first impressions may fail you. One of my first interns looked like an intimidating presence, however he had the personality and smile to connect with anyone from 25-year-old meatheads to 12 year old females, and create amazing experiences throughout.
3. Some training experience: they don’t need a lot, but they have to have been in the gym before, otherwise you’ll be teaching them the basic technical skills, as well as coaching skills. Some coaches rank this trait too high, and only look for people who are great in the gym, or track. Having someone with little experience is almost better, because they will learn everything your way, which will ensure that all training sessions are coached with one consistent session. Think of it in terms of having one way of preparing a dish in a restaurant, you want to make sure that each one tastes as good as the one before it. In the end, new habits are easier to create then breaking old habits.
Once you have them, don’t think that you’ll immediately be able to let them run free. You will need to allocate extra time to mentoring and leading them. Again, you want a consistent product, so you should be teaching them your way, your system of doing things. Just like showing your athletes you care, if you can build up your staff of interns and volunteers, provide them with opportunities after school, or on weekends, then they will be more invested in the athletes as well. As they gain skills, then encourage them to take the lead, make some controlled mistakes and grow, and reflect as coach. Having weekly meetings can work, but I’ve found that any more than 4-5 becomes a lecture, not a chance to discuss. Just like investing in the people at your institution, you’ll have to spend time developing this as well. After a few years, you’ll have leaders that are mentoring other students. The only issue is that you’ll have grown your department so big, it will be difficult to keep your staff, or invest in more equipment. To do that, being an entrepreneur is crucial, and will be the difference maker in a dream position or a position of lost work-life balance.
Create your own revenue.
It is easy to complain about a lack of resources, while it’s hard to go out and make your own. If you are in a position where you lack the funding, you should be approaching administration about creating a secondary revenue stream to support strength and conditioning. My success has been largely due to the ability to work with external athletes after hours and during the summers, and in turn take that money and reinvest it with my main client – Acadia athletics. You may get push back from your admin that running extra training may present risks, so I would suggest coming up with a plan to deal with it. If you frame it in terms of a structure that funds strength and conditioning at your institution, your admin should be on board. In the end you’re creating new revenue, and saving resources for other projects.
There are two keys to grow this and make it an underpinning force in long term sustainability of a private enterprise. First is being a great person, and the second is doing great work. You don’t need any brilliant marketing scheme, since in this profession, I’ve found that word of mouth is the most powerful influencer. My first summer I had 3 athletes, and 6 year later, we work with over 100 athletes during the summer. Outside of word of mouth, I tried to connect with local clubs to do testing, and team training. You can usually drive a better price per athlete in this situation, although be careful about pricing yourself too low, too soon. Once your price is set, you’ll have trouble raising it in the future. This model takes work, but I guarantee you, combined with the other two sections will be worth it, and create an environment like a ‘big institution’. I have the chance every day to work with a large staff, do more than I ever thought possible with my varsity athletes, and am making a difference with local athletes.