High Performance Hiring

When it comes to hiring a new strength and conditioning coach, the key is to flesh out the responsibilities of the position first.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems, in Sarasota Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning, and can be reached through his Web site, at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 11.7, October 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1107/hiring.htm

Here's an interesting challenge: How do you hire the right person for a low-profile position with front-line responsibilities that impacts the conditioning of every athlete and the job of every coach or athletic trainer in your sports program? In other words, what are the nuances for hiring a strength and conditioning coach in today's sports world?

Whether you are an athletic trainer or head strength coach, the prospect of hiring a new strength and conditioning specialist for your program is an exciting proposition. But, to be done right, it also takes thought, time, and a spelled-out game plan. In this article, I'll break it down and provide pointers on how to make the most of hiring someone in this relatively new profession.

The first step in the hiring process is to define this person's job. It will vary greatly from school to school, so this must be a joint effort between you and your athletic director, and perhaps some others in your department. Here are the key questions that will help you define the job:

Will this person be expected to work with all sports or will this be a position that only works with selected sports? If it is the latter, then which sports?

Who will this person report to?

How much will the performance specialist be involved with rehab and reconditioning of injured athletes?

Will this person be allowed to hire graduate assistants and/or student volunteers?

Will the responsibilities change during the summer months?

Don't forget the bottom line--how much can you pay?

Use the answers to the above questions to help develop a job description. This description should very clearly define the person's responsibilities and your expectations of him or her.

It is also important to carefully think of a specific job title that sums up the person's responsibilities. While many administrators choose the title,"strength and conditioning coach," I like the term"sport performance professional".

Once you and your staff have defined the job and its responsibilities, it is time to solicit applicants. Publicizing the job opening can take many forms. I suggest you advertise both locally and nationally and also publicize the job through your own network of contacts. The key is to obtain as many qualified candidates as possible, because the more applicants you have to assess, the better your chances are of finding the perfect fit for your program.

One of the most difficult aspects of hiring a performance professional is assessing relevant experience. As applications come in, it's not uncommon to face a pile of resumes from athletic trainers, baseball coaches, golf coaches, personal trainers, and strength trainers. All of these applicants may have glowing resumes, but which elements of their experiences matter most for the performance specialist's job in your sports program?

The most desirable experience for a performance professional is experience in a coaching environment where the applicant has supervised the training and conditioning of many athletes--preferably athletes from many sports. In other words, experience as a strength coach is more valuable than experience as a weight room supervisor or a personal trainer. Why? Because a good coach understands the concepts of strength training, aerobics training, good nutrition, developing rapport with athletes, applicable drills, and attitude. Good coaches also understand that if these concepts are properly applied, they will induce optimal sports performance in your athletes. In addition, someone with coaching experience has been on the firing line in an actual coaching situation and has likely faced the same issues that will be encountered in the performance professional's job.

If the applicant is a personal trainer who has glowing letters of recommendation, you need to look beyond the positive spin and focus on relevance. Remember, personal training is not coaching. Coaching involves long-term planning and commitment. It involves motivation and communication with a variety of people, some of whom may not be particularly interested in being there. It also involves working closely with sport coaches.

Beyond having some type of coaching background, your top candidates should also have experience in several aspects of strength training. Here is a brief list of the specific types of knowledge needed:

The entire spectrum of strength-training methods
Plyometric training
Speed development
Sport-specific fitness development
Testing and evaluation
Drug education/awareness
Growth and development.

Aside from having technical expertise, there are a number of related professional skill areas that you'll want your candidate to possess, such as administrative, management, and organizational experience. The following are specific professional skills that need to be evaluated:
Facilities planning and organization
Equipment purchase
Organizational abilities and skills
Program planning, implementation,
and compliance
Leadership ability
Work ethic and work habits
Personal grooming and fitness
Athletic background
Computer skills.

While coaching experience is vital, an applicant's educational background and certifications also are important considerations. A candidate with an activity-based physical education or sports science degree would be best. Unfortunately, those programs are rare. In any case, a college degree should be the minimum educational requirement, hopefully in some related field, such as psychology or education.

Internships are also a common part of a performance professional's education. How do you weigh internships with educational attainment and relevant experience? You must ask what exactly the internship entailed. Was there program planning and actual supervision of athletes involved? An internship where someone worked side-by-side with a strength coach would be valuable while an internship where someone worked behind a desk at a health club would be useless for a future performance specialist.

Certification is another matter. Many feel that a CSCS certification should be required, but try to remember its limitations. The CSCS does not require a practical component, it only requires passing a written exam. This is an inherent weakness of that certification. Nonetheless, the CSCS is still probably the preferred certification.

But there are many other certifications. To my knowledge, there were over 250 certification programs in fields that could relate to sports performance. As the person in charge of hiring, it is very tough to assess the relative merits and advantages of these numerous certifications because the biggest element missing from almost all of them is a practical component. For that reason, I personally weigh the relevant experiences above certifications and degrees when I assess an applicant for a sports performance job.

The question then arises, how does one assess an applicant's practical experience? One way to do this is to ask for a detailed sample program from a team or individual that the applicant has worked with. Once you have obtained a sample of the applicant's program, check to see if that program includes the following:

An injury prevention component
A speed development component
A strength and power development
A sport-specific conditioning compo
A flexibility component
Provisions for recovery after exercis
Realistic time, personnel, facilities
and equipment stated in the sample
Adaptibility to other institutions
A program that is real and not
just a theoretical model program.

When I review applicants'programs, I also ask for video of a workout from the program as it was implemented. If the video looks realistic and it has satisfied all the above requirements, then it passes the"reality test."

Once you have separated the applicants with relevant, realistic experience from those whose experiences do not adequately apply to the sports performance professional position, it is time to meet these candidates. A face-to-face interview is a must for many reasons. It allows you to ask questions about the applicant's resume and sample programs. It allows the candidate to elaborate on his or her experiences. And it allows you to assess if this person has the right type of working style to relate to your athletes and coaches.

If possible, the interview should be an elaborate process. After a full interview between the two of you, the candidate should meet with the athletic director and at least one coach. You should also give the candidate a tour of your facilities.

I would also consider asking the candidate to perform (for want of a better name) an audition. This scenario would involve the potential candidate actually conducting a workout in a typical coaching setting with actual athletes.

Immediately after the interview is over, write down your assessment of the candidate. Then meet with the others who interviewed the candidate to get their thoughts. It's best to do this right away instead of after all candidates are interviewed, so that the specific pros and cons of each are not forgotten or mixed up.

The last piece of the process is checking the applicants'recommendations and references. Letters of recommendation are nice, but not as important as references. I suggest you ask candidates to list at least three people you can call directly to ask more about the individual. Then, thoroughly interview these references about the candidates. Ask very specific questions about the candidates, which usually gets these people to say more than,"she was a good employee for us." For example, ask about the candidate's strengths and weaknesses, how well he or she handles stress, or how much initiative does the candidate show.

It is rare for a reference to say anything bad about the candidate, so it's important to notice the nuances of your conversation. I have found that when a reference elaborates on a candidate and goes into detail about his or her strengths, I have a great candidate on my hands. When a reference answers my questions with short replies, the candidate may have some negative qualities.

A sport performance professional can have a very profound impact on the success of any athletic department. However, because of the relatively undefined nature of the field, hiring this person is not as simple as hiring an ATC whose profession is well established and whose roles are more clearly defined. But by following these basic guidelines, the process should go smoother.