Developing as a Young Coach at Smaller Schools

By Matt Van Dyke and Ron McKeefery

Currently, the Strength and Conditioning profession is saturated for existing positions. As a profession, coaches are continuing to excel at promoting the importance of a performance coaching staff in the development of winning teams. These efforts are extremely important, however, they are not as successful as creating new positions within this career field. Our predecessors did a great job of creating this profession from nothing, in fact most people viewed training as a clear hindrance to performance. Those coaches that paved the way for the profession today showed a resolve that we should be continuing to build on today, in the aspects of further improving our craft and creating more opportunities within the profession.  

In our opinion, the untapped markets of this profession are in athletic administration and high school strength and conditioning. However, this article focuses on positions that are out of the limelight. Even with all of the advancements that have been made in the previous years, we are still a young profession. For this reason, the majority of positions are being newly created, and are not fully funded or supported. These underfunded positions provide a great breeding ground for a young coach’s development. It is in these settings coaches gain the advantage of learning in a less stressful environment, where mistakes are much more manageable then those potentially made at the higher level positions. As any veteran coach will explain, many mistakes will be made during these development years. It is in the ability to learn from those mistakes that allows continuous development and improvement.  Additionally, these “out of the limelight” jobs provide a great opportunity to learn the three components that we feel are vital to becoming a successful performance coach. These include a technician, manager, and entrepreneur. A coach must learn and understand each of the exercise movements, and then have the ability to apply that knowledge to teach them to others. Performance coaches must also know how to manage people, time, and resources. Especially when dealing with larger or multiple teams programming and scheduling. Additionally, a coach must learn to “sell themselves”, their programs, and provide a training environment on a limited budget that accomplishes all of these things. As a young, developing, coach, if you are handed the blueprint and resources you are never truly required to learn and grow.  In an age where there are not a lot of jobs, young coaches will need to blaze into new categories and create jobs that will often not be the best in terms of resources. Gaining experience in settings like these, as both an intern and graduate assistant, will best prepare a coach to have long-term success in this field.  

As stated above, young coaches must understand the importance of internships and graduate assistantships in their development. In our opinion these two events play the largest role in development as a young coach. Before this piece begins it should be noted this is not putting down any internship or GA position accepted by a coach in order to improve their development. This is simply my opinion based on the route that I took as a young coach. There is no right or wrong path to development, it ultimately requires hard work and dedication. This post will break down the pros of interning at a large, well known, school followed by acceptance of a graduate assistant position at a smaller school, and how these two events can be used in the development of a coaches programming, understanding of physiology, and athletes responses to training. Once again there is no wrong path that leads to the ultimate development of a young coach. It simply requires the right approach or attitude, as well as the effort in order to reach your desired goal. If you do not have the mindset or goal to be the best strength coach there ever was or will be then you will never reach your true potential as a coach.

The majority of young strength coaches will need to complete an internship prior to accepting a graduate assistantship. This is a vital time for young coaches and must be taken on with the mentality that the intern or young coach will take away as much knowledge from the older coaches he or she is working under as possible. This internship can be completed while a coach is still in an undergrad program, which gives a head start to basic knowledge and understanding of how to properly run a training program. Regardless of age and completion of school, internship programs are commonly unpaid. However, there are a few that allot stipends of some kind. These unpaid internships have pros as well as cons. The con being the fact that it is unpaid and the intern will commonly need to work another job in order to make ends meet. The pros of this unpaid internship are commonly overlooked. A major pro is the fact that schools do not need to pay their interns so they are typically willing to take more on at one time. This increases the odds of an intern being accepted and also allows more movement between programs, or even schools on a yearly, or even semester by interns, which means more head strength coach’s opinion’s and methods can be observed. This means those bigger schools with well-respected strength coaches will be much more open and accepting two young interns and their free assistance. In my opinion this pro far outweighs the con of being unpaid. This means that young strength coaches have the ability to set their sights on some of the top programs in the nation that would never consider their services if they required payment.

Interns must take advantage of this opportunity presented to them. I was blessed with the opportunity to play under, in my opinion, one of the top strength coaches in the nation for four years and then continue as an intern for another semester. I understand not everyone is given this excellent opportunity, and if this is not a possibility in your current situation you should be doing everything within your power to find an internship with a top program as soon as you finish your undergradatuate program.

My experiences at Iowa State, under Yancy McKnight and other Iowa State coaches, played a huge role in my development as a young strength and conditioning coach. The second pro of these internships, as explained above, is the fact that an intern is not required to stay at one specific school for more than a semester, allows a young coach to complete multiple internships under different coaches in an attempt to see as many programs as possible. These opportunities will lead to a better-rounded and complete programming perspective by the young coach. I used this approach when I accepted an internship under Cal Dietz at the University of Minnesota. Who is, in my opinion, one of the top, if not the top, strength coaches in the nation. I had no ties with the program or Cal prior to my internship. It simply came down to me making myself available to him for the position and then showing I was dedicated to improving myself as a coach. This included attending a conference that he held meeting with him personally and viewing is program along with staying in close contact after meeting him. These are all basic steps any young coach will complete if they are truly passionate about improving their abilities as a coach. No matter where you end up completing your internship it is vital that you function as a sponge, and take in as much information as possible from the experienced coaches around you. Always assume that everyone has something they can teach you and keep an open mind. 

After the internship process has been completed and you have moved on to accepting graduate assistantship positions, it is important to make the right decision for your personal development. Many young coaches have a desire to complete their graduate assistantships at large schools, however in my personal experience accepting a position at a smaller school has drastically increased the learning process and development for me as an individual coach. The smaller schools require greater creativity, improve overall programming, require different responsibilities, and typically have an increased number of teams that a coach works with. For these reasons I feel a smaller school has greater benefits on the development of a young coach. Ultimately, once again, it comes down to the desire of that young coach to improve their process of training and building elite athletes that will lead to their optimal development

Smaller schools are typically underfunded, and lack the support many of the upper echelon programs receive. This requires coaches to be much more creative with their programming and scheduling. These points come back to the ability to be a great manager, of both time and space. Programming is one of the most intricate tasks a performance coach can undertake. Training programs should be built with extreme attention to detail in order to produce optimal results. Typically there is a lack of specific equipment at the smaller, underfunded schools. This leads to the use of creativity in writing and executing exercises utilizing only the available equipment. This creative ability will improve the “technician” aspect of a coach and is vital for long-term success in a profession that is ever evolving and changing and will be useful at all levels of coaching.

Increased responsibility is another positive factor when accepting a position at a smaller school. These smaller schools will generally have a smaller full-time strength staff, meaning more responsibility will be placed on the graduate assistant in regards to on-floor coaching, programming for multiple teams, along with other tasks such as meeting with sport coaches and the athletic training staff. The ability of a young coach to represent themselves and the training program they create in a professional and science based manner while meeting with sport coaches and the athletic trainers will increase trust between all parties and ensure all athlete’s needs are being met appropriately. As responsibilities increase it is also of critical importance that young coaches improve their efficiency of coaching and other required skills for athletic advancement. A simple example of this in my case is the Nutrition Calculator Tool, which was created to give athletes the ability to individualize nutritional needs based on specific training days and give healthy food options to reach those goals. These tools allow a coach to reach and help many more athletes than meeting one on one with each individual ever could. If an athlete has questions about specifics then I have the ability to assist them in a specific plan, which I know they will be committed to as they have put in the time to understand their daily nutritional needs. Responsibilities, as listed above, give young, learning coaches an opportunity to learn by the process of doing, rather than just viewing a full time coach complete the task.

Working with multiple teams is another benefit of working at a smaller leads to a more well-rounded coach with an improved ability to program for different situations. Working with every sport allows a developing coach to ensure they are not specialized in just one specific aspect of training, but rather are capable of taking a position in any setting in the future. This will only improve marketability when it comes time to apply for a full-time position

Once again it is important to remember there is no wrong path in this field, it all depends on the desire of the coach to better themselves. However, smaller schools, in my experience, provide a better learning experience than the larger schools. The fact that smaller schools do not require strength coaches to attend practices of sports teams can serve as both a benefit and a downfall. This frees up time to further your knowledge base as a coach in any desired area of interest, which is crucial in a profession that is constantly changing. Smaller schools also tend to have smaller graduate programs. I attended a large undergrad, but my grad courses consisted of 6 total students, including myself, and 2 teachers. The type of learning and comprehension of materials that occurs in that setting are unmatched, not to mention we were allowed to expand on topics that could be easily related back to the S&C profession.

Ultimately, the learning process is dependent on each individual and how they take advantage of the opportunities that are in front of them. There is no “wrong position” to allow growth and development as that falls entirely on the young coach to push themselves to continually expand their knowledge and learn from veteran coaches that are successful. This is where the completion of an internship under a full time coach that is well respected will become important. Once a young coach has learned and been developed based on the principles of this older, successful coach, they will now possess the skill set to be successful in any position. A smaller school where the young coach will require more creativity, greater responsibilities, and a well-rounded experience will allow those skills to be put into real life practice. In a profession that is constantly changing and growing, it is important that young coaches take advantage of every learning opportunity presented to them, no matter how insignificant the task may seem at the time.


Van Dyke Strength would like to thank Ron McKeefery for his contributions to this piece. Ron has been instrumental in the development of many successful coaches in this profession through his internship and development program. To learn more about this program click here.