Strength Performance Network

Making the Most of Undergrad - From One Young Strength Coach to Another

Preface: I'm writing this, not because I feel like I've achieved anything incredibly significant, but because I want to help others that are or will be in the same position as myself the past four year.

Also, my journey is not the only way to go. I just want to show one way that can work, since it did for me.


This essay/letter originally went live at 10:00am on Saturday, December 20th, 2014. The significance of this exact time is the conclusion of a very challenging, yet very rewarding time in my life; graduation from the University of Florida with a bachelors degree in Applied Physiology and Kinesiology.

Although earning my degree is something I'm incredibly proud of, it's not what excites me the most about this day. It's what comes with being a graduate that fires me up the most.

For starters, finally being able to officially have my CSCS (I passed the test over a year ago, and have wanted this certification since I was a high school student) is beyond exciting. I have other certifications, but this is the one I've been waiting for and working toward.

Just as exciting is the potential opportunity to now receive monetary compensation for my coaching - the lowest barrier of entry to the strength and conditioning field is an undergraduate degree.

As anybody in the strength and conditioning field will tell you - as many of them told me - simply getting your degree and a CSCS doesn't guarantee you a full-time job doing anything - let alone working where you want or doing what you want. In fact, in today's world, it's almost a given that you'll need an advanced degree to get anywhere. Conversely, some strength and conditioning professionals are evening questioning if Kinesiology/Exercise Science undergraduate degrees are even worth it.

This is where my story differs from many 22-year olds coming out of college with a Kinesiology degree in hand. I am blessed to have a full-time strength and conditioning position in professional baseball waiting for me in 2015 - literally a dream come true.

I firmly believe that I made the most out of the 4 years of my undergraduate degree program.

And, my hope is that I can help other young aspiring strength coaches by sharing my experiences over the last four years, broken up into key points/themes that I believe helped make my college years a success (in terms of landing a desirable job post-graduation).

Getting In The "Trenches"

As I neared graduation from high school, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with my career. I had decided not to pursue college baseball, despite having low-level opportunities, and knew that strength and conditioning was already something that I was passionate about (I spent years trying to get as much as possible out of my slight frame on the mound).

But, of course, as an 18-year old high school grad, I had no vision or plan for turning this passion into a career. All I had was an opportunity to coach at the high school level at my alma mater for a new head coach.

Instead of doing what most 18 year olds want to do - go away to college, live independently, have some cash flowing into the bank, and live the college life - I took the opportunity to coach and ran with it. Despite the difficulties of trying to coach many players practically my own age, making literally $0 per hour (yet working 20-40 hours per week year round), and having to live with my parents, I just knew I'd be better for it. Plus, I thoroughly enjoyed it - more than playing.

First year coaching at DeLand High School.

My responsibilities began with throwing BP (a steady stream of cutters... my BP-throwing days didn't last long), raking the field, painting, and the icing on the cake; coaching... I got to coach athletes, which made the rest of the work worth it.

That would be me drinking reclaimed water. Talk about getting in the trenches...

Fast forward a year and a half and I was still coaching at DeLand High School, still making relatively no money to coach, all the while picking up a personal training gig at LA Fitness, and adding summers of coaching travel baseball.

During this 1-2 year window I had made a handful of strength and conditioning contacts that pointed me in the right direction as far as self-study. My knowledge of information applicable to training athletes grew exponentially thanks to this, and I was now leading the high school team warm-ups every single day and had written up a strength and conditioning manual for our program. Thus, I began running our offseason training at 19 years old - although it was anything but a great program.

I had sent that strength and conditioning manual to an assistant strength and conditioning coach on the Division I level, essentially begging him to read it and give me any feedback possible. He obliged, thankfully, telling me that it was a more thoughtful program than he'd ever seen any intern develop, but needed a lot of work from a programming standpoint. Looking back, that was a very mild way of putting it. But, his "backing" of my effort gave my program some kind of credibility with our staff and players, which I was very thankful for.

Some advice that I've heard repeatedly over the past 4 years is, "Make the big time where you're at now." I can promise you that DeLand High School might as well have been the University of Florida or the New York Yankees for me.

And, it paid off...

Going Out on a Limb - Contacting Coaches and Just Hoping for Responses

Entering my junior year of my undergrad, I had now compiled over two years of volunteer coaching experience at the high school level (I stress volunteer because it was still unpaid), a second certification (the NASM-PES), and had transferred from Daytona State College to the University of Florida, where I was an online student. Their online APK program allowed me to continue coaching on a daily basis - my main reason for choosing it.

I had also been emailing many collegiate strength and conditioning coaches, introducing myself, asking for advice, and asking more local schools about internship opportunities for current students.

Then, I came upon something unfamiliar to me online - Stetson University Strength and Conditioning. Stetson is a private, Division I university in my home town, that had never had strength and conditioning before - until that year.

Stetson Strength

Knowing that the strength program was roughly only one month old, I immediately sent an email to Bradley Lokey, the Director of Strength and Conditioning, and frantically refreshed my email for a day or two, hoping he'd respond.

Finally, Coach Lokey agreed to have me at the weight room for a formal meeting. Within a week of emailing Lokey, I was brought on as a volunteer intern - the only intern... scratch that, the only assistant whatsoever.

When I say this was a golden opportunity, I am not overstating the facts. From day one I was coaching on the floor, in a brand new weight room, with Division-I athletes. After just a few weeks, I was coaching teams through their lifts alone as Coach Lokey attended to conditioning sessions outside with other teams.

Where else could a 20 year-old get this kind of opportunity? Thanks to Stetson I was also able to attend my first NSCA Coaches Conference, and finally get "inside" the strength and conditioning field. It was awesome. And, it made me even more hungry to learn. I am forever grateful to Coach Lokey and Stetson University for taking a risk on a young kid like myself.

Once the spring of my junior year hit, I was offered a paid "Assistant-Intern" position. My hard work finally paid off in the most literally sense - I was making money to coach.

Although I accepted the position, I had to leave Stetson University after just three months of being a paid assistant (6 months including my volunteer position) as my grades with the University of Florida began to suffer due to the increased responsibilities of the new position.

I am not proud of this, and many people basically alluded to this being a proverbial nail in my own professional coffin.

But, I didn't see the point of holding an "assistant intern" position at the sacrifice of a degree that is required to be anything more than an intern in this field.

I don't like to share this part of the story often, but I think young strength coaches should know that failure is part of the journey.

Enjoying the Process

After this moment, I can honestly say I reached a crossroad in my life. For the first time I doubted myself and thought about quitting. I had spent nearly 27 months volunteering a full-time schedule, all the while going to school full-time and self-studying strength and conditioning resources in what spare time I had.

I had still yet to live on my own - shoot, I had only made any real income coaching for just three months, and now that was gone - most of my friends were enjoying the college life without me, and I hadn't much to show for my sacrifices aside from some resume builders.

I was constantly posed with the questions, "So, how much money do you make to coach? Oh wow, none?" and "So, will your degree say 'ONLINE Bachelors Degree' ?" It was definitely a hit to the ego, and I can't deny that there wasn't a number of times that self-doubt crept in. I even went as far as to start the process of changing my major to journalism.

But, I told myself I needed to at least coach another year, to ensure that I wasn't making a rash decision based on my self-percieved "failure" coaching at the collegiate level. So, I coached at DeLand High School for the 3rd consecutive year on a volunteer basis.

Thankfully, that team - staff and players together - saved my career in strength and conditioning. The offseason workouts were tremendous, and the fire was once again ignited for me.

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I started to see a greater purpose in it all, really. It wasn't about making money right now, or being at any particular "level". It was about positively impacting the lives around me, enjoying the time grinding with our staff, developing myself as a person, and trying to reach my career aspirations along the way...

The Big Break

Once I was able to move past my disappointment of leaving Stetson, I was able to see everything positive that had come from the tremendous opportunity. Not only did I have a Division I coaching experience on my resume, but I had learned so much about programming and coaching.

I applied everything that I could to the 2013-2014 season for the DeLand High School Baseball program, and it paid off. I had a a great turnout to the offseason training sessions, we held our jetBlue Challenge in the winter (named after jetBlue Park, where the 2014 State Finals were held), and had a successful spring season. So successful, in fact, that we made it to jetBlue Park.

IMG_8127

Near the end of that spring, I decided to check the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association website, and happened to see an internship posting for the summer of 2014 - the Los Angeles Dodgers. The best part of all... they were specifically looking for a student.

I still remember seeing it on my phone while I was at the mall with my girlfriend. I excitedly told her that we need to get home so I can send in my resume, and she said, "Where is it?". I told her, "Glendale, Arizona. Don't worry, I doubt I'll get it."

That is, until I sent in my resume and remembered that I knew somebody who could help. One of the coaches that I had contacted for advice was a former MiLB Strength Coach with the Dodgers. It truly is all about networking...

Combine his nod of approval to the current Dodgers MiLB Coordinator with my incessant emailing and persistence, and the next thing I knew I was in the Arizona desert coaching in the professional baseball ranks.

Things even got brighter for me, as they asked me to fill in as the only strength coach with their affiliate team in Utah for two weeks, due to extenuating circumstances.

They apologized for the inconvenience to me - yet I just kept thanking them. This was truly my "big break". I was able to see what professional baseball was really like, all the while testing my coaching abilities on my own, and show them that I was capable of doing this job full-time one day down the road.

Back to Where I Started - There Are Never Any Guarantees

At the end of August I flew home with only one guarantee: I still had one more internship to complete before graduating (the University of Florida would not give me academic credit for the Dodgers, Stetson, nor DeLand HS because their internship needs to be the last credit you receive from UF - I did all of those previous internships while still taking classes).

At this very time, my parents - who, I very shamefully [yet am very blessed to] admit - had been supporting me for over four years of college - moved out of their home and into a temporary residence while they built a new home. My internship happened to be over an hour away from them, and so too was the new high school I was coaching at.

So, with no income, and literally every possession that I didn't want locked up in storage for 4 months stored in the back seat of my truck, I began spending the work week living with our head coach at Lake Howell HS (same head coach that was formerly at DeLand HS, Andy Lyon) in his guest bed room. This meant that I didn't see my girlfriend or my family but two days per week. But, it also meant that I had a free bed every night and just a 1 mile drive to work every day. I can't begin to explain how grateful I am for Andy and his wife.

I worked between 40 and 60 hours per week between the private gym I was voluntarily interning at (and paying the University of Florida for 12 credit hours for it) and the high school that I was coaching at (making virtually no money still). This process lasted up until a week ago.

As hard as this last semester was, it was the most rewarding. I watched a new group of 30+ high school ballplayers change their bodies, minds, and lives by buying into our system and my training program, all while I inched closer to graduation.


IMG_0634

Somewhere in the last 4 months I interviewed with the Dodgers for a full-time strength-coaching gig (both phone calls taking place in my truck after 12-hour days, sitting in a Jimmy John's parking lot), and am blessed to say that I was offered and accepted the job, which was an incredibly gratifying, validating, and humbling experience.

Without the last 4  years of undergrad happening as they did, there is no way that I would have this kind of opportunity to coach in professional baseball right out of college.


 

Some takeaway points that I hope you glean from this:

  • Get in the trenches as soon as possible! Go to a local high school and volunteer your services for whatever sport you feel comfortable with. Perform any tasks they give you, earn their trust, and diligently try to learn more about training so that you can eventually apply it to those athletes when the opportunity presents itself. This is the most viable way to get your feet wet coaching athletes if you've never had the chance to. Be proactive!
  • Go out on a limb and reach out to current strength and conditioning coaches. They have their respective position for a reason, and anything that they can share with you about their journey will help you. It may even help you get a coaching opportunity yourself. It's all about networking.
  • Enjoy the Process because if you don't, the process will only wear you down. The coaches that I've worked with are all now my best friends and I've also found a purpose in positively impacting others.

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Best of luck.

Ryan

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Comment by Ryan Faer on January 4, 2015 at 9:05pm
Mr. Moreno, thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words! I really appreciate it. That's exciting that you'd recommend your students to read this post, as the goal of this post was to help young aspiring strength coaches! I would love to take you up on that offer to speak at EMU - that would be an incredible opportunity to positively impact others in this field.
Comment by John Weatherly on December 28, 2014 at 9:19am

That's a cool offer from Dr. Moreno!  I'd take him up on the speaking offer if you can Ryan.  My point is why we can't have a curriculum and practical educational experiences for all students that want to pursue S&C careers with athletes at our universities.  Two of my former mentors, Dr. Mike Stone with the Center of Excellence at ETSU (where students can study sports science and be S&C coaches with teams in the athletic dept at the same time) and Vern Gambetta with Gain seem to be in a very select and tiny group that is concerned with coaching education and opportunities in the US. Most academics in the US don't seem to care about actual sports science and S&C for athletes.  They care about grants and publishing papers in journals!

Another area universities need to get their heads out of the sand with is the combination of Sports Science and Analytics.  How many universities have programs focusing on this?

Comment by Tony Moreno on December 27, 2014 at 10:17pm

I am a Professor of Kinesiology at Eastern Michigan University. I am going to make this post a "must read" for those students in our program seeking a career in this profession. I truly hope you become a successful, long time, professional strength and conditioning coach because you can appreciate the time, patience, effort, discouragement and most important, you will NEVER forget where you came from...

You went into this understanding NOBODY owes you anything, and can fully appreciate you have earned EVERYTHING (with a great debt of gratitude to your parents in which there is NO SHAME...they're your parents!!!). Awesome. You give hope to many aspiring strength and conditioning coaches that can live at home and attend regional institutions or pursue an education online, while working ambitiously toward their dream. Congrats and good luck Ryan! You are welcome as a guest speaker in my class anytime!

Comment by Ryan Faer on December 27, 2014 at 11:16am

John, you're absolutely right. Not everyone is as fortunate as I have been to have parents who have supported me in the way that they have. As I said in the preface, this is not the only way that works, obviously, but it was a journey full of choices that worked best for me in my situation. As I also said above, it's not a great feeling for me to know that I have asked this much of my parents, but I also know that I am truly blessed to have parents that could support me financially in the way that they have. My only hope is that I can repay them monetarily and intangibly ten-fold going forward.

I will say this much in regards to your last question: I loved my time with the University of Florida, making a mandatory internship worth 12 credit hours at full tuition price, while the student usually has to volunteer their time is not the best way to help a young aspiring strength coach. Similarly, not counting any internship hours prior to the mandatory internship made it even harder as well.

Comment by John Weatherly on December 27, 2014 at 11:00am

This is a great story of dedication and overcoming obstacles.  My only question is how many aspiring S&C coaches can live with Mom & Dad, have them pay for college, and be able to afford being a volunteer unpaid coach for so long to just get their foot in the door?  Not everybody has independently wealthy parents that can help like this. 

What are our universities and the NSCA (particularly the ERP schools) doing to help aspiring S&C coaches get in the trenches experience as part of their schooling?

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