Guy Massi: Strength and Conditioning Coaches – Believe in Your Abilities and Work around Reality

In the Strength and Conditioning industry, we are increasingly encountering new challenges to our abilities to effectively program and develop our clients and athletes. There is a newly emerging market accompanied by its own expectations, which seems to view strength and conditioning as an afterthought. They merely attempt to fit us in to an ever-evolving schedule of life, school and work schedules, practices, tournaments, business trips, social affairs, skills sessions and the like.

We are dealing with a demographic that has increasingly limited time. If they are not managed correctly, we will be presented with many underlying complications that will test our coaching agility.

That’s our new reality!

I don’t work solely within a specific team or corporate environment. While I vet my projects, I do not possess the absolute luxury of picking and choosing every aspect of them. Owning my own business and being in the open market of fitness and athletic development, I frequently encounter athletes representing no less than eight or ten different sports, not to mention clients from a variety of workplace settings.

This mix isn’t always glamorous, but it requires a degree of programming and coaching agility that keeps me fresh and, oftentimes, frustrated. This article is about our competition for time with everybody else in the athlete’s orbit . . . and it begins before the athlete even gets to you. There are some very important and telling questions that we need to answer before we can explore alternative methods that support our management of the athlete’s needs within our programming abilities.

Where do I really fit in the “Developmental Equation”?
As the strength or athletic development coach, we would like to believe that we are a lateral priority to the skill itself, if not just below it. I mean, after all, we are supporting all the elements that allow a great athlete to perform at a high level within their sport. We’re enabling the tedious, behind the scenes progressions that help provide the team/game-play or competition coaches with the best possible “product” to equip with skills for the field, court or ice.

Here’s a car analogy: Game-play, competition and skill might be seen as the shiny exterior. We build the engine within the exotic vehicle.

Is that true, or just wishful thinking?

Let’s have a reality check and examine where we fall within the big picture, or “pecking order.” First and foremost, there’s:
The Athlete: You know, the one who should be considered first, yet is often considered last; Their hopes, their dreams, their performance AND – their limitations. It’s their journey, which they just so happen to allow us the privilege of being a part of. Then there are . . .
The Team/Competition Coaches: The ones who demand performance in competition for the hopeful outcome of wins. These are the guys/gals for whom we are looking to build the best possible on-field, on-court or on-ice “product,” to allow them to concentrate on coaching the athlete and team for game-play. Next, we will find . . .
The Skills-Specific Coaches: They may or may not be part of the actual team structure. They focus on developing and reinforcing the skills or one aspect of the skills particular to a given sport. It’s simple: If you aren’t skilled – you won’t play or compete. Next, we usually find a well-meaning school or team . . .
Athletic Trainer (ATC): who is a vested, yet often silenced, coaching team member focused on the preservation of the athlete’s performance health.

There may also be the team or school’s separate “strength and conditioning program”. Those quotation marks are intentional to emphasize the broad spectrum of what strength and conditioning might be. I’ve had many athletes describe tapping their feet on dots, running a few cone drills or sprinting until they puke a couple of times per week as being categorized to them as “strength and conditioning.”

Where I’m from, it’s all relative!

Then of course, footing the expense for all of this magic, stand the highly demanding, “taxi-driving,” valet, food and clothes service facilitating, interest managing . . . Athlete’s Parent(s).

Throw in any involved physicians, physical therapists, orthopedists, psychologists, etc. and you as the other coach might find yourself in a, well, a very precarious position.

I said this was a reality check. Quite honestly, we are often the very last in line. Last in schedule, last in consideration and definitely last to receive dedicated finances. We’re relegated to damage control. Sort of like a school nurse, we feel like we are persistently applying a band aid to an ever-worsening condition.

If this is the case, how can we possibly be positioned for success?

Despite all of the mitigating factors, the athlete looks to you more than you may realize. Their trust and reliance in their strength or athletic development coach warrants our full-time responsibility.

So why shouldn’t we rank higher in the pecking order of their “developmental equation.”

Extreme Examples
Having established that we potentially fall somewhere around seventh or eighth in the perceived heirarchy, I feel as if I should provide at least one actual example for arguments’ sake.

Let’s take a look at a higher functioning high school student-athlete: a volleyball player. They are traditionally considered a fall sport on the inter-scholastic athletics calendar, but their playoffs and title games usually run into early winter and often times co-mingle with club play. Most (if not all serious players) will play on club teams that start in November and can run into the following May, depending upon how deep into national competition they might go. Then, when they are done with club season, some will go on to play in one of their coaches’ “beach” or “grass” leagues that will basically run right up into their actual school season once again.

Add in some mandatory camps and similar commitments, and they are basically in a never-ending season.

Did you make note of any real opportunity to engage in some professionally supervised, pre-season, strength and conditioning?

Oh, and by the way, THEY ARE ALSO STUDENTS! They go to school in the morning, and by the time they are done with classes and their homework, the average kid will go to bed around midnight or 1:00 AM . . . Only to get up and do it all over again. The same goes for college athletes, except they also play on the weekends, so they really won’t ever satisfy their sleep debt. (I graciously defer to Brandon Marcello, Ph.D. on that subject.)

Frequently, the adults in their lives are so hung up on the game, the scholarship and the performance that the margin for developing and realizing their fullest performance potential may be rapidly diminishing before their/our eyes. You are often dealing with an athlete who is perpetually on the verge of both physical and emotional break-down. In fact, you may be inheriting “the injury-prone athlete.” (That’s a separate article for another time.)

That’s the reality, folks. You can substitute any sport and see it happening everywhere. I have increasingly been finding myself faced with the necessity of collecting overwhelming “exposure” intelligence at each session and having to formulate an appropriate training session on the spot. That ability takes some time and experience to develop.

It’s great that you and I can do it, but where does that leave us?

Managing the Realities
Due to all the above-listed complications, we often enter into our work from a perspective of risk management, as opposed to one of athletic development. You may in fact be dealing with a “high-mileage vehicle” in desperate need of an oil change and servicing. That leads me to ask myself the following questions:

Are we really being positioned to develop the athlete to their fullest performance potential? Or . . .
Are we just supposed to keep the athlete functional and hope for modest gains in the absence of injury?

If we are to be highly capable coaches, who believe in our experience and knowledge, we must always maintain our professional composure and base our guidance on facts in a way that provides mutual and vested understanding in attaining discernible objectives. One of the most essential skills that a coach can possess is the ability to consider all the varied experiences that your athletes may have encountered on a given day (or days) prior to reporting to you and then employ appropriate modifications and intervention(s) to programming.

Here are a few examples:
How many squat and presses does a football lineman perform in practice while moving another lineman?
How many jumps will a volleyball player encounter during practice with poor landing?
How many linear vs. lateral patterns did a given field sport athlete perform?

The above considerations will lend to your ability to better perceive and manage risk. Basically, you are taking responsibility for the athlete’s total exposure. Even when you have this down, we all know that bad things just happen.

So what should I do? What should I say? Why will it matter?

DOEquip the athlete to convey their message appropriately.

Always develop your athletes in a spirit of education and advancement (self-sufficiency), as opposed to one of ignorance and reliance. Physiological development is obviously important to what we do, and when that is melded with an intelligent athlete, it speaks volumes for your work. Teach them to be their own best advocate, and through the aforesaid education and development, they will become capable of intelligently and independently expressing their concerns for any overtraining or harmful activity they may encounter while away from you and can do so in a way that doesn’t pit them against other coaches or teammates. An informed athlete doesn’t imply an adversarial athlete. Develop athletes who recognize their own good development and its long-term effect on the team.

SAYBe bold, yet diplomatic:

Should any of the other factors (coaches, parents, etc.) in the “developmental equation” reach out to you, make it your first order of business to express your appreciation that they took the time to initiate contact. If you sense any sort of adversarial or hostile tone, make it your second order of business to diffuse the situation by further expressing your appreciation that they have also committed their expertise to the mutually held athlete. Beyond that, LISTEN! Whether you work under you own or a learned methodology, provide a brief background on what it is that makes your programming favorable to the athlete and their coaches. Help to make the other parties appreciate that you are qualified and credible, whether or not you truly feel that they are entitled to that assurance at that particular juncture. Remember, your first obligation is to develop the athlete for the benefit of themselves (skill/sport), and the team or competition coach.

MATTEREmploy a collaborative approach:

Here’s where it can get “tricky” and maybe require exorbitant effort . . . consider taking the lead by initiating contact through a very diplomatically worded letter that defines your role in support of the athlete, team or competition coach. Express your desire to communicate frequently and assure them that all the athlete’s athletic performance requirements are being addressed and fulfilled within the training methodology. Communication like this can often ease perceived differences or tensions, and open-wide the doorway to communication. Additionally, it will assist in clearly defining roles. By taking the lead or at least offering to do so, you are likely to transition from an afterthought to a frequently consulted member of the developmental equation. You may even become the mediator or “Yoda” of sorts. Through this process you can establish where you stand in the athlete’s developmental equation.

Closing ThoughtBelieve in your abilities, and work around realities.

In the big picture of annual programming, we will be faced with times when we have to gather, process and formulate “on-the-fly intel” from the athlete walking through our doors. Perhaps such information will present a challenge; a day previously scheduled as a heavier training session may suddenly have to be modified to a low/no-load movement, active mobility and recovery day. Remain “coaching-agile” and program according to their overall exposure.

We’re in a relatively young industry that persistently faces new developments that will test both our organizational and programming creativity. We must remain flexible in our efforts to promote understanding and appreciation for how we serve the ultimate goal of developing our clients and athletes. Hold to your programming goals, while diplomatically navigating the realities you encounter. You’re guaranteed a challenging, time consuming and often a humbling experience . . . and every bit of it will make you a better coach.
– “Greatness is forged, not fabricated.”

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