The Leadership Techniques and Practices of Elite Collegiate Strength and Conditioning

Authors: Mike Voight, Ann Hickey, Michael Piper

Corresponding Author:
Mike Voight, Ph.D.
PEHP Department
Central Connecticut State University
1615 Stanley Drive
New Britain, CT 06050

Dr. Mike Voight is a professor in the Physical Education and Human Performance Department at Central Connecticut State University where he teaches graduate courses in leadership, sport psychology, and sport sociology. His email is voightmir@ccsu.edu, and his website is www.drvleads.com

Dr. Ann Hickey is an associate professor at Whittier College (CA) where she teaches sport psychology.

Michael Piper is assistant strength coach at Central Connecticut State University.

ABSTRACT
Leadership development has been given more attention in the field of strength and conditioning. Particular topics of interest have included how important a training ground and learning laboratory the university strength and conditioning space is for leadership development, the styles of leadership among strength coaches, leadership behavior, roles, job responsibilities and analyses of NCAA Division 1 strength and conditioning coaches, becoming a more valuable asset to the athletic program, and improving buy-in and leadership (Brooks, Ziatz, Johnson & Hollander, 2000; Feldman, 2013; Magnusen, 2010; Massey, Vincent, & Maneval, 2004; Voight, 2014).

The purpose of this investigation was to interview elite strength and conditioning coaches on their use of “best practices” leadership techniques and practices designed to improve player motivation, communication, commitment, and personal/team leadership. To this objective, participants were not only asked about their use of leadership techniques, but what they do to improve the leadership skills of whom they lead. This study used a semi-structured, exploratory interview design, which revealed numerous subthemes which fit into four major themes: leadership behaviors, leadership development, motivational techniques (buy-in), and relationships-communication. Results of this study can be used by current and up-and-coming strength and conditioning professionals to get the most from their own leadership skill sets as well as developing leadership among the teams they train.

Keywords: leadership, techniques, strength and conditioning, best practices

REVIEW OF LITERATURE
Leadership has been a term synonymous with the world of sport for many a decade. Images of Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry are ever-present in the consciousness of sport fans and participants. Many “big name” coaches write books on their leadership approaches and in most broadcasts a player or coach’s leadership acumen is consistently mentioned as a critical determinant to team success. Leadership development has been given more attention not only in sport but in the field of strength and conditioning (SC). For starters, the SC professional are deemed important providers of not simply physical development and performance enhancement but also in assisting in the social, emotional and leadership development of student athletes while being a more valuable asset to the student athletes and program (Brooks, Ziatz, Johnson & Hollander, 2000; Kontor, 1989; Matthews, 1976; Vanderbush, 2006; Sutherland & Wiley, 1997).

Moreover, the university strength and conditioning space has been cited as an important training ground and learning laboratory for leadership development (Brooks et al. 2000; Voight, 2014). Vanderbush addressed the importance of leadership for the SC coach in these comments: “We as coaches often assume that our athletes know more about how to lead than they actually do. By developing leadership training and picking leadership teams, you can teach your athletes
valuable skills that they can use in their sport, in their school, and in their future endeavors. Leadership can be taught” (p. 69).

Research has been conducted on the job responsibilities of the SC professional in addition to their use of specific leadership behaviors, roles and styles (Brooks, Ziatz, Johnson & Hollander, 2000; Massey, Vincent & Maneval, 2004; Pullo, 1992). One such study indicated that National Basketball Association (NBA) SC professionals engaged in more situational and socially supportive leader behaviors than collegiate SC professionals as well as the importance placed on SC coaches being more aware of the impact their behaviors have on their athletes (Magnusen, 2010). Brooks and colleagues (2000) investigated the differences between head SC coaches and their assistants on specific leadership behaviors (training, instruction, social support, decision making, and feedback). Despite no significant differences emerging to separate the coaches on these leadership behaviors, the head coaches were found to spend 13% of their work week in administrative duties and an average of 70% of their time working with revenue athletes, whereby the assistant SC coaches spend 41% working with the same population.

To delve deeper into the leadership philosophies, styles and practices of strength coaches, the purpose of this investigation was to interview elite strength and conditioning coaches on their use of effective or “best practices” leadership techniques and practices designed to improve player motivation, communication, commitment, and personal/team leadership. To this objective, participants were not only asked about their philosophies on leadership but also their use of leadership techniques and what they do to improve the leadership skills of whom they lead. This topic is being investigated to share with the strength/conditioning field at-large what the most noted strength and conditioning practitioners do to enhance upon the “intangibles” of improved motivation, communication, commitment and leadership, but also how these professionals model, teach, reinforce, and development leadership among their teams and team members. Results of this study can be used by current and up-and-coming strength and conditioning professionals to get the most from their own leadership skill sets as well as developing leadership among the teams they train.

METHOD
Participants
Participants consisted of four well known and respected SC’s. One of the authors has been in the strength and conditioning field for seven years and has experience attending conferences and workshops and in networking with more experienced professionals. Upon being contacted by this author, these four SC professionals agreed to participate and were sent the informed consent and interview guide after interview days and times were established. All four SC professionals are male, three of four works with their respective football programs and all four are directors of the SC program at their respective university (one is the director of Olympic sports who does not work with the football program). Three of four work at BCS schools with one at the FCS level, working with a FCS national champion-level football program. The average age is 41.5, with an average of 16.7 years’ experience in the SC field. All four earned their master’s degrees and are certified by the CSCCA (College Strength Conditioning Coaches Association) and the NSCA (National Strength Coaches Association).

Procedure
The author, who is a certified SC professional, formulated a list of the most well respected SC professionals in the field. These professionals were contacted to gauge their interest in participating in this study. Upon stated interest, an agreement on the day and time of the phone interview was gathered, then the informed consent form and interview guide were emailed. The author who has the most experience doing qualitative research and is a leadership coach (LC) conducted the phone interviews.

Interview Guide
The interview guide was designed to allow the SC professional to describe the perceived challenges they face in this profession, their philosophy and their leadership techniques. Similar to the procedure followed by Woodman and Hardy (2001), the interviews began by stating the purpose of the interview, then asking the demographic questions, followed by the ten primary questions. There were two questions specific to SC programming and “X’s and O’s” which is beyond the scope of this particular article and thus were not shared here. The primary questions included: challenges working in this profession, philosophy, “buy-in” (commitment) techniques, perceptions of the importance of leadership and leadership development as a SC professional, how leadership is developed, trust building, and types of communication.

Interviewer Procedure and Trustworthiness
All interviews were conducted by the LC who had course work in qualitative methods and has experience doing qualitative work. Each SC professional was asked the same questions with similar prompts in order to maintain a consistent interview protocol (Patton, 1990). Interviews lasted between 30 minutes to 45 minutes, and were digitally recorded and transcribed. To improve trustworthiness, the typed interview notes were presented to each SC professional and asked to change or add any information. No corrections or additions were forwarded.

Data Analysis
Due to the small number of strength and conditioning professionals interviewed (N = 5), data analysis followed an inductive method (Patton, 1990), and similarly with the process conducted by Long et al. (2006), higher order themes were established as it related to the purpose of this study (e.g., process of developing leadership and the effectiveness of the leadership program). The transcriptions were read on many occasions, and raw data themes were identified and then organized into meaningful themes. Common raw data quotes were also identified and organized by higher order themes. Trustworthiness was established by having one of the authors, who also has had training in qualitative methodology, and is a practicing sport psychology consultant, read the transcriptions and independently coded the data. After discussions of categorization were done between the LC and this second reader, consensus was reached.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Similarly with studies conducted by Males et al. (2006) and Voight (2012), the Results and Discussion section is organized into the numerous subthemes which fit into five distinct themes: (a) challenges faced as a head SC; (b) importance of leadership and its development; (c) “buy-in” best practices; (d) motivation and communication; and (e) advice for the next generation of SC head coaches. Each SC professional was given a number and their specific quotes are included here to add clarity and detail to each of the identified subthemes.

Challenges for SC Head Coach
The many subthemes which make up the theme of “challenges” includes scheduling/preparation, controllability of athletes’ preparation and health, and working with today’s millennial student-athletes.

Scheduling/preparation/pressure. There was a consistent pattern of reported challenges among these four SC coaches, beginning with the challenges involved in scheduling, preparation time, and dealing with the pressure and preconceived notions about the profession.

It is real important to be on the floor working with the athletes, but it’s tough to make this time due to the planning involved. I hate using the same program from one year to the next, but finding the time to do that can be a challenge. (SC1)

My toughest challenge is the pressure to consistently perform and win on a consistent level. The challenge of that is that there are a lot of bosses and a lot of key personnel with different personalities, skill-sets, talents, and ideas that you need to make work together so that athletes and teams can be successful. (SC3)

As a profession, respect. Get beyond the old adage of being just a weight room guy and being a disciplinarian, but getting respect of athletes, coaches, administration, professors on campus, and other organizations. As an example, when I tell people my job title they immediately think I’m the guy who makes people throw up and as a whole we need to make our profession more professional. I think we have done a really good job with that in the last 4-6 years, but I also think we have a ways to go. (SC4)

Controllability of athlete’s preparation/health/mentality. Another challenge was the importance of coaching and educating the athletes on taking care of themselves away from the weight room since this is out of the control of the SC professional, and the importance given to the mentality of the team and athletes.

Everything you do in the weight room can be for not if things are not being taken care of on that end – nutrition and recovery. Sometimes you can’t figure out why one kid is making progress and another kid is not making progress yet they are on the same program. I think a lot has to do with the nutrition and the rest and recovery. (SC1)

Changing the mentality is the biggest challenge. When I got to ____ University they were a bottom 5 program in football and you had to change the mentality of the players there because they got to the point where they did not believe they could get better. They were 116 out of 128 BCS teams at the time. When we left there we were 16th in the country, so we jumped 100 spots in a 4-year period. It was about the standards of accountability, ethics, and what we expected of them and how to get them to work with an effort which could lead them to being successful. (SC2)

Millennials. An additional challenge mentioned was the adjustments made to best reach and teach today’s generation of student-athletes, the millennials.

I know today’s kids are different compared to what we were and even just ten years ago. They are different but I think that is one of the things I like about athletics is the fact that that hasn’t changed as much as maybe teaching or education has. There is still a bit of an “old school” coach who can survive here. (SC1)

Sometimes being held to a standard is the hardest thing that today’s youth is not experienced with. I think just becoming a father gives me a different look at our student athletes, regardless of sport and male/female, and realizing these athletes are someone else’s kid or grandkid. (SC2)

Kids have definitely changed. That’s a no-brainer if you talk to any coach from across the country. Kids today are so screen-oriented you have to hone their life skills, whether it be communication or emotional intelligence, because they are used to connecting to others over a computer screen so they lose the ability to realize how you are coming off to your teammates. (SC3)

Importance of Leadership and its Development
There are many subtopics which relate to the leadership theme as noted by the SC coaches, which include the importance given to leadership in the sport and in the weight room, their personal philosophy of leadership, and what they do to help promote and develop leadership.

Importance of leadership in sport. All four SC coaches believed leadership was a contributing factors leading to team success.

I think the athletes being leaders themselves is very important. I feel the success of the team depends more upon that than it does on the x’s and o’s or the sets and reps. Your athletes being able to read each other and to create team chemistry and to have that senior leadership has so much of an effect on the outcome of the season than ever before. (SC1)

I think it is very important because with the sport they are playing the coach isn’t always out there with them and at some point someday they are not going to have a position coach, strength coach or head coach looking over their shoulder, to help push them on the right track. So, I think developing leadership is really important. (SC2)

Leadership is so importance because to me it is everything and why I do my job. I love my job because when you ask why you are doing this it always goes back to the student athletes and working with them to teach them to be better athletes and leaders. My biggest reward and biggest fulfillment comes from teaching a kid how to win in life. (SC3)

It is number 1 above everything else, I have been around conference championship teams and national championship teams and that’s the number 1 thing every time. I will take leadership, work ethic and accountability over talent level any day. If you can get both, well then you have something that can be pretty special, but if you have athletes that are really talented but horrible leadership and work ethic it just is not going to happen. (SC4)

A lot of coaches may say, “Hey, it is in my job description to get them bigger and stronger, not to develop leaders and build team camaraderie.” It is up to the head coach. I don’t believe this type of mentality will set the team up for success. I know a lot of coaches feel this way. (SC1)

I would say the ways to develop it is by giving rules and standards and try to see which athletes help you hold the other athletes and peer accountable to these standards. Those are the guys and girls who develop into your leaders. (SC2)

Leadership in this profession today takes a total commitment to the head coach and team. Take ownership in that team and become a part of that team and communicate the head coach’s philosophy, because without these things, there won’t be success. (SC3)

Personal leadership philosophy. The SC coaches who were interviewed provided glimpses into their personal philosophies of leadership.

I don’t have a lot of time for staff orientation or staff development. I have told the interns who work with us that I am not only coaching the athlete on the floor but I’m coaching you. The first days of training you need to be in my back pocket. I have found I can take a staff member through a day long or hours long orientation but they do not absorb as much as they do when they are out there in the real world, correcting wrong technique or when I’m coaching a drill. Those half day or day long orientations are just worthless. (SC1)

Part of my philosophy of leading athletes and staff is just really be your-self. I tell our staff and our athletes all the time that you may not agree with everything I say and there are going to be days you love me and days you hate me. But at the end of the day what you get from me is my true self. There are no hidden agendas; there is no curtain you have to try to peek behind. (SC2)

Our goal as coaches is not to make them better lifters or better body builders, we want our athletes to be better athletes. So, our number 1 goal is to create and increase athleticism with each individual sport. (SC3)

This is our philosophy in regards to leading our staff, our players, and how you live your life. I try to live my life like this to be the example to them. If we can live like this, train like this, play like this, we will be successful, it just becomes who you are.

E – enthusiasm, we want our athletes and coaches to work with enthusiasm, that doesn’t mean they need to be “rah-rah” people but they need to be excited about the opportunity to get better.
F – focus, our coaches need to be focused, we need to know what we are supposed to do because if you don’t know what you’re doing you can’t give a great effort.
F – finishers, this relates to a mindset and it’s the toughest thing to do. To teach an athlete how to finish things whether it’s a rep, a set, a run, a game, a test or anything like that it’s about getting the athletes to understand what finishing is all about.
O – opportunity, we want our coaches and athletes to realize that every time they get a chance to coach or train it gives them an opportunity to get better. When we put all those little opportunities together when we get to the big opportunities present themselves they will have a good chance of being successful.
R – resilient, take adversity and see what you can do with it. If you can do it in the weight room and it in practice, then you can do it in a game and hopefully in life. We want to set the athletes up to be ready, it’s not just about winning and losing its so much more we want these young people to be successful in life when they leave here as well.
T – together, we want everyone to do things together as a team. (SC4)

Best practices in leadership development. These SC coaches shared what they and their staffs do to assist in developing leadership of their athletes, both formal and informal methods.

As far as teaching them how to lead, giving them ownership of the team, having those athletes keep the younger athletes, or mentor the younger athletes, athletes, or just coaching them on how to do exercises and how to do things goes a long way. You are educating your athletes as well as training them. (SC1)

Instead of captains we have a leadership committee. Our leadership committee is made up of 20 players – some are seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen. This committee is voted on by their peers to be on it. For me, I obviously try to get to know all of our players but I especially try to get to know our guys on the leadership committee real well, from the standpoint of how they think, how they operate, how they act, and then when we see things, especially from a peer coaching perspective, we help in educating them to be more effective at that. (SC2)

I’ve done some (leadership) video stuff and really enjoy that and have done some team competitions by putting different people in leadership roles to see how they lead. You can stretch them by putting them in uncomfortable situations so they learn more about themselves and more about other people as well. (SC3)

We try to get our leaders to be consistent with everything they do, we always say you can’t be a leader if no one is following you. I work with captains on building leadership but again I think this is where a lot of people get off base with building leadership. People always look to the captains, who are usually upper classmen, does this mean they are our best leaders? Absolutely not, I feel the weight room is the best way for us to see who the real leaders are. It’s about who is accountable, and discipline who will follow that guy and their work ethic. It really boils down to who will follow you, because if you have people who will follow you then it is your obligation to lead those people in the right direction. And we as coaches need to identity those people, and we are the best people to decide that, every day we push people to the brink and we get the opportunity to see who is going to step up and get people going, we see that. (SC4)

“Buy-in” best practices. More than a few words were used to describe “buy-in” by the SC coaches, which include commitment, drive, and trust.

To get the athletes to work for you and trust you, to get them to develop to their fullest potential, to have success and to have a successful team, I think it’s important that you don’t sit there and try to have them like you. It’s important that they respect you – there’s a difference there. They will like you because you are pushing them to be better. I have too many years’ experience and have had so many athletes thank me for pushing them. Some of these kids are breaking down in tears thanking me for having an impact on them, not just their career playing football but in their lives. That tells you a lot, especially about what motivates athletes. (SC1)

The first and foremost way to get buy-in is through our program. If the program wasn’t doing what we set out to do then we would not have continued buy-in, nor would I continue to be working in this profession. The second thing is to go beyond football, to tie things more to life, like all of the accountability standards we try to hold them to, and the work ethic standards we hold them to. (SC2)

It starts with me. The athletes buy-in to you as a person before they buy into your system of training. (SC3)

Be consistent, be yourself. I can’t really explain it, I’m just myself, I have never said something to them that I can’t get done. They know if I say it I will deliver on it and they respect that. I think a lot of young coaches today are either I am just going to come in and drop the hammer down on them or I am going to be their friends because I want them to like me and it can’t be like that. You need to just be yourself because again the athletes can see through that, be who you are. (SC4)

Motivation and Communication
The “bread and butter” of what SC coaches do on a daily basis is how they can help their athletes motivate themselves, and intervene if motivation is less than ideal, and the primary method of doing so is effective communication practices.

Motivation 101. One cannot talk about strength and conditioning without talking about motivation.

First, when athletes realize you care about them more than just in the weight room, that is going to solve some of your motivational problems. They are going to work harder for you when they see that. I believe for there to be real success there is shared ownership in the team. We talk about teamwork so much with the athletes, and you have to ask what kind of an example are you setting if you are just saying, “Hey, my job is from 3 to 5 o’clock with that team in the weight room and that’s it.” I don’t think you are setting a real good example of team work, communicating with your coaches, and buying into the program. (SC1)

Just being around the players as much as we are around them, year-round, and them being around you, builds trust and motivation. There was a great quote I heard one time by Herm Edwards, the coach for the Jets and ESPN analyst: “I don’t treat every player the same but I treat every player fair.” One of the biggest things, besides being myself and being around the guys, you being consistent is one of the biggest things that fosters trust. (SC2)

Kids know if you care about them or not – kids know if you are a fake or a phony – it doesn’t take them long. Kids know if you are really passionate and love your job and love working with them. (SC3)

Don’t make me beg you for your best effort. I always tell our athletes today’s efforts become tomorrow’s results. So, there’s no magic formula that says okay this is how we do it. (SC4)

Talking the talk. The coaches did mention the impact that technology has on their coaching.

With today’s technology, when we have time after a workout we try to communicate with the athletes prior to another lift to comment on things like, “hey, you did this today and that was good, or you can improve in this area.” I sometimes use texting or email or phone calls to communicate more often with my athletes. This is how I’ve come from old school to new school. (SC1)

Some of my communication has developed and grown in just understanding that you have to bring them along and give them the work they need but at the same time too, sometimes tell your athletes, “I am a father but I’m not your father.” But I’m someone who is here for you. (SC2)

The biggest thing with it is to simply do it and it needs to be consistent. Sometimes you have to over-communicate because we can be so bad at it. (SC3)

Advice for Next Generation of SC Coaches
The part about not getting athletes to simply like you – they need to respect you. When they are in the weight room it is not time to talk about their personal life. Time can be set aside for that. When it is time to train it is training time. The next piece is to take ownership in the team. Find out about that sport. The ins and outs of that sport. Get to know that team, the coaching staff and the players. Let them know you are bought in, you have ownership, you are vested in this, and the coaches and athletes will be open to working with you when they see that ownership. (SC1)

The biggest thing is we live in a very driven society who wants dessert before we eat dinner. When it comes to earning trust, it is important to know it takes time. Today’s youth does not buy into the “I am an authority figure, trust me.” They have to feel comfortable with you – they have to feel you have their best interest – they have to feel that you are around to help them. All these things take time to build. (SC2)

The best leaders are servant leaders. I don’t care if you have been in this field for 20 years like me or you are two months in the field, don’t let any job be too big for you. Get out there on that floor and you will gain so much respect. (SC3)

Again, be yourself. If you want your athletes to have certain qualities then you better be doing it yourself so you can be the example. If you want to be good in this profession you can never be off. You are always being watched and judged by athletes, coaches, administration, you are always in the limelight. You better be who you are 24/7. You can’t be one thing in the weight room and one thing outside of it, it’s not ground breaking stuff its simple stuff. (SC4)

CONCLUSIONS
Based on the themes that emerged from interviews with these SC professionals, several conclusions can be drawn. In terms of challenges for SC professionals, having the time to plan comprehensive programs and making changes/adjustments to those programs requires good time management. Also, the pressure to perform to high standards and win consistently as a team can be challenging. The field of Strength & Conditioning does not always get the respect it deserves
as a profession and while the field is gaining more respect, more work needs to be done. Other important challenges are the athlete’s preparation, or lack of preparation, outside of the program and working with this generation of athletes who are absorbed in technology and might not have as well developed social/life skills.

Leadership development is important to the SC professionals because strong leaders help the team work together to be successful and this skill can be transferred to life beyond athletics. This can be developed through establishing rules and standards and holding everyone accountable. The SC professional serves as an important example of how to be an effective leader and in educating their athletes on leadership. The key is to be yourself and demonstrate the qualities you want your athletes to display.

Another main theme refers to “buy-in” by the SC coaches and for athletes to “buy-in” to the program, the athletes need to respect you first. Also, in terms of motivating their athletes, several SC coaches believed spending time with their athletes helps the athletes to develop trust, which in turn helps motivates the athletes to work hard for the program.

Advice from these SC professionals for new professionals to the field of Strength and Conditioning is to earn the respect and trust of their athletes and know that this takes time. In addition, when the athletes and coaches see that you have “bought-in” to the program, they will be more open to working with you. Finally, it is important to always be yourself and be professional.

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