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Building Without a Plan: The Career Experiences of Australian Strength and Conditioning Coaches

Dawson, Andrew J.; Leonard, Zane M.; Wehner, Kylie A.; Gastin, Paul B.

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: May 2013 - Volume 27 - Issue 5 - p 1423–1434
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318267a214
Original Research
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Dawson, AJ, Leonard, ZM, Wehner, KA, and Gastin, PB. Building without a plan: The career experiences of Australian strength and conditioning coaches. J Strength Cond Res 27(5): 1423–1434, 2013—The purpose of this investigation was to explore the career experiences of Australian strength and conditioning coaches. Six Australian strength and conditioning coaches (mean age = 33.7 years, SD = 6.0 years) with a mean of 10.4 (SD = 4.9) years experience working with elite Olympic and professional athletes were interviewed about their experiences of career development. Each interview was transcribed verbatim and analyzed to produce key themes and subthemes relating to (a) work environments, (b) sport management practice, (c) career development processes, and (d) career building strategies. The work environments of Australian strength and conditioning coaches were found to be poor because of long working hours and irregular human resource policy and management practices of sport organizations. Because of the volatile and unpredictable nature of their working conditions, the coaches interviewed have only a short-term view of their career creating considerable stress in their lives. The coaches interviewed found it difficult to develop their careers because their only options were self-supported and self-funded professional development activities. The coaches in this study believed that more needed to be done at a policy and management level by sport organizations and their professional body to enhance the career development of strength and conditioning coaches because they play a key role in both athlete and sport organization performance. These results may help sport organizations develop policies and management practices that enhance the careers of strength and conditioning coaches and will have important practical implications for the education and development of sport professionals.

School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University, Burwood, Victoria, Australia

Address correspondence to Dr. Andrew J. Dawson, andrew.dawson@deakin.edu.au.

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Introduction

The recent growth in professionalism in sport has provided athletes, coaches, and sport service professionals opportunities to develop their careers (11,15,39). Aligned with the rapid growth in sport professionalism, there has been an equal development of several support services such as the strength and conditioning coach. Worldwide, strength and conditioning coaches have been employed through government-funded organizations such as high schools, colleges and universities, national and state institutes of sport, and privately funded professional sport organizations and individual athletes. The profession of strength and conditioning coaching is also growing with organizations such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association commencing in 1978 (29), The United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association commencing in 2004 (40), and the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association (ASCA) commencing in 1992 (3). All 3 organizations support the career development of their members through offering education programs, professional development opportunities, and encouraging research and development in strength and conditioning.

Strength and conditioning coaches provide an essential service to individual athletes, sport teams, and sport organizations by testing, evaluating, and prescribing appropriate exercises for training athletes that enhance athlete performance and aim to prevent sports injuries (5). The number of responsibilities that must be carried out by the strength and conditioning coach may depend upon the following: (a) the context (individual athlete or a team sport), (b) employment type (full- or part-time position), (c) the role (senior or assistant position), and (d) the employer (amateur/professional club, state/national institute or academy of sport, or self-employed) (5). Indeed, Tod et al. (39) recently provided insight into the complexities of working and developing as a strength and conditioning coach when they explored the professional development of practitioners working in North America, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. Although there is some empirical knowledge about the work of strength and conditioning coaches in North America (21,22), little is known about the work and careers of strength and conditioning coaches working outside of North America despite the extensive body of knowledge about the career development of athletes (15,36) and the emerging literature on coach careers (18,26). There is a little understanding of the careers of professional staff serving sport beyond anecdotal reports such as a recent editorial about the dynamic and insecure work conditions of elite sport scientists working in the United Kingdom (37).

Studies focusing on athlete careers have revealed that the prospect of retirement and early career termination produced negative responses in some athletes such as adjustment disorders and depression, whereas others were able to accept their transition and move on to the next phase of their life with minimal disruption or personal hardship (18,36). Research on athlete career transition has also found that the key to adjusting to the various transitions encountered during a career relates to the individual's concept of their identity as an athlete (6,7). The research on the careers of sport coaches has emphasized the importance of having system-wide policies and management practices to support coaches at all levels of sport development (11,16,18). These studies highlighted the growing need for “person-centered” coach education rather than simple skill-based learning indicating that a more holistic approach to coach career development was essential (11,16,18). In the recent coach tracking study in the United Kingdom (38), coaches were drifting away from formal institutional-based programs to a more self-paced, contextual, and coach-centered method of development. Because of the lack of empirical knowledge about strength and conditioning coaches' careers means that it is not known if these findings about athlete and coaches careers apply.

Career development is complex and defined by the National Career Development Association (NCDA) as “the total constellation of psychological, sociological, educational, physical, economic, and chance factors that combine to influence the nature and significance of work in the total lifespan of any given individual” (27). Contemporary models of career development provide a framework to discuss the complex processes involved in the career development of strength and conditioning coaches (8). Super's “Life span/Life space” meta-theory of career development (34) accounts for the complexity described by NCDA. Acknowledging the complexity of people's lives, Super integrated the prevailing psychological (8), sociological theory (17), and economic theory (28) to account for the complexity of career development. The “life span” component of Super's model is characterized by 5 developmental stages: Growth (stage 1, approximately 0–12 years), Exploration (stage 2, approximately 13–21 years), Establishment (stage 3, approximately 22–35 years), Maintenance (stage 4, approximately 36–60 years), and Disengagement (stage 5, approximately 61 years and older). Super asserts that each individual cycles through each stage, sometimes recycling (particularly in stages 3 and 4) when changing their career. The “life space” component of Super's model posits that workers are busy living their life while earning an income and playing a range of roles at each of the stages mentioned above. The life space segment of Super's model posits that people differ in the degree of importance they attach to their work influenced by a multitude of roles they play such as son or daughter, spouse (partner), parent, student; citizen; worker; or leisurite. These roles are generally played out in 4 main theaters: the home, the education environment (i.e., school/university/vocational training), the workplace, and the community. Super believed that one's career decisions are directly influenced by constantly evolving self-concepts and that career decisions contain both objective and subjective elements that continue to develop over time, making career choices and adjusting to them lifelong tasks.

The purpose of this investigation was to explore the career experiences of Australian strength and conditioning coaches and to compare those experiences with current knowledge about career development from non-sport sectors (8,35). This investigation examines the careers of 6 Australian strength and conditioning coaches using Super's model of career development as a lens to inform the policy and management of strength and conditioning coach careers across all levels of sport development. This research is important and timely because without a deep understanding of a strength and conditioning coach's career development, the profession of strength and conditioning coaching in Australia (an elsewhere) faces numerous challenges to provide appropriate education and support to its members. For this investigation, 4 key questions about strength and conditioning coaches careers were drawn from the literature discussed previously on both sport and non-sport careers: (a) What is the status of Australian strength and conditioning coaches working conditions? (b) How is strength and conditioning coach career development managed in Australia? (c) How do theories related to non-sport professionals apply to the careers of Australian strength and conditioning coaches? and (d) What support is provided to Australian strength and conditioning coaches for their career development? Even though the focus of this investigation is on Australian strength and conditioning coaches, the results have both theoretical and applied implications. Theoretically, this study provides initial data on the career development and emergence of a strength and conditioning coach profession. From an applied perspective, this study has provided useful information for both practicing strength and conditioning coaches and students interested in entering this field of work by learning from the experiences of other practitioners on how to enhance their career development.

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Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

To answer this study's questions about the careers of Australian strength and conditioning coaches, a qualitative, in-depth interview-based survey design was used (20). Qualitative methods used in this study are similar to those used by Tod et al. (39) investigating the professional development of strength and conditioning coaches (39). Qualitative research methods are recommended in exploring uncharted knowledge with grounded theory techniques such as the semi-structured interviews allowing the researcher, through detailed exploration of emergent themes, to construct a theory grounded in data (20). To ensure the adherence to rigorous data collection and analysis procedures, Liamputong's (20) qualitative research guidelines were adhered to. To participate in this study, the subjects needed to have a minimum of 5 years experience as practicing strength and conditioning coaches to ensure they had enough experience to draw on when asked questions about their career. Similar to Tod et al. (39), the method of data saturation was employed to determine sample size by asking each participant a series of questions focused on the aims of this study. New subjects were recruited only if there was no consensus in response to an interview question (20). A final sample of 6 subjects was considered to be suitable for this study because data saturation was reached with 4 or more subjects providing similar answers to each of the interview questions. The interview questions were taken from previous research in both sport and non-sport career development (11,19,26,32). The interview schedule is presented in Table 1.

Table 1

Table 1

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Subjects

The Deakin University Research Ethics Committee approved this study's procedures. Each subject was selected randomly from the state of Victoria section found in “Find a Coach” link on the ASCA website (4). The state of Victoria was chosen for both the convenience of close proximity to Deakin University and the relatively high proportion of practicing strength and conditioning coaches compared with other Australian states. Each subject was initially contacted by telephone and then via e-mail, inviting them to participate in this study. Before commencing, each subject received a “plain language statement” and ”consent to participate” form, which they all signed and returned before being interviewed. All 6 subjects (5 men and 1 woman) were working either full time (5) or part time (1) as strength and conditioning coaches. The subjects had a mean age of 33.7 years (SD = 6.0 years) and had a mean of 10.8 years experience (SD = 4.9 years; range = 5–18 years), working with state, national or professional level athletes. Five of the 6 subjects were members of the ASCA. Five of the 6 subjects had a sport science–related bachelor's degree, 1 had a master's degree, and 2 had PhD degrees with a strength and conditioning focus. Three subjects worked for government-funded institutions and 3 worked in non–government-funded professional sport organizations. To ensure context validity and reduce the risk of homogeneity, subjects were selected from a variety of sports and occupational settings that reflect the ways Australian strength and conditioning coaches work. For example, in Table 2, the subject named Michael works full time in a professional Australian Football League club, whereas Robert has 3 part-time roles in the sports of Basketball, Badminton, and Canoeing.

Table 2

Table 2

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Procedures

Once the subjects provided consent to participate in this study, face to face interviews were arranged. Each subject was sent a copy of the interview schedule 1 week before their appointment allowing them to prepare for their interview. Data collection consisted of one face-to-face, in-depth semi-structured interview per subject lasting 45–60 minutes that was recorded using a Zoom H2 digital recorder (Zoom, Tokyo, Japan) before being transcribed verbatim. Once the interviews were transcribed, they were sent back to each subject to check for accuracy and seek further input in case any of the subjects wanted to add any further comments. The interview questions were developed using methods employed by Dawson (11), where questions were drawn from both the sport and non-sport career literature, because this served to ensure that all questions remained relevant to the subject's career (11,16,18,35). Open-ended questions were used to allow subjects to freely answer each question and to allow the researcher to encourage each subject to elaborate or provide examples to illustrate their answers.

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Statistical Analyses

In-depth interviews are useful when trying to understand people or situations. Following the qualitative data analysis guidelines from Liamputtong (20), each interview was analyzed separately, to develop a clear understanding of each individual's career. The interview data from each of the subjects were coded into higher-order (or common) terms and phrases and then lower-order (or less common) terms or phrases. From those higher- and lower-ordered terms and phrases, major and minor themes began to emerge. Major themes were identified when 4 or more of the subjects responded in a similar way to a question, whereas minor themes related to up to 3 responses to a question. To ensure reliability of the data analysis, 2 steps were undertaken. First, member checking of interview transcripts was conducted before data analysis commenced. Member checking ensures the accuracy of the subjects' responses by sending them a copy of their interview transcript and asking them to comment on the accuracy of their responses and provide any further detail that may have been missed during their interview. All 6 subjects responded to the member checking request, and none had any amendments or additional information to add to their transcripts. The second step involved the triangulation of the interview data where 2 other researchers analyzed the data until consensus was reached on the themes and subthemes that emerged (20).

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Results

The subjects discussed their personal views on their careers as strength and conditioning coaches and about their personal journey and experiences in the profession. The reflective nature of the discussion was considered crucial to identifying the career development process experienced by the interviewees (20). Semi-structured interviews produced a considerable quantity of data that after careful analysis produced 6 main themes. The themes that emerged from the data provided a compelling story about the career experiences of Australian strength and conditioning coaches. In the following discussion, selected quotes are used to highlight the themes and to give voice to the strength and conditioning coach’s interviewed. Pseudonyms have been used to protect the subjects' identity.

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Insider/Outsider

The strength and conditioning coaches were asked how they had progressed to their current position and what was required for the strength and conditioning coach to be successful in their career. The term “insider/outsider” refers to access and opportunity in gaining work as a strength and conditioning coach, with those who had worked at either an institute of sport or professional club viewed as an insider (socialized into the strength and conditioning subculture) and those who were yet to gain employment at either setting considered an outsider.

Although the transition from outsider to insider was a difficult step for prospective strength and conditioning coaches, 4 of the 6 coaches mentioned that an inside contact had provided them with an opportunity to gain valuable work experience and then employment:

“It's who you know and you know I'm fortunate that I've been an elite athlete and worked in this field so that's given me a few advantages over some of the people not in my situation” (John).

Possessing extra qualifications (e.g., masters or PhD) was also mentioned as a way for outsiders to break into the industry. When discussing the minimum qualifications to work as a strength and conditioning coach at the elite level, all coaches referred to the importance of an undergraduate degree in a sport-related area as a foundation. Attaining an additional postgraduate qualification however appeared to be becoming a greater expectation in Australia as Michael says:

“Undergrad is no longer good enough; you've got to be doing post grad or Masters in strength and conditioning at least” (Michael).

In contrast, the importance of practical experience was also highlighted with subjects concerned about the lack of practical application within university undergraduate degrees:

“I think qualifications are one thing but it's about understanding how those transfer in a practical situation … I think the exercise science courses that I've done … have been very good in terms of knowledge base … but a key gap is getting the experience” (Robert).

The data suggest that tertiary qualifications are necessary for the strength and conditioning coach, but that continuing development, mostly in the form of postgraduate qualifications, is becoming more of a trend for higher paid/status jobs.

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Work Practices

Coaches were asked about their work environment including human resource processes, their typical working week, stresses at work, and work relationships. A lack of standardized human resource processes contributed to the uncertainty of working as a strength and conditioning coach, with 4 of the 6 subjects (who worked for professional sport organizations) having no induction when commencing their strength and conditioning positions. In comparison, Sue (who worked for a government-funded sports institute) received a comprehensive induction and felt “part of the place” very quickly. Induction processes allow new members, through training by an established staff member, to familiarize themselves with the expectations, structures, culture, and systems of their new organization. Government-based sport organizations therefore seemed to have better human resource processes compared with professional sporting clubs, with this lack of induction a major concern for those subjects in the professional sport strength and conditioning coach positions.

The typical week for the strength and conditioning coach consisted of long and varied working hours and a large amount of administration work as reflected in David's typical week:

“A typical week would be starting probably at 7 o'clock to midday, working anywhere from skill based sessions, running sessions, weight sessions, rehabilitation, … during the afternoon was normally my paperwork time … and then the nights from between 4 and 7pm were with junior squads. And that was Monday through to Saturday, and some Sundays” (David).

Working long and unusual hours was considered normal in sports, and subjects felt fortunate that working in high performance settings in the early stages of their career was beneficial. Because they were young, naive, enthusiastic, and willing to do whatever it takes to help their athletes succeed, they believed they were probably overworked and much more was expected of them than would otherwise be reasonable in other work settings. All subjects believed that those strength and conditioning coaches who persevered the longest would eventually be rewarded:

“You know, the thing is that everyone does their apprenticeship … if you're really passionate for it, it will come, and if you're good at it, you'll get paid well” (Daniel).

The coaches were also asked about issues relating to stresses at work, including work load, dealing with coaches and athletes, and uncontrollable factors that can influence perceived job performance like athlete injuries:

“That's my biggest issue with strength and conditioning, is just simply that you know, you're blamed if skill areas are down based on fatigue or injuries, at which stage it can just be pure coincidence” (Robert).

Difficulty in working with athletes was also highlighted by subjects with Michael in particular having issues with a lack of respect from athletes:

“I get stressed more the way the players are with their moods or the way they sometimes speak to you or the way they treat you … At times it can be difficult, and you can take that home” (Michael).

Coping with aggressive, demanding coaches and athletes seem to be the main stressors for strength and conditioning coaches. This may be because of the cutthroat nature of the industry with coaches and players under similar contractual pressure to succeed. The subjects were also asked to describe their work environments in terms of relationships and their working conditions throughout their careers, with 4 coaches deeming a strong relationship with fellow coaches imperative:

“As a group you need to work closely together (with other coaching staff), and if one of those is out of sync, not reading from the same hymn sheet, then you'll find that they'll quickly be asked to leave” (Robert).

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Professional Organization/Advocacy

Unlike the United States, where the strength and conditioning coach profession has become well established in the college sport systems (21), where sport professionals are employed by relatively large organizations, in Australia there seems to be a lack of structure and organization because of professional sport clubs being relatively small businesses who operate independently of more regulated systems such as the government-funded institutes of sport. The subjects employed by professional sport clubs were concerned about the lack of work standards and career development support:

“The whole system is not scrutinised, there's no structure to it. You know, how you can possibly go from, no study in sport science, no education at all in strength and conditioning to working in a strength and conditioning role” (Robert).

The income levels of strength and conditioning coaches seemed to vary dramatically from volunteering at lower-level entry jobs to the very high-income earners who held top end positions at professional sporting organizations. The strength and conditioning coaches in this study seemed to be frustrated with these varying pay levels within and across sports, and because there are no set pay standards for strength and conditioning coaches, the coaches themselves had to negotiate their own contracts, often having to present a case for better pay based on the market value for coaches in similar positions:

“I'm actually well underpaid compared to (strength and conditioning coaches at) other clubs … A lot of them have only been in (the system) half of the time I've been in. So I presented it (on a spread sheet) and said my case that, well, if you guys are saying that I'm as good as anyone else … I should be being paid at market value” (Michael).

The subjects were concerned that there were no guidelines or help from the ASCA regarding pay scales and contract negotiations so the end of year work negotiations with professional clubs was stressful and often left coaches feeling undervalued as professionals.

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Job Insecurity

The unpredictable nature of sport means that the job security of strength and conditioning coaches may be determined by on-field success that can often be affected by injuries and the quality of athletes they work with. All 6 subjects raised concerns regarding job security. The main reasons cited included a new coach coming into the club or injuries to players resulting in poor performance:

“A lot of the strength and conditioning jobs, are very fickle as far as you can be in a job for a year or two and a new coach comes in and you're gone” (John).

Further uncertainty comes from subjects not being able to see a future for themselves beyond their current job because they do not have the time to think beyond the short term and plan their next career move. The unpredictable nature of the industry was best summed up by Robert saying that “every job is your career.”

The strength and conditioning coaches working at professional clubs were often asked to accept short contracts (1–2 years) at the beginning and even latter stages of their careers. Long-term contracts and ongoing positions seemed to be a rarity. The more experienced coaches did their research about the organization and weighed up their values when making a decision about signing a contract:

“Now strength and conditioning is a good area to be in, but how long do you want to last, and do you get the right contract. I now refuse to sign a one year contract. It's not fair, it's not reasonable” (Robert).

Although strength and conditioning coaches working in high-revenue sports seemed to be reimbursed well compared with those working in lower profile sports and government-funded sport organizations, the downside was the lack of security and increased accountability, especially if they were the only strength and conditioning coach employed by the club.

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Career Transition and Development

The most challenging transitions for the strength and conditioning coaches in this study were moving into their first full-time paid position and working with different sports and athletes:

“The rugby culture was easy. I mean they were pretty good blokes and they give you respect straight up. But AFL (Professional Australian Football League) culture, you had to earn the players respect no matter what you've done elsewhere” (Michael).

Subjects were asked to describe key factors in their professional development as a strength and conditioning coach. Gaining experience early on in their career was the most valued method for these coaches' professional development:

“I'd still say that you can't really beat just getting your hands dirty, and you make mistakes and the rest of it … but it doesn't really matter early on. Whereas once you get to professional level each mistake is magnified” (David).

When starting out in state and national government–based roles, professional coaches were provided with opportunities to try different training methods and to be part of brainstorming workshops within those sport organizations to further their strength and conditioning knowledge. Once they moved into a professional sport club, that opportunity for development disappeared. One coach had not discussed their professional development with their employer who assumed they knew all they needed to know because of their high level of expertise.

The effects of personal development interventions on the careers of athletes have been shown to enhance feelings of self-confidence and self-worth producing positive career transitions (15). The subjects in this study were aware of the importance of constantly developing themselves to become a better strength and conditioning coach:

“I do everything in my power to develop myself. Whether it be through, networking and going to different sports, or whether it be through attending conferences … Or I'll go overseas for 3 months of the year watching how others coach in another sport just looking for an opportunity to broaden my knowledge” (Robert).

Once again, the competitive and unpredictable nature of the industry was driving the subjects to focus on developing their professional and personal skills and attributes to enable them to stay up to date with best practice and apply that knowledge to their own work.

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Strength and Conditioning Future

The coaches were asked to discuss how the strength and conditioning industry will develop over the next 5–10 years. Coaches believed that there had been exponential growth in the profession in recent years and that employment opportunities would continue to increase especially in professional clubs. However, the subjects believed that the ASCA needed to improve its advocacy of strength and conditioning coaches by making stronger representation of the needs of strength and conditioning coaches:

“There's a coaches association. There's a players association. But there's no support staff association … If you're a strength and conditioning coach, where do you go? If you lose your job, where do you go?” (Robert).

The coaches were also asked to provide career advice to prospective strength and conditioning coaches. Networking and establishing contacts were considered vital components in enhancing the prospect of having a successful career as a coach:

“Make contacts … keep the relationship because you just never know who you're going to end up working with or who might be looking for someone to employ as their assistant or as a rehab person” (Michael).

Diversifying knowledge and skills and starting at the bottom and volunteering their services in a range of sports and situations were also mentioned as important for the prospective strength and conditioning coach.

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Discussion

The theory developed from this study was drawn from the experiences of 6 Australian strength and conditioning coaches. A key limitation to this study is the small sample size that may represent bias or exclude important data from the following discussion. Nevertheless, in-depth surveys allow for a more detailed exploration of the issues and challenges faced by individuals in their lives, in this case, Australian strength and conditioning coaches. There are 4 key findings that frame the following discussion about the challenges faced by strength and conditioning coaches and their career development: (a) Unstable work environments, (b) fragmented organizational system, (c) erratic career transition and development processes, and (d) building career networks and pathways for strength and conditioning coaches.

The initial question this investigation was aiming to answer was “What is the status of Australian strength and conditioning coach working conditions?” At present, there appears to be a lack of structured human resource processes for strength and conditioning coaches working at professional sporting organizations in Australia. Five of the 6 subjects stated that there were no induction systems in their workplaces. Without a formal induction process, strength and conditioning coaches are expected to grasp accepted behaviors and values of the organizations' subculture themselves, which could result in ostracism from the group if they are unable to successfully engage with athletes and coaches. This lack of induction process contributed to the levels of stress experienced by the subjects working in professional sport. The subjects who had previously worked for government-funded sport organizations, now employed by privately funded professional clubs, reflected positively on the well-organized human resource systems, with all coaches reporting less job insecurity suggesting that they were happier about their workplace even though they reported that they were earning significantly less income.

There is little reference in the strength and conditioning literature about the different responsibilities that strength and conditioning coaches face working under varied conditions and circumstances (13,22). In this study, there was high variability between subjects regarding their responsibilities and hours worked, with a large amount of administration contributing to an almost unmanageable workload in some cases. These stressful workloads were compounded by a lack of work flexibility in terms of hours and days, as well as time off due to illness. Recent literature has found that strength and conditioning coaches can average up to 12 hours of work per day (14) causing significant time pressure and job stress, placing high physical and psychological demands on the strength and conditioning coach (24). In this study, all the subjects worked most weekends with a complete day off during the week a rarity, which is at odds with the athlete and coach welfare policy advocated by the Australian Sports Commission (2). It would be well received if the ASCA were able to follow the lead of professional athlete associations such as the Australian Football League Players Association (1) who have managed to successfully secure a day of leave during the week for their members.

This study revealed that the strength and conditioning coaches interviewed placed tremendous value on having a strong relationship with athletes, other support staff, and in particular the head coach and players. However, although this may be a satisfying relationship, there can also be a perceived lack of respect and appreciation of the strength and conditioning coaches' role by the head coach (25). If the team did not perform well or injuries occurred (a significant stressor for the subjects in this study), it was the strength and conditioning coach who was blamed. For strength and conditioning coaches in this investigation, coping with aggressive and demanding coaches and athletes was also considered a significant stressor, and difficulties with other coaching staff was viewed as a disadvantage of being a strength and conditioning coach (14). With coaches and athletes under similar contractual pressure to perform, and the unpredictable and volatile nature of the industry, the strength and conditioning coaches in this study felt uncertain about their future career prospects.

The second question in this study was “How is strength and conditioning coaches career development managed in Australia?” The number of people employed in North America as strength and conditioning coaches has increased dramatically over the past 3 decades (12). In Australia, there has also been considerable growth in employment of strength and conditioning coaches in professional sport and government institutes and academies of sport, but an organized system of management has not kept pace. Although it is now widely accepted that strength and conditioning coaches play a critical role in improving athletic performance (25), the relative infancy and much smaller scale of the profession in Australia has resulted in limited professional organization and advocacy for its members. The ASCA claims that they look after the interests of strength and conditioning coaches in Australia, yet there is little evidence of this happening from the perspective of this investigation's subjects. The ASCA is a relatively small professional organization that provides educational and professional resources for its members but is not capable of imposing working conditions and salary scales on the industry.

There seems to be an unwritten pathway into working as professional strength and conditioning coach, where considerable time is spent doing volunteer work, but from the experiences of the subjects in this study, the volunteer work seems to be unstructured and ad hoc. The only example of an organized internship appeared to be at the government-based institute of sport. The subjects who volunteered at professional and amateur sport organizations were expected to develop themselves with little or no mentoring or guidance. This period of volunteering, however, was viewed by the subjects as an investment period, which is consistent with the “discounted lifetime earnings” theory by Hotchkiss and Barrow (17). Hotchkiss and Barrow posited that individuals are prepared to discount their current earnings to avail themselves of the potential for greater future earnings. The lack of industry-recommended pay scales has resulted in the coaches themselves having to negotiate their own contracts often having to present a case for better pay based on the market value of other coaches in similar positions. Individuals working in high-revenue professional sports seem to be reimbursed well compared with those working in lower profile sports, which is consistent with Powers (30), who believed that the varying salaries of strength and conditioning coaches can often have implications on the level of accountability in their performance. Although the National Collegiate Athletic Association is a much more professionalized sport system than Australia's club-based professional sport system, research has shown that salaries can vary significantly dependent on the level of sporting competition in the U.S. college and professional sport systems (22).

The third question of this study was “How do career development theories apply to Australian strength and conditioning coaches?” It is in the best interests of an organization to have the career development of staff as a key feature of its strategic plan (28). Moving into their first full-time position and working with different athletes and sports, including different cultures of team sports, were the most challenging and difficult transitions for strength and conditioning coaches. Yet, the coaches progressed through these periods on their own, with not one subject receiving any assistance from their employers during these times.

The ability of individuals to adapt to transitions has been thoroughly investigated. Schlossberg's (33) “model for analyzing human adaptation to transition” asserts 3 important factors affecting adaptation: (a) the individual's perception of the particular transition, (b) the characteristics of pre- and post-transition environments, and (c) the characteristics of the individual. Attributes such as commitment, passion, and determination identified as necessary for success by the strength and conditioning coaches, in addition to developed networks, may enable them to deal with transitions better than most individuals. The literature suggests that a successful transition occurs mostly when the individual has adequate resources such as support networks, previous experience of a successful transition, a sense of competency, and good coping mechanisms (33). All the subjects in this study displayed the elements of successful transition. What is not known, however, is how many practitioners have not succeeded despite their ability and potential to be an excellent strength and conditioning coach. To date, there is little understanding of the Australian strength and conditioning coach workforce.

The literature about the career development of strength and conditioning coaches is limited (21). The career literature suggests that career transitions result in a change in assumptions about oneself and consequently leads to a corresponding change in one's goals, professional behavior, and relationships (28,35). Super (35) believes that career development is a form of interactive learning in which self-concept is a product of the interaction of inherited aptitudes, an opportunity to observe and take part in various roles, and evaluations of performance in which the results meet with the approval of superiors. This study revealed that many of the coaches believed that their professional development was largely because of gaining more experience that is consistent with previous studies on the careers of business managers (8) and the work of North American strength and conditioning coaches (13), where hands on experience provided them with opportunities to improve their technical skills, in many cases under the supervision of more experienced strength and conditioning coaches. Martinez (22) supported this notion in which North American strength and conditioning coaches believed it to be essential to gain coaching experience at the assistant and graduate assistant level. Opportunities for gaining experience through traineeships like those discussed in the North American studies are comparatively rare in the Australian setting.

The coaches in this study had a simpler outlook on career development with their own ideas about developing themselves in areas that they believed would add to their technical knowledge. This is consistent with the work of Dawson (11), whose investigation on the careers of Australian athletics coaches revealed that both the coach and their employers viewed development solely from the technical perspective not seeing personal development as being important, which contrasts with the literature in non-sport careers (8,35). The strength and conditioning coaches in this investigation are the ones predominantly driving their development with 1 coach explaining that at no point in their career had they discussed with their employer their professional development. This lack of career planning and support from employers is consistent with Lavallee (18), who also noted that coaches feel they do not have the time to think about their careers let alone plan for life beyond the short term.

The role of personal development in career development is well documented in the non-sport career literature (8,28,35). The coaches interviewed were also aware of the importance of constantly developing themselves to become better strength and conditioning coaches. It was apparent that the competitive and unpredictable nature of the industry was driving the subjects to focus on developing their professional and personal skills and attributes. However, the opportunities and time available for personal development is often limited because of the work practice issues mentioned earlier (i.e., lack of time). In comparison, the knowledge and awareness of an athlete's personal development is well established (7,15). Athlete development is a major focus for national, state, and professional sporting organizations that employ specialists to coordinate the career and welfare management of athletes. At present, guidance has not been provided for support staff, and there are no clear processes in place to ensure that strength and conditioning coaches develop at the same pace as athletes. The main way the Australian strength and conditioning coaches develop themselves is by gaining qualifications and self-directed learning usually at their own expense despite the benefits to the development of athletes and to the organizations that employ them.

The qualifications of strength and conditioning coaches in Australia are currently varied as opposed to the more standardized system of college sport in the United States (30). It seems that attaining an undergraduate degree is necessary for Australian strength and conditioning coaches to display to prospective employers that they have completed the requisite course work required to condition elite athletes and possess a foundation to build upon. The data also suggest that continuing development mostly in the form of postgraduate qualifications is seen as a trend for higher status (and higher paid) jobs. This is consistent with previous research where a bachelor's degree is viewed essential (21,22,30), with a number of studies finding most, if not all, strength and conditioning coaches in North America holding a bachelor's degree (14,25,30) and over 70% of strength and conditioning coaches found to have obtained a graduate degree (30). However, structured formal education remains a relatively low-impact activity when compared with the benefits of a larger amount of hours receiving, observing, assisting, and leading coaching practice (9,10,31). This is also true for the Australian strength and conditioning coaches in this study because they believed that there was a lack of practical applicability in undergraduate courses and had to gain that knowledge elsewhere often unsupervised and with little support from their employer or the profession.

The final question of this investigation asked, “What support is provided for Australian strength and conditioning coaches for their career development?” As discussed earlier, the notion of an individual being an insider/outsider is a prominent consideration for potential employers of strength and conditioning coaches. Individuals who have worked inside the industry are likely to display similar values, beliefs, attitudes, and language, whereas individuals with no previous experience working or being an athlete at the elite level must be socialized into the sport's subculture (12,23). The subculture literature identifies this process of socialization as a deliberate act of identity construction through a variety of means, the most significant of which is modeling (12,23). Modeling involves mimicking the behaviors that an individual perceives to be characteristic of established members; it is also a common time for misidentifications, misrepresentations, and inappropriate comments (12,23). Sporting organizations may prefer established members of the industry over new members as they may view outsiders as a risky proposition because an outsider may not be able to adjust to the subculture.

Developing strength and conditioning coaches may enhance their professional development by the effective use of networking. Establishing relationships with other members of the industry enables strength and conditioning coaches an opportunity to share ideas and gain feedback. Networking may also increase job prospects by becoming better known within the strength and conditioning community. This is consistent with the sociology-based career literature (17) that contends that the career path taken is determined by status and reputation within the subculture. The coaches in this study seemed aware of this because a number of them were looking at ways of enhancing their reputation within the industry including embarking on postgraduate studies, speaking at conferences, and working overseas to improve their status. They believed they could demonstrate advanced knowledge and experience that emboldened their capacity to negotiate for higher pay and longer-term contracts.

Even though this study focuses on the experiences of Australian strength and conditioning coaches, the findings support and challenge well-established sport and non-sport career development theory and have implications for policy makers, sport managers, and strength and conditioning practitioners in Australia and countries where the profession is well established such as Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Working conditions of Australian strength and conditioning coaches seem to be characterized by long working hours and poor human resource systems in the sport organization that employs them. And because of the volatile and unpredictable nature of their working conditions, the strength and conditioning coaches in this study only have a short-term view of their career, believing self-development to be the only way to advance their careers, supporting the non-sport career development theories. Despite these organizational impediments, the strength and conditioning coaches in this study believe they can continue to grow and develop their careers.

This investigation focused on Australian strength and conditioning coaches, and therefore readers from other countries, needs to take this into account when considering the implications for their own career development. Nevertheless, the career stories of the subjects in this study have provided some useful insights into the challenges faced by strength and conditioning coaches who work in both professional and nonprofessional sport organizations. The findings from this research have particular application for researchers in sport development, sport managers, strength and conditioning practitioners, and students with aspirations of developing as a strength and conditioning professional.

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Practical Applications

First, the results of this study provides sport development researchers, sport policy makers, and sport managers insight into the complexities and challenges faced by strength and conditioning coaches with respect to their career development. Strength and conditioning coaches along with other sport service professionals, such as sport scientists, provide athletes, teams, and sport organizations with a valuable service that not only enhances performance but also contributes to their organization's success. Providing career stability by ensuring that the strength and conditioning coaches are accorded the same level of organizational support for their work and career is essential. Second, there is a need for advocacy agencies such as the ASCA to work with sport organizations to develop a standardized career pathway that includes student internships and transitional roles at professional and government-based sport organizations. The present perception from the subjects in this study is that in Australia this needs to become a priority for the ASCA to advance the profession. By strongly advocating both the professional standards and the achievements of its members to sport organizations, the ASCA can have more influence on the career development of its members. The third practical application from this study focuses on the practitioners themselves. Strength and conditioning coaches need to make time to develop their careers by continually building their networks, continuing their education, and developing their strategic management and people skills that allow them to survive and thrive in challenging occupational environments. For example, doing non-sport management training such as short courses on conflict resolution, negotiation skills, and strategic management will benefit them when it comes to working in stressful situations that often arise in sport. The fourth and final practical application from this study is that practitioners need to seek out mentoring that is going to help their career development. Finding a mentor who can enhance development is very important for both career prospects and your personal development.

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Keywords:

career development; work practices; policy development and management practice; human resource management; coach education

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