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A Call to Improve Educational Programs in Strength and Conditioning

Massey, C. Dwayne EdD1; Maneval, Mark PhD2

Strength & Conditioning Journal: February 2014 - Volume 36 - Issue 1 - p 23–27
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000025


1School of Education, University of Arkansas-Monticello, Monticello, Arkansas; and

2School of Continuing Studies, Tulane University-Mississippi Coast Campus, Biloxi, Mississippi

Conflicts of Interest and Source of Funding: The authors report no conflicts of interest and no source of funding.



Dwayne Massey is an associate professor at University of Arkansas-Monticello.



Mark Maneval is an adjunct professor at Tulane University Mississippi Coast Campus.

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The purpose of this article is to merge a qualitative-descriptive approach to studying strength and conditioning coaches (SCC) with the insight of other professionals with integrated expertise in the profession of teaching and coaching. The objective of this effort will be to better define the essential qualifications, prerequisites, and skills necessary to function and excel within the strength and conditioning profession. The conceptual underpinnings that have driven a qualitative-descriptive research perspective involving SCC have been based on the importance of investigating occupational life from the perspective of those individuals actually doing the job (14,15,17). As Sage (22) put it, “it is only by seeing the situation through the perspective of the person doing the job that a full and complete understanding of an occupational culture is formed.”

Questions that have been prominent in and guided the limited research using qualitative-descriptive methodologies involving SCC have included: (a) What do SCC like about their job? (b) What do they dislike? (c) What are their major job frustrations? (d) What would they change if they could? (e) In what work related activities do SCC engage? (f) How does the SCC view their relationship with fellow coaches within their respective athletic departments? And (g) How does their chosen profession affect the SCC relationships with their spouse and significant others (14,15,17)? By developing this insight into the social world of the person in the situation, we can begin to get a sense of what it is like to serve in the capacity of a SCC. From this linkage of a qualitative-descriptive investigative approach with the insights of other recognized experts, recommendations will be made concerning future training and educational preparation of prospective SCC entering the field.

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As we scrutinize the role of the SCC, one can easily defend the concept that the strength and conditioning of athletes is nothing, if not primarily, a coaching function. The argument can also be made that educational programs in strength and conditioning have traditionally done an excellent job teaching those scientific principles that underlie the basis of exercise. However, what our educational programs have not done as well is focus on those instructional, pedagogical, and communication skills that, likewise, assist the SCC to influence their athlete's behavior (3,13,16,18,19,25).

Vescovi et al. (25) expressed this sentiment when he asserted, “It appears that course work, while detailed in exercise physiology and biomechanics may need to extend beyond to other domains such as understanding budgets, developing computer and oral communication skills, comprehending sports psychology, and acquiring appropriate teaching methodologies.” Plisk (19), arriving at a similar conclusion declared, “Teaching is arguably the most important aspect of the strength and conditioning practitioner's job. Indeed the role of educator is fundamental to successful coaching but is often taken for granted.”

Previous research from the perspective of actual SCC working in the field is germane to this discussion. One of these SCC maintained, “My position is 99% coaching and 1% exercise physiology. You need to know the science to be effective, but at the end of the day, you are dealing with people. Your success will come down to how well you deal with people.” A second SCC reinforcing this position stated, “Coaching is 10 times more important than exercise physiology to what I do. Success in strength and conditioning is dependent more on talent than scientific knowledge. So much of the job is contingent on motivating athletes and getting them to buy into what you want them to do” (17).

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Another point of concern is the underlying curricular focus and rationale related to our educational programs within the field. Stone et al. (23) makes the case that in the United States, there is an overemphasis on exercise science at the expense of sport science–based curricula. They define exercise science as the study of biological responses and adaptations to exercise and training being largely concerned with health, health-related performance, and their underlying mechanisms (23). The authors make the point that although there can be carryover from the study of exercise science to sports, the carryover is largely indirect. Sports science, on the other hand, is described as being concerned with the enhancement of performance through the application of scientific principles and methods. As related and aligned disciplines, it would seem prudent that a curriculum based on sport science should serve as the foundation of our educational and training programs in strength and conditioning.

Stone et al. (23) points out that at the time of their article's printing in 2004, no university in the United States offered a course of study in the sport sciences. There is no evidence that this circumstance has changed substantially in the intervening years with only 1 educational institution currently being identified that seems to offer such an educational opportunity (see United States Sports Academy website at Although numerous universities have the term sports science in their academic department title, these programs still emphasize the study of the physiological, biomechanical, and psychological aspects of exercise at the expense of a sport science concentration (23,26).

Although it would seem obvious that there needs to be a continued emphasis on the teaching of physiology, biomechanics, psychology, motor learning, and nutrition, these domains should be related directly to sports and the sporting environment (23). Stone et al. (23) recounts that students applying for internships at the 3 United States Olympic training centers are knowledgeable in common exercise science laboratory techniques such as V[Combining Dot Above]O2max and lactate threshold, but they are not as familiar with the methods and techniques of training athletes, athletic testing procedures, and frequently used coaching practices. This is described as taking significant additional training to get these interns up to speed with the skill sets needed to interact with other sport professionals at the training centers and provide training services to an elite athletic population. Stone et al. (23) further contends that even though sports science training in the United States is practically nonexistent, several hundred students apply for internships at the Olympic training centers every year. This illustrates clearly the desire of many within the human performance field to work in sports.

As it pertains to strength and conditioning, we need to insure that we are providing the prospective SCC those skills relevant to what they actually do in the day-to-day performance of their jobs. Not only do strength coaches need to have an understanding of fundamental coaching and pedagogical skills to assist them in teaching their areas of expertise but they also they need a frame of reference to understand and have a common language with the sport coaches with whom they work. The more the SCC understands the sports they work with, the skills necessary to excel in those sports, and what a sports coach is attempting to accomplish with a group of athletes, the better the SCC will be able to assist the sport coach to maximize a sports team's potential for success (7,23).

As with the interns at the Olympic training centers, SCC for the most part do not receive this practical coaching/pedagogical knowledge through their educational preparation, but they are expected to either obtain this expertise through their own experience as an athlete or by on the job training during their first few years in the profession. At the best, this is an inefficient way to learn. At the worst, it could very well serve as an impediment to a strength coach's long-term success and longevity in the field. This circumstance certainly needs to be addressed in our educational offerings to better prepare those entering the profession to withstand the rigors of their positions and be more able to meet the needs of the population they serve.

Some believe that it is necessary to have participated in competitive athletics to be effective in the field (7). Others, including the authors of this article, do not necessarily believe this to be the case (11). Just as a sports coach does not have to have competed in the sport they coach to be effective, so it is for those working as a SCC. However, if this background is not afforded a person through his or her personal experience, then an avenue must be available to assist him or her to acquire this insight and practical expertise. The ideal mechanism for accomplishing this goal is through hands-on learning experiences and internship opportunities within a structured academic program (1,21).

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A glaring issue as far as our educational programs in strength and conditioning, as well as our general coaching education programs, is in the area of applied research. Durell et al. (2) concluded from his investigation that sparse data were being used in the development and administration of college strength and conditioning programs. The study suggests that sources of information other than those that had been peer reviewed, including personal experiences and the opinions and experiences of other coaches, appeared to take precedence. Based on these findings, Durell et al. (2) concluded that the possibility exists that many collegiate SCC could conceivably be using principles that lack scientific credibility.

In referencing Durell et al. (2), Stone et al. (23) made the following supportive assertion, “Not taking advantage of potential advancements in training methods, monitoring of athletes, and so forth that are the result of research will likely reduce the effectiveness of the coach. Failure to take advantage of advancements in sports science is a responsibility shared by coaches, sport scientists, and especially the educational systems.” This information implies that SCC educators need to do a better job of emphasizing practical research at all points in our educational programs. We need to assist coaches in recognizing the difference between good and bad practical research and enlighten them as to where to go for peer-reviewed information they can apply to their own coaching situations.

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When scrutinizing educational programs, probably the most fundamental issue to be determined is what subject matter needs to be included in a program of study for prospective SCC preparing to enter the field. Although certainly open to debate, the curricular elements that have been identified would include the following (4,10,16):

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Sport physiology
  • Kinesiology/biomechanics
  • Sport psychology
  • Sports nutrition
  • Scientific principles of strength and conditioning
  • Resistance training and conditioning—laboratory or activity class
  • Exercise techniques/exercise prescription with an emphasis on anaerobic exercise
  • Program design in strength and conditioning. This should include not only the makeup of the overall training program but also the structuring and organization of individual exercise sessions to achieve specific goals
  • Sports pedagogy
  • Motor learning
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid
  • Care and prevention of athletic injuries
  • Tests and measurement—To include possible hands-on component
  • Administration and management issues in strength and conditioning programs
  • Practicum experiences.

Although efforts have been made to examine and strengthen the curriculum offerings at our institutions of higher learning, particularly as it relates to the National Strength and Conditioning Association's Educational Recognition Program (9,10,25), additional study and analysis is needed to insure that SCC attempting to enter the field are given every opportunity for success. This is particularly because of the elective nature of many of the subjects within the program. Because certain skills are emphasized at the expense of others, depending on the institutional requirements and the configuration of classes, the situation exists in which the SCC could conceivably be deficient in some of these important identified skill sets (16).

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A final recommendation is to incorporate and place greater emphasis on philosophy and the development of models within the field to direct and guide the SCC as they go about doing what it is they do. A philosophy helps us to make sense of the world, identify our objectives, interpret life events, and deal with the ethical dilemmas we will inevitably face. Even when confronted with unique and novel situations a person has never been in before, they can refer back to their philosophy to assist them to make decisions consistent with their values and priorities. A well–thought-out and developed philosophy can positively affect every nuance of a coach's professional life.

An analogy can be made between the relationship between theory and practice, and the development of a sound philosophy. When we develop a theory about any phenomenon, this theory is based on observations. These observations lead to hypotheses that eventually coalesce into a reasonable explanation of the phenomenon in question. Once a theory is formulated, it can be tested to validate its utility. If the tests support or confirm the theory, the theory remains unchanged, and it is applied where applicable. If the theory is disaffirmed, then it can be modified based on this new information or disregarded altogether if facts dictate (24).

Martens (12) highlights a similar process involving the ongoing development of a coaching philosophy during the course of a coach's career. In the beginning of the career, a coach enters the profession holding certain assumptions about the profession and what type of coach they want to be. These assumptions may be systematically developed and based on some type of objective criteria, or more likely, they are just a loose collection of beliefs and principles that are not firmly organized or well established. As issues arise and the coach is faced with real-world situations, he or she has an opportunity to put his or her philosophical maxims into practice. In the aftermath of these experiences, the coach can reflect on his or her actions and approach to determine if he or she obtained the outcome they desired. If the outcomes are positive, the philosophy will remain intact. If these outcomes are less than desirable or unpleasant, the coach can modify his or her philosophy or throw out the whole paradigm if warranted.

By focusing on philosophical considerations, educators can provide the strength coach with a powerful tool to enhance their effectiveness and potential for achieving their career goals. By going beyond how the body responds to exercise and identifying numerous exercise techniques and their application, we can assist strength coaches to think critically about themselves and their efforts to influence the athletes with whom they work. Engaging in this process of critical thinking and reflection not only impacts direct service delivery to athletes but also assists the strength coach to be true to themselves and to make better decisions throughout the course of their professional lives.

Martens (12) identified a cogent coaching philosophy as consisting of 2 components. These being the major objectives the person wants to achieve, and the beliefs and principles the person espouses to help them achieve those objectives. Gearity (5) delineated a thoughtful philosophy as it relates to the training of athletes involving 5 components. These being (a) the aims of training, (b) the methods of training, (c) the beliefs and values of the practitioner, (d) research and practice, and (e) what we know and what we do not know. Gearity (5) further stated that sound philosophies or philosophical arguments contain lucid, logical, and thoughtful reasons to support their case.

Models of practice can be seen as frameworks designed to apply a philosophy or aspects of a philosophy to real-world practical situations. Putting accepted philosophical tenets into practice that focus on areas of significance within the domain or field of expertise is necessary for the SCC. A model is a simplified abstract view of a complex reality. They are constructed to explain and predict future events, behavior, and outcomes (8). To be effective, a model must meet several different criteria. These include the following: (a) the components of a model must be presented in a logical way and reflect the reality it is attempting to describe. (b) The model must represent and explain large groups of phenomena based on empirical evidence and observation. (c) It must make definitive predictions concerning future observations, interactions, and behaviors. Finally, (d) it must identify prescribed actions to be taken to increase the likelihood that identified goals and objectives will be achieved (6,8,20).

A model of practice specifically applied to strength and conditioning is the “Program for Effective Teaching” (PET). The primary purpose for introducing and adapting the PET model to strength and conditioning was to address what was seen as a deficiency in the current skill set afforded strength coaches working in the field (16). As has been highlighted in this article, it can be argued that educational programs in our field have done yeoman's work in transmitting the foundations of exercise science and related disciplines (3,25). At the same time, the case can also be made that the profession has not done as good a job in providing the SCC with those pedagogical skills critical in communicating their knowledge and expertise to their athletes (19).

As presented in the initial article introducing the model (16), PET includes an overall rationale, an identification of the broad competencies needed in an educational environment to increase the probability that learning will take place, specific instructional skills implemented to impact and change learner behavior, and the final outcome to which all efforts are directed. The rationale behind PET defines teaching as a process involving a conscious stream of decisions made before, during, and after instruction, the implementation of which will increase the probability that learning will take place. The PET was put forth not only as a means for improving teaching practices within the field but also as a method for evaluating and assessing course content and curricular offerings within educational programs as it relates to the academic preparation of SCC (16).

Also, as delineated in the original PET article, the purpose of any model is to provide direction to our efforts and act as a road map to guide decision making. It serves as a clear detailed pattern worthy of imitation. A model assists us to marshal our efforts and focuses our resources on reaching our objectives. It provides a method for analyzing decisions and making allocations of resources (16).

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The purpose of this article has been to make recommendations concerning ways to improve the educational preparation of SCC. The viability of any profession is based on its ability to educate and socialize new members into the discipline. Of the domains that makeup the coaching fraternity, it can be said that the strength and conditioning of athletes is the most academically based and driven by sound scientific precepts. However, this does not mean that steps cannot be taken to continue and further the field's development and build on the successes the profession has experienced in its short existence. The old coaching adage, “you're either getting better, or you're getting worse, but you don't stay the same,” is very applicable here. Among the most important decisions we have to make, as a profession, is how we are going to educate future generations of SCC. It is hoped that the recommendations made within this article will spark debate concerning the future of our profession as we address this monumental issue.

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education; coaching; teaching; philosophy

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