Progressing in the Strength and Conditioning Field

I recently got the below email from a student inquiring about my path in the S&C field. I get questions like this fairly frequently, so I thought it would be helpful to pass this along to any current students or new S&C professionals that are reading this.

“My name is Aaron and I have used your products before for training in hockey which is how I got familiar with some of your work. I am currently a student at University looking into Physical Therapy. However, I still am looking at the athletic training side of things and I wanted to ask you since I look up to you and your work, what were some key steps to how you get to some of the more pivotal points in your career so far? Reading your bio, you’ve already accomplished a lot both in the hockey world and athletic training, and I truly appreciate how you really interact with everyone through multimedia.

With where you’ve gotten I have to also ask, how were you as a student like with grades, internships, ect.? I have many other questions but I don’t want to overwhelm you because I know you do so much and are busy. But if you do have the time to answer these questions, I would be very thankful because I’m at a crossroad where I don’t know if I want to look into Physical Therapy or into Athletic Training. I haven’t spoken to any athletic trainers before so I’m kind of new to process of how it would work for undergraduates. Like I said before, I look up to your work and that’s what inspired me to look into this field.”

First, I’m incredibly flattered to get an email from someone that in any way has been inspired by anything I’ve done. I’ve written a lot of similar emails thanking people I consider mentors and/or colleagues that have gone out of their way to help me along my journey.

To get to the heart of his question, I enrolled at the University of Delaware as an Athletic Training student. I told them I wanted to train athletes; they said, “you mean athletic training”. I thought to myself, ” train athletes…athletic training…that sounds right to me.”

The reality, as I quickly found out, is that strength and conditioning and athletic training are entirely different positions and I quickly transferred into a Health Behavior Science Major with a Fitness Management Concentration and minored in Strength and Conditioning and Coaching Science. While a student at Delaware, I basically designed and attempted to supervise the off- and in-season training programs for our hockey team leading into and throughout my senior year, where I served as the captain.

As a quick intern summary, shortly after the season I started two S&C internships: one with the University of Delaware S&C Coach (who worked with Football, Men’s Basketball, Volleyball and Field Hockey), and one with Kevin McKenzie at Tower Hill, which is a private high school in Delaware. The next Summer I took a part-time job working with Mike McKenzie, Kevin’s brother, assisting with his “speed and conditioning” camp. When I went to UMass Amherst, I volunteered with Chris Boyko (who worked with Men’s Hockey, Men’s Soccer, Women’s Basketball, and the Men’s and Women’s Ski Teams while I was there), and the subsequent Summer I interned at Cressey Performance while paying out of pocket for Boston University’s Functional Anatomy course that was part of their DPT program.

I’ve been told I was a great intern. I take pride in that. I view internships as an opportunity to learn as much as you can from someone (or a staff) AND their clients, while also offering as much value to their program as you can. Having now had a decent number of my own interns, I can say without hesitation that the best ones are the most personable, ask a lot of questions, do a lot of research on their own, and are constantly going out of their way to help. The “not so good” ones sit in the background and watch, rarely ask questions, and basically fade into the background. It’s almost painfully evident that they’re either just there to fulfill a requirement or, which is more likely as we do a decent job of weeding that type of candidate out, they aren’t confident/comfortable enough to have a voice in our setting. I understand our environment can be a little intimidating, but if you want to coach, you’ll need to learn how to have a leadership presence.

I had a similar mentality toward my academic path. While I don’t think grades necessarily reflect coaching ability, I viewed my own grades as a reflection of my work ethic. I felt I would always get the grade I deserved, so I put in the work I needed to get the grade I wanted. In my 6 years of college, I got less than an A- in three classes, all of which were at Delaware, and two of which had almost nothing to do with my career path. I got one A- in grad school, which was a direct reflection on me choosing to give a more applied perspective on a presentation about osteoporosis prevention in post-menopausal women, opposed to the more research-heavy take that was common in the class. I took a slight grade hit because I didn’t dive into all of the supporting research, which I was okay with, because I enjoyed giving the talk (and showing videos of the women I was training at the time getting after it in the gym!). My story aside, I’d recommend working as hard as you can in school. Not only will the education benefit you, but hard work is inherently valuable.

In all honesty, everything I’ve ever accomplished in my career is a direct result of two things: 1) Working as hard as I can at everything I do; and 2) Thanking/connecting with people that have helped me along the way. My opportunities working with the US Women’s National Team and San Jose Sharks have been direct results of me connecting with Mike Boyle while I was an undegrad to say thank you for the impact he’s had (without knowing it) on my education, and interning with Eric Cressey (who later introduced me to Mike Potenza, the S&C Coordinator for the Sharks). No matter what program you enroll in and what type of education you receive, you can always get better and you can always thank the people that help you get better.

If you’re not sure what path you want to pursue (Physical Therapy or Strength and Conditioning) I’d strongly encourage you to spend a week shadowing professionals in both fields that have the job you think you want. It’s possible you’ll change your mind as you start your journey, but at least this will give you a better idea of what the day to day in each job is actually like.

I hope this helps. Feel free to post any follow-up questions you may have below.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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