09 Sep The Process of Putting Together a Successful Athletic Performance Staff
The idea behind this article struck me while I was working from home in the spring and early summer of 2020. These have been challenging times for everyone in the profession, and I was reminded of how fortunate I am to have people working with me who have the highest level of commitment to our student-athletes.
For many of us, when you realize this is something you want to do professionally, you study everything you possibly can on how to get athletes bigger, faster, and stronger. In undergrad and grad school, you learn about the human body, biomechanics, kinesiology, and nutrition.
But when you finally land your first director position, how do you go about putting together your staff? This is not covered in your coursework, and in some cases, it could possibly make or break your success in leading a department. In this article, I cover how to go about hiring and developing staff, from the early stages to a few years down the road, and the obligation you have as a leader to help your staff move on. I will also share a few stories and some mistakes I have made along the way.
This is for those who take a position leading a department and intend to stay for several years. Putting together a staff in this manner is a process and one that cannot be accomplished if you’re only at a location for a year or two.
Phase 1: Know Where You Want to Go and Develop a Map to Get There
When you first go about putting together a staff, you need to think clearly about your outcome goals as they relate to both performance and culture. One of the most important things to me is leaving a lasting impact beyond the four years the athletes spend with us—when putting together my first staff, I looked for people who shared that same thought process.
Your staff is a direct reflection on the energy in the facility and what an athlete feels as soon as they walk in. Are the coaches walking over to greet athletes and chat before the session starts? Do the athletes look forward to coming in, or do they dread it? For us, we want our athletes to have a challenging but positive experience. We want coaches to know athletes in all sports, regardless of who they work with. If an athlete has a question, I want seven people to be able to answer it.
If you hire one “wrong” person, they can put a wrench in your entire system. Laying down this foundation early on is critical. We want to hire knowledgeable and certified professionals to work with our athletes, but if all things are equal with credentials, we will bring on the person who shares these principles.
Once you start bringing in the right people, you can start to shape roles and fill holes over time. Unless you have an unlimited budget for salaries, it is important you start here before you are looking to hire for specialties (data science, nutrition backgrounds, speed, etc.). This is not to say that you will not be able to bring on people and place them in roles early on, but spending time, watching people coach, and asking the right questions can allow you to shape roles for them that are deeper as they progress. The first year is critical for leaders to “interview” their staff to guide them toward their ultimate goals.
I ask my staff a few times per year where they see themselves. They probably think I have a poor memory because I ask so often, but when working with a young staff, so many changes happen in the first 2-3 years. Think about the first job you had and what you envisioned—maybe you saw yourself working with a certain sport, and six months in you realized your personality was better suited for a different team? This happens often, and with some patience you can start to create an environment where each person can simultaneously be challenged and thrive.
As time goes on, and you enter year 2 and beyond, attrition will happen, and you will have a strong idea of what attributes, qualities, and skill sets you need to fill or add to enhance your department each year.
Developing an Internship Program Is Critical
For anyone trying to build up a department, it is important to have a strong internship program. In the past five years, we have had great interns who have made a tremendous impact on our department and gone on to earn full-time and graduate assistant positions. For those taking on internships, you should look at your role as a three- to four-month job interview—whether that is at your current internship site (now or in the future) or a strong recommendation for a job somewhere else.
Additionally, a solid internship program can serve as a minor league system for future roles in your department. From our end, we want to provide a real experience for our interns. We want them to coach, and when they show competency, they do a lot of it.
There have never been more opportunities to learn in this industry. Websites like SimpliFaster, podcasts, Zoom webinars, books, courses, and social media give young coaches the opportunity to gain knowledge on their own. That being said, technology has not been able to replicate hands-on coaching experience, and all that information is useless if you cannot apply it. I believe an internship should have an educational component, but a primary focus should be on the practical application for aspiring coaches.
Have a Thorough Interview Process
Your personnel are vital to the success of your department and identifying the right candidates requires a thorough interview process. Using the “3 C’s” allows me to simplify my decision-making process when hiring or promoting internally:
- Confidence – they need to believe they can do the job.
- Competence – they need to prove they are knowledgeable and qualified to do the job.
- Character – they need to be a good communicator and human being who will enhance our culture.
I have found it’s helpful to speak to multiple parties who interact professionally with the candidate. Typically, reference lists consist of a handful of people who have worked closely with the person and can speak to their experiences as a coach. Usually, these calls are overwhelmingly positive. I have found more benefit from speaking with multiple people who interact with the candidate who might not be listed on their resume: athletic trainers, sport coaches, other strength coaches they have worked with, etc.
If you only speak to direct supervisors, you are only going to get the perspective of how the candidate communicates with their boss. Once they get to campus, they are going to have to establish great working relationships with multiple stakeholders in the program, and this can help you identify someone who is great across the board, prepare you to help them address a weakness, or deter you from hiring them.
Either way, you will have a clearer picture of this individual. Who they are as a person and their communication skills are important, but it is also critical to ensure they are competent as a coach. Talk through their programming and ask for samples for different phases for the year, how they modify workouts, etc. Everyone has areas of strengths and weaknesses as it relates to program design, and it’s important you are aware of those flaws on the front end to effectively make your decision.
A Quick Story on Confidence
One month into my role here, our head football strength coach took a new job. This was going to be my first big hire, and I started to do some research and make calls to find candidates who would be a good fit for the position. At the time, the assistant for football was a young coach named GC Yerry.
I had watched GC coach for a month and was really impressed with his interpersonal skills, positive energy, relationship with players, and attention to detail…but to be honest, it never crossed my mind to promote him. One afternoon shortly after the position opened, I walked into our storage closet to grab something, and the door shut behind me. GC walked in and said, “I just want you to know I want the director’s job, and I am ready for it if you would consider me.”
Short, simple, and with complete confidence.
That same day, I went to the head football coach and said I wanted to consider GC for the job and give him the opportunity to be the interim in order to watch him coach. After seeing him in that position for a few months, I knew he was the right person for the job. Being confident does not always mean you will be competent, and you need to back it up, but GC’s self-belief gave me confidence in him. Three years later, he moved on to take a position on the Army football staff, was quickly promoted to the top assistant, and this year joined the staff at Illinois as their top assistant for football.
If you want the job, start by letting your boss know.
Phase 2: Assigning Responsibility—Slow Cook It
Once you have great coaches who are also great people and have established your core principles, you can begin to create meaningful roles for your staff. What is your unique skill set? For us, I break down administrative oversight into a few different categories of expertise:
- Return to play.
- Performance nutrition.
- Applied sport science.
- Internship development.
The staff who oversee these areas have complete ownership of the development of these sub-departments. The goal with this is to evaluate your staff as time progresses. Over time, you will see talent in people shine through, but then it is your job as the leader to let them take it and run with it. Letting people have the autonomy to shape these sub-departments gives everyone skin in the game and allows for leadership opportunities.
Example – Performance Nutrition
When I was hired, one of the major topics that the AD and I discussed was making significant enhancements to our nutrition offerings. The four key areas we wanted to address were:
- Fueling station.
- Training table.
- Post-workout recovery.
During this time, we also hired Joel Lynch to come on as a graduate assistant. He was initially responsible for assisting with football and overseeing the programming for track and field. In our early conversations, it was evident he had a passion for performance nutrition and had begun his master’s in nutrition (in addition to having his PN certification). Over time, he started to take on more and more responsibility as it related to nutrition, including presenting to teams, enhancing our fueling station offerings, creating relationships with nutrition faculty through his course work, etc.
Essentially, Joel grew as a coach and leader while we grew our nutrition department. When an opportunity arose for a full-time position on staff after his GA ended, he was elevated into an assistant director role and facilitated all of our performance nutrition services. This included being the liaison to our RDs, overseeing the fueling station, helping to coordinate the training table menus, overseeing the budget, and working closely with the football program on all aspects of nutrition.
Because of his passion and work ethic, this position and role was organically shaped. In January 2021, Joel was hired by Manhattanville College to become their Director of Strength and Conditioning. In this role, he will also be tasked to oversee the development of their performance nutrition program.
As I transition to my next topic, it is important to remember what the long-term goals of your staff are so when the opportunity arises, they are prepared for it. Joel was able to make an impact on our nutrition operations and create a sustainable program that we can build on while also enhancing his resume and preparing for his own future. (For specific information related to building out a nutrition program, see these articles on fueling stations, training tables, and performance nutrition.)
Balance Team Assignments
Another element to consider is how you structure your team assignments. One of the mistakes I made early on in my career was giving people too much too soon. As I gained more experience, I realized people thrive when 50% of their job challenges them, pushes them, and somewhat scares them, and the other 50% of the job gives them confidence, allows them to experiment, and helps them gain forward momentum.
One way to look at this is pairing a coach up with two teams. One of those teams has one or more of the following: a challenging head coach, a larger roster, or a sport that the strength coach has never worked with. The other team has one or more of the following: a small roster, an easygoing head coach, or a sport the strength coach played or worked with in the past. The balance between the two is essential for young professionals—too much one way or the other, and you run the risk of burnout or boredom.
Phase 3: Move Them on or Move Them up. Repeat.
As a leader, I have a very similar sense of fulfillment helping a staff member achieve their goals as I do helping an athlete reach theirs. When new hires join your staff, there are a number of things you can do along the way to give them the best opportunities for success.
- Evaluate on a consistent basis. Evaluating the work your staff does related to both organization/communication skills and performance (KPIs) is essential. (I have a process I am happy to share with those who are interested.) The once-a-year formal sit-down is not fit for a performance coach, and it slows down the process. Progress needs to be highlighted, and problems need to be addressed fluidly.
- Sing their praises and highlight their value. As a member of the AD’s senior staff, I have a unique opportunity to talk highly about my staff on a consistent basis. One of the biggest issues in our field is you have hidden gems in the basements and field houses who have the potential to be rock stars, but the administration will not know they exist unless a head coach talks highly of them. If someone did something outstanding for our department, has gone above and beyond, or made an impact on the student-athletes in a positive way, I make sure to bring it up in our weekly meetings.
- Move people up. Internal promotions or opportunities to move up can also help your department. When people see that there is growth potential, I believe it enhances motivation and drive. If I have a great GA, why wouldn’t we want to find a way to promote them if we had a departure from our staff? It all comes down to timing and fit.
- There are times when new energy, ideas, and skill sets are important to bring in from the outside, and there are other times when that person is already sitting inside your weight room and just needs the opportunity. Below are the titles we utilize for our staff. Structuring in this way shows a clear path for upward growth.
- Coaching Assistant: These are paid, part-time coaches who work with a variety of teams without sport assignments of their own.
- Assistant Athletic Performance Coach: First-year, entry-level coaches with teams of their own.
- Assistant Director of Athletic Performance: Full-time coaches with a few years of experience who lead teams of their own and have additional oversight of specific areas within the department.
- Director of Athletic Performance: On our staff, we have a Director for Football and a Director of Olympic Sports. These coaches have oversight of personnel in addition to their team oversight.
- Help them pursue their goals. In my experience, most people are fearful of talking to their supervisors about jobs they are interested in. If I see a job opening that fits what a member of my staff is looking for, I send them the link myself. When people feel trapped in a job, they will try and find a way out. In my opinion, giving people that freedom and support has kept great people on my staff for longer periods of time while they seek out a move that is a step up. You want your staff moving on professionally and financially, not laterally to escape a bad situation they feel trapped in.
- Understand how they best respond to leadership. Leading a staff is very similar to how you would manage a sport team—it is made up of unique personalities who respond best to certain coaching styles. A mistake some leaders make is taking a one-size-fits-all approach. Understanding the makeup of your staff and what people need from you will set you up for success.
Hiring and managing a staff is one of the biggest challenges for any new leader. Having a process in place to hire, develop, and mentor a staff will allow you to establish an elite program. You cannot do everything yourself and establishing your own system is the first step to organizing your department. In review:
- Know where you want to go and start developing a map to get there.
- Start a solid internship program.
- Establish a strong interview process to vet candidates.
- Be strategic in how you assign responsibility.
- Move them on or move them up. Do not hold anyone back.