Welcome to College Athletics: A Letter From Your Strength Coach
You did it. You spent the last four years busting your butt in your given sport. You pushed your physical and mental boundaries and positioned yourself to be recruited by a four-year university. In fact, you impressed the coaches at your new school so much that they offered you a scholarship. You have arrived. It’s smooth sailing from here.
Not really. In actuality, what you have signed up for is the closest things civilians will ever know to enlisting in the military. And don’t, for a second, think you are as tough as a soldier shipping off to basic training. You aren’t even in the same universe. The life you have been living thus far has been easy. Your mom will no longer be available to cook and do your laundry for you. You will be responsible for every aspect of your life.
I’m aware you were All-Conference three years in a row and got letters from dozens of schools, inflating not only your own perception of yourself, but the perception of everyone around you. But your high school game won’t cut it here. You were the best player on your team the past few years, but that is no longer the case. Much the opposite.
You signed up to this.
You Still Need to Study
Being a student-athlete means you have to take classes. Twelve credit hours per quarter or semester are the minimum you need to remain eligible to play, practice, and lift weight. You can’t screw this one up. It’s the “other” reason you are here. There is no reason why you should struggle in your academics. There are academic advisors, tutors, and people falling over themselves to help you succeed in class.
If you mess up, it’s simply because you are lazy. Don’t blame your coaches, your parents, your girlfriend/boyfriend, or your teammates.
Become a Morning Person
Get used to waking up before the sun rises. It’s part of the deal. Weights at 5:30am will be a normal event. Or if you attend a school like the one I work at, most of our teams practice early. Don’t worry, I can call you around 4:00am on my drive in every morning to make sure you are awake.
Find a way to start liking the mornings, because you are going to get to know them very well. And no sniveling about it.
Know You Are Not Special
Whatever your story is coming in, let it go. Whether you are a super privileged kid who’s never wanted for anything in your life, or a trailer park/hood kid, you are here now. There will be people from all over the country, from every race and religion, all on your team. You will all be wearing the same workout gear and sweating and bleeding together.
Remember, you aren’t special. If you think you are tough, I’m sure there’s a junior or senior who would love to set you straight.
Keep a Lid on Your Social Life
I understand you will cut loose every now and then. I’m a realist and went to college myself. But your social life is your problem. Yes, I know it’s one of the things you are looking forward to most, but it might be the reason you get kicked out of school. The NCAA and your university drug test year round. One careless night out throwing caution to the wind could result in a positive drug test. If the NCAA tests you, you lose a year of eligibility from the moment you take that positive test, no questions asked. If the university I work for is the one testing, you have a laundry list of classes and counseling sessions you will get to add to your already packed schedule to remain in good graces.
You need to know when to say when as it pertains to your social life. And if you want to know what pain is truly about, show up to one of my lifting sessions stinking of booze.
Coaching my athletes before an early morning run.
Respect Your Trainers
Sports medicine people are your friends. You should go out of your way to be respectful to them. You have no idea how hard they work and will never understand the level of sacrifice they’ve made in their own lives simply to be the one to run to your side when you have an injury. The hours they pull for the pay they receive aren’t even close, so don’t ever come at them like, “this is your job” or, “this is what you get paid to do.” The amount of work it takes to expedite your healing process and follow protocols dictated by doctors would make your head spin.
Show up to treatments, be on time, do your rehabs, and greet the sports medicine team with a smile daily. They are probably the most selfless people in any athletics program, so treat them well.
Unlearn Everything You Think You Know
Whatever you have learned about weight lifting in the past has no relevance. You will start from the bottom and learn everything from the beginning. In fact, I would rather you have never lifted weights prior to showing up. You've been texting and tweeting and playing Madden for the past ten years, so you have an infinite amount of problems with your hips that you are not even aware of. I have specific things that I need to establish with you and your nervous system, which means you get to unlearn everything you have learned.
I have six months minimum of correctives to get your feet, ankles, hips, and backs online before you get the chance to get “swole.”
Get an Alarm Clock
I am a drill sergeant when it comes to time. I would rather you skip a session entirely than show up late - for any reason. Quit with the excuses. Your alarm did go off. Your car didn’t break down. You just cut it so close that you made yourself late. Now you get to explain to your teammates why they are doing 400 yards of rolling or 100 up-downs. If you need to be late, you better let me know beforehand so I don’t correct it by punishing the people you care about most.
You are one of over 500 athletes I have to work with today, so you will rEspect my time.
Don't Question the Coach
There are fundamental expectations I have when you walk in the door.
- First, you will work hard every session. I spend more hours than you can count working on your program, not counting the twelve-hour days I spend in the weight room Monday through Friday (and many times, Saturday and Sunday). So the minimum I expect is your absolute best for the next sixty minutes.
- Second, I spent the last twenty years learning this stuff, perfecting my approach, and becoming an expert in my field. So, we will not have a discussion about programs, loads, or reasons we are doing it the way I have it set up. I don’t ask you about Kanye and Kim Kardashian, so don’t question my expertise on this.
- Third, I am here for the sole purpose of getting you strong and prepping your body for competition. That’s it. I have a one track mind. Do not let anything in your life get in the way of me completing my task.
I am a major part of your experience, so it is on you to ensure that the job gets done.
Pros and Pipe Dreams
I have a better chance of being struck by lightning than you do of making it in the NFL, NBA, or any of the other professional leagues. You couldn’t be further from that destination right now. I’m not trying to kill a dream - in fact, I’m helping you realize what it will take to fulfill that dream. The amount of work it takes to play professional sports is beyond comprehension to you right now. If you still think you have what it takes, you better get ready to work.
Cal Poly football player Lefi Letuligasenoa.
Which leads me to the three groups professional scouts talk to when they come on campus - your coaches, the sports medicine people, and me. If you go to school where I work, it’s likely not in that order. Many teams come to me first. They aren’t going to invest millions of dollars in a person who is going to be a problem for their franchise. When I spend time with the scouts, how much you lift is something like number 25 on a list of 26 things they ask. We have the inside track on everything that is going on within athletics, so scouts will take what we say about your character, work ethic, and leadership.
If you think I will lie and say you are a great worker when you are not just so you can get a chance, you have another thing coming. I will not sacrifice my integrity or my relationship with that scout and team just to do you a favor. There will be many more after you. If I burn a bridge with them by telling them how much of an angel you are and you end up being a problem, they will never trust me again.
I owe it to the people after you to be brutally honest about you. So no favors will be coming your way if you decide to be a problem for me.
The Truth: We Want You to Succeed
In the old days, we were worked until some kids simply never came back. I remember my legs hurting so bad after a workout that I had vomit spraying out of my nose. I can recall waking up in the end zone for a punishment run after blacking out, surprised to find myself laying in a puddle of my own urine. My first job we held double-days at the nearby military camp. Things were so hard that several guys jumped the fence in the middle of the night and walked over nine miles to the nearest town to call their parents to come get them.
Times have changed, and you will never encounter anything close to this. (Probably.) Athletic programs are set up for you to succeed. Universities hire some of the brightest coaches in the world to design and run your programs. We strength coaches are the best friends you could ever ask for. We want you to become the absolute best version of yourself. If you think we like punishing groups, or that we try to make teams puke just for the fun of it, you are wrong.
We do whatever it takes to give you the best chance to win. Your successes are our successes. The more we try and work together, the better it is for everyone involved.
Knowing all of this, are you still ready to sign that NLI? Great, I'll see you in the fall.
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Photos courtesy of Chris Holder.