I’ve recently come to realize that my time working as a “young strength and conditioning coach” is slowly waning away. To be candid, I am 24-years old, and by no means do I consider myself an old coach, or even a veteran coach. But, for what seemed like the longest time I was always considered a young buck, a newbie, an intern or apprentice, and for good reason.
With very few collegiate baseball pitching opportunities at my disposal, I opted to begin my coaching “career” a few weeks after graduating from high school. In fact, I began coaching at my alma-mater, DeLand High School. From that point on – going into my 7th year now – I have coached year-round. And, upon reflection, I’ve realized that I have not just been a young coach where ever I’ve coached – I have consistently been the youngest coach on every staff I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of.
From DeLand High to Lake Howell High (and back again), to Stetson University, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets, and even the private facility I spent some time at – I’ve always been considerably younger than all those that I’ve coached with. Heck,
sometimes most of the time I’ve barely been the equal age of my athletes, and quite often younger.
To tell you the truth, though, I absolutely reveled in it. I had a chip on my shoulder to earn my coaching opportunities – that is, my chances to actually make a significant impact on the staff and team. I wanted to be the “young guy” doing more than anyone else my age.
But, with my current move to DeLand High School to start my own Strength & Conditioning program, I’ve realized that my chances of ever wearing the “youngest on staff” moniker again are very slim. Thus, I wanted to take a few moments to reflect upon what I learned in those 6+ years serving as the youngest coach on staff.
I learned a lot – I had no choice but to learn.
1. Respect and responsibility are earned through work, and work alone
My first year out of high school I made the decision to trade my “college experience” for coaching experience. Little did I know that I’d also be taking on field-work experience, clubhouse-cleaning experience, cage-BP-throwing experience, concession-stand-stocking experience, and scorebook-keeping experience as well. From raking the mound and bullpen, to putting up an entire field’s-worth of windscreen with zip-ties (two-times over; three times if you count the time it took me an hour to put up windscreen on the right field line, only to realize it was meant for the left field line), I did it all.
And I did it all in all for the of being a contributor on a very, very good high school coaching staff year after year.
While I could have very easily cried “under paid and under appreciated” (I was a volunteer high school baseball strength coach, after all. Not much of a market demand for that going around), I realized what all of that ancillary work was providing me; it earned me respect and responsibility from my “peers” – the rest of the coaches on my staff and in the area.
I worked, and worked, and worked…worked as much as I possibly could to prove that I could be a valuable member of the staff, and it paid off. Slowly, Andy Lyon, then the Head Coach at DeLand High School, gave me more run with the program. I took on warm-ups, conditioning, pre-game pitchers’ routines, the JV pitching staff, and the off-season (and eventually in-season) training program.
I also learned that paying your dues isn’t a one-time deal. I learned that, no matter where you go, you need to work to earn respect and responsibility. And that doesn’t just apply when you’re young either. In fact, all of the great staffs that I’ve been a part of have been full of coaches, young and old, willing to pull their own weight and then some. Maybe that’s why every coach on those early staffs went on to be a Head High School Coach, Division-I Assistant, or the equivalent.
You’re never too good to put in work. The sooner you learn that, the further you will go – and the faster you will probably get there.
2. “Knowing your stuff” truly matters, but it’s okay to admit what you don’t know.
When you’re the youngest on staff, with a less-than-domineering or authoritative appearance (I’m 5’10” and hover between 150 and 170 lbs.) and zero collegiate or professional playing experience on your resume, you quickly learn that your coaching style isn’t going to be anything like the highlights you see of the coaches you grow up admiring on YouTube. Not any time soon at least.
This might appear to be a disadvantage, but I certainly made sure to use it to my advantage in the long run. I may not have been the prototypical strength and conditioning coach (or baseball coach for that matter), but I darn sure was going to learn who I was as a coach and thrive in that role. Thus, I learned that I could distinguish myself by communicating well, being knowledgable, and getting on my athlete’s level (more below).
Specifically speaking in regards to knowledge, think about trying to coach a 23-year old 5th-year senior in a Division-I weight room, when you yourself are three years lesser in age, six inches lesser in stature, and five years lesser in collegiate playing experience. With all of this being the case for me at times, I learned that I had to know what I was talking about whenever I coached my athletes.
The majority of the time my beard seemed to conceal my age, but when an athlete did find out that I was younger, the same age, or barely older, they were normally shocked. I credit this to making sure I was prepared to coach each day, and that I always made sure to read and study on my own as much as I could, using knowledge to bridge the age gap. In the inevitable discussion that proceeded the discovery of my age, most athletes would tell me, “I don’t care your age. You really know your stuff.” I certainly didn’t know as much as they thought, but I always did my best to give them an educated answer, that is, unless I didn’t have one – which leads to my next point:
Something else that I learned as a young strength that was vital to my growth: I don’t know every answer, and that is okay. But, there is a significant process that comes with accepting this, and that is the following:
An athlete asks you a question that you don’t know the precise answer to ->
Instead of BS’ing for your ego’s sake, you openly admit that, “I don’t have that exact answer for you right now, but I will get it for you” ->
You do your research to try to discover the answer, both for your athlete and for yourself, and/or…->
You refer the athlete to somebody who would know better than you would, or that can better serve your athlete
Ultimately your athletes just want to get better, and they will buy into the coach who cares enough about them to seek information and learn, and is also willing to point them in another direction for the right answers to the questions they are asking. You don’t need to be a grizzly veteran to be that coach.
3. Being relatable to the athletes isn’t just for the “players-coach”
The easiest part about being a young coach is your ability to relate to your players. Obviously, when you’re 18 years old and just a few weeks out of high school, the title Coach doesn’t change the fact that you’re essentially the same age demographic as your athletes. Even at 24 years old I still feel fairly connected to today’s Generation Z athlete.
But, just because I understand what it’s like to be my athletes’ age and can identify really well with them, does not mean I’m a “players-coach.” In fact, even at 18 years old I made sure to separate myself from the kids I had just played with not one month earlier. They called me coach and they were my athletes, and we had great relationships regardless, all the while never crossing any lines.
What I’ve learned, though, is that too much separation can actually hinder relationships with your athletes. A player wants to know that you know what they’re going through. They need to know that somebody who says they are in their corner, has actually been in that same corner – and not seemingly 100 years ago.
I’m not sure that I can or need to expand upon this much more, but think about this: does anybody want to play or train for the coach that is always shaking his/her head and rolling their eyes at their athletes? What about the coach that says, “Just wait till you’re older, then you’ll understand,” does anybody want to play or train hard for that coach?
The answer is, “no.”
4. Everything changes with time – what doesn’t change, though, is most important
When you’re 18 years old you want very different things than when you’re 19, 21, 24, and [I’m assuming] 30 years old. When I was 17 years old I still wanted to be a collegiate pitcher, and hopefully one day an MLB all-star…
Not one year passed before I wanted to be a strength and conditioning coach, and that career goal stuck. But, not before I also wanted to be a collegiate pitching coach, or a sports journalist at one point.I’ve certainly had my share of goals and visions for myself within coaching, too. From Division-I Director of Strength & Conditioning to private sector facility owner, from Professional Baseball strength coach to clinical physiologist – my goals have changed substantially over time. In that time, too, has my perspective on training and life morphed and grown.
But, what hasn’t changed is my love for baseball (pitching, specifically) and training high school athletes. That much has never wavered. So, as I’ve gained experiences at multiple levels and in various sub-divisions within the performance training field, it has always been my true passions that have taken up my spare time – i.e. coaching at the high school level, even in the pro baseball off-seasons, and self-studying as much as I can about pitching.
Although I probably didn’t realize it during the journey itself, those two aspects – pitching-science and high school athletics – were the motivating factors that drove me to work as hard as I did year in and year out, all year-round. While everything else morphed, grew, developed, and changed with time, my fire for baseball and making an impact at the high school level stayed the same..
It’s no wonder then I’m now working at the high school level full-time and spend the majority of my free time still developing my understanding of the most violent and fascinating motion in all of sports – the baseball pitch.
If you take anything from this, it’s that life is going to move and change and evolve each and every day. With that, our ideas, philosophies, and goals might change (whether that be in terms of our career or training itself). But, it’s the things that stay the same – those things that withstand the test of time and perspective – that truly matter the most.