The path to becoming a full-time Strength and Conditioning (S&C) Coach can be a challenging endeavour, and requires dedication, persistence, and often good luck. As with any desirable profession, competition for jobs is high and it is important to do what you can to make yourself stand out.
With the growth in the number of S&C degrees available and online courses/certifications, it can be more confusing than ever to understand the right path for you. This article will highlight some of these options and help support you in your journey.
The 3 Main Paths
Exercise Science Degree + Certifications
This is the current mainstream route into the profession. Looking back several years, there were no ‘pure S&C’ degrees available, so the standard course of study for someone interested in S&C was the Exercise Science/Sport Science degree. In the UK this was most likely the Sport & Exercise Science (SES) pathway, of which there were estimated to be over 52,000 SES students in 2017. This vast number of students has inevitably meant high competition for available jobs within SES, with many settling for employment in other sectors, or through becoming a PE teacher.
However, research has shown that every £1 invested by a student in their SES education yields £5.50 in higher future wages, although the number that go on to work in S&C is low. To counter this competition for S&C vacancies, SES students will have to also complete specialised qualifications and undertake practical experience before being eligible for many roles. This practical work will often have to be voluntary, or on an intern basis.
Professional Athlete, Assistant S&C Coach, and Certifications
This is somewhat the ‘old school’ path into S&C. Traditionally the path of ex-rugby players and former professional athletes who had reached the end of their playing career and looked to find a new avenue in sports.
Despite possibly not having the same academic background as a SES graduate, the ex-pro has significant practical experience and certainly understands the performance athlete environment. This can be difficult to precisely value and quantify, but undoubtedly makes a large difference in the performance sector.
To assist with the apparent lack of academic background, the coach in this scenario will also have to undergo a vocational qualification pathway and certification, and may even look at undertaking a part-time undergraduate or postgraduate degree to supplement their learning.
S&C Degree + Certifications
This is the modern S&C coach pathway, and in the UK alone there are over 20 undergraduate degrees and over 20 postgraduate degrees in S&C. These degrees have emerged due to the popularity and competition within SES, which has led to an increased demand for ever more specialised courses.
On paper, this may be a good route into S&C since the level of specialised education is high. The problem is that S&C is a combination of scientific education and practical application. While there is no doubt that universities offer excellent opportunities from an educational perspective, it is not always a given that they are the best places for the development of the required technical and practical skills of coaching.
Review of S&C Degrees
When looking at the different S&C degrees available it is essential to analyse many different aspects of the course. You must consider what modules you will be able to take along with what opportunities you will get from a practical perspective. If your desire is to be an S&C coach, rather than a researcher, it is important that you spend a lot of time learning and refining your technical skills. This means not only learning exercise technique, exercise selection, and periodisation, but also the important elements of coaching, and how to interact and deal with different athletes.
The best way to do this is of course through practical experience. A good S&C degree programme will therefore have all these elements embedded within the course. This will mean that there are modules where you will learn about the scientific side of S&C, but then also modules where you will undertake placement opportunities.
You may also wish to consider the course tutors and their S&C background. Often at universities, the course tutors have excellent research pedigree, but unfortunately, they often do not have much experience as a practitioner with teams or athletes. It may also be useful to choose a course where you will also get regular access to and guest lectures from S&C practitioners.
Of course, one of the main reasons why you are looking to undertake a degree in S&C is because you would like to gain employment within the sector. Since this is a competitive industry you would be wise to ensure that employability outcomes from your chosen University are good. These figures can usually be obtained from the course prospectus, or through online course rankings.
Overview of Accreditations and Certifications
If you look at any job description for an S&C position, even on a voluntary basis, you will see that there is an essential requirement for certification or accreditation. From a health and safety perspective, most employers will require at least a basic industry specific qualification, such as a Gym Instructor qualification. However, it is now common that employers will also require a higher-level Accreditation such as NSCA, UKSCA, ASCA, or IUSCA.
Traditionally, the NSCA certification has been recognised globally for meeting the minimum requirements of an S&C coach. In the UK, The UKSCA accreditation meets the same demand, and in Australia, the ASCA accreditation does that job. Another global equivalent that is recognised in most countries is the IUSCA Degree Accreditation.
While these certifications and accreditations generally meet the essential requirements of an employer, the problem with most of these is that they do not require any practical experience. This is perhaps a wider issue within the S&C sector, which can result in people gaining a high-level qualification but having limited coaching experience or ability.
The IUSCA Accreditation is different in that it requires a minimum of 750 hours of practical experience along with at the candidate obtaining at least a 2:1 (>3.0 GPA) Degree.
In the modern era, online education is the easiest way to learn and develop your knowledge within any given area. With so many resources available it is possible to educate yourself to University level purely by reading free articles, books, and resources online. You will be able to find countless free videos and seminars, as well as podcasts and tutorials. There is no doubt that it would be possible to educate yourself to the necessary levels to be a successful S&C coach, but it is unlikely. The reason for this is that without the guidance of an expert or educator it can be challenging to navigate your way to the desired outcome.
The problem with an online only approach is that without any practical experience, it is likely impossible to develop yourself as a coach. You may be able to develop the knowledge and understanding of S&C that is required at a high-level, but you will have no understanding and appreciation of how to apply it.
Finding an Internship
If you do go down the route of online education, then you will need to seek out some placement and internship opportunities. Without the right contacts this can be challenging since employers want to ensure that they are hosting good internal student. You can attempt to do this by reaching out to professional coaches through social media and online networks. The Strength Coach Network is a good place to start with many resources available around personal development and developing your CV etc.
A potential benefit of a good University degree course may be links to professional teams and organisations, where it may be possible for you to obtain an internship or placement. Again, courses that have required practical experience are likely the best choice here since they will have the extra support available to help ensure that you undertake a valuable placement. The IUSCA requirement for Degree Accredited courses to ensure 750 hours of practical experience helps guarantee this.
There are many pathways into the S&C profession. As an ever more popular and competitive industry, it is essential that you study in-depth the pros and cons to each scenario for you. S&C is an applied science, and therefore you should consider the best way to obtain a high-level of specific knowledge, and also ensure that you gain as much practical experience as possible. Our recommendation would be to undertake an Accredited Degree programme, which ensures that these criteria are met and gives you the best chance for future employment within the field.