So, You Want to be a College Strength Coach

by Jim Steel | February 27, 2019

jim steel coaching in the weight room

You have just graduated from college with a major in kinesiology or physiology of exercise or something similar, you have your certifications in order, and you are raring to go.

Now what?

If you haven't already volunteered somewhere while you were in school, you need to get your name out there, and the best way to do it is to volunteer somewhere. Become an intern. Most interns don’t get paid, they do it for the experience. If you do get paid, fantastic, but don't expect to. Get a job working somewhere else while interning. I delivered pizzas, mowed practice fields, cleared land and did odd jobs for a friend of mine, worked the door at a bar and worked for a temp agency. I did anything I could for some money without it affecting the coaching.

And the more places that you work, the more you will learn. You will learn what to do and what not to do. The more places that you have on your resume, the better.

When I coached in college for over 25 years, I saw many interns come and go. Some were good, some not so good. What separated the good from the bad?


The best interns that we ever had started out with a good first impression. They made that impression by doing the most important thing that an intern can do: they kept their mouth shut. No matter what you think that you know, you really know nothing until you have actually coached for awhile. You may have book learning, and you may have lifted a little, and you may have had a professor that you think hung the moon. You may think that you know everything. You don’t.

The best intern that we ever had didn't say a word for the first semester, except to ask intelligent, well thought-out questions once in awhile. She took notes every single time that she observed and she also trained. I always had a rule that everyone on my staff had to train for something and compete in something. My staff fought Muay Thai, competed in powerlifting, bodybuilding, and strongman. You learn so much by trying a program for yourself and training for a goal – far more than by just writing it out and having the athletes try it. You won't be writing a deadlift workout that calls for 85% of 1RM for 5x6 if you have tried it and know that doing that workout (especially for trained athletes) will crush you for days afterwards.

This particular intern didn't have an athletic background, much less a lifting background, but during her time with us she competed in powerlifting and won, and competed in a physique contest. She won that also. And guess what else? The athletes respect seeing a coach training, and training hard. She would train while athletes were in the weight room, and she got to know the athletes because she sweated right next to them. And she was a self-starter. We had a list of “chores” for the interns to perform (wipe down the benches, put weights away, tighten the bolts on the power rack, etc.) everyday, and not once did I have to ask her to do them. She did them right away, every day. People notice that kind of stuff.

All that, “You must stay in your collared shirts and khakis and never lift – just 'Be A Professional'” is something that came from some pencilneck who never trained. I'm not talking about training with the team that you are coaching. But if there is a team training and it isn't yours, I always liked my coaches to jump right in with the athletes.

Please don't try to impress everyone with your knowledge. When you start to tell everyone that this program or that program is the best one out there because you read about it in a book, and you are saying all of this but haven't coached anybody, it ruins your credibility with the other strength coaches. And please, if an athlete asks you a question and you don't know the answer, don't guess – just say that you don't know, but that you will find the answer. The athletes respect that a lot more than some guess that turns out to be wrong. Really, it all comes down to knowing your place as an intern.


Over the years, I have noticed that the interns were more and more bold but less and less competent. Some had never been involved in athletics, and some had never lifted weights! I always asked the interns if they lifted weights, and I didn't do it in a derogatory way, but I wanted to know why you wanted to be a strength coach if you never trained. You saw it on TV and it seemed cool? If they hadn't lifted before, they lifted when they worked for us. They trained, and we had them train hard.

None of this, “Yeah, I need to get back into it someday” bullshit. Get your ass under the bar and really learn. No way was I going to have an intern go to another place after they left us and have the strength coach ask, “You mean that you worked for Steel and you didn’t lift?” My assistant had all kinds of tests for the interns to pass before they left us: programming for all sports, and the proper techniques on the lifts. I had one guy that was interviewing with me for a full time job and I asked him to teach me how to squat. He said, “What’s the big deal? You just get under the bar and squat the weight.” Uh, no. I should have sent him to clinic with my friend Kirk Karwoski (1000 x 2 squat) who takes an hour just talking about the setup of the squat!

Another time I was helping a women's lacrosse athlete with her overhead press while an intern shadowed me during the training session. I had just finished teaching her the intricacies of the press, and I swear he walked right up to her, not even a minute later, and told her exactly the opposite of what I had just taught her! I just looked at him, and then I told him to never ever speak to my athletes again. Then I called my assistant in charge of the intern program and told her that A) he was never to be in the weight room if she wasn’t there, and B) I never wanted him around me or my teams again, ever. He was a bad one. Don’t be like him.


When you move on to a few places, you may catch a break and get an assistant job, one that you get paid for doing. Or a part-time coaching job that you get some money but still not enough to live on. So you work a couple of jobs and train some people on the side. You now are coaching athletes and have your own teams. Don't be disappointed at the salary. Usually it's pretty low. Unless you are at a major school and have great connections, you will be fighting to keep your head above water to live and pay bills. Most assistants, especially first year assistants, are in the $20,000 to $30,000 a year range.

Yes, you can make more loading boxes at UPS, but you are coaching, so you definitely aren't doing it for the money. I had assistants with masters degrees and ten years of experience in charge of a bunch of teams, and they were making $40-44,000. That's criminal. Especially when administrators are making two to three times that salary for doing absolutely nothing, who know absolutely nothing, and who justify their jobs by having countless meetings and getting in the way. But right or wrong, that's the reality of college S&C coaching.


During your interview for the job you may have to meet with various coaches and administrators. This may be frustrating for you. Some coaches will just be killing time – they're just here for the snacks. Some will have their own agendas. One coach will ask about how “sports specific” your training is for the athletes. Understand that most sport coaches don’t know a damn thing about training. Explain to them that your training has moved beyond sports specificity, your training is individualized to reflect what the athletes really need; assessing and focusing on their weaknesses, and improving them. And that everyone is different and that the real art of coaching is getting their individual weaknesses strong. And then throw in some bullshit at the end about general to specific in your yearly plan. Then when you get the job, they squat, press, clean, deadlift, bench – all the basics.

The athletes will understand (most of them, unless they have a father that meddles – that’s brutal) when you explain to them that they are all in a developmental stage, and to get strong as hell on the basic lifts and then work on your skills. They will improve in both, but explain to them that strength comes first.

I always tackled all the bullshit in the beginning of the semester. I’d sit them down and explain things. To the women, I would explain how they won't look like Ms. Olympia training 3 days a week for 40 minutes at a time and not taking drugs. And to the men’s teams (other than football), I would explain to them that although I played football, I am not training them as football players, but as athletes, and that these exercises will get you the strongest fastest, that you won't get hurt doing them, and that working on your skills when you are away from me will meld the two together to get you where you need to be. They would invariably ask if they could do “extra.” I would tell them that they could do curls and grip work and planks all day long after they finished the main lifts. I mean, at that point, who cares? Giving them a little candy for dessert won't hurt them.


When I look back after all these years of coaching, I realize that one the most important things is to have a good relationship with the athletes. They have to trust you. And every one of them is different – they all have different motivations and different buttons to push. If you go in with a hardass attitude for everyone that you train, the football coaches will love it but you will lose some of the athletes.

I train hunting retrievers, and the greatest retriever trainer ever, a legend, Rex Carr, had a saying: “It's never the dog's fault” – meaning, you need to find a way to reach that dog, to find a way that makes him learn what you are teaching him. He's just sitting there, waiting for you to get it together. He's the sponge waiting to soak up your teachings: he doesn't know anything, and you know everything. So teach him. Find a way to reach him. You are the coach, right? Then coach him, and if he doesn't respond, you'd better find a way that he does respond to so that you can help him reach his potential.

Remember, especially when you have a kid who is just not “getting it,” it’s never the dog's fault! I really believe if that you keep that in your head, it will make you a much better coach. When I first started out coaching I was a hardass with everyone. I coached them the way that I liked to be coached, and the expectations I put on them were the same expectations I had for myself as a player. Consequently, if they didn't think that lifting was the most important thing in the world, as I did, I had no connection with them. But once I learned to find what made kids tick, each of them, I became a much better coach.

It's little things, like a kid is embarrassed because he's not as strong as the other kids. Hell, how could he be? He played 3 sports in high school and had zero quality strength training instruction. So you bring that kid into your office and be totally up front with him. I’d tell him that I understood. That it's frustrating. But then I would explain to him that he will get there if he just keeps going, and that he may not have the strength right now that everyone else has, but he has some talents on the field that not everyone else has, and just wait until he does add strength to the equation. And then when he had a good day, I’d text him or pull him to the side and tell him that I wanted him to know that I see how hard he's working, that he's doing a great job, and to keep going. That kind of stuff goes a long way with a kid. And I wasn't lying to him. Athletes can see right through that, if it's fake.


And I never gave a damn if the player was “good” or not, or was a starter. I just cared if he busted his ass for me. And I didn't care whether he was strong or not, if he worked hard. Hard work got my respect. And athletes get that – they know that you don't have playing time hanging over their heads when they are with you in the weight room. I always looked at the weight room as a place where the athletes can get away from their sport coaches and be themselves, and work hard and have fun at the same time.

I think you should set just a few rules – I would explain to them that I didn't believe in a lot of rules. I'd tell them to just be on time and bust their ass while they were with me. That’s it. And that I would treat them as adults if they behaved as adults, and I am here to make them better. I told them that if they are going to act like babies, I can run them up and down the stadium for an hour. I would tell them that it's easy for me to blow a whistle, but that they won't learn a thing if I have to spend time on stupid shit. And that if I have to do that, I am going to be in a constant bad mood, and that won't be good for anyone. I'd let them decide.


So now you are “in” as a coach. You have a huge responsibility to these athletes. Make them strong, help them create a suit of armor to dominate and to stave off injuries. Stick to your guns when coaches and administrators try to put their two cents in. Hear them out, but never sacrifice what’s best for the athletes and what’s safest for the athletes. In fact, looking back, it’s never the kids. They want to get better. Most of the shitty days when I was coaching were when I wasn’t coaching at all – it was when I had to listen to some mindless drivel coming out of a coach or administrator’s mouth. But when all of that goes on, and it will, just nod your head and smile and know why you are there: to coach the athletes. Everything else is just a distraction that can take you away from that purpose.

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