Chronicles from the Intern Experience

At SAPT we've been pretty fortunate to have some wonderful interns since we began taking them only a couple years ago. One who completed his time with us in the spring, Tadashi, has now had a fairly complete look at athletic performance training from three separate sources. Here are his thoughts: I can now proclaim I have been an intern at three different strength and conditioning sites.  While this accomplishment is a great addition to slap on my resume, I actually learned a thing or two in the process and gained a lot of experience.  What’s special about my cumulative experience in particular is that I have had the chance to work in three distinctly different environments: A D1 school in a mid-major conference, a D1 school in a major conference, and SAPT (a privately owned training facility).  Although these are all programs with similar goals of making people big, strong, fast, and athletic, I found that there are some pretty significant differences between the sites.

At the college level, both major and mid-major, time is always a critical factor.  A common mantra in the collegiate field of strength and conditioning is “get in, get out.”  There are typically multiple lifting groups per day so scheduling and timeliness are crucial.  Also, the athletes have class, practice, meetings, homework, and oftentimes jobs, and they simply cannot afford to spend hours in the weight room every day.  This means training sessions need to be quick and efficient.  In a collegiate team setting there simply is not enough time to go from athlete to athlete and break down exercise technique in intricate detail.  Instead, it becomes necessary to choose your battles and address faults that seem to occur across the board.  It would be awesome to pull an athlete aside during squats and go over belly-breathing techniques because he/she isn’t bracing correctly, but in a collegiate setting the team might be on their next set and the athlete falls behind.

This was especially true at the major level because the absolute number of athletes was higher, resulting in a disadvantageous coach:athlete ratio per session.  We are always maintaining supervision across the weight room floor and keeping a close eye on those we might feel are at a higher risk, such as those coming back from injury, but we can’t catch everything.  For example, as I make sure an athlete with shoulder issues is performing dumbbell rows correctly, out of the corner of my eye I might see an athlete on the other side of the room pulling cleans from the floor with a rounded back (and I die a little inside…).

What I found with my experience in the private sector is that quality control and attention to detail become the priority over most other factors.  With a better coach to client ratio and much higher standards in terms of execution of movement, very seldom do technique flaws go unnoticed and uncorrected.  Well respected strength coaches like Mike Boyle have advised having only one “coaching intensive” movement (think squats/deadlifts/Olympic lifts) per training session, but at a facility like SAPT even a push-up position plank becomes coaching intensive.

I believe a lot of the differences boils down to the fact that in a collegiate setting we are training teams, whereas in the private sector we are training individuals.  I feel that there is a level of responsibility for a collegiate athlete to keep up with the program laid out for the team, while in the private sector clients are paying for an individualized program fit for their personal needs.  You’re a D1 athlete and your shoulder feels funky?  Well, the team is bench pressing tomorrow so let’s hope you’re ready.   You train at SAPT and your shoulder feels funky?  Time to take a look at your program and see if we need to make some modifications.

There were many other differences I could talk about such as style of programming, exercise selection, testing methods, warm-ups, conditioning work, and so on, but these differences were more a result of the individual coaches’ preferences and not inherently due to the nature of the program (i.e. D1 major conference vs private sector).  My experience with these three internships reinforced the fact that this field really isn’t black and white.  When I have a question I turn to the experts, but what happens when the experts disagree?  Olympic lifts?  Linear periodization?  Westside?  Kettlebells?  Barefoot training? Foam rolling?  The beauty of having experience in multiple environments was that I could actually see these methods applied firsthand, and come to my own conclusion of what I thought was effective.

For those of you interested in strength and conditioning I highly recommend going out there and gaining some experience with many areas of the field.  Whether your interest currently lies in working with elite level athletes, collegiate athletics, children and young athletes, strength sports, endurance sports, etc., jump on every opportunity to work with anyone.  You will learn something from every experience, and you might even find your interests shift as you are exposed to different population groups and programs.  Even an experience in what you feel might be a “bad” program will teach you what not to do, and will help mold you into a better professional.

The Do's and Don'ts of Being an Intern

Internships are the bridges that lead into a career in strength and conditioning whether it’s at the collegiate level or the private sector.  If you want to pursue a career in this industry at some point you need to do an internship.  If you don’t then you won’t gain hands on knowledge and you won’t be able to learn from people more experienced and smarter than you.  Internships are almost a rite of passage.  They mean you paid your dues.  If you successfully completed an internship it means you worked hard every day, you cleaned equipment, you organized storage closets, you woke up at 4:00AM to be in the weight room for a 5:00AM team and then worked till 4:00PM, you read endlessly, you watched some of the most knowledgeable people you’ll ever meet coach, you got to ask those coaches questions, you got to listen to those coaches answer your questions, and if you were lucky those coaches threw you to the wolves and told you one morning “hey, I’m going to let you run women’s soccer today to see how you do” then they watched you fail miserably which gave you the opportunity to find out what your made of, then they showed you how to learn from your mistakes and how to do it better the next time!  And you did it all for no money, just for the experience, the knowledge, the pride and to see if you had what it takes.  It was all for the opportunity to gain the ability to help people and athletes become better versions of themselves.  Or at least this is what it should be about; sadly a lot of people just want to get by. You’d be amazed by the amount of people who want to say they put in the work rather than just putting in the work.  People who do the internship because they need the credit to graduate so they try to put in as little effort as possible instead of taking advantage of a great situation in which they can learn.

With all that said here are some do’s and don’ts to follow in order to get the best possible experience out of your internship…

1) Be Quiet

You are there to learn, not socialize.  The coaches don’t care about how “crazy” your weekend was.  Unless your asking questions there is no need for you to talk, until the coach states otherwise.

2) Understand That You Know Nothing/Be Open Minded

It’s important to grasp the concept that unless you have coaching experience your opinion doesn't hold much value. There’s nothing worse than someone who spouts off exercise science trivia but can’t goblet squat to save their life or teach it for that matter.  It doesn’t matter what your training methodology is because it’s over for the time being.  Take this time to step out of your comfort zone and learn something new.  Is your internship somewhere that is Olympic based? Well if it is guess what?  You are going to train the Olympic lifts for the next semester or year.  If you go into the whole thing thinking you know it all then then you’ve demonstrated that you truly know nothing.

3) Do as Your Asked and Do it with a Smile on Your Face

Your job is whatever the strength coach you’re working under deems it to be.  If they want you to go reorganize the whole storage closet then do it and whistle while you work, trust me it helps.  If they want you to observe a training session then you need watch intently and have questions ready to ask them when the session is done.  It’s a privilege that these coaches have taken you under their wing so show gratitude by performing each task no matter how minute it is to the best of your ability

4) Show Initiative

Sadly, this was my biggest problem during my internships.  If someone told me to do something I definitely did it to the best of my ability.  That was the problem though, most of the time I had to be told when to do something.  If you see plates unorganized then go organize them before someone tells you.  Is everything organized in the storage closet by the end of the day?  If not, take it upon yourself to organize it.  If the strength coach is running behind schedule and has a collegiate baseball team getting out of line then put your big boy/girl pants on and go lay down the law.  One of your jobs is to assist the strength coach so they can focus on their job.  If they have to stop what they’re doing in order to tell you what to do all the time then you’re just making things worse.  Taking initiative shows leadership qualities and that you can handle yourself in all different situations.

5) Have Fun

I know that sounds a little hard after all the things I just mentioned BUT I promise you that if you observe the other rules listed number 5 will come naturally.  If you can successfully observe the previous rules then the strength coach you work under will probably make your job a lot more enjoyable.  If you don’t heed the other rules you’re going to have a really angry strength coach as a boss.  Working under Sarah I learned this quick, that’s not a person you want angry at you; I have nightmares to this day…. joking…. But seriously.  In all seriousness though, depending on where you end up for your internship you have been given a great opportunity to change yourself for the better.  It’s important to do everything in your power to seize the opportunity.