A strength & conditioning coach. A speed coach. A physical preparation coach. A fitness or athletics coach. A performance optimizer, a biomechanics specialist, a movement coach, a personal trainer for athletes.
Regardless of the title you’re after, if you’re reading this article, it’s likely that we all have the same end goal in mind: helping athletes perform better in their sport (and/or lives) through physical preparation.
However, it’s important to note that there are many paths to Rome, and Rome doesn’t look the same from all angles. This is the same with professional pathways in sport.
With that in mind, it is important to recognize the vastly different education backgrounds, certifications, and processes on the way to becoming a sports performance professional. There’s no right or wrong pathway or destination; it’s simply up to each individual coach to decide from which angle they hope to see Rome and how they plan to get there.
In the following article, I outline the pillars of “how to become a performance coach” from a few of those angles.
Because a Bachelor’s degree is required for some certifications and usually required for a job as a Strength & Conditioning coach in the sports training world from college and beyond, I do recommend studying if you have the time, means, will, and patience.
While a Sport Science study program isn’t absolutely necessary unless your end goal is to be a sport scientist, it certainly has its benefits for working in the field. Whatever degree program you choose (if you want to study), I can only recommend a program with a strong scientific basis and a practical section. Learning the energy systems, types of hormones and how they work, nutrition basics, and all the names of bones and muscles in the body will help immensely as you get into your certification phase.
If, however, you choose not to study in a sport science-related field, taking courses in chemistry, biology, anatomy & physiology, physics, psychology, nutrition, and communication can certainly help you get ahead.
Bachelor Examples: Exercise Science, Exercise/Health/Fitness, PhysEd and Recreation, Kinesiology, Physiology, Scientific Principles of Sport Performance, Health & Life Science, Biology, Anatomy, etc.
If you feel overwhelmed by the certification process and the sheer amount of certs available, not to mention taking a written exam at the end of it all, you’re not alone. There are so many options to choose from, but, keep in mind, they all generally have the same goal (helping athletes perform better through physical preparation) but take very different approaches to it.
Let’s cover the most popular certifications:
NSCA-CSCS: this is considered one of the most prestigious S&C certs. It’s internationally known and respected, it requires a Bachelor’s degree (in any field), and gives you the title of Strength & Conditioning Specialist. The test is split into two written parts (practical and scientific) and requires you to learn a big piece of sport science; everything from biomechanics to energy systems to nutrition to hormones and more before even getting to exercise selection, programming, periodization, and, of course, the famous little chapter about facility management. Although the exam is long and the study process isn’t a blast, you will gain a very thorough knowledge of not just how training and the human anatomy work, but also why they work. Employers, in my experience, also see CSCS-holders as having that required baseline of knowledge in order to pass the exam, which is an easy boost for the job hunting process.
CSSCa-SCCC: another “gold standard” certification is the Strength & Conditioning Coach Certified license through the Collegiate Strength & Conditioning Coaches Association. This certification requires a 640-hour practical/internship phase alongside the exam study, and candidates must pass a scientific and live-practical exam in front of examiners. The sport science background to this cert is as thorough and respectable as the CSCS and requires a Bachelor degree to hold the title. Although the association alludes to collegiate coaching, SCCC holders are not limited to collegiate environments.
*Both the CSCS and SCCC require a number of Continuing Education Units in order to renew and maintain the certification.
NASM-PES: the NASM Performance Enhancement Specialist assumes you already know the basics of anatomy and physiology (or that you don’t need to) and takes you right into the sports performance coaching. Endurance, Hypertrophy, Strength, Power, Speed - all the interesting stuff is there. Most PESs, however, either already have a foundational certification (CPT/Personal Trainer, Athletic Trainer, Physical Therapist, etc) and sharpen their knowledge of training athletes with the PES or they don’t need more than the PES (that is, they have another job or function and just want to supplement and dabble in performance). There is no Bachelor required, although it requires quite a study process and a final exam.
Mike Boyle’s CFSC: although this certification strays from the common “sport science foundation” path, I respect all of Michael Boyle’s work and know many great coaches who started with this seminar. It is hands on, focusing on the “art of coaching” and how to customize programs (think exercise selection and periodization). If you tend toward the more practical path and want to build up with supplements later on, this certification is a great option. Bonus points for capitalizing on Coach Boyle’s knowledge and experience!
EXOS Performance Specialist: if you’re working in Europe or in the US collegiate system, you’ve likely heard of EXOS. They offer a performance certification, as well as a mentorship program with three levels and many other specialty courses. EXOS also boasts some great coaches on their staff and a thorough coaching education program; again, less sport science and more boots-on-the-ground.
If you studied a sport science-related degree at university or took the SCCC, you are required to have an internship (usually 200hr, 500hr, and/or 650hr).
However, practical experience will always be invaluable. Being a competent, effective performance coach requires a well-practiced and systematic blend of scientific knowledge and practical capacities. It’s never a good plan to jump out of the textbook or courseroom and walk unsupervised into the job. You’ll simply be unprepared and you’ll realize it very quickly.
If you are looking for practical experiences, there are always internship. Even if you aren’t eligible for a university S&C internship, find a local performance facility and write in to ask if they take interns, mentees, or shadow-coaches.
Another option is working as a personal trainer or in a sports medicine/physical therapy office or clinic of some kind. Yes, you’re not working with professional athletes all day, but you will gain invaluable hands-on and realistic experience doing any of those jobs. Bonus points: you might even earn more than an S&C intern.
Lastly, find a mentor. If you can’t work in the field and you don’t have an internship lined up, snag a mentor who’s been there and done that. It’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty, but it’ll give you some practical input. More on that later.
To be completely honest, if you aim to work in collegiate or professional sport, get ready for what we lovingly-hatefully call “modern prostitution” - you’re going to work for free… a lot. If you’re too cool for an (almost always unpaid) internship at the start of your S&C career, it may be best to go in the direction of management or marketing. Most performance coaches have done at least one nearly unpaid internship, even with a Bachelors, a certification, and a 500hr practical phase behind them - and most coaches I know have done 2-3 jobs for less than 15k/year full-time before they got a desirable (read: legal) position.
You sure learn a lot in practical phases, but, the earlier you can start earning relevant experience, growing your CV, and meeting people in the field, the easier your certifications, networking, and job search will be.
Olympic Weightlifting/Power Training: the USA Weightlifting Level 1 (formerly called the USAW Sports Performance Coach) is heavily focused on the implementation of Olympic weightlifting and supplementary exercises into strength and conditioning. If you use the Oly lifts in your training programs, I can only recommend this seminar. It spans across a weekend and I had great experiences with the coaches and staff each time. This certification is heavily technique-focused and programming-focused, and coaches walk away with a more analytical eye toward coaching the Oly lifts and a better understanding of how they fit into an annual S&C plan (and why).
Another option: although the Eleiko Strength Coach certification carries the name “Strength Coach”, it is not, in my experience, comparable to the CSCS or SCCC in terms of required depth and breadth of knowledge in sport science, training, or coaching overall. It’s more comparable to the USAW in that it primarily focuses on the Olympic lifts and basic training strategies as well as coaching skills. The course description lists that it is geared toward trainers or coaches already working in the field (with a foundation of knowledge) to supplement their athlete-specific training. Coaches I know who carry this certification, in addition to foundational certs, were pleased with the seminar.
Screening/Diagnostic/Assessment: if you have ever worked in soccer, you have likely heard of the Functional Movement Screen (FMS). And, while the FMS 1 & 2 is still wildly popular in some parts of the sports world, there is much more to the Functional Movement System than the basic screening and the exercise library. Although I don’t personally endorse every single thing FMS does, the program’s massive benefit is teaching coaches how to implement systems: screening, flow charts, adaption, and being able to look at the human body analytically to find sources beyond symptoms. If you think you like biomechanics, any part of the FMS system is a nice first start.
Nutrition: though S&C coaches don’t need to be experts in nutrition (yes, send them to the dietician!), having a handle on sports nutrition and the energy systems certainly is beneficial, as some programs won’t have nutritionists available and leave the food plans up to training staff. Precision Nutrition has become a very prominent in the last few years for providing quality education to strength coaches, but there are numerous other options available.
Speed: this is a touchy topic, as no single certification dominates this market at the moment, but speed training is a staple of S&C that, in the foundational certifications, is hugely underrated. In my experience, the fresh strength coach (even after an internship, Bachelor, and certification) doesn’t understand speed, running mechanics, endurance, or SAQ programming. I can only encourage coaches to dive deeper into speed coaching. Some options for certifications include USA Track & Field’s certification pyramid, NESTA SAQ Specialist, Running Mechanics Professional, and NSPA Speed & Agility Coach.
(P)Rehab & Return-To-Play: working in performance means working on one side or the other of injury, whether preventative/reductionist or rehabilitative. Strength/performance coaches are also one important rung on the ladder for athletes who are returning to play post-injury, so it’s important that any coach knows the basics of how to re-prepare players. Whether you gain these skills through a course, a class, a mentor-/internship or rogue experience a personal decision, but courses such as Z-Health and the EXOS Injury Rehabilitation course series may be interesting options to consider.
Psychology: this is very often completely missed in our profession, but the psychology and social components of coaching are just as much an art form as putting together a great program; no athlete cares how competent you (think you) are unless they think you’re invested in them. Several solutions and thought leaders have emerged in this area in the last years, although the most prominent is likely Brett Bartholomew’s Art of Coaching online course. I also recommend any basic psychology or communication course or book to further your soft skills, ability to ask better questions, and analyses.
Sport-Specific: while it’s true that performance coaches are not head coaches and we always need to respect the expertise of others (aka: “Stay In Your Lane” is the golden rule of high-performance sport training!), it can help to have a general idea of the sport you are involved in to best help the athletes you serve. Look to your national or local sport organization for a basic course to help you get started - these are often inexpensive and can be completed online.
Develop & Update Your System: every strength coach or sports performance professional will have to develop their own way of working; this will often be influenced by where you work and with what population, but it’s nonetheless worthy of contemplation and purposeful formulation.
Never stop developing and updating your systems or philosophies. Things change. Settings change. Athletes change. You will change. Constantly ask yourself why you work the way you do, if it’s efficient and realistic, if it could be better, and always be able to explain why you programmed ______. (Trust me, you’ll get that question a lot, and people know when you’re bullshitting them because you don’t know!)
Mentorship & Networking: on a personal note, some of the most valuable influences to my career were my mentors and my colleagues. I am a big fan of finding sources; I searched out the experts in areas I am interested in and begged them to teach me everything they know or watched them work until I understood it. Learning from coaches or other professionals who have walked the path before you and learned the hard lessons and developed the arsenal of skills is simply invaluable. This is also a great way to fill in any practical gaps in your knowledge (i.e. mentoring with a physical therapist to increase your [p]rehab skills) - they know what they are talking about and how and why it works. Ask questions; they have answers or know where you can find them.
Bottom line: find great mentors (also, pay them for their time and thank them for their influence!).
Networking is another huge tool. Building an army of colleagues who will check you, challenge you, school you, and share with you is one thing (and it’s an absolute requirement, in my opinion). But having a network of people who know your name is immensely valuable - the sports world is a game of “who you know”, and you never know who is watching you work. Keep in mind that building and keeping up with a network takes quite some effort and time, but it’s absolutely worth it.
Bonus points: you meet a lot of really cool people and learn a lot of really interesting stuff you would have never known if you’d kept to yourself.
Learn Outside of Sport: going back to the coaching philosophy and system for a moment, I recommend getting busy with topics outside of sport as well. Whenever you can, get out of the gym or off the field. Go to a different kind of seminar or event. Learn from an expert in a totally different field. Read something that’s not about sports, analytics, or training.
Oh, the things we can learn about analysis from academics, about systematic work from philosophy & religion, about productivity from business, and communication from politics and marketing. Look for new lessons in weird places. The world won’t come meet you in the squat rack.
I cannot stress enough that, again, there’s no wrong pathway or destination. It’s up to every individual how they decide to proceed in their career and how they specifically hope to help athletes improve their performance through physical preparation. At the end of the day, anyway, you might end up seeing Rome from an entirely different angle than you imagined… and you’ll probably like it more.
Let the process of becoming a performance coach inspire you, develop you, and force you to be a better human and professional (even when it makes you seriously consider quitting your job and bartending for a living instead).