“Competition is for losers.”
Yes, you read that right. I wish that I could take credit for that line, but the truth is it belongs to Paypal co-founder, serial entrepreneur, philanthropist, and billionaire, Peter Thiel.
Funny how the vast majority of these billionaires seem to think, isn’t it? If you truly research most of their beginnings, you will find that, while they all certainly learned how to “play the game” within their own domain, few did so at the expense of lambasting, bad-mouthing, or attempting to discredit their so-called competitors.
Despite what seems to be the trend in our profession, world-class thinkers and business strategists understand that, over the long-term, focusing on tearing others down at any expense is parasitic, not productive. They find ways to expand the market and the value they bring, not shrink it. Sure, profits may be made in the short term by “stealing business” or establishing so-called “superiority,” but in the world of business, profits do not always equate to long-term value.
My father, who has been a stockbroker/financial advisor by trade for more than 40 years, taught me this when I was a kid. I’d be sitting in the kitchen, trying to inhale my breakfast before school, while the ticker on CNBC scrolled across the bottom of the screen, inducing a “Matrix”-like altered state. The acronyms and numbers representing the company names and their current values on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) meant nothing to me at the time. However, for my dad, it read like a picture book that told a vibrant story of how businesses in highly competitive sectors were performing day to day and minute by minute.
He’d explain that many of the businesses that had not just survived but also thrived over the last 50–100 years, did so not by being highly competitive, but rather by learning from other companies and adapting to changing markets. The ones that are able to essentially monopolize a market do so by adding value through helping to solve a unique problem or need.
We in the realm of human performance could take a lesson from this. For a profession obsessed with adaptation, we do a poor job of adapting to the world around us and the way it tends to communicate, expand, and operate. Sure, in some ways we have advanced leaps and bounds in regards to our knowledge about training, recovery, and nutrition. But when it comes to professionalism, pragmatism, and just plain business sense, we are still in the Stone Age.
Money Talks, but Perhaps Too Much
The content of this article may not resonate with everybody, and that’s fine as it’s not meant to be a universal crowd pleaser. These kinds of non-training-related reads don’t always widen the eyes of the practitioner who is hungry for a “new” interpretation of an old method that promises to provide THE answer for all in-season training woes. However, anyone who has been in this field for 10 or more years is not being entirely truthful if they deny the fact that nobody badmouths one another within their own industry quite like we do within strength and conditioning. Furthermore, it’s starting to hurt us more and more, due to the oversaturation of coaches compared to the number and quality of jobs available.
This also isn’t something that only affects new or young coaches, as we have well-tenured pioneers being replaced in their positions because an organization or athletic department decides to trim the ledger and find new blood who will take the job for significantly lower pay.
That’s a polarizing term in our field: “pay.” The minute it is brought up, someone itching to jump on their dagger clamors to shout, “we don’t get into this field for the money!” They’re right. But there’s also nothing wrong with being conscious of a resource that helps us provide for our families. We aren’t talking about sport coaching salaries here. Nor are we the type to throw money around like the Floyd Mayweathers of the world.
Even if we did have a vastly different pay scale than we currently do, our collective blue-collar demeanor and leadership-based value set paints a hilarious comparison with most other professions, to the point where our version of “spending frivolously” often equates to doing things like paying the rent, buying a used vehicle, keeping the air conditioning at anything below 82 degrees Fahrenheit (~28 degrees Celsius), and perhaps being able to pay for insurance for our family (if in the private sector or some team/university scenarios) or a modest vacation one to two times per year, if our schedule or level of anxiety allows for it.
But this isn’t an article about money. This is an article about scalable sustainability in our profession, and the reformed mindset and attitude it will take to get there so that the number of coaches who are burnt out, bitter, territorial, insecure, or deviously opportunistic does not continue to become legion.
Practice Collaboration, Not Competition
Despite the amount of leadership books we read and conferences we attend, our lack of imagination and creative problem-solving continues to keep us in cement boots, drowning in the depths of despair. Meanwhile, those in other industries who have learned how to systematically “play nice” float steadily towards the beaches of continued personal and/or professional progress.
Don’t think it’s that bad? Take a moment to truly observe and reflect upon the behavior and messaging so often projected within various social media channels, research journals, message boards, and even at conferences that are supposed to focus on professional development. If the lenses on your glasses aren’t foggy, it shouldn’t be hard to see that there seem to be more Attila the Huns running around within our field than Aristotles: Those who would rather claim everything as “theirs and theirs alone,” as opposed to openly promoting more forward thought, or putting true skin in the game by testing their theories and sharing their work in order to push the boundaries of possibility further.
Avarice is not the means to achieving the apotheosis of your own legacy, or your own career for that matter. That takes collaboration in the form of adaptive learning, yet another thing that those guys in the fancy suits working at large “commercialized” corporations that we often make fun of tend to do better than us. We may have the “cool” jobs, the ones that place us on the sidelines of major sporting events, allow us to work with world-class performers of all kinds, and keep us out of cubicles and countless death-by-PowerPoint boardroom meetings, yet despite this, and our obsession with continual self-improvement, we still cannot seem to get out of our own way and make the leap into a 21st-century mindset defined by adaptability, decentralized command, and the ability to create meaningful networks that help others achieve more significant work in less time.
This is the reason those in the corporate world seem to move from cubicle to corner office faster than half of us even get through our second unpaid internship. Sure, you could argue that the business world is better scaled for upward mobility and that job placement opportunities are more plentiful than they are within strength and conditioning, but I dare you to say that to the face of the struggling University of Michigan business school grad who thought that their shiny new MBA from a heralded Big 10 institution would surely land them something a bit more stable than a lead barista job at the Starbucks on South State Street.
Professional struggles are relative, regardless of the chosen vocation. So it’s best for us to bite our tongues before stepping up to the counter and making claims that certain folks have it easier. If they do, it’s because they’ve done their homework, observed, and adapted.
The root of the problem comes in part from the indelible role that conflict often plays within human nature. We are social creatures that choose when to compete or collaborate for scarce resources based on our perceptions, biases, drives, and long-term goals. It’s also somewhat expected, due to our industry being as young as it is.
In regard to the timeline of established and organized vocations, those solely focused upon the promotion of physical culture and ethical enhancement of physiology through training have barely been around the block, whereas fields such as those that focus on carpentry, law, medicine, and some form of politics have established residence much longer within our economic landscape. Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has made it a habit of eloquently describing the relative insignificance of the timeline of human existence within what he calls the “cosmic calendar,” would likely relate the collective existence of our profession to far less than a speck of stardust within a vast multiverse.
Stated more simply, those in our field are still trying to find their way, and many think that the only way they can prove their value or be taken seriously is by coaching at the professional level of sport or at a major Division 1 university. Young coaches who can’t find paying opportunities in the team setting will turn down job opportunities at private sector facilities because they have been told by more senior coaches (and sometimes in a threatening manner) that if they take these jobs, they will never be able to “get back in” on the team side. What a message! Whatever happened to the biggest concern being whether someone is simply good at what they do and has built valuable and diverse experience?
Telling someone that they face an uphill battle in accomplishing their ultimate goal by gaining experience in a role that challenges them technically and relationally, and having to coach four to eight groups a day across the spectrums of youth, high-school, professional, collegiate, and even military athletes, is like telling a musician that he may not know how to play his guitar in front of a crowd at Wembley Arena if he has only played at venues in Nashville. Sure, the stage is bigger and the acoustics are a bit different, but most legendary coaches will tell you that the playing of the instrument is the same. In other words, “coaching is coaching.”
Instead, the message should be to diversify your skill set, and coach ANYWHERE and ANYONE you can. For the long-term health of our field, this “segregation of sectors” makes about as much sense as any other type of divisive and antiquated belief system played out on a more global or political stage.
How Our Employers Use Our Faults Against Us
Competition may be for “losers” over the long run (when it is entirely ego-based), but just like conflict, competition is natural and can make us better if we aim our sights correctly. In my opinion, it is less a universal issue with competition as a whole since possessing a mindset geared towards relentless improvement guides us towards enhancing our ability to help others. Where it becomes problematic — and this is the core theme of the article — is the way we in strength and conditioning or any of the related fields, tend to go about competing with one another (in-fighting, conspiring, undercutting, etc.).
Not only do these behaviors fail to demonstrate the true value that we as a profession provide to those we serve and those who hire us, but also to the field as a whole, given the fact that even the most modestly observant outsiders who spend time around us in social situations would be hard-pressed to not think there is something odd about a group of coaches who perceive themselves to be leaders, yet can’t seem to play nicely together in the sandbox. We tend to be an insecure lot, and while you would rightfully argue that every profession has its issues, I would add that this isn’t a matter of comparing ourselves, once again, to one another or anyone else; it is a matter of owning up to our faults, buttoning up our behavior, and wising up in regard to our long-term professional strategy if we truly hope to maximize the options available to all of us now and in the future.
This is illustrated by how we say we are the “behind the scenes” type, but then our actions show that we love the thrill of a good crisis and the sound of our own name, especially if our name is associated with world-class athletes, fancy branded clothing, a winning organization, or an illustrious sports team. We want to prove ourselves, and some may say we have even become desperate to do so.
Our employers have been taking note, and through our behavior we have shown them both what we value and what we don’t, as well as the tremendous lengths we are willing to go in the name of affiliation or perceived authority. Why should they pay us more or provide us with longer contract options if they know that there is always another coach following the wake of the boat while another chum the water with ego as their bait?
I’ve been told twice in my career that if I didn’t like what was offered, they could and would find someone else to do it cheaper. And, while I appreciate the realities of economics, dictatorial responses like that leave me wondering whether some of our employers are looking for the “right fit” or the one that meets their budget requirements. Not only have we as coaches shown that we will willingly help our employers undercut any and all competition for a job opening, but we have done so in a manner not based on a desire to learn, improve, or lead, as we often say it is. Rather, it is because of the notoriety we get and so often crave from alignment with that team or institution.
And once we get that job, we are willing to do whatever it takes to keep it, even if that means not pushing the limits, not speaking up against toxic cultures, and not truly seeking ways to add long-term value for those who work with us. As it pertains to self-defense strategies, it has been whispered in our ear that it is better to “play it safe” when under the lights and not risk threatening anyone, than it is to push the envelope. I understand that to be a great leader, you need to first learn how to follow — and that is timeless and potent advice, especially in the world of coaching.
All of us can recount stories where we have done what we had to do to survive or make sure that our boss didn’t think we were trying to hijack their authority. However, there is a difference between following and being blind, just as there is a difference between speaking up because you actually have something to say and speaking up just because you want to “be heard.”
Those who think and behave in any of the self-preserving Machiavellian manners mentioned above risk mistakenly thinking that doing so protects the opportunity they have in-hand when the reality is that it erodes the opportunities to come not only for them personally, but for other coaches as well. Our employers often do just fine as it pertains to resources and wit, and don’t require our help in procuring a metaphorical playbook that shows them how much we will go to war with one another or our own ethics and/or morals just so we can displace our families yet again for slightly more than a lateral move.
But we have established this trend, and that is why it is not uncommon to hear of a coach taking a job that offers minimal-to-average pay with almost no vacation time, basic health insurance, or even a continuing education budget, simply because they catch a whiff of an opening after a predecessor with a big name has been removed or taken another job. (This, of course, does not apply to young coaches fresh out of internships or volunteer roles, as you have to get in wherever you can and shouldn’t be picky or entitled.) Our anxiety paints this picture as our only chance to move up and get the respect we deserve; hence the speed-dial-induced rashes on the fingertips of coaches trying to find their “immediate in” the moment they smell blood in the water and get wind of a possible position change within a team or organization.
For us, the name of the game has often become, “anything in the name of survival,” especially if it is someone we don’t like or believe should have been in that job in the first place. Research shows that humans find immense pleasure in seeing those we envy, or perceive to be competition, fall from grace — no matter what form that failure may take.
Even ‘Outsiders’ Notice Our Behavior
To be fair, this applies to leaders within the realm of business, too. They are just a bit more skillful with their application, as they have had much longer to practice and refine the politics associated with their craft. Their true talent lies in the way they wield the knife that they use to carve up the competition. They know just how to draw enough blood to manage perception, but not fatally harm. This allows for possible future collaboration, as they know they may need the man/woman next to them for a future mutual venture.
We don’t do this. We have coaches that have been in the game for 25 years or more, more focused on keeping “secrets” than on mentoring, and those who have mastered the former AOL chat room art of sub-tweeting another coach simply because they didn’t like what they said or how they said it. At some point, someone has to call this kind of behavior what it is: child’s play. As coaches, we are often tasked with helping shape the work ethic, character, and decision-making processes of our athletes just as much as we are tasked with helping shape and tune their bodies for optimal performance.
Are we truly living up to what it means to be a coach when we can tell other people how they should behave without looking at ourselves in the mirror? What good has all of this back-office chatter done to us at this point? Instead of a field that truly “bridges the gap,” we’ve splintered into factions due to the bridges we’ve burned, and cost others and ourselves jobs and more diverse opportunities in the process.
I’ll never forget a particular moment when I was attending an event hosted by the UFC in Las Vegas. This wasn’t a fight, it was an educational summit. The event was put on in large part to help educate both rookie and veteran fighters on their need to be smarter with their money, their training practices, and the management of their own independent “brand” or image now that they had made it into the UFC. I was working for another company at the time and we were in attendance to serve as ambassadors, or consultants if you will, from a human performance standpoint. It was our goal to work alongside the UFC to spread a message to current fighters about the practice of proactive sustainability, or smarter training, so that they could enjoy a longer and more productive career.
A co-worker and I were at a welcome dinner for the event when a high-ranking UFC executive came to say hello and chat for a bit. The usual chitchat ensued, followed closely by a comment that I would never forget.
“You know, you have a very interesting profession,” the executive stated.
“How do you mean?” I asked.
He then went on to say that he had been in business a very long time and had seen it all, but he had yet to see a profession where people badmouthed one another quite as badly and openly as those within the field of human performance.
I nodded in both agreement and embarrassment, rendered momentarily speechless. (Those of you who know me realize the irony there.) My co-worker didn’t know what to say either. We chatted a bit more, shook hands, and parted ways.
My momentary oral paralysis wasn’t a byproduct of him bestowing some esoteric knowledge upon me that I hadn’t already realized myself some time ago — his words weren’t the missing link to creating cold fusion. Rather, it was the frustration I felt that our industry had done such a great job of building personal protective barriers and throwing tantrums about “who is right” that an international pioneer in sport and business noticed our behavior. It is not uncommon for passion to turn into pestilence when left unchecked.
Sometimes it takes outside opinions to wake us up. Consider this: If HE saw us this way, and he had just begun paying closer attention to the industry within the past few years, how do our more traditional employers such as team and private sector facilities who often have a say in our career path or destiny see us? With the recent hardened stance that the NCAA is now taking on strength and conditioning coaches, after numerous high-profile incidents, we don’t have to imagine too hard.
I Learned My Own Lessons the Hard Way
Yes, strength coaches are often taken for granted, and they are certainly taken advantage of far more than any other entity within human performance. (Relax, physical therapists and athletic trainers — your plight is recognized as well.) But we do it to ourselves. We brag about being “first in and last out” and insinuate that the only way to be considered a “true coach” is to run groups non-stop, spend every waking moment creating new templates, and prove to an invisible audience that nobody is more dedicated than we are.
Some of these aspects are certainly true early on in your career, as you have to put your time in to understand the craft, but after a point you have to ask yourself whether the things you are doing really are for the benefit of those you serve or are instead just serving your ego and filling a bigger void. There are easier ways to earn the respect of your athletes than by shunning your family, neglecting your own health, and trying to fit a faux military stereotype. I know, because I was traveling down that path early on in my career as well.
When I first started coaching, I refused to leave an internship despite the fact that my brother was stabbed and in the hospital with a near-fatal wound, because I feared I would lose the momentum I had gained with the company and they would replace me if I left. Later in my career, I coached for more than six weeks after experiencing a full-blown herniation and protrusion of a disk that left me unable to walk normally or feel anything in my left leg. I also nearly blew it in my first year of marriage after accepting a new role at a facility that had zero infrastructure and largely relied on me to get back on track. I rarely asked for help in these situations because, in our field, perception is reality and there is always someone willing to take your place and do it for less money.
This isn’t me complaining; this is me sharing. I love our field — it helped save my life — and I knew the sacrifices required when I signed up and moved for the first of my two unpaid internships. We have all made sacrifices and will continue to do so. But what we should not tolerate are the external issues that occur due to the agendas of a hard-headed and egotistical few with a fixed mindset on what it means to be a coach.
Coaching is a small, tightly knit community, and each of our decisions affects those around us whether we intend them to or not. This pertains to the jobs you choose to take, the way in which you represent yourself both in and out of the workplace, how you treat others in the field, and the messages you send consciously or subconsciously to employers, young coaches, and our governing bodies. Strength and conditioning coaches are capable of far more than “counting reps,” and we should display the comportment of the multidisciplinary-based professionals we claim to be and the value we bring to the table of any organization.
Going forward, our ability to help our profession evolve to provide scalable value to not only the athletes we serve, but the organizations we are a part of, will not come from competition, but from collaboration. Many in the Special Forces community echo this sentiment, including my good friend Colonel Robert Bollinger, a veteran with more than 24 years of service. Regarding the carnivorous nature of the human performance field, he once said:
“Comparisons should be avoided in the world of human performance due to the complexity of the environment. Everyone is dealing with different athletes, with different backgrounds and different constraints. Fighting about who is the best or who is right in these types of environments is like asking whether SEALS, Delta, or Rangers are superior. We may poke fun at one another because we are brothers, but at the end of the day WE ARE ALL Special Forces.”
It is a great point. Each branch operates somewhat differently within their domain, but all act in pursuit of a common purpose. They know that only through the collaboration of multiple branches will their primary objectives be achievable. Us? Give us 10 more years and we may have finally moved on from talking about which form of squatting is the most efficacious (as if we have not yet learned and accepted that there is no one right answer for everyone.)
Managing Our Future Begins with Managing Ourselves
In my closing thoughts, I’d like to try and assuage some common anxieties shared by many coaches by stating a few points that are certainly not novel, but are worth remembering. This is especially for those times where it becomes tempting to lash out or behave in a manner that you would never tolerate from your children or the athletes you guide daily.
The points below are especially critical to remember during times of personal duress, financial hardship, and even a lack of clarity as to the next steps for you and your career. Why during these times? Because they are usually when emotions run highest and, as we all can attest when pushed far enough, emotions left unchecked will trump logic every time.
- There are more than enough athletes for all of us all to train.
- If you are good at what you do, there will always be another job opportunity.
- There is more than just one type of career path to take in this field, and some people will navigate these paths a bit more quickly than others. Don’t resent them; learn from them.
- Nobody has “the answer.”
- It’s not about you and your momentary feelings; it’s about furthering the field.
- The louder the chest-thumping, the bigger the ego.
- Employers are rarely ever going to pay you what you are truly worth. Hence the axiom, “you don’t get what you deserve in life, you get what you negotiate.”
- All of us are going to meet coaches throughout our career who are a bit sharper than we are in some areas. Remember that it goes the other way as well.
- Affiliations, shiny brands, and championship-caliber teams are not what define great coaches — the way they behave and the difference they make as a whole does.
The points above may seem trite, but they are true. They are also not going to be easy to swallow because of our sometimes trigger-happy emotional personas. Given the context of our jobs, we are often much better at assessing and screening others than ourselves. Yet, sometimes, improvement starts with a reminder of the basics so we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot, personally and professionally.
Without question, we are all part of a profession that ranks as one of the most unique and rewarding of any trade. However, we can do better, and this starts with becoming aware of our faults, and owning up to them.
This article was originally featured on https://simplifaster.com/