How I became a strength and conditioning coach

how to become a strength and conditioning coach

Are you wondering how to become a strength and conditioning coach? Read the inspiring story of Alex Wolf

Alex has spent over 15 years supporting athletes, staff, and teams to perform in moments that matter; preparing for and delivering at five Olympic Games.  Alex is the founder of Liberating Brilliance, using the experiences and insights from working in high-performance sport to provide personal effectiveness, leadership, and learning design support to individuals and organizations.   Alex continues to consult with premier sports organizations and businesses across the world.

Alex has previously worked for the English Institute of Sport where he spent the early part of his career as a strength and conditioning coach for British Athletics and latterly British Rowing. Post the London 2012 Olympic Games, Alex moved into leadership positions, spending five years as the EIS Head of Strength and Conditioning, overseeing the growth, support, and development of 70+ S&C coaches.  Most recently, Alex spent two years as the EIS Head of Learning, responsible for the individual and organizational learning and development needs including the well-being and self-care of the entire organization. 

Alex has previously been seconded to the British Olympic Association for both the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, leading the performance services team, whose role is to support athletes and staff in their final preparation for competition.  This included most recently leading the staff team development for Team GB in preparation for the greatest show on earth.  Alex has degrees in Human Biology & Sport Science, Biomechanics, and Sports Nutrition.  Alex is trained as a Mentor (Ashridge-Hult Business School World-Class Mentoring Programme and CMI Level 7 Diploma in Leadership Coaching & Mentoring) and facilitator (Creative Problem Solving and Facilitative Leadership) being well experienced in both.  These experiences help supports the delivery of a learner-centered environment.  

My Story

It was during 1998 that I realised I didn’t want to work in an office and wanted to work where I could make a positive impact on others.  I remember the year as it was during my time completing A-Levels and was considering universities to go to and potential careers.  I was an average sportsman in track and field and rugby union and knew I was never good enough to make it as athlete (lack of talent and injuries, but mostly lack of talent!).  I had spent time during my A-levels rugby coaching at my old school and felt that a career in fitness or sport would be something I would really enjoy.  I wasn’t the most academic, with studying and exams at school always being challenging.  I initially thought physiotherapy would be a good career path but knew I would never get the grades for a highly competitive degree course. 

I settled on sports therapy and sports rehabilitation as courses to apply for, knowing I really wanted to complete sports rehabilitation based on the programme itself and the university (St Mary’s University) that provided it; a university with a great ethos on sport and exercise.  However, I narrowly missed the grades to complete the programme at St Mary’s.  I remember opening the results and knowing they were not good enough, which was quickly confirmed when I rang the university who, at the time, broke the devasting news I was not going to study sports rehabilitation.  However, in true dogged determination and with her trademark compassion, mum helped me to work out what I wanted to do and how to go about it.  I ended up finding a degree in Sports Science and Biology at St Mary’s in the hope to transfer to the sports rehabilitation programme.  

However, that never materialised, and I am thankful that it never did.  The direction of my career and the decisions I have taken would have been vastly different if I had.  The adversity of not making the programme became my greatest asset.  While the act of studying at university was still challenging, what I was studying was hugely enjoyable and I could see how I could apply it to many different contexts in sport and fitness.  The university also provides teacher training so there were always sports coaching awards to complete; while these were provided for teachers, I managed to sign up for every award I could attend!  During the summer between my first and second year, I completed my fitness instructor and personal training awards.  I ended up working as a both, to part fund myself through the remainder of university at a local leisure centre.  I also started coaching a few amateur athletes in different sports at university and at the leisure centre.  This provided me with my first experiences of working with athlete populations.  Simultaneously, the facility I was working at had started an exercise referral programme with the primary care trust, whereby doctors would prescribe exercise to patients for conditions, such as angina, obesity, or high blood pressure to name a few.  This provided me experiences in health care. 

After I graduated, I took some time out to travel the world for a few months before working out what I wanted to do.  I am glad I took this time to take a breath to get a sense of what was most important for me.  When I returned, I was offered to return back to my previous position, working as fitness instructor and personal trainer.  Half my time was working with exercise referrals and the other half was working with general populations and a number of amateur athletes.  I was offered a full time role to work in the exercise referral and health care side.  It was at this moment that I realised I had to decide about what I wanted to do.  This offered was reasonably well paid and offered job security.  However, while I did enjoy it, I knew it was not what I really wanted to do.  I worked out I really wanted to work within sport and fitness training athletes.  I turned the job down, quit working with exercise referrals completely and focused on how best to turn my aspiration into a reality.

I returned to university in 2003 to study a MSc Sports Biomechanics to gain a greater understanding of human movement and force application, which I thought (and is!) important for working with athletes.  I continued to fitness instruct and work with amateur athletes during this period.  There was no formal organisation in the UK back then for what I wanted to become, a strength and conditioning (S&C) coach.  I completed my National Strength and Conditioning Association (an American organisation) certified strength and conditioning specialists (CSCS) exams, which was the only accrediting body at the time.  In 2004, the UK Strength and Conditioning Association (UKSCA) formed, which I became a founding member.  This started to provide a more structured progression into a career of S&C within the UK, which did not exist previously and is not what it is today.  Around the same time, the English Institute of Sport (EIS) became into existence, which provided sports science and medicine support to athletes and sports in Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth sports.  Prior to completing my MSc, the EIS were advertising for S&C internships, which I applied and was fortunate enough to be one of the three to be selected.  

On the 1st October 2004, I began what would be the first day of a 15 year career in the EIS, spanning 4 high performance centres and seven different roles.  I moved from London to Sheffield where I spent 3 years to really understand what it was to be a S&C coach and to work as part of performance support team to athletes and coaches.  One of my strongest assets had always been extra-curricular learning.  While there was always learning and development available to me throughout my career, I have always placed personal learning central to my own growth.  I invested heavily in reading materials, subscriptions to industry resources, travelling to see experts and attending workshops/seminars.  Learning for me has two parts: the acquisition and then the application.  Where I had most fulfilment was working out how to turn all this new acquired knowledge and insight into practical and applicable solutions to those I was working with.  I believe this inquisitive nature and desire to continue to learn is fundamental in supporting my career to date.

I had been working with athletics up to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and the led the GB Rowing S&C programme during the London 2012 Olympic Games and midway through to Rio 2016.  By the time the London Games had finished, I had been working on the front line with athletes and coaches for eight years and wanted a slight change to my role. In the final year of the London Games, I was on training camps for 20 of the 52 weeks.  I did not want to spend almost half my year away from home anymore.  The opportunity arose to apply for a Technical Lead role within the EIS.  This was advertised as a line management position but in fact turned out to be a whole lot more.  lot more.  The role focused on the growth, development, and welfare of those I was responsible for.  It was almost like coaching athletes in terms of supporting others to be brilliant.  I instantly enjoyed this new challenge, spending half the week working with rowing and the other half as a Technical Lead.  In early 2013, the Head of S&C became vacant.  Having spent almost 15 years working with others to improve their performance and well-being, the opportunity to lead a team of 70+ coaches and shape the systematic support for following Olympiad was hugely inviting. 

I was successful in my application and spent five years in the role.  The uniqueness of spending time on the technical know how and the act of being a coach allowed me to further develop a greater appreciation and understanding of the human side of what we do.  Much of the support and development focused on understanding oneself and how best to understand others and the environment in which we interact with.  When small changes were made here, often significant changes in the relationship or the intended outcome were observed.  The role effectively became one of people development.  It is this which excited me in the role; where coaching athletes was a stream of people development, supporting the coaches who work with the athletes was more all-encompassing.  It wasn’t just about performance, there was equal attention on well-being-being.  Learning and development was a focal anchor which helped individuals to critically reflect, ask and provide meaningful feedback and a desire to collaborate with one another.

I was fortunate enough as Head of S&C to oversee a number of practitioner programmes across all disciplines, including Skills 4 Performance, a programme for those outside of the EIS to develop an understanding of the demands and personal needs to work in the EIS, and RP5, a leadership programme for EIS practitioners.  With a large focus on learning and development as Head of S&C, when the opportunity arose to apply for Head of Learning, it was an easy choice to apply.  The role focused on organisational learning and individual development, the first role and learning and development team within the EIS.  It was an opportunity to cascade the excellent work the leadership team within the S&C department had done across the entire organisation.  I remained in two years before I decided to leave employment and work for myself. 

I’ve had this nagging feeling midway through my tenure as Head of S&C around whether or not what has been created in terms of a learning and development culture, process and delivery could actually be transferred to other industries and domains.  I had completed small projects outside of the EIS which suggested it may well transfer, but I was intrigued to find out if I could apply my knowledge and insights elsewhere.  I had also started to feel I was constantly compromising between my young family and my work, to a point I felt I was doing a bad job as a father and as Head of Learning.  I couldn’t see how this could improve.  I wanted to spend more time with my family and explore other opportunities.  So in in October 2019, I left the EIS and have been flying solo ever since.  I have projects both within sport and business around sports performance, personal effectiveness, leadership and learning design.  I have some amazing projects I am working on around digital creativity and how artificial intelligence can liberate data to better support decision making and problem solving.  I won’t lie, the early part of 2020 was tough with restrictions with Covid-19.  A number of projects evaporated overnight and has challenged me to re-think how I work. 

I write this at the back end of 2020 and can say I have spent the year always considering where income will next come from.  I am fortunate enough to have a wonderfully supportive partner and kids and had saved enough if things slowed right down.  Someone asked me would I had left employment knowing 4-5 months later, Covid-19 would be here?  The simple answer is yes, I would have.  Working for myself has allowed me to be with my kids each morning and when they return from school.  I am present a lot more than I have ever been, and that was one of the two reasons for working for myself.  The second being have flexibility in how I work and what I work on.  This goes hand in hand with the first point.  I am not bound by normal working hours and can choose how I work depending on the needs of my family and the work I have ahead.  When things are busy at home, I can work less, knowing I can pick the slack up over the following weeks.  I have more freedom than in any other part of my career and would not sacrifice that knowing what that feels like!

One thing I am aware of that in my early career, there was a more structured and clearer pathway to working within S&C and sports performance.  However, as I moved into more leadership roles and eventually work for myself, there was no real pathway to follow.  In the early parts, there were programmes degree programmes that I completed, and accreditations needed to work as a S&C coach.  I had completed leadership training programmes when I moved into positions of leadership.  However, the things that really helped me became clear when I worked backwards from what I felt I needed to be able to do more effectively. 

As a leader, I wanted to have better coaching and mentoring conversations as believe we need to explore and work out the best solutions for ourselves rather than being told them.  I also believe in the creative and the collective, in that I don’t know the answer to everything, and I view the world through my own unique lens.  I believe the people I work with are likely to hold insights and knowledge to answer our performance questions.  I wanted to be able to facilitate spaces where the team could do this.  This resulted in me completing mentoring and facilitation training, both of which have been hugely helpful in the latter parts of my employed career.  These are actually things I now offer as part of my services now I work for myself.  When working out what how best to put yourself in a position to move on to the next role, work backwards from the outcome to determine the things you actually need to do to achieve the outcome.  This gives insights into where you may want to invest in yourself, which has been the only constant throughout my career.  

Also read How I got a job in Sports marketing

How I became a strength and conditioning coach

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