Intern To Strength Coach: My Time At Northwestern University

By Aaron Abraham, CSCS, USAW

From January to May of 2021 I volunteered my time as an intern with Northwestern University’s Olympic Sports Performance department. Coming into my internship with the Wildcats I had already thought I had everything figured out. I thought I was already a half-way decent coach and a great student of the game. I thought I was ready to take the next step into training my own teams. The past five months were one of the most humbling experiences of my life and showed me how wrong I was. At the conclusion of my time there, I had to put together a final presentation that included what I’ve learned, what I need to improve on, and reflections. 

When I first got there and they asked me to coach teams or individual athletes, I was a nervous wreck and had no clue what I was doing. But fortunately their internship curriculum circulated heavily on coaching and how to lead student-athletes. I remember the first time I was asked to coach a training session for lacrosse and fencing, I botched both of those assignments horribly and got chewed out even worse by my superiors. But the long lectures and lessons only made me even better. I can truthfully say it took three and a half long months for me to develop and take that next step as a coach. I would be lying if I said I didn’t question whether I was cut out to be a college strength and conditioning coach. With the daily help from the directors, assistant coaches, and my co-intern there, I finally got my feet under me and began to find my coaching voice. It was not until late April/early May that I could confidently say I was ready to handle a team of my own. I am by no means a well polished strength coach but I know I’ve come a long way from intern to coach.

That leads me to my next big take away. The most beneficial thing I learned there was how to make that mental switch from intern to head strength coach of a team.

As a lead voice in a training session, you are no longer a passive or secondary coach. Everyone needs to be able to hear you at all times and you need to be able to command a presence in the room at any given moment. I was horrible at this because my natural social personality is to be laid back and let things come to me. No such thing as a laid back strength coach when you’re asking an athlete to squat twice their body weight at 6 AM on a Monday morning.

I had to learn to get to the office every day with a purposeful mentality. I learned to embrace getting up and being a sociable and high energy guy without the use of pre-workout or coffee. It was a personal challenge that I looked forward to everyday and still do. If you’re the head coach of a team you have to come in and get the men and women ready to lift whether they like it or not. How do you do that? This method may be different for everyone but one thing I know is that you yourself have to be ready to attack the day no matter what. The biggest and most humbling lesson I learned was that it doesn’t matter how much of a prodigy you are on excel with the sets and reps, but what matters is your coaching and culture.

The next major lesson I learned from this amazing experience was how to build my coaching confidence. I mentioned in the second paragraph that I was indeed horrible at coaching. I was always overthinking my explanations to the athletes and never believed in the message I was getting across. But through a long grueling process of coaching exercises, internship lessons, and practice, I improved immensely. The coaches then entrusted me with a few more training sessions with teams such as tennis, field hockey, baseball, basketball, and wrestling and I know I improved a lot. Sometimes it takes a dip or rough patch for you to improve your skills. If you are not confident in what you say it is almost impossible to get your point across to the athletes while coaching. Also, If you’re not confident in your program nobody else will be either. Self-efficacy is a big factor in being a good coach. 

Culture. Culture determines everything. It determines whether your athletes will wake up and want to come to the weight room or wake up and have to come to the weight room. At Northwestern, they pride themselves on professionalism and doing things the right way. We held ourselves as a staff to a high standard which resulted in holding our athletes to a high standard as well. Can’t expect to ask anything of the athletes unless you yourself exemplify it. Professionalism in the college weight room is slowly emerging as a controversial topic in our field and rightfully so. As a young field this is going to be a growing pain for the next several years. Do we want to be seen as just the weight room staff or do we want to be seen in the same light as the business affairs, sports medicine, and compliance departments.

Does this mean we have to drop our meathead personalities? By no means, the last thing you want to do is not be yourself. But I do believe there is a fine line.

Many coaches say they want to be taken seriously by administration, but are they acting like they want to be taken seriously? We want to be an example of excellence to the rest of the athletic department as well as the field of strength and conditioning. Perception is reality. If you go to staff meetings with the AD’s in shorts and a t-shirt, that’s all you will be seen as: the shorts and t-shirt guy.

Furthermore there are a lot of smaller details that can add up that separate you as a sports performance department. Some of these things include being early daily, having a growth mindset when talking to administration/sport coaches/sports medicine, providing a positive training environment for the athletes, and having a dress code. When on the coaching floor, they required all interns and assistant directors to tuck their shirts in to separate themselves as a coach. This may seem mundane outside of the Northwestern weight room walls, but it was the consistent standard they held us too. When I say a dress code, it also applies for the athletes. All athletes in the weight room needed to be wearing under armour shoes and Northwestern gear with our colors only. If they did not uphold this they were asked to leave and come back ready to lift.

In general as an industry we need to worry less about the sets and reps and more about how to advance our profession.

Getting to be a part of Northwestern’s staff for a semester truly changed my life and the trajectory of my career. There’s an old phrase “You don’t know what you don’t know,” which is how I feel about taking this opportunity. I thought I had all the internships I needed until I got there and they exposed me to a vast world of training, coaching, and sport science that I didn’t even know existed.

While I have a long way to go, I can confidently say I know how to coach a team in the weight room now.