Why I turned my back on coaching

I was an elite level strength coach. I went all over the world. I worked at the highest level of my sport. I got paid more in a month than I once did in a year. I got the respect of my peers and the standing within the field that I craved. It meant everything to me, until it didn’t. Then I walked away.

If you’ve never heard of me before, here’s the bio: I was a passionate and deeply untalented rugby athlete growing up. I hit the gym in 2000 as a 15 year old trying to make up for my myriad athletic shortcomings. A few years in, it was obvious I was never going to make it, but academics never phased me as a kid, and I was becoming progressively more immersed in training for sports. Eventually I decided to pursue a career in strength & conditioning, and made the promise to myself to get as close to the action of the game that I loved without playing.

Since graduating in 2008, all I’ve done is eat, sleep and breathe sports performance. I spent an entire year working for free whilst living in the most expensive city in the UK (I literally cried with frustration that year on my way home from work one day). I’ve been paid less than minimum wage despite having a degree and years of experience. I’ve worked all the late nights and early mornings. I’ve dropped everything to fly around the world on a few days notice for a coaching opportunity because of what I thought it could do for my resume.

I derived all my self esteem through my professional achievements, and it served me well. In three years I went from being an unpaid intern to working in the top tier of international rugby. If you asked me to write out my wildest dreams as an intern in 2010, I exceeded all of them. I worked at a world cup, trained famous All Blacks, got paid well over six figures for a job I would do for free, traveled for free, I even switched to college football in the USA, and I built fantastic memories. To hear and feel the noise go through me in the Millenium Stadium during the anthems will stay with me until my dying day.

But all of this has come at a cost. I’ve done the usual compromising on sleep, exercise and eating well for the sake of work and winning. I’ve left a trail of broken relationships in my wake. With the international moves and unrelenting schedule my social circle has narrowed and I’ve missed weddings, birthdays, both my sister’s graduations. There are friends I’ve not seen in the flesh for years. Hell, when my son was born, I was working at the hospital two days after he was born and back in meetings the next week. But I was newly appointed to the team and it was pre-season, what can I say?

At its best strength & conditioning is the best, most addictive job in the world. Like I told my interns:

“There’s a reason they don’t do internships at McDonalds, because it sucks”.

When you’re a part of a tight knit group, everyone is pulling in the same direction, and you come away with a hard fought win with the eyes of (your part of) the world upon you, the months of hardship that led to that point are washed away and replaced with elation. You tell yourself that it wasn’t that bad, another year won’t hurt, another paltry pay increase will suffice, my girlfriend will understand.

But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The job that everyone wants to do so badly that they line up outside the door to do it for free comes at a price. The supply and demand of labour suppresses wages to an egregious degree (try having two degrees and being a manager for one of the top 10 construction or marketing firms in the country and let me know if they pay you $50k). The nepotistic nature of the business means you can be gone in an instant no matter how good you’re doing. For the most part you’re being hired and evaluated by people who can’t even define what it is you do, let alone measure it, so your survival depends on how much they like you more than any performance metric.

The struggles of the job wore me down, but I had the solution: work harder, bigger job, more status, more money, get to the next objective and then I’ll be happy. With a lot of hard work and dumb luck thrown in, this approach led me to work jobs and be paid in a few years what some might struggle for a decade or more to achieve. But I was still unfulfilled.

It was hugely gratifying to prove people wrong about what it was I could achieve in the field. It gave me a great deal of pride to earn the respect of my peers, and have younger coaches tell me I was an inspiration because of my achievements and how I used my standing. But ultimately I felt I wasn’t enough and it wasn’t enough, and I had to do more.

Many observations have crystalised my thoughts and informed my decision to walk away from coaching over the past few years. A colleague related to me the story of a college football coach who said that his biggest professional regret was allowing his wife to raise their children. I saw the legions of divorced strength coaches, 20+ years deep in the game with not an ounce of financial security or independence to show for it. I was extremely frustrated by the relentless adherence to tradition over reason despite all the talk of “evidenced based” and “high performance”.

However no event was more profound than the birth of my son. The tremendous thing about children is that they have no concept of sport or strength and conditioning. They truly don’t care.

“I’m sorry we’ve not seen each other all month, son, but let me tell you about all the new squat PRs” won’t cut it.

A wall full of signed jerseys is no use when rent is due but you’ve just been fired because a new head coach came in and brought “his guys” with him on a whim. That my guys were better than the other team’s at running around after a ball is not much of a legacy to leave when you’re on your deathbed.

The goalposts have moved. I’ll miss the excitement of the crowds and the energy of the team, but I want to be the most present I can for my son’s life. I may yearn for the “glamour” of the travel, but my desire is stronger to build financial independence for me and my son. I’ll miss the day to day of being paid to mess around in gyms (and feeling like I beat the system), but as a colleague once told me, most strength coaches’ impact on a club is like taking your finger out of a glass of water- it’s like you were never there once you’re gone. I want to leave some kind of legacy before I leave the field.

Over the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to build up my platforms (Rugby Strength Coach & Strength Coach Network) to where they pay the bills and full time coaching effectively became my hobby. Despite the flak from the peanut gallery for publicly advocating for my work online and speaking my mind, I actually see it as a good thing that all coaches should aspire to. How do you know you truly love the work until you don’t need the money? They don’t know, but I do.

So the time has come. I’m walking away from day to day coaching, maybe for good, but certainly for the time being. In the immediate short term, I’ll look forward to doing the things I’ve neglected for too long: family, friends, learning, and making new connections with other professionals. Longer term my ambition will be to use my platform to address the disconnect that plagues our profession, between what the elite level demands and what accrediting bodies and universities teach whilst charging a fortune. Those of you on my shit list, you’ve been warned ;)

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Sport professional, writer and coach educator