Building a Career in Strength and Conditioning

I want to share some of my thoughts with you today on building a career in sport and exercising science.

Personally speaking, I started my sport science study in 2001 at St Mary's Christian Brother's school on the Glen Road in mighty west Belfast. What started out as general interest in how I could train my body and mind to become a better hurler has since grown into a full blown obsession , encompassing physiology, biomechanics, anatomy, strength and conditioning, psychology, coaching, and business development. Since my first Sports Studies class at St Mary's, I have completed an undergraduate degree in Sport and Exercise Science's at the University of Limerick, a research Masters degree at the Biomechanics Department in UL, a course in business development, started my own business, got a nomination for Blog of the Year, worked with the Adelaide Crows football team in Australia, was strength and conditioning coach for the Cork Senior Football team, studied under Ido Portal, lectured in the University of Limerick, and Setanta College, presented 2 television documentaries, helped over 20 GAA cubs with their strength and conditioning and learned from some of the best coaches and teachers around. As it happens, last night ACLAÍ was awarded a prestigious 'Irish Language in Business' Award. This post is just a summary of musings on the area of building a career in the strength and conditioning/ sports science world.

Why Sport and Exercise Science/ Strength and Conditioning?

I went on to study sports science in university for the reason that I had not yet decided what area I wanted to 'specialise' in at the age of 18. I was offered a place in Law at Queen's as well, but that was more just so that I could say I was accepted to Law in Queens! Sports science was the one area that I knew I would get a broad range of experience, and for me it really was where all my areas of interest merged. Anatomy, physiology, psychology, biomechanics, nutrition, and coaching all came together under the one roof, and I knew that at the end of the day, I could pick a more specialised area to study at the end of my degree. After the first 2 years, I knew that my passion lay in coaching, and in strength and conditioning, but many of my undergraduate classmates went on to study physiotherapy with a sturdy foundation of sport and exercise science behind them.

Career not Qualification

This may or may not be the same for other professions, but for me, sports science/ strength and conditioning is a career to be pursued on an ongoing basis, as opposed to something that is earned over a finite number of years in a degree course, after which you are 'qualified'. One of the biggest mistakes that I see graduates making is thinking that they have somehow eared their stripes by completing a degree or other course. A degree gives you the leverage to earn your stripes, and is therefore essential , but I believe that no stripes are earned simply by completing a degree. When you step out of University, its only the beginning of your 'qualification'. When you dedicate the next ten years of your life to the craft of coaching, and the sciences, re-evaluate your 'qualification'. My mantra to myself from early on was 'Once I think that 'I know', then I DEFINITELY 'don’t know', and its time to give myself a good kick up the ass'. Pursue mastery of your craft, not euro signs, and eventually you might be qualified.

Earning Your Stripes

On the topic of earning your stripes, when I was studying for my Masters degree at UL, I also held 6 positions, that I was using to both gather coaching experience, and pay my way through Uni. I was tutoring undergraduate classes on the Sport and Exercise Science degree program, personal training at the University Arena, working in the gym, travelling around Limerick to train the Limerick County Fire Service, fitness testing GAA teams at the weekends, and coaching a local club team as well. This was a hectic schedule to keep up, but it was an essential part of my development as a coach. I was exposed to every kind of client from high performing athlete to special needs children, to weight loss clients. This is where you truly start to earn your coaching stripes. When your neck is on the line. When you have to develop the interpersonal skills to deal with the many personality types that you are working with. When you need to keep a tight schedule. When you need to create plans, and work with other members of coaching teams, and maintain your own practice, and health. As part of my undergraduate degree, I also seized the opportunity to spend a season with the Adelaide Crows footy club down under in Adelaide. At the time, the Crows were at the cutting edge when it came to player development, sports science, and strength and conditioning, so this was an invaluable opportunity that has stood to me ever since.

Finding yourself

Going down the route of strength and conditioning means that you are going to be in a position of authority as a coach, mentor, and decision making. With power comes responsibility, and this is one of the very first things that I would advise you to come to grips with. This means that you need to decide what you want to be about as a coach, what your value system is, and what standards you are going to live by. In other words you need to 'find yourself' in order to be able to lead as a coach. Finding yourself Is not as simple as looking around for a set of lost car keys, with the hope of finding them down the back of the sofa. It really comes from spending time to establish some core values, and standards, and then putting them through the mill with real-life experience, and constantly learning from successes and failures. Eventually you will settle on some really strong values that you can use to guide your development, and tomaintain the standards that you have set for yourself. Over the years, my values have evolved, and as time passes I find myself marginally tweaking my values and standards based on experiences, as opposed to the larger shifts that occurred in the early years. Today, I have a strong set of values as a coach, for ACLAÍ, and personally. Personally, my core values are 1) Anti-fragility, 2) Enjoyment 3) Integrity. ACLAÍ's core values are 1)Quality, 2) Expertise 3) Enjoyment, and as a coach, my core values include 1) Quality 2) Trust 3) Enjoyment. The words alone don’t really explain the depth of meaning that I have assigned to each word, and my own interpretation of what each core value means to me, which is why it is important to spend time on developing your own set of values. As an example of how I use the values that I have chosen for ACLAÍ, if I want to bring a new service on-line, I always run it through the filter of my core values. Is the new service based on quality (coaching, movement, service etc)? Does it allow us to pass our expertise on to our members? Will it be an enjoyable experience? If the answer is NO to any of those three questions then the service either gets tweaked, or scrapped.


Having completed a season-long internship myself, and having taken in ten interns to ACALÍ over the years, I can tell you that the right type of internship can be a very valuable asset to your career development. I would advise you to seek out the type of coach that you want to be, or the environment that you would like to work in, and do what you have to do to get in there. A great example of an internship come good, is with our very own Coach Mark. Back when ACLAÍ was in its infancy, Mark worked his way into ACLAÍ as an intern, and immediately undertook to learn as much as he could. He adopted our training philosophy, dedicated himself to learning the programming and coaching systems that we have, and developed his own physical skills massively. On the last day of Mark's initial internship, he walked the distance of ACLAÍ on his hands. Now he is one of our top coaches, and continues to develop professionally.

Learning from other coaches is an absolutely essential part of the jigsaw puzzle if you want to make it in this world but a word to the wise. Don’t use the sentence 'Can I come in to pick your brain someday?'. This vague phrase conjures up an image in my mind of a miniature coach popping out of cupboard in my office with a pick axe to chip away at my grey matter. Nobody wants to have their brains picked, so come up with a way to make yourself useful, or request 10 minutes of time to ask some specific questions. You could even send questions to whoever you want to learn from in advance


The skillset of entrepreneurship will make up essential elements of your professional toolkit. Whether you are interested in setting up your own business, or working with a professional sports team, developing the entrepreneurial skillset can give you a major leg up in your career. Building a successful career in this day and age means that you need to set yourself apart from the mob. To me, this means starting with a strong set of values, high standards, and solid coaching philosophy. Then you need to learn how to articulate your views, findings, and ideas so that you can build your reputation. If you stick to your true values, and develop your ideas and thoughts around the things that you are passionate about, and keep an open mind to taking new information on board, and potentially deviating from your set course if you feel a course correction would serve your values better, then you have a sound basis to develop your career. This approach will give you direction with your development, and whether you are working for yourself, or for a club, or University etc, being able to bring your unique approach and ideas from abstract thoughts in your mind to concrete ideas that will add value to you as a professional asset for your client (s) or organisation. As an entrepreneur, following through on ideas, and tasks, to completion is also a valuable tool that will add positively to how you are perceived. Blogging, developing a website, social media forum, vlogging, or report writing are all ways that you can articulate ideas and analysis, and depending on the environment that you are working in, some are more appropriate than others.

The Professional Sports Arena

Personally speaking, I chose to go down the route of developing my own business as opposed to working in the professional sports arena. The excitement of bringing my own ideas to fruition, and all the challenges that come with setting up a business (in the midst of an economic crisis) excited me too much to turn it down. The other main areas of employment for the sports and exercise scientist/ strength and conditioning coach include work in academia (lecturing etc), and working for a pro team (mostly soccer and rugby in this country). In terms of academia, I personally feel like I have a lot more to offer as a coach at this point of my career compared to lecturing at University. It might be a field that would interest me on a more full time basis when I have really pushed my capabilities as a coach and business owner. Coincidentally, I feel like I would have much more to offer students at that stage as well. Nonetheless, I always do my best to pass on the knowledge that I have built up when given the opportunity to do so these days.

If working for a pro team is your goal, then you need to get serious about how you are going to get in there. Certifications like the UKSCA, and further University Education after your undergraduate degree are mostly essential. Depending on the sport and level, you may need further qualifications specific to that sport, so find out what they are and get started on completing those courses. I would advise to start working in the sport that you want to be involved in as soon as possible, at any level that you can get into, and even on a voluntary basis. The goal should be to work your way up to being a top candidate for an internship program at a professional club, and if you get in there, its time to pull your socks up. On an internship program, you might not get paid much, or at all, but this is where you have to show your commitment to learning the systems at that club, how well you can follow thorough on carrying out whatever duties you are charged with, and basically working your ass off to show that you are a valuable asset for the club. To get in with a club, you need to be proactive, and sharp to keep an eye out for positions as they arise. If you get an opportunity to interview, learn as much as possible about the setup at the club and be prepared to start at the bottom of the ladder and work your way up.

Ongoing Learning

Not to repeat what I have already stated about choosing long term mastery over the mentality of being 'qualified' when you compete one course or another, I would strongly advise to maintain your student mentality throughout your professional life. There are many people who have been there and done that to a higher level that you, and there are countless books that you need to read to progress your personal and professional life. I try to get through a book per week (depending on the size of the book of course), and have settled into a routine of reading, not for the purpose of being able to make more money, or acquire sage-like wisdom, but as a slow burning process of continually moving in the right direction, and to learn from the mistakes, successes, and insights of those that have already been there. We don’t have enough time to make ALL the mistakes ourselves, and we will make enough mistakes in the course of our careers anyway, so you might as well read as much as you can to avoid the unnecessary ones!

Brain vs Body

OK, last point, and this is a major one for me. You are a student of your craft, and if mastery is your goal, then you need to DO, and not just read or watch. I truly believe that the type of  strength training that we teach challenges the body to move more gracefully, efficiently, powerfully, and with more complexity is something that will improve the quality of our lives, our health, and our sporting performance. That’s a pretty big statement, but I can back it up with the amount of hours that I put into my own physical development. On average I train/ practice between 12 and 20 hours per week, and am constantly improving, exploring, and developing the movements that I can do myself, and with that my understanding of how my body works, and how the various movements feel and look. The other coaches at ACLAÍ do the same. They are dedicated to improving professionally, personally, and PHYSICALLY. Do as I say, but not as I do doesn’t cut it at ACLAÍ. Other coaches may not agree that committing 20 hours per week to our own physical development is necessary, but to me, this is a key aspect of professional development that if absent, devalues what you have to say as a coach, and diminishes the integrity of your leadership. Be a do-er, and a leader, and show the way. In many respects, this comes back to knowing yourself, as to spend this amount of time on your own development requires a fairly solid idea of what you are working towards, and what you want to achieve with your own training. If you believe in the benefits of what you are teaching for long term health, and greater function as a human being, then you should be doing the stuff yourself. If you don’t believe in it, you shouldn’t be teaching it. If you do believe in it, and are not doing it…..well, you can work that out for yourself.

This article is by Ainle Ó Cairealláin MSc CSCS.