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Episode 4: Becoming a Strength Coach


Nate Reynolds 0:05

Welcome to the crosstalk podcast, the podcast that brings together fitness and health care professionals to discuss topics that will help you become your best and healthiest version of yourself. I'm your host, Nate Reynolds, a physical therapist that specializes in orthopedics and CrossFit from beautiful upstate New York. Welcome to this week's episode of The crosstalk podcast. In this episode, I'm talking with Ethan Caulkins. He's currently a physical therapy student at Shenandoah University. And he's a former high school strength and conditioning coach in Binghamton, New York. So welcome. How you doing? Thanks

Ethan Calkins 0:44

Thanks for having me. Good. How are you doing?

Nate Reynolds 0:47

I'm doing pretty well. So tell me a little bit more about your background.

Ethan Calkins 0:51

So, like you said, I was a former strength and conditioning coach in Binghamton, New York. I grew up in Troy PA, northeastern Pennsylvania, and played a ton of sports growing up. The main sport that I played was wrestling. And after high school, my illustrious athletic career, not that illustrious. I decided to attend Penn State University, where I majored in kinesiology. So originally, I had always had an interest in physical therapy. I did a couple internships throughout my time at Penn State. And I was kind of winding up my time there and I had one last internship with Penn State, and to complete my degree, and I decided that instead of doing a internship, another one with physical therapy, at just like a general outpatient clinic, it was all set up to go there. And I decided at the last minute that I would try something a little bit different. And I actually reached out to the strength and conditioning department at Penn State, Ryan Davis, and I got an internship with her and the other coaches that work primarily with anywhere from baseball, softball, track and field, lacrosse, men's and women's. So saw a ton of different sports was there. And so I did my final internship with Penn State strengthen conditioning, supposed to be like a 250 hour internship. By the time I was all said and done spending about 2530 hours a week there, obviously, became a little bit longer, but an awesome introduction into strength and conditioning, which obviously then led on to impact after graduation, deciding to obtain my CSCs certification, and then became a strength and conditioning coach in Binghamton, New York.

Nate Reynolds 3:10

Yeah, so just to kind of elaborate on the CSCs. That's kind of, you know, Would you say that's like the, the gold standard in the strength and conditioning realm? Like, you know, that's the certified strength and conditioning specialist? Would you say there's any other like, certifications that are like at that level?

Ethan Calkins 3:30

Um, I would say, as far as like the gold standard, like you said, Yeah, it's a good certification. But like, at the end of the day, it's, it's a test, you know, what I mean, it's a test that you can study for just like any others, and getting a CSCs certification doesn't make a good strength coach. And I think a lot of it has to do with, you know, the experiences that you have influence from other strength conditioning coach learning being a sponge, that's what really makes a good strength conditioning coach, like I've met good strength and conditioning coaches that haven't necessarily had, you know, the laundry list of certifications, you know, letters behind their name, but they've been really good strength and conditioning coaches, and vice versa. I've seen people who have, you know, a ton of certifications, you know, not be able to coach an athlete and cue an athlete correctly. So, I really think it depends on you know, your experience, and just gaining more experience working with athletes is what truly, to find somebody, you know, ability to coach Well,

Nate Reynolds 4:40

Yeah, I would agree with that. You know, I think the one thing that I've learned even in physical therapy is like, you can't, you can't replace experience. You know, like you said you had supposed to be 250 hours. You know, if you just did that 250 hours at Penn State, you know, you probably wouldn't have learned nearly as much embracing All that knowledge and all that time from some of those coaches that that's where like the true knowledge comes from? And, you know, I think, you know, I have my CSCs. And, you know, like you said, it's just a test. And, you know, it is a pretty extensive test. But, you know, I would say that you're probably better at coaching strength and strength movements than I am just from that experience, and your two or three years being a strength coach, whereas I'm more focused on corrective exercises.

Ethan Calkins 5:35

Yeah, I think that, you know, it's become very popular, I follow a lot of physical therapists online. And it's become very popular to for physical therapists just to feel like they need to go get it, just to work with athletes. And just because they have it, then doesn't necessarily mean anything. But it's a good foundation, don't get me wrong, like I I do think the nsca provides good content, valuable resources for the people who obtain that certification. But like I said, it's not the end all be all, I think, furthering education is always better.

Nate Reynolds 6:21

So then you had your time at Penn State, and then you ended up going to u HS, and being a strength coach there. And so what would you say? How is your first year, being a strength coach, because I know, my first year as a physical therapist, you know, I was drinking water out of hose, and I just felt like I was so overwhelmed.

Ethan Calkins 6:39

Yeah, yeah, it was a very similar experience for me. So like I said, I really, you know, in high school, I didn't really have like a ton of experience with weightlifting, I had done some stuff in college, but nothing really, you know, I wasn't really coached or anything like that. So really, the internship with Penn State conditioning was the first time I ever really got my feet wet, like in a high level, you know, weight room situation. And, you know, I tried to soak up as much as I could, but at the same time, like, you know, just learning the basics of programming and, and how to read an advanced workout sheet and stuff like that, you know, the, the language that goes on in there, and different exercises and stuff like that, like, that was all relatively new for me. So after having that, that, you know, short time that I spent with the strength conditioning, their pencil state, I got hired about four months later at IU HS, and basically was told, you know, you're going to be at this new high school, this new contract that we have, and, you know, it's up to you what you want to do there. So I was basically handed the keys to the car and told to drive it without ever passing, you know, my license or anything like that. are being taught how to drive I guess, would be a better, better analogy. So I walked into Susquehanna Valley, you know, started right away, not sure what I was going to do. But I set up to what I believe was going to be, you know, this basic programs to just kind of assess where we were at. Not many people in the school, not many of the athletes had never lifted weights before. It was mainly the football team is in the weight room, and some other groups of people. But that's it. Yeah, females rarely ever lifted weights. So I really had to try to go at it with getting the coaches on board, getting the coaches, the sport coaches to buy in to the benefits of weightlifting, the benefits of strength and conditioning, and how it's going to make their athletes you know, better on the field more resilient, when it comes to injuries. And that took time. Like it's, that's something that doesn't necessarily just happen overnight. So building those relationships early on with a sport coaches was kind of my main goal. And then, you know, just kind of introducing myself to the students, the student athletes at the school. And then just like I said, build simple basic programs to really assess where we're at where what level of athletes am I working with, you know, obviously, some of the athletes that, you know, can do those programs with ease, you know, those those ones get progress through pretty quickly. But, you know, I didn't want to I didn't want to go in there and cause harm, cause injury to any athletes, and then immediately lose all credibility that I had. So had to kind of be a little bit conservative in the, in the path that I chose, but overall, ended up being successful as far as getting people on board and getting people to buy into what I had to tell them.

Nate Reynolds 10:14

Yeah, I think the keys right there, the fact that, you know, number one, I think anytime you enter into a new situation, you know, I think the priority should be like relationship development, you know, you have to earn trust, that's not something that's just given to you, based on your background. You know, I think, moving to Rochester, you know, I have three years of clinical experience. And, you know, I've worked really hard to develop my skill set. But, you know, it's back to square one with developing relationships, and, and really building trust, you know, and so I think, you know, you're right in saying that, you know, the first part of that you had was to build those relationships, because that's what takes time. And a lot of times, you're not going to see the results right away of developing relationships, that, you know, it's, it's going to take months, maybe a year, two years before a coach really trusts you. And then the second thing I think, you nailed on nail on the head was, you know, you got to start basic, you need to have a way to assess groups of people, whether that's come up with like, a screening system, or giving them, you know, simple workouts just to see where they're at. And I think, you know, especially when you're near a large group of people, it's probably easier just to do a simple template, workout. Because he, you know, in a group setting, you don't have the time to, you know, break down the mobilities of every single individual, or see where their strengths and weaknesses are, you know, you're talking about working with 1011 sports teams. And so I think you probably handle that really well with what your priorities were.

Ethan Calkins 11:48

Yeah, absolutely, definitely took time. It was easy with teams, like the football team, like I said, who had already been in there, you know, we were walked into a situation where it was kind of poised for success, like, we had very good athletes that year, my first year that I was there, and they knew they were very good athletes. So me being a 22 year old kid right out of college, and working with these 1718 year old athletes who have worked hard their whole lives without me, and then trying to get them to buy into believing in even simple things that we would do. It doesn't have to be throwing up 500 pounds on the squat rack, you know, simple things can keep people healthy, and keep people in the game, and ended up being very successful that year. But I knew no matter what, I could write the best program in the world. I could be, you know, nail all the details everything down. But unless I got buy in from the athletes, and they wanted to be there, and they believed in what we were doing, then I might as well rip up the paper. So I thought that was very key. And don't get me wrong, the coaching staff, and athletic director were very monumental in helping me develop those relationships with the athletes as well.

Nate Reynolds 13:20

Yeah, I mean, your first year, you know, your first and second year, you know, your state champs for a reason. You know, I'm sure you played a role in that, you know, it's not you don't develop that success without having, you know, a good foundation from the coaching staff from the strength and conditioning programming. It all works together. You know, kudos to you. And I know, you're not going to take the credit for that. But

Ethan Calkins 13:43

yeah, I appreciate it. But yeah, I'm not the one out there on the field playing. I just try and do my part as best as I can, you know, play my role, be there on the sidelines, when I can be, you know, work with the kids in the weight room. And like you said, Yes, they were very successful ended up state champs back to back both years. Very great group of athletes that are fun to work with, that's for sure.

Nate Reynolds 14:10

So going off of football, to the other sports, you know, you said you had a lot of experiences at Penn State with different sports. Do you think it was difficult programming for sports that you didn't necessarily have experience playing or being around in your first year?

Ethan Calkins 14:26

Yeah, I think it was, I think it was difficult, you know, different movement patterns and, and stuff like that. Like, obviously, like I try and keep things pretty basic when I'm when I'm programming, you know, working the fundamental movement patterns and sticking the basic things but doing them really well. Is is kind of what I pride myself on. Yeah, I there's obviously programming for sports that I didn't play. I tried to dig into some research, a lot of things that I would try to do would be more of like an injury prevention, especially when you're working with high school athletes, you know, it's much different than college where college athletes, they're required to be in the weight room a certain number of days a week, like, I know how I know, you probably had that experience where you had certain days of the week where you are required to be in the weight room. And that's just not the case with high school. You know, you try and work around schedules and games and in season, and it's very difficult. So, you know, sometimes you only get 30 minutes a week with a team, and you got to realize what's important, I try and figure out things that will be injury prevention, you know, some sort of strengthening exercises, that that will help benefit them with their sports. So I try to dig into some research, and try to come at it from an evidence based way, and just do my best talk to sport coaches, get perspectives, talk to other strength coaches at ua, HS, several things like that. But I really tried to have a well rounded approach for teams that teams with sports that didn't necessarily play.

Nate Reynolds 16:12

Yeah, and I mean, I think that's a good point is like, if you don't necessarily understand, you know, you just got to find resources, you know, whether that's the coach or, you know, even if it's getting on social media, and figuring out who's deemed a specialist in that area, you know, whether they're like a rotational athlete, you know, an overhead athlete, like football, you know, just pure strength. You know, I think that's just key to just trying to understand the movement that is required, and then trying to build a program around that, try to simplify things. You know, I think the more that I've been in practice, the more I realized that the more I simplify, the more consistent I'll be, and that will help me deliver a better product, you know, I used to think that, you know, a jack of all trades, master of none was like what you want it to be, but that just means you're just mediocre? And a lot of things, you know, right? If you do a few things very well. That's, that's better.

Ethan Calkins 17:09

Yeah. And I think I think realizing what you do well, is super important. And then reaching out to experts in your field, or finding those people who do the things that you want to do very well. Like, I know that working with baseball players, I hadn't worked with a ton of baseball players. So I would look a lot at like Eric Cressey, and what does he do with his athletes, you know, Mike Boyle, and and people like that, who are who are experts, and really try and dig into, they put a ton of free content out like blog posts and stuff like that stuff on social media, like that type of stuff, for me, really hit home, and I try to then pick little nuggets out that they do, and apply them sparingly into my programs, too, and see how it works. If I like it, and I keep it in there. If I don't then, you know, just kind of get rid of it.

Nate Reynolds 18:06

Yeah, you pick what you think's important. We all have different backgrounds. And so, you know, you just pick and choose what you think is good. What do you think is going to help you in that moment? And then you go from there. So then, you know, going on to, you know, working with high school athletes, you know, obviously you're working with, you know, multi sport athletes, you know, they're in season for one sport, or they're off season for another? How did you kind of balance that? Were you just kind of, like you said, making sure that you just worked on the foundation? Not really you're doing like sports specific stuff, or were you

Ethan Calkins 18:41

so it really depended on what teams and what athletes I was working with? Like you said, Yeah, you know, at the high school level, you know, a lot of your a lot of your stronger athletes and stuff like that, you know, your, your more accomplished athletes, they tend to be multi sport athletes, usually three sport athletes, and then the and you get them in the summertime and they're on the AAU basketball team. And you know, they're doing all this other stuff. So it's like, there truly is no offseason. So trying to come up with typical periodization program, you're not going to you're not going to get the time off. They're not they're not going to get a typical offseason. So it's like, you know, you really got to be creative with how your programming how you're progressing these athletes, and like you said, Yeah, like, you know, you're building the foundation that you know, you can then add in as you go. Once you get that foundation built, you add in your support specific, you know, during this during the season that they're in, you know, hopefully they get a few weeks off before their next season. And and start all over again, you know, building the foundation and hopefully, you know if they're going season this year Season this season, they're getting you got a program, then that time for rest and recovery. But hopefully they're starting that next season, at the same level that they ended the last one that and, you know, fortunately, and unfortunately, you know, being successful in, in high school sports means, you know, your seasons lasting longer than normal. And sometimes those seasons overlap. So, you know, like I said, with football, sometimes our season would end, you know, the last week of November, and basketball wrestling season is already started. So these kids are, you know, getting no rest in between. So it's really, it really is difficult than to balance that programming aspect. So a lot of times the summer just ends up being a catch all for all offseason athletes, and then just having conversations with them about, you know, what are you doing this summer, you're playing in a summer baseball league or a you or soccer, you know, you name it, kids these days are doing it? So it's challenging?

Nate Reynolds 21:08

Yeah, I mean, I think that's a good problem to have, like, you want to have multi sport athletes, any any want to have that overlap, because that means that they're being successful. And they're, they're doing well, and what they're training for, I look to like, my next step in life, you know, like having kids and, you know, I want them all to be multi sport athletes, you know, I think that's how you learn how to use your body and train your body. Because like, the more problems you gave your body to solve the, the better. And the more aware you are of how to use your body. And that's why I think, you know, if you look at some of those statistics, like, in the 2020, NFL Draft, like 85%, of, you know, the athletes were multi sport athletes, you know, in, and then they broke that statistic down, and it was like, 53% of them are true sport athletes and 31% were like three sport athletes. And only, like, 15% was like one sport. And I think that goes to show that, you know, we're having this problem right now, in high school sports where everyone's trying to specialize too early. They're not mastering their bodies as much as they could.

Ethan Calkins 22:10

Yeah, I think there's a multitude of factors that goes into that, you know, early specialization, like you said, they're not mastering, you know, so many important skills that they would learn, you know, just by doing other activities, and, you know, giving their main sport a break. You know, not to mention, burnout gets the likelihood of burnout goes up dramatically, if you're only playing one sport, all year round, and not giving it a chance to give it a break. And then the likelihood of injury, you're using the same movement patterns over and over and over and over again, and not giving your body a chance to experience different things. So I can't really, I can't really see a good reason why early specialization would be a good decision for a parent to have for the child.

Nate Reynolds 23:04

Yeah, I think a lot of it is like that, that peer pressure, like if your kid's not doing a you and working, you know, for this travel team and doing this, and this and this, then they feel like their kids getting behind from getting that exposure. But I know that when, you know, I was recruited for college, you know, the first thing that coach said was like, Oh, you're a multi sport athlete. He was, you know, you're this good at baseball. Now imagine once you what you'll be like, when you focus on it on itself. And I was like, Yeah, that's a great point. You know, like, you know, I haven't fully invested into doing it all year round. And so, you know, there's gonna be even more growth. But, you know, I feel like sometimes those kids that just do one sport all year round, you know, they're kind of peaking early. Right, they're good at high school, but that won't necessarily translate to college. And, I mean, that's a different conversation. You know, College is a completely different beast, you know, you know, it becomes more of a job. It's, it's very strenuous, but, you know, I think some kids, you know, think they want to play in college, and they get there and they, you know, they have unrealistic expectations of what their skill set is, first off, and second, what it's gonna, it's not gonna be as glamorous, you know, you know, traveling all the time. Playing, you know, double headers and 30 degree weather, you know, on your spring break and Long Island in, you know, snowing conditions, you know, no one, you know, when you say, you know, oh, are playing college, you don't think about that, you know, you think about playing and, you know, 96 degree weather playing against Texas a&m, you know, surrounded by 9000 people, you know, that's what you expect. You don't expect, you know, the games that you know, no one shows up to and you're just freezing your butt off. And, you know, you've been sitting on the bench for the last you know, 12 games three, and, you know, Coach doesn't even look at you, you know, you don't?

Ethan Calkins 24:58

Yeah, it's a it's a major question. People don't realize, but, but sometimes that can be good for kids to, you know, give them a little bit of structure that they might not have had in their lives. You know, as far as their regimented schedule and stuff like that. So there's definitely pros and cons to that conversation.

Nate Reynolds 25:19

There's one thing that I think taught me a lot was riding the bench in college, you know, not coming in being, you know, one of the one of the top recruits, being told, like, Yo could be for this, and then coming in, and then my friend, Pat, who wasn't announced, scholarship comes in and just tears it up, you know, and he was just significantly better than I was early on in my career. And he, I mean, he's still with me, he still is a probably a much better baseball player than I am, or ever will be. And it was just like, the reality of being humbled. And go check, your ego check, you know, you know, we all need that. And so, you know, I think sometimes in high school sports, you don't, you don't have that humbling experience until you get to college. I think everything that you added in about, you know, the strength and conditioning world, and some of that transitioning from being at Penn State and, you know, learning on the job. And now, you know, our next topic for the next episode will be, you know, your transition into PT school. I think that's all valuable information, because sometimes we don't see the process of how you get from point A to point B. And so I appreciate that input. And I'm looking forward to the next episode.

Ethan Calkins 26:40

Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate you having me on to share the story and looking forward to that as well.

Nate Reynolds 26:52

Thank you for listening to the cross talk podcast. The music was produced by Scott Hall. I'm your host, Nate Reynolds. You can find more great content on the Instagram and also on my website Until next time, continue to prioritize your health

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