Creating Buy-In (Part 1): Private Sector

One of the biggest issues that all strength and conditioning coaches face at some point in their career is the idea of creating buy-in. This idea refers to the ability of the coach to create understanding and support from third parties effected directly or indirectly by the strength coach’s program including: Parents, Sport Coaches, Sports Agents, Athletic Directors, Athletic Trainers, and Athletes. When I talk about creating buy-in with these individuals my strategies are very different based on the party that I am speaking with as each party places a different amount of value on the different outcomes of the program, from strength gains, to wins on the field, to injury-prevention. Along with knowing my strategies for each individual I speak with, I must know who is the most important to create buy-in with first in order to make my program successful. No matter what area of the field you work in, private, high school, college, professional, at every level there are people that you must get to buy-in before you and your program can be effective. If this buy-in is not established early within the relationship then you, as a coach run the risk of poor performance, lack of respect for the coach/program, increased risk in weight room or athletic platform, and decreased potential of sustainability.

Throughout my career I have worked in many different capacities within the field of strength and conditioning. Throughout this time I have had to create buy-in in every area. No matter whether it was the parent of a middle school athlete or the GM of an NBA team the importance of gaining their support is crucial for my work to be of the most effectiveness. I must understand what that individual can gain from a healthy, productive athlete and make sure that I emphasize my role in helping their athlete get to that level.

Unfortunately, creating this relationship isn’t something that you must do with just one person. Depending on your setting there are between two and five people that it is important to gain support from. There are also some people that are more important to create a relationship with than others. In this two-part series I will cover my buy-in process when handling each level of athletics, including the order in which I make contact with individuals and the topics I am sure to hit in these conversations. I will also cover my strategy when I run into adversity with one of these parties and how I work with them to continue to achieve our training goals. This first article will be directed toward the private sector, or sports performance facilities.

The private facility requires a professional who is very different from the traditional high school or college strength and conditioning coach. Typically, the most effective private strength coaches are high energy, relatable, and receptive individuals who desire to meet the needs of their clients above all else. These individuals are flexible and able to adapt in changing situations. I have seen many people try to make the transition from the public sector to private or vice versa. Some are adaptable with large personalities and make the transition seamlessly. However, the majority of the people that I see try to make this transition struggle greatly. The biggest difference I see is that in the public setting many of the athletes have very little choice whether they will be in the weight room or not. Much differently, in the private sector athletes are not forced in the doors and furthermore the athletes, or parents, must take the initiative to find these facilities on their own time in order to receive training. When dealing with clients that go to these lengths to seek out training you must have a staff that is willing and able to listen to an endless number of clients as they express their needs and desires of a training program time and time again.

When dealing with private sector clients there are two primary parties to target and two secondary parties to target in order to create buy-in. The initial, primary parties include the athlete and the parents. The biggest advantage that private facilities have is the fact that the athlete has walked in the door. This action shows that there is at least some interest in training, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Typically, when I am meeting the athletes and parents for the first time I will give them a tour of the facility. This will allow them to see the entire facility and it gives me the ability to show off all the equipment that the parent or athlete may or may not be familiar with. This is a perfect time to begin to create excitement within that athlete and allow them to visualize themselves training at your facility. Also, I will strategically perform the tour with the same structured flow through the facility that a training session would resemble. This, again, will allow the athlete to become familiar with the structure of training and again visualize themselves within the facility. I look at this first tour just like touring a new house for the first time. Typically, if during a house tour you begin to visualize where your furniture would be and what it would look like to live there then you are sold. Well, I treat a facility tour the same way. If I can get that athlete to see themselves training within the facility then I can build the anticipation of training within the facility.

Next, it is time to focus my attention on the parents. After the tour I will sit down with the parents and the athletes and I will begin to go into more depth regarding facility and staff background, programming ideologies, and specific nuances of the program. We must realize that we are asking parents to allow us to put their children in what they see as a highly stressful environment and situation in which there is always a risk of injury, no matter how large or small. By going in depth regarding staff and facility background you are allowing the parents to take a peek into where this organism has come from and where it is going. This is the time to help them feel more like family and less like just your source of income. You should also take the time to briefly hit on programming ideologies. This does not have to be an anatomy and physiology lesson but at least explain a little of why you do what you do. Again, this is a very foreign place for the parents and the more you help educate them now the more comfortable they will feel dropping their athletes at the door later. Finally, what nuances make this facility special? Do you have state of the art equipment? A nutrition bar? Athlete lounge? Or simply a special family-oriented group of clients that make the facility feel comfortable?

One book that helped me with initial introductions and my communication style early on in my career was Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book, he explains that for any tipping point to occur you must have three people involved: a connector, maven, and salesman. When he talks about a salesman he does not mean anyone who is trying to sell a product. Gladwell goes on to illustrate a true salesman that he encountered. This man was truly passionate about his work and the help that he could provide to others. For him his job was not about making sales, it was about improving the quality of life for his clients. In many ways we need to have the same passion for what we do. This starts with truly listening to our clients and their goals and needs and consciously thinking about how we can provide a solid program for them as opposed to placing them in a group where the goals of the few are overlooked in order to appease the goals of the many.

Finally, the two secondary parties which must be on board with the training program are the sport coach and the school strength and conditioning coach if the athlete has one. The issue with the majority of private training facilities is that they don’t take into account the athlete’s demands outside of the facility. I have heard many horror stories of athletes being drilled into the ground one night in their private training then competing in an athletic event the next evening. The reason I call these two parties secondary is because you don’t necessarily need complete buy-in from these parties. If one or both of these coaches do not agree with the athlete training with you that does not mean that you should turn them away. However, you should still take these other coach’s training into account.

When I first begin working with high school athletes on a private basis I will make contact with the sport coach and strength coach in order to introduce myself and explain why the athlete sought me out. Sometimes these conversations can get awkward, but I try to constantly remind myself and the coach on the other line that we are both here for the betterment of the athlete. At that point, I will ask what the athletes are already doing, what days they are training, and the approximate intensity of each session. From there I will begin to develop ideas for my program design. It is not my goal to reproduce a similar program to what the athlete is already receiving. It is my job to find the areas that may be getting over looked or missed due to a lack of time, then make sure I address them in my program.

As much as we try to appease all parties involved there will still be times that outside coaches will disagree with our involvement with their athletes. In my third year of sports performance coaching there was a prominent track coach from the area that was verbally upset with my involvement with her athletes. As the winter progressed I continued to work with the group of girls. During that time I would make sure to check in with the athletes each day to find out what they had done with their sport coach then adjust my program accordingly so that I would not create overlap between the training sessions. As the year progressed the girls performed well and contrary to previous years there were no injuries. At the conclusion of the season I met with the track coach and we agreed to work together with the entire team the following year. Not all instances will work out this way, however, this type of adversity, if handled correctly, can open doors in the future.

Private coaches must keep in mind that is not our job to replace another coach. We are employed to make sure our athletes receive a true, well rounded, strength program that will prevent injury and prepare them for competition.

In part 2 of this series I will discuss the buy-in process for strength and conditioning coaches at the high school and collegiate levels.