Is Your Strength and Conditioning Internship a One-Way Street?
Written on November 11, 2015 at 7:36 am, by Eric Cressey
Just the other day, my Cressey Sports Performance business partner, Pete Dupuis, ran a live fitness business Q&A on my Facebook page, and he delivered some great insights on a number of fronts. I chimed in on one question that jumped out at me as worthy of an entire article, so here is my "expansion" on my initial response:
Q: We have had struggles trying to find a decent referral source for quality interns. How have you had success finding them?
Certainly, there are ways that you can “recruit” new interns. Establishing a good relationship with a nearby college with an exercise science program is a good place to start. Or, you can even look to your former high school athletes who have pursued a degree in a related field; they know your systems and can definitely hit the ground running.
However, I’d argue that the absolute best way to grow your internship is the same way that you’d grow your “normal” training clientele: deliver a high-quality product and generate great word of mouth buzz. In other words, as Cal Newport’s popular book’s title suggests, Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
The problem, unfortunately, is that a lot of internships in the fitness industry aren’t very good. Before we delve into the “why” behind this, I’m going to let the numbers do the talking for a few paragraphs.
Each year at Cressey Sports Performance (CSP), we receive roughly 200 internship applications; this corresponds to roughly “accepted” 25-30 interns per year between the Massachusetts and Florida facility. In other words, we only accept about 10-15% of applicants.
As a frame of reference, in 2015, the acceptance rate of Ivy League schools ranged from 5.33% (Harvard) to 14.9% (Cornell). Have you ever heard of an Ivy League school saying that they just don’t have enough smart, talented, hard-working kids on campus? Absolutely not – and it’s because their reputation precedes them; this reputation generates a lot of “leads.”
Regardless of whether your issue is not having enough applicants, or not having enough “good” interns, the answer is the same: you need to deliver a better product. It sounds kind of like running a training business (or any business), doesn’t it?
We get 200+ applicants per year for internships because we go out of our way to deliver a quality experience. As a frame of reference, every incoming CSP intern goes through a 10-week online course and a video database of close to 800 exercises. In other words, they effectively have 60-80 hours of studying that needs to take place before they arrive. That’s roughly the equivalent of two college courses.
On the first day of the internship, during their 90-minute orientation, they are handed about $250 worth of head-to-toe New Balance gear. Each week, there is a 60-90-minute in-service delivered by one of our staff members. Over the course of the internship, they receive free admission to any seminars we host. They can sign out books/DVDs from the large training/nutrition library in the office. Finally, we are always looking for part-time employment opportunities for them during the internship – and full-time employment opportunities after the internships end. We also have a closed Facebook group for all former interns that keeps them connected for everything from sharing employment opportunities, to brainstorming on tough client/patient cases, to finding good referrals in different areas. In the last month alone, it’s led to a new job in Santa Cruz, CA, and a new internship at the University of North Carolina.
Above all else, though, we do our best to empower our interns as soon as they’ve proven they’ve capable of taking on more challenging roles. In other words, the internships evolve to allow their coaching responsibilities to expand as they become more proficient. As an example, in the past year alone, we’ve had two interns – Tony Bonvechio and Nancy Newell – who were so awesome during their internships that they “forced our hand” to create positions for them as full-time staff members.
To me, this still doesn’t seem like enough. These folks are putting their lives on hold to work unpaid internships – and in many cases, moving across the country to do so. They become part of our “CSP Family” for life and we want to treat them accordingly.
Unfortunately, we are an exception to the rule. There are still a lot of fitness internships that are “observation only.” If you don’t empower a young coach to grow, how can you truly evaluate whether he/she will be a great employee? Supervisors shouldn’t stay as supervisors; they should ultimately become “peers.” In this regard, I owe tremendous credit to coaches Chris West and Teena Murray (now of Louisville) for not only giving me an opportunity to help out during my University of Connecticut years, but for continuing to challenge me in different ways as my internship experience progressed. Great coaches bring their athletes along the right pace, but they also do so for those they mentor on the coaching side of things.
Sadly, a lot of people in the industry view internships as a one-way street, treating up-and-comers as just cheap or free labor. Cleaning may be a responsibility, but it shouldn’t be the only responsibility.
I know I can speak for our staff when I say that we take a lot of pride in trying to go out of our way to help them all develop. We really enjoy teaching.
To that end, a lot of our intern applicants are referrals from previous interns. And warm introductions from previous interns make it easier for us to select the best applicants, too. Just like building and managing a successful training business, it’s a continuous cycle:
With that in mind, I reached out to our former interns to get their “hindsight insights” on the CSP internship experience. Specifically, I asked "What part of the CSP internship experience did you a) enjoy the most and b) find the most crucial to your longer term success?" I apologize for the lengthy copy and paste, but I think the sheer volume of similar responses speaks volumes (skip ahead to my point after the last testimonial, if you want):
Doug Kechijian, Physical Therapist at Peak Performance in NYC:
“A) Being surrounded be people who challenged me to think critically (this included the other interns).
B) The network you have access to upon completion of the internship/the communication skills you develop from the volume of coaching you accumulate.”
Connor Ryan, Physical Therapist at Drive 495 in NYC:
“A) Gaining family and friends through means of collaboration, learning, and helping be a part of something genuinely special. You can feel the hard work around you from the staff and the athlete's. The environment breeds a standard of excellence.
B) The most crucial component is having network to lean on, having a growing team to learn from, and have people to identify with and push you and help you find others that want to get better and hold standards of performance and progress to a very high level.”
Dave Rak, Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at The University of Washington:
“A) My time interning at CSP put me in an environment where I was always learning whether it was from a staff in service, learning hands on through coaching, or even staff training sessions. I was surrounded by professionals who wanted to see me be successful and always pushed me to be better.
B) The relationships I built at CSP have been the most crucial to my success. They have opened doors I never would have imagined. I can easily reach out to the CSP community of coaches/former interns for guidance with career advice, training/coaching advice, and anything in between. I feel like I am never on my own because I always have someone to reach out to for help when needed.”
Tim Geromini, Strength and Conditioning Coach at CSP-Florida:
“A) The most enjoyable part of my experience as a CSP intern was the people I got to work with and for on a daily basis. Clients become friends when you take the time to get to know them and find out their backgrounds. Same goes for the coaches. Everybody has their own style from past experiences and it was fun to see how many different ways you can gain results with the same intent.
B) The most crucial part of a successful CSP internship was being open minded and making the atmosphere a true family feel. If you're not open to learning new styles or open to different personalities, then you won't be successful in this field. It always keeps you hungry. The experience is more fun when you and your fellow interns get along, go to dinner, lift together, and get to know each other. It's a life experience, not just learning to coach.”
Molly Caffelle, Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at The University of North Carolina:
“A) Gaining lifelong friendships with the staff and intern group. The whole CSP environment in general, creates a very welcoming and learning atmosphere. All around best internship experience for any new young professional.
B) Learning how to connect one on one with clients. Understanding the true meaning of ‘they don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.’”
Rob Rabena-Director of Sports Performance at Maplezone Sports Institute in Garnet Valley, PA.:
“A) I enjoyed being treated like I was on staff as a strength coach and not just an intern.
B) for my long term success the most important aspect that I learned was every little detail matters from a brand perspective, marketing, coaching, evaluations, facility design, customer service, program design etc. ”
John O’Neil, Personal Trainer at Drive 495 in NYC:
“A) Being part of something special, because of the culture that CP has created, when you put on the logo, you feel like it's a shield and your job becomes important...
B) professional connections, both in job searching and in a network of bright, motivated individuals. As a coach, seeing a high volume of athletes and needing to appreciate cueing different people differently has had great carryover to my every day work.”
Roger Lawson, Personal Trainer and Writer in Boston, MA:
“A) The people, both staff and clients, without a doubt. With all the different personalities and backgrounds coalescing into a giant melting pot of awesomeness, there is never a boring day. The strong sense of community that forms when you spend several hours a week with someone is undeniable. It's a two way street; everyone has something to give and everyone has something to learn.
B) Being around a group of individuals who are striving to better themselves. It's impossible to stay bottom tier of knowledge when you're surrounded by those who are constantly evolving. That kind of environment creates the attitude where betterment isn't "work," but something that you actually want to seek out.”
Do You See a Trend?
Every single former intern refers back to becoming part of a family, or something special. They reflect fondly on being around people that empowered them and challenged them to be better, holding them to a higher standard of professional excellence. A good internship welcomes strength and conditioning up-and-comers as an integral part of a team.
You wouldn’t spend a ton of money on marketing your training facility if you didn’t know that your training product was solid, would you? Of course not!
With that in mind, before you start going out to find interns, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Is it because you love to teach and feel a responsibility to deliver a great product to benefit the future of the industry? If so, make sure a quality product is in place and then have at it. However, if you’re just looking for someone to help you sweep the floors, maybe you’re not meant to run an internship program.
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