– Derek M. Hansen –
I have had the pleasure of implementing what I would deem a successful sport performance internship program at the university level. I have an endless supply of applicants, submitting their resumes from all over the world. Graduates of the intern program also have had no problem obtaining work at the NCAA Division 1 level, National Sport Institutes and also for a number of professional teams. All of these interns developed exceptional coaching abilities, effective communication skills, the ability to create comprehensive plans for all sports and a fearless ability to think on their feet and adapt to changing circumstances. They have also matured into fabulous individuals that make the world a much better place. Perhaps I was simply lucky to have these great individuals working for me. However, I think we have created an environment where freedom of expression is encouraged and only the best solutions for athlete improvement are acceptable.
I have thought deeply about the type of environment that is required for optimal learning in an applied and practical field. Provided below are some key points I have assembled based on my experience and the great knowledge that has been passed on to me by my mentors. I am a firm believer that we are a product of those who came before us. These concepts are as much mine as they are theirs.
1. Education Must be the Primary Goal of an Internship Program
I ended up changing the name of my program to an “Apprenticeship” program because it seemed like internship programs were simply a method to rustle up free labor for an organization. At least the “Apprenticeship” label gave the impression that knowledge and method would be passed on. If you are only setting up an apprenticeship to get young people to do your dirty work and menial tasks, you will not have much success in building a successful, attractive program. If you pass on valuable information and knowledge to your interns, they will offer to do the unpopular jobs, because they will know that they are getting value out of the arrangement. As the saying goes, “You will only get out what you put in.”
It is also important to make the point that education is not about feeding people information. Education is about establishing a relationship that facilitates the development of knowledge, experience and confidence. Anyone can feed you exercises, pass on a reading list or send you YouTube videos to watch. My most important goal of the internship process is to ignite a passion inside people that encourages them to continue learning on their own, even after they have finished with our program. We only offer a few steps along the staircase of knowledge. But we also want to provide our members with the energy and vigor to continue the climb.
2. Set Your Interns Up to Succeed
Put your interns in a situation where they will succeed no less than 99 percent of the time. While I agree that everyone must be challenged on their path to enlightenment, providing your students with tasks that are achievable is an important guideline. Many coaches can be very insecure and like to see their charges struggle for their own amusement and self-security. This is neither professional nor productive. You will know the strengths and weaknesses of your interns through basic observation and conversation. Push them toward their strengths so that they experience success on a consistent basis. If they have a background or expertise in one particular sport, let them lead sessions in that sport or skills related to that sport.
I had one intern who was a world-class swimmer. We put him in charge of not only the swim team’s strength training, but also any recovery or rehabilitation work that was performed in the pool with athletes from other sports. He excelled and had great results in a short amount of time. He was in his element and we used it to our advantage. Now he is working with world-class athletes in winter sports (yes, frozen water) and is continuing to push the boundaries of human performance.
3. Embracing Failure and Growing From It
We all make mistakes. If you aren’t making mistakes, you are not learning and moving forward. I firmly believe that athletes that have too much success, too consistently and too early are being set up for failure. Once they are faced with adversity, they do not know how to cope. While I acknowledge this concept, I am careful not to introduce failure with my interns on purpose. I sometimes see people trying to set athletes up for failure to teach them a lesson or put them through unnecessary stress. If my interns happen to fail at a given task, rather than dwell on their mistakes, we seize the opportunity to encourage them to try again and make good on their next opportunity. Encouragement always goes way further than negative feedback.
I am also very forthcoming in telling my athletes about all of my previous failures in a self-deprecating manner, adding humor wherever possible. I believe it helps to create a safe environment that builds trust and facilitates a higher degree of learning and personal growth. Mentors that lead with their ego and never show any vulnerability never quite gain the full trust of their apprentices in my opinion. None of us are infallible.
4. The Program is Not About You
An internship program is not a forum for showing the younger generation how much you know or how smart you think you are. Mentorship is truly about passing on information and ideas that can help them grow as future practitioners. You must take the approach that you are showing them one perspective on coaching and athlete development. There are many ways to learn and numerous other options for learning out there. Your program is not the be-all and end-all of learning opportunities. Your practical educational environment should always be presented as a starting point of a longer journey to competence and, eventually, mastery.
To emphasize this point, I would take every opportunity whenever possible to invite guest speakers to my internship classroom sessions. I can always tell when my interns are getting bored of me. My job is to keep their educational experience interesting and enjoyable, not take credit for their knowledge. One of my best guest speakers was an expert on giving presentations. He had no expertise in athlete performance, but provided my interns with an invaluable lesson on how to best communicate their ideas. Move your interns forward. Don’t hold them back with your ego.
5. Maintain a Conceptual Approach to Introducing Ideas and Lessons
I have always had more success teaching my interns about general concepts related to performance. It seems that many people are satisfied with a cookie-cutter approach to program planning, with templates taking precedence over dynamic thinking, creativity and flexible implementation strategies. It is like the proverb, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for the day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat forever.” The same goes for teaching young coaches about creating training plans. We spend very little time writing programs in our classroom sessions. We talk more about training scenarios, opportunities for positive adaptations and the value of recovery. We don’t dwell on exercise selection, but more the responses to exercise. And, finally, we reiterate the idea that there is always more than one way to arrive at a desired destination. Open minds operate under fewer constraints and will always achieve more sustainable results.
6. We Don’t Know Everything
I am careful to communicate to my interns the notion that we don’t know everything. The worse thing you can do is come into a situation assuming that you know exactly how it can be resolved. I see it all the time. One of the best responses I learned early on from a mentor was the phrase, “I don’t know.” He told me that it is always better to respond with, “I don’t know” than commit yourself to a response that will damage your credibility with athletes and other coaches. In fact, he said that the best thing you can say is, “I don’t know right now, but I will find out the best option and get back to you as soon as possible.” Sound advice.
Additionally, if you believe that you are “all-knowing,” it can seriously hamper your future development. I still can’t believe how many people I meet who present themselves as experts despite their limited experience and knowledge base. They have closed themselves off to new ideas and different approaches. Accepting the fact that you have much to learn is a liberating state of mind. It allows you to continue to learn and improve upon yourself. Some of the smartest coaches I know are constantly learning and improving themselves. Al Vermeil is a perfect example of the perpetual learner. Even though he is one of the most successful pro strength coaches in history, he continues to expand his knowledge base and test his theories. He is a great example for all of us.
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