The Travels of a Strength and Conditioning Coach — Jonathan Leitch’s Story

Jonathan Leitch Elite FTS

“OK, here we go! Two more sets of squats, I want you to get deeper this time!” I yelled.

“But my knees hurt, and I didn’t eat lunch today…” my client whined.

Their excuses flowed like a river:

“I had too many margaritas at happy hour… Is there something I can do besides squats? What about that machine over there, the one that guides you or whatever it’s called… yeah, the Smith Machine, can I do that instead? You want me to use the 20-pound dumbbells?! That’s too heavy!”

Then, inevitably, one week later:

“Why haven’t I lost any weight? I don’t feel any stronger. Why isn’t this working?”

I was at my wits’ end. I was ready to throw my stopwatch at the leg press machine and walk out the door every single day. Finally, when an older client begged me to go to lunch with him instead of training but offered to still pay me for the session, I thought, “Screw this! I refuse to do this for the rest of my life!” and decided to make a change.

Here is my story of how that change came about.

Landing an Internship

Sometimes we get trapped in life. We fall into an existence that provides us with the basics but risk becoming less than capable. I was in my mid-20s, working as a personal trainer in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I had to bartend part-time in order to keep a steady income because as many people know, personal training can be very inconsistent. I lived close to the beach, and most people would assume that my life was good.

I had just finished my most profitable year of both personal training and bartending and was considering buying a house. I had saved up most of a down payment that year. Then it dawned on me: I hated bartending, and I did not really like personal training. I enjoyed training athletes, and I decided to make a change.

I had no clue how to get into strength and conditioning, but I knew that it interested me. I had taken on interns as a personal trainer, so that seemed like a good place to start. I Googled strength and conditioning internships and applied to every one that I found all across the country. I even applied to a couple of full-time positions that I had no qualifications for whatsoever. The resume that I sent out was pathetic; I had very little on it that would even qualify me for an internship, and what I did have was so poorly organized I doubt anyone could read it.

I did this in August. Weeks passed. I heard back from exactly one internship. They emailed me a questionnaire that I immediately filled out and sent back. This was in early September. Weeks passed. Finally, on Halloween night, nearly two months later, I got called for an interview.

I think what helped me was the fact that I had been reading books for about a year and was able to discuss many of the books that I had read with the interviewer. The bottom line was I think that he could tell that I was trying, I wanted to learn badly, and I had taken time to educate myself because it certainly was not my resume or my experience that got me the internship.

I did not get a call back for about six weeks. Then, in mid-December, they called and offered me my first internship at Texas Christian University. I had just about one month to find a place to live and move from South Carolina to Texas, leaving behind a girlfriend of two years and all my worldly possessions.

I later learned that I had a little help from an old friend who knew the staff and had put in a good word for me; otherwise, I probably would not have even gotten an interview. My point here is that if you put out enough applications eventually you will get lucky, and there is a fair amount of luck involved in entering this profession. In my case my luck doubled, as TCU entered the Big 12 soon after I started my internship, giving me experience in a major conference.

My First Roommate and My New Resume

I went straight to work, found an apartment, and “leased” it, sight unseen. I say “leased” because this was more of a handshake-and-cash type of deal. The apartment was attached to the back of some lady’s garage that looked to be rotting from the ground up. This place clearly was not built to any sort of code, and I doubt that it would have passed any type of inspection. It was one room, fully furnished, and it came with an unexpected roommate: a raccoon who lived somewhere in the wall. It did not matter to me, though. I was at work most of the time and was living my dream!

While at TCU, I interned under Zach Dechant. I tried to soak up and learn everything that I could. Looking back, there were a ton of things I could have done better and a ton of programs and workout cards that I wish I had saved, but I showed up on time and worked as hard as I could. I will not go into the extreme hours or the cleaning duties associated with these types of internships. Those are all detailed in other articles on this webpage.

How could I afford to do this unpaid internship? I gave up my dream of owning a house and spent every penny of my life savings. One of the best things Zach and the TCU staff did for me was to fix my resume and give me a full practice interview in front of three of the coaches.

New Roommate: Dirty Raccoon to Drunken Buffoon

My internship was ending. What to do next? Go back home? Be a personal trainer again? I decided to go for broke and told myself that I would make it in this field, no matter what it took. I once again found myself applying all over the country.

Once again, I heard back from exactly one place: the University of North Texas, just a short drive away from TCU. At this point, I had a good resume and decent interview skills. I applied on a Friday, interviewed on Sunday, and was offered a job on Monday. This was very different from my first application process, which was about a four-month process. I took the three weeks between the internships to get my CSCS, which ended up being a great decision (advice to prospective coaches: get certified as soon as you can; it can only help your cause).

The downside of landing an internship at UNT? I had driven from South Carolina to Texas to move into a furnished apartment. All I could find near UNT was an unfurnished apartment. I had no time to drive back and get the entire living room/bedroom set that was stored at my parents’ house in South Carolina, so off I went to Denton, Texas. I subleased the last eight weeks of an apartment from a college student.

This place was trashed. They did not even take most of their stuff out of it. Plus, I had only taken over half the lease, meaning that there was some random student who still had a key but had already moved out, but would show up on random weekends to party. I would often find him passed out on the bathroom floor on Friday night or Saturday mornings. Also, I was broke, and I had no furniture.

I got up early on my first Saturday there, borrowed a truck from a friend I had made at TCU, and hit the yard sales. Forty dollars and a can of Febreze later, I had my bed: the most disgusting couch I had ever seen. I found it in a garage, and it looked like it had served as the dog’s bed for about eight months before they finally decided to sell it at a yard sale. What is funny is that after eight weeks on a couch, I still have an affinity for falling asleep on my couch to this day.

This is where things got difficult. I was out of money. I had a credit card with a pretty decent limit, so I was all set to go. Fortunately, my parents also offered me some financial help at this point since it was only an eight-week internship.

This was where I had to make my first difficult decision. Less than a week into my internship, I got a phone interview for a paid internship at North Carolina State. I was broke, this job was close to home, and I really wanted it. They mentioned the start date. It was three weeks before my internship at UNT was set to end.

After considering it long and hard, I told them that I would not break a commitment to UNT and that I could start three weeks late. They told me they would consider it, but in the end, they did not offer me the job.

I do not know if they would have offered it to me had I been available, but that brings me to my second piece of advice: Don’t burn bridges! I made a commitment, and despite the money, and despite where I wanted to live, I stuck to my commitment, and ended up taking on a lot of responsibility at UNT and probably getting more “in-the-trenches experience” than I likely would have gotten otherwise.

This is also the point where the girlfriend of now two-and-a-half years decided she’d had enough. I pressed on, worked hard, and finished my internship and also got my USAW Certification with help from my parents and my credit card.

This is My Car and My Home

At this point, I was really running out of options: my lease was up, I had no money, and didn’t know what to do. I had an offer for a paid internship at a Division II school in Kansas, but it was very minimal pay and sounded like a bad situation to me. The staff at UNT had asked me to stay on with reduced responsibilities so that I could find a part-time job. They helped find me some housing for nearly free, which was probably worth more than what the paid internship in Kansas was offering. The apartment, however, would not be ready for about a month.

I was also being fined by the apartment complex that I was moving out of for damages that the college students had done to the apartment during the first 10 months of the lease. I sent that bill to the guy who was always sleeping in the bathroom, pushed my couch-bed out to the side of the road and left it, loaded up everything I owned, which at this point filled my car except for the driver’s seat, and I drove to Fort Worth to crash on a buddy’s couch for a month. I was used to sleeping on a couch anyway, right?

It was 35 miles each way to my unpaid internship, with everything I owned still in my car for the whole month. After a month, I moved into the apartment they had found for me: another one-room apartment, but at least it was partially furnished, and I was able to upgrade from couch to airbed. They also helped me to find a part-time job at a nutrition store that was just opening, so I could afford to stay on. We even worked out a deal with the nutrition store, where they would pay for my grad school, give me a small stipend, and I could stay on at UNT. I also took on more responsibilities, including writing and implementing my own programs for a football group. They treated me as an assistant on the staff, and I learned a ton and got some really valuable experience.

This is also where I started to make mistakes. I was overloaded, I was trying to get into grad school, helping to work at a business that was just getting started, working every football group during the week in addition to games on Saturday, doing my own programming for a group, and still trying to help with whatever Olympic sports that I could during the early mornings before the nutrition store opened.

I did not make any huge mistakes; I just started to forget things due to poor organizational skills. Every time I got in trouble or messed something up, I took it as motivation to try to do better, and I learned from every mistake. I credit the staff at UNT for helping me develop my organizational skills during this time. As tough as it was, I am grateful for it because it takes mistakes to really learn and progress in this field.

The Big Break(s)

It was at this point that I finally got my big break. I am going to try to explain all of this in detail, just to give the readers an insight into the amount of luck involved in getting into this field. There was a graduate assistant who was graduating at the University of Texas at El Paso; he applied to intern with Zach Dechant at TCU.

Zach called one of his references, a coach at UTEP named David Adamson (who’s also a contributor here on elitefts), to ask about this guy. During the conversation, Zach asked if they had found a new GA to replace the one leaving. Adamson said that they had not but were almost done with the process.

Zach put in a word for me and told me to apply (advice: keep in touch with people who you worked for). I sent in my application. Coach Adamson later told me that he had already set aside his top-10 resumes when my resume and another one came in. He looked at them, discarded the first one, and was about to discard mine, then decided that it looked good enough to add to the pile. I was No. 11 in the top-10 (advice to the reader: have an eye-catching resume).

Now let me back up. I also found out that this GA position had already been offered to an intern at UTEP, who turned it down to take an unpaid internship in a major conference. After completing that internship, he came back to UTEP and was hired for the next open GA position. Had he not chosen to take an unpaid internship over a GA position, I would have never had a chance (advice: he made a good decision; always expand your network. It will help you gain new knowledge and have connections later down the road).

In the end, I got hired on January 9th, and the job started on January 22nd. I put in notice at my nutrition store job and at UNT (13 days’ notice was all I got), packed my things, moved to El Paso (not a small trip for those of you familiar with how large Texas is) on the 21st, and started working on the 22nd. I lived in a hotel until I could find an apartment. It was my dream come true! I was finally getting paid to do what I loved!

From here, things moved quickly. I was put in charge of women’s soccer in March, a fairly large responsibility for a GA since soccer is typically a full-time sport. I had some good experience, having done some programming for rifle and cheer at TCU and a football group at UNT, but this was the first time I had been put in charge of everything: scheduling, making sure I had athletic trainers, etc.

After several months, one of the assistant coaches at UTEP left for another job, leaving tennis, cheer, and softball to be covered. I had worked baseball at TCU and some softball at UNT. Softball became my second team, another full-time team. They were only my team on an interim basis until the new coach was hired. I applied for the open full-time position, and on November 13th, after being at UTEP for nearly a year, I was offered the job. I barely got it over one of the other GAs, who was every bit as qualified, and probably a little more deserving of the job, but I had my certifications and he did not. I am sure that he will be getting the job he deserves very soon.

As you can see, this is not an easy field to get into, and you had better be willing to give up everything in your life to make it. Honestly, I think I was very fortunate to get where I am as quickly as I did. There are a lot of good coaches that spend more time interning and, as GAs, don’t ever make it. Others do five or six internships and can never even land that elusive GA position. I am, without a doubt, still in the learning process and will be for some time. My final word of advice: If being a strength coach is something that you want to do and know you can do, do not let anything stop you.

After TCU, I made a commitment to myself that I would make it, even if it took me 10 years of unpaid internships. Even if it meant sleeping in a tent, moving to the other side of the world, or going into immense debt. I mean, I already shared a wall with a raccoon. How much worse could it be?

Jonathan R. Leitch, CSCS, USAW, is an assistant strength and conditioning coach at the University of Texas at El Paso who’s in charge of women’s soccer and softball and assists with football. Jonathan is also a powerlifter competing in the 220 and 242 raw divisions.