Coach Apprenticeship Vs University Degree

Click the video below to watch my presentation about the value of apprenticeship. Read on for how I stumbled into an apprenticeship that launched me into elite sport.

Finding the right people to apprentice to may be the most important determinant of your path in life. It has been for me. I’ve had 2 key apprenticeships. The first under Hayden Knowles set me up for a career as a Rugby League strength coach. The second has just begun with one of the wealthiest and wisest men I’ve had the chance to learn from, Paul Counsel. My intention for this apprenticeship is to achieve financial abundance and expand my wisdom and abilities as a teacher.

At 37, I’ve recently started a new apprenticeship.

It’s not official, but if I look at what I’m actually doing it’s most similar to the life-changing education I received at the end of my University degree under Hayden Knowles. On reflection this is clearly the style of education that serves me and many others most.

So in 2004 I was getting to the end of my 4 year, Exercise Science and Rehabilitation degree at Wollongong University. Like most in my degree, I felt under-prepared to do anything that I wanted to do and was looking at more years of paid education to become either a physical education teacher or a physiotherapist, neither of which appealed to me greatly.

University Vs Real Education

The most practical education I received at university came in the form of informal mentorship from triathlon coach Jamie Turner and Corey Bocking who was running the Wollongong University gym at the time. I can remember Jamie teaching me to deadlift and Corey telling me I had to go fast on my cleans and putting me in a glute-hamstring raise.

As part of finishing the degree I was obliged to do 100 hours of practical placement. Like many things in formal education, I saw it as a box ticking exercise and took the simplest most comfortable route I could imagine. I booked it in with my father, Brian Smith at the Parramatta Eels who was the head coach at the time. This is when my education really started.

And so started an informal apprenticeship with Parramatta Head of Strength & Conditioning, Hayden Knowles.

I’m not sure what say Hayden had in the matter but he had already helped me with some training advice over the years. He had a backgro

und in elite athletics and experience with the Parramatta Soccer team before working with the Eels.

Learning from Hayden was life-changing.

He taught me more than my degree.

Many times over.

And there were no essays. No presentations. No deadlines. No % scores out of 100. What he taught me was how to be a great coach performance coach.

He didn’t lay out his 10 principles of coaching or give me his book to study. I watched him coach. He watched me coach. He ordered books for me to read and asked me what I thought. He gave me case studies with players like Michael Vella, Matt Petersen and the JETS (Junior Elite Talent Squad).

The role challenged me massively, and I was growing into it.

What were some of the key lessons I took from Hayden Knowles?

  1. It should be fun.
  2. You work for the players – What can I help you with this year?
  3. The coach sets the energy for the session.
  4. Authority is not the only way to get respect.
  5. Keep learning and innovating, there should always be an experiment running that you’re excited about.
  6. Learn from other sports.
  7. Weightlifting is a powerful tool for powerful athletes.
  8. Expression of stability and power together, rather than in isolation create elite stability and power.
  9. Back your ideas with massive energy and great things are possible.
  10. There is a game of power and politics going on within any organisation.

Hayden also strongly encouraged me to train myself and gave great demonstrations to the players. He was athletic and had a strong athletic background as an elite discus thrower himself.

That apprenticeship over the summer of 2003-04 encouraged me to go part-time at University during my fourth year. I didn’t hate University. I had been programmed to seek good grades since I was 5 years old and usually did so. I usually enjoyed teaching myself from the textbooks and discussing with fellow students more than learning from less than inspiring or confusing lecturers.

So as a part-time university student I was doing 2-3 days a week in Wollongong and most of the rest of the week was in Sydney with the Eels.

This is when I became a coach.

I was gradually given more responsibility and I became more confident along the way. The “work” was unpaid. Really I should have been paying them since I was receiving a real education that set me up for a career.

The apprenticeship gave me a profession, a service I was competent to perform.

While at university I completed a massage diploma in the evenings during my third year which lead to getting paid $25 / hour for the Eels doing sports massage. I also worked as a pool lifeguard and as a swim teacher through uni.

I sent in for my mail order ASCA Level 1 certification (Australian Strength & Conditioning Association) and I was a qualified coach.

The massage diploma also got me into a couple of weeks work with the Wallabies and then my first paid full-time job as a coach at the London Broncos the following year.

While with the Wallabies I had the chance to meet Jason Weber. I can still remember Jason delivering a testosterone boosting presentation about the teams improved gym performances and his neural testing before training sessions in the lead up to their historical win at Twickenham under coach Eddie Jones.

I worked at the London Broncos full-time for a year for around 10,000 pounds doing massage and I was an assistant in strength and conditioning focussed on the gym and doing conditioning work for injured players. I ended up running the whole gym program for the Super League team at 22 years old. I enjoyed the role and the team had a reasonable season.

So in my first 2 years as a coach I made around $25,000 AUD total. My father helped me into the first role and my brother was assistant coach in London, helping me into the second role. Connections matter. The tribe you’re plugged in to determine your future. If you don’t have family connections, build other key connections and relationships. Most people love helping enthusiastic students to the next level.

At London I didn’t have a mentor but the previous head of Strength & Conditioning there Hayden Masters (who went on to work with the Australian Wallabies) put me onto a new resource called “T-Nation.” At that time Charles Poliquin and Ian King were writing for them and my mind was blown regularly. I read them and Dan John. I discovered Mauro Di Pascuale, Deitrich Buchenholz and DB Hammer and I had a new world of resources to explore as the internet began to flourish as a new source of strength education.

After London I went back to the Eels for the pre-season while I made my final push to become an olympic hockey player. I was setting many of the programs and running the gym for an NRL team under the guidance of Hayden who focussed on on-field work that pre-season.

Reflecting on 2001-2006 I can see that the biggest influences were the coaches I connected to and the resources they pointed me to. My mentors and those my mentors were learning from formed my style and methods in those early days as a coach.

London also taught me that the world was bigger than the English speaking western world experiences I’d lived up until that point.

I met many people from Africa and Latin America in London and I became curious about how life was where they were from. I hungered for deeper knowledge about the ways of the world and I wanted to learn at least one other languages and cultures.

In 2006 I officially left strength and condition, unsure if I would ever return.

These experiences gave me the confidence and enough credentials to eventually get back into coach in 2011 after 5 years of global exploration including 3 years living in Latin America and a year in the Australian Outback.

Hayden Knowles and other career coaches shaped my career as a coach.

In 2 months with money mentor Paul I’ve had huge shifts in thoughts, learning, actions and confidence just like those first months at the Eels in 2003/4.

Importantly this time I’m in a position to bring others along for the ride!

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