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Transitioning from College to the Pros: 3 critical learnings for practitioners

7th June 2022

Many coaches, video coordinators and strength & conditioning practitioners will transition from collegiate-based roles into a professional sports environment during their respective careers. Theoretically, this transition seems straightforward, but many practitioners are caught out by the small differences and nuances between the two different performance levels.

To help collegiate practitioners be more prepared for a future career in a pro sports setting, we asked Houston Dynamo’s Head of Sports Science Alex Calder to detail his experience and learnings from his transition from the University of Louisville to pro soccer.

Here are three key learnings Calder detailed in his presentation titled ‘Dynamic and Staff Integration: The Difference Between College and Pro Settings’. You can watch his presentation below.

3 critical learnings for practitioners

#1 Multi- vs single-team

“It’s uncommon for practitioners at the NCAA level to be working with a single team … I’ve previously observed and been in a setting where one S&C coach covered 18 different teams,” said Calder.

This multi-team responsibility for many collegiate practitioners presents a different challenge to that experienced in a pro setting.

“Across my current experience [at Houston Dynamo], I work with a single team where we are far more detail-oriented than I was previously at Louisville … there is no right or wrong in this respect, but by working with just one team, you get the chance to dive deeper into pre- and post-performance improvements,” said Calder.

In addition to multi-/single-team dynamic differences, Calder also explained that on a university campus, each team’s facilities can be spread around and across different sets of buildings: “This contrasts what is common at a pro team where all resources are found within a single building, albeit a large one.”

Multiple teams and therefore different facilities and buildings “have a greater potential to create silos between departments. These silos make it hard to achieve a unifying objective, perhaps a National Championship or league title,” said Calder.

“In the pro-environment, everyone’s philosophy is to do everything they can to win, and to instil and maintain this collective sense of responsibility is far easier if teams are in the same building … additionally, we all use the same processes and technology from the first team, down to the Houston Dynamo development teams.”

Having all resources in one facility can be an intense environment for previously siloed collegiate staff to join. At times, this does mean “that it can be difficult to escape the intensity of the result-based industry that comes with a pro-setting,” said Calder.

To overcome this challenge, Calder recommended those who transition to a pro team should allow themselves time to “switch off outside of their role and/or embrace the intensity, using it as motivation to drive their own respective performance forward, benefitting the work of the team.”

#2 Why a dynamic leadership style is needed

The table below details the differences between athletes at the college and pro levels:

Variables College Pro
Age 18-22 17-36
Training Age Minimal Mixed
Season Length 4 months 9 months
Incentive Development $$$
Time commitment Mixed with schooling Full-time

 

“At the pro-level, you’ve got players with vast amounts of experience and their ages vary massively. This isn’t the case at college, so you have to adapt your leadership style accordingly,” said Calder.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with some very experienced players here at Houston and Orlando … for instance, I once worked with a former Manchester United player who had a great deal of input in their training and development. Their input and our dynamic worked well to get the most out of the player, but to give a college athlete this level of input wouldn’t be fair given their training age and time commitment with their schooling.”

Calder continued by suggesting practitioners should learn how to lead with a more collaborative leadership style at the pro-level, rather than the often prescriptive styles seen in a collegiate setting. A blend of the four common styles is recommended:

  1. Transactional – Often a transaction needs to occur, indicating the intrinsic motivation element to this style.
  2. Transformational – Leader works beyond their immediate self-interest to create an often extrinsically motivating vision.
  3. Authoritarian – Dictates goals and directs and controls all activities without subordinate’s involvement.
  4. Democratic – Members of the group take a participative role in decision-making.

 

#3 Specialist vs generalist

Somewhat linked to working across multiple teams in a collegiate setting, practitioners are often more generalists across their roles when compared to the highly specialised nature of professional sports.

“Generalists undertake multiple tasks, are the bridge between different departments, and exhibit a high degree of skill transferability. Compare this to specialists who follow a detailed process, with obsessive fine-tuning and minimal margin of error,” said Calder.

The Head of Sports Science works closely with numerous specialists throughout his role – see below: 

Alex Calder - Houston Dynamo - PRO SPORTS PRACTITIONER- THE ENVIRONMENT

“There are specialists in the collegiate environment, but this is taken to a deeper level at a pro team. You should trust those specialists to carry out effective work and integrate your work alongside theirs to ensure you’re maximising the value a specialist [compared to a generalist] can offer,” said Calder.

Transitioning from a generalist to a specialist role can be difficult. However, by engrossing yourself in your respective field of expertise (research and development, seeking mentorship, and gaining practical experience) an effective transition can be made.

Further Reading

To learn more about the transition from college to a pro setting, read Calder’s very own book: Peak Performance for Soccer.

Over 40 of the world’s leading practitioners working in elite soccer, over 6 continents, share advanced knowledge of the environment as well as a scientific understanding of the game and players. This book explores those traits at an intricate level through shared experiences of some of the best performance coaches working in elite soccer. The content in this book is derived from practical and evidence-based concepts that have been applied at the elite level.

Uncovering the coaching strategies as well as contemporary issues in elite soccer, this comprehensive textbook illustrates what it takes to thrive as a performance coach at the top level. Collaborating with the industry leaders in soccer, the chapters address a myriad of topics, such as:

  • The multiple roles and responsibilities;
  • Youth development;
  • Strength and conditioning application;
  • Nutrition and recovery strategies;
  • Tracking and monitoring fitness and fatigue;
  • Powerful communication methods and staff cohesion;
  • Return to play and injury prevention strategies

 

Peak Performance for Soccer is essential reading for all coaches and practitioners, at any level, who work in soccer.

Who is it for? Any practitioner looking to work in elite soccer, or currently working in elite soccer.

Where can I buy it? It will be available through Routledge towards the end of 2022. Currently in the processing phase.

What have people said about it? 

“Peak Performance for Soccer provides great insight into the true environments of professional soccer.” 

Jordan Milsom, Head of Fitness & Conditioning, Aston Villa FC

 

“Alex and Adam have done a magnificent job covering all aspects of an elite soccer environment. It’s a must-read.”

DaMarcus Beasley, Former Professional Soccer Player for Manchester City, Rangers, PSV. 4 x World Cup appearances (2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)

 

“Peak Performance for Soccer does an excellent job providing readers with detailed insight for working with coaching staff to enhance training – this is an essential read for anyone working in soccer.”

Patrick Kisnorbo, Head Coach, Melbourne City FC