Sandy Abney, MSCC

The Importance Of Education To Athletic Performance

Earlier this year, CSCCa Monthly editors had the opportunity to sit down and discuss multiple topics around education with CSCCa Chief Science Officer (CSO) science officer Sandy Abney, MSCC, whose extensive resume crosses both disciplines and continents. Prior to her role as CSO with CSCCa, Abney served as the Deputy Director of High Performance for Team China under the direction of the Chinese Olympic Committee. Previously, she was the Assistant Head Coach of Athletic Performance and Director of the University of Texas Olympic Sports Strength and Conditioning Internship program where she oversaw the development and mentoring of undergraduate and graduate assistant strength and conditioning coaches.

During her tenure at Texas she was the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Women’s Crew and Women’s Swimming programs.

She has over 20 years’ experience as a collegiate-level Strength and Conditioning professional. Sandy began working at the University of Texas in 1999 as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach where she oversaw the performance training of 5 Division 1A teams (Golf, Varsity Rowing, Novice Rowing, Softball, and Swimming) while assisting with Football.

Prior to her arrival at the University of Texas, Sandy worked as an Exercise Physiologist for St. David’s Hospital in Austin, Texas, working in the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Wellness Center. Before working in Cardiac Rehabilitation, Sandy worked as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. Under the direction of Head Strength and Conditioning Coach, Larry Levermann, Sandy oversaw the performance training of Volleyball, Track and Field, and Softball.

Sandy received her Master’s degree of Education from Concordia University with an emphasis in Sports Administration, and her bachelor’s degree in Exercise Sports Science from Texas State University. She is MSCC and SCCC certified, and holds certifications from United States Weightlifting Federation, and USA Track and Field Association.

In addition, she is a former collegiate track and field heptathlete and power lifter turned Olympic Weightlifter. Sandy has held the title Master Olympic Weightlifting National Champion, 63 kg. Class, and competed as a nationally ranked weightlifter for over 13 years. A highlight of her weightlifting career was competing for a spot on the 2004 USA Weightlifting Olympic team.

Q: Thank you so much for sitting in on this extensive interview. Let’s start with the big question. Why do you feel that certification for strength and conditioning coaches through the CSCCa is so important?

SA: I think there are four points here, really. First, certification just helps to establish standards across the profession. That’s just a 60,000 foot view answer. Second, I think it ensures that one, our coaches maintain a high level of knowledge and skill in the strength and conditioning profession. The legal benefit brought to a hiring institution that employs a professional with an accredited certification, such as ours, is going to potentially reduce the chance of legal issues occurring around health and safety of the student-athlete and any other related issues.

I think maybe coaches when they’re thinking, well, how does certification benefit me? They might need to view it through another lens of how does being certified benefit others? The legal benefit is real.

Lastly, I think just it demonstrates one’s expertise, which again, is appealing to that hiring manager and can potentially provide folks with greater job opportunities. It just shows that someone has taken that extra effort to do the things necessary to become certified and then to maintain certifications.

Q: Makes sense. When you talk about just getting that next job or getting really any job, anybody that’s looking to get hired has the things on their resume that they want to demonstrate their value and show that they’re going to be a good fit and that they’re going to be capable of doing the job at a high level, but they also want to remove any barrier to entry at that job.

SA: Right, absolutely.

Q: What makes the SCCC the best certification in the business? What really sets it on a platform all of its own?

SA: We call ourselves the gold standard, but do others call us the gold standard? We can say it, but how do we prove it? Being on board with the CSCCa for the past year, we have been enlightened and we have learned how we can actually prove that. We are currently the only certification in the United States that requires a combination of both theory and practical application to the field of strength and conditioning and specifically to the area of collegiate strength and conditioning. That in and of itself sets us apart.

I know our members may have heard of the Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals, but at the time when I was a member, I didn’t quite understand who they were or their importance. CREP’s mission is to secure recognition of registered exercise professionals for their distinct roles and there’s a couple of them: medical health, fitness and support performance fields. In addition, they also help to maintain the U.S. Registry of Exercise Professionals (USREPS), which that might strike a familiar chord with our members. As part of their membership, CSCCa members are registered in the USREPS registry. That is basically a huge database where employers can go to confirm certification and what levels, what types of certification an employee has. It’s really the only and most comprehensive database for all folks registered within the health, fitness or sport performance wheelhouse.

CREP classifies different levels of certifications as such.  This is not only strength and conditioning, but we’re talking if someone’s a yoga instructor or Pilates instructor, it’s all things health, wellness, fitness, strength and conditioning that are accredited. The certification must be accredited to appear within this registry. We are the only certification that qualifies under their advanced level of certification.

Being recognized as an advanced level certification also means that our certification is portable, meaning that the SCCC certification is recognized and valid globally. The folks at CREP use the SCCC certification as the gold standard to measure other certifications by. That was something that I only learned after working here in the national office and having conversations with the CREP folks.

Q: What you outlined there is just super impressive. There’s actual substance to the fact that the SCCC is the gold standard. It’s real.

SA: CREP said it themselves. It should be an “AHA Moment” for members. We’re not only saying it, but we’re bringing receipts.

The next step in the accreditation phase – is now we’ve done the assessment of what we feel the profession looks like now – is to understand where the profession will be five years from now. We are trying to reach every collegiate strength and conditioning coach in the country, whether they are affiliated with us or not. The reason is because that is going to give us the best opportunity to get a real-time snapshot of what’s happening on the weight room floors across the United States and on the fields. The more people who are engaged, the better the feedback and the higher-quality certification we can deliver.

Q: Obviously, continuing education is a huge part of everything the CSCCa does for its members, and is instrumental to the SCCC certification. When you’re talking with members about continuing education, how do you unpack that? There’s so much there. How do you begin to unfold it all?

SA: Well, really, in any field, any profession, continuing education is part of your professional responsibility. In the case of athletic performance coaches, it helps us remain current on our research and practices, methodologies, anything related to the field of strength and conditioning, as well as keep us abreast of any emerging trends in the profession. I think that could transcend any profession.

I’m sure there are different mindsets that people have about emerging trends. Your younger coaches are eager to absorb everything and try everything out. Whereas your more seasoned coaches aren’t going to jump at that, but they definitely keep a finger on the pulse of the profession, where it’s headed, where it’s going. But you have to be careful, because trying just anything is a detriment to the profession. It’s dangerous for student-athletes and professionally irresponsible

Q: Right. It’s great if you’re interested in the sports science aspects, but it’s also great if you’re interested more in programming. It all ties together because coaches do have a choice in how to obtain those CEUs.

SA: I hope that coaches are coming at this as a value add to professional development in maintaining the certification. If you have areas where you’re passionate, then let those be the things that guide you in attaining the majority of your CEUs. There are some areas like health and safety that you don’t have a choice. It’s just part of maintaining the certification. We make sure our membership is meeting the standards that are set forth.

Anybody working in college athletics, working at college institutions, is going to be subject to the compliance modules – from cybersecurity to sexual harassment – those are the terms of our employment. Still, in our CEUs, you do have a choice on the things that you want to learn about and borrow from and implement into your training methods.

Q: The last question on this bullet point is about the National Conference. It’s the best opportunity for coaches to get their CEUs taken care of. I wonder how many coaches come into the National Conference conference and really have spent some time looking at the speakers and thinking about, okay, what’s the best way to just soak every last drop of knowledge to get the absolute best experience. How would you encourage coaches to approach the National Conference?

SA: I would really like to encourage strength and conditioning staffs to consider – post-conference – doing staff debriefs. Essentially, it’s basically a big debrief where you get together as a staff and discuss the sessions attended, discuss the knowledge gained, discuss ways coaches could see themselves implementing those new methods and practices. I’m sure that a lot of folks have weekly or maybe even monthly staff meetings. Reserve a staff meeting post-conference as the national conference debrief and allow some of the members on staff to present what they found.

The second thing is have a game plan. I always have problems with the fact that there are two or three different sessions going at the same time that I want to attend, and I always have to pick just one. When I was coaching, at our staff meeting prior to the conference, everybody would pick a session that was their session like, yep, I’m going to be at this one, I’m going to take notes on it, and I’ll present on this session at debrief. That way you bring home all of the knowledge and the experience gained at the conference back and you have it conveyed to all of your staff members. During that debrief is the time to share everything. If there was a session on implementing plyometrics I really wanted to see, but couldn’t because I was attending a different session, now I’m going to get all that information about plyometrics. I’m going to get the notes that the other staff member took. I’m going to get their perspective on it and their highlights from it. So, in a sense, I was able to attend that session. I was able to gain some knowledge and take away more information from the conference.

Everybody gets to present on something and you’re working on some professional development skills there as well without even maybe being intentional about it. It’s trying to create some win-wins.

Q: That’s a great idea, a great approach. In teaching, you’re going to remember it even more and it’s going to stick with you longer. From your perspective – and what we’ve been talking about feathers right into this I think – but what obligation does CSCCa have in helping its members reach their career goals and maximizing the opportunities available to them in this profession?

SA: Well, I think the National Conference is one of those things, allowing opportunities to build their networks, especially as we experience some normalcy with getting back together for in-person events like this.

We’ve all been inundated with all of these virtual options to learn and grow, but I feel like you can’t just completely remove the face-to-face interaction altogether. We were all forced to do that for a little while through the pandemic. I hope we don’t continue down that path just because we found a reasonable way to work and grow and develop through digital contact. I hope we don’t get to a point where we just completely rely on that and negate the face to face interactions.

The one thing I’m really hopeful for – and I encourage both young coaches and the seasoned coaches to really extend themselves – is to be intentional in making those connections this year. We need to be grateful that we’re back in a position to be face-to-face and not take that for granted.

Q: I can remember early in the pandemic, taking the dog out on the trails and seeing another human being and saying hi to each other, and it was strange how overwhelming that sudden human connection was. I don’t know if we just got curmudgeonly and miserable as things were so strange over the last couple of years, but maybe we lost that appreciation too quickly for being around other people. It’s not really that bad; it’s actually kind of awesome.

SA: Yeah, absolutely. I’m really hoping people will remember how good that feels. That face-to-face interaction, the growth and the nurturing, the development of new friendships and the growth and developing of friendships over the years, it’s hard to simulate that digitally. I’m hoping that people-to-people connection will really resonate with folks and that people can have the opportunity to meet new people, build their network, develop relationships and develop friendships to a great degree. Our profession is still based on who you know – like most professions – like it or not.

It’s still true that if you’re trying to land that dream job, you never know who’s in your network that’s going to know somebody that can help you land it.

Q: That really ties in well to the idea that coaches should really consider giving back to the profession that’s given them so much. It’s a simple thing to volunteer on some of the committees the CSCCa administers. I know that ethos of giving back to the profession is very much at the core of what it means to be a strength coach. Giving back is basically in the job description.

SA: The engagement that we’ve experienced – especially from our younger members – has been phenomenal. They’re just thrilled and excited to have an opportunity to be involved and give back. For me, I feel like that’s been an area of our demographic that has been underutilized. It’s an area where we are really looking at opening up and creating more opportunities for young members to get involved and be engaged.

But you’re right that giving and receiving is central to our organization. It’s beneficial for both parties and it is at the core of our organization. Again, it’s creating those win-wins. For the giver, it’s obviously honing their craft and being thoughtful in their delivery and making them better presenters. For the receiver, obviously they’re so eager to learn. They’re just giant sponges and just think of the conversations and the interactions that spur from those different environments

The conversations that are going on that are creating thought provoking ideas for both sides. That’s your win-win. That’s what’s so nice about the conference. Not only do you have that going on in the sessions, but you have those conversations going on all throughout the exhibit hall, all throughout the conference halls, everywhere you go. That’s just another reason we’re excited to be back in person.

Q: Well, obviously, any professional strength coach must realize that he or she can’t be narrow minded when it comes to finding the right place to develop one’s philosophy. You have to be willing to challenge yourself, step outside of your comfort zone and that sort of thing. That’s the spirit of this question. What are the ways in which coaches should be stepping outside that comfort zone to challenge themselves?

SA: I think one thing that is emerging more – and I think we’ll just continue to see this – are the curriculums specific to strength and conditioning. That is just something that did not exist 12 years ago and you’re starting to see more. Those are opportunities for folks coming into the profession to now be more specific in setting out in their pathway, in the curriculum of learning to become a strength and conditioning coach. Whereas back when I entered the profession, it was all just a catchall for anybody that wanted to do anything health and wellness related. That’s exciting that we’re seeing development on that front with universities starting to offer more specific curriculum.

Obviously, we would like for our textbook to be the preferred textbook in these curriculums, making it more available to the masses. Those opportunities are ways that coaches can challenge themselves in this industry.

Q: Coach Abney, it’s really be a pleasure discussing these topics with you. Thank you so much for sitting down with us and discussing the importance of education for the CSCCa membership.

SA: You’re welcome. It’s been my pleasure. I can’t wait to see the members at the national conference. It’s going to be a great one.