Pracademic is a term that I just found out about. I’m guessing 99% of people reading this will be the same! What does it mean?

A pracademic is someone who is both an academic and an active practitioner in their subject area. The term has a history of at least 30 years, but its first coining is unclear.”…thanks google for that one.

Simply, this is the biggest gap in the industry. One word explains it all. We don’t have enough pracademics. Never has this been more obvious to me, than right now as I enter the final month of my time working in college football in the US as a strength and conditioning/sport science assistant.

There is a seemingly ever growing (or maybe it’s just always been there but just more noticeable now) gap between “coaches” and “academics”. Sport science/strength and conditioning/fitness as an industry is growing. No doubting that. Accordingly there IS a growing number of students and graduates alike. Accordingly there IS going to be people with different passions and interests. Accordingly there IS going to be some awesome new research to keep up with. But unfortunately, as the industry grows, accordingly there WILL be more sport science/human movement/ex sci graduates who are GROSSLY and I mean GROSSLY unprepared for the industry.

I am not going to bash the industry, nor complain about it. I love it. However, having just turned 27 and experienced something not many people get the opportunity to (work in a power 5 conference college football program), I just realised how much more there is for me to know. Prior to my time in the US I thought I was a good coach. In reality I wasn’t. Its hard to admit but its only recently just dawned on me. I was a good communicator. I was a good student. I was a hard worker. I was passionate. I was book smart, I wasn’t a COACH. Why after having coached athletes who’ve played or been at AFL, NRL, NBL, VFL, TAC, MLB, AIS, VIS, Comm Games even Olympic level, why was I not a good coach? Because I wasn’t pracademic. I was academic, yeah a good student who was book smart. But why was I GROSSLY unprepared? I was missing the practical application. Not even missing the ability to coach and apply theory, I could do that. Not on a world level, but I was OK. The practical part I was missing was my own training. Conversely, there a lot of great weightlifters out there, but many are just Prac, no academic.

The US has made me a coach. I now have got my own training to a level to compliment my academic background. It’s not my end product, but its on its way now. I finally feel comfortable calling myself a coach, or a sport scientist. I can do either, because I’m pracademic. Equally practical, but also theory based. But let’s further investigate the gap between the US and Australia. I’ll even go one step better and present a solution instead of just labeling the problem as I see it.

Here is a breakdown of why things are different;

Australia: Where a sport science degree covers sport science. Biomechanics, physiology, anatomy you name it. That’s the degree. Your piece of paper, your golden ticket to the industry. In reality it isn’t. Why? Because in 9 years of being in this game, not one athlete has ever asked “Hey Jay, tell me everything you know about the Kreb’s Cycle”. What do athletes say “Hey Jay, my knee hurts when I squat, how can I fix it?”. That’s not to say education and theory isn’t important, it is. But if you don’t squat frequently, with different varieties (front, back, high bar, low bar, goblet), different loads, different tempo, different stance, how can you truly communicate that to an athlete? At best, an educated guess. Honestly that’s where most Australian students miss out.

US: Where the degree you have doesn’t make you a coach. Your determination and willingness to learn does. Surprising to me and I’m sure many of my friends back home, very few, very very few colleges in the US offer a sport science degree. So how do you become a coach if you don’t spend 3 years at uni learning your degree? How does a head strength coach become a head strength coach if his degree is in sports management?

The answer. You intern, anywhere you can. Any school, and sport, any division, any state. Anywhere. That’s your start. You also spend your spare time reading up on all the theory (because you probably didn’t cover the force-velocity curve in a sport management major). This shows passion, determination, willingness to better yourself, effort, focus etc etc. Pretty desirable traits for someone aspiring to a strength coach don’t you think? Hence why they can get an opportunity. More importantly and what I did the reverse of, you learn in the gym. Books come second. This is new to me but I really like it. Its not any better or worse than what Australia offers, however if I was to recommend either option to someone or even my younger self, this is the one I would pick. Sure you may not understand all the theory at first, but if you have spent a lot of time under the bar, all of a sudden you would be amazed how much more information makes sense when reading about force vectors and loads in the lower limbs during the squat.

Commonly in Australia, 19 year olds spend late nights feverishly trying to make sense of all the joint angles and loads and forces of a squat for their exam the next day, only to forget it next semester because why? They don’t apply it. The application or implementation of knowledge is what makes it stick in your brain. After all, you need a good understanding of yourself to truly teach something don’t you? (Well at least you should have if you have any integrity).

So having said all that, as promised no problem without a solution.

To any fellow Australians who aspire to being a strength and conditioning COACH, here are my tips.

Get under the bar. Invest in coaching, swallow your pride, admit you don’t know it all and get a good coach to TEACH you.

Understand not every answer is in a textbook. Also understand that just because one research article says it, that doesn’t make it the bible. There is often equally valid (peer reviewed) conflicting evidence and the only way to find out is to try yourself. (please try before testing on your athletes.

Understand mistakes happen. Learn from them.

Take any job, any internship, anywhere, with any team, of any age. Every NFL, AFL, NBA coach all had a first job. You don’t start at the top.

Be wiling to spend time and money on getting better. You aren’t an accountant. Its not like accounting where you get a degree and voila im an accountant. Doesn’t work that way.

Be yourself, don’t try and be someone you’re not. Everyone in the industry can smell a fake a mile a way.

Finally, understand that above all else, you are a teacher. An educator trusted with the bodies and minds of an athlete. If you don’t want the responsibility, don’t enter the industry. Its not a do as I say and that’s it. You need to educate, justify, and empathise with your athletes.

*Bonus points get an outside voice. Can you coach 40 athletes in a massive gym with music pumping and still communicate? If not, learn. Don’t be shy, have a presence. It wont come naturally to everyone but like everything you can learn and improve on it.

PS Get pracademic! Read a book, lift a weight, then eat, sleep and repeat. Lift and Learn.

Written By Jay Ellis