How Sacred Heart University Built Its Strength and Conditioning Culture

About the Author: Adam Reed is the associate editor of AFCA Magazine. The American Football Coaches Association is the only national organization dedicated to improving football coaches through ongoing education, interaction, and networking. The AFCA and Hammer Strength have teamed up to provide insights into the coaching profession, elite athletic programs, and more.

Chris Fee from Sacred HeartBuilding a strength and conditioning culture when you have 32 teams under your watchful eye always is a major challenge … even more so when you are the first official strength and conditioning coach in program history.

That was the situation for Chris Fee as he took over a newly created position at Sacred Heart University (Fairfield, Conn.) on July 1, 2014. Previous to Fee, Sacred Heart outsourced all strength and conditioning to local coaches and personal trainers. While this meant Fee was starting from scratch, it also meant he had the full support of the athletic staff, administration and individual sport coaches.

“I was welcomed with open arms. Having one, unified voice was so needed,” Fee remembers. “So, it wasn’t as bad as you might think, but I also had 850 athletes who hadn’t been exposed to this level of training.”

Fee says he spent most of his first month on the job in the office of every head coach on campus. He wanted to know what they were doing when it came to strength and conditioning, plus what they wanted to do more of and their specific needs.

Fee sees his program’s role as support staff to the 32 Pioneer athletic teams. He says his focus is to reduce the likelihood of injuries while increasing athletic performance. He starts with the sport-specific needs so the women’s lacrosse players aren’t doing the same workouts as the football players, then he narrows the concepts further to enhance the performance of each athlete.

“Every athlete learns differently. Some learn visually, others need more communication,” Fee says while explaining he and his staff need to carefully observe how players process information while also obtaining feedback from that sport’s coaching staff about those individual athletes.

And, that support staff has come a long way since 2014. Fee was a staff of one person with two graduate assistants when hired. Now, he has two full-time assistants, a paid intern and two graduate assistants under his watch. This makes building a unified voice to the 32 sports and 850 athletes much easier, provided he has the proper staff in place.

“When it comes to hiring, for me it comes down to personality. Can I get along with this person and will this person get along with the athletes and coaches,” Fee explains. “You have to be more than a hard worker. Everyone is a hard worker or you wouldn’t be in this position. It’s not a selling point.”

He adds that Sacred Heart isn’t a large school (the undergraduate enrollment is slightly more than 5,000 students), so anyone he hires must be the kind of person who wants to meet and get to know everyone on campus. This extends beyond the scope of athletics. His coaches are expected to be ambassadors for the program, especially because strength and conditioning is such a new endeavor for the university.

While support has been excellent (the university has committed to a massive renovation of the current weight room), Fee doesn’t have an unlimited budget for his staff. Choosing the best assistants is even more critical when you are hiring people for entry-level positions. The potential new coach must be motivated by much more than money.

And when Fee finds those special people willing to commit to Sacred Heart, he does all he can to enhance their learning and skill building while on the job.

“I want my assistants eventually to move on to a better, head job somewhere. I want to play a small part in them advancing their careers,” Fee says. “It’s one way to pay it back to what this profession has meant to me.”