From Turf to Tech: Why I Left the Field of Strength & Conditioning to Become a Software Engineer

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Photo by Fachry Zella Devandra on Unsplash

Key takeaways:

  • Being a successful software engineer requires a commitment to continuous learning and improvement of your craft.

“Colton, you’re leading the warmup today.”

It was the middle of the second week of my internship at EXOS (one of the most renowned athletic performance facilities in the world). When Coach Josh said these words to me, a rush of emotions hit me. Excitement (mainly), fear of failure, nervousness, and imposter syndrome. But one thought rang loudest in my head: For one of the top speed coaches in the world to trust me to lead his group of athletes through a warmup (on only my second week nonetheless), I must be doing something right.

It was my first time ever leading a group of athletes. And it just so happened to be a group of 15 NFL Combine athletes, with their entire careers on the line.

They say one of the best ways to learn is to be thrown in with the sharks and forced to sink or swim.

“Alright everyone on the line!” I yelled as confidently as I could as I stepped onto the 50 yard strip of turf, while Josh turned up the volume of the music on our huge speaker to test how loud I could be.

With athletes, trust is not given, it is earned. Elite athletes have had numerous strength and conditioning coaches. Most elite athletes have also come from shaky backgrounds and were given no choice but to sink or swim. Oftentimes fellow teammates, past coaches, family members, friends, and/or parents have let them down at one point or another in their lives.

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Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Great athletes (of all ages) generally have plenty of emotional trauma that they’ve gone through from people telling them they’re not good enough all their lives. This was something that kept me going in Strength & Conditioning for so long. I wanted to be the difference for any athlete I was in charge of. I took great pride in being one of the only people in my athletes’ lives who could find ways to tell them that they’re great, even with their flaws. That, whether they’re good enough to make big plays on the field or not, they’re still good enough. Maybe not a good enough athlete (I’m still a realist). But good enough to succeed as a person, long after sport is over.

Nonetheless, the first time you confront a group of athletes, they’re skeptical, they want to trust you, but that trust needs to be earned.

I stepped up to the line and gave my first demo. A nervous intern. And, well, they laughed at me. And Coach Josh stood behind them laughing as well. I shakily led the rest of the warmup, and handed it over to Josh.

From that day on, I asked to lead every single warmup, every single day. I was hungry.

One day, during our weekly intern education sessions, another coach at the facility, Coach David, was talking to us. He told us one thing that stuck with me for the rest of my time in the field: “When you’re coaching a group, you’re no longer an intern, you’re a coach.” In an instant, I knew this was how I’d get over my imposter syndrome. And it was this very sentence that changed the way I coached forever.

The way we see ourselves greatly influences the way others see us.

“When you’re coaching a group, you’re no longer an intern, you’re a coach.”

The next morning, as the first group of athletes showed up, I asked to lead the warmup as usual. As I stepped up to the group, something was different. I no longer saw myself as an intern, I saw myself as a coach. Suddenly, everything fell into place. Every demo I gave, the athletes were receptive to, everything flowed effortlessly, time came to a complete stop, and nothing else mattered besides what was going on in that very moment.

Athletes are always working towards what many people call “flow state”. In short; flow state is a phenomenon in which it feels as if time stops, you’re completely in the moment, and everything just “works”.

In this moment, I had achieved flow state.

When I was done, I felt an adrenaline rush I’d never felt before. A fellow intern came up to me and told me how good that warmup was. And Coach David approached me and said “That was the best warmup you’ve done yet.”

This was it. This was what I was meant to do with my life. I was instantly obsessed. I was going to be the greatest strength and conditioning coach in the world, and I would do whatever it takes to get there. I wasn’t going to let anyone or anything stand in my way.

Fast forward 4 years, four unpaid 60–70 hour/week internships, seven bare-bones shoebox apartments in four different states, two full-time positions, one Master’s degree, countless certifications and seminars, one missed funeral, two missed weddings, one destroyed relationship, three missed family Thanksgivings, and countless hours of lost sleep later…

I had made lots of connections in the field. Most of the coaches that I looked up to were now my peers. And slowly, reality began to set in. I began to realize that the light at the end of the tunnel I had always seen did not exist. Most of these coaches I once thought had it made were actually still struggling, had terrible relationships with their families, no social lives, no retirement plan, and were always on the hunt for a new job due to the constant possibility of being fired at any moment.

But they love what they do so none of that matters… Right?

Maybe.

But after four years of living that reality, I sat staring at the usual bare wall in my paper thin apartment (I hadn’t had one decoration in an apartment in all of the places I’d lived, because I never knew how long I was going to be somewhere or where I was going next). I was tired of living my life like this. This entire time I thought I was working towards something that I would be happy doing because I loved it. But it was actually making me miserable. I didn’t like who I was becoming, and something needed to change. But what? Where else could I go? I’ve worked so hard to get here, how could I just walk away? Would everything I’ve put in to get to where I am today be for nothing? I was in deep and couldn’t picture myself doing anything else (I had found most other strength coaches feel this way too).

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Photo by Ilya Pavlov on Unsplash

Enter the field of Software Development.

Curious, I searched the internet for career paths that are suitable for career changers. One thing that kept coming up was Software Engineering. What even is that though? Thats like… math and stuff, right?

Something told me to look deeper. As I read more about it, I realized this isn’t math (in fact, it turns out there’s hardly any math involved at all). But a field that seems exactly down my lane to switch into. There’s always more to learn, it values constant and continuous growth, provides an opportunity to have mentors and mentor others, and is a field that will only become more and more in demand.

After lots of long nights of contemplation and research, I decided to sign up for a bootcamp, and made the extremely hard decision to quit my job as Head of Sports Performance at a facility in Seattle, a job I had worked my entire four years in the field to be qualified for, and leave my athletes in the process.

I mentioned in the beginning of this article that one of the best ways to learn is to be forced to sink or swim. I truly believe that. Well, this was my way of throwing myself into the deep end. Forcing myself into something new, no turning back now.

But why Software Engineering?

Well, lots of reasons actually. I’ve highlighted a few of my key reasons below:

  • Being a successful software engineer requires a commitment to continuous learning and improvement of your craft.

Staying still and stagnant has never been for me. Being a field that is continuously changing and evolving, software engineering requires those in it to continually find ways to improve their work, learn different types of code or methods of writing their code, refine (or “refactor”) their code to make it easier to read, work with, and do even more amazing things. Being in a field that allows me to always be growing and improving as a professional was a huge reason for me entering the field.

  • Being a software engineer is more than just coding.

Many people think software engineers sit alone in front of their computer all day with no need for social interaction. This could not be further from the truth. Software engineering has a large emphasis on the ability to work in teams, communicate with others, work under pressure, and communicate your logic effectively to bosses and peers. It’s important to be able to thrive in a team setting.

  • Being a software engineer requires solid communication skills and the ability to work well with a team.

As stated above, management, communication, and teamwork are integral skillsets for being a successful developer in any company/organization. You’ll need to constantly collaborate with others on your team. Not only other software engineers and your bosses, but those working in project management, product management, and any other adjacent roles that play a part in the success of the company and final product.

  • Being a software engineer provides the opportunity to work on side projects that you may find very interesting.

Learning is one thing, application is another. Being able to learn new things and apply them right away is a huge emphasis among developers. And being able to use this applied experience to build cool and amazing things on the side that you’re passionate about (if you want) is a huge plus to being in the field.

  • Software engineering is a field that allows the opportunity to find mentors, as well as mentor others.

They say the best way to learn is to teach others. One thing I loved about strength and conditioning was being able to have solid mentors who helped me as a young and upcoming coach, and then being able to do the same for others. This is true in software development as well. The ability to take constructive criticism, run with it, and immediately implement it is crucial for success.

  • Software engineering rewards people for working hard.

People shouldn’t be ashamed to want to do something that allows them to live a comfortable life for them and their family, granted they are willing to work hard to get it. Yes, money might not matter as much when you love what you do. But it still matters. And isn’t it still important to be treated appropriately for putting in lots of hard work? Being barely able to afford food, rent, or do anything nice for my girlfriend after years of experience (combined with a ton of hard work, commitment and education) was no longer for me.

  • Software engineering is a field that is very in demand and the need for developers will only continue to grow.

We’re in a day and age where nearly every company needs a software developer. While there are many software developers out there, there is still a major gap between the supply of engineers and the demand for them. And it’s more than likely that this gap will continue to grow rapidly.

In short, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for strength and conditioning. And who knows, maybe I’ll still do some coaching on the side. But I’m ready to move on, and I can’t wait to see where this amazing career path takes me.

Written by

Software Developer. Former Strength & Conditioning Coach. https://coltonkaiser.dev/

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