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Rising above the competition

ASU College of Health Solutions' new sports performance degree gives students early exposure to field of strength and conditioning

woman holding soccer ball smiling

November 27, 2019

Today is deadlift day. And all across the two-story, open-air training facility in Mesa, Arizona, a sea of young men outfitted in the royal blue of the Chicago Cubs are sweating their way through it.

In the center of the fray is Layne Gainer, former pro BMX rider turned College of Health Solutions student at Arizona State University. He observes with intensity as shortstop Fabian Pertuz bends to lift a weighted barbell from the ground to hip height and back down.

It’s mid-November and the athletes, many of them fresh out of high school, are nearing the end of their five-week strength and conditioning camp. Eighteen-year-old left-handed pitcher Davidjohn “D. J.” Herz was recently drafted from North Carolina to the Cubs' minor league team.

Training has been challenging, Herz said, but “Layne has been awesome and really helpful.”

For more than a month, Gainer has been working with Herz, Pertuz and the rest of the 36 players taking part in the camp to increase their strength and build muscle mass in preparation for a season that can last as long as 140 games. Over that time, a camaraderie has formed that’s immediately apparent.

“Generally, as the strength coach, you spend the most time with the players out of all the other staff,” Gainer said. “There’s a lot more to it than just strength and conditioning. You’re in the dugout with players, you get to be there during the games and you get to be in the clubhouse with them. You see them more than anyone else does.”

It’s a pretty nice perk, and it’s a reality students in the College of Health Solutions’ new sports science and performance programming undergraduate degree track, launched this fall 2019 semester, will be living. A function of the degree program is that students get hands-on experience through internships like Gainer’s to better prep them for a career in the competitive field.

“Gaining experience and knowledge in the field before you graduate is huge because experience is what’s going to put you ahead of everyone else,” said Gainer. For him, that experience has translated into a continuation of his internship with the Cubs, which will become full time in the spring, until he graduates in May.

Director of the College of Health Solutions’ sports science program Joe Marsit sees Gainer’s success as proof of the degree concept he and colleagues have been building over the past few years. The result is a robust program, developed in coordination with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), a widely respected governing body for sports performance.

The NSCA recently announced that beginning in 2030, those seeking certification with them (which is strongly suggested if you’re pursuing sports performance training as a profession) will be required to have graduated from an accredited degree program. Not only will graduates of the new College of Health Solutions program be in accordance with that, they’ll be able to take courses tailored specifically to address content on the NSCA certification exam.

According to Marsit, not many degree-granting institutions on the West Coast can claim that.

“We did some research, and there's not really a dedicated sports science undergraduate degree west of the Mississippi,” Marsit said. “There are some smaller colleges that offer something similar, but nothing major in the bigger universities.”

And there’s no shortage of opportunities for those with a degree in that field.

“Every university and college now has their own dedicated sports performance staff … and the demand for high school sports performance staffs are increasing,” he said. “ … For a long time, there wasn't a mandate that (high schools) had to have an athletic trainer at athletic events until injuries dictated it. The same thing is true in the weight room. Having a trained professional in there is going to improve the safety and results for your athletes.”

There’s also demand in the private industry, and not just from competitive athletes. People whose occupations require a certain level of physical fitness — military, police, firefighters — are hiring performance coaches as well.

A quick Google search returns more than a dozen sports performance centers in the Phoenix metro area alone. One of them (Liberty Performance Training on 24th Street between Thomas and McDowell roads) is owned by ASU alumnus and former student of Marsit’s, Richard Mulder.

Mulder, who graduated from the College of Health Solutions in 2014 with a master’s degree in exercise and wellness, said when he was a student, the program focused more on improving population health as opposed to maximizing strength and athletic performance potential. As a West Point grad, he gravitated more toward the latter, so he and Marsit met a couple of times a week for independent study, and even published a paper on unbalanced load training for athletic performance.

He wishes the new degree track had been available when he was in school but is happy now to sit on the advisory board and make suggestions as an NSCA-certified personal trainer himself.

“This new degree is preparing people for the field a hell of a lot more,” Mulder said. “Without doing an internship, in the old program, people were just drastically underprepared to enter the strength and conditioning field.”

man deadlifting as trainer looks on

ASU College of Health Solutions student Layne Gainer oversees Cubs minor league shortstop Fabian Pertuz as he performs deadlifts. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Forty students are currently enrolled in the program but Marsit has received feedback from more than a hundred interested in applying, so major growth is expected.

Until now, students looking for internships have had success finding them through the College of Health Solutions’ Affinity Networks, and Marsit is in talks with some local school districts about placing students in physical education programs around the Valley. But perhaps the most exciting development with the new sports science and performance programming degree is the official partnership with the Phoenix Rising Football Club that guarantees a set amount of students an internship with the burgeoning soccer organization.

College of Health Solutions sophomore Danelle Tucker was among the first student cohort to intern with Phoenix Rising this fall, spending a few hours each week over the course of about two months working with youth soccer players on agility, strength training and wellness monitoring. She and other students in her cohort also consulted closely with the players’ coaches to create a more well-rounded training plan.

A former ballerina who has dabbled in a number of sports over the years, Tucker is eyeing a future in sports performance training and considers the chance to intern with Phoenix Rising as invaluable preparation for that.

“Most universities have opportunities for you to work with their own sports teams, but no other school I’ve heard of has so many connections outside the university,” she said. “It’s great exposure.”

Director of sports performance for Phoenix Rising Steve Fell said it just made sense to partner with ASU, considering the relationship is mutually beneficial. He comes to Phoenix by way of the Houston Dynamo team, where he served for two seasons as the assistant performance/return to play coach. Prior to that, he had worked in a college setting.

“The biggest hurdle for a lot of college students is that they really don’t have any practical application of what they learned when they come out of school,” he said. “And we just thought, wouldn’t it be great to train ASU students to help out with players so they’re getting the attention they need to be the best they can on the field?

“I’m so pleased and I feel so fortunate that ASU has that growth-mindset vision when it comes to learning because it’s such a big piece that everyone is missing. You can read a lot, but without clinical application, to be able to communicate and problem-solve on the spot — those are skills you can’t replicate in the classroom.”

Both Fell, who recently joined ASU as an adjunct faculty member, and Marsit are committed to keeping the partnership going and plan to offer the internship again in the spring. Eventually, they want to turn it into a course so that students can earn credit. It will be designed so that each new cohort of students is mentored by the previous cohort.

“The separating factor for this degree, and the message we give to our freshmen in their 101 class is there are no jobs for people who have no experience,” Marsit said. “But I think if we start early and we make it part of the culture, that this is just what we do, I think students will have a lot more success.”

Now that the undergraduate degree is officially rolled out, Marsit and colleagues have turned their attention toward creating a master’s degree in sports science and performance programming, and they hope to make it available in the next couple of years.

He, Fell and others will be participating in the NSCA’s Rocky Mountain Regional Conference this Saturday, Dec. 7, at ASU’s Carson Student Athlete Center in Tempe. The clinic is being hosted in partnership with ASU’s sports science and performance program and will feature speakers from inside and outside the university, including Phoenix native Jerry Pritchett, winner of the title of World's Strongest Man 2014, as well as hands-on demonstrations and networking.

Top photo: ASU College of Health Solutions sophomore Danelle Tucker interned with the Phoenix Rising soccer organization this fall. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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