The world of sports coverage and social media today has built a mythology around the college strength coach.
Many strength coaches, generally ones that work for football teams, have worked their way into the spotlight with their bursts of larger-than-life behavior. The oft-mustachioed menaces can be seen on the sidelines at games, yelling and headbutting players, almost certainly donning a form-fitting polo shirt or a cut-off tee despite the snow falling around them. Most college sports require a level of aggression, and few places on campus encapsulate the primal nature of athletic competition more than the weight room.
While these traits may apply to the strength coaches seen on SportsCenter and TikTok, it is hard to imagine a man more different from the above description than Aaron Suma, the head strength and conditioning coach at Marist College.
Suma is a tall, soft-spoken man with a lean, muscular frame that would be more commonly associated with that of a cyclist than of a bodybuilder. He sports no signature facial hair, opting for a clean-shaven appearance with his military style red haircut. His office, which he shares with stacks of lifting belts, resistance bands and other equipment, is nestled in the back corner of the athlete weight room on the first floor of the McCann Center. The walls of his office are decorated with pictures of Marist’s Red Fox logo, charmingly hand-drawn by Suma’s young children. The shelving above his desk is adorned with New York Yankees memorabilia with autographs made out to “Suma,” not “Aaron.”
When he isn’t running a workout for one of Marist’s Division I teams, he can usually be found seated in his office, preparing new workout programs or quietly reading a book. Suma is fully aware that he doesn’t fit the archetype of the modern strength coach, but that doesn’t concern him. He embraces his own personality and has developed a style of coaching that works for him.
“The last thing that I will ever be is phony,” said Suma. “Being the loudmouth drill sergeant works for some people, and that’s just their personality. That’s not mine. To me, that isolates you more and, especially in this day and age, can disconnect you from a lot of the athletes that you’re working with.”
Suma will never be the loudest person in the weight room. His team workouts generally begin with a short debrief, where he takes a few minutes to break down the exercises the athletes are about to perform. After the whistle is blown, he hangs back and observes, providing coaching points or spots as needed without being overbearing. Suma knows nearly every Marist athlete by name and will never turn down a short conversation between working sets, whether it be about sports, classic rock, or just your day. This approach, rather than taking the role of an enforcer, is how Suma hopes to connect with his athletes and assist in their growth.
“If you take the time to learn everyone’s name, it shows right there that you took the smallest step towards showing them respect, and that’s a big connection point,” said Suma. “The more you can talk to an athlete, the more they will buy into what you have to say, and when they see their gains, they buy in even more.”
The coach’s relaxed nature should not be confused with complacency, though. Suma takes his workouts extremely seriously and will not hesitate to call out athletes who slack during sessions or stray from the exercises laid out on their personalized workout sheets. His workouts favor functionality over flair, focusing on movements that mirror the ones an athlete will carry out during games or practices. Athletes are encouraged to perform extra workouts during their free time, but auxiliary work should not conflict with the goals he has for his athletes in the limited time he has with them.
“If someone isn’t following their program as they should be, they are wasting their time when we’re in here to get better,” said Suma. “I have three or four hours a week with most teams, so I have to get the most bang for my buck when they’re in here. That’s why we do the stuff that the athletes probably aren’t going to be doing on their own.”
As unconventional as Suma may appear for a college strength coach, his most unique trait is entirely out of his control: he is the only strength and conditioning coach in the entire college.
Marist is home to 23 Division I programs but has one full-time strength and conditioning coach to build unique programs and oversee workout sessions for each team. As a result, Suma is inherently limited in the amount of effort he can put into crafting each team’s workout programs, and he cannot dedicate time to teams outside of the weight room.
“For almost every team, their conditioning, agility, speed, acceleration, deceleration and really anything else that takes place outside of the weight room has to be done by the sport coaches themselves,” said Suma. “In an ideal world, we would probably have four to five strength coaches that work with four or five teams apiece, meaning that they would be taking over every aspect of athletic development outside actual practices.”
Tim Murray, Marist’s athletic director, acknowledged that there is a need for growth in the strength and conditioning department. He mentioned that last year’s athletic budget included the addition of a second strength coach to work specifically with Marist’s womens’ teams, but the position is yet to be filled.
“I definitely feel that there is a need there,” said Murray. “With that need, I think we have to address our womens’ programs in a way more than we do now. Last year’s budget included a strength coach to work with the women, which would make the department two people. It would 100 percent enhance the experience of our athletes if we had some additional help in strength and conditioning.”
Murray recently restructured the sports performance section of the athletic department, including strength and conditioning, athletic training, and nutrition; these departments now are overseen by Jeff Carter, the assistant athletic director for sports medicine. Marist is also seeking to hire an in-house nutritionist as a part-time position in the near future, according to Murray.
As the emphasis on precision and specialization in college sports continues to grow, additional staff in strength and conditioning could be essential to the development of their student-athletes.
Luke Chronister is a strength and conditioning specialist who trains athletes across many different sports, ranging from the youth to professional level. He has conducted years of research on tissue mobilization, muscle movement, recovery and regeneration. For Chronister, specialization is the key to modern athletes’ strength development.
“I’ve only ever gotten paid to work with one or two teams at a time,” said Chronister. “Football is a big one, and teams like that should always have their own strength staff. There are too many kids on the team, from freshmen to seniors, and they should all have their own strength programs. But positions like that don’t exist in every college, and they’re still expecting all of their athletes to be high performers.”
While more specialized strength and conditioning positions don’t exist at Marist, they do for many of their competitor schools. Of the 11 schools that compete in the MAAC, Marist and Rider University are the only two that only employ one strength coach. Marist is also the only school in the conference that has a football team, which makes up nearly one-sixth of the total number of student-athletes on campus. In the Pioneer League, the conference in which Marist’s football team competes, member schools average over four strength coaches on their staff.
Butler University, whose football team competes in the Pioneer League, has a total of six strength coaches despite having five fewer Division I programs than Marist. Their football team’s strength coach works only with football and men’s soccer. Consequently, the teams are able to have more workout blocks with more time devoted to them by their strength staff.
“Our strength coach loves football,” said Sam Urbanski, a redshirt junior defensive lineman at Butler. “He wants to do everything for football. He’s always around the weight room with us, and there’s always lots of opportunities to train with him.”
The advantages are clear, yet Marist has shown no signs of growing their strength and conditioning staff despite creating four new job positions in the athletic program in the last year.
In the meantime, Suma continues to plug away, quietly hoping that his department is next in line for expansion. As thin as Suma is spread across Marist’s teams, there is no question of his work ethic and dedication to the program. He commonly works 10 to 12 hour days, arriving on campus at 6 a.m. and generally working with a different athletic team during each hour block of his schedule with little to no breaks.
At the time of our interview, 3 p.m. on a Friday, he mentioned how he would typically be preparing to go home but was forced to work extra hours in order to prepare upcoming workout programs for lacrosse and softball. Compartmentalization has been the key for Suma over his nine years as the head of strength and conditioning, as it allows him to complete his work as effectively as possible while maintaining some semblance of his sanity.
“When I’m here, I’m not thinking about my family, my wife or my kids,” said Suma. “I’m dialed into Marist and the athletes here, and when I go home, it’s the opposite. I don’t think about Marist unless I’m watching a sporting event on TV. Tomorrow, I’ll be watching the football game, but I’m playing with my two-year-old daughter at the same time.”
Edited by Ben Leeds and Sam Murphy
Graphic Credit: Cara Lacey; Photo Credit: Marist Athletics