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Coach Kaz Kazadi's Personal Approach to His Athletes

About the Author: Mike Austin is a contributing 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. Coach Kazadi photo courtesy of Southern Methodist University.


Kaz Kazadi wants “no surprises” in his strength and conditioning program. The assistant athletic director for human performance at Southern Methodist University, who also serves as the head strength and conditioning coach for the Mustangs football team, Kazadi makes sure his athletes go through a constant, thorough medical background check and assessment while competing in his program.

“I want to do no harm. That’s someone’s son or daughter,” Kazadi says when describing what’s most important to him as a coach. “So, I have a ‘no surprise rule’ with my athletes.”

Assessing an Athlete's Health

For Kazadi, this means he’s constantly asking players questions about their health … but it’s not just the quantity of questions, it’s the quality and the order in which they are asked that is so important.

“Athletes do not want you to use their injury history against them, so they aren’t as willing to tell you what you want to know,” Kazadi explains. “You have to ask the right questions.”

Kazadi’s questions begin from the ground and work their way up.

“I’ll ask first about the toe, the foot, the ankle … and I’ll ask about the athlete all the way up the structure,” he says. “Eventually, I’ll ask if the athlete has ever had a concussion, been in a car accident, has had a blood test or been in a hospital.”

Players eventually are willing to talk to you when there is a mutual respect there, and they know you are looking out for their best interests.

Building Relationships

Kazadi also works with athletes’ best interests well beyond the weight room or football field. He says the most fundamental way to inspire players to reach their fullest potential is to build relationships with them from the get-go. It was his focus upon arriving on the SMU campus after coming from Arkansas State (he’s also worked on the staffs at South Florida and Baylor, as well as the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs) in January 2018.

Kazadi has an open-door policy and wants to know what is happening with athletes from a personal perspective, as that can have an impact their athletic performance. If a player doesn’t enter that day’s workout with the proper mindset, he or she isn’t going to improve, and, worse yet, could be at risk for injury without the proper focus.

“A lot of people think athletes live in a bubble. It’s not true. You need to know what’s bothering them,” Kazadi says.

He points to deadly tornado activity (at the time of this interview) that ripped through areas from which several athletes grew up. As a coach, those outside, life-affecting situations should not be ignored. Sure, you are building up a physical athlete, but as a coach you have the best interests of the person at heart.

Motivating Athletes

It’s also why he doesn’t use fear as a consistent motivator in the weight room. Kazadi says fear may work when a player first arrives on campus, but eventually, they’re going to need to find internal motivation. “What’s your why?” he asks.

“It’s like when you go into those great boxing gyms. There’s a tension. When you walk in, you question if you really belong,” Kazadi explains. “That’s what I want. I want players to have the drive to compete and to want to prove that they belong. It’s not a specific drill or workout we do, it’s the environment we create around the athlete. It’s a competitive place.”

He groups “good players with good, and great players with great,” whether it be at the racks or in conditioning exercises. This isn’t just based on talent level but about work ethic and drive. Players figure out the groups, and, for example, when the starting running back is paired with a hard-working walk-on, “the starter thinks, ‘you're not going to outwork me on this rack,’” Kazadi reports.

Every player wants to prove their worth, compete and be placed in those “great” groups. It’s how they find their “why” and it’s just another piece of how Kazadi shows he cares for the complete athlete.