Making the Most of Your Experiences


In Adam VanErsvelde's mind, you can never have too much experience. Adam VanErsvelde strength and conditioning UNI

VanErsvelde is a dual major in physical education teaching and movement and exercise science, both undergraduate degrees offered through the kinesiology department in the UNI College of Education. 

A multi-sport athlete in high school, VanErsvelde is the son of two educators in the Brooklyn (Iowa) and Grinnell school districts. He knew he wanted to follow in their path. After checking out larger and smaller universities and colleges, he chose UNI. 

“I knew I wanted to be an education major, and you can’t beat UNI as the best for education. It’s the place to be,” he said.  

He began as a physical education teaching major. Though he enjoyed competing in athletics, he decided to focus more on the coaching side when he enrolled at UNI. Through early coursework and connections with faculty such as Panayiotis “Pan” Papadopoulos, a kinesiology instructor, and Jed Smith, head strength and conditioning coach, he realized he could do both. By his sophomore year, he added exercise science as a second major.

“Very few professions can impact an individual’s life and well-being as much as education and the exercise world. You can really transform people’s lives and help them become the best version of themselves,” VanErsvelde says. “Ever since, I have been loving them both.” 

He volunteered as a strength and conditioning coach with the volleyball, football and track and field teams and guided faculty and staff as a student personal trainer. As a club athlete, he participated in UNI rugby. As a member--and now president--of the UNI Physical Education Club, he traveled to Washington, D.C., with fellow students and faculty adviser Kimberly Hurley to advocate for physical education in schools, and recently coordinated a fun run for 100 Cedar Valley school children. 

Hands-on experience is built into the curriculum and degree requirements in many majors at UNI. For physical education teaching, that includes increasing levels of experience, from Level 1 observations as a freshman to the student teaching that awaits VanErsvelde in spring 2020. 

Movement and exercise science students often get internships the semester after they graduate. Although VanErsvelde already had compiled 180 hours as a voluntary strength coach, he was ready for more--and thought, why not do it the summer before he graduates? 

Finding an internship 

With the support of coaches and professors, he searched for opportunities, including reaching out to EXOS, a human performance company with locations around the country. His initiative paid off: EXOS offered him an 13-week internship as a performance specialist intern in San Diego. For someone who had never been west of Colorado, this was going to be an adventure. 

Adam VanErsveldeOn May 15, he and his father drove his 2002 Ford F-150 across country to San Diego.

VanErsvelde soon found himself both observing and helping lead personal training sessions with Olympic-level athletes including a two-time Olympic bobsledding gold medalist, NFL players from eight teams, a professional tennis player training for Wimbledon, and a group of tactical military athletes--in addition to high school and college athletes. 

“I got such a wide experience that I got to work with. It really added to the overall benefit of the summer,” he says. “I started to incorporate some different training methods, some beach methods, some sand training, just got to experience a lot of different modalities. It wasn’t all in the gym.”

In addition to training programs, VanErsvelde studied different coaching philosophies and the mindsets of different levels of athletes. At the end of the summer, each intern presented a training program to the staff. VanErsvelde titled his eight-week program “FarmStrong.”

“The athletes all had their vision of what Iowa was like: backwoods country, we ride our tractors to school, have tumbleweeds in the middle of campus.... I took that and ran with it,” he says. “Most of the core movements all stem from the things we do on a farm--throwing a hay bale, the farmer’s carry, doing squats, lifting something up, like a deadlift. So I started thinking...see if you can combine the weight room with the outdoors. I had some of the NFL guys excited enough to want to come out and check out Iowa.”

VanErsvelde fit in plenty of other California experiences as well. He lived most of the summer in a non-air conditioned RV. He learned to surf, played beach volleyball, hiked and visited Hollywood. He even found a part-time job as a crew member on a sailing charter. 

“I wanted to do something I couldn’t in Iowa, so I reached out to a sailboat captain, said I had no prior experience, but was a hard-working guy from Iowa. He says I’ll meet you at the marina at 5 p.m.,” he says. After reading up on the internet, he met the captain and was offered the job. 

Lessons for the future 

As VanErsvelde wraps up his studies prior to student teaching, he sees multiple lessons from his journey.

“The classroom has really prepared me, but even more than that is going out and volunteering and getting actual experience in the gym and in the classroom. UNI does a great job of helping you once you make the effort to do that,” he says. “I don’t think that my friends at some of the bigger schools get that…not just with exercise science and strength and conditioning, but also physical education.” 

A packed schedule has taught him to prioritize, but also to find time to relax, re-energize and maintain relationships. “The four pillars at EXOS were mindset, nutrition, movement and recovery,” he says. “It’s still important to take a chunk of your day and do something you enjoy. Working out is a type of enjoyment for me and spending time with friends and family.” 

UNI has helped him focus on a growth mindset, which proved useful while receiving feedback during his internship. “One of the best pieces of advice: There is no such thing as a perfect program. That’s true for the education and strength and conditioning world. There are always going to be new ways to tweak it,” he says. “Our psychology classes here also taught me that.” 

Focusing the passion 

As much as he enjoyed his trip west, VanErsvelde gained a renewed appreciation for his Iowa roots. He originally planned to split his student teaching between Iowa and Denver, Colo. He’s since decided to stay in the Cedar Valley for his 16 weeks of student teaching.  

“The internship was a great learning opportunity for me. I’m glad I took a leap of faith on it. I learned a lot about myself and career possibilities,” he says. “I realized I really did enjoy working with elite athletes. But I know I still want that balance...I’m looking for jobs that combine as many passions as possible.”   

An emerging passion is tactical strength and conditioning, an area he gained more exposure to during his internship. These programs focus on training military, fire and rescue and other emergency personnel for their specific needs. This fall, VanErsvelde began implementing this type of program for UNI ROTC cadets. 

“One of the things I learned from all these different experiences: There are endless opportunities if you go out there and make them for yourself,” he says. “You can combine that stuff together and really make something that you’re proud of, that’s beneficial.”