Coaching – The Science and the Art: Part 1

Contributed by Strength Coach Chris Sanchez.

Right now imagine you’re in third grade. It’s a school day and just sat down to eat your lunch with your friends. You pull out your awesome Ninja Turtles lunch box and get ready to find out what Mom packed you. Lo and behold she made you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! What red blooded American child doesn’t love a good PB&J sandwich? So you rip it out of its bag and chomp down, but wait a minute! Something isn’t right. This sandwich is 90% peanut butter! There is a severe jelly shortage going on here and you just don’t know what to do with yourself. The first bite literally took 4 minutes to swallow because it was so thick. So, with a slightly disappointed look on your face, you push your sandwich aside and chow down on your pecan pinwheel…

The next day arrives and you’ve got yourself a brand new lunch. This time Dad was the master chef behind this lunch and you are totally stoked to eat because today you started to learn your times tables and you built up quite the appetite. You open your lunch box and find another peanut butter and jelly sandwich! You unzip that baggie, grab that sandwich and take a huge bite. Or you would have if it didn’t fall apart in your hands. This time around, there is so much jelly on that sandwich that the bread is no longer able to hold its form, and instead of eating your sandwich, you look like a failed finger-paint artist. You let out a huge sigh and move on to your fruit rollup.

By now you may be asking what in the world does this have to do with anything coaching related. Well, when coaching an athlete or client there must be the right mix of science and art to effectively get a message across, make your clients unleash their full potential, and get results. Just like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, when you have too much of one ingredient, the desired outcome might not always be reached. Coaching is no different. The best coaches (strength coaches for the sake of this article) are the ones who know their stuff (science!) and use various methods to effectively teach and coach to obtain results (art!).

Let’s first touch on the science aspect of coaching. Any upbeat person with a great personality and smile can motivate you and put you through a training session/workout. But is that same person training you optimally for your specific sport and/or goal? A great strength coach has a solid foundation of anatomical knowledge and uses this to help write programs and select appropriate exercises for an individual. Knowing the difference between prime movers, stabilizers, agonists, and antagonists can make or break a program.  Haphazardly throwing together exercises because they look awesome or sexy is an irresponsible way to train someone, especially if there is a hefty price tag to go along with your services. An example of sound anatomical knowledge would be having your strength coach know that despite what most textbooks say, hamstrings are primarily hip extensors and not knee flexors. Having known this, your coach would be able to select an exercise like an RDL which strengthens the hamstrings in a hip extension pattern rather than something like hamstring curls on a machine (side note: if your coach has you doing hamstring curls on a machine, it’s time to find a new strength coach). So ask your strength coach if they know what muscles are responsible for scapular depression and retraction. If they stutter and stall, it may be time to start looking for another coach.

Having a solid base of anatomical knowledge is a must, but it’s not the only prerequisite for a great coach as far as ‘science’ is concerned. A great strength coach must have his priorities in order. If you ask anyone what is the primary job of a strength coach, 99 out of 100 times the response you’ll get is ‘get someone stronger and faster’. This is very true, but it’s not the main concern of a strength coach. Injury reduction (during training and during competition) should be the first priority of any strength coach when it comes to training. You’re not going to dominate any athletic activity if you’re hurt 24/7. So just because your coach can murder you for an hour and make it hard for you to walk to your car doesn’t always mean that’s a good thing. Anybody, and I mean ANYBODY, can come up with an intense training session for an hour. The key is combining hard training with intelligent injury reduction techniques, which will more than likely go hand in hand if your coach knows what he or she’s doing. Does your coach put you through any sort of movement assessment before training you? This can be a vital step in the training process as it can identify an athlete’s mobility (or lack of), flexibility, strength, and fix faulty movement patterns. It may be obvious as you read this, but if an athlete can’t perform a proper bodyweight squat in an assessment, there is no way in hell they should perform a loaded squat in the weight room until that squat pattern is fixed. In addition to proper movement patterns, ACL tears in female athletes, knee pain in basketball players, shoulder injuries in baseball players, and any of the other more common injuries in sports need to be addressed in a preventative manner when training a client. Let’s use ACL tear reduction as a quick example. In order to reduce the incidence of ACL tears, there are a couple of factors that should be addressed while training. These include, but are not limited to, proper landing mechanics, core strength, hamstring strength, single leg stability, and abductor strength to name a few. A knowledgeable strength coach will address these issues during training sessions, thus reducing the risk of injury on the playing field. Remember, the best athlete is the one who is on the field, not on a physical therapists table.

Staying healthy is an incredibly important part of training. But as you may suspect, if you’re not getting stronger, faster, more explosive, more mobile, or whatever your needs may be, your strength coach did not deliver results. Your coach must be able to use his/her anatomical knowledge and injury reduction techniques and now apply them in a sound training program. The variables that need to be manipulated are the same for every single client but vary on how to do so effectively. Sets, reps, rest periods, load, volume, intensity, tempo, exercise selection, and exercise order are all variables that need to be addressed. A great strength coach knows how to adjust these so that you reach your training goals. For example, a program designed for absolute strength can include heavy loads (>90% of a 1 rep max), low reps, and more rest in between sets. The total volume for one of the main lifts, such as a back squat, can be as low as 5 reps in a single training session. This would vary from a program designed for hypertrophy which would include moderate loads, more reps, and less rest in between sets to maximize muscle growth.  Also, determining if certain exercises are suitable for certain people will play a large role in determining how to write up a program. Athletes who spend a lot of time playing overhead like baseball players or swimmers might want to avoid some or all overhead pressing to avoid any overuse injuries. Older athletes or clients may want to avoid Olympic lifting and use more suitable exercises to increase power…

Chris will offer more on The Science and Art of Coaching next week when he addresses, writing appropriate training programs and as he begins to explore what goes into the art of coaching.

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