Coaching – The Science and the Art: Part 2

Here is the second installment of Strength Coach Chris Sanchez’s epic post on the Art and Science of Coaching. In case you missed the first installment you can find it here, Coaching – The Science and the Art: Part 1.

Now the perfect program on paper isn’t worth a whole lot if the exercises being performed aren’t done with perfect form. Great strength coaches know what all exercises should look like when being performed and know various coaching cues to fix them. This is especially true for more complex lifts such as the Olympic lifts and all of their variations. These lifts can be pretty technical and when you start to lift heavy weights with awful form, the risk of injury rises tenfold. And since reducing injuries during training is the number one goal of a strength coach, form needs to be addressed first and foremost. Do not allow your athletes to ‘ego train’. The strength coach knows best and should not hesitate for even a second to tell someone to drop to a lighter weight until perfect form is demonstrated.

As far as science goes, these are the big issues that need to be thoroughly understood by your coach to help maximize an athlete’s potential and results. Other smaller factors such as age appropriate training, things to watch for when training male vs. female clients, and how to adjust programming and training based on specific sports all fall within the realm of the ‘science’ of being a great strength coach. It won’t matter if your coach is the most upbeat, enthusiastic, friendly person on the planet if they can’t deliver a program or training session that will help you improve as an athlete.

The ‘science’ of coaching is undoubtedly very important. It is the creamy (or chunky if that’s your thing) peanut buttery goodness of this coaching sandwich…but what about the jelly? How do you incorporate ‘art’ into coaching? What does that even mean?

Have you ever seen a public speaker who was monotone, made little to no eye contact, used bland visual aids, and bored you to tears because of it? Even if this speaker was an expert on his or her topic, would you voluntarily want to sit through another speech like that? Let’s say you’re dedicated and you sit through another one. Shocker, the second speech is just as mind numbingly boring as the first. Would you sit through a third? You might start to second guess your dedication at the risk of falling asleep during the next speech. Now pretend those speeches were your strength coach spouting his or her scientific reasoning behind why you need to engage your latissimus dorsi on your next deadlift. There was no demonstration, nothing described in layman’s terms, no fluctuation in your coach’s tone, no smiles, no eye contact, no NOTHING. Unless you’re training in a group setting with close friends or teammates, no one in their right mind would want to spend hours on hours with this person, especially in a one on one environment. On the other hand, a coach who is lively, expresses emotions, makes eye contact, and breaks things down into understandable terms may have a better chance to teach their athletes more effectively and build relationships because of it.

There are numerous amounts of coaching styles used by numerous amounts of coaches. Some of these styles are effective in which athletes will respond to. Some methods are ineffective and will drive athletes away. However, let’s be clear on one thing. There is not one absolute right way to coach someone. One way may work for Coach Joe, but may not work for Coach John. It all depends on the coach’s personality and to some degree the athletes that he or she may be working with. It may take some time to find your coaching groove, but it is well worth it to experiment and find what works and what doesn’t.

As previously stated, coaching style will more than likely depend on the personality of the coach. Outgoing personalities will probably differ from introverted personalities, and introverted personalities will probably differ from intense personalities. All of these will have pros and cons, but one isn’t necessarily a better option than the next. Having said this, there are a few traits and characteristics that always seem to carry over to perfecting the art of coaching.

The first characteristic and possibly the most important is the ability to build relationships. The best coaches don’t just leave their mark on athletic performance or training, but tend to have an impact on someone’s life in general.  This happens when you treat an athlete as more than just a client. Get to know your athletes. Use your athletes names ALL THE TIME. Don’t just call them bro, dude, buddy, kid, or any other generic friendly nickname. Using names establishes a personal connection, even if you don’t realize it. Try to learn some non-training related things about them.  One of the best sayings to live by when coaching is, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” This is extremely true whether you want to believe it or not. When an athlete knows you genuinely care about them and their well-being, their openness to your ideas and methods will reflect that. They’ll trust you more and every interaction you have from that point on will be that much more enjoyable and smooth.

Now of course, building relationships is easier said than done. However, there are some things that can be done to ensure that it happens. Always greet your athletes and clients with a smile and an enthusiastic hello. Show your athletes that you are just as excited to coach them as they are to work with you. Take a second and think about this for yourself. When you go to a restaurant, are you more likely to leave a bigger tip to the waiter who smiled and was attentive, or to the waiter who seemed like an antisocial hardass? There’s not much of a difference when working with a coach, minus leaving a tip. No one is going to want to spend an hour or so with someone they don’t enjoy being around, plain and simple.

Another thing to always do with every client is to be attentive, as obvious as that may sound.  If an athlete is there to be trained by you, you better train your client. This means watching them like an infant playing with forks around an electrical outlet. Watch and correct them when necessary! Nothing really says “you’re not that important to me” than texting or checking your phone while training someone. It’s unprofessional and rude. Leave your phone in the office or your pocket and if you must, check it during a water break. Your client might not take notice if you’re being super attentive because its somewhat expected, but I guarantee that they will notice if you seem uninterested and inattentive. It makes them feel unwanted and unimportant and that is a pretty good way to ensure that they don’t keep coming back to train with you.

Once all of this is said and done, a coach still needs to be able to coach! It won’t matter much that you smile and build relationships with people if your coaching abilities are subpar. Let’s walk through a typical scenario that occurs in the weight room and talk about some of the things can happen to improve the ‘art’ of coaching. If an athlete is performing a single leg RDL, what are some of the things you can do to improve an athlete’s performance? One area to address is the coaching angle, or the angle you watch an athlete when they are performing an exercise. Different angles can show certain aspects of the exercise a little better than others. For example, it may not be best to stand right in front of the athlete if you’re trying to make sure their knee stays slightly bent throughout the exercise. Try viewing exercises from multiple angles to ensure form stays on point the entire time the exercise is being performed. A good starting point for any exercise is to view the athlete at a 45 degree angle. It offers a view from the side and the front and will typically give you a decent bang for your buck as far as views are concerned.

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Stay tuned for next week as Chris brings home the series with a final discussion on coaching cues and what will work best for your athlete.

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