Athletic coaching is not a particularly lucrative profession — most of the time, people teach out of passion towards the activity or sport in question. That kind of dedication, coupled with the knowledge provided by an accredited institution, is essential for the success of both the coach and their athlete. However, there are some lessons that just can’t be learned in a classroom.
A coach who derives their entire skillset by listening to the biggest, loudest guy in the gym will struggle to grasp the systems and science behind something like program design. Conversely, the trainer who refers to their certification manual every time they’re confronted with a problem that requires creative thinking will find themselves hamstrung by a lack of practical experience to fall back on.
Recognizing ones’ limitations is the first and possibly most critical step towards excelling at any passion or profession, and coaching is no different. Most modern institutions provide more than satisfactory education about the scientific fundamentals of athletic training, but fail to deliver on some key concepts that can only be gleaned from experience.
More Isn’t Always More
Many of the well-known certifications do a fine job imparting technical knowledge. However, they tend to fall short when it comes to the application of that knowledge, sometimes to the detriment of the athlete. It’s a common pitfall for neophyte coaches to identify errors and leap to make as many corrections as possible. While this may seem like good practice, as coaching is obviously corrective, it can result in the athlete feeling overwhelmed or overloaded by information.
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A good coach recognizes not only the breadth of errors they see, but the hierarchy of those errors with respect to correction. For example, a new client may be learning to squat with a barbell for the first time. Their heels flutter off the ground, their knees buckle inwards on the descent, their elbows flare out behind them, and they tilt their head back to look up at the ceiling.
Most certification courses would rightly classify all of these as errors. However, while a novice coach might jump at the chance to step in and make four changes at once, a veteran would choose one aspect of technique to focus on and leave the rest for the time being. In this instance, the client having an issue with their balance and stability is the most relevant problem, so it should be addressed first. The rest of the errors can be tackled later, or may even begin to dissipate on their own.
While client safety should be of paramount concern, many popular certifications can inadvertently place an impetus on coaches to be hyper-vigilant and react to every small imperfection in their client’s technique. Almost everyone will make a laundry list of errors when learning to perform a new exercise. Great coaches are separated from their peers by their ability to recognize what needs fixing, and what needs fixing now.
Systems, Spreadsheets, and the Human Brain
One of the biggest strengths of many common coaching programs is also a huge weakness. The curriculum is often deeply quantitative, data-driven, and centered around structured, consistent metrics. The problem with this is that human beings don’t adhere well to rigid systems.
Any veteran coach will admit that they’ve never had a training program go entirely according to plan. If they say otherwise, they’re lying. Coaching is as much about understanding human psychology as it is about managing systems. Even professional athletes, whose lives and livelihood revolve around training, suffer from demotivation, spontaneous injuries, and all the other random afflictions that can easily throw a tightly calibrated, well-thought-out program into chaos.
As such, learning how to adapt programming to fit the needs of the client in a changing environment is a necessary skill that coaches really only pick up on the job. Recognizing that a plan may not work as originally intended and making changes accordingly is critical to the success of the athlete. A great coach will realize that they cannot be dogmatically loyal to what they’ve been taught. They have to be lean, flexible, and creative — progress is a moving target.
The Right Athlete for the Wrong Coach
While hiring a coach or trainer is considered a business transaction, it is also a personal relationship. The client is paying for a mentor as much as they are a service. The hard truth about this, especially for young coaches, is that they won’t always be right for the athlete they’re working with — a harsh fact that many popular credentials do not address.
The coach-athlete relationship is a crossroads of character, involving the mesh (or clash) of personalities, preferences, triggers, etc. Since most trainers get started in their field because they genuinely want to help people, an incompatible relationship can be particularly difficult to accept. If it is not realized and accepted, it can become detrimental to both parties.
For example, many coaches recognize, whether from it being mentioned in their education or observed during their tenure at work, that all clients respond differently to feedback and cuing. Some need a delicate, comforting touch, while others prefer instruction that is as direct as possible. Adapting to this and fitting the client’s personal learning style is a skill that must be honed through practice.
However, it may not always work out. No coach works well with every client they come across, and it’s easy for pride to get in the way of recognizing a problem. A good coach has to learn to put their ego aside when they aren’t the right fit for the client. This can be especially difficult for newer coaches — a “failure” feels particularly bad with a small sample size.
That said, a coach having the humility to accept that some athletes may need a style of teaching that they can’t provide should be seen as a strength. No one wants to admit when they weren’t right for a job, but it will happen. Accepting it — and providing the client with an alternative recommendation if possible — is the best practice for a long and healthy career.
More Than an Athlete
In a similar vein to the coach-athlete relationship, it cannot be overstated just how important it is for the coach or instructor to see the people they’re working with as more than data on a page or the source of a paycheck.
This is distinct from recognizing the importance of improving the client’s one-rep max, reducing their body fat, or helping them run faster. These things should already be at the forefront of every coach’s mind. Going one step further and becoming an active participant in and supporter of the personal lives of clients can separate an unremarkable instructor from an exceptional one.
When asked about the most valuable aspect of coaching that didn’t come from formal education, Spencer Arnold, head coach at Power & Grace Performance and shepherd of three of the eight weightlifters who will perform in Tokyo this summer on behalf of Team USA, had this to say:
“For me, the most valuable thing is to make space in my life for the athlete. Caring about their college choices, their relationships, their job. Making those things truly important. The one thing that’s been most valuable is learning how to care about your athletes more than yourself.”
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Caring about how the athlete feels on a given day relative to their performance is one thing, and most trainers are taught to recognize when they aren’t ready to lift heavy or run fast. That said, developing the emotional intelligence required to really care about the wellbeing and happiness of clients will tremendously improve the relationship as a whole. The athlete is more likely to invest in a coach who invests in them, and the results will speak for themselves.
Beyond the Classroom
Coaching is a marriage of art and science. Improving the qualities and performance of human beings requires deftness, ingenuity, humility, and patience. While the quality of the curriculum varies, most degrees and certifications are pretty good about teaching what works in theory.
But the rest only comes in practice. Knowing when less is more, recognizing the need to adapt a plan or program, accepting that not every coach is right for every athlete, and fostering true enthusiasm for the wellbeing of those athletes are lessons that don’t come out of a PDF or PowerPoint presentation.
Great coaches cut their teeth in the gym, lean forward rather than shrink away when things don’t go according to plan, and know the limitations of what they learned in school. Knowledge gained through trial and error can be a painful process, but the result — better athletes and a longer, more fulfilling career — make it all worth it.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.