Updated: May 14, 2020
These types of posts are all but hard to find around this time of year. Especially earlier on in my career, I always found them interesting and valuable due to the eclectic, non-specific content. Given that my wife and I launched our personal-professional website just a few weeks ago, it seems fitting that I throw my two cents in on this “what I learned this year” wave.
I am a firm believer that there is always something to be learned, and almost anyone can offer something that may be of interest or service to you. Learning is a fundamental skill, there is very little serendipity to the learning process. It is deliberate, concerted, and inextricably linked to performance. Nevertheless, I certainly hope that by firing off 18 random things I picked up on this year, at least one or two should be pertinent for you.
1.) Aerobic base is extremely important. No matter the level, sport, or athlete.
Coaches will inherently have bias when it comes to what they have their athletes do. Make no mistake about it, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this. Lifelong runners will inevitably have their athletes run, just as former power lifters will likely put every single person they see under a squat bar. I was guilty of this for a very long time- I hate running, so I never gave much credence to aerobic-based training. Sure, I would have my guys prepping for basic training do their running, and sure, I would have my overweight clients do predominantly aerobic activities. But that was about the extent of it.
It wasn’t until I read Mike Boyle’s conditioning manual that came out earlier this year that I became aware of the grave mistake I had been making by neglecting aerobic work with my athletes. DO NOT ASSUME PEOPLE ARE “IN SHAPE”! Due to the nature of this article, I’ll keep this to bullet points, but here are some commonly underappreciated or unrecognized benefits to building an aerobic base:
-Improved immune function (athletes don’t get as sick as often)
-Improved venous return (reduces likelihood of edema, muscle cramping, cardiac dysfunction)
-Improved cardiovascular function (generally healthier and leads to improved lifestyle choices)
-Improved cognition (athletes are able to think better and quicker, especially under fatigue)
-Ultimately, improved training function (athletes are able to recover quicker, which means they can do more, which means they can see progress quicker, which means you can do more with them during your time together)
**Mike Boyle’s rule of thumb: Resting heart rate > 60 BPM = you need more aerobic work, RHR <60 BPM = you still need aerobic work, but not as much
2.) Always try to stand where you can see your athlete’s face
The facility I work at, Virginia High Performance, works with a high degree of military population. For the most part, there isn’t any tangible difference between a “tactical” athlete and a conventional athlete. One of the most significant differences, however, is that the military population has been fundamentally conditioned to be a master of concealing injury and expressing difficulty. This makes coaching the athlete a bit more challenging because they are rarely going to give you transparent feedback.
Coach: “How’d that last set feel?”
Coach: “How about on the back”
Coach (internally): “you mother fuc….”
Something I've picked up on with this class of athletes is to pay extremely close attention to their facial expressions as they perform the exercise at-hand. Even the ones who have mastered the art of internalizing will be somewhat vulnerable during specifically challenging exercises. This way, you no longer have to rely on their ambiguous input to gauge the difficulty.
3.) Yes, you need to look the part.
Would you go to a dentist who doesn’t floss their teeth? Yea, me neither.
Look this one is simple, and for some odd reason has been a topic of debate for as long as I’ve been in this industry. We get it, you don’t need to be a world-class powerlifter to ascertain that you can coach a bench press. But what I feel a lot of coaches fail to recognize is that your body is literally your marketing. Humans, by biological necessity, are visual species. Thus, whether or not we’re conscious of it, when we are first introduced to others, we conduct a visual analysis of said person which eventually shapes our initial impression of them. So as a strength coach, who by definition are engineers of human performance, there will be a loftier expectation as to what you should look like and what you can do in the weight room. My advice, look the part, be the part, and your word will have significantly greater value to those you work with.
4.) Be the thermostat, not the thermometer
Probably one of my single most utilized and favorite catchy sayings of all-time. As a coach, you are the one who is in charge. I don’t give a shit whether it’s a 13-U girls soccer team, or an NFL defensive lineman. For the hour that they are with you, you run the show. Period. This works in both a positive and negative direction, and kind of ties in to the first point listed. If you’re having a shitty day, which nobody is immune to, you absolutely cannot show it while you’re on the floor. Your poor energy, or lack of energy, will be immediately detected and in a lot of cases adversely influence the training session. You want to be the driving force behind your athlete’s success, and at the core of success is a passion to achieve it. So when it comes to setting the tone, anything to follow will be led by your energy and effort to succeed.
I work with some incredible coaches. That’s not some plug for my company, nor is it for me to get some morale boost in the gym. I genuinely mean when I say INCREDIBLE. I think the best asset of our collective staff is how remarkably different our approaches are, yet the outcomes are pretty consistent across the board. The point I want to make with that, though, is that between the four of us, we have come up with some pretty creative shit.
We work with a multitude of populations, among those, is an adaptive athlete population. If you’ve never worked with adaptive athletes, it’s hard to comprehend how different you need to be thinking during your approach. My (little) work with adaptive athletes taught me this above anything else- don’t be afraid to try the same things in different ways; this applies to the conventional athlete population equally, of course.
Our theme of 2018, guided by Vern was "Explore the Corners", and I feel this really caught on for me towards the end of the calendar year. Any generic exercise you can list off can be modified a thousand different ways. A few of those modifications will be useless shit and have no place for application, and that's perfectly fine. That said, you will also drum up some really creative and pragmatic variations that will be staples in your programming from that point forward. As long as the unwavering principles of doing no harm to your athlete aren’t violated, take the extra step to spice things up once in a while. You’ll often be surprised by the outcome and moreover by how it directs your approach moving forward.
6.) Coaching is a two-way street. Ditch the monologues.
I always try to relate things that aren’t exactly universally understood and put them in a context anyone can relate to. I often find myself using school as a metaphor when I’m trying to get my point across, and I’ll do so here.
Think back on a subject in college or high school that no matter what you did, simply did not make sense to you. For me, of the many, it was inherently math. Imagine you are in a tutoring session, and you are working with the tutor to complete an important assignment with an upcoming deadline. How would you feel as the student if the tutor spent 45 minutes of the hour you had together talking ad nauseum about how they feel about trig functions? Yea.. me too.
As a coach, the base of your fundamental duty is to instruct, inform and empower the athletes you work with. As such, there is simply no place for long, drawn out monologues or dissertations on bench press technique. Provide the athlete with the cues they need, observe the set, and then have a conversation thereafter that is centered on THEIR input or feedback. Once they recognize that you’re receptive to input, slowly start to give them more decision-making leverage during your sessions. This will give them a sense of ownership and drastically improve their volitional effort and understanding.
7.) Be flexible… figuratively. Be flexible… literally
Very rarely will I have a day that goes according to plan. There are a lot of moving parts throughout any given day for me. No matter your facility, the same can probably be said for you as well. Because we work with people, we not only have to consider the moving parts in our own lives, but the ones we work with as well. Kids will get sick, traffic will be bad, work will be hectic and force sessions to be cancelled. Always be in a position of assuming something will get screwed up. This way, when it does, you’re not thrown off course. “You don’t have to get ready if you stay ready.”
The best ability is availability, right? Although this saying is a bit corny in my opinion, I wouldn’t argue the truth in this. As a strength coach, you are going to work long hours. In part because it’s no secret that nobody is in this industry for the money, but also in part because the vast majority of us genuinely love what we do. That said, 10+ hours 5-6 days/wk for months on end can become taxing. Your feet will hurt, hips will get tight, and your back will ache.
For the first few years of my career I honestly felt like I was immune to this. But it didn’t take long for me to realize I wasn’t. Stay on top of your flexibility/mobility/soft tissue work and change your primary shoes out every 6 months. Also, coach barefoot when you can throughout the week. These self-care and maintenance routines will absolutely save you down the road. You’ll feel, and more importantly be better throughout your sessions, and it will be reflective in your attitude towards work.
8.) Speak the language
I don’t know shit about cars, I’ve never been hunting and never intend to, I find it viscerally taxing to stomach 80’s rock music, and I can probably count on one hand how many TV/Netflix shows I watched this past year.
As I’ve mentioned, my population is predominantly military personnel, and I’ve never served in the military myself. For those who are familiar, you’ll understand when I say that they literally have an acronym for EVERYTHING, and a lot of the time it truly sounds like they’re speaking their own language. It can be extremely difficult to follow sometimes.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that none of the aforementioned things in the first sentence are even remotely interesting to me, I have done my best to learn a little bit about each with the intent of being able to at least sustain a conversation about them. Remember that this is THEIR time on YOUR watch, so just as we program exercises for the sake of specificity, I feel we also need to invest at least some time in to learning the things our athletes are interested in. This will significantly build your reputation as a coach and is a simple way to demonstrate value. Learn what the acronyms and vernacular mean so you don’t look like fourth grader listening to a trigonometry lecture when they speak to you.
9.) Let Athlete's be Athlete's
Despite the simplicity of this one, this is probably my biggest takeaway from 2018. Early in my career, I had a difficult time with brevity, which continued to plague me all the way through finishing my Master’s. I can’t even count how many times I’ve received a paper or assignment back only to read “write more concisely”. Nevertheless, I have seriously had to work on this, especially when it came to coaching.
A lot of traits, or components to the coaching world I view as spectrums. In other words, it’s not a matter of whether I should or shouldn’t do something, but how much or how I often I should do something. This applies to providing cues and feedback, as much as it does exercise modification and static stretching. My point, as it applies here, is that the singular fundamental aptitude of a coach is to be a springboard. Whoever the athlete is, whatever sport they play, they come to you with a skillset and a certain level of capability. Your job, thus, is to take the athlete from where they are and help guide them to where they want to be.
Conversely, the absolute worst thing you can do as a coach is be a barrier to athletic or personal growth and development. And if the athlete leaves you with the same capability they came to you with, well then you have effectively been a barrier to them. “Be an athlete” is far from a lazy coaching instruction. Rather, this is a way to subtly suggest to them “I trust you, I’m confident in you, now go do what you do.” It’s very easy to get lost in overwhelming athletes with cueing and input, but frankly, sometimes the best thing you can do as a coach is simply shut the hell up, and let the athlete do what they do best- be an athlete.