Cognitive Flexibility- A Coach's Ultimate X-Factor

“Don’t wait to steady the horses.”


Back in 2015, at my first ever Perform Better conference, I’m sitting feverishly in a packed room listening to one of the most transcendent strength coaches to ever do it, Mike Boyle. I don’t recall the specific topic of this presentation, but I do recall the invaluable impression Coach Boyle had on me that day. He was discussing an allegory about how the military used to “wait for the horses to steady” after firing a cannon, and how even generations later- when the military was no longer using horses in battle- soldiers were still waiting 30-60 seconds after firing a missile off because “that’s what the book says to do.” The takeaway being, simply, doing something because “that’s how it’s always been done” is a foolish way to conduct business, not to mention a surefire way to stagnate your growth. Coach Boyle has been a personal role model of mine from the start of my career. And it was through his brash transparency with early messages such as this that really gave me an upper hand in developing my professional ability. From an early age I've had a willingness to challenge the status quo and be confident in doing what I felt was best practice.


Few professional endeavors are as dynamic as coaching, as there are constant fluctuations in variables, environments and expectations. Moreover, for strength coaches in particular, few fields are experiencing as rapid a development as we are. It seems like each year the roles and responsibilities continue to expand, of course with no corresponding pay increase (eye roll emoji). But with this, I believe it’s imperative for us to recognize the aggregative nature of our work, and more importantly, identifying what we can do to keep ourselves current with best training practices and ultimately prevent ourselves from being stripped from the pack.


How I Define my Work

I suppose it’s been well established I take my profession seriously. But I really do love my work, and it is very much an aspiration of mine to continue shaping this industry for the better while helping anyone along the way I may be able to; no differently than the Mike Boyle’s of the world have done for me. The conventional fundamentals of strength and conditioning are well established- know your sciences/anatomy, understand exercise selection and programming basics, and have some semblance of being a good person/leader/instructor. But going beyond the X’s and O’s, I define my work from three main traits:


1.) Complex problem solver

-My job is to determine where an individual is limited, has performance deficits relative to their sport, and address physical weaknesses.

-Apply individualized strategies within standard frameworks, providing strategies and solutions to movement limitations/performance deficits.

-Plans never go as planned. Being able to audible and deviate from your script is key.


2.) Stress and demands strategist

-Having the ability to work around or through constraints (physical, psychological, competing endeavors, etc.).

-Developing the appropriate amount of intensity and volume for the individual as to create an adaptation without overtaxing their capacity for stimulus.

-Being able to assess where an individual is at from a readiness standpoint, accounting for life and sport factors.


3.) Movement literacy educator

-Capable of making individuals more presently aware of movement abilities, capacities, and vulnerabilities.

-Teaching an individual how to improve or optimize movement patterns and efficiency.

-Guiding the athlete to becoming more acutely aware of their own movement (known as interoception) and how to problem solve when it’s not going how it should.


Taking these descriptions and simplifying them down, I see S&C as being a good problem solver, a strategist, and an educator. And if you can get down with those, you should be able to see where cognitive flexibility becomes an essential trait for success in our profession.


Three Pillars of Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is defined loosely as the ability to adapt our behavior and thinking in response to our environment. This is a term commonly used in the psychology/cognitive therapy realm, but I feel has a tremendous amount of application to a coach’s world. For strength and conditioning coaches, I believe cognitive flexibility can be correlated to three primary things- programming/exercise selection, our language and interaction with athletes, and general decision making/problem solving, as described below.

The programming aspect is the most straightforward. Having cognitive flexibility here essentially means you’re able to avoid autopilot type thinking, and rather than just rolling with what you know or typically do, you’re inclined to provide what’s best for the athlete. This takes into account individual deficits, injury/training histories, and of course, specific demands of sport. Moreover, as it’s described in the graphic above, one of my favorite euphemisms has become “scalpel or machete”. What I mean by this is training will consist of both broad general applications and refined precision. The way I like to look at this is generalize when you can, but specialize when you must. This has helped me from doing too much specializing where it’s not needed, which was a common error of mine early on. For others, this may be taken as not being lazy when it’s demanded of you to think deeper or “go outside the box” when what you’ve been applying isn’t working.


Language, demeanor and general interaction with athletes is probably the most critical, and one that just naturally improves as you continue to gain experience. That said, just because this isn’t a technical “X’s and O’s” thing, don’t mistake it for something you can’t proactively work on. The words we use, the way we present ourselves, and the way in which we interact with others is largely what will make the lasting impact on those we work with. It’s very easy to slip into autopilot in the coaching field, nobody is immune to this. But as we continue to grow, we must become more versatile in our language and ability to fluctuate our tempo. I’ll use myself here as it's an easy example and one that is common for many. My population ranges quite dramatically, I’ll have days where I’m seeing a 28-year-old Operator working up for selection at one hour, then a 72-year-old Veteran with two artificial knees and hearing aids another. This requires me to be very versatile in my approach, and not just with the tangible training piece. Beyond the exercise modalities, on one end I need to be analytical, less talkative, and fast paced, where the other is the complete opposite- more leisurely, laid back, “fun”.


But even within single populations or team settings, each athlete has their own personalities, their own motivators, and their own learning styles. It’s critical that to the best of your ability you’re addressing them accordingly. Some may require harsher, straightforward feedback while others need more of a nurturing/encouraging approach. Likewise, you will have some auditory learners, some visual, and some kinesthetic; as you can, try to cater to each of these so nobody is feeling like they’re missing the boat. But in essence, you can’t see yourself as “a coach who uses audible cueing”, you’re a coach who uses what’s needed for the athlete you’re working with. Here’s your corny euphemism for this section- know when to be a thermometer and when to be a thermostat.


Finally, we have decision making, and for this I like to think about trying to stay as neutral as I can. As someone who’s struggled with extremism in the past, I’ve found that a state of neutrality has helped me to develop resonance across my days. This, in cliché terms, is spinning the vicious circle into a virtuous one. The main factor for me here is objectivity and impartiality. It’s easy to bias our opinions, and it’s easy to let emotions cloud our decision making. But when others outcome is in our responsibility (directly or indirectly) it’s important we are rational and consistent with decision making.


This requires us to also stay adaptive and flexible to our surroundings. Something else I’ve struggled with in the past is being hyper-reliant on my environment or surroundings in order to be productive. As I’ve grown, I’ve worked to be less externally focused, and more internally stable to just block out the noise, so to speak. Things around you will continue to change, and there will always be unforeseen impediments derailing you from your resonance. Managing your emotions and being able to settle into multiple environments will help you curb stress to be able to stay on task. Corny cliché #3- “be where your feet are” (a highly underrated skill).


Closing

Cognitive flexibility isn’t just quick thinking, multitasking, or even just emotional control. Cognitive flexibility is equally maintaining humility, having a genuine sense of gratitude, and continuously working on your perception of the world around you. It’s also putting your biases aside, not becoming partial to outcome and being comfortable with uncomfortable exchanges and encounters.


While the coach may be the authority figure or assumed leader in most training settings, it’s imperative to recognize that we are ultimately on their time while we’re with them. In an effort to “keeping the goal the goal”, we must be the ones who can adapt, scale, or even shift how we interact with different athletes/individuals. From training styles and exercise selections to conversational topics and music selections, we must be the ones to adapt. Understand this is both a skill and a nuance; in that there are certainly ways to improve your ability to do so, as well as intangibles that will come along the way- permitted the coach is willing to do so. It requires a complete dissolution of ego while maintaining an invariable commitment to providing what’s best for the athletes you work with.


Instruction resonates best when it’s backed by behaviors that support it and show empathy for the recipient.

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