"The greatest disservice we can do to those we love or care about is to provide reaffirmations that they’re doing great when they really aren’t."
No matter how you slice it, coaching boils down to one thing- outcome. For sport coaches, this is obvious- win or get replaced. Similarly with strength coaches, physiotherapists, and personal trainers, athletes and clients seek us out for one thing- results. The difficult part of the strength coach/physio side is that much of the success is ambiguous at best. There are often a ton of confounding variables making it often difficult to identify reasons for training success (or lack there of). Additionally, there is a lot of room for subjective measures that can sometimes be misleading or cherry-picked.
In any event, our job is to do everything we can to take the athlete from where they are to where they want or need to be. Moreover, this needs to be accomplished in the safest, and most efficient manner possible. At the end of the day, coaching is a results-based industry, and humans are outcome driven. You’re only as good as the results you produce; and the results you produce are only as redeemable as the work you were willing to put in.
It shouldn’t have to be stated, although I know I need to- all of what I’m discussing here is under the pretenses that we all understand and acknowledge the importance of the “intangible” items. This is the “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” realm, where the emphasis is to establish rapport. My caveat to this is no shit! OF COURSE the interpersonal skills and intangibles need to be at the forefront. In no capacity am I undermining the importance of establishing trust, strong communication, empathy, etc. What I am getting at in this, however, is that while these intangible factors (i.e. good rapport, fun atmosphere, etc.) are critical, they cannot supersede results and outcome. Look at it this way, the primary objective is that the goal(s) must be met, but the better you can be about establishing trust, rapport, and communication the quicker and more efficiently you’ll reach that desired outcome.
I know there are a fair amount of coaches that will disagree with me on this, and honestly, that’s perfectly fine. I’m a firm believer that there are just good and bad personality fits between individuals across any field or platform. Some people respond better to the caring, consoling coaching style, while others need a hard ass or someone who will push and challenge them relentlessly. I suppose since I fell under the latter as an athlete, it has been a major influencer on how I approach this side of the relationship. When I’m on the receiving end of instruction or feedback, I want the person to get right to the point and don’t spare any critiques. Nothing irritates me more than comforting lip service.
Barriers and Limiting Factors
No different than any other professions, there are fundamentally good and bad strength coaches. Equally, there are people who are either go-getters or not. Some things, you just can’t change. But what causes some coaches to veer off the path, ultimately driving themselves away from results-based coaching? Here are some of my theories:
I think by far the biggest detractor to results-based coaching is complacency. When complacency sets in, ambition moves out. There always needs to be a presence of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. You should always have your eyes set on something ahead of you- external stimulus drives internal demand. The more you remind yourself of what you do it for, the more committed to mastering it you become. Avoid becoming complacent at all costs.
-Fear/Anxiety to grow
I gotta be honest, this is a weird one for me to write down, but this is something I’ve taken notice of lately. Although I simply can’t wrap my head around it, a lot of the coaching industry is extremely reluctant to learn new material or try new things. I think that many have missed the mark on the dynamic nature of the coaching field. It’s imperative to recognize that very little about this profession is static. If you aren’t comfortable being in the grey, you’ll have a very tough time making tangible progress.
I hope this is the first and last time I use a “trigger word” in one of my articles. Nevertheless, it is undeniable at this point that we have become extremely hypersensitive to avoiding confrontation (to include constructive criticism) and god forbid offending others. My big thing on this is we have to keep some context in perspective here… not EVERYTHING is personal. When someone challenges your thinking, it’s ok! Simply provide a thorough response citing reasons/evidence to support why you feel the way you do. When the other person has a rebuttal, listen to it! Whether they’re right or wrong, it’s important to understand different perspectives on things. Furthermore, it’s ok to be direct and honest with your athletes. When something doesn't look right, intervene. When something sucks was lazy, it’s ok to tell them it sucks or it was lay. Just be sure to follow through (offsetting with humor) the informative input they need to correct whatever it is. Obviously, this does not apply the same for young/youth athletes, be logical here.
-Getting ahead of yourself
Coaches who fall into the guise of “having it figured out” can be some of the most toxic people you interact with. These are the ones who don’t need to read anything or listen to new presenters because it won’t tell them anything they don’t know. They become very protective of their thinking, and panic when its challenged by others. What this inevitably becomes is stagnated, recycled, lazy training that slowly continues to deteriorate over time. Here’s a spoiler for you- you will never have it figured out. And when you think you do, change your perspective or change your career. There is always something to be improved or learned.
Keeping your coaching results/outcome-driven
What I try to keep my focus on is simply results or outcome based training. All of the intangible stuff will fall into place, but my job is to remain objective and put the athlete in the best opportunities to succeed. Some constructs to outcome-driven coaching include:
-Rely on the science, explore the unknown
This is a very delicate balance and depends heavily on one’s academic background and early professional development. Nevertheless, a common way of describing strength and conditioning is “the balancing of art and science”. There is certainly truth to this, and I’ve often looked at it as the programming and training methods are the science, while the coaching is the art. It's important we don’t deviate from what’s proven to work. You’re never looking to change the wheel, only make yours denser.
But at the same time, there are tremendous shortcomings to research, and a lot of the newer/nuanced practices either have not or cannot be adequately studied yet. It’s up to your professional discretion and acumen to be capable of discerning anecdotal measures and evaluating their validity for the population you work with. I have found a lot of success with things that aren’t “proven by research”. As with most things, there’s a balance that exists between the two.
-Develop intuition and curiosity, avoid automation
I exhausted myself early on in my career to try to automate and streamline as MUCH as I possibly could. My thinking at the time, similar to most, was the novel idea that if I could automate my work, I could increase production and take on bigger client bases. Although this isn’t exactly untrue, what most miss is what this compromises. The fact was, automating my process did allow me to have a massive uptick in the volume of work I was producing and allowed me to take on more clients. However, the quality of work was modest at best, and as the volume of clients grew, the attention to detail with training diminished. There’s a trade off with everything, be mindful of your decisions.
What drives me now is intuition led by a genuine curiosity. I know it sounds cliché to say, but I just want to know more, while understanding better. It still frustrates me when I run into something that I have no idea how to handle. But equally, it’s always a great reminder that I’m still very new to this, and I need to continue to explore all the innerworkings of the human body and performance. The more we resort to automation, the more it compromises this intuitive curiosity. Keep yourself interested in what you’re doing.
-Seek to become a “professional problem solver” who works with people
The number one thing missing in most academic catalogs for exercise science is the requirement to be proficient with critical thinking and human psychology. It’s almost ironic, because the bulk of our material in University studies and certifications/ credentialing is relegated down to tables and charts and presented as absolute fact. I get that broad information needs to be consumable for wide audiences, but this is a terrible shortcoming of our preparation.
I can promise you that nothing in the real application of performance training is as simple as applying remedial charts and ranges. The underpinning to it all is being able to think critically and solve problems on the fly. A huge part of this is by assessing body language and tone from the athletes you work with. Being able to identify the breadcrumbs they leave for you and capitalizing when needed or given the opportunity. Have a stable base and foundation of information to work off of, but don’t panic when your perfectly balanced templates fall short.
- Pursue what you love, relentlessly
I believe this is by far the most important point to it all- you must do what you love. As it applies specifically to coaches, we don’t have the luxury of being able to fade in and out throughout the day. Because we’re working with a new individual every hour or so, it’s demanded that we’re always at our best. This is what kills a lot of the coaches in our industry. And adding to that, as I mentioned above, is that there is nothing stagnant about our industry. If you don’t truly love this shit, I would simply encourage you to look elsewhere for your profession.
We’re living in a weird time, but that weird has produced a lot of really unique elements to our generation. One of the lasting traits of this generation will be personal autonomy and taking control of our own destinies. I take considerable pride in this specifically- my path, my compass. Working in this field is truly invigorating for me, I love the work I do and the challenges it presents. There is never a dull moment. You not only owe it to yourself, but the athletes that you work with, and the company you work for, to leave an indelible mark on the work you do. Love what you do and do what you love.
One of the first times I ever heard Mike Boyle speak in person, at some point in the presentation he very abruptly stated “if your athletes suck, you suck.” Very few things have resonated this heavily for me throughout my career. If nothing else, this is a fantastic way to establish some self-accountability. But I also feel this is the best way to keep yourself honest with your training/coaching. Rather than marrying particular methods, principles, or practices, you can stay open minded to most things, and use what resonates as you see fit. Ultimately, it creates a wide spectrum of methods and learn firsthand what “tools” work for what situations and athletes. Because at the end of the day, one thing and only one thing matters… are they performing better in sport/life/professional demand. If that answer is no, change up your shit.
If we continue to only analyze and validate training off of things like atmosphere, rapport, and positive encouragement, we will continue to disassociate from what our professional responsibilities stem from- helping people get better. Again, do not misconstrue this for subjugating the intangibles; my point is that while those are instrumental, we cannot lose sight of our objectivity and continue to reform training methods for optimizing the abilities of our athletes. At the end of the day, you’re only as good as the results you produce.