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10 Keys to Growing as a Performance Coach

What are things, outside of reading this article (and any article on Just Fly Sports) that will make you a great coach?

One of the foremost experiences I’ve had as a coach is the honor of being coached by experts at their craft, in track and field, strength and conditioning, and even swimming.  The classroom I’ve always learned best in was when I was able to use my own body as my main reference point.

I started Just Fly Sports with the intention of sharing track and field based athletic knowledge with whoever would listen, but as the years go by, I realize that the true essence I what I try to shape my career after, and share with others, is really a holistic knowledge of athletic movement and performance.

Coaching is a personal, relational, and holistic profession, and it’s not something mastered through just reading on the web scanning twitter, or being on top of “sport science”.

It requires unplugging the internet (maybe you can print this article and read it), getting off your phone, and really dialing into what is right in front of you.

It is knowing what to look for.

It is finding who to guide you along the way, those mentors to expand your mind.

As I write this article from a fairly inspiring location (18th floor deck with an ocean view in Honolulu), I reflect on some things coming full circle for me, particularly in the last few years.  It’s almost as if the first decade of my own coaching existed to “set me up” for the powerful influences I would begin to find in my 30’s.

I’ve already written a small piece on this from strictly my own observations, but now I’m expanding it into the commonalities I’ve seen from those far better and more experienced than myself.

coaching isn’t reading a bunch of articles

This being said, coaching isn’t reading a bunch of articles, copying and pasting, and “monkey see, monkey do”.  It’s not knowing all the technical terms to hide behind an intellectual mask, or the “know it all” mask (trust me, it takes one to know one with this mask).

It’s not imposing a singular technical, pretty looking model for all athletes to follow in a robotic manner.

Coaching is dynamic and alive, and the more you know about the drivers of the human engine, the more you love it.

For those of us interested in continually pushing ourselves, and the field forward (or maybe dragging it along), I’ve put together a list of 10 items that I’ve found seem to relate to some of the best minds I’ve associated it, those who have expanded my awareness well beyond what my own intuition was ever capable.

Here we go:

1. It is better to be great at a few things than mediocre at a bunch: Be a Ph.D in the movement you are coaching

Great coaching starts with observation.  Not observation, as in reading an article about biomechanics or a technical model and assuming understanding, but accumulating your 10,000 hours of watching a skill, and learning every subtlety and nuance.  The best coaches have a “Ph.D” in sport skill movement, as well as the guiding principles behind that movement.

It’s just like James Clear and his anecdote of Louis Agaasiz a biologist who made a graduate student look at every possible nook and cranny of a sunfish for over 50 hours, there is a level of understanding most of us are content with, and then there is a true intimate knowledge that just takes time.

With the current attention span of the masses (I believe it is around 9 seconds), appropriate observation is an impossibility.  You must train yourself to disconnect from distractors, and keep focus on the details of athletic movement.  The details are many times fine subtleties that can only been seen with an eye that has put in the time… so put in the time and get regular feedback in your efforts.

Great observation starts with awareness of what to look for.  For many of us, we gain the greatest awareness from ourselves, and our own athletic movement.  It is conversations with others, as well as observing animals (which I’ll get to in the next point) that can expand our vision of what movement potentials we are leaving on the table, and therefore are really required in reaching our observational baseline in coaching.

If you are a track coach, what would happen if you studied one block start or high jump for 50 hours?  If you are a strength coach, what are some things you would decipher from individual styles in the Olympic lifts for studying in that time period?  In the video below, I’ve been able to observe some new things from my expanded layers of awareness, and something particularly exciting for S&C practitioners is the ability to observe movement with new ideas in mind.

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The extension in this clean is largely built around the set length of the Achilles tendon and bracing of the ankle joint to prepare for hip extension.  Is there really one model by which to Olympic lift for all athletes?

2. Watch Animals

Some coaches think that “school” is sitting through 4-6 years of classes with extremely limited application to actual athletic development, only to get a piece of paper or two that proves your worth to hiring institutions.  I think that a “class”, far more valuable than exercise physiology, is intentional observation of the most masterful movers in existence: animals.

Not only are animals built and programmed with an almost incomprehensible level of expertise for their environment, but their movement is also completely “natural”.  There is no forebrain in their process.  The cheetah isn’t thinking of “driving his paws”.  Can you even coach a cheetah, even if they understood your instructions?  Would putting a barbell on a cheetah’s back make them faster?  Seems absurd, doesn’t it?

The best coaches I’ve listened to in their own craft, especially in skill based movement tend to have the commonality of watching animals, and this is something we can all start to do a little more often

3. Coach Less: Don’t tell athletes what is wrong with them unless it A.) matters and B.) you know how to fix it

I’ve found that great coaching often means providing the awareness, and environment to guide an athlete to their top form, not “forcing it” onto them.  Lots of coaching, and especially private coaching, revolves around showing athletes that there is something “wrong” with them, and that you have the keys to solve it. Parents talk about how they are excited that X private training facility has a special “movement screen”, thinking that somehow that holds the keys to injury prevention and performance.

The more seminars I’ve been to, the more I realize just how easy it is to come up with things “wrong” with an athlete, in fact, I have enough tools in my toolkit to tell the world record holder in most every discipline how weak their glutes are, or how lousy their posture is or find at least some pattern or muscle I can make test weak.  That’s not to say that there aren’t correctives that matter, and the more I learn about the spine and breathing, the more I realize that I’m heading in the right direction with correcting what really matters, in many situations.

Certainly there will be a point where a technical change is needed, but in the process, either A. don’t frame movement as right or wrong, or B. make sure when you encounter an error you know how to fix it, in a way that goes beyond the placebo effect, and also in a way that doesn’t make them dependent on your treatment system.

I’ve found that the best “fixes” will have immediate and tangible elements.  You should be able to get instant results with the proper knowledge in many situations, something I picked up from Dan Fichter, and have thought about ever since when coaching.

The idea that an athlete’s technique is “wrong”, and that they need to do a bunch of drills that, over time, will “fix” them, often leads to athletes simply reverting to their ingrained technique under pressure.

10 Keys to Growing as a Performance Coach

4. Learn from other sports and disciplines to expand your mind

Innovative coaching often comes from outside of one’s field.  I can’t tell you what a tremendous impact working in aquatics has had on my thought process in track and field.

The martial arts is also a goldmine for athletic movement patterns as well.  Reading books like “The Principles of Effortless Power” lately, has been a huge eye opener.

A great benefit of being a “strength coach” is the ability to interact and learn from a variety of coaches, much more that you might be able to if you were a singular sport coach, at least on a daily and weekly basis.  GPP coaches are able to infuse the movement patterning and nuancing of a variety of sports into their total system.

It often takes the levels of awareness in one discipline, imposed onto another to bring new understanding and level of coaching.

5. Ask athletes and other coaches for feedback

Just as it is important to utilize other disciplines to gain and create new levels and layers of understanding, so also it is important to utilize the feedback from those you work with.

I won’t say “it takes having no ego” to ask for regular feedback, since we all have an ego, even if we say we don’t.  Maybe the Zen monk who has been meditating in the Himalayas for the last 50 years…. that guy might really have no ego, but I’ll certainly admit that I do.

What it does take to ask for feedback from others is how to take off the “athlete mask”, or “know it all mask” that runs into coaching so many times.  Many coaches are still “athletes” in the sense of the competition between teams, and the same principles still apply.  Take off the validation mask that comes behind being an athlete, or the need to know everything, and you can unlock more ways to grow in knowledge and service towards those you work with.

These were masks I had to take off in my mid-20’s as I moved towards a greater maturity in my own coaching and writing.

Feedback can and should come from athletes as well.  I’ve always learned plenty of good information by asking athletes questions on how they feel workouts are benefitting them.  It’s also massively important to ask athletes questions to see if they understand what you are telling them when coaching them, e.g. can they say back to you the coaching instruction you are providing?

6. Pay more respect to the problem solving ability of the human body

As I watch expert coaches, one thing that stands out to me is a great respect for the individuality and autonomy of each athlete, as well as the ability of their subconscious mind to problem solve, and put optimal movement together.

So often we want to impose a technical model through a style of “put your hand here, foot here, etc. etc.”, and we can certainly get some results with this, but the greatest results for the highest performance come from giving an athlete a new level of awareness, and then putting them in an environment where that awareness can be reactively and reflexively applied.  I do think internal cues, and having a priority list is fine when the situation would demand it, but this is only a small part of approaching the highest performance one can reach.

Some athletes are certainly better as “getting it” than others (think of Christian Thibaudeau’s explanation of the role of Acetylcholine in athletic movement and neuro-type classification).  Keep this in mind in the spectrum of how to approach each individual athlete.

In terms of problem solving, thing like sprinting over mini-hurdles are just the tip of the iceberg.  Running on various surfaces, trails, with a lower center of mass than normal, barbell squatting entirely on the balls of the feet, jumping over two high jump bars, doing so in various states of fatigue, these are all things that give the athlete’s athletic brain a chance to adapt and hardwire better ways of applying force.

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“Mini-hurdle sprints are just one method of many in creating a problem to solve athletically”

So much can be learned by watching not only animals, but also athletes who have had little to no coaching who compete in very high levels in various disciplines.  Watching how these athletes have naturally organized their movement is a huge learning experience, and finding ways to put the modern athlete (who sits and looks at their phone at the expense of play and multi-lateral development) into situations where their inner athlete can come out is a premier exercise in tapping into inner super-powers.

7. Look to understand principles rather than absolutes

Coaches like to state facts and take standpoints on particular aspects of training, often in an unyielding, or an “I’m right and you’re wrong” manner.

Great coaches move beyond this, into the world of principles, and they really don’t care whether or not the masses think they are right or wrong on a certain topic.  Much of life is not black and white, but a gray area.  Knowing principles can guide an athlete into the proper part of the gray, while hard absolutes will take them to the far left or right of where they need to be.  Some athletes may miss small by this method, while others may miss large.

At the end of the day, look for the principles that bind expert movement in different sports, and what the best coaches are telling their athletes.  Many of the principles I adhere to are the other points in this post, but also things like the concept of rotational and arch based athletic movement, individuality in resistance training response, and the elastic nature of locomotion.

8. Don’t be overly tied to any strength or special strength exercise

A great many coaches will come at you with a battery of “must-do” exercises to improve a specific skill.  At the end of the day, the only movement we should actually be tied to is doing the competitive event itself, and then viewing everything else as a tool.  Creativity rules, and in many cases, the toolset should be continually changing.  Just look at how Bondarchuk crafted his system of continually changing special and general exercises from cycle to cycle, and the more developmental cycles you could run in a year, the better.

Each exercise or movement in a sport skill that is not the movement itself brings with it the potential for new learning and understanding.  Each tool should also generally be presented to the athlete as such to prevent mental anchoring around that tool, the exception being those tools that do have great transfer, in which case, selectively implementing them at the most important points of the yearly, and quadrennial training cycle can have huge neural, and psychological ramifications.

9. Don’t discount “athletic freaks”

One thing I tend to see in coaching is looking at an extremely high performer on the world stage, look at their training, or a nuance of their technique that doesn’t fit with the norm, and then pass it off as irrelevant, nothing “they are just a freak and would win no matter what”.

It’s totally true that the great athletes will be great, often in spite of poor coaching, but would they still be the best outside of their own individual quirks?  If the best in the world are doing something particularly via what their own intuition and hindbrain has brought forth, then why discount it?  Watching the world’s best, particularly those not coached into a robotic model, is one of the best learning experiences we can have.

“One of my foremost mentors who has changed my mindset, Adarian Barr demonstrates a powerful, but “quirky” start with great form”

10. Master all bodyweight training related to your sport movement

Watching the human body move in a pure state is the first and foremost learning experience, both from a coach and athlete side of things.  For the athlete, bodyweight training is dealing entirely with the ground (or water) and internal forces.  For the coach, there is tapping into an athlete’s movement in an environment with more degrees of freedom.  Throw a barbell on someone’s back, and you just tapped out of several degrees of freedom, notably the possibilities in the frontal and transverse plane, and even limitations within the sagittal plane.

By understanding the links in various bodyweight movements to one’s sport and general athletic ability, we can have a starting point by which to begin to appropriately apply more intense means over time.

In learning more of the training techniques of Jay Schroeder particularly, leaning to do more with an athlete’s bodyweight, from a level of both neurological firing, as well as static spring, has provided me a better understanding of how to program base layers of a program prior to moving forward.  I’ve seen the same story with other great coaches in learning how to sprint, jump high, or even swim fast in starting with bodyweight manipulations, unlocking degrees of freedom or layers of awareness, and working outwards from there.

Conclusion

Through these 10 ideals, it is my hope that we can all build a greater mastery and awareness of coaching in the field.  Many times we want to search, we just don’t know what to look for, and in this sense, knowing how to observe, free your biases and see the human body as the amazing piece of machinery it is, we can drive forth the inner athlete in everyone.

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