The longer I’ve been in the coaching field, the more I’ve regularly thought of how to improve the skill aspect of what I’m doing regularly.
Any coach can get a certification, follow the latest trends in the field, such as the FMS, and then proceed to throw a large amount of training elements in the system, leading to a large guess-and-check-athon on what elements helped improve performance (or led to a lack thereof).
According to Cal Newport:
“If you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better.”
What I believe this means to physical prep specialists and coaches is that you can’t show up, “follow your passion”, and expect the world to be handed to you. There must be solid skills you are good at, and things you do differently and better!
What brings the best results, in the largest number of athletes over time, is those coaching skills that take years to develop. You can read Supertraining as many times as you want, but it doesn’t give you any skills to use as a coach, just more ways to guess which protocols and exercises might be best for your athletes.
Coaching skills are as essential and as basic as it gets with the human psychology. We evolved as a species that learned by getting our hands dirty, more so than sitting in class learning theory. Our not-too-distant ancestors survived by being able to masterly craft a flint knife, know exactly what mushrooms were good to eat, and the fine nuances of how to hunt and fish.
For some reason now, spending 4 and usually 6 years in school taking classes (with far less relevance than books like Supertraining) and doing internships devoid of critical thinking and hands on puzzle solving qualify much of our future performance training staffs and trainers.
I often think of what real skills I am gaining, and improving, in what I do daily. In working with athletes, there must be things I’m making a conscious effort to track and record, lest I fail to grow in what I’m doing.
Funny enough, when I was a young coach…. very young, the majority of what I enjoyed doing was theorizing about exercise selection, planning and periodization. When I was in college, I actually didn’t think I wanted to be a track coach, because I cared a lot more about training structures than the fine technical points of the events. I’d listen to the coaches of opposing athletes talk about a bunch of technical concepts I didn’t understand (or often see the point of, because I was beating them without knowing what they were talking about), and decide that it wasn’t useful. In reality, much of the technical cues and chatter was based on observational concepts that I never cared much to look for, even in the scope of my own events. I was very much a thinker and conceptualist more than an observational person at the time.
Now that I’m a full time strength and conditioning coach/physical prep coach/call it what you will, I’ve found that a massive portion of my effectiveness comes down to my skills with the athletes in the hour I have them. I’m not the sport coach, and I don’t assign total training volumes. Much of what I can bring to the table comes out of my ability to observe the athlete and their movement patterns.
Even if I have a “master plan” I got from reading dozens of books, it’s only as good as I can observe athletes readiness on the session level since I am working in context of everything they are doing in their sport and with their sport coach.
The “master plan” in coaching is limited by the skills found in the daily training session.
In working with youth track athletes, where periodization and planning is worthless compared to creating a fun learning environment and utilizing appropriate exercises and movements of proper intensity for the session, I’ve learned that the greatest workout “on paper” means nothing if athletes can’t connect with it, and often times, the simplest things, with the proper cue or environmental tweak goes much further than grand plans and schemes.
All this long-winded intro goes to say that there are some, “in-the-session” skills that I have come to understand and work on, on a daily basis to become a better skilled coach. It is entirely possible in the coaching field to let the days go by without improving one’s ability to observe, coach or connect with the athlete, and prescribe appropriate exercises and movements.
Here are the 5 skills I’ll expand on today I’ve been critically and intentionally observing in my athletes:
- Reading body language and establishing buy in
- Watching posture, breathing, gait and footstrike
- Having an idea of multi-planar assessments and movement ability
- Learning and understanding rhythms and tendencies
- Knowing the line between needing to coach skills and let athletes express their innate movement abilities
1. Reading body language and connecting with athletes prior to session
There is an art form of coaching that is a must to be effective: connecting with the athlete. By connecting with an athlete, we learn valuable information on how to optimally train them, not only on the day, but over the course of the season. We learn their energy level and sympathetic/parasympathetic tendencies on the day, but also their workout preferences that will influence our programming for them over the course of the season.
To better understand athletes, the art of connection is a must. On one end, it’s crucial to make every athlete know you are observing their session and care that they are having a great workout. Mention every athlete’s name over the course of a workout, preferably before the main course of the work begins. Talk about things not directly related to training to get a good gauge on where they are at without the pressure of a workout session.
Learning to see subtleties in body language is important. “What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People” has been helpful for me as an “in my head”, naïve to non-verbal communication athletes (and everyone else) often put forth. What an athlete is saying above the neck may have nothing to do with that the rest of their body is telling you.
The art of connecting with athletes also tells you if they are bought into the program, if they enjoy what they are doing, and how to test and assess the buy in value of your protocols and cues, and how to scale the intensity and volumes of what you are doing.
2. Watching posture, breathing, gait and footstrike
When I was in college, for 2 years, I was an Athletic Training major. This was only the case because I didn’t realize one could make a living being a strength or track coach, and it wasn’t long before I knew I didn’t really like taking care of athletes injuries, compared to actually training them.
One thing I remember from my time as an athletic trainer was my supervisors telling me to spend a lot of time looking at how athletes walk and run around the court, during those painful 800 hours I was supposed to log doing intern athletic training duties, which often otherwise came down to refilling water during practices and games. This intrigued me, but sadly, there was no instruction given on what to observe. In gait, there is a lot going on, and a green coach not knowing what to look for often doesn’t even know where to start.
In gait, it’s easiest to start with the feet. Are athletes heavy heel strikers, or forefoot oriented? How do they pronate and supinate? What are their foot arches like? How does this differ during walking, sprinting and jumping?
As far as hip and spinal engines go, what does an athletes posture look like? What’s their variability in spinal movement like? How is their breathing pattern? Is one shoulder higher than the other? How do they lateralize themselves during squatting, hinging and pressing motions? Are particular segments of the spine rigid, or particular trunk muscles overly tonic?
“How is Elaine Thompson’s spinal engine different than her competitors?”
James Clear has written an incredible piece on the art of fine observation, not just that kind you get by watching athletes squat for an hour an seeing if they can access their posterior chain, but by intimately knowing every conceivable relevant element of the movement, and how it might relate to their sport. In James’ article on biologist Louis Aggasiz, a young post-graduate student was made to observe a sunfish for a couple hundred hours, noting every possible detail of the fish, and it was here that mastery of observation could be attained. This wasn’t something you could figure out in an hour.
The same principle goes for observing athletes. When athletes sprint, jump or squat, how many parts of the movement are you looking at? What planes of movement is the athlete stuck in? What elements of motor control haven’t they mastered? What cues and progressions will and won’t be relevant to the goal of their sport?
If you aren’t considering much past how many reps an athlete has done, and whether or not they stayed on their heels and pulled their shoulder blades back, then you probably aren’t on your way to that 10,000 hours of mastery.
3. Having a idea of multiplanar assessments and movement ability
As I just mentioned, being able to observe athletes well is crucial. Being able to distinguish between the three planes of movement, sagittal, frontal and transverse is hugely important in building resilience, as well as knowing what cues will work and won’t work, and what to work on in functional movement and strength training.
If you haven’t been thinking about the role of these planes in jumping, sprinting and athletic movement, Sam Wuest has written some great eye opening pieces (Part 1 Part 2) on the rotational components of these movements.
If an athlete is dysfunctional in the sagittal plane, then they won’t have much ability in the frontal and transverse planes. Do you know the key positions and movement abilities in this plane, relative to your sport?
My recent muse has been watching triple jump videos, as this is one of the most fun, and easy ways to see all sorts of triplanar movement paradigms. Some athletes struggle in the frontal plane, from a perspective of being able to unlock (or not unlock) transverse rotation.
Triple jump videos are great in this regard, since the camera shows slow motion from the side and the front. Triple jumping is also exaggerated gait with much higher forces (these exact forces also depend on the physics of landing angles and speeds), which exacerbate triplanar movement preferences, strengths and weaknesses. Athletes technique will often evolve around these preferences, which is a reason why field eventers don’t fit into a one-size fits all model.
Outside of the track, and in normal weightroom movements, do we know what to look for, and how to correct it? Do we have enough movements in the weightroom that also serve as multiplanar movement screens and tune ups?
4. Learning and understanding rhythms and tendencies
One of the most interesting movement aspects I’ve been paying attention to is that of patience and mindfulness of movements on account of athletes. What rhythms do athletes naturally select during movement? What music rates and beats tends to put them in the rhythm you want to see?
Does your athletes prefer a Reggae rhythm? EDM? Punk rock? What beat lights them up and puts you where you want to see for your strength or speed session?
In resistance training, and all coordinated movement, some athletes have much more impatience, and often “skip” critical phases, such as those who have a really hard time sticking to lifting tempos, or who tend to pull early with the arms on Olympic movements and miss the rhythm and “bump” of the second pull.
For some athlete’s this can be a strength, but can also create a glass ceiling in movement performance. Not everyone will fit in the same box, but it’s an area where movement in the weightroom spills over into sport. The way an athlete approaches the rhythm of movements in the weightroom impacts how they approach the rhythm in sport.
How you do anything is often how you do everything.
5. Knowing the line between needing to coach skills and let athletes express their innate movement abilities
The last skill is one that often takes coaches years, or even decades to hone in on, and that’s the line between knowing when to coach, and when to let an athlete be an athlete. Lee Taft said it well on episode #41 of the Just Fly Performance Podcast, and that is that sometimes, you just need to motivate and coach effort.
As my discussions with Paul Cater have let me to consider and observe, at what point does all our canned coaching prescriptions and positions interfere with an athlete’s ability to fully utilize their joint variability and solve athletic puzzles?
At what point do bracing and holding interfere with the neuro-reflexive capabilities of the body in sprinting, cutting, attacking and defending?
Working with young athletes in particular, there are physical and mental ramifications to frequency of coaching, cues and positions. Kids want to get better, but they also want to compete and have fun, as well as feel a sense of improvement on the session. There is a spectrum by age group on delayed gratification in results, but in general, we must never get too terribly far from that adolescent on the playground in all of us. It just takes experience on how to frame what skills and when.
Knowing when to cue, and when to simply encourage, is a skill that certainly takes time, but is one of the most important, if not the most important skill in a coaches vast toolbox in many cases.
This list of skills to fine tune certainly isn’t exhaustive, not in the least. It does represent much of what I’ve been considering over the last several years, and what makes a person a more effective coach each training session. Passively counting reps, waving towels and handing out high fives doesn’t make one the best they can be over time in the coaching realm, but rather we need a combination of practice, observation and assessment in the trenches that is essential for maximal development.
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