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The Capable Coach: From Good to Great

The capable coach has to solve very different challenges to grow. They must deepen the skills that have made them effective while learning new ones that will help them serve even better. They have to find the motivation and incentive to improve. And after everything they’ve invested in the models that underlie their coaching, they have to keep a learner’s mind to approach those models with fresh eyes.

The Capable Coach – From Good to Great

By: CJ Gotcher, BLOC Staff Coach

In earlier articles, we explored the shape of the coach’s path towards mastery and mapped out how that path plays out in the experience of the novice coach. The new coach struggled with the double challenge of not knowing enough and not knowing what they need to know. It was an uncertain stage in the new coach’s life—both exciting and frustrating—and some coaches chose not to continue, either fixating on a ‘Truth’ to resolve the anxiety or deciding that coaching wasn’t the right career for them. 

Those who successfully navigated that tricky terrain and coached through their first few years still have unique learning challenges to overcome, challenges that grow out of their successes in the novice stage. 

As a new coach, they didn’t know what they didn’t know, and they often didn’t even recognize when a skill could be helpful. Now, they’ve spent enough time coaching and talking with other coaches that they find themselves overwhelmed in a different way. Now, they’ve heard of motivational interviewing and PRI, movement screens and mobility WODs, IIFYM and the carnivore diet. If the coach’s journey is like the hero’s trek through a dark forest, the novice coach could only see the nearest trees within lantern-light, and the capable coach has climbed a tree to find a seemingly endless forest with no clear best path. 

The capable coach also struggles with a new problem: stagnation. When they were just starting, every client presented an opportunity to learn new skills and try out different solutions. There was a tension and excitement in every lifter’s success. The novice coach studied, prepared, and used programs and methods that others told them would work, but they’d never been responsible for bringing it together for someone else. 

After a few years—thousands of workouts, hundreds of clients, numerous success stories and journeys, and ups and downs—they have something that works well enough. It gets results often enough with enough clients that they can make a living and be satisfied that they’re doing good in the world. They don’t have to improve, and with the mounting pressures of earning an income and the normal stresses of life, it becomes tempting to simply roll along. After all, good enough is good enough. 

And if that wasn’t challenging enough, the capable coach begins to face a problem that affects every journeyman: “stuckness.” In the literature on learning, the word is einstellung, and everyone falls for it to some degree. After we’ve found an effective method for solving a problem, and solved it the same way many times, we mentally shortcut to that method every time we see a similar problem. Following this trusted mental trail blinds us to other options. Most of the time, this is a necessary time-saver, but without incredible care and curiosity, we often miss how new problems are different and fail to see how a different method could solve the problem better. If ideology is the grim warning not to ever leave the path or else, einstellung is the quiet confidence that this path has never failed us before. 

Faced with an overwhelming sea of options to choose from, the stagnating weight of inertia, and the treacherous confidence that they already have the answer, the capable coach has to solve very different challenges to grow. They must deepen the skills that have made them effective while learning new ones that will help them serve even better. They have to find the motivation and incentive to improve. And after everything they’ve invested in the models that underlie their coaching, they have to keep a learner’s mind to approach those models with fresh eyes—adapting, integrating, and even discarding old skills and ideas.

In many ways, then, going from good to great is an even harder journey than becoming good in the first place. 

Pick Your Poison Passion

For the novice, new skills were relatively easy to learn. Because of that, they could best set themselves up for success by developing a wide knowledge base from credible sources, practicing coaching, and fighting the tendency to fixate on The One True Way. 

As mastery begins to take more time, effort, and energy, the coach has to shift gears from learning broad and general to focused and selective. But which skills? In coaches’ forums I’m a part of, this question comes up almost daily: “What certification should I get?” 

If you’re asking this question, you’ve already fallen for the trap. 

The trap usually goes something like this: the coach feels like they’re missing something, or they can’t understand why out of 5 billion adults on this planet, they can’t seem to find anyone who wants training from them. They’re uncomfortable and sensitive to anything that offers the something they’re missing or fancy letters after their name that will make them appeal to a wider population. The Algorithms behind our search engines, or dumb luck, inevitably present them with option after option until they find a match. With their credit card charged, they take a deep sigh of relief. Once they finish this course, workshop, certification, or seminar, they’ll finally have what they’re missing and cast a wide enough net to get clients. Commonly, a dozen years and as many certifications later, they’re no better off than when they started.

The successful coach chooses where to invest their energy based on their clients’ needs and their professional goals, not to resolve their anxiety.

Specifically, a successful coach asks these questions: 

  • Where do my values, past experiences, and skills position me to make an impact? 
  • Who are my best current clients?
  • Who am I best capable of serving right now
  • Who do I enjoy serving? 
  • What are their unique needs? 
  • What could I learn that would make me a better coach for them? 
  • Is there a certification that could make me more credible to them? 

Start thinking about what age, sex, life stage, and goals your best clients, or your imaginary best clients, share, then go beyond. What are their values, passions, or hobbies? Personality traits? What are their social circles? What kind of training would your ideal client never do?  

Until you know your client, specialty certifications and piles of letters after your name are a waste of your time. Since they’re not immediately relevant to your lifters, you won’t use them, you’ll forget them, and like a Gotye song, it’ll become “Some coaching thing I used to know.” 

Once you do know your client, you won’t be asking random strangers on the internet, “What certifications are good (or respected, or profitable, or…)?” You may not know exactly where to find the answer at first, but you’ll have targeted, focused questions that will put you in the right direction.

And once you’re pointed in the right direction, there are a few general tips that will help you narrow down the best answer for you

  • There is no final solution. No one resource will answer all your questions, solve all your problems, and fill up your calendar. Don’t search with that expectation. Instead, expect to draw out a set of tools and a new perspective you can apply to decide where the next step  is for you.   
  • Consult several people who already have the skill you want (or are at least more skilled than you) for where they learned. 
  • Consider multiple options. The answer to your problem may be the standard book, course, workshop, or seminar, but consider alternatives like a private consultation with an expert in that field, joining a journal club, MOOCs, or self-directed study projects. 
  • Consider starting cheap or ‘simmering’ a project. If you’re unsure who might have the information or skills you need, start by skimming books, blogs, audiobooks, or free MOOCs. This is not effective learning—don’t get lost here. Scan these secondary sources to get a perspective for what (often competing) theories and experts currently in the field have to say. Then you can investigate from a more informed place. 
  • Reject the temptation to ‘Plug and Play.’ “My clients need X, so I’ll take the most obvious course that offers that.” Commit to a learning direction for a time and select at least 3 different resources to invest in. This helps resist the temptation to fixate on one answer, and oftentimes, while investigating one method, you’ll get pointed to an answer that more precisely addresses your challenge. 

Deliberate Practice 

Once the capable coach has overcome the noise and decided what to improve on, they have to go about deciding how, and at the advanced levels, it isn’t as simple as ‘just doing it.’  

Rote repetition leads to stagnation. 

Radiologists, morse code operators, surgeons, and many other professionals, when measured and compared over time, get worse—not better—after the first few years of practice in their craft. 

If this sounds unlikely, ask yourself: are you a measurably better driver than you were 10 years ago? Are your parents better drivers than they were 20 years ago? 

Repeated execution of tasks we know well makes us more familiar with them, providing an illusion of expertise, but it also leads us into einstellung and ‘creep,’ the natural easing of standards and attention that comes from seeing the same thing too many times. 

The path to continued development, according to Dr. Anders Erickson’s decades of research into expert performance, is to practice deliberately. Specifically, to: 

  • Identify your specific weaknesses
  • Focus while practicing
  • Apply effective training methods
  • Practice outside of your comfort zone 
  • Get direct feedback, and  
  • Stay motivated.

Let’s consider this in the context of one of the coaching skills—movement coaching on the platform. Once you are good enough to spot errors, identify their causes, and select effective cues or drills most of the time, then to improve, you’ll need to identify the key elements you most often miss. 

For example, perhaps you identify that you’re too wordy. You readily identify the movement problem, but you frustrate your lifter or take too long and are ineffective. 

Now that you’ve identified your weakness, you’ll set aside dedicated, focused sessions to work on it. You’ll set yourself to the task of writing down and practicing concise verbal, visual, and tactile cues in response to a variety of errors (one effective way to prepare for dealing with this problem). You’ll set an intention for your coaching sessions that takes you out of your comfort zone: perhaps keeping all verbal cues to 2 words or less, or not allowing yourself any verbal cues while the lift is in motion to force you to try other methods. These won’t be easy; they will challenge you. And you’ll need to get feedback: first from yourself, monitoring how well you stuck to the goal; then from your clients, whether they moved better and demonstrated less frustration; or best of all, if you can, from another coach, either in person or by videotaping and sharing your coaching session

Finally, you’ll have to stay motivated to do this repeatedly, with different lifts and trainees, until you’re satisfied that your cues are effective and concise. You won’t be praised for your work. Clients may not be able to tell—or put into words—the difference. The motivation to get better—even when you could get away with cruising at your current performance—has to come from you.

Whew. That’s a lot. 

Different versions of this approach can apply to coaching skills the same way it has for self-educators in memory competition, chess, golf, medical diagnosis, even Jeopardy, but this doesn’t make deliberate practice the skeleton key to unlock every door. There are commonalities between skill development in all fields, but the expression of these will vary, and the self-educator will spend time learning effective learning methods, not just practicing, and changing their learning approach based on its effectiveness. 

And after all this effort, we can’t be certain it will make the difference.

Creatively Deliberate

A common criticism of deliberate practice is that it helps to explain excellence in fields with clear performance metrics and standards for success, but with complex, dynamic, interpersonal skills, it fails to help the coach make the leap from “correct and informed” to “successful and life-changing.” 

The first reason is that ‘perfection’ hits a point of diminishing returns. In movement coaching, there are clearly poor movements, but there gets to be a point where the lift is good enough, and it’s unclear whether a change is actually an improvement. The coach whose only emphasis has been to master movement can feel empty when there’s nothing to fix, and they risk missing out on factors more important to client success. 

The second is that there often isn’t a single correct answer when we’re talking about living systems. Does it really matter whether you cut 100 calories all from fat or from a mix of fat and carbohydrates? Except in the most extreme cases, the answer is likely no. When there is a range of right answers, coaches who fixate too deeply on a narrow skill risk becoming like master wine tasters who try to make themselves so sensitive to error that they begin (likely unconsciously) to invent it. 

The third is that feedback in coaching is unclear. Tom Brady is clear proof that success in the fitness industry is subject to many factors that have nothing to do with giving sound advice. And the clearest feedback we can get—client results—are often driven by factors outside our control and awareness

Deliberate practice is essential to going from good to great in a given skill, but sometimes we need to go beyond the obvious to see what skill or ability will make the difference.

It might mean becoming a novice all over again in a different field: learning the mechanics of gait and running form and programming for track and field to best serve the needs of your high school athletes.

It might mean reapplying a hobby, professional skill, or talent from your past in a new and unique way. 

It might be incredibly precise to your specific clients, like developing skill in metalworking, getting a degree (or advanced self study) in physical therapy to better understand the causes and effects of different disabilities, and learning about the laws around accessibility to design creative equipment and gym spaces for adaptive athletes. 

The most critical skill for you right now might range (seemingly) far from coaching: empathetic communication, photography, writing, time management, critically evaluating technical literature, or personal accounting. 

Developing this kind of range may be essential to freeing you from illusions of competence and the stagnancy of fixed repetition. It could be the step-away from your current practice that you need to see it objectively and identify what you really need to improve. 

And when you apply your passionate dedication and a critical eye to selecting from the endless possibilities, you take one step towards being better able to serve ‘your people.’ You take one step farther in the direction of unmatched, irreplaceable service. 

From Good to Great

After the first few years of practice, the coach who dedicates the time and effort to study broadly, coach with intention, and learn actively are probably good. They’re more than pin-placers, rep-counters, and cheerleaders. They can coach effectively and get results. 

After that point, the coach can’t simply advance by doing more just like an experienced athlete can’t simply improve their performance by trying harder. Their needs change, and they will have to change their professional and learning strategies to match. To improve from there, they’ll need to become selective about the skills and actions that will make the biggest impact. They’ll need to dedicate themselves to practicing these skills deliberately, always keeping an eye out for areas where new knowledge—or past expertise—can be brought to bear to transform how well they can serve their clients. 

With experience and practice, they’ll start to reliably and consistently deliver programs, movement cues, and diet guidance that get results and start identifying when and why their methods don’t get results. They’ll be able to ‘pick their eyes up’ from execution to see the bigger picture and start to compare across models in and out of the traditional ‘strength coach’ world. They’ll start to deeply question what they learned in their novice years and see which goals, personalities, and life circumstances are best served by different approaches. 

There’s no saying how long this phase will last, and there are no hard lines, but this is where the capable coach can—if they choose—go from being good to inventing models and frameworks that transform their fields and change more than just the lives of their own clients. This is the professional and learning stage we’re going to call ‘mastery,’ and the focus of the next article in this series.

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