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Coaching: The Novice Stage—Learn to Execute

Excellent coaches are self-educators, even those going through an intensive training program or a formal education. There are so many possible skills involved in effective coaching, far more than anyone alive could master in depth. So, at the very least, each coach has to select what to learn and commit to the process of learning. They have to be intentional with it, applying effective strategies to transform study time from a passive, distracted, and isolated experience to an active, focused, and integrated one that builds on and expands currently existing bodies of knowledge.

Coaching: The Novice Stage—Learn to Execute

By: CJ Gotcher

Learning Stages, Learning Choices

In a previous article, I pointed to some of the ways adult learners pick up new information and skills as they become more proficient. In short, as coaches grow, their learning strategies must grow with them, or they will stagnate.

Although good teachers may aid a student along parts of the path, self-assessment and self-improvement can’t be outsourced to any program. Excellent coaches are self-educators. 

This is true for all coaches, even those going through an intensive training program or a formal education. There are so many possible skills involved in effective coaching, far more than anyone alive could master in depth. So, at the very least, each coach has to select what to learn and commit to the process of learning. They have to be intentional with it, applying effective strategies to transform study time from a passive, distracted, and isolated experience to an active, focused, and integrated one that builds on and expands currently existing bodies of knowledge.

Let’s start with the novice student-coach—passionate, curious, and motivated to become the best they can. They may just be offering lifting tips to friends, family, and coworkers right now or starting a side hustle at a YMCA while they work towards getting certified. Where do they start learning?   

Novice 

The greatest challenge the brand-new coach faces is that they sit somewhere between the first two stages of Martin Broadwell’s stages of competence:

By the original definition, they are aware they lack skills and see those skills as valuable. So, they’re not entirely in the bottom rung, but they share many of the challenges of the “unconscious incompetent.” The new coach:

  • Knows they need to learn, but they aren’t exactly sure which skills and knowledge they need.
  • Knows there are resources available but aren’t sure which ones are credible, accurate, or useful. 
  • Doesn’t know for sure how well they’re doing. Even with poor coaching, lifters will often move better and get stronger at first simply due to the novice effect, growing familiarity, and general athleticism. Did the lifter get better because the coach did well or in spite of them? 

The novice coach is in what Cal Newton—author of “Deep Work”—calls a ‘metric black hole.” Without knowing what they don’t yet know, not seeing the big picture of alternate options, and lacking effective, immediate feedback, the novice coach may see only small improvement for a while until they gain enough perspective to really start learning. 

This traps the novice in a “flail zone” of expending time and energy without a strong return in growth until an insight or useful framework provides the context needed to enable useful learning. The goal of intentional, novice self-education is to shift the curve to the left by providing learning experiences within a useful context from the beginning. 

There is no skipping the long slow climb. No learning program can (or should) spare the novice coach the stumbles, errors, “I wish I knew that a week ago!” moments, but hopeless flailing should be kept to a minimum. 

Bias to Action   

This starts with coaching. 

For the novice in any practice, few things are as effective as doing the thing. The photographer learns by taking pictures, the writer learns by writing. But coaching can be complex and fast-paced, and simply spending your first sessions doing something can be like playing the World Series of Poker your first time at the table. Exciting, yes, but not a great learning environment.  

For a novice coach, the challenge is taking the fast and furious task of coaching and breaking it into a digestible experience with clear feedback that can develop skill from the start. These strategies can help: 

Learning Intentions: 

Start a session with a single intention, monitor it throughout, and review it afterward. Coaches at any learning stage can apply this technique, but it’s especially useful for screening out the noise in early coaching practice.  I describe it as an “intention” instead of a “focus” because it doesn’t mean ignoring everything else, as this can lead to myopic, awkward, and unproductive coaching. To do this effectively, pick an intention that’s: 

  • relevant to your biggest learning need,
  • small enough that you can maintain awareness of it while coaching, and  
  • specific and quantifiable so that you can meaningfully gauge your performance. 

This can apply to the whole range of skills and practices, from keeping cues tight and concise to greeting everyone by name.

The goal is to “graduate” from an intention, practicing it and developing tips and strategies until it is automated to a level that meets the coach’s standards and needs, then layer on a new intention to the practice. 

Intern and Learn

If possible, start with the oversight of an experienced coach. 

This can occur for a single session or over an established relationship, but I’ve seen such “mentorships” degrade into little more than free labor or a spectator activity without generating real skill. Here are a few tips for making a session successful for both parties:  

Build in time, prior to the session and afterwards, for negotiation and review. The goal in the pre-session is to set an appropriate level of challenge for the student based on their current skill level and prime their attention to something at a level they can learn from. It’s also an opportunity for the student and teacher to clearly establish how much responsibility the student will take on during the session and how the teacher will intervene. 

After the session, the goal is to provide an opportunity for “visible learning.” The student should begin to take ownership of the learning process while the teacher gets insight into what the student took from the session to better aim future sessions. By reflecting on what each person observed, their thoughts on what went well and what could be improved, and collaborating on a best approach for follow-on sessions, both the student and teacher can learn valuable lessons from the exchange.  

Play to a Good Crowd: 

Many of us started our coaching journey by sharing tips and advice with our fellow lifters or by showing family, friends, and coworkers the basics of the things we were learning. This is often forgotten, but it’s an incredible opportunity to learn and make mistakes in a low-stakes environment. 

The biggest challenge for many is getting willing partners; though if practice is the goal and not profit, the biggest limitation is usually shyness.

Our staff coaches and Coaching Academy students have had great success in finding willing participants with the following strategies:

  • Ask the other person to be coached as a favor. Approaching as students who need a partner for a learning project removes the pressure of obligation. 
  • Reach out via personal and social media networks. A few students without local test subjects offered online coaching on Reddit or online discussion groups, reviewing a series of a lifter’s videos for free while getting feedback on their replies from their Coaching Academy groups.  
  • Reduce the time commitment by having them stand in for only a focused section of the lifts. Teaching progressions are great for this, and a 5X5 set of increasing warmup-weights is a much easier “sell” than a full 90-minute session.
  • Walk the talk. If you’re known as the go-to person for lifting in your communities, including your social media networks, church, school, work, gym, and other communities, it’s often enough to simply put it into the air that you’re looking to practice coaching. Out of the thousands of loose ties you’ve made, if even one or two are thinking about coaching right now and see you as a credible resource, you have a start. 

If you are currently a practicing, paid coach, this may still apply. Like established standup comedians who test new material in small comedy clubs, consider reducing or cutting pay for a single session with a novice lifter or a fellow coach to try out experiments in teaching progressions or cues without stumbling in front of a paying client. Since there’s less pressure to demonstrate value, it’s also easier to ask about possibly-negative feedback in real time. 

Use an Entry Trick

The idea of an “entry trick” comes from Robert Twigger’s book Micromastery, and the idea is simple: find a trick that immediately makes you better or makes the task more doable. It sounds like cheating, but even the Renaissance masters traced some of their work, and for a novice, the entry trick often simply controls the chaos enough to practice meaningfully until the trick can be jettisoned. 

For platform coaching, teaching progressions are a new coach’s first and most powerful entry trick. Teaching progressions are scripts intended to help a coach take a new lifter from never seeing the lift before to executing a successful rep. They should include stepwise instruction, practice, and the opportunity for the coach to intervene and make corrections. Memorizing a progression verbatim may seem tedious at first, but it will pay off in familiarity, professionalism, and by establishing a vocabulary between the lifter and coach that the coach can later point back to with concise cues.  After it’s been learned and practiced many times, its lessons absorbed, experienced coaches will often modify or rescript the progressions to better serve their purposes. 

For programming, templates serve the same purpose. Templates get a bad rap, but by starting with a training model that’s good enough for the lifter’s goals (especially if the lifter is a novice), the new coach can focus on other elements while observing how the lifter gets stronger through the training program. Over time, they test other templates and explore changes one at a time until they develop experience and an understanding of the broader training principles. 

These two simply serve as examples: the variety of entry tricks is only limited by your imagination, and a new coach can find many examples for the broad range of skills they’re trying to improve. 

Select Your Education

Many novice coaches need to earn some kind of credential in order to kickstart their practice, either because the gym requires it or new clients expect it. Direct coaching practice is crucial, but the credentialing process doesn’t have to be a waste of time, even when it includes learning some information that is incorrect, incomplete, or irrelevant to one’s coaching practice.

If you’ve decided to earn a credential or follow a “method” of coaching, look for one that:

  • Opens doors that enable you to coach 
  • Is delivered by a recognized expert or organization you (or your potential clients) trust
  • Provides specific tools to help you serve the people you most want to train
  • Demonstrates you have the basic competence and commitment to serve them
  • Is good enough

To know if a certification will open doors, ask. I earned my first 4-letter industry certification while in the Navy to keep my options open, but when I left the service, the local market mattered a lot more than what “the industry” thought was important. Interviewing locally, the best opportunity to start coaching from day one was a CrossFit gym, and that shiny CSCS certificate didn’t mean much for me

The program should be provided by a credible expert or organization, preferably one that is recognized in your desired field and skilled at teaching. The credential doesn’t have to be The World’s Greatest (which the novice can’t judge fairly anyway), but it should have a strong track record of producing coaches and satisfied clients in your market. 

Ideally, an educational program should include (and advertise) both a practical and knowledge component and provide basic tools and entry tricks to help jumpstart your coaching practice with the kinds of people you want to help.  

One of the biggest benefits to a certification is when the client recognizes it as credible. It starts the relationship with a basic expectation of competence. Never misrepresent your level of expertise, but look to earn a credential that has weight with the people you want to serve. If you don’t know, again, “walk the talk.” Spend time with the kind of people you want to train. Ask. Names will arise. 

Good enough is more than just avoiding fraudulent certifications your dog could earn.  It sounds strange, but “good enough” is a key mindset for the novice coach starting a learning program.  Good enough gets the coach out of the trap of fixating on one method too early.

  • First, no system covers everything you need. Considering the web of possible knowledge that could benefit you as a coach, you’ll spend the rest of your career improving those skills. 
  • Second, no system has Perfect Truth (if such a thing even exists in most cases, a concept beyond the scope here). Every course worth attending is growing, improving, and pruning faulty information over time. 
  • Third, even if a course were Perfectly True and met all your needs now, those needs will likely change in unpredictable ways in the future. 

And most importantly, as a novice coach, you won’t know the value of an education program until you test its models against your own coaching practice. Many defunct ideas have come and gone with raving endorsements, testimonials, and the backing of peer review, and even excellent ones may not be appropriate for you. 

Professor Paul Saffo, in addressing the challenge of making decisions and predictions in the face of incomplete information, developed the framework of “Strong Opinions, Weakly Held.” In this model, you commit to an imperfect prediction or conclusion based on the best information you have (strong opinions), then challenge and modify those predictions with experience (loosely held), repeating this process until you come to the best prediction possible.

The novice coach can apply this by committing to learn and practice a system of thought thoroughly but not fanatically. Learn it well enough that when experience, new demands, and competing ideas force you to abandon or modify some or all of that initial model (which they inevitably will), you know what you’re rejecting, keeping, and adapting to your practice, and why. That intentional, informed choice will make you a better coach and improve the mental models you develop as you grow.

Activate Your Learning

Whether you select a formal course, self-educate, or some combination of the two, you will face some degree of presented material: text, audio, or video. Even the most interactive and practical courses have some level of basic knowledge that has to be learned.

If you’ve been coaching for even a year, odds are you’ve seen thousands of informative social media posts, articles, audiobooks, and YouTube videos. How much of this vast flood of knowledge has changed your coaching practice? Probably a very small amount.  

Part of the reason belongs with us as coaches: consuming information can become guilt-free procrastination, filling time with the feeling of productivity without engaging with the kind of work that matters. The other reason is the content: the vast majority of the information presented on an algorithm-generated newsfeed will be irrelevant to your practice, stage-inappropriate, poorly designed for effective learning, or incorrect.

And for the material that gets through and is actually quality and useful, most of us have forgotten how to effectively learn rote information (if we were ever taught). Learning isn’t just something that happens to you; it’s an active process. If you want to take advantage of the great material that’s out there, here are some strategies you might consider applying: 

Active Reading: How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren is a great resource here, but even a few key ideas will help get you started. 

  • Before you read a text, ask yourself what your purpose is for reading it. This will prime you to pay attention to what is most useful to you and give focus to your study. What is the book about? Who is the author, and where are they coming from? 
  • Highlight and annotate the text. Use different colors to separate ideas that inspire you, concepts you don’t understand, hard claims and statements of fact, and quotes you want to share. 
  • Pay attention to your body as you read. Do your eyes glaze over and lose focus over certain sections? Do others spark your attention? What is it about them that causes that reaction?
  • Engage with new ideas- don’t simply accept them. 

By the end of the text, aim to answer “What did the author say, and how?” “Is this text true in whole or in part?” And, most importantly, “Does it matter?” Whether it’s true or false, how will your reading change your coaching practice? 

When you treat a book like a conversation with the author and read actively, you may find that many “Great Texts” are impressive-sounding nothings on close scrutiny, and a few really good ones reward repeated, critical reading. 

Active Listening: Listening often gets short shrift, but only because we’re often listening when we are too distracted to pay full attention- while driving or right before bed, for instance. Take notes on paper while you listen, capturing larger themes and ideas, or commit to summarize what you can remember after you’ve stopped (I call this the “Parking Lot Pause”). Using Audible or other audiobook services, capture key moments in ‘Notes’ and review them later.  Listen to it repeatedly, allowing some time to pass between each listen to keep it fresh, a process called ‘spaced repetition.’ 

Decide On a Next Action: After you’ve finished consuming the content, decide on an action to take with it. This may mean incorporating it into your practice, deciding to file it away for reference, or deciding that it’s not appropriate for you and discarding it. The important thing is to tie it to a specific action.   

Put Your Learning to Work: One specific next-action deserving of a separate mention is creating new content with it. Create something with what you learn, preferably something that is immediately useful and creates value for yourself and your lifters (or future lifters).

Multi-Modal Learning: Although old-school “learning style” approaches may be bunk, there is good evidence that learning via different methods in different contexts effectively improves memory retention. Get creative in how many ways you can learn new material, and try applying different methods in parallel. 

Kill Your Darlings: Possibly the most demanding task, this asks you to take something you’ve learned, preferably something strongly defended or something you believe, and subvert it. 

  • “Does this align with my experience?” 
  • “Can I find a contrary claim? What is their case?” 
  • “Is this true everywhere? At all times? To all observers? Are there exceptions?” 
  • “What would it take to test it?” 

You don’t have to prove it ‘wrong’—you may even keep the idea entirely after you’ve challenged it—but you’ll finish with a stronger understanding of its meaning and its limits. 

Learn to Execute

The novice stage of learning any skill is arguably the hardest, and it’s where the vast majority of adult learners will fall off long before they even begin to develop expertise. But if you get past (or avoid) the flail zone and work through the challenges and pitfalls, the process of growing from a novice to a capable coach opens up an entire world of possibilities. 

You can help people. You can watch the transformation moment in someone’s eyes when they realize they’re not small, weak, sick, or out of control like they once thought they were. You can take the training that strengthened you, inspired you through tough times, or transformed your life, and pay it forward as a gift to others. 

As you start to execute the basics proficiently, and confidently, you go from wanting to make an impact to making an impact in the lives of others, and you start down the next phase of your coaching journey with its own unique set of the challenges, the path of the capable coach, which we’ll explore in the next article in this series.

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