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How to Not Totally Suck as a New Coach: A Risky Business (Medical Edition)

What does a new coach need to know (and do) to not totally suck? We can never reduce risk to zero, but a not-sucky coach will understand the basics of harm and will lay a legal and professional groundwork and collect quality information to manage personal risk and start their coaching relationships on solid ground.

How to Not Totally Suck as a New Coach: A Risky Business

(Medical Edition)

By: CJ Gotcher and Dr. Jonathon Sullivan

To become a good coach, you need experience. But to get experience, you may spend months or years being a not-good coach. This is true in many domains, but unlike learning calligraphy or making craft airplanes, being a really bad coach has the potential to harm relationships and sour someone’s experience of training.

We talk extensively about what it takes to be a good coach, but we don’t talk nearly enough about what it takes to not be a terrible coach. What is the minimum standard? In an industry with virtually no oversight, how do we make sure that our first lifters—often family, friends, coworkers, and other close connections—still talk to us when we’re done?

What does a new coach need to know (and do) to not totally suck?

There are several pieces to this, some of which will be covered in a follow-up article, but this article will focus in particular on a few principles which can be captured in two quotes. The first comes from Hippocrates: “First, do no harm.” We can never reduce risk to zero, but a not-sucky coach knows how to handle owies—aches, pains, tweaks, and injuries—and knows when it’s time to refer to a medical professional.

The second principle supposedly traces back to an anonymous soldier, as quoted by Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” By laying the legal and professional groundwork and collecting quality information, the not-sucky coach manages their personal risk and starts the coaching relationship on solid ground.

First, let’s satisfy Hippocrates and discuss the basics of harm and risk reduction.

Know Medical Red Flags

Red flags are symptoms that indicate a medical emergency on the platform or shortly after training. These are incredibly rare—so rare, in fact, that the vast majority of coaches don’t know them when they start their careers and may go years without ever knowing the bullet they dodged.

Even though red flags are rare, coaches should still recognize them for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that on the rare chance one happens on your platform, an appropriate response can save lives. The less-obvious reason is that knowing what counts as an emergency and what to do supports your confidence and helps you keep calm and perspective in the face of the lifter’s routine aches, pains, and the adjustments that follow.

Our starting point list is here.

Training Red FlagsAlthough it would be impossible to create a guide covering every possible emergency and was still useful, this covers the most likely red flags and appropriate responses.

Decide Who You Can and Can’t Train (Yet)

Despite fear-mongering in the media, the vast majority of people can and should exercise. The vast majority of those can safely benefit from a coach that challenges them to become stronger and fitter. And you don’t need to be a masterful coach to help them. That doesn’t make training risk-free.

Sports, manual labor, and exercise all contain risk. However, the risks of doing nothing are immense. Inactivity is injury, and the side effects of a modern, sedentary lifestyle are brutal on health, quality of life, resilience, and our ability to interact with the world. If it’s possible to stay active, it’s likely worth the risk.

However, there is a small portion of the population who have medical conditions or other circumstances that make intentional, hard barbell training a high-risk activity. And within that group, there are some who are perfectly trainable but need a coach with great care, knowledge, and experience to help manage that risk and make the training productive.

Know what these medical conditions are, which ones can be mitigated, and which ones will require expertise beyond your ability. We’ve included here a list of conditions we at Barbell Logic won’t train, will only train after medical clearance, and those who can train despite common assumptions.

Read through the list—screen for the warning categories as you take on new clients—and decide where your risk threshold is.

If you have to turn down a client, use empowering language and, if you can, point them to a professional who can help them. Let them know that you’re not equipped to serve their needs, but they can absolutely get stronger. You’ll be doing them a service.

Know How to Handle Injuries

Aches, pains, tweaks, and abrasions are a normal part of barbell training, as they are with any sport and life in general, and good coaches develop effective ways to work with lifters with different personalities to set expectations.

However, real injuries happen—usually as the result of life outside the gym, but occasionally while lifting. This is an inevitable part of the coaching experience, and you should know how to handle it.

If you are part of a larger organization—as a coach at a gym, high school, collegiate, or professional sports team, hospital, or other group—know their expectations and rules and follow them accordingly.

Otherwise, in case of an injury, stay calm, check for red flags, keep coaching, experiment with modifications that keep pain at a two out of ten or below, stay curious, and refer out if needed.

The following strategies can help you approach these events with an effective mindset:

  • You are not rehabilitating an injury, and unless you’re licensed to do so, you are not there to diagnose one, either. You’re helping them modify their movements and programming to get stronger—and not aggravate the injury—while they heal.
    • This doesn’t mean blinding yourself to the obvious or not thinking critically. Use your knowledge of the body to develop a hypothesis that might guide which modifications you test. But always keep it as a hypothesis.
    • Recognize the freedom this mindset allows. You don’t need to know what is causing the issue to find a substitution, load, or volume that allows them to train.
  • Your lifter is not broken. Whatever the issue, ache, or pain, focus on what they can
    • Can they do the core movement at a lighter load, lower volume, or slower tempo?
    • Can they do the lift with a different implement—like a safety squat or cambered bar—or use a different variation?
    • Avoid language that suggests they’re broken or having them wait until things “get better.” Pain is complex, and tissues respond well to correctly-applied stress. Training is part of the healing process, not a luxury that gets ejected at the first tweak.
  • Take an approach of curiosity and exploration. Working with your lifter, discover the ranges of motion, joint angles, and loads where pain changes. Try to get the lifter to speak clearly about the pain—its intensity, location, and type—beyond just “it hurts.”
    • This will help guide your adjustments, and if a referral is called for, the lifter can have a much more informed conversation with the specialist.
  • Pay careful attention to how the lifter moves. The lifter may adjust around the pain in subtle ways that can help inform you about what has happened and what to try next. Often, the pain will resolve when the lifter makes a small movement change.
    • Avoid painting a causal relationship between form and injury. They may not be connected, and if they are, encouraging the lifter to be hypersensitive to the error may make it worse or increase their anxiety about it.
    • On the other hand, don’t be a form nihilist. Some movement patterns correlate with pain in some lifters, especially immediately following a tweak or other acute event. If something looks wrong, or your lifter notices pain occurs with a certain movement, cue it.
    • Focus on movement quality not to “fix” their injury but as part of the learning process. If they fix their hip and knee timing in the squat and their hip pain goes away, that’s great—not because the pain is “fixed” but because they’re moving better.
  • If, after two weeks of training and various modifications, the pain persists or gets worse, recommend a referral.
    • Some clients will ignore it—they’ve been dealing with it for years and know how far they are comfortable pushing it—and in most cases, that’s fine. If you suspect a more serious issue, don’t nag them into seeing a professional—they’re adults and make their own choices. Still, reserve the right to stop training them, or to make more significant changes to their programming, if you think they need to see a doctor before continuing the core lifts.
    • Remember—both for your mindset and your lifter’s—that two weeks isn’t magic. It doesn’t mean the pain becomes “serious.” It’s a screening window: most pain in training resolves itself after two weeks, and that allows enough time to test different movements and get a clear picture that will be useful to a PT or other service provider.
  • As a novice coach, it’s okay to be conservative in your load and volume. Everything above applies, but until you get more experience with what constitutes a serious event, it’s fine to start lighter. Explore increasing weight again as the lifter recovers.

Get Insurance and a Waiver

If you are establishing a professional coaching relationship, even on a trial, intern, or practice basis, you should have insurance and be covered by a waiver.

For insurance, the most important concern is that you be covered for everything you intend to provide as part of your service.

  • Are you coaching out of your garage? Your gym? Someone else’s gym? Outdoors? Online?
  • If it is your house, will lifters be allowed into your house?
  • Do you provide movement coaching only? Programs for them to follow at home? Nutrition and supplement recommendations?

If you’re unsure, a good insurance agent should be able to talk through the details of your offering to ensure your plan is what you need. Even after what seems like a perfectly pleasant conversation, read the text of the insurance contract. This document is what the provider will use to determine whether your incident will be covered or not in the rare case of a claim.

As for waivers, the legalities will be specific and local, so we won’t include a sample waiver here. In general:

  • We recommend you don’t just copy-paste the waiver of someone who does something similar to you. Seek legal counsel in drafting your waiver, preferably from someone who is familiar with the fitness industry.
  • Ensure that the most important risks are clear and that the lifter acknowledges reading the entire document. A signature or initial on each page—including front and back—or an online waiver you have to scroll through to the bottom to sign are common best practices.

Get a History

As part of your onboarding process, collect a history. We recommend including the following categories, at a bare minimum:

  • Previous training history
  • Previous major surgeries
  • Injury history, current pain, and medical conditions
    • For prior injuries and pain, it can be helpful here to separate by joints, making them answer if they have hip pain, then shoulders, knees, wrists, neck, and back in separate questions, as this often jogs lifters’ memory.
  • Medications
    • If you plan on coaching them in person, include emergency medicine they might need, like an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) or emergency inhaler.
  • Diet
    • Include vitamins and supplements.
    • Often, a general question here is better than a specific one, as it tells you a lot about how the lifter thinks about their diet and in what detail.
  • Training Goals/Desires
  • Schedule limitations and best times for training

Make it clear that answering the questions is optional, and use the history less as a screen than as a conversation starter and a reference. Relevant injuries and past surgeries that the lifter would normally fail to mention will arise as part of a bigger picture conversation. And, when travel and other interruptions break your programming, it can help to go back and review their history and talk about their reasons for training in the first place.

You’re Covered

If you start with these six tools on your belt—a knowledge of medical red flags and contraindications, a mindset for handling upsets, a waiver, insurance, and a good starting questionnaire—you will already be a step ahead of many personal trainers and coaches currently working in the industry.

More importantly, you can begin to coach with the confidence that you’re prepared for the worst and have the right information to work with. This doesn’t make you a good coach—just a not-totally-sucky one—and when you don’t totally suck, you stay out of the muddle of the  ‘flail zone’ and start improving quickly.

In our next How-To-Not-Totally-Suck article, we’ll cover the next step—client-centered mindsets and strategies that will help you avoid the worst early-coaching mistakes, get results, and improve as a new coach faster than you thought possible.

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