Practice with Purpose: The Path to Coaching Excellence
By: CJ Gotcher, SSC
On October 10th, 2014, I walked into CrossFit South Brooklyn for my first Starting Strength Seminar. I was a “Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist,” was versed in the exercise science literature, and had just written a technical article for the Starting Strength website. I knew the material. I also knew—about three sets into the squat platform evaluation—that I’d failed utterly to earn the coaching credential. I knew a lot of facts, but books, talent, and personality won’t make you a coach any more than they’ll make you a chess grandmaster. In the end, coaching has to be practiced.
Practice with Purpose: The Path to Coaching Excellence
Abort, Retry, Fail
On October 10th, 2014, I walked into CrossFit South Brooklyn for my first Starting Strength Seminar. Among the small crowd of coaches and lifting enthusiasts, I remember Rip giving the now-infamous Gandalf speech—“You shall not pass the platform evaluation”—and feeling confident.
I’d read the Blue Book at least half a dozen times, had finished my linear progression, and was decently strong. I’d been athletic since I was a kid and had been coaching general fitness in some form or another since 2007. I was a “Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist,” was versed in the exercise science literature, and had just written a technical article for the Starting Strength website. I knew the material. I also knew—about three sets into the squat platform evaluation—that I’d failed utterly to earn the coaching credential.
On the flight home, I thought hard about my situation. I was an officer in the Navy, and I desperately wanted to earn the SSC credential before our unit deployed to Afghanistan the following Summer. That left only eight months to prepare, several weeks of which I would be dedicating to deployment preparations. I needed a plan to develop coaching excellence as quickly as possible, and my previous methods wouldn’t cut it.
Coaching is a Skill
My biggest mistake had been misunderstanding what coaching is.
In a broad sense, coaching is the art and science of creating desired change. For a barbell strength coach, that means improving movement on the platform. A good coach does this efficiently, wasting little time in getting excellent movement out of lifters at all levels. Barbell coaching is a skill, one that requires—
- An understanding of basic mechanics and the human body,
- A mental model for how the human body moves barbells,
- The “coach’s eye,” the skill of accurately and quickly observing movement and comparing it to the model,
- Quick, concise, and clear communication,
- A platform presence that conveys authority and confidence without distracting, and
- Enough experience to perform consistently well in real time with a variety of lifters.
I knew a lot of facts, but books, talent, and personality won’t make you a coach any more than they’ll make you a chess grandmaster. In the end, coaching has to be practiced.
Naive Practice: The Path to Mediocrity
At some level, of course, I was practicing, just not well. I spent a lot of time passively ‘receiving’ information, lifting, and coaching without focused attention. I was focused on knowledge and not skill. In the book ‘Peak,’ K Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool describe this as ‘naive practice.’ In my case, it was limited to mostly absorbing and sharing information:
- Reading the book
- Watching YouTube Videos
- Listening to podcasts
- Watching form checks and observing the response
- Attending lifting camps
- Giving advice to people at the gym
Sound familiar? This is the approach most people take in preparing for the SSC Exam and improving their coaching skill generally. To put it bluntly, these methods are not enough to develop coaching excellence or (in my case) even enough skill to pass the coaching platform.
There are many reasons why naive practice falls short for high-level skill-development, but they boil down to this: These tricks are mostly mindless; they’re easy, and easy doesn’t work. If rote repetition was enough to improve at a task continuously, every driver over 60 would be brilliant and safe on the road.
Research into expertise has shown that the kind of repetition we see in naive practice encourages automaticity, the process by which once-deliberate actions become automatic so we can devote brainpower to other things. Automaticity is a key part of excellence. For student drivers, each step in the process begins slow and complex, but as each action becomes automatic, they start to expand their focus outside the cabin and onto the road. In this sense, everyone who is new and unskilled at a task improves just by doing more of the task, just as almost every new lifter can get stronger on any reasonably-specific program, an observation we call the “novice effect.” However, once they achieve basic proficiency, those entry-level, low-skill efforts will become automatic. The more skilled they become, the more refined their practice must be in order to improve.
Worse, if naive practice is our approach, we only get worse once we become ‘good enough.’ Research into radiology, surgery, and nursing shows that after a few years, medical care tends to get worse with more experience, not better. This is both because the younger generation gets the most up-to-date schooling and because without constant effort to improve, rote execution encourages slips in attention, mistakes, and automatic responses in situations that demand more attention.
Finally, naive practice will tend to point us to the things we’re already good at. We re-highlight the chapters we already know. We listen to podcasts from people we agree with. We subtly gravitate towards watching form checks of the lifts we’re already skilled at. We give the same tried-and-true advice at the gym. Without a conscious effort, we’ll naturally do what’s easiest, but since we fail where we become uncomfortable, that’s what demands our best practice.
I make a distinction between activity, exercise, and training. Exercise is an activity aimed at improving a physical trait without a plan to reach a specific goal. Exercise is about ‘putting in some time on the pavement’ or ‘getting to the gym a few times a week.’ Naive practice is to skills what exercise is to the body, and in many cases, ‘exercise’ is enough. If a goal isn’t too challenging, simply investing time towards it can lead to achieving it.
In my case, though, the goal was challenging—earning the Starting Strength Coach credential. To achieve that, and to eventually strive beyond that towards becoming a masterful coach, I needed to stop exercising and start training.
Purposeful Practice – “Coach Training”
Training is exercise that is crafted to achieve a challenging goal over a period of time. The parallels between strength training and ‘purposeful practice,’ a process popularized and clarified by K Anders Ericsson’s work on expertise, have helped guide my own coaching journey after my first failure.
Ericsson set out to find what types of practice tended to produce better performance, and what he found is that effective practice across fields share similar traits. They—
- Get you out of your comfort zone
- Require focus and concentration
- Are targeted at achieving clear goals
- Execute a plan to reach those goals
- Incorporate ways to monitor your progress, and
- Build the motivation needed to stay on target through hard work.
For me, this meant a complete redesign of my personal coaching development program with purposeful practices.
Active Reading and Watching: I refused to take content passively. I read through the blue book and the gray book again with different color highlighters. This time I marked portions that I didn’t understand, that didn’t make sense, or that didn’t seem relevant or correct. With videos and podcasts, I’d write out questions, then before I asked in the comments, I’d go searching to see if I could find the answer. In most of these cases, I learned that my lack of understanding came from having skipped or assumed a key idea. Sometimes an idea was oversimplified or abstracted to make it easier to grasp. Occasionally, I accepted that I didn’t have enough experience to judge for certain, and sometimes I was right and the source material was wrong. In every case, a single ‘active reading’ enriched my understanding more than a half-dozen mindless skims.
Active Form Checks: I changed my approach in reviewing form checks on the Starting Strength forums and Facebook Group. First, I wrote out each of the lifts and every fault I knew of. Then, I’d watch the videos and write out my thoughts before reading the Staff Coach comments. I’d then compare my response to what they mentioned (and didn’t). When I repeatedly missed an error, I’d go back to my ‘fault list’ and highlight (or add) those errors, putting special effort into looking for them in the future.
Intentional Coaching: Instead of just giving tips and ‘talking shop’ with people at the gym, I actively offered my services for free to anyone I was close to. My coworkers and I were all support staff with a SEAL Team, so we were expected to train at the group gym, and several took me up on the offer. I took my wife through the teaching progressions many times in our garage gym. Most importantly, I set an intention each time I coached—“concise cues” or “eye on the bar path” for instance—to stay focused and out of a repetitive rut. I videoed myself coaching and watched it later (on 2X speed) to look for verbal tics and wordiness. After I’d gotten my SSC, I used my credentials and experience to get work at a CrossFit gym where I would see fifty people every day doing the barbell lifts (on most days) and applied the same intentions. To learn how to coach, I had to get coaching reps somehow, and purposeful practice doesn’t stop just because you’ve attained a credential.
Seek feedback: If you are not getting feedback about your performance, either by immediate success or from an informed person, you’re not practicing with purpose. I got feedback from my lifters whenever I could: They would share where I’d badly explained a concept or when a cue fell flat and what they did and didn’t like. This was invaluable because it showed me how my message came across. It was feedback on my communication, a hard skill to improve. Other tasks provided their own natural feedback: the ‘reveal’ of a staff coach’s comment on a form check, for instance, and the lifter’s changed movement after a cue. I also got a coach, observing what they said about my own performance and asking questions, to get more direct value from my lifting experience.
Across all of my coaching ‘practices,’ the real challenge was keeping a mindset of humility, curiosity, and objectivity. Humility made me question myself when I disagreed with a book, article, or another coach, and led me to realize how often I was wrong at some level. Curiosity kept me looking for new and innovative ways to practice. Many of these didn’t work out, but the effort of finding new methods improved the level of focus and intention I brought to my practice time. Objectivity was the most challenging. The ‘art’ half of barbell coaching allows for more wiggle room than chess or tennis. Did they actually fix their hip drive, or am I seeing it because I wish it were true? Finding objective standards in the feedback of my lifters, other coaches, and videos, was essential.
Deliberate Practice – A Better Way
I trained myself as a coach by applying the ideas of purposeful practice, and July 17, 2015, I walked into Crystal Coast Strength and Conditioning to take the seminar a second time. I was more experienced, more knowledgeable, and way less confident. When I got the e-mail that I’d passed, I couldn’t describe the feeling of relief that the bet had paid off.
Still, something wasn’t right. Although those eight months were more effective than the years of naive practice I’d put in before that, I often felt like I was flailing through it. Like a mountaineer climbing in deep fog, I picked the best path as far as I could see it and worked towards it intentionally, but I messed up often, and that cost me time, energy, and money.
There is a better way, and after years of research into expert performance, Professor Ericsson calls that “best-possible” form of instruction “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is purposeful practice directed by a coach who has already walked that journey. In highly developed fields with known good coaching practices and a body of expert coaches like chess or concert piano, the coach selects exercises that target their student’s specific weaknesses that the student can practice on their own. They are available to answer questions and help the student develop their own solutions to new problems. If purposeful practice is like self-directed strength training, deliberate practice is like training under the eye of an expert coach.
As a field, “barbell coaching” isn’t quite capable of the level of deliberate practice Ericsson saw among the violin students at the Universität der Künste Berlin. Coaching is not as objective or easily assessed as weightlifting or even musical performance. Although there are many coaches, there is not yet a strong body of ‘coach-coaches.’ There aren’t yet interacting, competing schools of coaching development that have to prove their value, and university programs are mostly centered around the knowledge and research elements of exercise science, not the art of coaching.
But the winds are shifting. CrossFit’s rapid growth raised public demand for barbell and nutrition coaching as deadlifts appeared in “the WOD” and “The Zone” became popular. CrossFit gyms looking to distinguish themselves and offer greater value began to offer specialty courses and sell their coach’s expertise in the powerlifts and Olympic lifts. In the market that followed, we’re starting to see education offerings in nutrition, business, marketing, program design, and other useful skill-sets for coaches. I’m convinced the industry is on the edge of something game-changing, and I think I’ve gotten to see a piece of it.
Deliberate Practice and The Coaching Academy
Several months ago, Bill Hannon reached out to me about becoming a staff coach for The Coaching Academy at Barbell Logic. I read through and completed the curriculum and now have the privilege of coaching Group 25 through the six-month program.
Each class is structured as a small group with a staff coach who works with you through the week’s assignments and facilitates questions. The course develops the skill of coaching through a series of structured exercises designed by a team of coaches. Decades of coaching experience and expertise in engineering and physical therapy allowed the team to take a broad look at the whole ‘coaching journey’ and select the most important details to include and the clearest ways to teach them.
Most importantly, that coaching team provides something I never could have on my own: systematic improvement to a coach-teaching method from hundreds of data points. As each class goes through, and each staff coach faces the challenge of communicating the lessons to a new, diverse group of students, the course is tweaked, redesigned, reordered, and adapted to provide a better learning experience.
It’s deliberate practice. Or at least, as close as we get.
To the SSC and Beyond
I’ll admit, I raged a little inside that the Coaching Academy wasn’t around when I started, but it offers encouragement for those who are now where I was 5 years ago: either looking to develop coaching skill or, specifically, to prepare for the Starting Strength Coach’s evaluation.
It’s possible, with dedicated effort, to train yourself to the level of expertise needed to pass the platform, oral, and written exam. Beyond the advice to ‘just coach people,’ I hope my experience, and that of other coaches who have developed their skills while making ends meet as soldiers, lawyers, and doctors, has made it clear that it is possible with the right form of training. I hope that by growing the field of coaching excellence—on the platform and in how we encourage change in our lifters—we grow the whole field of strength training.
And as the industry grows, I’m honestly excited to see the offerings expand to make that education more readily available to everyone. I’m excited to see the Coaching Academy grow and help coaches in my situation grow to help more people get stronger, fitter, and abler. Because in the end, that’s what coaching is all about.