The Coach’s Path to MasteryUnlike doctors, lawyers, Marine Corps officers, and London cab drivers, coaches have no clear and complete path to get there. No program can walk you from ignorance to mastery of all the relevant skills with checkpoints of success (or failure) that everyone will recognize. In this article, Coach CJ Gotcher presents a model for advancement to help the aspiring coach navigate the gray space between stages of coaching development.
The Coach’s Path to Mastery
By: CJ Gotcher, BLOC Staff Coach
There is no shortcut to being an effective coach.
There are no 5 easy steps for creating an action plan with a living human being. No 7-movement screen can replace the need to assess movement in real-time.
Truly effective coaches relentlessly pursue a deep understanding of the foundational knowledge of the field, execute the basics with consistent excellence, and deftly guide their lifters to make difficult changes, solve challenging problems, and achieve high-level goals. In short, the effective coach aims for mastery.
Unlike doctors, lawyers, Marine Corps officers, and London cab drivers, coaches have no clear and complete path to get there. No program can walk you from ignorance to mastery of all the relevant skills with checkpoints of success (or failure) that everyone will recognize.
This isn’t for lack of trying. Traditional college education comes closest, perhaps, and is the most widely recognized credential. Still, many four-year college exercise science and kinesiology programs are inefficient, research-focused, and incapable of producing a competent coach who isn’t already motivated and self-directed.
Admittedly, it’s unfair to expect college (or any other program) to complete a coach’s training. Coaching is the art of getting someone else the results they want, so coaching mastery is measured in impact and relies on the actions of someone else—i.e., the lifter. This relationship extensively expands the possible scope of knowledge and skills to learn.
Although we at the Coaching Academy do our best to activate this learning and help coaches move further along the path, it would be impossible for a single professional to master all these skills and for a single source to teach them. This means that every coach has to take ownership of their education.
The coach’s path, then, is similar to the lifter’s path through the stages of training from Novice through Advanced.
The lifter and the coach may get guidance on the journey, but in the end, they select the methods, prioritize the skills, do the work, and own the results.
The lifter and the coach’s challenges and needs will change as they become more and more skilled.
And the standard model for lifting and coaching isn’t good enough. “Get credentialed, then take random CEU courses to recertify” is to coaching mastery what program-hopping is to strength training. It’s better than nothing, but after a short while, it’s an expensive and time-consuming way to run in place.
Just like lifters need a model for advancement to help navigate the gray space between stages and to get out of a rut, so do you as an aspiring coach.
The Direction of Learning
Although a coach’s development will look different from a filmmaker’s, the process of going from ignorance to mastery will share similarities as a property of how human brains and bodies respond to new information and stimuli. These similarities include an advancement from novice to capable and then proficient and a shift from:
- surface to deep understanding
- momentary thinking to more complex models
- direct thinking to metacognition
It is important to note that these stages are useful shorthands- trends- not hard realities.
Each individual skill is developed independently. So it is more accurate to describe a coach as being capable at some skills and novice at others rather than categorizing them as a “Novice Coach.”
Even within the same skill, a student will display different levels of performance on a given day, or even within a single session, and a good student (and teacher) will adjust the learning for the lifter in front of them.
Finally, prior experience in adjacent fields, and sometimes from apparently unrelated skills, can help the student learn how to learn. This meta-learning is why the English speaker who becomes fluent in French will likely pick up German much more quickly than they otherwise would, and the expert learner may progress through these stages more quickly.
Still, by understanding the trends and the pattern of challenges learners face at each stage, we can more effectively map out our learning path.
From Surface to Deep
Intuitively, we understand that novices and the uninformed have a ‘surface’ understanding of a concept and that ‘depth’ comes with education and experience. To be more useful and specific, though, ‘depth’ has specific features defined by the SOLO model of learning quality:
‘Surface’ learning leaves the student with few ideas to engage with, and when multiple ideas are involved, they remained siloed, unrelated, sometimes irrelevant, inconsistent, and immune to new information.
‘Deep’ learning enables the learner to apply many data points to a question, holding them in working memory at the same time to consider how each one contributes to or provides evidence against a given answer. Deep responses are logically consistent, and because they are more effective as they collect more data, the responses stay open to new inputs rather than rushing to closure.
From Moments to Models
Learners tend to move from momentary considerations—the concrete facts and immediate challenge of the task—to creating larger models.
In skills, this comes in the form of ‘chunking’ skills into larger blocks as fundamentals become automatic. Budding photographers may start with their camera in ‘auto,’ allowing them to focus on the composition of their shot, then to a priority mode, then to full manual, taking more control from the camera as they automate the previous steps.
In knowledge, this comes in the form of integrating single observations into broader concepts. For example, we may learn in childhood or through a formal method how to create safety in conversation. This single method may later be integrated into a larger model for handling crucial conversations, then even further until it becomes simply “how I talk to people.”
From Thinking to Metacognition
This path of modeling contributes to another trend. Early on, the student spends the vast majority of their time accumulating facts and executing procedures, the foundational units of knowledge and skills. This is not a mistake or drudgery to sneak around. As they become chunked and integrated, the learner becomes free to consider the interrelations between concepts, to consider the process of learning itself, and to question the quality of the procedures and models they learned in the early steps.
The new soccer player must first learn to dribble and pass fluently enough that it doesn’t completely overwhelm their attention. Only then can they look up and out to see where each player fits into the wider game, identifying team tactics and strategies. Finally, they can start to debate the effectiveness of different tactics and strategies based on complex situational dynamics and design better practice sessions to develop a better soccer team.
Sounds like coaching, right?
Be Your Own Coach
No barbell coach in their right mind would throw a novice, first-time lifter who has just learned how to squat into a high-volume, mixed-sport daily undulating periodization program.
No diet coach gives their client a program to try Paleo one week, IIFYM another week, and intuitive eating the next.
And no sports coach is going to tell their athletes, “you just need to scrimmage more!” “Play a couple of practice games, and we’ll check-in and see how you’re doing in a few months.”
But that’s essentially what many of us do to ourselves.
We go whole hog from the start, paying for seminars and workshops and expensive subscription programs before we really even grasp the basics of a system or whether it’s going to be immediately useful to us (and, indirectly, our clients).
We flit from workshop to article to online course to internship, grasping at the next one that promises to fill our insecurities with confidence.
And we tell new coaches who haven’t even figured out the basics to “just start coaching. Get a year of coaching under your belt, and maybe you’ll be ready.”
The fact that we do this to ourselves and not to paying clients doesn’t make it any less damaging, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
There is no golden path, but there are better principles for navigating self-directed learning. Intentional learning that takes into consideration your current skill, your goals as a coach, and eventually, the type of lifters you most passionately want to serve can provide so much more than what’s currently out there.
Intentional learning has the potential to break you into the industry or break you out of a rut, raise the value you bring to your clients and how much they think you’re worth, deepen their trust in you, and reinforce your trust in your own ability to handle the challenges of walking another human through their own strength journey.
The next few articles break down some of these principles and, I hope, will provide some ideas and inspiration for you to take the next step in your coaching journey. Are you ready?