become a better strength coach

The Science and Art of Coaching

Being a Strength & Conditioning or Professional Barbell Coach is similar to coaching any sport. It’s not knowing everything, but it’s knowing how to problem-solve. And it’s not taking credit for the success of your athlete(s), but it’s always doing your due diligence to be a Leader for those under your tutelage. That is a Coach, a Leader for change.

Coaching is Science and Art

By: Dan Flanick, BLOC Staff Coach

Strength & Conditioning is a sport. It’s the sport of health, the sport that fuels other sports, or a sport in itself. In every sport, there are athletes and there are coaches, and the dynamic between them often determines the success or failure of the athlete’s goals. Being a Strength & Conditioning or Professional Barbell Coach is similar to coaching any sport. It’s not just about movement, and it’s more than Xs and Os. It’s rooted in science but expressed through art. It’s a constant battle against personal bias but requires a grounded philosophical framework. It’s not yelling at people, but it’s holding others accountable in the way they need to be. It’s not knowing everything, but it’s knowing how to problem-solve. And it’s not taking credit for the success of your athlete(s), but it’s always doing your due diligence to be a Leader for those under your tutelage. That is a Coach, a Leader for change, or perhaps a more romantic definition, “A Coach is the steward of a client or athlete’s dreams” (Michael Cazayoux). 

Learning the Sport Means Learning the Rules of the Game

Coaching a sport requires a firm grasp on the rules of the game. Strength & conditioning is no different, except the “rules” of this game are scientific principles that provide the basis for designing effective training. It’s fundamentally important for a Strength & Conditioning Coach or Professional Barbell Coach to have a strong comprehension of these principles and how to apply them to human beings. Once the basic science is understood, only then can the creativity of a Coach’s work be fully expressed. 

Grasping the idea of specificity, knowing how to adhere to progressive overload, managing the fatigue phenomenon, understanding how to instruct effective and efficient exercise technique, knowing when and why to select certain exercises for different individuals at different times in their training, and understanding how humans adapt to stress are the necessary basics to becoming an effective Coach in this field. These principles, themselves, require a rudimentary understanding of anatomy and physiology, nutrition, biomechanics, kinesiology, biology, chemistry, psychology, and even some basic tenets of musculoskeletal rehabilitation. Without a firm understanding of these basics, you cannot be as effective as you want to be. Being a great coach means laying the foundation that will allow you to be great. Many perceive what we do as “just exercise”, but knowing how to manipulate training variables with science as your basis allows “exercise” to become a potent medicine for improved health and a powerful stimulus for enhanced performance.

Knowing the Rules Allows You to be a Scientific Coach

Being a “Scientific Coach” does not mean being able to recite every research article that came out in last month’s periodical. It’s not the rote memorization of every step in the Kreb’s Cycle or being a know-it-all in any manner. New research does play a role in becoming a better coach, but it’s not the essence of being a coach who is rooted in science. Instead, being a Scientific Coach means understanding that every athlete you train will present a unique set of variables and responses to training. The Scientific Coach must adopt a beginner’s mindset to each person you train, coaching less by expectation and more by observation, analysis, and change. Approaching coaching in this manner allows you to gradually develop systems that are born out of the observations you make on how people respond to your training protocols. 

This is coaching scientifically. It’s first making a hypothesis, which is the training plan you design for the individual(s) you are coaching. Then it’s testing that hypothesis with your clients by running your program. Throughout this process, you must observe and evaluate how that training protocol faired with each client you implemented it with. You will then start to be able to validate or invalidate your initial hypothesis on how your program works. Doing this over and over again, with vast amounts of different people, will make your coaching art increasingly effective. Reading current literature and deepening your understanding of basic sciences will help you to continuously inform and refine your practice, but actually coaching, evaluating the effectiveness of your programs with real people in real-life settings will be the single most effective way to enhance your coaching skills.  However, remember that to do this you must have a firm grasp of the “rules of the game” or the scientific principles of training. This is where many Coaches lack.

Know Your Athletes and Clients

A Coach who is truly dedicated to the service of others strives to embody the ideals of great coaching. It starts with being able to empathize. Empathy means to be able to place yourself in the shoes of the person who is asking for your help. It means being able to feel, or at least imagine, what it feels like to be that person and to go through what they are going through. This is what it means when coaches say, “Know your athlete.” You are able to understand who they are, what they have gone through in their past, and what they’re going through right now. Exhibiting empathy allows for a greater understanding of the individual, which means your approach can be more individualized. 

Throughout your career, you will see that “knowing your athletes” will impact how you make decisions on a wide variety of training variables. For example, at my gym in Central New York, I coach many high school kids. Some of them are very high achievers and place a lot of pressure on themselves in school, sports, and training. During times of the year where I know school or sports is ramping up in stress, I will moderate their training accordingly. However, other kids handle their school and sport stresses differently, so I can tailor their training accordingly. If I did not understand the personalities of each of my athletes, I would not be able to make training decisions like this example. Nevertheless, if you approach each individual with a genuine desire to understand who they are and how they tick you will be able to make more effective training decisions for them as they progress. 

Accountability

Knowing your athlete and having empathy does not mean hand-holding, coddling, or being easy on the people asking you for help. It means serving them. And serving people who need to get healthy or who have a lot at stake—such as quality of life, scholarship opportunities, low-self esteem, fears about life and death, not making it to their goals, and all of the different vulnerabilities you’ll experience when coaching other human beings—means doing what you need to do to help them with what they need help with. This means being willing to have difficult conversations when necessary, to be tastefully honest with your feedback and assistance, and to do and say what you need to in order to hold your people accountable to doing what needs to be done so they can get where they need to go. 

In other words, being effective may not mean being liked all of the time. There are often situations where it could be considered good coaching when a client or athlete perceives that you’re being hard on them. Being helped can feel that way sometimes; it’s sort of like parenting. You may yell at your child to get away from the hot stove, but it’s what is healthiest for them to do. Thus, holding your clients and athletes accountable means doing what you think is right for your clients in the process of making them healthier, stronger, more resilient and prepared people. 

Leadership

Growing as a Coach means growing as a person. Reading all of the scientific literature, having every piece of textbook knowledge ingrained in your brain, having the strongest squat, best program, and all of the Xs and Os of training will be even more effective if you are a great Leader for your clients and athletes. Coaches are role models. A role model first leads by doing. You need to walk the path that you’re asking your clients and athletes to walk. You can only take them as far as you’ve gone yourself. Leadership looks different for different people, and different leaders are more suited for different demographics. Nevertheless, as a Coach it is your responsibility to use your experiences and imagination to conjure up the ideal leader for the people you coach. Then you need to constantly strive to become that person. If you need them to eat healthily, you need to eat healthily. If you need them to be consistent in their training, you need to be consistent in yours. If you want them to work hard, you need to work hard. People can sniff out hypocrites and being a great leader doesn’t mean being perfect, but it does mean striving to continuously choose the actions and behaviors that will make you an exemplary role model for those who you coach. 

Be a Steward

Coaches are often viewed as gym-rats who yell at people to “push harder!” Many Coaches who are “in the know” within this profession despise being called a “Personal Trainer” because of the connotations that go along with that title. Educated and experienced Strength & Conditioning Coaches or Professional Barbell Coaches have a superpower. They can assess another human being, listen to their goals, and then change their entire lives through the science and art of coaching. This is a Coach, an individual who serves as “the steward of your client’s dreams.” It is your responsibility to utilize scientific principles and protocols, your desire to empathize and hold accountable, and your passion to lead others down paths you have walked before. Or more succinctly, be the leader that your clients need you to be.

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