What is coaching?

What is Coaching: A Two-Level View

Drawing sharp boundaries around what counts as coaching can cause us to preserve our version of coaching at the expense of our clients’ needs. To prevent us from falling into that trap, let’s explore what it means to be a coach from two different levels.

What is Coaching? A Two-Level View

By: CJ Gotcher, Barbell Academy Director

“To define is to limit.”

In five words, Oscar Wilde captured the danger behind the question, “What is coaching?”

Limits are helpful. They create clarity, guide decisions, and set boundaries. Until we’re clear on what it means to be a coach, it’s easy to mistake how well we’re doing.

However, too-narrow definitions may limit us and the options we consider when solving coaching problems. For example, suppose we define “coaching” strictly by our skill at correcting errors on the platform. That definition will focus our education and problem-solving on finding better cues and drills, but we may ignore or dismiss many other reasons lifters struggle in training.

A carpenter who defines “real woodworking” as only the work that involves their hammer will often ignore or botch the jobs their hammer can’t fix.

Taken to the extreme, drawing sharp boundaries around what counts as coaching can cause us to preserve our version of coaching at the expense of our clients’ needs. To prevent us from falling into that trap, let’s explore what it means to be a coach from two different levels.

Coaching: The Big Picture

Coaches guide people to change what they do until their actions change who they are.

Coaching starts with changing what people do. No matter how much you know, if you don’t help people get off the couch and move some weight, you aren’t coaching.

These changes happen in the lifter, not the coach. The coach can guide many different ways—by teaching, cueing, cheering, changing the prescription—but the work isn’t done if the lifter doesn’t do something different.

And these new actions have to change something meaningful that the lifter wants. It could be—

  • A change in identity: “I’m a lifter now. I’m someone who wants to grow, be stronger, and take care of my body.”
  • A change in capacity: “I couldn’t squat three plates or finish my hike before, and now I can!”
  • A change in health: “My doctor says my blood pressure is down, and my blood sugar is under better control.”

But there has to be a change, or the coaching isn’t effective (yet).

Coaching, then, is a complex chain of events between the coach and the lifter: they each start with ideas about what needs to change and the best way to go about it. The coach influences the lifter to take a particular action. The lifter receives and acts on that advice. Together, they see a change (or don’t) as a result of those actions and decide what it means and what to do about it.

In a complex system like this, there’s no guarantee that what you do will get results. It’s a constant back-and-forth of trial, experimentation, and communication, and although this is often frustrating to those who want clear instructions and guaranteed results, it’s at the heart of the coach’s practice.

This broader definition means that many professionals—like doctors, therapists, salespeople, managers, and teachers, among others—are already coaching as part of their work. We can learn from best practices in these other professions and from our own broad coaching experience to inform what we do with our lifters every day.

Not everyone is a coach by profession, but everyone coaches. As parents, partners, and peers, we try to help others change and do new things. And when we’re the ones changing, we act as coaches in our own lives.

What Makes a Strength Coach?

Recognizing the broader definition of coaching above will expand our options, but it doesn’t answer what it means to be a strength coach and not a style coach or budget coach. Strength coaches use a particular set of knowledge and skills to help clients for whom getting stronger means a greater physical quality of life.

Strength coaches guide their lifters to become stronger until their training helps them become who they want to be.

Strength coaches work with lifters—people who are at least somewhat ready, willing, and able to get under a barbell and who can hold a dumbbell or move their body in a way to create the right stress to drive strength.

They guide their lifters to train, progressively exposing themselves to new and greater stress as they develop stronger and more capable bodies.

And the change the coach aims to make starts with what the lifter wants to become. The best coaches recognize when a lifter has sold their dreams short and let the outside world limit their options. They inspire the lifter to follow their own direction and go farther than they thought possible. What good coaches don’t do is decide what constitutes a better life for every lifter and try to convince their lifters to see it that way.

All the above requires that the strength coach develop a strong technical foundation. They should be effective on the platform since many early struggles come from poor lifting technique. They should also know and be flexible with a core set of effective programs and be able to adapt them to a range of goals. Finally, strength coaches should be able to help clients tackle behaviors around training—things like diet, rest, and mindset under the bar—to move forward.

But once the coach has the basic skills and knowledge, going beyond good will depend on their own strengths, limits, and the needs of the clients they serve.

You—Yes You—Are a Coach

So, what about you?

You may not teach others how to squat or design Minimum Effective Dose programs, but you’re coaching right now, guiding your own path, and collaborating with your communities, friends, and families to live better lives. What lessons can you take from your work under the bar to do even better?

And if you’re already a professional coach or looking to become one, I hope you feel inspired not only to excel at the core coaching skills but to see where seemingly unrelated skills may multiply your results. Your past careers, accomplishments, and experiences directly inform your practice, and your practice can change people’s lives.

Because once you start to see the change you can make and the role you already live, you’re on the coach’s path. Where you take it is up to you.




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