Coaching Lessons Learned the Hard Way

by Rob Shaul 

1. Let the athlete figure it out.

Don’t over-explain. Demonstrate the exercise once without talking, explain the steps while doing another rep, then demonstrating it again without talking. Then get out of the way and let the athletes get to work. Chances are most will just “get” it, and you can focus extra coaching on the one or two don’t. And often, these one or two will end up looking around at the others, and “figuring it out,” in short time. In our experience, new coaches severely “over coach” and it get’s in the way of training.

2. The greatest exercise ever, isn’t, if the athletes can’t do it.

Every coach and has his or her favorite exercise, but often, these “best exercises ever” are hard to learn or require technique or flexibility many athletes struggle with. Examples include the Snatch, Jerk, Kettlebell Snatch, Dead Lift, Turkish Get up, Overhead Squat and Power Clean. These are all great exercises, but when 6 of the 10 soldiers you’re working with lack the shoulder flexibility for the overhead squat, it’s a signal to switch exercises. Likewise, when the professional skiers you’re working with are banging the crap out of their forearms trying to learn the kettlebell snatch, it’s not worth it. Never fall in love with one exercise or piece of equipment.

3. Confusion is a coach problem, not an athlete problem.

If you have to explain a bunch of details and minutia about a session, leaving your athletes no more clear about the execution or point, that’s your problem, not theirs. Make the session simpler.

4. Make the gym a welcoming place.

The gym can be a scary place for those not use to gym training, your facility’s culture, or simply the unfit. This is especially true for men who never want to look weak.  Aim to make your gym a challenging, yet welcoming place. Strive to make the standard not a certain level of performance, but a high level of effort and attitude. Athletes are subject to what you tell them to do in a session. This puts you in a position of trusted authority. Don’t abuse it. Avoid insulting or sarcastic comments, even if you say them with the best intent. It’s okay to scold, but don’t be a jerk. Protect and care for your athletes.

5. Keep training fun without trivializing it.

We work with athletes in professions where death or injury can come at almost any time, without warning. Heavy stuff. Our training sessions must reflect the seriousness of these demands, but it is still just training. Don’t be a wet blanket by burdening your athletes with an overly serious attitude. Balance levity and gravity. Be self-effacing, be positive towards your athletes, joke about common experience (especially if you’ve done the programming prior), while also holding them to your culture’s standard. Let the quality of your programming do the hard work of focusing and giving a purposeful objective to the training, which will free you to set the tone simply by introducing the effort.

5. Start on Time.

You respect your athletes by starting on time. They respect the gym by not being late. This simple step will do more to establish a culture of professionalism, high expectations and hard effort in your facility more than any other. To that end, we punish athletes who are late with stern looks and burped penalties.

6. Don’t Get Sucked In

When you get sucked in to giving attention to one athlete, you move physically closer, narrowing your field of view and thus losing track of the remaining athletes in the session. Aim to position yourself in the gym where you have a all the athletes in the field of view.

Use your voice to carry your coaching to individual athletes. If this isn’t working, you may need to move in to offer direct coaching, but then back out to the wider vantage point as soon as possible. It’s okay to yo-yo towards and away from athletes as needed, but don’t linger in close.

7. If an athlete is struggling, send them home.

Early on, we would drop loading, or reps, or do whatever to assist a regular athlete who was having a bad day and struggling with the session. Now, when we see this happening, we cut the athlete off and send them home to rest and fight another day. Often, your best, hardest working athletes won’t pull themselves out. You have to do it for them.

8. Low back pain = end of training session.

Don’t mess with low back issues. If an athlete has something come up, end the session and send them to a corner with the foam roller. Low back issues never get better by continuing to train that day – they can only get worse. Stop while you’re ahead.

9. Focus your words.

An analysis of John Wooden’s practice sessions revealed that the vast majority of the instruction to his players was neither positive or negative, but specific technique instruction. “Attaboy’s” and “good job’s” have their place, but the best motivator is actual improvement. Help your athletes improve by upping your coaching game.

10. If it’s not working, change it. Now. 

There are many times when programming on paper looks like solid gold, only to turn to ashes in practice. It can be too confusing, too hard, too easy, too much to remember, or just bad design. You’ll recognize it immediately when athletes start doing it or maybe even before. Change the session. Now. Don’t wait, hoping it will improve. It won’t.

11. Mental fitness is mode specific.

Never assume a new athlete who pulls back during a hard work capacity event is mentally weak. Mental fitness is mode specific. We learned this from professional alpinists, who when they first showed up at the session were somewhat hesitant and timid. No one knows how to suffer like professional alpinists, so mental fitness wasn’t the issue. They just weren’t use to the “mode.” Sure enough, their second time at the gym and they performed much better – they knew what to expect. This works the other way too – an athlete who is mentally fit in the gym may melt mentally when faced with exposure or harsh cold in the mountains. To this end, mental fitness can be learned, and lost. It’s you’re job as a coach to build your athletes’ mental fitness as well as their physical fitness.

12. Train your own programming.

Nothing improves coaching more than doing your athletes’ programming yourself ahead of them – a day or week earlier. Training your own programming will reveal exercise, loading, duration and other mistakes or needless over-complication.

As well, doing the same programming they do builds community and culture. The common experience will resonate between you and your athletes.

13. Complex design is not good design.

All design improves with simplification. Work to cut your exercise menu, chose the most simple exercise to achieve the desired training effect, and simplify your programming from the macro, to the meso to the daily session level. Complex session design and complicated, exotic exercises don’t make you a good coach. Simple, effective programming does.