Coaching is a subtle, constantly maneuvering tango of art and science. It’s keeping an open tab on an ever-evolving human relationship so that the coachee may benefit and move toward mastering their desired outcome. It’s being the right type of person so that we may help those we coach to become what they wish to be.
In order to consistently operate as the coaches we need to be, we developed a definition to guide our actions. Here goes:
Inciting the right interventions and challenges at the right times, based on personality, current status and goals, in order to help a person, or group of people progress toward a desired outcome.
We know—it’s a mouthful. But if you read closely, all the good stuff is in there.
Based on this definition, our experiences as coaches, and a lot of fucking reading and research, we developed a coaching paradigm that we use to guide our daily actions, and the actions of our employees, as coaches. And now, we give it to you.
Following this coaching paradigm has deepened our connections with our clients, helped us build a stronger gym community, and, ultimately, helped our clients achieve better results. We implore you to try it.
Coaching: Our Paradigm
Find the bright spots: tell them what they’re doing well first
Clearly identify problems. Communicate this using the least amount of info possible.
Cue in context
Dramatically reinforce positive change
Find the Bright Spots
Starting with positive statements keeps people from clamming up and opens them to the coaching your about to give. It’s simple psychology—people are much more apt to listen if you don’t jump right down their throats with everything that they did incorrectly. People want to be seen and they need their efforts acknowledged.
Start with a negative comment, or immediately jump into corrections and they are more apt to close up and not accept your coaching. Besides, it’s rare that a client does everything completely wrong.
Here are a few examples of opening comments…
“I like the way you did X, that looked really good, but we have to work on…”
“You did a great job with X, that was great, but…”
“Nice job with X! Let’s build on that, but we have to fix…”
These are, of course, conversations that occur between sets or between exercises.
(Caveat: We’ve learned that saying but after our bright spot lead in isn’t as affective as asking a question after the bright spot. Folks were catching on that something critical was coming after. This isn’t always a bad thing, but we have to be aware of our delivery. We’ll talk more about this later.)
Clearly Identify Problems, Communicate Succinctly
This starts with the Gestalt to Fault coaching approach. See the whole movement so that you can narrow focus and find idiosyncrasies. (Gestalt psychology illuminates the fact that we see wholes not constituent parts. The face is an example. When looking at someone you see a face, not the nose, the eyes, the mouth, etc.)
Clearly identifying problems, then, starts with having a grasp on the movement you’re coaching. During the initial lessons, we helped you earn these skills—but the learning in growing in this arena is never finished. We must constantly strive to deepen our understanding of movement to better understand what we are looking for. To communicate the problem, however, understand that less information is better.
The client is already working to process information sent to the brain by their body, and their conscious attempts to move. This takes up space in working memory. Add your language to the equation and you start to crowd the processor. Feedback, then, must be short and sweet. No more than a couple of words, and only attempting to address one, or maybe two, movement issues.
If you can help the client address the problem without saying anything, this is even better. Create an environment in which clients can coach themselves—using techniques like RNT, and other tactile inputs.
For now let’s illustrate an example of clearly identifying an exercise execution issue and a succinct coaching intervention.
A client isn’t sitting back enough when they squat. You let them complete the rep they’re on, so not to crowd their processor, and then simply state, “sit back.” You notice that this client’s knees are also caving as they squat, but you don’t address both problems at the same time. You wait until the next rep and then cue them to “spread.”
In this example you’ve clearly identified two problems but addressed them separately to not give the client too much information at once. You’ve also used succinct speech in order to limit the information the client must process while completing an exercise.
A few quick guidelines:
Never address more than two issues at once. In most instances address only one. Fix the next issue during the next rep. In some instances, wait until the next set.
When correcting an issue only give the clients one or two bits of info.
Use as few words as possible.
If addressing issues between sets, be mindful of the same guidelines but it’s ok to elaborate a bit more on what you’re seeing. But keep it short and sweet. Here’s an example: “You did a great job spreading the floor, but you’re not sitting back enough when you squat, you’re dropping straight down. Sit back more so your hips have room to move.”
Cue In Context
External coaching cues instruct clients to accomplish a movement task without drawing attention to specific body parts in a performance environment. This keeps clients focused on execution rather than thinking too intently on what certain body parts are doing and limits confusion. This concept follows the same thought line as communicating succinctly. We’re limiting the amount of information, and the type of information, a client must process at one time.
Here are some tangible examples:
When cueing a person during the up phase of a hip hinge exercise (deadlift, rack pull, trap bar deadlift, etc.) make driving the floor away the focus point. The goal is to coordinate hip and knee action, but mentioning the hips, knees or any muscles associate with each limits performance. Instead use a cue such as “crush the floor away.” Hip and knee extension coordinates more efficiently.
When cueing hip torque while squatting, again draw attention to the floor. Cue the client to “spread the floor” or “tear the floor in half.” This gets them to spread their knees and create hip external rotation torque that produces tension and strength. Mentioning the knees or the hips in this instance gives the client too much confusing information.
These are, of course, only two examples. We’ll offer you ours, but you’re encouraged to develop external cues of your own. But, when in doubt, remember, always focus performance cues outside of the body.
Learning environments, however, sometimes require internal cues that draw attention to body parts, often in combination with tactile cues.
Let’s illustrate with a hypothetical story.
You have a new client that’s woefully unaware of his body. He’s an office worker that’s never participated in anything athletic and you’re his first gym experience. He doesn’t even have a rudimentary understanding of how his body moves and should feel while it moves. At this point in his training process he needs to internalize what different body segments feel like when they work so that he may integrate them into healthy, performance-based movements as he grows through training. He needs to feel his spine move and understand that’s different from his hips moving. Often the best way to do that is to draw attention to his spine and name it as he attempts to move it. Then, draw his attention to his hips, glutes, whatever, as you teach him to move them.
As he gains context and understanding, external, performance-based cues become more useful.
Dramatically Reinforce Positive Change
Humans are emotional beings—we change most often because emotion goads us to change. Emotional events are also tied much stronger to memory. Think of something you did successfully in your life, you most likely remember it more clearly than mundane day-to-day activities.
Apply that to our strength-coaching context. We celebrate success emphatically! (Note the exclamation point.)
Let’s use a brief illustration.
You’ve been coaching an athlete as she rack pulls. She’s had trouble with coordinating her hips and knees, shooting her knees under the bar rather than extending her hips and knees simultaneously. Then, on set three, she gets it! She “crushes the floor away” and does five perfect reps. You respond with “Yes! That’s exactly it! You did a great job.” Or something along those lines. The keys are your tone of voice, facial expression and body language. You must be demonstrative in celebrating her success by happily elevated your voice, smiling and showing a proud body posture.
This type of input communicates a couple of things to the client. First, that you care about her and are happy for her success. This helps her generate future motivation. (Caveat: we want to eventually create the environment in which clients can reinforce themselves, and get reinforcement from peers, rather than constantly seeking our approval. It sounds like a lot, but it’s pretty simple and we’ll talk more about it in future lessons.) Second, it creates a memorable environment. She’ll be more likely to remember how to rack pull because you created an environment in which it’s easier for her to remember what she did correctly.
Using the Paradigm
Start with something positive, find the right problems and solve them with as little communication as possible. Make sure that your cueing matches the context and celebrate like a son of a bitch when a client makes even a miniscule improvement. Nail this paradigm and you’ll dramatically improve your coaching.
A New Coaching Paradigm Webinar
For you visual and auditory folks, we’ve done this webinar. It’s about 20 minutes long and it employs Todd’s sultry voice. Enjoy!
In 2010, two dudes Chris and Todd, started the business that would eventually become Strength Faction.
You know how they say the rest is history? Well, it’s not.