Who Makes The Best Coach?

One of my new female clients asked me why other personal trainers don't coach small groups like I do (3 people at a time). My reply...because I'm good at what I do, I know how to coach, I write a programme that is appropriate for each individual and I don't mind working hard (coaching small groups is much tougher than one-to-one PT).  

I was flicking through one of my favourite blogs from Carmen Bott, a strength and conditioning coach we have featured here on several occasions. I think this fits nicely with some of the coaching based posts we have featured in the past. I think she may have been having an off day when she wrote this because she doesn't pull her punches when it comes academics!   

I think she nails it in her final section - we are teachers, we need to be able to progress and regress our clients with appropriate exercises. Jumbling up a load of exercises, winging it and taking pot luck when writing a programmes for your clients is not good enough. Any nugget can count reps, or utter mindless words of encouragement like, "you just gave me 110%" (see one of my earlier posts on that!). The real skill comes from coaching...and that doesn't mean asking what someone is doing at the weekend! 


First of all, I would like to begin by defining the word 'coach.'  Wikipedia states: Coaching is a method of directing, instructing and training a person or group of people, with the aim to achieve some goal or develop specific skills. Other definitions found on the web include:  (sports) someone in charge of training an athlete or a team, a person who gives private instruction (as in singing, acting, etc.), teach and supervise (someone); act as a trainer or coach (to), as in sports; “He is training our Olympic team”; “She is coaching the crew”. Each definition is pretty close in that coaching requires instruction and direction and the element of teaching. 

When we examine the process of learning, it is defined by acquiring new knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, preferences or understanding, and may involve synthesising different types of information. Human learning may occur as part of education or personal development. The study of how learning occurs is part of neuropsychology, educational psychology, learning theory, and pedagogy. 

Coaching and learning go hand in hand and those who are the best coaches have several tricks up their sleeve to assess and monitor learning.  Back in my undergraduate career I made a decision to switch universities.  I was attending Simon Fraser University, known for its excellent labs and ergonomic experts and crossed town to attend the University of British Columbia, where I was able to concentrate on physical education versus chemistry and physics to get my bachelor's degree.  I knew from a very young age (21) that I wanted to be a strength coach and I already had two years of experience working as a personal fitness trainer, but found that the continuing education courses in the area of fitness taught you the basics of joint mechanics, applied physiology and safety but did a terrible job of actually teaching me how to instruct (anything).  One of the first coaching courses I took at UBC was Foundations of Coaching.  Barry Legh was my instructor and I could tell how passionate he was about coaching and helping our youth athletes reach their potential.  I will never forget the advice he gave:  “As a coach, you have power; never abuse that power.”  Students taking this class were mocked by the chemistry geeks, saying that coaching wasn't at all 'academic.' Well, for you chemistry geeks, the definition of academic is:  hypothetical or theoretical and not expected to produce an immediate or practical result(NG: boom, I'm loving that little hit to all the people in the world of wacadmia...ouch!)  Anyways, it doesn't matter.  I fell in love with the academic side of coaching and proceeded to take all my electives in performance courses such as gymnastics, dance, basketball, soccer, field hockey and more.  

After my undergraduate degree, I had a base, 'academic' understanding of all of these sports, which little did I know at the time, proved to be more valuable for my job as a strength coach, than any chemistry class ever was.  Now, don't get me wrong, I took all my levels of exercise physiology, biomechanics and motor learning - without those as a foundation, it would be difficult to dissect and analysis a sport, skill, or movement I like to study.  My point is that, if you want to coach, do not waste your time learning to count reps - learn how to teach. And if you want to be a strength coach and earn the respect of your athletes, well you also better have an understanding of the rules and regulations of the sport they are involved in.  You won't impress them for the long term with impressive feats of balance and agility. 

If I were to line up 3 people:  

1. A hockey goalie coach with no formal education   

2. A  4th year HKIN student with top marks and no work experience    

3. A personal fitness trainer with over 10 years in the industry of fitness and wellness 

....and I asked each one of them to teach a brand new client how to do a bodyweight squat, I will bet my last dollar that hockey goalie coach will take the cake.    

This is one of the biggest problems I see with the current post-secondary education system.    

Those students taking Physical Education streams as electives ARE learning how to teach and coach - these people should be the future of this industry.  But, they are often not.  They choose the career path of teaching school and don't always have time for a side gig, of strength & conditioning coaching.   Instead, we have the exercise science and kinesiology students wanting to pursue careers in health, fitness, and strength coaching and they graduate without a clue on how to analyse a skill, dissect it, instruct it and modify it.  

They may understand the 'theory' of the 3 stages of motor learning, but they have never been asked in a lab to break it down practically.  Instead, the lab experiences, boil down to metabolic carts and lactate samples, which is all fine and good if one was going to work in a lab setting, but in the real world, the real coaching setting, where I have to manage a group of 10, 16yr-old baseball players, full of piss and vinegar, the last thing I want to do is hook them up to a machine and measure their VO2 max.  Instead, I will get my hands dirty, right away, making sure they all MASTER the skills of hip hinging, shoulder packing, lunging, squatting, pulling and pressing.  Even with a group was 4 adult women, in their mid-forties, I am still going to teach them the skills of safe lifting before I load them up, before I increase their velocity, before I increase their volume/training density.   

At Human Motion, sometimes people call us Personal Trainers, when in fact we are not.  We are actually closer, in profession to your high school football coach, or your community hockey coach.  We are teachers:  We teach movement.  We teach strength.  We evaluate the learning process every minute we are on the floor with a client.  We hold back students who are having more trouble mastering a skill.  We advance students who are excelling and ready for more complexity.  Our 'exercises' are drills; our 'workouts' are a series of development sessions.  It is our job to ensure learning.  It is our job to use every strategy and tactic to deliver a message.  It is our job to appreciate different learning styles and learning blocks.  It is not our job to gloss over the important things to ensure our clients - GET A 'WORKOUT.'   

Like any skilled practitioner, the true craftsman always chooses the best tool for the job... not his favourite tool.


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