02 May Stop And Think Before You Call Yourself A Coach
Imagine you’re watching a large group exercise class where everyone is lifting barbells and jumping all around. As each person finishes up the workout, they find whoever is still working and immediately start cheering for them. Eventually there’s only one person left and everyone surrounds him. In the middle of the group you spot the instructor of the class who is shouting and cheering louder than all the rest. The support and encouragement is fantastic.
But as you walk closer, you look at the gym member with a more discerning eye as he tries to finish all the reps he’s supposed to do for the squat. The instructor tells the guy that he’s doing great and that he’s almost done but just needs to push a little further.
His squats don’t look so great. He finishes the last couple of reps looking resembling more of a dance move than a squat and everyone cheers and gives him high fives. The instructor walks up to him, gives him a high five, and tells him he did a great job. The member replies, “Thanks Coach.”
“Coach,” you think to yourself, what was it this person coached? This person seemed more like a cheerleader or a hype-man than a coach.
According to that big book of words called a dictionary, a coach is defined as: one who instructs or trains. The word “instruct” stands out to me. If you call someone Coach, this person should be someone who instructs you with the best possible quality. I think there’s more to being a true coach, though, and I think it’s something that should be clearly defined.
Encouragement Does Not Equal Coaching
Hearing the phrase “You got this” repeated over and over by trainers literally makes me cringe. Sometimes people need external motivation, but if this is all your provide, you’re no more use than a workout partner rooting on their buddy hoping to see him succeed. It’s especially careless to say this to a newer client or member whose capabilities and capacities you’re unsure of. If you, as a trainer, don’t have the skill set to meticulously teach, correct, and lead, clients will just spin their wheels and practice the same bad technique and strategies they had from the start. They will eventually realize they don’t have whatever “it” is that you said they “got” and they’ll give up.
It’s not the client’s fault for giving up. He or she may have worked very hard in the beginning. But hard work focused incorrectly can sometimes be just as bad as no work at all. If you never told them what “it” is or you were unable to properly counsel them on the strategies to move better and build successful habits, it’s not a surprise they failed. Telling someone to work through something without giving them a clear, systematic strategy and calculated feedback is a clear sign that you’re not only inexperienced, but also that you have never observed or been coached by a true master coach.
It’s very easy to spot someone who has dedicated their lives to mastering the craft of coaching. They use their words sparingly. They know how to distill big abstract concepts into short and easy to understand phrases. They keep their athletes level-headed. They don’t try to over excite or over motivate their athletes on a daily basis because they know that this can limit longevity. But they also know how to rally their athletes to work harder or prepare them for competition and when they open their mouths to do so, you’d believe that their athletes would follow them right into the gates of hell.
A Professional Progression
Most professions have a hierarchy based on experience and time. Medical students or first year interns don’t call themselves doctors yet. A first year lawyer understands that their opinions mean nothing compared to that of a partner at the firm. But the strength and fitness industry seems to have decided to make up its own rules as to what a profession is.
We refer to it as the coaching profession, but many of us don’t treat it like one. Anyone can decide over a weekend to get up off the couch, where they made their home for twenty years, become a gym monkey, take a weekend test, and then immediately start start doling out advice to others in person and on the internet. Maybe they drastically changed their body composition, gained a great deal of strength, and even competed in their first powerlifting competition. Their story may be very powerful and inspiring. I applaud and deeply respect anyone who has made this type of change. But this needs to be said bluntly and no one seems to be doing it – personal experience alone does NOT qualify to a coach anyone.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with anyone of any experience level sharing advice as long as they make sure whoever they’re speaking to understands the advice is strictly from personal experience. But there is something wrong with trying to convince someone that what worked for you is a tried and proven method appropriate for everyone. Studying for a personal training test for one month and personal experience alone does not equip you to coach all people of all ability levels. The more young trainers I meet, the bigger problem I see this to be.
What Separates A Coach
I heard Tony Blauer, creator of the SPEAR system , explain what he believes a coach is on a podcast a while back. He explained that when you first start working in the fitness and strength community, you are a technician. You understand basic principles of movement and exercise through your own experience, but that’s about it. After you learn some ideas and philosophies on how to write, design, and make a training program truly work for different kinds of people, you become a trainer. But he says you don’t truly become a coach until you can inspire performance.
I couldn’t agree more. I’ve heard all this before, I’ve even said the same things in a less eloquent way. But I’d take a step farther and say that truly great coaches inspire performance even when their athletes are resisting, scared, or unreceptive.
A coach not only must be able to clearly communicate exactly what they want their athletes to do, but they must also make them understand why. This means that to be a coach, you must learn to communicate to all kinds of people in all different ways. Sometimes this means having a conversation. Other times a physical gesture will do. But what makes a great coach, a true master of the craft, is the discernment needed to bring out the best in an athlete, even one who is unconsciously self-sabotaging. This takes time and experience. This is not something that happens over a weekend. This is something that needs to be learned from watching and spending time with great coaches. It’s important to take an honest look at how far along you are in your professional maturity.
Dave Williams is a strength coach at Liberty University, where I worked as a strength coach for a time. The man has worked in the profession for over thirty years and has coached at top programs such as Texas A&M and Alabama. He is my mentor’s mentor. He literally paved the way for the strength and conditioning profession. After many faithful years to his craft, he is now retiring.
You’ve probably never heard of him. He has no social media following and he doesn’t go out of his way to publish articles or speak at conferences just to build an audience. There would be nothing wrong with Coach Williams building a larger audience, but he made a conscious choice not to market or expand influence beyond the lane he chose. He’s always been singularly focused and dedicated to improving the teams and athletes he works with. To know Coach Williams is to love him. Anyone who knows him speaks fondly of him. Most everyone he knows has a story about how he inspired them or did something incredibly kind for them. Most everyone he knows has a story about how he influenced their lives for the better. That’s a coach. That’s a man I will always address as Coach. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever addressed him as Dave. He deserves to be addressed respectfully with a title that should be used sparingly and with respect. I call him Coach because he inspired me and made me a better coach and a better man.
True coaches hold themselves to very high standards. They search tirelessly for better ways to teach, communicate, learn, and reveal the best in their athletes. The high standard they have for themselves they also have for their athletes. This is why they refuse to accept anything less than the best their athletes have to give. This is why they cue them, and have conversations with them, and prod them, and at times even fight with them. They won’t accept poor technique, bad sets, or lack of improvement. They find ways to improve performance and attitude and foster a competitive mindset in those who think they don’t have it. They find ways to make their athletes believe that they are winners, even before they make them winners.
So pause next time before you introduce yourself as Coach. Consider whether you are truly deserving of this title. This post isn’t meant to intentionally belittle you. I’ll let you do that to yourself. But it is a challenge to you to take an honest look at what you’ve done and who you are to other people. If you’ve never learned from a real coach, reach out to one. Offer to help them with anything for free just so you can spend some time with them. Clean toilets, do what you have to do. Figure out how you can be valuable to them. Learn how and why these people are respected so greatly.
I used to think that my meek and patient attitude toward promoting myself as a coach held me back for a long time. Trainers with attractive personalities built audiences much greater than mine at a pace I couldn’t come close to keeping up with. I even thought my respectful attitude toward the profession and for the coaches I admired would limit my growth. But something in me refused to compromise. I kept my respect, did the right things, and kept my mouth shut about things that I knew would gain me followers but cause true coaches to lose respect of me. But now many of those “coaches” who started their careers at the same time as me are gone now. And I’m winning now. But not only am I’m winning, but I’m winning with the respect of some top coaches, because I went about it the right way. Which means that now I can’t be beaten by anyone who cut corners. Remember why you became a coach. It was for the good of others, not yourself. And if you didn’t become a coach for this reason or haven’t learned to support your athletes as if they were a part of you, then leave the profession so that those of us who care can honor men like Dave Williams by calling him Coach.