3 Ways to Create Context for More Effective Coaching
Written on June 24, 2015 at 7:46 am, by Eric Cressey
Today's guest post comes from Cressey Sports Performance coach, Tony Bonvechio.
Social media expert Gary Vaynerchuk said, “Content is king, but context is God.” He was talking about Internet marketing, but the same holds true for coaching.
Our goal as coaches is to get our athletes into the right positions as quickly and safely as possible. There are many ways to do this, but the best ways all use context to flip on the metaphorical light bulb deep within an athlete’s brain. Much like marketing, the content of our coaching is only as good as its ability to create context for our athletes.
Cueing and Context
There’s lots of buzz about internal versus external cueing (with most coaches agreeing the latter trumps the former), but without context, it doesn’t matter how precise your coaching cues are. It doesn’t matter if you tap into your athlete’s auditory, visual or kinesthetic awareness. If your coaching cues don’t conjure up a somewhat familiar position or sensation, your coaching will be ineffective.
People love context because they love familiarity. It’s the reason why we leave a familiar song on the radio even if we don’t actually enjoy it. It’s why we always order the same meal at a restaurant or buy the same car, if only a model year newer. It’s not so much brand loyalty as it is the confidence we feel in a familiar scenario. And when athletes are confident, they perform at their best.
But for many, strength training is anything but familiar. Throw a new athlete into a new environment with new coaches and new movements, and everything is, well, new. Context is painfully hard to find. It’s our job as coaches to create it.
This goes beyond internal versus external cueing. When’s the last time a young athlete had to push his butt back to the wall or spread the floor outside of the weight room? Yes, these are useful cues, but they pale in comparison to referencing movements and sensations they’ve experienced over and over. Your athletes have stockpiled heaps of complex movements while playing their sport(s), so use them as bridges to new movements in the weight room.
Coaches must constantly challenge themselves to refine their coaching skills and become more efficient. Striving to provide context in every coaching interaction will help you do just that. Here are three reliable ways to create context while communicating with your clients.
Relate to an Exercise
A well-designed training program will build upon itself from exercise to exercise. The warm-up creates context for power development, which builds context for strength training, which builds context for conditioning. Fellow CSP Coach Miguel Aragoncillo often calls this the “layering” effect, where we gradually introduce athletes to layers of a movement to make it easier to learn and retain.
For example, we use positional breathing drills to get the ribs and pelvis in position for proper inhalation and exhalation. Then, we use exercises like dead bugs and bird dogs to teach athletes to brace while moving their extremities. Then, when we hit our first strength movement of the day, whether it’s a deadlift, lunge or press, we can refer to the warm-up for context on proper technique.
Context becomes especially useful when progressing athletes from low-speed movements to high-speed ones. The faster the movement, the more concise your cues must be.
For example, you’d be hard pressed to get athletes to think about what’s happening while landing from a jump. Which cues are processed more easily?
“Hip hinge! Tripod foot! Externally rotate your femurs!”
“Land where you jumped from!”
If you’ve done your job as a coach by teaching a good take-off position, the second option should happen almost automatically. Not coincidently, this position will come up during many other exercises, providing context for all of them.
The entire training session should create material for you to call upon later, so don’t gloss over the little things early on.
Relate to a Sport
Working with baseball players after playing baseball for the majority of my life gives me a distinct advantage. I speak their language. I’ve walked in their cleats. I can create context by relating many of our exercises to familiar movements on the baseball diamond. Similarly, if you relate anything in the gym to an athlete’s sport, you’ll win them over quickly.
Recently, I was working with a young athlete who was struggling to do a trap bar deadlift. No matter how I cued him or physically put him in position, he couldn’t get there on his own. Just as I was about to regress to a simpler exercise, I took a shot in the dark. Our conversation was as follows:
Me: What position do you play in baseball? Athlete: First base. Me: So what do you do when the third baseman throws the ball too high? Athlete: I do this. (Goes to do a countermovement jump) Me: Stop! Athlete: (Paused in a perfect hip hinge) What? Me: Right there! Grab the bar.
He proceeded to do a set of five textbook deadlifts and nailed every set after that. Where internal and external cues failed, context prevailed.
You can duplicate this scenario for almost any sport.
Basketball: “How do you guard the ball handler?” Football: “How do you take the snap from under center?” Tennis: “How do you wait for the serve?” Hockey: “How do you take the faceoff?”
The list goes on. With athletes, context is everywhere. Get to know their sport and speak their language. And if you can help them understand how their workouts will make them better at their sport, you’ll gain their trust and get their best effort.
Relate to a Feeling
Perhaps the best way to make your coaching cues last a lifetime is to get in touch with your athletes’ feelings. Before you dismiss me as some Kumbaya-singing hippy, let me explain myself.
Many coaching cues are transient. Sure, cores brace, glutes squeeze and necks pack whenever we ask them to, but as soon as we turn our backs, things often go awry. Even the best lifters sometimes miss a key point on their pre-lift checklist of body parts to organize, and one weak link in the chain can lead to suboptimal (and even dangerous) movement.
If you simply take the time to implant a crucial feeling into an athlete’s mind (i.e. “Feel that? That’s what I want you to feel when you squat.”), they won’t soon forget it. It’s often easier to navigate one’s way to a feeling than think about multiple body parts at once.
I consider myself a decent bench presser, but when I set up, I don’t go from head to toe, double-checking if I’m retracted here or extended there. I know what I’m supposed to feel so I just feel it and lift. That’s how mastery occurs and eventually gets us to the coveted state of unconscious competency, as described by psychologist Thomas Gordon in his four-stage approach to learning. Miguel recently drew the four-stage matrix on our whiteboard during a meeting with the interns:
Basically, we aim to go from being incompetent while thinking about it to being competent without thinking about it. We don’t want athletes to constantly think about their movement on the field. They need to move automatically or they’ll get left in the dust. Similarly, we need to coach them in the weight room with the intention of movements and exercises becoming automatic.
This is where taking 5 to 10 minutes of a single 90-minute training session can pay huge dividends down the road. Rather than hastily resorting to a regression when an athlete is struggling, create context and get the athlete to feel the right position. Get your hands on them. Ask, “What do you feel?”
Whether it’s pulling the bar away from someone during a deadlift to get their lats turned on (“Don’t let me take the bar from you. Feel that?”) or doing lateral mini-band walks to prevent knee valgus during squats (“Feel that? That’s what I want you to feel during squats.”), these extra steps are always worth the extra coaching effort.
It’s akin to the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Are you giving fish by always hand-holding athletes into position? Or are you teaching them how to fish by helping them discover the answer so they’ll always be able to access it?
Familiarly allows an athlete to let his or her guard down and perform to the best of their ability. Creating context with your coaching cues puts them in a familiar setting and opens the door for better movement. Instead of simply relying on internal and external focus cues, strive to create context wherever possible. I’m confident your athletes will move better and learn faster.
About the Author
Tony Bonvechio (@BonvecStrength) is a strength and conditioning coach at Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, MA. A former college baseball player turned powerlifter, he earned his Master’s degree in Exercise Science from Adelphi University. You can read more from Tony at www.BonvecStrength.com.
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