6 Ways to Simplify Your Coaching for Better Results
Written on September 10, 2015 at 2:24 pm, by Eric Cressey
As you progress through a career in the fitness industry, it’s easy to fall into the complexity trap. In other words, the more you learn, the more prone you are to making things overly complex with your interaction with clients/athletes.
To be clear, it’s absolutely essential to continue growing as a professional throughout your career. However, part of this growth is learning to be more efficient in your coaching. It’s about figuring out how to get the same or better results in less time and effort. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the simpler you can keep your approach, the better.
This “simple” phenomenon isn’t confined to the fitness industry, though. In their excellent book, Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt cite numerous examples of how simple solutions generally far outperform complex ones:
-Simple diets outperform complex ones, as people are more adherent to nutrition recommendations that they can easily understand and apply. Sull and Eisenhardt note that simply switching to a smaller plate for meals improves weight loss outcomes.
-Individuals are less likely to actually pay their taxes when the tax code is complex.
-Employees are less likely to save for retirement when employers offer more than two 401(k) options, even when employers matched their contributions. Too many options overwhelms them – so the simple choice is to do nothing.
Author Seth Godin also wrote about our tendency to get overwhelmed in Purple Cow: “In a society with too many choices and too little time, our natural inclination is to ignore it [making a tough choice].”
How can we apply this knowledge to coaching? Try these six strategies:
1. Shut up – or at the very least, cue less.
The more cues you give – particularly if they all come as a “barrage” in a short period of time – the more likely an athlete is to get overwhelmed and tune you out. Think of all the things you want to say, and then cut it back by 50%.
2. Establish predominant learning style.
I’ve written about this previously, so I won’t reinvent the wheel:
I'm a big believer in categorizing all athletes by their dominant learning styles: visual, kinesthetic, and auditory.
Visual learners can watch you demonstrate an exercise, and then go right to it.
Auditory learners can simply hear you say a cue, and then pick up the desired movement or position.
Kinesthetic learners seem to do best when they're actually put in a position to appreciate what it feels like, and then they can crush it.
In young athletes and inexperienced clients, you definitely want to try to determine what learning style predominates with them so that you can improve your coaching.
Conversely, in a more advanced athlete with considerable training experience, I always default to a combination of visual and auditory coaching. I'll simply get into the position I want from them, and try to say something to the point (less than ten words) to attempt to incorporate it into a schema they likely already have.
This approach effectively allows me to leverage their previous learning to make coaching easier. Chances are that they've done a comparable exercise - or at least another drill that requires similar patterns - in previous training. As such, they might be able to get it 90% correct on the first rep, so my coaching is just tinkering.
Sure, there will still be kinesthetic learners out there, but I find that they just aren't as common in advanced athletes with significant training experience. As such, I view kinesthetic awareness coaching as a means to the ultimate end of "subconsciously" training athletes to be more in tune with visual and auditory cues that are easier to deliver, especially in a group setting.
3. Speak clearly, crisply, and concisely.
I have a bad habit of mumbling and speaking too quickly, so this is something of which I’ve had to be cognizant for my entire career in strength and conditioning. It’s important to be “firm” in your auditory cues, both to ensure that the athlete actually hears and understands you, but also to reaffirm to them that you know your stuff and are confident in your cues.
4. Consider both motivation and skill.
This was a lesson I learned from Brian Grasso back in the early days of the International Youth Conditioning Association. About a decade later, the message is still tremendously useful for coaches at all levels. All athletes fall somewhere on both the motivation and skill continuum.
In terms of motivation, they may be very fired up to train, or more disinterested. The more unmotivated they are, the more you need to engage with them to determine how to push the right buttons to get them excited to train. Conversely, the more motivated athletes are, the more you should stay out of the way. Obviously, you still need to coach them, but they're not looking to be engaged with you as much, as they already have their own intrinsic motivation to want to dominate the challenge ahead.
From a skill standpoint, some athletes will obviously be quicker learners, or have a stronger training history. These athletes usually respond best to short - but direct - cueing. The last thing you want to do is slow them down and make them feel like you are micromanaging everything about their training. On the other hand, if an athlete is less skilled, you obviously need to spend some time teaching the basics, which requires you to slow things down a bit - especially since fatigue is the enemy of motor learning.
5. Catch yourself when you’re trying to simplify programming, but actually make things more complex.
You can't out-coach a crappy program. And, when it comes to trying to simplify coaching to make it more effective, everything begins with a quality program. If you're coaching the wrong exercise for the athlete, then it doesn't matter how many key coaching principles you're employing; the movement is still going to be ugly, and the training effect is still going to be subpar.
As an example, there are still a lot of folks out there who insist machines are a good method of training because they "simplify" exercises, removing stability demands and reducing the need for coaching. However, I snapped this photo of a seated leg curl while I was lifting in a commercial gym in Japan last week. If you look closely and actually count, you'll note that there are SIX adjustments that must be made to the machine just to get the lifter in the right position.
Now, let's compare that to a 1-leg hip thrust off bench, which requires virtually no set-up and is incredibly easy to coach, progress, and regress. It also blows a seated leg curl out of the water in terms of functional carryover to the real world.
Poor exercise prescription will always make coaching far more challenging and excessively complex.
6. Learn about previous training experience to best prepare progressions/regressions.
Imagine interacting with an athlete with whom you have never had any interaction whatsoever - and he's about to conventional deadlift. Ideally, in the back of your mind, you'll always have ideas in place about how you can progress and regress. However, with you knowing nothing about him, you have no idea whether he might need to be regressed to a sumo or trap bar deadlift, or even taken all the way back to a pull-through or kettlebell sumo deadlift.
This is why it's so important to have an up-front discussion with an athlete when he/she first starts training with you. You can quickly learn whether they're folks who need exercise regressions, or just better coaching to clean up faulty movement patterns.
As coaches, we have a lot of goals for our training systems. Foremost among those goals are behavior change and fun, because if we can accomplish both those things, we improve adherence to our programs and optimize outcomes. Unfortunately, when your coaching is unnecessarily complex, you overwhelm athletes - and that works against both these goals. When in doubt, always opt for the simple solution - or find ways to make complex solutions seem very simple to the athletes with whom you're working.
If you're looking for more insights on programming, coaching, and assessments, I'd strongly encourage you to check out Elite Training Mentorship. Each month, Cressey Sports Performance coaches (myself included) upload staff in-service presentations, webinars, exercise demonstrations, and articles - and there's also great content from Mike Robertson, Ryan Ketchum, Dave Schmitz, Steve Long, and Jared Woolever. You can learn more HERE.
Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!