Home Blog The Hard and Soft Skills of a Strength and Conditioning Coach

The Hard and Soft Skills of a Strength and Conditioning Coach

Written on November 15, 2014 at 6:51 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Sports Performance coach, Miguel Aragoncillo.

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I haven’t always been "just" a strength coach. I’ve also done personal training, a fair bit of online writing, and have even stints of teaching dance to those willing to learn. The following is directed towards those looking to “advance” in the fitness and strength and conditioning fields. I have not worked in the collegiate strength and conditioning world, though, so take this with a grain of salt!

As I transitioned to the title of “strength coach,” I have started to associate the word “coach” with the word “leader.” The idea here is that – at the very least - there is a "need to lead" in the form of exercise to an individual or group of people.

Growing up, I wasn’t a leader by nature. I was shy, and lacked the confidence to do relatively basic things: like even just talking to people. I also wasn’t the best at sports, nor was I the strongest, fastest, or even the smartest at any given sport. However, I could study how the greats played, and from this mentality I understood that I could begin to develop myself. Some would sleep, but I would study, practice, and train, since I didn’t have any natural talent on which I could reliably lean to improve myself.

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With that said, here are some of my expectations and thoughts on what it means to be a coach in this industry.

Hard Skills

Understanding the basic fundamental movement patterns that are involved within a specific model or facilities movement philosophy.

First off, you won’t get to work in an ideal situation in any work environment.

Having the adaptability to understand varying philosophies of movement will allow you to determine what step to take next with a given exercise, along with a hierarchy of movement protocols.

Some coaches will always want to include power cleans in the beginning of their programs, but if you have pushback from the get-go, you might not have a job in the morning.

There are many things that you can learn from this not-so-ideal scenario:

1. Learn the best cues for how to coach the power clean (and other Olympic lifting variations).
2. Learn the regressions and progressions, along with the best programming of how to incorporate this specific item within a program.
3. If possible, it could lead to skills that can hypothetically separate you from a “on-paper” resume for your next position.

Identifying biomechanically incorrect positions and providing the “correct” position with which an athlete can excel - and coach it quickly.

In the past few years, I’ve had the fortune of watching friends, coaches, and trainers do what they do best: coach! This “skill” is often referred to as developing a “coach’s eye” for movement.

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If you don’t know your anatomy, get to studying. Admittedly, my intelligence is average as compared to others, so perhaps I overcompensate by staying up late reading these books and I have personally taken multiple classes of biology and anatomy - after my undergraduate career.

However, nothing you’ll learn in an anatomy class will replace the time you spend identifying aberrant movement patterns. With this in mind, no one expects you to take multiple anatomy classes or read some books after midnight on anatomy.

Here are some things you can do to improve your ability to coach exercises:

1. Coach anyone and everyone.

Let me clarify. You don’t need to start training a professional athlete to begin coaching. I’m sure your co-worker’s son would love to get trained at a reduced price. Heck, train the kid’s entire team! Train anyone, be professional, and overdeliver. You could be training the next Cy Young.

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2. Visit other coaches and trainers to understand how they coach exercises and program for athletes.

I remember reading from someone a lot smarter than me that they bought a coach lunch to understand how that coach got his athlete’s strong. So I did that and then some. Now, I’ve lost count of the number of lunches and after-seminar drinks I’ve bought other trainers and coaches (who are now close friends) to hear their opinion on a certain subject.

3. Purchase continuing education DVDs, make YouTube channels, start blogging - and utilize the internet to your advantage.

If you find yourself relatively “stuck” professionally, this is an option to provide options for mental and professional growth. I’ve had people ask me what kinds of things they can do to get started in the online side of things.

Funny enough, getting started involves … starting anywhere.

• My blog started out as a way for me to track workouts in 2011. Now it sees unique visitors from all over the world, and I’ve had people email me from many different continents on the world asking questions and looking for more information.
• I also started a YouTube channel to also track my lifting progress. And the camera that I used to post all of my videos? For almost all of 2011, it was an iPhone 1.
• For the record, the iPhone 4s came out late 2011.

I’m not saying I’ve reached massive success by any means, but merely starting the action of tracking and logging the things that you are already doing will help to refine your thought process, and improve your communication skills as well.

Having these videos or blog posts will allow you to interact with others while getting your message across with visual and reading components. The alternative is sitting at home after working with five clients for the day, watching Netflix, and going to sleep wondering how you can improve. Take your pick.

Adapting to regressing and progressing an athlete based on their presentation.

This is probably the most “artful” part of being a coach. If one of your regular athletes walks in after a tournament, and presents with anterior left knee pain, what do you do?

• Train upper body?
• Train the other leg?
• Train the abdominal and core reflexive movement patterns?
• Try to condition? (if necessary - but also keeping in mind that enhancing aerobic qualities has some justifications in aiding recovery time)
• Reviewing game clips to stay mentally sharp and “in the game?”

The message here is that there is always something that you can do to improve. The steps are simple - not easy, but simple.

1. Identify your weak points from a professional point of view.
2. Decide if you need to address it to become a more well-rounded professional, or have someone else fill the spot for you (if you can hire or refer out).
3. Find the actionable items that you can improve upon immediately - not tomorrow, or the next day.
4. What can you improve on now?
5. Of course, do it.

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Soft Skills

The following is a list of items that I feel are not taught in a formal manner, but could be lessons that have been instilled after a number of interactions, readings, and other forms of informal education. Perhaps I’m a bit biased, but this is why internships have provided valuable experience for me; they allow for graded exposure with which I can improve my skills in a safe environment. I can “mess up,” hopefully receive honest feedback, and improve myself both from a skills and growth point of view.

Be personable. Be likeable.

“No one cares how much you know, unless they know how much you care.”  -Theodore Roosevelt

You don’t need to be everyone’s best friend. In fact you don’t need to be anyone’s friend at all; you merely need to understand what makes a person tick, and allow yourself to be whatever that is so that they’ll connect with you. Of course, making friends and actually caring is probably the easiest approach on this front!

Look people in the eye.

Don’t be shift or falter in your gaze. Lock eyes, shake hands, and smile. Today you are alive and helping others along their own journey.

Mean what you say.

Whether it is a coaching cue or advice that will help you get to the next level, the words that I choose are often meant exactly as how I present them.

If I say move your left foot back, funny enough, I don’t mean to move your right foot. I mean move your left foot back!

I’m all for cracking jokes (and I’m often the first to laugh at even the worst of jokes), but at the same time, my responsibility as a strength coach is to elicit change. Sometimes a hard talk is necessary, in which clear lines, clear expectations, and clear meaning needs to shine through.

• If I say you should be getting more sleep, let’s figure out a way to improve the amount of sleep we receive.
• If I say your lack of attention to nutrition is what is limiting your progress, let’s figure out a way to bring awareness to what you are eating and why you are eating that way.
Change does not occur by merely thinking about it. There needs to be action.

Speak up.

There will be music in the gym. It will be loud. There will be lots of people around. Sometimes there is yelling. You will have people not pay attention.

What will you do in this case? Will you stand idly by, being the person that didn’t talk much, and therefore wasn’t memorable? Or, will you mean what you say, and say it once so it didn’t need to be repeated?

Understand how to best help an individual based off of their current psyche surrounding their immediate goals and/or injury history.

This does not immediately mean provide an amazing movement intervention.

This could mean simply listening to them and being there to vent to. Or you can talk about the football game, to take their mind off of whatever is bugging them for the next hour of training. At the same time, I’m not saying you need to be an enabler for avoiding the immediate problem, but there it’s important to be “likable” in times of stress.

Learn how to adapt to various personalities.

All kinds of personalities will walk into the gym. Some are there because they want to improve, others want to simply stick to their routine and not talk to anyone. Some even just need a place to unwind and hang out for hours at a time.

Understanding what makes a person tick will help you get along with everyone. You do not need to be best friends with everyone (some athletes/clients won’t want that); merely coexist and help them get to their goals as fast as possible!

Some may seek you out as a friend, some will seek you out for lifting advice, some on school advice, some on day to day life conversation, and others for something else completely.

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For what it is worth, I’m of the belief that change is possible at ultimately any level; my personal mindset is one of malleability.

Now, imagine this scenario: What would happen if you did not have this ability to adapt to multiple personalities? This completely shuts you off from specific populations of people that can support your business and help you grow as a coach.

Create a system for memorizing multiple names in rapid succession very quickly.

Learning names is important. Calling someone by the wrong name stings, and even if you work with people in large group settings, do your best.

Rhyming is an easy method.

Frank the Tank.

Jake the Snake.

For those that don’t have a “rhyme-able” name, say that person’s name at least three times from introduction, to small talk, to brief departure (if need be).

If that doesn’t sit well with you, utilize the power of imagery to your advantage: imagine their name plastered right between their eyebrows or forehead to emblazon an image in your own head.

Be 100% up-front with your intentions from the get-go.

Time is of the essence. If my thoughts aren’t clear, my intentions may not come across as clear, and my actions may not represent me in a manner of which I will be proud.

You’re considered a coach; act like one.

This involves being considered a role model, whether you like it or not. There can be an unwritten or even written rule that others will be going to you for advice for many different things: nutrition, mindset, or basic lifting advice.

Choose a mentor, and walk with him or her.

If you don’t have access to a mentor, purchase a DVD, watch a YouTube clip, and read their information. Draw from it the most useful information that they offer you in terms of personality, coaching cues, tools, etc., and walk with that as if they were watching your every step.

Sure, it sounds strange, but imagine if your favorite coach or whomever were to watch your every coaching cue, every action on and off the court, field, or weight room.

Would you act differently?

Would you act the same?

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Some of these things you may already do. Some of them may have never crossed your mind. I am merely passing on things that I have found to be helpful professionally and personally. If you have additional suggestions that complement mine, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

About the Author

Miguel Aragoncillo (@MiggsyBogues) is a strength and conditioning coach at the Hudson, MA location of Cressey Sports Performance. More of his writing can be found on www.MiguelAragoncillo.com.

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  • Scott

    Great post with a lot of action steps to take right away!

  • Mahony

    Great post, Miguel. Your point about choosing a mentor and acting accordingly was very valuable.

  • Nigel

    Awesome article mate! Loads of tools that can be applied, not only to the Coaching industry, but personal and proffesional successes in any walk of life.
    Thank you Miguel, Eric Cressey & the whole CP team. I have taken a lot from these write ups, over the past 2 years.

  • Mahony,

    I appreciate your comment!

  • Nigel,

    Very true! And I hope to contribute more!

  • bo

    good info.
    most of this i call perceptive communication.
    would you agree on this title?

  • John

    Great post Miguel.

  • Frank Failla

    Excellent article. Very useful. I have begun interning as a Coach, and this article made some great points

  • Jeff Law

    This was a phenomenal article! Thanks for writing.

  • Thank you Scott!

  • Thank you Jeff! Hope all is well

  • Not a bad title! Thank you for your input.


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