Home Posts tagged "Coaching Cues"

A Coach’s View on Internal vs. External Cueing

Today's guest post comes from Matt Kuzdub.

Stay on top of the ball. Extend the arms. Stay tall. Finish high. Stay back. Follow-through. Use your legs. Snap your wrist...

You’ve probably heard these cues before. Maybe you’ve even used them yourself. From individual sports like tennis, to team sports like baseball, and even in the weight room, coaches have been using verbal cues like these for decades.

While some may be effective, many have issues. For instance, if I tell an athlete, “use more of your legs” when trying to jump higher, what does that really mean?

You see, most of these cues are a bit vague and leave room for ambiguity. But the root problem is this: the types of cues we give an athlete will direct their focus and attention. And this, in turn, will impact their ability to change a movement and learn a new skill.

So the question becomes: what should coaches bring their athletes’ attention to during practices and drills? The same question can be asked about the gym; does cueing differ on the field vs in the gym? Surely learning to hit a 95mph fastball with the game on the line isn’t the same as setting a bench press PR in the weight room.

That’s what we’ll explore in this post. We’ll set the stage by outlining the difference between two types of cueing strategies: internal and external. We’ll then present additional focus of attention research (a branch of motor learning theory) - and suggest a rebuttal to that research. Finally, we’ll provide additional examples to gain some clarity from a coach’s perspective.

One caveat before I continue. I played competitive tennis (the equivalent of the minor leagues in baseball) and hold a MSc degree in sport science. Given this, my role is often one of bridging the gym with the court. In other words, I can relate to both sides of the coin: the technical and tactical elements of the game, along with the off-court elements needed to be physically prepared. Eric, who I have admired for years, is someone who not only can relate to these two elements, but can also bring sports medicine into the mix.

I’m bringing this up because, first, I think that no matter where you lie on the spectrum - on the field as a skills coach or in the lab as a researcher - knowing a little bit about cueing and learning is probably a good thing so that you can have at least have a meaningful conversation about it.

Second, a lot of these principles are interchangeable with different branches of the performance world. Even physios can apply some of the research on attention and motor learning with their patients, just in a slightly different context.

Lastly, because of my experiences in tennis, a lot of the examples you’ll see in this post will stem from there. I’ll do my best to tie in other sporting examples, especially from the baseball world, but please don’t be too hard on me if I’ve made a baseball nomenclature mistake along the way.

What’s the Difference Between External and Internal Cues?

Internal

Remember the cueing examples in the intro? In tennis, we see similar ones. Things like "turn your shoulders" and "move your feet." The commonality here is that each instruction is focused on a body segment or part.

Gabriele Wulf - prominent researcher in attention and motor learning - would say that these cues are bringing an athlete’s attention to internal factors. More specifically, she defines internally-focused cues as “where attention is directed to the action itself” (2007).

But how does a player interpret a cue like, “bend your knees?” How low should the athlete go? Is a 90-degree knee bend as effective as a 100 degrees of knee flexion? At what point in the swing/movement? Should one knee be bent more than the other?

As you can see, this cue can be interpreted in a number of different ways, depending on the athlete and the context.

Now, I’m not saying this cue can’t be used or that it’s not effective. The fact is, however, it’s got to be much more specific. For example, perhaps I want my player to load the rear leg on the forehand side to initiate a more forceful hip and trunk thrust towards the oncoming ball. So, instead of “bend your knees,” you might say, “put more weight on that rear leg during your set-up, then use it when accelerating to the ball.

See how much more specific that is compared to “bend your knees”? You might be saying to yourself, “but that’s a pretty long cue”. Yes, it is. But we may only have to use that entire cue once (or periodically). The athlete will now understand a shortened version of it like "load that rear leg" or "add pressure to that back foot" or some similar alternative - and we’ll still end up at the same outcome.

External

Here’s an example of an athlete practicing their serve (and missing a lot) using external cues only (i.e. a target):

Orienting your attention externally, on the other hand, is described as “where the performer’s attention is directed to the effect of the action” (Wulf 2007).

To clarify, external focus instructions are aimed at factors outside the body, like an implement, support surface, the trajectory of an object, or a target. A baseball batter, for example, could direct his/her focus to the bat (its path, velocity etc), the ball (its spin, speed, trajectory etc.) or to the area of the field they’d like to hit into (target).

In tennis, hitting with depth (i.e. getting the ball to land near the opponent’s baseline) is a pretty important skill. Because in today’s day and age, if you hit just a touch short, you’ll soon be on defense. To practice this ability, we often use an externally-focused cue, and it’s usually a target. For instance, with our elite guys, we might mark a line three feet from the baseline and get them to focus on hitting the ball past the line. With younger players, a starting point for "depth training" might simply be to get the ball to land past the service line.

In this example, the cue is not only external, but it’s also distal and has an environmental component - meaning that the focus is further away from the athlete. An example of a proximally-oriented external cue would be focusing on the movement of the racquet. This would not fall under the environmental component, but what researchers call skill-oriented (i.e., we’re directly attempting to target the skill of swinging the racquet - or some sort of technical outcome).

On the gym side, as we’ll see below, there’s been a fair amount of research suggesting the benefits of cueing athlete’s externally to produce more force, more power or during speed training. For example, instead of asking an athlete to use more of their legs during a countermovement jump, you might ask them to “push the ground away” or simply pick a spot on the wall (or use a basketball hoop) and see how high they can touch. I like the latter as a form of competition amongst a group of athletes (see vid below) it’s also more distal/environmental vs. proximal/skill oriented.

Here's an example of athletes trying to touch the highest part of a ceiling during a jump.

The Theory

If you haven’t figured it out already, a lot of the recent evidence points to bringing an athlete’s attention to external - instead of internal - factors. But why is that?

According to Wulf (2013), internal focus of attention instructions contribute to a conscious awareness of the desired movement. And if we’re more conscious of what we’re doing, this will inhibit automatic processes. The opposite is true for externally-focused cues - they almost deliberately facilitate a subconscious control of movement.

One theory behind this - one which Wulf (2013) suggests - is that directing attention to a particular limb for example, will provide a neural representation of the self. The result, according to Wulf, is we over-regulate our actions.

So instead of moving with more grace, we end up increasing tension. Instead of effortlessness, our movements are rigid and more mechanical. We’ve all been there before, right? You’re given feedback to keep your wrist locked at impact, for example, and what happens? Your entire arm, shoulder, neck, etc. get tight, and you can’t even make clean contact with the ball.

But perhaps there’s a place for being more aware? To consciously move the elbow into a certain position. At least for some period of time.

What’s the Research on Attention and Motor Learning Have to Say About This?

If you’re like me - and get really hyped up about this sort of stuff - then you’re probably eager to find out, what’s the research suggesting? Which is best for learning and ultimately, performance?

In a review article by Wulf (2013) where close to 100 studies were investigated, significant differences exist between externally and internally-focused cueing across a variety of sports and disciplines

Specifically, it’s externally-focused cues that significantly and consistently outperform internal cues. Apart from a few studies that showed benefits to internal cueing - or no significant difference between the two types of cueing strategies - external seems to be the way to go.

But here’s the thing, most coaches use internally-focused cues most of the time. In fact, Porter (2010) found that 84% of track & field athletes reported that their coaches gave instructions that were specific to the movement of a body part or segment. Van der Graff et al (2018) reported a similar finding in elite Dutch league pitchers; they only heard externally-focused cues 31% of the time. If collected, I’m sure data would reveal similar findings across many sports.

Specific Research Examples

In a 2007 study on golfers, Wulf and Su found that external instructions were superior in both novices and experts. When attention was directed at the swing of the club or a target (instead of a specific movement of the arms), performance was better. Conversely, Perkins-Ceccato et al. (2003) found that internal instructions were more beneficial with less skilled golfers than more skilled golfers.

In baseball, the results vary based on a number of factors, including the skill being coached. Out of four different attentional conditions, Castaneda and Gray 2007 found that highly skilled batters performed best when attention was focused on “the flight of the ball leaving the bat.”

These same batters performed worse when attending to “the movement of their hands” where the focus was internal. Interestingly, however, the less-skilled batters performed worse when attending to environmentally-oriented external cues. These batters fared best when the attention was aimed toward the execution of the skill - and there was no significant difference between external and internal instructions. So, in less skilled performers, both internal and external cues benefited performance.

In other sports, we see more of the same (Wulf 2013). Basketball free throw shooting accuracy benefited more from external cueing vs internal - i.e. focus on the trajectory of the ball instead of the flexion of your wrist. On the performance side, agility scores were better after external cues versus internal ones (Porter et al 2010).

There’s a host of other studies that have reported better results for externally-focused groups versus internally-focused ones (Wulf 2013). Benefits include greater maximal force production, more reps being performed during a bench press test, reduced 20m sprint times, increased broad jump distances, further discus throws, and a host of others. For specifics, I direct you to Wulf’s review, Attentional focus and motor Learning - A review of 15 years.

My Counter-Viewpoint

By now, you’re probably ready to throw all your internal cues out the window and completely switch over to external cueing strategies. Before you do, hear me out.

Let me be candid for a moment. Yes, there’s some compelling evidence suggesting that directing an athlete’s focus externally is more effective compared to internally. But after dissecting some of the research, conversing with world-class coaches - and testing it with my own athletes - I’m not sure that I’m completely convinced.

Because there’s an issue with a lot of the research. First, most studies are short lived. Learning is similar to typical training adaptations; there’s often a latency period (and at times, a pretty lengthy one at that). So, we’re still not quite sure if long-term retention and learning would be better served by using external versus internal cues.

Second, most seasoned coaches employ a combination of these two cueing strategies. They assess the situation and the athlete, and then provide a cue that corresponds to the needs of that particular moment/setting.

Do you really think a basketball player will become a better shooter, in the long run, if the only thing they focus on is the target (i.e., the basket)? That improving elbow position, and sequential extension of the elbow and flexion of the wrist won’t help the player perform better, eventually? If so, I’m sorry but you haven’t been around sport enough; and in particular, you haven’t seen less skilled athletes evolve their skills.

Sure, tell the basketball player to “flick the wrist” after releasing the ball and you’ll probably see them tense up certain muscles...initially. But over time, as that movement becomes automated, and they now have the ability to add spin and height to their shot, those muscles will eventually relax. And now tell that player to focus more on the hoop.

Personally, I believe there's a constant tug and pull, a back and forth, a mix and match type scenario that should occur. Sometimes, we need to focus on the positioning and/or execution of a particular body part. Other times, we should focus more on an external factor like the flight of the ball or a target. But this will all depend on the athlete, their preferences, their skill level, the time of year, the complexity of the task, the sport in question, and probably a host of other factors I haven’t yet considered.

My Experiences and Personal Observations with Cues

1. With beginners, I’ve used a mix of strategies from day 1. I have never been a fan of a kid standing in line waiting to hit a tennis ball from a stationary position. So instead, we would try to get kids rallying as quickly as possible. And a good way to do that would be to get them to focus on some external cues first. Drills that would help with the perception of an oncoming ball, the trajectory of the ball, a target, focusing on bouncing the ball off the string bed and so on. Then, we would try to tie in some interna’ cues to help them rally with more power, get more spin and so on. Things like “get your chin to touch your front shoulder” to facilitate more of a shoulder turn worked well.

2. In certain cases, external cueing can be more beneficial when approaching competitions. Many tennis players I’ve coached don’t want to hear anything about “traditional” technical cues (e.g., arm position, leg drive) when a big match is around the corner. In these instances, I’ve found that talking more about targets and trajectories works well. Things like “add shape” (using my hands to show the shape I’m looking for) to the ball might help to get more height (and safety) over the net. “Aim for the baseline” might help achieve more depth on shots when players are hitting short. Those types of external cues are also more distal - which get players thinking even less about their bodies (and letting automation take over).

3. While most players I’ve worked with don’t want to hear much about technique during competition time, there are some that need that type of feedback. In most cases, keeping cues familiar and simple has worked best. The key though, is that it should be specific to that player, and what you’ve been working on (and reinforcing) of late. For instance, one of my “minor league” pro guys was getting stuck with his forehand. He just wasn’t creating enough space between his elbow and his torso, which took some power off the swing (less leverage). We tried many cues but what worked for him was the feeling of getting his elbow “straighter” at contact (even though it was never completely straight). This actually forced him to prepare a little sooner, so that he could strike the ball earlier (more in front), which led to more distance between his elbow and torso (and all the other benefits - kinematically - that come with that) and which resulted in more speed on his forehand. This internal cue (“get that elbow straighter at impact”) worked for this player, no matter the time of year (even hearing it during the warm-up before a match helped).

4. I believe that some of the externally-focused cueing has been blown way out of proportion. On certain tasks, do we really need to bring an individual’s attention to an external source? Here’s an example I heard recently that a coach was cueing an athlete’s stance during a squat and said, “Imagine you’re standing on two railway tracks.” Really? Can we not just say, “stand shoulder width apart”? Is that going to make a big difference? Perhaps a cue like “I want to see your shirt logo during the entire squat” could help an athlete maintain better trunk positioning...but some athletes might be just fine with, “Keep your chest up”. As you can see, a lot of this is probably very athlete-dependent, which means a coach needs to know their athlete. And a lot of the cueing will be trial/error. And I think that’s completely fine!

5. One cue in, one cue out. This has been a game-changer for me, as I believe certain athletes are intelligent individuals and can process more than one cue at a time. For this to work well, tell the athlete to focus on one cue at the beginning of a movement - usually internal. And then one cue after that movement, or during the execution portion - usually external. For instance, during a jump, you might tell an athlete to “swing the arms back” as they are loading the movement and then ask them to “push the ground away” just prior to the propulsive (jumping) phase. The same can probably be done with swinging a racquet and hitting a baseball - keep the elbow [insert internal cue] during the prep phase and aim for the [insert external cue] when in the midst of striking.

6. The type of sport matters. Running, track, strength training, all have less opportunities for external focus cues compared to open-skilled sports like tennis and baseball. Therefore, it’s no wonder that more track coaches employ internal vs external cues with their athletes; there’s logic to that. Tennis and baseball, on the other hand, probably allow us to use a bit more externally-focused cueing strategy and just let the athlete go at it for a while.

Wrapping it Up...And What’s Next

I’ve heard the argument from researchers before - because most coaches use internal cues instead of external cues, athletes are accustomed to them and prefer them. But I’m not entirely convinced of this. Many elite settings - like Cressey Sports Performance, Altis, and others - have coaches who understand and employ both.

Either way, as you’ve noticed, I don’t believe we should use one type of cueing exclusively. Both have their place. Dan Pfaff, an elite tack coach (and mentor of mine), offered me this advice: “Most successful coaches are the ones that know when to use one over the other, and how to tread that line.”

He also mentioned that the timing/frequency of cueing - when, how often, etc. – is equally, if not more important. And when it comes to internally-focused cues, maybe that’s the issue. Maybe it’s tough to learn when you’re hearing five different cues in the span of ten seconds? But that’s a whole other can of worms...one we’ll explore in a follow-up post.

Note from EC: if you're looking to dig a bit deeper on this topic, I'd highly recommend you check out this podcast I did with Nick Winkelman:

 About the Author

Matt Kuzdub, MSc, (@CoachKuzdub) is best known for creating www.mattspoint.com - an online platform for all things tennis training - including coaching, resources and ebooks. He also coaches a small group of elite players (college & pro), both on and off the tennis court. Previously, Matt was the lead sport scientist at 'Train with PUSH' and holds an MSc in Strength & Conditioning from the University of Edinburgh. You can follow him on Instagram at @mattspoint_tennis.

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The Most Important Coaching Responsibility

When our third daughter was breastfeeding, my wife and I noticed an interesting phenomenon with her twin four-year-old big sisters. We'd often find them pretending to breastfeed their toy babies because - obviously - they wanted to be like Mommy.

Around that same time, I took those same four-year-olds out to breakfast while Mommy slept in after a sleep-deprived night with the newborn. As we were leaving the restaurant, one of my daughters jumped up and grabbed my arm as I was carrying hot coffee. I spilled a little bit of it, and muttered, "Dammit." In the car on the ride home, her sister began singing, "Dammit, Dammit, Dammit" in her car seat. I'm sure a lot of the parents out there can relate to the shock value of the first time your kids swear because they heard it from you. Eye-opening, to say the least.

This isn’t specific to parenting or my kids, either. I can remember wanting to do whatever my older brother did, and as a result, falling for a lot of jokes growing up. When I was in eighth grade, and he was a senior in high school, I would’ve done anything he told me to do (and often did).

Athletic companies pay high-profile athletes to wear their shoes and clothing because younger athletes are impressionable and will, in turn, want to wear them, too. The Kardashians can sell just about anything to their followers. Advertising wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for impressionable consumers, and young kids and teenagers are far and away the most impressionable. In fact, current models suggest that the brain isn't fully mature until age 25. I can even look back on things I purchased when I was 30, and wonder what the heck I was thinking.

Advertising can be both intentional and unintentional, favorable and unfavorable. The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reported that "the overall suicide rate among 10- to 17-year-olds increased significantly in the month immediately following the release of 13 Reasons Why" (a Netflix series about suicide). There's even research demonstrating that "including a patient's photo with imaging exam results may enable a more meticulous reading from the radiologist interpreting the images, as well as a more personal and empathetic approach." Even brilliant minds can be unknowingly swayed by outside messages, and that's on top of their intrinsic confirmation biases, too.

Where am I going with all this? We have a lot of coaches reading this article. And, whether they appreciate it or not, these coaches are some of the most profound influences on young athletes’ development. Whether coaches like it or not, they are constant walking advertisements for what young athletes should say, do, and look like. And, I’d argue that they’re among the most impactful advertisements because of a) the number of exposures they have to athletes and b) their positions of authority.

I know of training facilities that market heavily to young athletes in spite of the fact that their coaches’ social media presences - and even their facility walls - glorify alcohol consumption. At the very time when many of these teenagers' parents are fretting over whether these impressionable kids will go off to college and make irresponsible decisions surrounding alcohol, these kids are being bombarded with pro-alcohol messages by some of the most respected people in their lives - in what should be an unconditionally positive environment. Mix in some unedited music with explicit lyrics and racially offensive language, and you're not exactly making a case for being a strong influence on kids socially as you make them stronger physically.

Taking it a step further, I'll take some heat for this, but...

[bctt tweet="It is fundamentally indefensible to coach a team of impressionable kids while you have a wad of tobacco in your mouth."]

We can all debate how impactful these messages are, but at the end of the day, it's hard to deny the facts that a) kids are very impressionable and b) these messages certainly aren't yielding any positive outcomes.

All too often, coaches think that the most important decisions are about periodization, conditioning, pregame warm-ups, or some other X and O. The truth is that good coaching starts with making good decisions yourself and modeling those decisions to the athletes in front of you. Much like people need to be healthy humans before they become high-performing athletes, coaches needs to model behavior to that promotes healthy decision making off the field before they can work to optimize performance on the field.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 5/13/19

I hope you had a great weekend. After being a bit all over the place on when I published these features, we're back on a Monday schedule with these recommended readings.

Table for One: How Eating Alone is Radically Changing Our Diets - I came across this article on The Guardian the other day and found it really interesting socially and nutritionally.

Speed Training for Hockey - I don't have a big hockey following on this blog, but Kevin Neeld (Head Performance Coach for the Boston Bruins) is a good friend, former intern, and super bright mind in the hockey training field. He just released this resource, and it's available at an excellent discount. If you train hockey players (or are one), it's a no brainer to pick it up. I actually went through it and found some excellent ideas we can use with our baseball athletes as well.

5 Important Lessons on Balance Training - I wrote this article about a year ago, and a recent social media discussion brought it back to the forefront.

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Here’s a preliminary rendering of the new 10,000-square-foot @cresseysportsperformance FL facility in #palmbeachgardens. It’ll open up this winter. Some notes: 1️⃣ the grassy area in front of the building will actually be a turfed infield and double as a Miracle League field 2️⃣ the West (left, in this photo) end of the roof will extend out to cover hitting cages and pitching mounds 3️⃣ we aren’t renaming CSP as “The Sports Center;” we’re just working through signage logistics 4️⃣ the building will back up to the right field line of a showcase stadium field 5️⃣ this is the view from @lomogram’s parking spot 🤣 We’re excited for what will be a great one-stop shop for athletes and general fitness clients alike. In particular, Palm Beach Gardens is quickly evolving as a training and competitive destination for baseball players from around the country. We’re thrilled to be a part of that evolution. #cspfamily

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Random Thoughts on Sports Performance Training – Installment 31

With summer training in full swing at both Cressey Sports Performance facilities, I've had all sorts of thoughts rattling around my head on a daily basis, so it set the stage for a new installment of this series on sports performance training.

1. Where an athlete feels an exercise is important, but not on all exercises.

I recently put up two Instagram posts that would appear to contradict one another, to the naked eye.


On one hand, you should always ask athletes where they feel an exercise. And, on the other hand, you sometimes don't want to feel it in one specific place. The answer (as is almost always the case) is "it depends."

When motion is actually taking place, muscles are working concentrically to create that motion. When a muscle shortens, you'll usually develop that "feel" in a certain spot.

Conversely, on an isometric exercise like a carry, there isn't a chance in tissue length, so you won't usually get that same sensation.

Also, keep in mind that the position you're in plays into this as well. If you're squatting, don't expect to "feel" your glutes, hamstrings, or quads specifically in the bottom position or mid-range - but you definitely could feel them a lot at the top as you approach the end of knee and hip extension, as the muscles shorten fully.

In short, "feel" matters - but not all the time.

2. Consider an athlete's age when you're trying to determine why they have a mobility restriction.

One-size-fits-all mobility approaches rarely work because of the way the body changes over the course of the lifespan.

Early on in life, kids are very hypermobile, so you don't really see mobility restrictions. If something seems out of whack, it's probably because they lack adequate motor control at an adjacent joint.

As they hit growth spurts, bones lengthen faster than muscles and tendons can keep up, so restrictions often become more musculotendinous in nature.

As the athletic lifespan continues, those muscular restrictions - in combination with the stress of sports participation or faulty postural habits - can lead to bony blocks and cemented joints. In the years that follow, capsular stiffness can emerge as a problem.

Over time, ligamentous laxity falls off and arthritis becomes more common, limiting range-of-motion even further.

Beyond a lifelong focus on preserving mobility, this knowledge of ROM "regressions" can remind to look to different places at different times. That 14-year-old athletic probably doesn't have capsular stiffness, nor is arthritis a concern. And, that 64-year-old client with the cranky hip probably isn't *only* dealing with muscular problems.

3. Strong guys need longer to train.

Imagine two lifters. Lifter A has one year of training experience and has a personal record deadlift of 315 pounds. Lifter B has 15 years of lifting under his belt and deadlifts 700 pounds. Let's assume both lifters are working up to ~90% of their 1RM in a training session.

Lifter A Warm-up

135x8
185x5
225x3
255x1
275x1
Work sets at 280-285

Lifter B Warm-up

135x8
225x5
315x3
405x3
455x1
495x1
545x1
585x1
605x1
Work sets at 630

Lifter A can get to his working weight in five warm-up sets while lifter B needs nine sets to do so. And, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Lifter B will take more time to unload his plates after finishing his work sets - and he'll probably need an additional warm-up set or two on subsequent assistance exercises. Additionally, chances are that given his time "under the bar" over the years, he'll be a bit older and more banged up (especially at those strength levels), so he'll need to devote more time to the general warm-up before he even gets to deadlifts. Lifter B will also be far more neurally efficient and therefore need more rest between heavy sets than Lifter A even if they've got similar aerobic capacity to facilitate recovery. You're really comparing apples and oranges.

The list goes on and on, and we arrive at the realization that every lifter will have a different optimal training time. This is why I always disagree when I hear things like, "You're working against yourself if you train for longer than 60 minutes." Meanwhile, just about every accomplished strength sport athlete on the planet trains for longer than 60 minutes in just about every training session. And, many of them are extremely lean and muscular.

Don't waste time in the gym, but don't try to race the clock in every session, either. Do what you need to get to get your work in to deliver a quality training effect.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 6/26/18

I hope you're having a great week. Here is some recommended reading and listening from the strength and conditioning world over the past week:

EC on the Athlete CEO Podcast - I joined the Athlete CEO podcast to talk about everything from entrepreneurship, to the origins of Cressey Sports Performance, to off-field habits that athletes can employ for success in their sport. This is a great new podcast that I'll be following closely myself.

Some Squat Stumbling Stones and Solutions for Successful Squat Supremacy - Dean Somerset outlines some common squat faults as well as some potential solutions for them.

Tone and Message in Coaching - The Resilient Performance crew never disappoints with their writing, and while this is a quick read, it's an excellent one.

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A little deload can go a long way - especially if you’ve never taken one. #cspfamily

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5 Quick Tips To Enhance Coach-Athlete Communication

Today, I have a guest post from Brett Bartholomew, an outstanding strength and conditioning coach who has taken a huge interest in the art of "getting through" to athletes. I find the motivation aspect of coaching to be fascinating, and that's why I enjoy Brett's stuff so much. This post is timely, as enrollment in Brett's new online course, Bought-In, is open through the end of this weekend. I'm reviewing it myself and it is absolutely outstanding; I highly recommend you check it out. Enjoy! -EC

Coaching is teaching. And one’s level of effectiveness in teaching is not evaluated solely by what they (the instructor) knows, but rather by what their students understand.

Successful behavioral interventions are anchored via successful social interactions. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong. While the mantra may be straightforward, the reality is that communication and human behavior is a complex subject. If this were NOT the case, we wouldn’t have researchers in the space of behavioral economics and/or psychology who are awarded the Nobel Prize. It just doesn’t seem as important to many of us as strength and conditioning coaches because the topic has not been a focal one in our industry.

You see, we have been focused on trying to optimize human movement (and rightfully so), but we have forgotten to also emphasize human behavior.

We do still actually coach people, right?

In general, people are puzzles of needs, wants, drives and insecurities. It's our job as coaches to find or even be that missing piece for them. And in doing so, we can gain their trust and respect all while augmenting engagement and effort which will only help our training programs become more effective in the long-run. This is not manipulation; it is adaptation! Personalized coaching strategies are the most direct way towards driving the behavioral interventions that we need to take place, so our athletes have a better chance at reaching their goals.

Below are some quick and easy-to-use tips that you should abide by whenever you are leading a session. They may seem obvious, but common sense is not common practice, and learning how to communicate in a versatile manner requires just as much fine-tuning as any other aspect of our craft.


1. Listen!

This is by far one of the most neglected communication strategies in the world – which is why a lack of it has contributed to everything from failed relationships, to people losing their jobs, to major catastrophes throughout human history. Sound a bit dramatic? Good, because the ill-effects of not being willing to close your mouth and open your ears are parallel to you as a strength coach writing a program without being aware that an athlete under your care has sickle-cell trait or cardiac issue.

[bctt tweet="Coaching is a partnership between you (the coach) and the athletes you serve."]

That means flexible communication is a must. Besides, everything we do as coaches is a screen of some sort, which should provide us with data (both objective and subjective) that we can use to enhance the quality of care we provide to our athletes. We spend so much time learning about the history of an athlete’s body, but far too little time learning about their mind. You may be the training expert, but only they know what it is like to be them. You will also learn far more from them than you think.

I know that Stephen Covey quotes have been worn out, but there is a reason for that. Perhaps one of his most powerful phrases is, "most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." There is often no guiltier culprit than the strength coach as they often feel rushed due to the time and logistical constraints placed upon them while working with large groups or in general. Ask strong, open-ended questions, listen to the answers and write them down or record them just like you would data in a performance profile. Drawing upon this information will help you out in more ways than you think.

2. Speak Their Language

Great coaching is about figuring out an athlete’s purpose and matching it with an evidence-based process. To do this, build off of what your athletes tell you and relate everything you do back to their goals and specific drives. Ask yourself: what do they say they care about most? Why does that matter to them? Learning how to do this efficiently and effectively takes more practice than some care to admit. It is, however, especially effective since you are showing athletes that you are attuned to their goals and have an understanding of what matters most to them. When you speak their language, you scale your message by essentially “talking in color” and painting a vivid picture in their own mind’s eye. This is what leads to increased efficiency while you are on the floor coaching or when you are reviewing their performance results from a previous phase and getting ready to set new goals. It will also help them learn since the information is “stickier” and more personal, which both saves you time as a coach and adds greater significance to the very task you are trying to get them to perform.

3. Know Their Sport

As a strength coach, you should be doing this anyways, since the unique demands of their sport are in part what will influence the training programs that you write as well as some of the skills that you teach. However, even if you do understand the biomechanical and physiological aspects of the sport, there are still various cultural and psychosocial aspects to consider. Every sport has its own unique "cultural" aspects that can affect player personality as well as their perception of what constitutes success. This is where a better understanding of human nature becomes even more critical.

Going back the previous tip, it is hard to "speak a language” if you don't understand the geography of its origins. This metaphor has real meaning since aspects of their upbringing will also influence how they behave in groups, especially as it pertains to working with individual sport athletes vs. team sport athletes. Just as you need to be aware of the myriad of variables that can throw off the success of your training program (poor diet, time constraints, sleep issues etc), you need to keep a keen eye on the "not so obvious" elements of performance which can often be neglected in favor of the typical or more focal aspects of what we do.

4. Be Transparent and a Bit Vulnerable

This can be an uncomfortable one for many, but all I am saying here is that building trust is not a one-way street. You cannot expect to be able to bombard your athletes with both questions and information and expect them to never ask you questions in return, or for you to have to volunteer some information about yourself as well. Not doing so leads to a parasocial relationship, which is the antithesis of what you want when aiming to become a more effective coach. A true professional always welcomes mutual inquiry. By its definition, coaching is a social process; coaches are at the epicenter of it. It was the researcher Pierre Bourdieu who in 1997 first ascertained that the coaching process (as well as coaching practice in general) is to be considered a form of "regulated improvisation." In his 1996 text, Sociological Theory, Dr. George Ritzer observed that effective practice is neither entirely objectively determined nor the unbridled product of free will. Yes, you heard that right: it is an imperfect practice that can only be refined by your willingness to get your hands dirty and enhance your social skills as well as your technical skills.

5. Alter Your Perspective

It is not uncommon for strength coaches to be viewed by their athletes as someone who "doesn't get it." Not every athlete likes lifting weights or various other forms of physical training and can often view the performance side of things as just another task to "check off" so they can get back to playing their sport or living their life. You don't have to agree with this point of view, but you need to be cognizant of it if you are going to have any hope of reaching your athletes on a truly meaningful and influential level.

One of my favorite movies that I used to watch with my father growing up was "Trading Places," which starred Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy. In the movie, Akroyd played a wealthy commodity broker and Murphy was a broke hustler always looking for his next con. Through both an odd and humorous turn of events, the two ended up switching places and throughout the rest of movie eventually learned the error in regard to their previous biases and behavior. The movie ended with the both of them in a far better place than either were in the beginning, imbued with a renewed sense of perspective, compassion and wisdom. I bring this up because right now it seems like one of the biggest things that coaches like to incessantly complain about is “millenials” and how they behave/interact. I get it, but at the same time, it’s my opinion that grumbling about how it’s hard to coach someone from a different generation is akin to whining that you can’t write a good program because you don’t have enough equipment. Be creative, get outside of yourself and find a way.

These tips serve as only a small thumbnail of the communication strategies that you should be using throughout your coaching career. In my 5-week online course Bought-In, I discuss over 25 more research-driven influence techniques, coaching strategies and behavioral interventions that you can call-upon while working with athletes of any age, any sport and anywhere in the world. All of which will help you become a better coach.

The course will also give you lifetime access to all content and all other materials on my Art of Coaching site. Other topics include:

• The influence factors that shape athlete behavior
• How we ourselves get in the way of becoming better coaches
• Frameworks and models to get a better understanding of your athletes + how to engage with them
• Influence tactics that can help you change people’s attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviors

The applied section of Bought-In also includes coaching evaluations, staff-development manuals, and a number of other resources which allow you to actually put the information to use as opposed to mindlessly consuming it.

I hope to see you there!

References

Bourdieu, P. (1997). Outline of a theory of practice. London: Cambridge University Press.

Ritzer, G. (1996). Sociological theory. Singapore: McGraw Hill
 

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The Success is in the Struggle

Back in my graduate school days, I did some personal training at a gym not far from campus. My days were filled with work in the human performance lab and varsity weight rooms, but I felt like it was really important that I continued to train general fitness clients to become more proficient in that demographic – and help pay the bills.

Like most guys in my early 20s, I thought I had life all figured out. A few months in, my boss informed me that I was due for a performance review. She also mentioned that they were deviating from the “norm” a bit, and that my sit-down meeting would not be with her, but rather, with one of the more experienced trainers, Kris. I didn’t really think anything of it, and the meeting was scheduled for the following week.

Looking back, that meeting was profoundly impactful for me, even if I didn’t fully grasp just how important it was at the time.

Kris first complimented me on what I did well: work ethic, passion, attention to detail, coaching, and book smarts. Looking back, it was a perfect Dale Carnegie approach before I’d ever even read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Eventually, though, the conversation delved into the topic of empathy; she asked me what I thought most of my clients really wanted to get out of their personal training with me.

Here I was, a 22-year-old aspiring powerlifter who thought the world was out to train for a 600lb deadlift and get to 200 pounds at 6% body fat. My most loyal client, though, was a 68-year-old accountant who just didn’t want his neck and shoulder to hurt when he worked out and picked up his grandkids. Another was an elderly woman who was far more concerned about her risk of osteoporosis than her vertical jump.

That day, without telling me I sucked at relating to my clients, Kris taught me a ton about empathy and separating myself from personal biases. She just tactfully challenged me with a simple question. It wasn’t much different than the “guided discovery” approach we use with young athletes when we walk them into a little technique failure so that they can appreciate the wrong pattern.

“Where did you feel that?”

“Can you stop rowing when your elbow hits my hand?”

“See how your nose got to the floor before your chest on that push-up? Can you switch that up?”

Kris saw exactly what I needed to become a better coach, and she delivered the message perfectly. In hindsight, that lesson in empathy and separating myself from personal biases probably made a huge difference in enabling me to be successful in training baseball players even though I wasn’t a baseball player past eighth grade. I had to do a lot more listening and ask a lot more questions. Kris understood this all too well – and modeled it, too: she’d had clients for over a decade!

That was 2003. Now, 14 years later, Kris and I are still good friends. She sent us gifts when our twins were born. I help out with training her son, an up-and-coming pitcher. Of any of my co-workers at that time, she challenged me the most – and she’s the only one with whom I really keep in touch. How is that for impactful? 

I actually reached out to her before posting this blog, and her response included the following:

"I remember this conversation well. I dreaded giving this performance review! I remember thinking that I knew how smart you were (probably smarter than I) and I knew that this trainer job was ultimately not your end point. I wanted to make sure you knew how valuable your knowledge was when applied correctly. How do you tell someone their delivery is not as sensitive as it needs to be??

"I'm so glad that I succeeded in my message and that this lesson has stayed with you. I am honored that you, who I respect immensely, learned something from me. You never really know how much you can impact a person's behavior and thought process."

Now, imagine she’d never spoken up. Or, even worse, if she had – but I wasn’t ready to accept that constructive criticism. I wouldn’t be the coach (or person) I am today. This is why we should be massively grateful to those who not only have constructive criticism to offer, but choose to provide it with the correct approach.

When it really comes down to it, people struggle or fail to improve for one of three reasons.

a) They don’t know what they’re doing incorrectly.

b) They don’t have actionable strategies to address these issues; don’t understand how to employ these strategies; or haven't had enough consistency or success with these strategies.

c) They aren’t willing to change.

In terms of A, it’s important to challenge people tactfully and make them aware of their blind spots. Particularly in the youth sports realm, this is getting to be a very dicey situation. Many kids think they have it all figured out, and more concerning, many parents think coaches “have it in” for their kids, so they block constructive criticism. If we protect kids from understanding their weaknesses, they don’t grow. If we challenge kids, let them know failure isn’t a big deal, and then provide strategies to improve, they thrive. It’s been demonstrated in motor learning research, the educational realm, and social settings. As has often been said, “the success is in the struggle.”

Conversely, some people need help with B. This is the kid who is always late for practice, or always misses breakfast because he oversleeps. He needs time management strategies, and people around him to whom he can be accountable.

Scenario C is far and away the most challenging dynamic. These are situations where you may actually cheer against someone in hopes that they’ll struggle mightily and come to their senses on what needs to change. In an athletic context, it’s usually the kid who is the best player in the history of his town even though he eats fast food at every meal, skips training sessions, and stays up all night. It’s just a matter of time until he runs into genetically gifted competition that is far more prepared and motivated than he is.

Aroldis Chapman throws 105mph – harder than anyone in baseball history – and he has a 4.12 ERA this year. Mike Trout struck out three times in a game earlier this year. Ultimately, no matter who you are, sports and life will humble you in some capacity. Athletes are better off learning these struggles at a young age so that they’ll have strategies for dealing with them for the decades that follow.

What are the take-home messages?

1. Always be open to constructive criticism. In fact, seek it out. You can’t see your blind spots like others can.

2. Don’t protect your kid from constructive criticism, or immediately discredit criticisms of you. Process them before reacting. And remember the person delivering the criticism may actually be really nervous about doing so.

3. If you deliver constructive criticism, be cognizant of matching your approach to the personality of the one who’s receiving it.

4. Always reiterate that failure is part of life and not a big deal. And, if it seems like a big deal – particularly with young athletes – find ways to minimize consequences.

5. If you know why you’re struggling, find and employ strategies to address your weaknesses.

6. Thank you, Kris!
 

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Strength and Conditioning Programs: When Precision Tops Effort

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Sports Performance Director of Performance, John O'Neil.

Openly communicating expectations on an exercise-by-exercise level as a coach can go a long way in ensuring the outcome of the chosen program is as intended. A typical new client we see will give near maximal effort on every exercise, not understanding that heavier does not equal better and there’s a problem if something that’s meant to be lower intensity becomes a straining exercise. Too often I see random exercises done with an inappropriate amount of weight because the client doesn’t understand that harder isn’t better; smarter is better. While you want to pile plates on for some lifts, with others, the load is less important than the execution. The important thing is that the athlete/client understands your intentions as the person who wrote the program – and that communication is a two-way street.

In our model at Cressey Sports Performance, we will typically pair something that is meant to be heavier with something that is meant to be lighter. Only a few exercise will meant to be loaded heavily, and in the rest, precision of technique is the focus. A sample lower body day for a pitcher might be:

A1) Trap Bar Deadlift: 4x5
A2) Alternating Prone Trap Raise on Stability Ball: 3x8/side
B1) Double KB Reverse Lunges: 3x8/side
B2) Supine 90/90 External Rotation Holds: 3x(2x6)
C1) KB Goblet Lateral Lunges: 3x8/side
C2) Side Bridges: 3x5 breaths/side
D1) Split-Stance Rhythmic Stabilization, 3 positions: 3x5-5-5sec
D2) Core-Engaged Dead Bugs: 3x5/side

When we look at a day like this, we need to have knowledge of the difference between central and peripheral stress. The above day has 1 central stressor, 1-2 loadable peripheral stressors, and 5-6 exercises that are never meant to crush someone (lateral lunges are the in-between, depending on the person). Most effective training days will only have 1-3 central stressors, and the rest will be peripheral.

Think of these like main lifts vs. accessory lifts. This is not to demean the accessory lifts, as they are necessary to our programming and we will use them to assure local muscular hypertrophy, sports-specific positional stability, and general health. Exercises that affect the central nervous system will include your big bang-for-your-buck lifts like squats, deadlifts, and presses. These are the ones in the weight room that we can load up and effectively train in rep schemes of five and below.

To monitor the success of this sample day, the trap bar deadlift should be done at a high RPE (ratings of perceived exertion). This might be through a 1-10 number scale. Ask the client how many more reps they could have done and if they say 1, it was a 9. If they say 2, it was 8, and so on.

To keep this easier in a semi-private training model with many young clients drastically misinterpreting a number scale, I simply tell the person something like “this should be very hard, but never feel impossible.” If you have experience coaching, you can typically tell when someone’s technique is about to break down if they attempted another rep.

[bctt tweet="If you safely strain to just below technical failure, you chose a good weight for a main lift."]

Peripheral stressors are the exercises that you should really never come close to missing. Even if someone is extremely strong at an 8-rep reverse lunge, rep 8 shouldn’t be a grinder and rep 9 should always be possible. With clients, I like to communicate that exact idea: precision of the movement and owning the technique at a moderately challenging level will go a lot further than being sloppy and adding more weight.

This is not to say these are easy exercises, though. In fact, the peripheral stressors are often the exercises that will make you sore as they attack more localized areas and are done in rep schemes (8-12) that are more congruent with hypertrophy. The problem with not communicating the appropriate weights on these exercises is they will potentially take away from the benefits the main exercises (central stressors) will provide. Train your main exercises to a point of safely straining, and train your accessory lifts with mental intent and precision.

About the Author

John O'Neil (@ONeilStrength) is Director of Performance at Cressey Sports Performance-MA. You can contact him by email at joh.oneil@gmail.com and follow him on Instagram.

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Coaching Strategy: Shut Up More Often

I really love strength and conditioning. I see athletes as similar to choose-your-own adventure books where you have to find the right assessment, programming, and coaching strategies to get them to where they need to be. Each case is unique, so I get genuinely excited in trying to solve new puzzles every day.

Early in my career, though, that excitement often got the best of me. My brain would race faster than my mouth could keep up, and I used my mouth more than my ears and my eyes. Looking back, I threw way too many questions, observations, and cues at athletes. In talking so much, I probably not only confused them, but also missed out on invaluable chances to listen more and learn about their stories - which would help me solve these puzzles. Now, I talk much less and do a lot more listening. My goal in every assessment is to listen 80% of the time and only talk the remaining 20%. And, in my coaching interactions, I try to be as to-the-point as possible, using fewer words and more body language and gestures to convey my points.

Not surprisingly, I feel strongly that shutting up more often has made me a far better coach. Improving in any of life's challenges - athletics included - is about learning to tune out the noise - and too many coaching cues are just distractions as you're trying to learn how to move correctly. Interesting, as author Adam Grant recently pointed out on Twitter, there are academic parallels to this. A 2014 study (described here) reported that "when kindergartners were taught in a highly decorated classroom, they were more distracted and scored lower on tests than when they were taught in a room with bare walls." When we're trying to learn - whether it's our ABCs or how to trap bar deadlift - loads of distractions are our biggest enemy.

With that in mind, you have to ask yourself: "As a coach, am I a facilitator or just another distraction?"

If you're giving an athlete 58 visual, verbal, and kinesthetic cues all at the same time, you're overcoaching and overwhelming them. Moreover, if you're asking them asking them about their weekend while they're in the middle of sets, you're likely taking them further away from their goals. As I've written time and time again:

[bctt tweet="Good coaching cues are clear, firm, concise - and TIMELY."]

As much as it may hurt to admit it, sometimes, the best way to get athletes to where they want to be is to shut up. The next time you're struggling to get an athlete to make the adjustments you're trying to accomplish, take a step back and simplify your coaching approach with fewer words.

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5 Tips for Improved Client Relationships

Today's guest post comes from Brett Velon, who interned at Cressey Sports Performance - Florida this past fall. Brett connected with clients better than any intern I've ever seen; he is one of those people who can talk to anyone, anywhere. With that in mind, I asked him to write up his thoughts on the topic. Enjoy! - EC

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Coaching as a career wasn’t even a thought until after I finished college. Although to many it would seem to be an impediment for me not having a traditional strength and conditioning background, it has actually been a blessing in disguise. Without being able to rely on a degree, my development as a coach has been heavily reliant upon the development of client relationships. Teddy Roosevelt said it best when he said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

What I realized was many coaches in the industry were very technically smart, but lacked the most basic people skills. Instead of addressing this issue, most accumulate more degrees and certifications, thinking a new certification will have clients lining up to train with them. The problem is most clients don’t know what the certifications mean. Once I truly understood that client’s retention was heavily dependent on their relationship with their coach, I became more cognizant of the experience I was providing clients. Despite not really knowing what I was doing, I decided it was best to start with simply enjoying myself. My thought was if I was in a good mood and wanted to be at the gym then maybe the clients might feel the same way. It seems stupid simple, but look around and notice how many coaches suck all the enjoyment out of training.

Understand and believe that cultivating relationships is a skill that can be improved and doesn’t require being the most charismatic person. Effort and the willingness to try are the only requirements. Here are five simple tips I have personally used to improve my ability to create rewarding client relationships.

Tip #1: Be self aware.

If the urge to talk about yourself arises, take a deep breathe and then don’t do it. It’s the simplest but rarely followed piece of advice I can give. Nobody cares about your past athletic career or your 500 pound squat; focus the conversation around the client. People love to talk about themselves, so give them the opportunity and most importantly listen. When asked about something, answer, but don’t confuse this as an open invite for a trip down memory lane, a la Al Bundy style. Despite how awesome you think you are, there will be clients who don’t want to talk. Embrace the awkward silence, it’s usually appreciated, and more times than not they will eventually open up to you.

One of the best methods I like to use is to try and mirror mannerisms and demeanour. If they like to talk, ask more questions. Do they swear like a sailor? If so, don’t feel like you need to talk to them like a boy scout. Personal rule: don’t be the first one to swear as some clients will not appreciate it.

Tip #2: Know your role.

“Know your role and shut your mouth”- The Rock.

Therockaswwfchampion

Determining your role for each client is vital to developing a positive connection. You’re not only a strength coach, but possibly also a motivator, guide, mentor, therapist, and babysitter. Understanding the reason why someone is training will guide you as to what role to take on. While not mutually exclusive, most reasons fall into one of the three categories: money/scholarships, parent/coach, and social/health.

The money and scholarship clients are generally very intrinsically motivated and often just need a guide to program and show them what to do.

The client that is training because of a parent or coach most likely feels forced to train, the last thing they need is another “hardo” coach screaming at them. The mentor/friend role works well with this demographic as the gym becomes an escape for them, and in turn they train harder and start to enjoy their time at the gym.

The social/health group is comprised mostly of general population clients and can be all over the map in terms of needs in the gym. Some might be bored and just want someone to chat with, others have never stepped foot in a gym and need a guide and teacher. Whatever the client’s reason is for training, the quicker you can figure out your role, the better experience both you and the client will have.

Tip #3: Broaden your interests.

If a client is training with you, odds are they think you know what you’re doing. Stop trying to prove how smart you are. Clients want results and really don’t care about the Krebs Cycle or optimal hypertrophy training protocols. If they cared, they would be in the field. Think of it this way, you go to an accountant for your taxes because:

1. You don’t know how to do your taxes
2. You don’t care about how to do your taxes
3. You don’t want to think about how to do your taxes, you just want them done.

Most of all, you don’t want to talk with your accountant three times a week about new tax codes.

Now that we can’t talk about training, we are going to need more material. This is where broadening your interests helps.

[bctt tweet="The more interests you have outside of fitness, the more you'll be able to connect with clients."]

In my experience, it has helped to avoid asking about someone’s work life. Everybody is more than their profession and usually has something that they are passionate about. People tend to perk up when talking about things they are truly passionate about. Hint: Finding a person’s weirdness and vice is an express ticket to good conversation. 

Note from EC: here's Brett finding his weirdness on the day he showed up dressed as Hulk Hogan.

hulk

Tip #4: Be observant.

Think of yourself as a detective that is trying to piece together somebody’s story. Everything is a clue and clues are used to start conversations. Don’t think of it as negative pre-judgment but rather an opportunity to connect at an accelerated rate. If a client comes in wearing a camo hat and a Salt Life t-shirt, an easy conversation starter would be about outdoor type activities. Sure, you might be wrong, but being wrong also gives you the opportunity to learn more about the client, and the more you know the better.

Tip #5: Don’t give up on the introvert.

While extroverts are naturally easier to connect with, introverted clients have the biggest potential for the deepest relationships. There are numerous reasons why a client might be reserved: shyness, fear, anxiety, etc. can all contribute. Remember, be okay with silence. Not pressuring introverts to talk is a great way to help them relax and become comfortable. In most cases, once an introvert becomes comfortable they open up. Seeing an introvert become comfortable and open up is one of the most rewarding coaching experiences you can have.

Closing Thoughts

If you want to start changing lives, it is best to start getting to know the lives that you are trying to change. Relationships with your clients need attention and are something that can be practiced and improved upon. All it takes is some effort, positive mood and an enjoyment for what you do. Next time a client has a gathering or a game, do your best to go, as your support should extend to both in and out of the gym.

About the Author

Brett Velon (@brettvelon) is a former CSP-Florida intern and currently a Chicago area strength and conditioning coach. To contact him, please email brettvelon@gmail.com.
 

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