Evolving As A Strength Coach
I was recently asked to write a piece for Exercise.com. The following are my thoughts on the development of a strength coach:
The start of NFL training camp this year will be the conclusion of my 10th off-season program at Fischer Institute. Along with countless other lessons learned, one thing I know for certain is that I don’t know and will never know nearly enough in the context of what I want to know and need to know. Mentor coaches when I started as an intern made implementing the programs look fluid, effortless, and fun. As I was given more responsibility over time, I realized that what seemed to be simple tasks were not to be taken for granted. Efficient coaching cues for new exercises, timing execution between groups, equipment/space requirements, proper cone set-up for agility drills, appropriate timing for reactive drills, and overall effective communication are just a few that come to mind. Being conscious of and appreciating the details doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to develop as a coach and find your own voice.
I now have the responsibility of helping interns prepare for their careers. When I first started managing internships for the sports performance side, I had the athlete mindset of “if they don’t want to take initiative, I’ll just do it myself”, naively forgetting what my early days were like. Thankfully I was able to step out of that mindset and now have expectations that when interns complete their time requirements with us, they will have the ability to create, plan, and implement a quality program for athletes and teams. I gain tremendously from my experiences with interns. If I perform my responsibilities well, hopefully their time spent at Fischer will provide them with a quality base of practical experience that will jump start their continued development as coaches. Listed below are a few key points I share with developing coaches that spend time with us.
Communication, Consistency, and Reliability
In the beginning when I started coaching athletes, I felt the urge to impress, naively putting the athlete at potential risk. Nothing super crazy or off the wall, but certain exercises they may not have been ready for. Since realizing that doesn’t have to be the case, I now rely on communicating as productively as possible from the start. We don’t have to wow them with “cool” exercises/drills from the start. We just have to communicate our plan and vision with them. We have to ask good questions in the beginning and genuinely listen to the answers. “This is where we are today. Based on what we’ve discussed in our initial meeting, (strengths, weaknesses, what they must improve on from last season, what their goals are for the upcoming season, etc.) this is our action plan, and this is our goal”. It’s not necessary to communicate every single detail of the program, but we do have to be certain they understand where we’re coming from.
This process leads to consistency. Consistency from the athlete because they now have a target and most athletes enjoy being tested and being held accountable. It’s in their DNA, the competition factor and the eagerness to be better than the competition. Very few people enjoy feeling cornered, being told what they have to or should do, or feeling embarrassed. The competition factor and the eagerness to be better helps them rest easier at night.
The consistency carries over to us as coaches as well. If we communicated the plan with the athlete, we are now accountable for our actions. Are we covering all the bases necessary to accomplish the goals set? Are we structured, organized, and prepared for each workout? Are my actions in line with those of a consistent, professional, and strong leader? Athletes must accept and cope with many unknown variables in their athletic careers. If we consistently end every day with being able to answer yes to the above questions, along with several others, over time we develop higher and higher levels of reliability. Be a true known variable for your athletes. Give them the peace of mind in knowing that every day they will receive the same great coaching they’ve come to know and respect.
This all takes time. This is my 10th year at the Fischer Institute and every day that goes by I realize that I haven’t even scratched the surface of what all it entails. In the process I made mistakes for sure. But the key for me was being extremely honest with myself regarding my performance. My drive home typically consists of reviewing the day and determining what went well and what needs improvement, then making the proper adjustments to improve myself and the process. The key is to learn from the mistakes just as a proven veteran athlete has had to do over the course of their career. We need to determine what type of coach we are and how we can best implement that with our athletes. Lastly, we must work with all the different personality types, all the different strengths & weaknesses, and the numerous different characteristics people possess.
Common Sport Movements & Sport Requirements
One of the greatest tools we can have as strength coaches are practical coaching cues. The right coaching cue can change the outcome of an exercise and create more “buy in” from the athlete. One thing I’ve found helpful in this regard is being as familiar as possible with the specific sport/athlete movement requirements. A position player in baseball for example. If he’s performing a frontal or transverse plane motion exercise and I want him to aggressively drive the ground down and away, I may tell him to picture his steal start motion. This shows him exactly what I’m expecting, makes it very specific to his needs, and shows that I’ve done my homework on his specific sport needs. To help me understand common sport movements more specifically I’ll watch video of the movement until I feel confident in my understanding. I’ll look for where they load, where they accelerate, and where they decelerate in these specific movements. This will help me see how fast they perform the movements, where the transition zones are, where it’s concentric emphasis, where it’s eccentric emphasis, areas of high stress, and potentially what the common injuries may be.
A second element I’ve found extremely helpful with coaching/coaching cues is knowing what each exercise feels like and being able to properly demonstrate the exercise movement. Some athletes learn easier from audible cues, some from visual cues. Proper demonstration of an exercise movement is key for the more visual. This also allows for more effective communication while working through the program and demonstrates a high level of interest in the athlete and their needs.
To take this a step further, if you’re able to complete a program as you’ve created for your athlete start to finish it well be a great benefit. Not only in putting yourself in the athlete’s shoes but also for your programming moving forward. You can know what an individual exercise feels like or what a day of the program feels like. But going through the cumulative program you will be able to feel what the big picture feels like for the athlete. No question scheduling and only a limited amount of time in the day can interfere with this, but it can be a great learning tool moving forward with program creation. As you work out day to day you will find certain days that were too aggressive and certain days where you didn’t quite get the overload you were looking for. Whether you have the time to work through a full program for an athlete or not, the key is being as familiar as possible with the sport/position demands and knowing what the different exercises feel like.
Over the course of their internship at Fischer I ask interns to choose a sport they’re completely unfamiliar with and create a 4-day program for that specific athlete. I share with them eight program variables I take into consideration when creating programs. Preparing an entire off-season program that incorporates valid progressions, is efficiently implemented, accounts for all eight program variables, and pieces of week one correlate with pieces in week twenty requires hours of planning. I’m not certain, but I assume that most if not all strength coaches will say they’ve yet to create the “perfect” program. It’s a constant process of observing how the athlete is progressing, how they feel physically when they walk in each day and making adjustments in accordance. The program card may say one thing, but if an athlete walks in and their body language is saying something different, we may have to make adjustments to lower intensity work for the day. Train the athlete that walks in the door that day. If a hockey goalie wants to improve his shot blocking on the shield side, he must put the work in to improve. If we want to become better at programming for athletes, we must also put the work in.
Being a strength coach requires far more work hours than many interns think. Work is italicized because if you truly enjoy the profession and the requirements of the profession, work is not what it feels like. Time spent on the floor is simply applying what was created off the floor. All the planning done off the floor allows us to more efficiently implement the program. Are we emphasizing what we intended to emphasize? Are we de-emphasizing what we intended to de-emphasize? Are we incorporating exercises and drills relevant to the sport/position requirements of the athlete? Are we considering the specific energy systems required by the sport/position? Are we taking the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses into account? Planning that includes answering these questions along with others will hopefully allow us to implement a quality, science-based program efficiently and effectively with our athletes. In the end, time commitment for a strength coach can be a full-time job and part-time job in one.
I don’t know everything and will never know everything. This fact I also highlight to all new interns at Fischer Institute early on in their internship. The athletes we coach are expected to improve and make adjustments from play to play, day to day, month to month, and season to season. As a strength coach it would then be wise for me to improve my skills from set to set, day to day, phase to phase, and off-season to off-season. We create programs with the intention of continued physical and mental development. As athletes progress, we must also progress, consistently updating our con-ed knowledge and adhering to the proven principles of sports performance training.
With all of life’s requirements it’s impossible to know the answer to everything, although we can take steps in order to try and find the best possible answers. Over time we end up working with many different athletes and have many different variables that must be accounted for. Knowing what our strengths are and degree of knowledge on certain topics will determine when we must contact a professional in that field. One athlete may require sound nutritional advice while another may require more consistent soft-tissue work with a PT or AT. Developing a network of like-minded and trusted professionals in the industry can allow us to provide the athlete with the tools necessary to have a very productive off-season, entering pre-season camp with the peace of mind that they did everything necessary for a great season.
Keys to Success:
As coaches we must possess an extremely high level of Give a Fu@$. We must provide the appropriate tools, educate the athlete through the process, and put the athlete in a position and environment for success. We must acknowledge body language and facial expression, for individual exercises in the workout and to train the athlete that walks in that specific day. We require active participation, accountability, self-awareness, and discipline from the athlete as well as ourselves. We must demand more from ourselves as coaches and educators, respecting the fact that in relation to what we need to know, we’ll never know enough.
Chip Gosewisch, CSCS, RSCC
Fischer Institute Head Strength and Conditioning Coach
Founder PMR Performance