Strength and conditioning coaches (and I include myself in this) often have no problem talking about their training methods and styles and what they believe in when it comes to the physical aspect of strength and conditioning coaching. Loosely speaking, strength and conditioning coaches often have no problem talking about their training philosophy.
However, strength and conditioning coaching is about a lot more than sets, reps and exercises. A strength and conditioning coach has to coach. And coaching, like physical training, can take many forms and be delivered in different ways.
A recent CPD exercise challenged me to provide details about my ‘coaching philosophy.’ This is something I hadn’t really thought about much, and after scribbling a few notes I decided that I needed some help…
I got in touch with Dee Fraser, a former client who coaches and manages people on a daily basis in her profession, and who is now a mentor to me (whether she knows it or not!) Dee provided some really useful information which I’ve stolen and I am now calling my own.
Strength and conditioning coaching requires a diverse skill set. A strength and conditioning coach, as you would expect, needs to have the biomechanical and physiological knowledge to plan and deliver training programs. However, the most scientifically advanced and detailed training program isn’t worth much if the coach lacks the interpersonal and communication skills, or coaching ability, to deliver it effectively.
So, after discussing (and thieving) from Dee, here are the key components of my ever evolving coaching philosophy…
Listen and Explore
Listen to what your athletes are saying with their words, body language and performances. Be aware that how an athlete says or does something is as important as what they are saying or doing. What are your athletes telling you, or not telling you?
Listen and observe more than you speak and offer advice, ideas and analysis tentatively. Be sure that you have all the information you need to make a certain suggestion or provide feedback.
Have regular interactions and conversations with your athletes to assess how they are feeling about training, sport and life. These conversations are an important aspect of being a coach and can influence the training sessions both in the short and long-term.
Many of the answers to these questions can be captured in five minutes of observing and chatting with an athlete, often during — or just prior to — the warm up. Listen to what is being said verbally and non-verbally, and explore why.
Are they moving well?
Do they look tired?
Are they motivated?
Are they more or less springy than usual?
Are they more or less talkative than normal?
Are they up or down about life, training, performances?
How do they view their current and previous performances?
Are they getting on well with their teammates?
Have they been selected or not selected?
Have they been promoted, demoted or selected for a regional/national squad?
How do they feel about all of the above?
Are they nervous, excited?
Are they viewing upcoming matches as opportunities?
Are they displaying signs of a fixed or growth mindset?
Are they feeling pressured to perform from you, other coaches, parents, friends, social media?
Are they eating well? What did they eat for breakfast or before the session?
Are they coping with extra curricular demands (work, studying, social schedules, family, friends)
Are they getting enough sleep?
Be Curious and Analyse
As a coach you are there to help your client improve their performance. It’s important to be curious and analyse the what, why, how and when of an athlete’s behaviours and actions. Be curious about their behaviours and habits and analyse what needs these behaviours are serving and how they are influencing the bigger picture.
View the person as an individual and look at the whole person; an athlete is a human being — sport and training is just one aspect of their life. Help your athlete develop positive behaviours and actions, encourage collaborative effort and foster an environment of teamwork, encouragement and support.
When helping your athletes it’s important to be aware of your own biases and experiences as an athlete and a coach. Your athlete is not you and hasn’t had your life and experiences. Coaching is about the person being coached, not the past experiences of the coach — don’t overuse your own experiences or project your own biases on to a situation when analysing. See the athlete and situations in context and make the coaching experience about them and their performance improvement. Similarly, be aware of over coaching — remember to get out of the way and let the athletes go and do their thing. Coach in a way that will empower your athletes to do it themselves. Great coaches do this even though it ultimately means less and less input is required from them as a coach. Aim to eventually have a consultant role with your athlete whereby they trust your input on the really big decisions.
Every day need not be a PhD level investigation into why an athlete is wearing odd socks, but asking questions, paying attention to, and analysing athlete behaviour is an important part of the coaching process. Help the athletes solve performance problems by identifying issues, areas of potential growth and making a plan for them to develop.
Support and Challenge
Be a Supporter
Encourage your athletes, remind them of good performances, training sessions and attributes they have. Praise their effort, remind them of the progress they’ve made and celebrate successes, no matter how big or small.
Supporting is an obvious but often overlooked part of the coaching process. Sure, we want to encourage continual growth and a desire to constantly improve, but it’s important to take stock and remind athletes of how hard they’ve worked, how far they’ve come and how well they’re doing. Emphasise that their work so far is setting them up for future success. A lack of support can lead to demotivation or a resentful ‘never enough’ attitude that can affect athletes negatively.
Difficult conversations are a normal and necessary part of coaching. No performance environment is plain sailing 100% of the time. As a coach you have to be able to challenge your athletes as and when required — you’re not there to be a ‘Yes’ person.
Challenging athletes helps them to be the best they can be. It can mean pushing them on, pulling them in or keeping them on the right track.
Are their goals too ambitious, not ambitious enough?
Are they giving their all? Why, why not?
Why do they not like taking rest days?
Why are they concerned about uncontrollable aspects of performance?
Do they need specialist support from a sports psychologist, physiologist etc.?
Each athlete will require a different approach, even if only very subtly different, and some will respond entirely differently to the same coaching style. It means understanding them as an individual, their goals and what support they need to keep moving towards them.
Experiment and Learn
The coaching environment is one of experimentation and learning. Form a plan with your athlete, monitor its progress and learn from the experience. Take notes on what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and what the result was. Use this to help improve performance in the future.
Strength and conditioning coaches don’t tend to struggle with experimentation in the practical aspects of training programs, but experimenting can be extended to coaching style, behaviours and actions too. Keep all interactions positive and be clear in your mind about why you are trying a certain style, method or exercise. Remember that you as a coach are learning too and are not perfect.
Reflect on your learnings and experiences regularly. This can take many forms and requires honesty and critical evaluation — it’s often difficult to analyse your own performance without bias. Mentors, being observed or discussing scenarios with more experienced coaches can be massively beneficial. Documenting your own experiences in writing can also be very effective and fairly time efficient. Reading over your notes provides an opportunity to look back on experiences and evaluate them, which (when done honestly) can provide valuable information about your strengths, weaknesses, successes and areas for improvement. The idea is not to bash or berate yourself but to cultivate an environment of continual growth for yourself, just like you would instruct your athletes to do.
Set a Strong Example
A coach’s words, body language and actions are powerful. Saying one thing and doing another sends a confusing message. Create positive energy and be a coach that energises and inspires clients.
Use your ears, eyes and mind to listen, explore and analyse.
Care about your clients — support and challenge them.
Try different methods and learn from your experiences.
Be a positive role model.