How to Pick a Good Coach

TAGS: successful coaches, coaching, Louie, sports, WSBB, strength training, strength coach, training

I think we all are attracted to like people. Like people make us feel comfortable and at ease. I guess it applies to pretty much any situation but my thoughts today concern you as an athlete picking the most suitable coach possible. Best bang for the buck is another way you can look at it. In the old days before the internet, you had to actually read and do your own research on training. And oftentimes, the information was second hand or unreliable because information and knowledge were held as a secret that you could not give away to the competition to ensure the competitive advantage. Or the other thing was you had to drive 2–4 hours one way just to get to that coach.

Nowadays, there are tons of coaches all waiting to be your guy or gal on the internet. This is good and bad. It’s good because of the competition but bad because it’s hard to tell if that coach is right for you. I want to go over a few suggestions that can help you weed out the things you don’t need. Or maybe you have been holding onto things you don’t need for several years because you had success in the past or you’re just afraid to try something new.

In other articles, I’ve mentioned two fears—the fear of failure and the fear of success. Both of these have crippled me in the past and sometimes even today. Success is determined by measurable results over time like numbers and the intangibles such as confidence, will, or the desire to simply be the best. I think training through trial and error is the only true way you make gains. This would be the first thing I would look for in a coach—is the coach tested? Two- or three-day weekend certifications are not tests no matter how many reps or circuits you do. They help or inspire but still are not tests of a coach.

Early on, I looked to Louie and the Westside crew for my training and coaching. Louie did not know it, but every article was a coaching session, albeit a complete guess on my part. Later on after my injuries and as I began to focus on my businesses, Dave Tate became my coach and still is today. He is one of the most accessible people and an undisputed leader and resource in the strength and fitness industry (that’s my ass kiss bit). I think he could be successful in any industry, not just our particular one. However, in the end, he is a coach or guide.

I consider myself more of a guide than anything else. I can tell you what I would do in your shoes, not mine. I then allow you to make a decision and bump you in the right direction when you stray or don’t get it. In the end, if you do not learn, progress, or get it, I have failed you as a coach and guide.

Next, there’s the purely academic coach. This is the guy with little street work or “in the trenches” work gained through self trial and error (not all so don’t get pissy…just most). If we were terminator robots, then yes, a purely academic coach would be all you would need. Simply crank out the numbers and perform automatically and perfectly. However, your coach can’t simply be a grunt or sergeant either. I will use Dave as an example again.

In his book, Dave mentioned his PR on numerous occasions. Most of us are like this. Instead of thinking, we are “doers.” Dave and Louie are “doers.” I am a “doer.” We would rather jump in and try something without a plan or thought to it. We rely on the gut. However, what separates us is the fact that we also read the same academia and interpret it to what is appropriate for us and the people we guide. This is the second trait of a good coach—the ability to mix book smarts, street smarts, and intuition into a successful program.

Even though a coach may not be as strong academically as others, they should have the basic ability to spot kinematic flow (i.e. form breakdown in any lift whether it be a curl, squat, or jump of any sort). The instant a athlete performs any motor skill, the coach should be able to see tight muscle groups, inhibited muscle groups, chain breakdowns, weak or lagging muscle groups, and pretty much anything that impedes performance. It’s simply a breakdown somewhere along the lift activity line where all muscle groups do not perform at their highest potential when called upon at any given moment. This is a skill developed over time and not anywhere else.

The main idea about training and coaching is that there is always room for improvement. Successful coaching is being able to adjust under any circumstances. I employ numerous types of training because there is no one perfect training protocol. If there was a perfect way, we would all be doing it and become the terminator robots I mentioned earlier. The truth is everyone has something to contribute from bodybuilding to Olympic lifting to MMA to powerlifting. Successful coaches borrow from everyone. Because each athlete or person is different, a good coach has to have the ability to step back from themselves (ego mostly) and do what is right for the athlete.

On numerous occasions, I had been stumped by a training issue and have had no problem saying, “I don’t know” or “let me think about it.” I also have said, “I will get back to you” or “What do you think the problem is?” There are plenty of arrogant asses out there, and as a coach, you do not have to be one when you don’t have an answer.

Following this theme, good coaches have to have the ability to talk on anyone’s terms. This is one of the main reasons why I am successful with athletes and pretty much anyone without a PhD in something or another. Good coaches explain things easily to all people, schooling or not. Numerous times, I have been blown off by Mr. PhD or Mr. Wannabe PhD because I explain things in the most basic of laymen’s terms. I think this offends them because they have studied the big words so hard to separate themselves from everyone else instead of listening because everyone and anyone can give you an idea. Most of the time, they go back and read as much research on a subject in hopes of disproving you or looking for the “it depends” factor. The “it depends” factor is usually when it can’t be proved through science and therefore has to have a bunch of circumstances behind it or they just don’t know. The bottom line is there is no confusing the basics, and coaching on any level is basic.

Now to back peddle some. Coaching does have to have measurable progress over time. This relates mostly to the coach’s own career. This is where more separation occurs. Good coaches have been through the ringer somehow. Dave gave me an example using Rob Fusner and Todd Broch: “I also think the best ones are the ones who had to fight for every pound they got. The more sticking points to overcome, the more you learn. Here is a contrast to show you want I mean. You can train under Rob Fusner or Todd Brock. One went right to the top in three years while the other took close to 15 years to get where he did and that was still not in the top ten.”

I agree with Dave. The guy who struggles the most is usually a better coach or has at least learned more through all the obstacles he has faced. In Dave’s example above, both Rob and Todd had measurable numerical progress over time, which is a very important aspect of a good coach. Also, each was successful in his own right. However, your evaluation should be based on the next attribute of a good coach.

A good coach has a similar background and work ethic as you do. This is a tricky one. Some guys are super volume with lots and lots of tonnage being moved. Some are like me using lower volume and more skill work. This doesn’t mean that the volume guys don’t work skill. They just do a lot more to get the same result. I call it mental reassurance mostly, but you can learn a lot in each direction and should do both to help you figure out what your thresholds are. Once you find your tolerance, move more and more in that direction. In the end, the coach with a personality type closer to yours will take you farther and faster then a coach with an opposite personality and background. Low volume guys hear what the coach has to say while high volume guys just work. (This is my opinion so if you are a high volume guy, go work it off.) There’s nothing wrong with either way. It will just save you a ton of effort and time over the long haul of your career if you figure it out early.

Now, I am going to contradict myself because the situation calls for it. A coach at any given time should be able to adapt to changing circumstances. If a coach can’t adapt, he is not a bad coach. He’s just one-dimensional and limited. What am I talking about? Well, here’s an example of a high volume/go-go-go type guy who I recently worked with. He sent me his program. I chopped it up, lowered the volume, added a lot of other things, and sent it back to him. Him being him, he sent it back again with added work, though not as much this time. I chopped it up again and lowered the volume. I told him his way was not working on this go round. He agreed and then did the program as set up (at least as far as I know…he probably added in some stuff).

Occasionally, he would send me an email trying to slip some stuff in, but for the most part, he stuck to it. He lifts raw and improved all of his competition lifts. He didn’t have as much improvement as I would have liked though, which means he did more work then I prescribed. However, he did learn a lot about programming. This is the most important key. He adapted to my coaching, and I adapted to his style to make the program work for his particular personality type—obsessive compulsive.

Probably the truest test of a good coach, in my opinion, is the coach who can recognize the potential of an athlete. It’s hard to do. I can look at a dude and tell his potential usually in a few seconds. Not perfectly but awful close. When I say potential, I mean what I think a person can do with their body given the right circumstances, mostly instilling belief in a person. Belief is more important than talent or genetic gifts. New guys flip out when I tell them what I know they can do. A guy may only squat 500 lbs when he comes to me and he thinks he can’t do too much more. I intuitively know what he can do, and it’s always a lot more. Will that person reach it? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. However, it’s the word or belief in them that inspires them and gets them thinking that the impossible may be possible. That and also working the skills, raising the weak groups, going to competitions, managing weight, preparing mentally and rehearsing, getting proper nutrition and proper programming, and many more.

That being said, a coach can’t simply throw a guy to the wolves just because he “knows” an athlete’s potential. After the freak out by the athlete, the good coach knows to set attainable goals from short- to mid- to long-term. These goals get the athlete to his or her real potential level. Sometimes this is just done from competition to competition so that the athlete doesn’t get overwhelmed. I prefer this method. You can also do many other types of cycles and programs. Other more intensive programming methods should be saved for the upper level athlete or guys obsessed with linear number patterns and progress. There’s nothing wrong with this. It just does not apply to most people. Not to rehash too much, but this falls back to the terminator robots. Plugging in numbers and expecting athletes to just get it and make progress continuously over time will usually not yield the best results. It will keep the athletes focused over many years of training unless it is their job and they get paid for it. That’s a completely different thing.

As a coach, you run into numerous obstacles and you have to try and understand each one for what it is. Belief and commitment take a very long time to cultivate. This is another thing about good coaches. They have patience. This one took me a long time because I first had to get it in myself. I don’t think I really got it until the big break up and separation from the Compound. At the Compound, we shared coaching duties. When one was there but not there, there were other coaches to relieve you because we all have bad days. With my own team, I had to bare it all. This was and sometimes still is tough to do. You have all sorts of questions coming at you constantly and have to hang in there the whole time.

Good coaches answer all the questions to the best of their ability and do their best to help out. I say many of the same things over and over because what we do is simple. The body is a complex machine that we will never understand. We can get it to do some things for us, but mostly it does what it wants to do to protect itself from our own destructive behaviors. This is patience. If you understand that an athlete is going to do what they want to do and you are there to “bump” them from time to time and hopefully get them in a better direction, this is all you can hope for. The cool part is that over time, your team will start to pass on what you tell them to the new guys or people who are just interested in learning in their own way as they get it themselves.

Thinking for yourself, as an athlete, is a critical function. It is also another sign of good coaching, which is the simple ability to get another person to learn on their own through any source. Good coaches make people think. This is so hard to do. There are many sayings, but they all mean the same thing—self-empowerment. I don’t want my guys to rely on me. When they reach an impasse and all resources are exhausted, I am here to help anyway I can. Often this is not just about training or meets but about life.

You see, at this very moment, there are no real problems. Think about this for a second. As you live and breathe right now, there are no problems. There are only situations that can be problems if you allow them to be. We create problems that are not really there—he said, she said, this person is bad, that person is this or that. I’m not trying to be a hypocrite because I have done my fair share and I catch myself still doing this. It’s only in these moments where you stop, just for a second, and interrupt the story you’re making up about something that you will make the most progress as a coach or really anything in life.

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