The best athletes don’t always make the best coaches. Often times, it’s the athletes who didn’t have the greatest natural ability to excel the way the Michael Jordans, Pyrros Dimas, or Andy Boltons of the world did who make the best coaches. Athletes looking to stay with the competition have to exhaust every possible technique and strategy as opposed to those who can seemingly crawl out of bed and make their sport look easy. These marginal athletes had to focus on all the little things to keep up with their superhuman counterparts, which has given them a keen awareness of things that the untrained eye normally misses.

A term used by renowned strength coach, Mark Rippetoe, the “coaching eye” is the name for a set of observational and analytical skills necessary to evaluate athletic performance. One such example can be found in the NBA. Larry Brown is perhaps one of the greatest basketball coaches to ever live. Though he is the all-time assists leader of the ABA, his NBA career was short-lived and uneventful. At five feet, nine inches, he didn’t exactly stand out among the great point guards of all-time. However, few can match his coaching resume having been the only coach to ever win an NCAA championship, an NBA title, and an Olympic gold medal. Not bad for someone who began his professional playing career with the Akron Wingfoots of the NABL.

The point is it takes a special type of person to be a coach. You have to be patient, diligent, and aware of all the details that normal people miss. You must be in the head of your trainee, see what they see and feel what they feel. When it comes to personal training or athletic coaching, the coaching eye is critical.

At certain points in our training, we tend to get lazy. Our technique may falter, or we’ll muscle up the weight in an attempt to finish the lift. Even the best are guilty of this at one point or another. Thus enters the coach. A coach doesn’t have to be someone who’s hired to make you run faster, jump higher, or lift more weight. A coach can be someone who simply keeps you from your own worst enemy—yourself. A coach is there to keep you motivated, focused, and above all, safe. I’m not saying a coach is necessary for your barbell curls or shoulder shrugs (although I still know way too many people who do them wrong in the first place), but a good coach is invaluable when dealing with two of the best exercises at our disposal—the squat and the deadlift.

Anyone who knows anything about training for sports performance or aesthetic improvements knows how important the squat and deadlift are to any routine. They’re also two of the most technical lifts to master, needing practice, focus, and proper cues to ensure that each repetition is a good one. While there are some differences, there are several similarities in the two movements—enough so that I can outline a few coaching cues that any good coach or training partner should watch out for.

The block

Referenced in Strength Training Anatomy (second edition) by Frederic Delavier, whenever heavy weights are involved, it’s essential to create a “block.” The block refers to three actions—expanding the chest and holding a deep breath fills the lungs, which supports the rib cage and prevents the chest from collapsing forward; contracting the abdominal muscle group supports the core and increases intra-abdominal pressure, which prevents the torso from collapsing forward; and arching the low back by contracting the lumbar muscles positions the spinal column in extension.

The feet

Make sure the feet are firmly planted on the ground because any shifting or shuffling of the feet during the movement causes instability and could lead to injury. It’s also very important to note that the knees should remain behind the toes at all times. As much as possible, you want to recruit the posterior chain by focusing on flat feet rather than allowing the heels to come off the floor, thus shifting pressure to the knees.

The head

You always want to encourage proper alignment when dealing with any spine loading exercise. A common error seen in the deadlift but more so with squatting is looking up throughout the duration of the movement. This ‘heads up’ alignment discourages depth, hip drive out of the hole, and an erect chest. Encourage trainees to keep a neutral head position, focusing on an object six to ten feet ahead of them.

The heart

While not a tangible form of measurement, a trainee’s effort deserves as much attention as any other mechanical issue. If you notice a trainee not taking your instructions seriously (seen more so in young or novice lifters), you must communicate the importance of technique. However, one should be careful not to drive a person into the ground, as more experienced lifters tend to want to push more weight than they should. It’s also best not to work to complete exhaustion in most training sessions because this can be counterproductive to future gains. The load, intensity, and rest periods should be carefully monitored as it is the coach’s responsibility to assess as well as instruct during workouts before and after.

Other coaching tips

·        Stand by your beliefs: My pastor used to say if what you believe in isn’t worth dying for, it ain’t worth living for. While that’s a bit of an extreme analogy in this case, you get the point. Use what you know and don’t try to get fancy throwing in routines and exercises that you aren’t familiar with. You risk hurting your trainees, and you risk looking stupid.

·        Have a plan: Unfortunately, I’ve run into many trainers who make up routines on the spot and mid-session. You should take the same care with other people’s training regimen as you do with your own. I’m a big believer in karma, and if you aren’t faithful with someone else’s health, your health will betray you.

·        Make alterations and don’t overhaul: While it’s essential to have a structured training plan with checkpoints, rest days, and progressions already planned out, you should be able to plan for whenever the plan goes awry as a coach. This is especially true for any type of injury. There are ways to work around them. While injuries should never just be completely ignored, if there’s a situation where an athlete can keep training with a few modifications to the program, go for it.

While we all can’t be great athletes, I believe we all have a little coaching in us. If you’re an attentive, passionate, people person, you may have a calling in store for you.

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