Lessons in Coaching

Mike Robertson CoachingI’m always thinking about training and coaching.

When I was a little kid, my coaches always described me as a gym rat because I loved spending time in the gym and getting better.

Now as a performance coach, it’s not uncommon for me to go home (or in my office) after a training session and make notes of what went well during a workout, as well as what we need to improve upon going forward.

I’ve been doing this for 14 years now. I don’t claim to know everything, and I’m definitely not perfect.

But I also think I have a unique perspective based on my experiences, and my current position.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with athletes of all shapes and sizes. Young, developing kids to aging weekend warriors.

I’ve worked with the kid who has no discernible talent whatsoever, to professional and Olympic caliber athletes.

But the most unique component of my work nowadays is that I work in the private sector, which has definite pros and cons (and is probably a whole post in-and-of-itself).

I tell you this so that you have a frame of reference for what you’re about to read. If I worked in the public sector (with a team, university, etc.) some of my opinions and thoughts may be slightly different.

So with that being said, here are some of my biggest lessons from my first 14 years of coaching.

Lesson #1 – It’s A Relationship

When I first started coaching, I read all the right things.

Istvan Balyi, Yuri Verkoshanksy, Mel Siff – you name it, I had either read it, or had it on my “to read” list.

And you know what – some athletes just don’t care if you’re smart. The question is, can you get them results?

Or if they’re really elite, why should they change what they’ve done in the past? After all, they’ve already had success.

Coaching is like any relationship, it’s a give-and-take process.

Sure, there are some coaches out there that can rule with an iron fist, yell and scream at their athletes, and do things 100% their way.

If certain coaches do it 100% their way and have success, good for them. But as a former athlete myself, that approach doesn’t really jive with me.

I prefer to balance what an athlete wants with what I know they need.

This is highly dependent on the age and skill level of the athlete you’re working with. If you’ve got a young kid who has never trained with anyone before, chances are they’re willing to do whatever you ask of them.

On the other hand if you’re working with an elite athlete that’s playing at the highest level of their sport, you’re probably going to have to make a few concessions along the way.

But this is the essence of a relationship. Both people in that relationship have wants and needs, and the goal is to balance these so that each of the people in the relationship is fulfilled and having their needs met.

Lesson #2 – You Must Develop Foundations

There’s a possibility this could be a much longer blog post in the future, but I can think of at least three foundations that must be developed when training athletes:

  • The movement foundation,
  • The maximal strength foundation, and
  • The aerobic foundation.

Let’s look at each in a bit more depth.

Foundation #1 – The Movement Foundation

All the talk about mobility, stability, and functional movement patterns? That’s what I’m talking about when I say “movement.”

And no doubt about it, this is Gray Cook’s world. I continue to learn from him, respect his knowledge, and (perhaps most importantly) admire his ability to explain complex topics quickly and easily.

When we’re talking about the movement foundation, mobility is the bottom of the pyramid. As a baby it’s the first thing we’re given. And as Gray likes to say, “you’ve got the mobility, but you have to earn your stability.”

Creating mobility without optimizing stability is a huge issue, and I see it in many of the training programs that are out there today. Far too many programs out there assume that if you’re strong, you’re stable.

I can tell you without reservation this is not the case. I’ve seen guys squat 1,000 pounds who couldn’t do a lunge or split-squat, and guys that can bench press in excess of 700 pounds that have no scapular stability whatsoever.

I mentioned this a bunch in the videos leading up to the Bulletproof Athlete launch:

While mobility may be first in the pyramid, I think that’s something of a misnomer.

Mobility and stability must go hand-in-hand when creating functional movement.

If you have a mobility limitation hit that first in training, but also respect the fact that mobility and stability must work together (and feed off each other) for optimal movement.

Once mobility and stability are improved, then you can go to work on all those basic movement patterns. If you use the FMS the squat, lunge and hurdle step are all great starting points.

However, I would throw in a hip hinge as well. I’ve seen people who have a clean straight leg raise and a pretty good push-up, but when you watch them hinge it’s a nightmare.

So movement is the foundation on top of which all your other physical qualities should be built.

If you build your athletes on top of a poor movement foundation, you’re increasing their likelihood of injury and reducing their ability to build capacity (speed, strength, power, endurance) later on.

Foundation #2 – The Maximal Strength Foundation

Starting out in a powerlifting environment, I always enjoyed maximal strength training.

When I first started powerlifting, that was all I did – lift weights. However, after a few months I got the itch to go back out and play basketball and volleyball again.

The results were impressive. I noticed an immediate improvement in my vertical jumping ability, as well as my linear speed.

Hmmmm – so this strength training thing really does work, huh?

The cool thing about maximal strength isn’t just the fact that you get stronger, but how that strength can spill over into numerous other qualities as well.

Strength training has the ability to improve power, speed, and agility. I think we’ve all see this with the athletes we train.

On the other end of the spectrum, getting stronger can also improve endurance capacity simply because it makes you more efficient and economical.

Now I’m not saying you go out with you 13-year-old and start pushing max weights; it’s a process. Zatsiorsky often talks about the three-year rule with young athletes: They don’t use anything other than a PVC pipe or the body weight for the first three years of training.

In my estimation, this is perfect in that 10-13 age range. 6-9 years old? Let them play, learn a bunch of sports, and be kids.

If your kid is on “travel” or “Elite” anything from 6-9 years of age, you need to re-evaluate your priorities. (Yes, I said that right. YOUR priorities).

From 10-13, you can continue with the general training, but also begin to teach basic movement and body awareness exercises as well. This is the best time to continue developing (and maintaining) their movement foundation as puberty hits.

Then about the time they’re headed to high school, you can start pushing some weights. Again this isn’t free reign to jump into heavy singles and doubles, but you can start pushing weight since they have a strong movement foundation, connective tissue strength and integrity, etc.

Foundation #3 – The Aerobic Foundation

Even though the bulk of the pop fitness industry will disagree with me here, I still believe in the need for a strong aerobic foundation.

So many of our athletes today are stressed out, poorly recovered, overly sympathetic dominant, can’t sleep, can’t relax, and flat out can’t recover.

If you’ve read Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Zapolosky, you know that stress is one big bucket.

Life stress, work stress, training stress, financial stress, it all goes into the same bucket. And that bucket is constantly getting filled up.

This bucket also represents your sympathetic nervous system. You’re constantly telling your body, “I’m stressesed out – I have to deal with this.”

All day, every day, you’re fight or flight.

But what if you don’t have any equally strong parasympathetic nervous system to shut it off?

To tell you body, “you know what – it’s cool. I got this.”

Arguably the greatest benefit of training the aerobic energy system is strengthening that parasympathetic drive. It provides balance to all the high-intensity, balls-to-the-wall training that our athletes get dumped on them every single day.

This was reaffirmed at the Seattle Sounders Mentorship weekend during Mark McLaughlin’s presentation. He said that his first priorities with a young athlete are developing the heart, and developing autonomic (sympathetic/parasympathetic) balance.

I covered this pretty in-depth in my post, You NEED Long Duration, Low Intensity Cardio, but keep in mind that’s just one method for developing the aerobic energy system.

Furthermore, just because it’s long duration and low intensity doesn’t mean it has to be cyclical, mind-numbing exercise like running, biking, etc.

It can be playing a sport at low intensity, working on technical skills, or even working on correctives, mobility and stability.

If you work with athletes, you have to develop their foundations first. Failure to do so is robbing them of potential long-term success.

Lesson #3 – There’s No Perfect Program

After writing thousands of programs over the years, I’ve come to a couple realizations. First and foremost, that totally awesome, kick-ass program you just wrote last week?

This week it’s probably already a little flawed. There’s something you’d like to tweak or change to get an even better response.

This is how it goes if you’re constantly learning, evolving and thinking. You’re critical of even your best work, because you know there are little things you can do to make it better.

And what’s even worse? Go back and look at a program you wrote 2-3 years ago. THAT should scare you!

Hopefully we can agree that the most awesome program you write right now, today, will be obsolete (or at the very least somewhat flawed) based on what you learn going forward.

But here’s another thing that I’ve noticed over the years, too:

That perfect 16- or 20-week block periodization protocol you wrote up just for fun? Or for a class project?

Unfortunately, that just doesn’t work in the real world.

Unless you’re working with Olympic caliber athletes whose only sport is to compete in World Championships and/or the Olympics, and whose life solely revolves around training, this just isn’t reality.

Here are a couple of the realities I deal with on an ongoing basis:

  • Collegiate soccer player comes back in the off-season with 10 weeks to train. Needs to re-build movement foundation, get stronger, and build a massive aerobic base to endure sport-specific training and conditioning tests.
  • MLS soccer player comes in for a 6-8 week off-season. Training must not only re-build aerobic foundation, but also address strength and power needs that should lay the foundation for a 9-10 month competitive season.
  • NBA basketball player comes in with approximately 3 months to train during his off-season. Goals are to improve conditioning, strength and power. This foundation must last the entire 82 game season (100+ games depending on playoff schedule).

Can you see why that beautiful 16- or 20-week program doesn’t work?

Because in reality, you just don’t have that much time.

Now I’m not saying you don’t learn about how to write pretty programs – you absolutely have to. You need to know why all those various qualities are important, how to transition from one block of training to another, how qualities build off each other, and how to manage competing qualities to get the best possible result

The most important reason to know all this information, though, is to write a better training program based off the specific needs and goals of your athletes, combined with how long you actually get to train them.

You’re going to have to pick and choose your battles. More time than not, you simply will not have time to do everything you want.

But if you think you’re going to lay out a massive block of uninterrupted training, you’re probably a little naive. And that’s totally ok – I was there myself once.

Thinking back, I’ve had the opportunity to write a 20-week training block for exactly one high level athlete in my career. The gal was coming off the Olympics, and had an extended period of time before team training commenced.

But that’s once, in 14 years of training and coaching.

Your challenge as a performance coach will be to write the best training program possible for this athlete, given where they’re at now, and taking into account how long you actually have to train them.

Lesson #4 – Technique is a Continuum

Zach Moore and I were talking a while back, and we have very similar views when it comes to coaching technique.

Would we love for every single client to have perfect technique on every exercise?

Yes, absolutely. I don’t think anyone would tell you any different.

But in reality, is every client going to have perfect technique on every exercise?

Probably not.

Your first goal when it comes to technique is to get them on the continuum of acceptable technique. If a client is doing anything that’s blatantly injurious, that has to stop immediately.

From there, it’s all about progress.

Some clients may have one small issue. You give them one cue or piece of feedback, and Voila!, they look awesome.

Others may have eight or ten things to address. In this case you should attack the biggest issue/limitation first, and then go from there.

Anyone who tells you their clients have perfect technique, or has nothing better to do than critique lifts on the Internet, probably doesn’t actually coach anyone.

Lesson #5 – Every Athlete is an Individual

This point brings together several of the other points I’ve already mentioned.

Quite simply, every athlete you work with is a unique animal.

Sure you can clump them together based on their sport (soccer, basketball, etc.) but even this can be a slippery slope.

For example I’ve worked with a lot of soccer players the past couple of years. Even those that play the exact same position have different physical skills and traits, varying recovery ability, different personality types/dispositions, etc.

And this doesn’t even take into account why they’re actually training with you in the first place! Or their motivation for training.

Some want to get healthy and become more durable.

Some want to develop their body physically.

And some just feel as though training with you gives them a psychological edge over the competition.

This is why individualizing training is so critical. Every athlete you work with is a unique animal, regardless of how they may appear on the outside.

Once you start to tap into what makes this person unique, what makes them tick, then and only then can you start to make some massive changes to their entire athletic being.

Lesson #6 – Your Athletes are Your Family

I’m a very lucky young(ish) man.

I have a beautiful wife and daughter, with a little man on the way.

I’m surrounded by great people in every avenue of my life.

But one thing I’m always reminded of is that my athletes are my extended family. Any time they run into a barrier, they’re down, frustrated, or just not performing the way they like, it affects me personally.

Quite simply, I’m committed to their success. They are my friends and family, and I care deeply about them.

I think this comes back to and solidifies my first point as well. When you work with an athlete you are building a relationship. And like any strong relationship, you need some basic things to happen:

There has to be trust between the two parties.

The two of you have to be committed to the same goal (or goals).

And perhaps most importantly, you have to be able to communicate with each other.

When you start to care as much about your athletes as you do close friends and even family, then you’re on your way to becoming a great coach.

Summary

As I stated up front, I’m still pretty young in my coaching career. And I definitely don’t claim to know it all, or have all the answers.

I’ve had some success, and I’ve taken some lumps along the way.

But I feel like each and every day I’m working with my athletes on the floor, I’m paying my dues to become the best coach I can possibly be.

And the best part? Very rarely does it ever feel like “work.”

All the best

MR

44 Comments

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      • This shows why you have been one of my “internet mentors” for number of years. I continually need to remind myself to constantly evaluate-reevaluate the person I am training, especially the guy looking back at me in the mirror. Keep up the great work…Please.
        John

  1. awesome. Love this. You are one of the best coaches in a crowded field. I follow your work and really like the stuff that you do. Thanks Mike.

  2. You’re an awesome writer, thanks for this.
    On a separate note perhaps your industry needs to re-evaluate it’s definition of “corrective exercise”. Perhaps even re-title the application of strength and cond. in post rehab as “preventative exercise”. I am not one for semantics but there seems to be a lot of confusion in your industry relating to a coaches role in this area. Prevention is under valued in almost all health fields (including mine), considering the use of your skill set is seen in a post-rehab setting it makes sense that your are more “preventing” re-occurrence rather than “correcting” anything.
    Just food for thought

  3. Great post as always! I especially loved the part :

    “Your first goal when it comes to technique is to get them on the continuum of acceptable technique. If a client is doing anything that’s blatantly injurious, that has to stop immediately.

    From there, it’s all about progress.

    Some clients may have one small issue. You give them one cue or piece of feedback, and Voila!, they look awesome.

    Others may have eight or ten things to address. In this case you should attack the biggest issue/limitation first, and then go from there.

    Anyone who tells you their clients have perfect technique, or has nothing better to do than critique lifts on the Internet, probably doesn’t actually coach anyone.”

    • Ines – Thanks! The thing that bugs me about people making form critiques online is that they are looking at a snapshot. They have no clue where this person started out, how far they’ve progressed, etc.

      As long as they are moving in the right direction, I’m happy.

      • So true! I hate it when somebody comes in the gym and sees me working out with an obviously overweight person, and start mocking with him, behind his back. People don’t take the time to notice the progress. They don’t make the effort to see the dedication, the hard work and the potential, behind the out of shape body. I always treat people according to what they could become, not who they are now.

        When a 40 year old man, walks in the gym, I do not see a
        person who is out of shape, somebody who neglected his health and body and somebody who has absolutely no physical culture.

        Instead, what I see is a person, who no matter his busy schedule,no matter the excuses he might make up, no matter the widely spread notions, found the motivation to change. He found the courage to show determination and do something for himself!

        When an overweight girl, comes to a training session, I do not see her as a fat girl!

        Instead, what I see is a girl who might have not realized it yet,
        but still deep inside she knows that she is a wonderful person and that she has something she could show the world. I see a girl, who is determined to get rid of the layers of fat, under which she is hiding her true identity and her real beauty. I see a girl who is determined to get rid of the insecurity and a girl who will soon walk on the street, proud of herself and the results she has achieved!

        When a skinny boy, walks in the gym, I do not see his weak body…

        Instead, what I see is the strength hidden deep inside his heart…the strength that thanks to his hard work and persistence will soon show on the surface!

        When a person who has never worked out in his life, walks in
        the gym, I do not stare at him, thinking how uncoordinated he is, how he can’t control his body and how silly he looks.

        Instead, what I see is a person with dreams, goals and ambition. I see a person who is not afraid to look stupid, walking on the road to his goals!

        Sorry for the off topic 🙂 It is just something I really care about! :))

  4. Great post as always! I especially loved the part :

    “Your first goal when it comes to technique is to get them on the continuum of acceptable technique. If a client is doing anything that’s blatantly injurious, that has to stop immediately.

    From there, it’s all about progress.

    Some clients may have one small issue. You give them one cue or piece of feedback, and Voila!, they look awesome.

    Others may have eight or ten things to address. In this case you should attack the biggest issue/limitation first, and then go from there.

    Anyone who tells you their clients have perfect technique, or has nothing better to do than critique lifts on the Internet, probably doesn’t actually coach anyone.”

  5. I coach lots of athletes, like yourself and agree totally with what your saying. While reading this article, situations of me coaching youngsters-adult, pose questions. I mean, what ifs; what if i would of done this, or said that,, how would the players responded. It sparked my interest, and definitely makes me think before hand on practices or clinics.
    Being a World Championship athlete, I agree with a lot of what you said and look forward to sending this article to some of my coaches. Very well written and easy to understand and play out.

    • Thanks Travis! I think one of the reasons this post has been so well received is because those of us that have done this for a while realize there are no absolutes; no black and white answers.

      Once you can appreciate that, it makes everything a lot easier.

  6. If I lived in Indy, you’d be my coach! I train regularly now but self-coach. But I watch others, whether they have trainers or not, analyze their form, exercise selection, etc, just to see if I can learn something. I’m always impressed when I see overweight, out of shape people trying hard. I know how hard it is for them and greatly respect their willpower.

  7. “6-9 years old? Let them play, learn a bunch of sports, and be kids”

    Definitely agree with this. Young kids have plenty to learn when it comes to sports without throwing strength training into the mix. As they get older you can start to incorporate more serious training but remember that kids aren’t mini-adults and your routine, just at a lighter weight, is not the solution.

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