How to Be a Better Coach

Sara Fleming

Coaching is more than just a thing I do for fun.  It is an integral part of who I am as a teacher, parent, trainer, and athlete.  I’ve coached and trained athletes in a number of individual sports: weightlifting, powerlifting, track and field, as well as a number of recreational and endurance events.  Regardless of the sport, the lessons I learned training horses to compete are the ones that still run true today.  I attend competitions of all kinds and have seen a lot of trainers and coaches in action and when I see mistakes being made they are always consistently the mistakes that no self-respecting horse trainer would ever make  (and if they did, would fully expect a bad outcome).  The thing about horses, is that making these kinds of mistakes can get you hurt or even killed so it becomes a bit more important that you train for success in competition.

horse jumping

Top Coaching Mistakes

Not understanding that without good technique, you are wasting your efforts.  This should be obvious, but just isn’t to most people.  I’ve seen both horse and human athletes plateau and fail over and over again because they have failed to fix the fundamental problems that are plaguing them.  Good, consistent technique that is ideal for the individual has no equal in good performance.  If you can perform well with bad technique, think about how much better you would be by spending some time working on the basics.   John Godina, world record holder in the shotput and coach to some of the top throwers in the world, bases his World Throws Center coaching method on ingraining consistent, good technique as the foundation for all his throwers and for good reason.

Training for speed and not finesse.  Getting a horse to perform consistently in the show ring requires that both horse and rider are relaxed and able to react appropriately to the given commands or obstacles.  Pace, technique, and timing should be second nature.  Particularly in timed jumping events, the horse and rider who are more in tune and precise are the ones with the better times.  Allowing the horse to go all out (as they typically want to do, especially in jumping events) only increases your likelihood of crashing.  Whether you are a sprinter, a weightlifter, a thrower, or a baseball player, consistent technique developed through practice is the foundation of successful performance.

Not training for competition.  Competing well takes some preparation.  You may get multiple attempts to get things right in practice, but in competition, you only get one shot.  This requires both that you be able to perform under pressure and that you have a good idea where to set your sights.  This comes both from consistency in training and practice competing.  Most people can’t expect to walk into their first competition and pull out the best performance of their lifetime.  Think about competitions as another training tool.  If your goal is to do well in competition, compete often.    You should know what the events are, what your likely pitfalls are going to be, and where you can let the throttle out.  Not only should you have an idea as to how you are going to manage the actual events through actual practice, but how you are going to warm up, what you are going to eat that day, and take into account the stresses of travel, etc.  This is particularly important for horses who sometimes turn up lame after traveling in a horse trailer for a few hours.  Understand that sitting in a car or on a plane for several hours WILL shorten your hip flexors and you’re going to need to do some additional stretching.

How to Be a Better Coach

There are many incarnations of “Coach” in fitness and sports.  We talk about the cheerleaders, the angry dictators, the slave drivers, and the all-image-no-substance gurus. But ultimately, a good coach is someone who can produce good results with the majority of the people they work with (not just a cherry-picked population) with both compassion and mutual respect.  A good coach also follows a set of best practices that ensure success beyond the novice stage and keeps their athletes motivated and willing to put in the hard work.

anna clean and jerk

  1. Be willing to work with challenges. If you only work with a cherry-picked group who responds well to your coaching methods, you’re not going to develop as a coach.  As a coach, you are a teacher and good teachers are always learning. Value the progress your athletes make, no matter how they stack up against the competition.  A motivated athlete who trusts you and your guidance is a gift.
  2. Be patient enough to not constantly test abilities. It takes 10-20 years to fully develop some athletes.  Focus on the foundation and eschew the upper limits.  Instead, trust that the majority of your work practicing good technique is where the gold is mined.
  3. Be prepared for competition. Even though the first few competitions will be “practice”, practice preparing for competition.  Just “winging it” won’t teach you or your athletes anything about how to compete at a high level.  Do your dry runs, know your attempts, and know what your warm-ups will be.  Schedule your day to accommodate for travel, meals, etc.  In other words, be prepared.
  4. Don’t waste your time on athletes who don’t listen. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some very talented athletes and some un-athletic beginners.  The most fruitful relationships are with the athletes who listen and follow the program.  It certainly looks good on your resume to work with an Olympic hopeful, but if they just make your life difficult and don’t represent you well in public, its probably better to cut your losses.  I’d rather work with people who are an actual reflection of my coaching than someone who feels they are doing me a favor by associating with my team.
  5. Listen to your athletes. It is normal for athletes, and coaches, to need a confidence boost, especially when encountering a new situation, but serious recurring doubts can mean something else.  Don’t set your athletes up for failure.  If training or competition is causing anxiety or doubt, figure out why and work on a solution.
  6. Set realistic expectations. Don’t hold the bar so high, especially with kids.  I’ve seen many a parent and coach destroy a young athlete’s confidence and joy for a sport with high expectations.  Let’s be honest, none of you are going to be coaching world champions in anything.  If you are, I’ve attracted a much more elite audience than I was anticipating.  I’ve coached quite a few athletes at Regional and National competitions and so have hundreds of other coaches.  It doesn’t make me special.  An athlete’s first experience at a national or other high level competition should simply be that: experience.
  7. Don’t be a jerk. There are a lot of coaches out there who think that their job is to bully their athletes, set a bar that is always too high, and offer nothing but criticism.   I watched a 10 year old boy win the triathlon event at USA Track and Field Regionals two years ago and then watched his parents berate him for running the 400 in just over one minute (they expected a sub-60 second run after winning both the high jump and the shot put in 100 degree weather).  Let’s call this kind of behavior exactly what it is: abuse.  Let me be very clear here, any coach or parent who bullies or verbally abuses his or her athletes should have your contempt and not serve as a role model.
  8. Always be open to learn. You don’t know everything.  None of us do.  This doesn’t mean you need to chase after every new technique or method that comes along, but keep an open mind.  If your athletes are hitting some plateaus and you don’t know why, find a new set of eyes or ideas that can help you out.  And always give credit where credit is due.  Crediting those that help you does not take away from your expertise or reputation, but failing to do so says a lot about your character.
  9. Understand that it isn’t all about you and all your athletes are individuals. Set your expectations, but be sure they aren’t unreasonable.  Some people will want to train with you because of the results you produce.  Many more will want to train with you because of how they see you interact with your athletes.  I’ve witnessed some rather bad behavior from some well-known coaches at high level competitions and would never recommend anyone work with these people.  Let’s be honest, the fitness industry is a narcissistic cesspool and many who make the jump from training to coaching bring a lot of their narcissism with them.  Remember, you are developing athletes.  Your focus should be on your athletes and their needs.  If you can’t give them the attention they need, coaching probably isn’t for you.

Bottom line, if you want to coach athletes, understand first that there is a great deal of trust between coach and athlete.  They rely on you for your emotional support, technical expertise, and problem-solving abilities.  Don’t sacrifice their potential success due to poor planning or inattention to detail.  Being a good coach is not unlike being a teacher or a parent.  It requires compassion, respect, and the ability to see the individual for who they are and what they need.

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