What Makes a Good Coach?

by Mark Rippetoe | January 19, 2022

mark rippetoe coaching a lifter in the squat

The profession of Barbell Coaching has come a long way in the past few years. I'm happy to say that Starting Strength has played a big part in its development, by quantifying the lifts and their technique, and by establishing the best way to program the lifts for continued progress. We've narrowed the range of the barbell exercises to the 5 most useful, we've redesigned their execution to optimize their effects within the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle, we've developed ways to teach their correct execution quickly and effectively to virtually all trainees, and we've developed reliable methods to recognize and correct errors in technique that deviate from optimum execution.

Our coaching is especially important for novice lifters, because they are the most important demographic. The greatest strength gains occur during the novice phase, and these changes set the stage for the most significant quality of life improvements later. At any given time, novices comprise the vast majority of trainees, and if they are taught productive ways to perform and program the lifts to keep making significant progress, their attrition rate goes down significantly. Client retention is critical to your business, but it's also a function of giving people what they paid for and what you promised them as a strength coach.

We're not as concerned with advanced lifters, because after 3-4 years of uninterrupted training most lifters become far less dependent on outside coaching, having learned from their own experience what's best to do next. And even if they learned things wrong, lifters with 3-4 years experience tend to pay less attention to coaching, even if they should. So our primary focus as coaches will continue to be on our novice trainees – they need the help, they are more receptive to the help, and there are more of them to help.

If you want to be a coach, there are several things we know about the good ones and how they got that way. All of these qualifiers are components of the coach's skill set, but not all of them are under your control. In the same way that I cannot be a guard in the NBA, not everybody can become a good barbell coach.

Things Under Your Control

The single most critically important aspect of your coaching ability is derived from your own experience under the bar. If you do not personally understand what you're trying to get your trainee to do – having already done it yourself many times with heavy weight, under pressure, and in a state of stress – you cannot effectively communicate the things he needs to hear, because you do not know what they are, or what a lifter in those circumstances can hear and process.

This cannot be sufficiently emphasized: you cannot effectively coach what you have not personally trained. Doesn't matter what sport it is, if you have not spent the requisite time solving the movement problems experienced by an athlete, you have no basis for processing what you're seeing your trainee do, no way to recognize the real problems, and no basis for communicating the correction to the problem in a manner useful to the lifter in real time – right now, when the correction needs to be made. The effective coach filters what he sees his trainee do through the lens of his own experience with that movement pattern. Essentially, the coach can feel what he sees, since he has felt it many times himself, and can correct from the outside vantage point that which the lifter only feels but cannot see.

It's also important to understand that an effective coach doesn't have to be very strong – he only needs to have worked hard to get as strong as he is. He has to have solved the problems encountered in the process of long-term progress, so that he can save his trainees the time and expense of solving those problems for themselves. In other words, the coach's personal experience is a substitute for the lack of experience in his trainees. The trainee is paying for the time you save him by bypassing the problems the coach has already solved.

As a corollary, talented natural athletes – those few genetic freaks with enormous natural strength and explosive power, and the ability to learn movements very quickly from primarily visual input (they can very closely copy movement patterns they see performed, at a high level) – almost universally make the worst coaches in sports. They cannot communicate movement-problem solving to trainees, because they never had any movement problems to solve. These people may have trained very hard (usually they don't have to, since athletic success comes very easy to them), but their training has been of a different quality, one that does not produce coaching excellence even as it produces athletic excellence.

The problem is that people assume athletic talent must mean coaching talent, and hire them based on their competitive credentials. USA Weightlifting has done this for decades. A freak athlete can become a competent coach given enough deliberate attention paid to developing the skills of movement-problem solving that us mediocre athletes had to struggle with, but most of them lack the patience. It's not that they can't, but people for whom things come easy seldom understand the process we have to go through to learn that which is so hard for us. And this applies to many things about teaching and learning outside the weight room.

A coach needs to have a working knowledge of human anatomy, because barbell training is merely loaded human movement – loaded human anatomy moving through the normal anatomical range of motion of the kinetic chains of the exercises. Our version of barbell training is best described as progressively loaded normal human movement patterns, with no conscious attention paid to the individual anatomical components of those movements.

Instead, we teach our lifters to focus on the mechanics of the movement pattern itself – driving the hips up in the squat, pushing the bar away from the floor in a deadlift, getting under the bar in a press – gross skeletal movement in lieu of thinking about the muscles that produce it. If you execute the movement correctly, all of the skeletal and muscular components of the kinetic chain of the movement are trained, without you having to babysitting your “glutes” or your “hammies.” But you need to know what the components are, so you can explain to your trainees why we don't do leg curls.

You also need to know how and why the skeletal and muscular anatomy determines correct technique, because that informs your evaluation and correction of the trainee as he performs the exercises. “Because that's the way we do it” can never be a satisfactory answer to a paying client's question about the details of an exercise. “Because that's the way we do it” means that you don't know. And you're being paid to know, so it's your job to learn.

Intimately associated with the basic anatomical knowledge is a good working understanding of the basic mechanical principles of leverage, moment forces, balance, and center of mass. Skeletal anatomy and basic mechanics are the basis of the Starting Strength method, and you need to know this stuff because you use it every day you coach on the platform – it answers the “why” part of all the questions you will be asked about what we do under the bar. It's not complicated: the anatomy stuff is just rote memorization, and the mechanics are self-evident to anyone who has used tools and owned used cars.

These are things you can do, starting right now. You can train yourself, and you can study the appropriate materials to obtain the information you need. But some other aspects of coaching are hard for some people, and can be difficult to acquire even with study and experience.

Things Not Under Your Control

There are several personality characteristics that contribute to effective coaching. Not everybody has them, and not all of them can be developed very well.

You have to be able to see changing angles, both in isolation – what are the knees doing? – and as part of the system – what are the knees and hips doing to the back angle? A lot of movement is taking place, and you've got 5 reps to watch and correct it, so you have to be good at looking at both individual joints and the system as a whole, and that's a lot of data to be responsible for. This ability can be developed to a certain extent, but observing and analyzing spatial problems is not something everybody can do well.

Intelligence is crucial if the objective is rapid, accurate analysis of movement patterns as they are performed in real time, and the communication of the corrections necessary for their improved conformity to the model of the exercise. All the visual data must be filtered through the coach's perceptive tools, compared to his understanding of the model of the exercise for that particular lifter's anthropometry, a short accurate correction – a “cue” – must be formulated, and then it must be delivered quickly, loudly, and to immediate effect. Then the coach must observe the effect of the cue, assess its effectiveness, and either change or reinforce it depending on the lifter's response – all within a few seconds. An effective thinks on his feet.

This is quite clearly a function of intelligence, since it is a data-handling problem. It is also a function of the ability to articulate one's thoughts rapidly while under the pressure of the clock, which may or may not be related to intelligence. Articulate people can think while they're talking, sometimes better than when they are writing at the keyboard – I am a very good coach because I can think while I explain. I have no problems with communicating accurate and effective information to my lifters under the bar, while I have observed people who are smarter than I am having problems doing so.

A related function of intelligence also enables a coach to recognize patterns even as they are forming – the ability to predict a pattern from partial information being observed in real time. If I see a lifter's knees too far forward at the bottom of the squat, I know the back angle was too vertical without have to see the back, and I know how to start the correction. Part of the “Coach's Eye” is enough experience with watching and performing the movements that the immediate subsequent events unfolding become predictable, even with less-than-optimum observation, as might be the case when training multiple lifters at one time. A video reviewer cannot develop this ability.

And a willingness to talk, to express an opinion, to risk being wrong, and to immediately correct yourself if necessary is indispensable to the barbell coach. If you're looking at yesterday's video, deciding what to type having watched the video 4 times, and emailing your “coaching” back to your client, you are not doing the same thing a platform coach does in the gym. If you wait till the end of the set to make corrections – not because you didn't know what to say, but because you weren't certain and you didn't want to be wrong – you allowed your trainee to do 100% of the reps wrong instead of just the 20% that would have been the case had you corrected him after the first rep. Shy, reserved people don't usually make good coaches, but to the extent that reticence is a voluntary approach, it can be worked around.

In contrast, a blabbermouth – a person who above all other things enjoys the sound of his own voice – who cannot stand to simply watch a correct rep without having to invent something to say over and over again, is not as useful as a coach who gives the correct cue, watches it take effect, and lets the lifter think internally, where the learning actually takes place. Over-coaching can be every bit as bad as under-coaching.

It's fair to say that a lifter with some experience who has studied the material can become a decent coach, but a better-than-average coach will have the experience, the academics, and the natural talent for rapid and accurate communication in real time. You probably already know if you have what it takes. We're hiring.

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