Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Becoming More Coachable: The Coach-Athlete Relationship

by Michael Jones | November 08, 2022

lifter being coached at the start of a deadlift

In most of the typical kung-fu movies the trope of the master-disciple relationship recurs to almost the level of cliche. But all cliches are cliches for a reason: there is a kernel of truth to them. This particular one has 3 metamorphoses.

First, the master takes on the role of the aged, old man full of platitudes and pithy phrases. He offers sage advice, slaps on the wrist when necessary, and models the archetype of the long-bearded and robe-cladden man with esoteric knowledge – we all know the image. Then when the disciple has matured enough the master takes the role of the spiritual-friend, both of them disciples of the same tradition and trekking the path to illumination. Finally, and few disciples reach this stage, the master becomes an opponent. When the disciple is ready, he draws the sword from its sheath. Before, he got bruised and battered with the wooden, dummy sword, but now it’s for blood. And here is the wisdom of this gateway: once the steel is drawn, even if the disciple gets his head cut off, he must keep fighting without it, and learn to become a master unto himself.

Good coach-athlete relationships are like this. As much as hip drive sounds esoteric to the newbie there are anatomical and mechanical explanations. But it still inspires a bit of awe when it is forcefully bellowed by the coach at precisely the right moment in the squat. Or even when it is said by the wise old man folding his hands, “Ah, grasshopper, hip-drive is what you have been seeking.”

Much of the nature of this relationship is based in how the two communicate on and off of the platform. While the teacher, or coach in this example, can take on varying roles, it almost always depends on the capacities of the student – their level of coachability. Some athletes are talented at being coached, while others are less so: they are either full of too much background information, they refuse to listen, or they do listen but don’t retain the coaching.

Because of this, the three metamorphoses are not just shed off and forgotten. There is some of the wise-man, the friend, and the opponent in the best coaches and masters. How they come out is specific to each instance and each athlete. All the athlete can do is be as coachable as they have the capacity to be. When coaches suggest omitting extra cardio work during your novice linear progression it might seem like we just want you to get fat, but at this point you’ll just have to trust us. Because in 3 months when you did what we told you to do, you’ll be much stronger than you would have been had you not. Now the coach and athlete share some of the same knowledge that would otherwise seem esoteric. There is a mutual recognition that they are both on the same path, albeit at different points.

Young burgeoning coaches go through a similar process. A good coach who has an apprentice who has matured enough might tell him to “see the technique error and beat me to the cue.” In so doing, the two have become opponents, yet neither the fellow traveler, nor the wise elder have been discarded – they are all happening simultaneously. And one stage is not particularly better than the other, nor should we all aspire to be opponents to our coach (please don’t do this). There is virtue in approaching your coaching with the novice mindset, even if you are an advanced athlete.

The best thing athletes can do is to be as coachable as we can be and be open to the process as it ripens in its own way. So the next time you get a chance, ask your coach how you can be more coachable – the answer will make you a better lifter, and may even surprise you.

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