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Starting Strength in the Real World


Effective Communication in Coaching

by Inna Koppel, SSC | February 25, 2020

inna koppel teaches coaching

Effective communication is the cornerstone of teaching. Communication in coaching has become a challenge in this age of technology. Social media has introduced a new way of representing actions and emotions with its “# “symbols and abbreviations like “LOL” or “WTF.” Attention spans of trainees have become shorter because they constantly search for outside stimulus from their devices. I’ve noticed that this causes problems for lifters in the weight room and disrupts their focus in between sets. 

The essence of coaching is communication, and a good coach can help the client interpret instructions quickly and react to them. Between the internal understanding by the coach and the reception and integration of this understanding by the client lies effective teaching – a dynamic process that facilitates learning. 

The Starting Strength model of the big 5 is designed with specific biomechanical markers that dictate the method of coaching and using cues. First, the coach must personally train by the model, study the biomechanics of the model, and train many clients using the model, so as to understand why we use this particular approach. The coach must first be a lifter, so that he can map the movements of the barbell in his mind, creating motor memories which will help solidify the theoretical material. 

Feeling the barbell weighing heavy on your back as you try to keep your chest up, staying balanced over mid-foot, and driving hips out of the bottom with a big breath will solidify the model of the squat in a physical way – not just theoretical. You will encounter back angle/hip angle/knee angle positioning problems, deviations from the vertical bar path (rolling to your toes), and many other technical errors that you will have to resolve. The experience you build while physically training under the model will go into your coaching tool box to help you identify these issues better when you see them in a client. 

In barbell training, while understanding on the part of the coach is required, this is a purely internal process; teaching barbell training is transactional and interactive, and information in the form of cues must be carefully packaged and delivered to have the maximum didactic effect. When it is time to teach the new client how to squat or deadlift, for example, language is critical. Using too many words can confuse your lifter and limit his ability to concentrate on the most important parts of the movement. 

When we teach the squat, we build a common language that the coach and lifter will both understand the same way. When you tell the lifter to “drive out of the bottom,” he understands you want him to use his hips because when you taught the lift you started with the squat stretch and blocked his hips with your hands as he drove up out of the bottom. Before he descended with the bar, you reinforced to the lifter that he would not stop at the bottom when the bar was on his back, and that he would drive his knees out like he did in the squat stretch with his elbows. Those teaching transitions from bodyweight to bar have already been taught to the lifter, and he will be reminded of them with a word or two when he begins to squat. 

The teaching of the deadlift transitions from a few commands to single-word cues. For instance, in the beginning we say, “step up to the bar at mid-foot, reach for the bar with straight knees and do not move the bar, bend your knees until the shins meet the bar, shove the knees out to your elbows, take a deep breath and squeeze your chest up, drag the bar up your legs.” After the lifter has learned this, we start to limit the directions to single word cues that act as reminders, like, “Chest up!” “Big air!” “Squeeze!” “Eyes!” or “Push back!” By now the lifter should know what you mean, since you have explained the process, and the directions become reminders. 

When a lifter is under the bar, there is little time to take action and make changes, so the coach must produce loud, concise cues that serve to remind the lifter of what he was taught and how he needs to react. Teaching happens before the lift, or in between sets when we use recovery time to discuss how the set went and what we want to see happen next time. Therefore cues need to be loud verbal communications during the lift that refer to the model that both coach and trainee already understand. 

When verbal cues are not enough, the coach must use tactile cues to help the lifter understand what you are asking him to do. The most common tactile cues are firm physical hand contacts on the lifter's body, like patting his lower back when you ask for extension of the lower back. Stimulating that portion of the lifter's lumbar musculature will help his brain identify what area of the body we want to target when we say, “Squeeze your chest up,” or “Arch your back.” Applying a firm tap to his chest and saying, “Chest up,” or helping him tilt his pelvis while applying anterior force to his hips can help him understand what you want. Later on, as the lifter is squatting or deadlifting, we will say loudly, “Chest up!” and he will immediately know what to do. 

If that method does not turn on the light, then you have to move on to other methods. Lower back control is the most important factor in spinal safety and force transfer. The coach may have to teach the client how to extend the lower back using proprioceptive teaching, for example, doing the “superman” exercise on the ground. The lifter lays on his stomach, hands behind his head, and lifts his knees and feet off the ground, contracting the lower back muscles. This creates a burning sensation of muscle fatigue in the lumbar erectors, and teaches the lifter about the muscles we are trying to contract during the movement. (It's important to note that this is not a “corrective exercise” because we are using it only to teach a pattern of muscular contraction, not as a strengthening exercise. You should need to do it only once. As such, it is teaching, not exercise.) 

Effective communication can also be facilitated by introducing reinforcing behaviors that augment verbal cues. One of the biggest issues we have in teaching the squat is correcting eye gaze and lifting the chin. When the neck is arched and the eyes look up, this displaces the eyes' focal point from close to the lifter on the ground to way up on the ceiling, compromising balance and focus as well as placing the cervical spine in an unsafe position. The habit of looking up is very difficult to break, and it must be corrected right away. A good tool is a tennis ball held under the chin for a few warm up sets in the squat. While the the lifter is squatting you can remind him to “Don't drop the ball,” which keeps his chin down and neck straight, reinforced by the proprioceptive feel of the ball under his chin. 

Physical and verbal communications are the main ways to cue a lifter, but there is also visual cueing. Demonstration can be used during the teaching phase as the coach demonstrates the deadlift, for example. But there are very few people who can pick up a movement just by watching it – good athletes have an ability to mimic what they see, and perform it close to perfect, right away. But this is teaching, not cueing – remember: cues are reminders of instruction, not the instructions themselves. Visual cueing can be used in a set to remind the lifter about things like “Knees out,” “Bend over more,” and other aspects of knee/hip/back angle errors. Move into the lifter's field of vision and use your hands to make a visual cue. 

In addition to achieving a depth of understanding and a good communication strategy, effective coaching requires accurate evaluation of the motion unfolding in front of him. The coach must observe the lifter and compare this movement and the path of the barbell to the correct movement model he has developed in his mind. This is an active process that involves watching and listening to the lifter as he goes through the movements and responds to cues. Choosing the right cue is critical: it has to get the lifter to move correctly, the way that is most efficient for the lift. 

Choosing a cue depends on what was causing the greatest deviation from the model. For instance, if the lifter has his eyes focused on the ceiling while his hands are not placed correctly on the bar, correct the eye gaze first because it affects the bar path and hip drive. Cueing priority is choosing the most important command to give in the moment so that the primary elements of the lift are intact. Telling the lifter to get deeper or shove his knees out is more important than keeping your elbows down and tight, or keeping your wrists straight, unless these things are affecting hip drive and depth, because hip drive and depth are the most important characteristics of a proper squat. 

The lifter needs feedback from his coach so that he has information guiding him as he attempts to manipulate the forces acting on him and the bar. Some cues are bar cues, like “Keep the bar over midfoot,” and some cues are body cues like “Stay tight!” or “Big breath!” The body/barbell system is controlled by the lifter using the instructions he was taught, feedback he got from his coach during and after the lift, and his own understanding of the model. Proprioceptive physical cues, verbal commands, and the kinesthetic experiences of moving the bar and adjusting the body all serve as a way to create motor memory in the brain as we formulate as close-to-perfect a model of the movements as possible. 

Shared understanding of the model, personal experiences under the bar, and the coach's experience training and observing many lifters aids in providing the most efficient coaching relationship. Warm-up sets are a good time to make necessary corrections, as the lifter is not yet fatigued. Fatigue, elevated blood pressure during the heavy rep, and the stress of managing a heavy load make it difficult to focus, so the cues need to be short and loud. The warm-up sets and three work sets will help narrow the cues down to fixing the final few issues that the lifter is having, with explanations reserved for the rest periods. 

It is the coaches responsibility to maintain his education through seminars, reading, coaching clients, and his own training experience so that he can continue to deepen his understanding of the training exercises and maintain a clear picture of the model for himself.


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