Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Honesty in Coaching and Lifting

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | March 01, 2022

andrew lewis coaching a squat

Honesty is essential to become a proficient coach. Honesty with clients is assumed, but more important is being honest with oneself. A coach will see lifting during training sessions that prompts questions:

"Did he hit depth?"

"Why is Frank's deadlift stuck?"

"Why is what I'm observing different than the model?"

These questions only lead to growth when the coach thinks "I don't know, and I need to find out." These problems will not be corrected in a logical and systematic way without this acknowledgment. They will only be corrected accidentally or by coincidence.

The coach must be willing to acknowledge his ignorance. This requires courage. Courage to be wrong, to be uncomfortable, and to admit imperfection. It's stressful. Over time, an individual can become increasingly comfortable acknowledging ignorance, but it is agonizing at times. This is particularly true of topics he thought he thoroughly understood – the higher the perceived understanding, the higher the discomfort.

Consider the theoretical graph below. At first, total ignorance yields no confidence for a topic. Confidence is gained rapidly as knowledge increases until it peaks at the top of Mount Stupid. This is a common place for most people to stop learning, and it's pervasive in all industries and aspects of life. There are many examples of this in both daily life and the public sphere. This is the hardest position to accept ignorance, learn more, and grow. However, it is this critical inflection point a learner must cross to become great. He must persevere through the Valley of Despair where he discovers how little he actually knows, and his confidence is shaken. Continuing to question and learn, he will grow in experience and knowledge and acquire justified confidence. Learning should not stop even after mastery is achieved. Knowledgeable masters – several of whom I personally have had the pleasure of meeting – readily discard faulty beliefs and adopt new ones when discovered evidence supports them even after years of learning and growth. They can also explain complex ideas in simple ways and to any audience, laymen and experts alike.

dunning kruger effect graph

Theoretical relationship between confidence and knowledge

Assumption of Responsibility

The coach must not shift blame. It can be tempting to blame the client:

"He's not getting his knees out."

"He's not pushing himself hard enough."

"He's not extending his back."

But that's the coach's job to figure out. That's why the trainee hired him in the first place: to save time and trouble. A coach is supposed to be able to fix problems that inhibit progress. It is the responsibility of the coach to prevent problems proactively by fixing problems in his own lifting and other clients' lifting, and solving problems reactively by admitting ignorance, doing research, getting help, and experimenting to find a solution.

Of course, a coach cannot fix everything – he cannot force-feed beef and milk to a 160lb 20-year old, make him sleep eight hours a night, and not get drunk every weekend. However, the question always needs to be asked: "What can I do or learn to solve this problem?" This responsibility becomes immediately visceral when the coach's livelihood depends on it. He is heavily incentivized to learn and be introspective when this month's paycheck will depend on a client staying another month. An arrogant coach can become a hungry coach quickly – another concept that can been seen across many industries.

Getting Better

Improving as a coach over time will both solve existing problems and prevent potential problems. Many problems will just never come up, because they can be proactively solved during the teaching method. A coach should take the time to emphasize the hip drive out of the bottom of the squat before getting the trainee under the bar. Skipping this step while thinking, "He'll get it when we put some weight on the bar" is going to create problems that could have been fixed right away. Similarly, hip pain in the squat can point to a stance or knee position issue. A coach can quickly test and find out if he can solve the problem based on previous experience with the same problem.

Getting better and solving problems starts with a coach solving his own problems as a lifter. He doesn't need 20 years of lifting experience and the ability to squat 500, bench 365, and deadlift 600. However, he does need to go through linear progression himself, work hard to get strong, and do the program he's going to put his clients through. An important part of this process is recording video of his lifts to have an accurate understanding of what is happening. This idea of honest introspection is critical in progressing as a lifter for the same reasons.

"Why can't I hit depth?"

"Did I give up on that rep?"

"Why is my press stuck?"

The lifter must seek out information he doesn't currently have. It will make him a better lifter, and by extension, a better coach. Athletes who have never had to solve problems as a lifter do not make good coaches. They also lack perspective, and although they can attempt to empathize, they cannot understand what their clients are experiencing.

Get Uncomfortable and Be Courageous

Discomfort is a useful emotional indicator that there is opportunity for growth. A client asks a question that a coach can't answer. A colleague brings up a topic the coach is tentative about discussing because of his ignorance. A client has a problem the coach isn't sure how to fix. These events indicate he needs to do some research or get some help. That feeling in his stomach that turns as his mind whispers "I don't know" should not be stifled, but used as motivation to improve.

Honesty is intertwined with courage. A coach must have courage to say "I'm wrong," learn more, and change his mind when he discovers the truth. He must have courage to tell a client "I don't know, but I'll find out." Trainees expect their coaches to know the answers to problems, but they don't want to be lied to. Furthermore, they aren't stupid – they know when an answer is a made up or bluffed. Honesty with clients and growth as a coach will always be rewarded with client loyalty and new client referrals. Coaches who are courageous in introspection and honest when they are wrong are rewarded over the long run by being able to solve more problems faster, having a deeper understanding of coaching and training, and helping more trainees get stronger and healthier.

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