My first brush with remote coaching came twenty years ago, when I Xeroxed—and then faxed—a weekly workout sheet to a distant athlete. That started the process of iterating correspondence training, which I’ve been engaged in throughout the intervening decades. Recently, I learned to better leverage mobile devices and inexpensive sensors to get more out of this process, and now I am finally in a good place with remote training.
After viewing some disappointing webinars, I decided to write this article for coaches to be part of the solution, not add more confusion to the problem. During this global pandemic, it seems every business in the fitness world is shifting online. While that is a good thing for the time being, nothing beats live training. Remote coaching has a lot of drawbacks and limitations, but if properly organized and purposefully executed, the situation can offer unique benefits for both the coach and the athlete.
In this article I cover the core building blocks of a remote coaching plan, ranging from the best workout software to how to improve athlete motivation and mindset. Don’t waste your time looking for the next webinar or pop-up course, read this outline as it shares everything you need to know. We are entering an emerging age of home training while brick and mortar gyms are disrupted, and as we move forward these online options will remain available. If you are a sport or performance coach, private or public, I am confident that this will be your ultimate resource.Remote coaching has drawbacks and limitations, but if properly organized and purposefully executed, it can offer unique benefits for both coach and athlete, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The Pros and Cons of Remote Coaching
If you work with athletes, it’s likely some have recently asked you for a “program,” be it just something for a few days or a request for a longer-term plan. Even if remote coaching isn’t going to become part of your operating model, just adding a few of the tips included in this blog can make your regular coaching better and more efficient. While this is an article on remote coaching, the process I cover is really a method for adding efficiency and organization to your day-to-day operation, regardless of whether you are working with your athletes in-person or from afar.
To be honest, I personally dislike remote coaching—for a coach, it’s difficult to compartmentalize your time since athletes can be in different time zones all over the world. Times have changed since those first workouts I faxed back in the 1990’s, and sending workouts is no longer a problem; still, the need to for athletes to be independent and resourceful remains. Remote coaching allows coaches who are really skilled in training and experienced in preparation to further leverage their talents. Whatever you call it, correspondence or online coaching, the opportunities to stretch your skillset and reach more athletes or potential clients is higher than ever.
Keeping all this in mid, some drawbacks to consider are:
- Athletes may prefer the physical presence of their coach, as training at a high level on your own isn’t easy to do psychologically.
- Meeting the hands-on needs of instruction can be a challenge—it’s very difficult to teach athletes as your interaction, even with live video, is limited.
- With athletes training on their own, they aren’t able to make use of the facilities and equipment you are usually able to utilize.
- Staying organized and efficient can be difficult because your athletes are scattered everywhere.
Still, whether during this quarantine phase or at some point well beyond, it’s likely that some day you are going to do some remote coaching. Many coaches, for example, send out workouts to their teams during holiday or off-season breaks. Also, if you are good at what you do and can make the user experience worth it, online coaching can be a lucrative option. Track and field coaches who understand sprints have an advantage, since most of their job is simply training. Other sports have a disadvantage in this regard; with soccer, for example, the seasons are longer and there’s an emphasis on team practice. Whatever your situation, before you start sending out workouts and doing Zoom sessions, make sure your waivers and insurance are up to snuff, as someone is bound to get hurt.
What follows here are the 10 building blocks I find essential to developing an effective remote coaching model.
1. Establish Accountability with Your Athletes
The first rule of remote coaching is that your athletes will need to rise to the occasion and be resourceful. Remote coaching isn’t for everyone, so when the situation is thrust on athletes due to something like local or national lockdowns, we tend to see a lot of athletes get frustrated or become lazy.
The need for athletes to train on their own should be viewed as an opportunity rather than a problem, as each individual competitor is forced to realize that they are ultimately responsible for themselves. Eventually, a coach will need to have the “talk” and explain to them the circumstances and the demands of being great. There are examples to point to, as many of the best athletes are known to be loners or fiercely independent, and I recommend reading the recent gems on mental skills from SimpliFaster.The first rule of remote coaching is that your athletes will need to rise to the occasion and be resourceful, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I also believe that perspective—the ability to step back and see the big picture—is important for coaches to convey. Many athletes choose to train on their own purely because they want to control their own destiny and are ruthlessly goal-oriented. If an athlete wants it, they will find a way to get the job done regardless of their circumstances. I am not suggesting that athletes are somehow soft if they need a coach to make progress, but we need to empower athletes so they don’t feel trapped without one. The sign of a good coach is not only in the coaching tree they create, but also in how their athletes can succeed without them present.
2. Adapt Your Own Coaching Mindset
If you are a coach who prizes connecting with your athletes and the soft skills of coaching, you will need to recognize how the craft of program design will matter more when you remove the immediate human element from the equation. Being a talented communicator and well-versed in the science are not mutually exclusive, but if you struggle with planning, then remote coaching will expose these weaknesses.You will need to recognize how the craft of program design will matter more than soft skills when you remove the immediate human element from the equation, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
You also have to be willing to concede that certain ideals are beyond your control, such as perfect calendars or models. Remote training impacts each sport differently: sports such as American football have been crippled during the COVID quarantines due the impact of players being unable to train at their facilities with their staff. Sports that are less-centralized and have fewer resources, such as bobsled, may find their athletes comfortable squatting in a random parking garage. The great thing about remote training is it forces coaches to strip away what isn’t important and extract the core essentials.
3. Create Efficient Channels of Communication
Remote coaching makes communication harder—particularly with school teams—as you need to be a lot more organized. Training one or two athletes remotely is a breeze, but what works in that situation doesn’t necessarily scale; while a professional coach may have a handful of athletes on the side during offseason coaching, a high school strength coach may be responsible for over 500 athletes. Better communication doesn’t mean more communication—if you don’t have a way to filter and establish barriers, you’ll spend all day emailing, calling (voice or video), and text messaging.
A good program or system reduces unnecessary communication, as more noise just slows things down and often leads to a coach having the same conversation over and over.
Accessibility is important, but if the technology available is actually too good it can increase the likelihood of lazy communication. A good example is sending an email blast rather than delivering handbooks and instructions. It’s okay to use conventional communication for a handful of athletes, as I do it too, but if you are dealing with more than ten athletes it becomes a never-ending chore. Setting up efficient channels of communication also requires the ability to delegate, and appointing leaders and team captains is important, particularly during times of chaos. Make sure you have a chain of command, or else you’ll be dealing with the consequences of everyone continually rushing to ask the same questions.
4. Select the Right Online Training Software
Coaches are always asking about the best workout or training software besides Excel, and I explain that what they need is the right software for them. In general, relying on Excel makes things hard during remote training, but plenty of Google docs users have done amazing things with the open software. If you are trying to push out a training program, a number of systems can do that with varying levels of effectiveness. I have used every major product and served as a consultant for a few, leading me to say this: get something that is cloud and app based now.Coaches are always asking about the *best* workout or training software besides Excel, and I explain that what they need is the *right* software for them, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Here is the catch, though—if you choose one that you outgrow in a year, you’ll have buyer’s remorse while doing countless hours of monkey work. Many systems offer free extended trials, some of which are prison sentences disguised as free rent. I strongly suggest viewing a demo or talking to coaches who use different systems.
Usually, an online strength and conditioning system will include the following:
- Exercise library with an option for video demos and custom naming
- Simple reporting options, dashboards, and leaderboards
- A calendar function to organize sessions and training
- Light automation functions that save time with batch changes
These key features are nice and having workouts sent to a smartphone app is extremely useful, but that’s just the starting point. Athlete management systems and online strength and conditioning platforms are not the same, even if the strength program uses a wellness questionnaire to add an element of sports science. After you load your exercises and training modules, writing workouts becomes less important over time and monitoring and testing becomes more insightful.
5. Integrate Monitoring Applications
What transforms an online strength and conditioning program into a full athlete management system are the tools that enhance the training process. If you don’t have inputs from the athlete, training is an act of wishful thinking. In the past, I have written some beautifully detailed periodic programs, but I didn’t know their effectiveness until testing. Proper monitoring means you adjust the programming to meet the adaptations of training, along with conventional sports testing.
Basic physiological monitoring methods, such as daily pulse rate or Heart Rate Variability, work as they are less about about readiness to train and more about handling general life stresses and the training workload over time. Simple training load scores, combining objective and subjective data, do better with a good training program than one that is ornate but blind.
An athlete being given a workout without verification they completed it is exactly why most online strength and conditioning programs are giving coaches a false sense of security. If you are pushing out a bodyweight home exercise program on an online strength and conditioning system and thinking it’s going to work, guess again. Save your money and just spend it on video software instead of training software. I cover what we use later, but for many reasons I have been recommending CoachMePlus lately. I will not repeat what webinar I was watching, but the host of it just said to collect the wellness survey information and let the data be orphaned. Monitoring, if done right, allows for better training prescription.
Also, when you buy software, think about the hardware vendors and how they connect (if at all). Don’t buy something today that forces you to be a full-time secretary down the road.
6. Design Minimalist Sessions
I’ve tried not to spend too much time preaching, but I will hop on my soapbox now. No matter what fancy software you buy, those athletes who didn’t train properly onsite will crumble when they are alone. Great software only supports great coaching. I love technology more than anyone, but if you want to make an impact with your remote athletes, you need to make sure they can train well with minimal equipment.No matter what fancy software you buy, those athletes who didn’t train properly onsite will crumble when they are alone, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
On the other hand, you can’t expect athletes to succeed with just grass running and push-ups. Since sprinting and jumping are potent enablers for speed, outside of a field for running I would say the number one need is maximal strength. Mechanical overload with strength training is very difficult without external load, so coaches have to find ways to get the most out of gymnastic strength and common exercises. If I had to rewrite my article about the benefits of Olympic lifts, I would have talked about the tremendous value of just a barbell.
With a handful of plates and a good bar, the athlete can get most of their training needs, even doing stand-free front and back squats. In fact, using a barbell without a rack can do a lot for other movements—you can get the bar up if you are prepared and fluent. Add in a medicine ball to complement a good sprint and jump program and the average athlete can come back in phenomenal condition without much programming. As long as they’ve been well coached in the past and want to continue learning, an athlete can succeed without a complicated program.
7. Make Informed Equipment Recommendations (and Be DIY Cautious)
If you check most websites right now for home gym equipment, panic shopping will have cleaned out all but a few that have smart supply chains. Even Walmart was out of key equipment, and when Rogue Fitness said they had delays, those that didn’t have a home gym found themselves scrambling.
My home gym vendors now are Gopher Performance, Rogue Fitness, and of course a few specialty companies. Some of the equipment sold online is overpriced, but in general you get what you pay for. Suspension trainers are an example of durability and safety, as cheaper usually means poorly made and that scares me. Most parents are also bargain shoppers, looking to fill the void for a few weeks and want the cheapest option, rather than investing for the long run.
In terms of the many DIY (Do it Yourself) options posted on social media, I have mixed feelings. I am proud of the resourcefulness of coaches and athletes, but I fear that a homemade training tool would backfire and end up hurting the athlete so I don’t suggest anything in that regard. There’s a big difference between repurposing a frisbee for a glider/slider and using a random pipe as a pull-up bar without a stud mount. I remember using two hex dumbbells and a wood post to create a calf-raise exercise, but that is hardly analogous to items from a garage that could be injurious. Remote training usually means deciding what is important, and that means working with trusted vendors for the training tools you recommend.
8. Know in Advance the Accessibility of Facilities and Fields
With “Shelter in Place” orders some athletes can’t leave their house, and even in the best of times those who have access to training fields or outdoor options will have to worry about crowds. Any coach who doesn’t coach at a school will know locations they can go so they are not bothered during a session. Personally, I have tons of fields I know that are not locked up and gated, and back in the early 1980’s Renaldo Nehemiah ran one of the fastest times on the planet just by running on the streets of New Jersey. To me, he is the greatest hurdler ever based on shattering the world record.If your athlete can find a good track or even a parking lot, they can get in a lot of fast speed work. Be careful, though—hard surfaces need to be paired w/ unloading options. Click To Tweet
If your athlete can find a good track or even a parking lot, they can get in a lot of fast speed work. Be careful, though—hard surfaces need to be paired with unloading options, including alternative training options such as off-feet conditioning. Amazingly, some athletes are now waking up early to avoid daytime crowding. Because of the quarantine, this is the only situation when I recommend early sessions.
As for gyms for weights, Sorinex has a great product for those that have a wall or even set of trees if you are desperate. I prefer a conventional Rogue rack for the general public, and the express portable rack I own does the trick because it doesn’t need a wall mount. A few NFL players struck early and bought full racks from the large vendors, but due to the wait times the more commercial options have won out because of the speed of shipping. I have seen ladders and wood racks that look viable, but like I said, coaches should not encourage anything to be made by the athlete as they are responsible for their safety.
9. Optimize Video Cameras and Apps
Okay, now time for my favorite. The modern smartphone is a portable sport science lab, mainly because of the camera. You can get so much done with just the camera it is frightening, but the most valuable part is capturing video of the athletes training. Have them get a GorillaPod Mini, which is a small tripod that is great for spring training. Next, invest in Dartfish, a video analysis system. I see a lot of coaches tweeting and sharing about the other systems they use and that is fine, but when they do I see more ignorance than resourcefulness. In fact, I see a lot of coaches ruining the point of video, as still shots are nice but defeat the goal of the technology. If athletes and their coaches know how to film properly, the opportunities to get athlete data beyond movement kinematics is enormous.
Now, if you are looking for live options, the smartphone is nice but becomes a burden if you are working with groups and doing live streaming. Again, depending on the goals, anyone with any type of budget can get amazing work done by having a clear plan and knowing what to compromise if necessary. It’s better to invest into video analysis than most of the technologies that spring up each year. Don’t be pennywise and pound foolish and end up spending all your time forcing a solution to work when you can do it the right way.
10. Leverage Athlete Tracking Hardware
Training technologies are last but not least. I am embarrassed how the speed and power community is failing to use sensor and mobile technology. TrainingPeaks set the stage years ago for device integration, and now, as mentioned earlier, companies like CoachMePlus are specializing in API connectivity.
All of this matters to coaches who simply want to ease the burden of seeing objective information about an athlete. Take heart rate, for example. This is a simple metric which can turn conditioning sessions from guess work to highly perceptive. Consumer GPS products can analyze sessions and share velocities and distances, with affordable options. I predicted and attempted a BYOD (bring your own device) approach years ago, with some surprising success—now, I wonder if the pandemic will stimulate the change needed for further adoption.
Outside of wearable hardware such as sport watches, foot pods and wearable running sensors are now trending because they help with actual sprint parameters instead of just crude summaries. As for the weight room, Gymaware FLEX and Vmaxpro are options due to the mobility and integration of AMS systems. Light Freelap BLE solutions, two transmitters and a Bluetooth Chip, are enough to get excellent real time feedback.
Time to Go Mobile
One of my favorite movies is The Dark Knight Rises, because it’s a great story. During the big stock exchange heist, Bane changes plans halfway through and escapes with a laptop on a motorcycle, demonstrating the importance of being agile. After the entire city in Gotham was locked down, Batman returns, making his presence known with his symbol on fire, giving people hope that someone will lead them out of the situation. Obviously, the parallels are there throughout the movie, but the main point is that leaders are those that have a plan they believe in and execute viciously.Correspondence training isn’t really about sending workouts to athletes remotely, it’s having a process that takes a plan further than what was mapped out, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
You can’t be reliant on anyone, but you can work together if everyone is on the same page. I know coaches are simply going to hope things go back to normal, but they need to see why it’s important to be organized and nimble—when they get back to a stable environment, they’ll have a winning edge over the more rooted programs that are going to suffer down the road. Teams, schools, and facilities are going to show their true colors during the pandemic, and some will even thrive because they will learn more about the process of preparing athletes. Correspondence training isn’t really about sending workouts to athletes remotely, it’s having a process that takes a plan further than what was mapped out. If you do your remote training well, when things get back to normal the same process and infrastructure will improve your in-person training and take it to the next level.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF