When it comes to performance results, psychologically motivating and managing your athletes will ultimately trump your ability to create the perfect strength program. Obviously, this statement doesn’t mean you should abandon your research on exercise physiology and training methods. These do help create more efficient and effective training and nutrition programs. But be aware that most of what you need to condition athletes is covered in your education courses, whether it’s a degree or a personal training certificate.
For the record, I’ve spent the last two years as a member of an international research team. All of the data I’ve analyzed and papers I’ve read on the physical aspects of training told a pretty consistent story:
- If you want to get faster at a movement, perform the movement as fast as possible repetitively with plenty of rest between each effort.
- If you want to get fitter, or gain endurance in a movement, do it until you get tired—and keep doing it.
- If you want to get technically better at a movement, practice it again and again with your coach’s supervision.
- The more an exercise works the muscles involved in a sporting movement, the more benefit it will provide you when performing that movement.
These are all approaches that a newly graduated fitness professional is aware of. Most other methods, or variations of these methods, don’t have enough evidence backing them. The ones that do only provide a small amount of benefit over more conventional methods, and these small benefits are usually only true for more experienced athletes.
For those who train the most elite athletes, these methods are worth a try, but they’re only useful when these athletes do the basics well consistently. And you’d be very surprised how many elite athletes don’t. There’s little need for these methods for personal training clients, who usually just want to lose some fat and get healthier.Eliciting better performance lies in your ability to communicate, manage, & motivate your athletes. Click To Tweet
This means that getting better results for your athletes and clients and differentiating yourself as a coach and trainer lies in your ability to communicate, manage, and motivate those around you.
The advice certainly isn’t groundbreaking. Coaches like John Berardi and Martin Rooney have been pushing psychological-based approaches and touting their benefits for the last few years. These coaches are involved with both elite athletes and everyday people looking to improve health and lose fat.
Most coaches also agree: a bad program done consistently trumps a great program done inconsistently. This approach isn’t only based on popular opinion either. Research has shown the benefits of change from psychological counseling and the impact of psychological elements in sport and fitness. Adherence to a program is also one of the biggest barriers to success in health and fitness circles.
This is why I’m calling on more coaches to adopt a more psychological and social approach with their athletes. Put simply, many trainers and sport science staff still seem to treat coaching as a physical exercise and neglect psycho-social factors.Too many of us treat coaching as a physical exercise & neglect the psycho-social factors. Click To Tweet
Three years ago, I wrote an article about the rift often seen between head coaches and sport scientists. I emphasized the importance of creating a structure where sports staff could work together. The piece also stressed the importance of communication and culture, including the value of a sports scientist knowing the infrastructure they’re stepping into. These ideas have since been corroborated by other practitioners.
But has anything since really changed?
Yes and no. Progress has been made.
Coaches like Brett Bartholomew have begun carrying the torch passed by Berardi and Rooney. Meanwhile, Adam Meakins and Paul Ingraham have continued the shift toward a psycho-social approach in physiotherapy. Despite this progress, though, there’s still a large disconnect between training and coaching. This is true of both recreational and elite level setups across the world.
Training and Coaching: A Physical or Psychological Process?
About a month ago, I visited Beijing during a trip through Asia. One of my goals was to visit the National Weightlifting Centre and Sports Institute and speak with members of the coaching staff. It was a pretty big deal for me. I had already visited sports institutes in the USA, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East, and this was my chance to complete my picture of training techniques used by the best from all over the world. I wanted to see what exercises they used, the protein supplements they took, everything.
Thanks to a few coaches I met during my earlier travels, I was put in contact with a weightlifting and a combat sports coach at the Beijing site. Meeting and talking to the coaches was easily the highlight of my travels around Asia. It was also the highlight of my trip to all the sports institutes.
But, why? What was the difference between my visit to China and the other sports institutes? What did I learn?
The key difference occurred two days before I even saw the inside of the Chinese Training Centre. I met with a coach who worked with combat athletes on the Chinese National Team. More importantly, I got a chance to speak with his colleague, the head of the strength and conditioning of the Chinese combat athletes. He was one of the most seasoned coaches I’ve ever met with a career spanning multiple professional teams from a range of different sports.
During our three-hour conversation, two exchanges stuck with me most.
What Makes the Best Physical Training?
The first was talking about how the best athletes in the world trained, and the coach said “Nothing beats mastering basic movement… It’s the same, [get them to] lift heavy, run, jump, get them strong [on] one leg.”
What struck me most about this statement was how unsurprising it was to hear. I had been to multiple training camps and chatted with a lot of coaches. Rather than applying rare and unique strategies, almost none of them deviated from simple training methods. Methods that even newly graduated sports scientists would be aware of: weightlifting, plyometrics, throwing drills, sprint training. For conditioning, a combination of circuits and steady-state training like cycling and jogging are most common.
Also, skill was the most important attribute for success. This is consistent with what I observed in the Chinese Weightlifting Centre a few days later. In the facility’s gym, there wasn’t a single exercise the athletes were doing that I hadn’t seen before. It was basic, multi-joint strength and power exercises that I’d seen a hundred times. I may as well have been standing in the Aspire Academy in Doha, the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, or the Irish Institute of Sport back home in Dublin.
So, if the tools don’t change, what separates the top coaches from the average ones?
The question brings me to the second outstanding exchange.
What Makes the Best Coaches?
We were talking about other practitioners in the field. Specifically, about why some had more success than others, both in their careers and with their athletes. When comparing coaches, the names of two well-known coaches popped up.
The first was a coach I’ve always admired for his skill at analyzing data and using statistics, a talent the coach I was talking to acknowledged. But he then said “He was not a team player. He couldn’t coach… When it came to actually connecting with athletes, he couldn’t do it.”
The coach in question didn’t last long with the Chinese team.
The second was a head coach for one of the biggest Premier League football clubs in England, who is one of the highest paid coaches in the sport. He was described in the conversation as “the footballer whisperer,” because of his “amazing ability to make his athletes follow his programs and do what he tells them.”
Both of these coaches had worked in team environments and been part of sophisticated, high-performance setups in multiple countries. Experience clearly wasn’t what separated them; the difference was the ability to communicate coupled with awareness and adaptability to their employers’ (the team’s) infrastructure and culture.
While both coaches used more or less the same tools, the application of the tools was completely different. The former coach focused only on the training, the second focused on the athletes and navigating the team’s culture. I suppose this shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. I had heard similar stories from practitioners in almost all of the training facilities I mentioned. Amazingly, one was about the same coach in a different part of the world.
The question that remained was this: where was this discrepancy coming from?
A Question of Education
The conversations in Asia inspired me to think back to my college education in sports coaching. My course modules were overwhelmingly focused on physical topics. Anatomy, physiology, nutrition, speed and power coaching dominated the course structure—even some biomechanics were covered.
Our psychologically-based modules consisted of exercise psychology, coaching children, and coaching populations with special needs. Keep in mind, this was a program that I’d praise in hindsight for focusing more on the psychological side of coaching than most other courses in Ireland.
The issues above are clearly outlined in a quote I heard at the Perform Better Summit by John Berardi and, even after four years, I remember it perfectly:
“Everybody knows an apple is healthier than a bag of Doritos. Yet, they still reach for the Doritos. That’s an action problem, not a knowledge problem.”
Yet I don’t recall doing any work on change psychology, counseling methods, cognitive psychology, or social and group psychology. Any knowledge I collected on these methods was through self-study. I also don’t see a surge toward this area by many young sports coaches or trainers today. Many are still focusing on physical elements like a new training or diet method, which goes a long way in explaining the discrepancy between coaching performance I learned about in China.
I should give credit where it’s due, though. My course did touch on high-performance team structures and included a module on life coaching. Both were new additions to the course at the time. Meanwhile, more coaches now are pushing the psychological side of coaching. Still, many personal trainers are working on their own—team structure matters less. But no matter your coaching situation, psychology always matters. More courses should implement this as a staple in their curriculum.
For the coaches, sports scientists, and personal trainers already in the field, these are my recommendations:
- Create a culture with your athletes and clients that encourages the goals you aim to help them achieve. Get an idea of their background, values, and common ideals that can help them relate to you.
- For coaches or trainers entering a high-performance structure, do your homework on the culture and setup of that structure and adapt your approach accordingly. Find out how the organization works, the power dynamics, who the leadership figures are in the structure, and how information (and respect) flows between individuals. Be careful here though. It isn’t the army, so the rank of individuals is not always obvious.
- Inform yourself on counseling and change psychology methods as well as social psychology and group dynamics if you want to work in strength and conditioning.
- Be patient. Psychology is not a field that’s as well defined as anatomy or physiology. There’s also a lot more work to be done in this area, too, so you won’t always find an answer in a research study.
By applying these recommendations to your coaching, you’ll be able to provide a more dynamic and comprehensive training experience to your athletes and clients. You should also be able to meet your employer’s goals and navigate your workplace better. This, in turn, should help those around you get better results and further their careers alongside your own.