Intuitive Coaching

athlete coaching paralysis by analysis program planning psychology strengths and weaknesses Oct 16, 2023
Olivia and Paul in the gym

 Coaching is an art.

There are no two people that do it the same way and there are a lot of tremendously talented coaches out there. The ability to make a plan that is tailored to the athlete and then implement it in a way that demands the individual to put forth their full effort is a gift. A coach must be able to assess the athlete both as a lifter and as a person. “What are the weaknesses?” “What are the strengths?” “Where do we need to make improvements?” These are all very important questions to ask, but they become meaningless unless you ask the question – “Who is this person?”  Without knowing the person that you are coaching and what makes them tick, you will not be able to coax out the full potential that they possess. You must coach the athlete and not the program, or movement. 

Too many times, coaches get caught up the in the minutia of exercises, sets, reps, periodization models and forget that the only thing that matters is the implementation. You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you can’t effectively convey the expectations to your athlete, then the result will not be what you’re looking for. “Majoring in the minor” won’t get you the results you’re looking for - think big picture! 

Forming meaningful relationships with your athletes is not a complicated endeavor. They just need to know that you care. Once you show empathy and they see that their best interests are at the core of your efforts, most people will run through walls for you. Once you’ve earned the trust, you need to learn how the athlete learns. Are they visual, auditory, or tactile? Do they learn through seeing, listening to instruction, or by trying it out themselves? Usually a combination of all 3 is needed. Explain, demonstrate and then allow them to practice, while you cue them. This process needs to flow. The explanation you give must be perfectly synchronized with your demonstration and your cueing during their practice must contain the same auditory information as your explanation. If done well, the execution should fix itself quickly and if it doesn’t you’ll be gathering information as to why and how to change it.  This is where intuition comes into play – change your approach on the fly to better convey your message.

It is best to focus on a select few verbal cues at first, until the gross movement pattern is refined. Then you can move towards more finite technique fixes. If too much information is given at one time it can result in what’s often referred to as “Paralysis by Analysis.”  This occurs when a lifter who is struggling to assimilate information gets overloaded and throws everything you’re saying out the window and their movement falls apart. The types of cues you use also makes a big difference. Cues can be characterized as either internal, or external. Internal cues relate to body positioning, or sensations, while external cues relate to orientating the body about an implement. Take for example the goal of bracing the midsection. An internal cue would be “Big Air.” An external cue would be “push your air against your belt.”  These both accomplish the same goal. Typically, less experienced lifters who have never played sports will have very poor kinesthetic awareness. If you give them internal cues, they will be completely lost. External cues work best in that situation. You can’t ask someone to get their spine neutral if they don’t know what that feels like.

Touching the athlete is often the best way to fix a pattern. If you’re coaching online, this isn’t necessarily possible, unless you open yourself up for in-person consults. And no, this doesn’t refer to being a creep and giving every client a rub down, it refers to you manually manipulating their positions during a movement, so that they can relate your words to a sensation. Touching an athlete’s lats will give them a tactile cue to dial in their lifter’s wedge. Pushing against the side of the knee will cue them to externally rotate the hip during a squat. There are countless ways that you can help an athlete to get into a better position and feel what you are wanting them to feel.

You may have noticed a trend in the examples given above – the type of cueing must allow the athlete to match the words you are saying to a sensation. The link between the cue and the feeling it is aimed to create is THE KEY to making a lasting change to your athlete’s movement pattern. How you accomplish that is going to be completely individual to you and your approach. Regardless of approach, you need to be able to gain the trust of your athlete and assess the type of learner they are for it to work. This is all done intuitively. Intuition isn’t something taught in school. It is something you innately have, or something that you develop over time through experience. You can have all the theoretical knowledge in the world.  You can write programs that are so well thought out and precisely planned that it would be worthy of an Olympic gold medalist, but if you can’t intuitively communicate with the person you’re coaching, your program is about as good as something written on a Waffle House napkin.  

Coach the athlete, not the program.

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