5 Things to Look for in a Coach
Barbell sports are currently in a bubble, having reached levels of mainstream popularity that make old-timers long for 'the good old days' when competitive lifting was counter-culture.
Maybe Crossfit did it, serving as a gateway drug and pushing an entire generation of recreational exercisers to the dark side of heavy lifting.
Maybe hipsters are responsible for the boom, realizing that there is nothing more ironic than a skinny moustache-ioed feminist performing a traditionally masculine activity.
Maybe social media is responsible, putting the spotlight on a once obscure activity and giving lifters a new way to humble brag.
Regardless, the lifting boom resulted in a dramatic influx of newbies over the last decade which, in turn, has sparked an equally impressive boom in business surrounding the sports.
Humanity was like, 'we have enough athletic apparel companies', and the newbies were all like, 'fuck you!'.
Its no surprise that in the midst of such a growing economy that the business models with the lowest barrier to entry became the most saturated.
I am of course talking about online coaching.
An instagram account, a half dozen squat videos, and three phrases are all you need to be your own bona fide entre-pree-neyer.
"DM for Coaching"
"Only THREE Spots Left!"
Now, if you guessed I was about to go on a rant, you would be right. There's so many things wrong with these people. The modern coaching climate is like a 7 layer dip made with character flaws instead of beans.
First, there's the audacity of advertising yourself as a coach without any credentials. I don't mean all the letters that come after your name but still fall short of making you a doctor. I mean real credentials. Like basic knowledge of the thing you are supposed to be helping people with.
Then there's the laziness. Like, every sorry personal account with a dozen mediocre lifting videos and 300 followers will inevitably feature an announcement of how to get in touch for super special personalized coaching. Will it lead you to a professional website? Will it give you directions to a portfolio of former clients? Will it involve a slick sales funnel that suggests an actual business is being grown?
No. It will refer you to the DM box.
Finally, there's the problem with remote coaching by itself. Assuming that said IG coach with 300 followers is actually pretty experienced and good at what he does, guiding new lifters from a distance is a recipe for high blood pressure and an eventual stroke face (sorry, Thor).
The client may be intelligent, responsive, thoughtful, and diligent, recording every lift and adjusting positioning and percentages just as you ask them. But these are the people who are in less need of hands-on help. Those who the coaches really have to show up for are the ones starting at square one. New to lifting is one thing, but some clients are new to moving.
Others might sincerely need a coach to tackle one particular issue that has persisted for too long, whether it's related to pain or performance. The subtleties of positioning, breathing, bracing, and moving are hard enough to convey in person. Over video they are damn near impossible.
Before you get enraged, think about what your reaction would be in any other field. Remote boxing instruction? How about high school kids learning tackling drills from an online football coach? At some point, you have to concede that this is just a marginally better option than scouring through Youtube videos: while not entirely void of value, it certainly does not count as coaching.
However, I do sympathize. This might shock you, but I didn't always know everything. I, too, was once desperate for any instruction I could get my hands on. As a teenager, I only had bodybuilding magazines. Do you know how embarrassing it is for an overweight 15 year old to go to the check stand with a quart of chocolate milk and 3 issues of Muscular Development??
It isn't easy when you're lost and at the bottom of the mountain, hoping someone from up top will point to a trail.
Understanding that the world is not a perfect place and that some instruction is better than none, I can reluctantly admit that remote coaching might be a viable option for some. So, if you are going to pay someone to be your mentor-for-hire, here are a few guidelines to make sure you aren't risking money, time, or injury.
1. Has an Academic Background
Your coach needs to know how the body works. They need to know physics. They need to know a variety of training methods. They need to be able to interpret data. They need to have good critical thinking skills.
All of these are included in any of the hard science tracks at a university.
But be warned. There's a trend of coaches who prioritize 'research' (ahem... Pubmed articles) over actual field experience. I want to see an academic background so I know that someone can point to a deltoid or explain how leverage is important in a deadlift. I don't want to see an academic approach that puts scholarly reading ahead of actually doing shit in the real world. An academic background is important, but it does not amount to a hill of beans without the rest of the list.
2. Knows Their Limits
The big problem with a mob of Instagram coaches is that everyone is selling themselves as an expert when almost no one is. I'll let you in on a secret. I hate charlatans. A fucking lot.
To be a charlatan is to be a liar, a con artist. It suggests that there is a direct intention to deceive for personal gain, and to do so at the expense of some unwitting mark. It's predatory in nature. Cults, self improvement lecturers, powerlifting coaches, the people answering questions in the Starting Strongman forum, it doesn't matter: gurus are the same in all fields. They rely on personality, absolutist claims, and a fanatical following to pull people in.
You know how you tell a bull shit artist from everyone else? Count how often they say "I don't know" or "it doesn't matter" (Louie Simmons, I'm still waiting)
Remember, the con artist is always trying to build confidence in you that they have the answers. Those who are comfortable misrepresenting themselves will always have a strong opinion regardless of how arbitrary the subject is or how far out of their wheelhouse it is. Those in the know will freely admit when something is out of their realm of expertise or if it really doesn't make a goddamn bit of difference. The more you hear them claim to have the fix, the answer, the more likely it is that they're winging it.
3. Is Dedicated to the Client
Good coaches spend many hours per week with their trainees because, well, that's what it takes to register any tangible improvement. They are overseeing warm-ups and how weight jumps are made, taking inventory of what movement patterns change as the weights get heavier and contemplating what technical cues might be of benefit to the lifter.
You can not effectively coach someone with a single weekly correspondence, especially with 60 other clients on deck. Good coaches won't even try.
If you are in the market for an online mentor of sorts, take inventory of how attentive they are. Pay attention to the length and detail of the emails, how much time is spent going over video submissions, and how quickly they get back to you if a change needs to be made. And if they have more than 20 remote clients, move on.
4. Has Personally Competed
The best coaches will have the most in depth understanding of the game and that requires personal experience competing as well as coaching. The psychology of an athlete will include everything from anxiety before a meet to hesitation going into the hole of a squat. Only someone who spent time overcoming those obstacles is going to be truly suited to helping you through them as well.
A good coach with personal experience in the sport has an important filter for all other information to pass through. It's like having x-ray glasses for new age trendy crap and half-assed academic studies.
Just like the point about having an academic background, this one comes with an asterisk: being a highly accomplished athlete is NOT a good enough qualification on it's own. Many high level athletes spent their years training themselves and figuring out what works for them. Some are good at sports because they are kinesthetic and learn movements easily by feel. Take a kinesthetic person and try to have them teach someone who isn't. It's like watching a Swede teach French to a deaf monkey.
5. 1,000s of Hours of Coaching Experience
Those with endless personal experience only use one metric to make decisions and that is the thing they know has worked because they've done it.
This is the only point on this list that is good enough on it's own without any of the others accompanying it. Nothing trumps actual experience in the field. It's so far in first place that second place doesn't even matter.
More hours of coaching means a more diverse pool of clients. It means troubleshooting better and fixing weaknesses faster. It means that you are working under a proven process and not just a guinea pig.
Me and Russ talked last week about this very topic and came to an agreement on a lot of the same points. When he talks about walking someone through their prep, listen to the passion in his voice. He's good at what he does because he wants it more than they do. Can your coach say the same?
Agree or disagree? What qualities did I leave out? Post your comments/hate mail below.