By: Bill Been
Is it presumptuous to have a strong opinion about coaching development? After all, doesn’t doing so place the writer on “this side” of a divide between competent Strength & Conditioning coaches and others? In fact, doesn’t doing so strongly imply that the others are INcompetent? Isn’t that a little bit arrogant?
Let me begin by describing a process I’m much more familiar with and much better at than Barbell coaching: teaching someone how to fly an airplane. If you stand at the starting line of Zero Pilot Skill and watch a Blue Angels demonstration, it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed when you consider the vast amount of information you’re going to have to learn and the staggering number of skills you’d have to develop to approach their ability. So how do you get from Zero to Blue Angel? The same way you get from High School graduation day to Board Certified Cardio-thoracic Surgeon. Or how do you eat a whole cow? Or how do you become a proficient Barbell Coach? The answer is “one step at a time.”
THE BUILDING BLOCK APPROACH
Day 1 of training in my old girlfriend the supersonic Northrop T-38 Talon, known back then as “The White Rocket” consisted of sitting a student, aka “stud,” in a cockpit procedures trainer and teaching him how to flip the switches to their pre-flight positions and how to spit out the running dialogue that made up the “challenge and response” items which I would repeat back to him from the back seat. In just over a month from that modest beginning, after having methodically stacked one competency upon each that preceded it, the stud finds him or herself putting a foot on the bottom rung of the boarding ladder and there ain’t no Instructor Pilot doing the same toward the back seat - the Initial Solo. I distinctly remember that day in 1987 when I lined that thing up on the runway, ran it up, and released the brakes. When the afterburners lit and it hurtled down the runway, accelerating with a ferocity that’s only matched by really, really fast cars, I remember distinctly saying “this is freaking INSANE! I’ve only got 14 hours in this thing!” But, as it turned out the building block approach had worked as intended. I found my way out to the working airspace and back and did in fact wrangle the vehicle back to terra firma with minimal damage and the collective exhalation of many held breaths in the Instructor Corps. The point of that story is this: if humans can figure out how to teach a kid where a T-38 battery switch is, then just a few weeks later send him out alone to fly the thing, SURELY we can do better in the arena of coaching development than “just coach more reps.” Much like the idea of a surgeon becoming a better surgeon by doing cruddy surgery until he gets good at surgery, or a wanna-be pilot eventually becoming competent by badly flying lots of airplanes, that idea is incongruent. It makes a bit more sense if you prefer to believe that coaching a barbell squat is pure art. But even if you lean toward the idea of coaching as art, there are still building block ideas underneath the art.
BUILDING BLOCKS, BLACK BOXES, LINKAGE SYSTEMS, AND ART
Let’s explore this nexus between barbell coaching and art. Specifically, let’s use painting as our art proxy and the squat as our lift. In both cases, there is an undeniable element of having an “eye.” Where we go wrong, though, is extrapolating that out to imply that we ONLY have an eye. In both venues, there are concrete, repeatable, foundational aspects to the activity that can methodically be approached. It makes little sense to try to learn to paint a portrait with one type of brush on one type of canvas in one type of lighting, using one type of paint - then the next time you try to paint you change all those variables. Changing everything you did last time - in effect starting from an unknown base with each repetition is the opposite of building blocks and is unlikely to be effective. Likewise in coaching the squat, allowing your lifter to use one bar position, one stance width, one elbow height, an uncorrected t-spine flexion, then reversing all of those next session or next set is highly unlikely to improve the movement – or to speed your development as a rookie coach. In both cases, you need to consistently, relentlessly, ruthlessly, forcefully address and correct all the variables that you can. This is both a “building block approach” and a nod to the “coach’s black box.” Initially, we’re overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable number variables possibly present in the performance of a squat. But there are a finite number of ways to screw up the setup. Bar too high or too low; stance too wide or too narrow; toes turned out too much or not enough; eyes in the right place or the wrong place; chest up or sagging, etc. If you develop the habit of consistently fixing each of these, the movement itself has far, far fewer moving parts because as Hannon says “there’s really only so many ways you can eff-up a squat.” Luckily for us, removing setup errors heads-off a bunch of subsequent errors before they can even happen. The art equivalent would be not accepting the oil paints when you asked the clerk for watercolors. Luckily again, removing setup errors in the squat leaves us with a much more basic task than creating a beautiful painting. There is a manageable range of positions the hips and knees can occupy in a squat. The way the movement looks as a result of the lifter roaming too far afield of these positions is predictable. The range of “upstream” errors that could be causing the deviation is a very short list. All of this is discussed in great detail, including a discussion of our skeleton as a three-link system, in the (Lifting Mechanics Podcast/Coach Hannon’s upcoming book. )
PAST, PRESENT AND...
In my opinion, the Starting Strength Seminar is unique in the fitness world because it is a fairly in-depth look at the barbell lifts through the lens of a biomechanical model and also because for those attending with the intent to become certified coaches, they are actually evaluated on their ability to coach. It’s fairly telling of the sad state of the fitness industry that any number of certifications can be added to one’s resumé without one ever having demonstrated even a rudimentary ability to coach - to improve a trainee’s performance of a lift by accurately assessing current execution and marching it steadily toward safe execution in accordance with a model. Of course, if there IS NO model, proper coaching becomes much more.... fluid? Forgiving? Aspecific? Utterly baseless and subjective? But, who in the certifying organizations pays any attention to this besides Starting Strength and perhaps Barbell Logic? I know from experience that the more well-known certs in Kettlebell Land do not center their pass/fail criteria around coaching proficiency. The coaching standards are based on physical performance. So trainees keen to become qualified instructors train to pass the specific performance standards with little thought given to actually being able to coach. By and large the alphabet soup of Certified Personal Trainer organizations is much worse yet. We’ve all seen the clipboard-toting Rep Counters putting their trainees through inexplicable concoctions of exercises in corporate gyms. In sum, we have a spectrum: from useless CPT courses to no-kidding Barbell coach on the other end. What they all have in common is an underlying embrace of the notion that there is no way to become a better coach other than to coach badly for several years while you figure it out. On one end we have “you’re safe enough - here’s your name tag”. On the other we have “you’re not quite there yet”. Neither can provide useful feedback nor can they provide objective standards or quantified shortcomings nor a path towards improvement beyond “….just coach more reps.”
As Coach Hannon mentioned in Podcast #1, his training as a mechanical engineer taught him that accurately defining a problem is absolutely essential if you are ever going to address it effectively. This simple, inviolable fact applies both at the macro-level of “how do you create a coach?” and down at the smaller level of “how must the body move in a deadlift?” Both tasks can be defined. When Hannon told me this in a phone conversation a few years ago, I was sorta stunned by the brute simplicity of it, because it was so at odds with the dominant “...just coach more reps” paradigm. My brain instantly leapt to the “Building Block” approach we had employed to take Stanley Student from semi-reliably finding the battery switch to his Initial T-38 Solo in just a few short weeks. Is recognizing the limitations of “...just coach more reps” and recognizing that we can strive to create a more structured road to improving our coaching a little big arrogant in this context? I don’t think so. But to employ the building blocks, each one must identify and address competencies to be accumulated. Properly executed, such a framework can create a step-wise progression - however imperfect - from where you are to where you want to be.
From standing on the ramp watching The Blue Angels... to being one.