As a successful female strength athlete, I know that having a coach that knew all of my strengths, weaknesses, goals, and temperamental quirks was imperative to the development of my current professional status as a powerlifter. A coach has an incredible amount of responsibility and influence on how much an athlete progresses. To be a optimally effective coach, you can’t just walk in to the gym and tell someone what to do without taking in a special interest in that person; meaning that you need to know their goals, temperament, daily routine/lifestyle, strengths, weaknesses, and stressors. Many instructors may fail to see the importance of building a close, professional relationship with their trainee and therefore flub up in the process of taking their athlete to the next level.
To make things slightly more complicated, let’s say that you’re training a female athlete. By complicated, I mean we are naturally more emotional, sensitive, and tend need more added support (especially as a beginner) in building confidence. Which is why you need to know just how far you can push them until they reach their limit, or when to back off and provide an extra positive training atmosphere when this person is having a rough training session. Yes, it seems like a lot of work, but this is your job and you always want to see both yourself and your clients succeed.
You should first realize that when working with a female in the beginning stages of training, you are making a foundation for their confidence and their work ethic. In the beginning everything should be positive, where as, being a more aggressive coach may result into your client quitting within the first few weeks. Building up your client to a level to where they can handle constructive criticism is your first step. As they progress and get a feel for what they are doing, things will change. They will become a more confident and determined lifter, therefore, you can be a more aggressive coach and start push them a little further in training. At that point you will also know your lifter’s mannerisms, temperament, and mental stability, which will help in understanding exactly what cues and techniques are most useful when coaching them in the gym and on the platform.
Because I have been on both sides: being coached and have recently started my own training business, I have compiled some tips for other coaches to keep in mind while working with a beginner to build that strong foundation of confidence and kickass mentality.
1. Get to know your client. Ask your client what their goals are. What is their background? Do they want to compete or is this for their own purposes? What are their goals for each lift? Are they realistic for the time allotted? If not, politely give an explanation as to why they aren’t (at this point, not necessarily ever). Start by listing the steps and milestones they need to go through first to allow them to understand that strength is a gradual process. If you coach online, a questionnaire would be helpful. They need to know what is realistic so that they do not get disappointed or quit when they aren’t hitting 50lb pr’s in two weeks and blame you for their “failure”.
2. Once actual training begins, start with the basics and watch your delivery of criticism. You want to work on form and technique first and worry about strength later. Remember this needs to be a positive experience so be careful when you critique them. Through my own experience, I responded 10x better to criticism when it was constructive and spoken in a more positive manner. Pairing a positive comment along with the negative critique is how this can be accomplished. For example, while coaching a squat you might say, “Your form is looking really great right now, but you aren’t exploding out of the hole fast enough”. It’s giving the lifter acknowledgement on what they are doing correctly, but still let’s them know that it requires improvement without breaking down their confidence in the process.
3. Know when to push and when to back off. Pay attention to your client’s body language and emotions. If a client walks in after having a really terrible day and is completely out of focus, chances are you’re not going to have a very effective training session. Sometimes it’s best to back the workload down for this training session or send them home for a “mental health day” and make it up later. It’s best to keep in mind that if the session is going to be anything less than successful, the last thing this person needs is something else to break them down. Otherwise, this outcome could affect future training sessions as well.
On the flip side, knowing when to push a person just far enough to hit a new personal record, or to just complete a workout is equally as important. This is where prepping a positive atmosphere comes into play aka: pumping them up. If your client is about to attempt a personal record that they are absolutely capable of but you can see the doubt on their face, it’s your job to push them through it. Make them feel like they are unstoppable. Provide them with evidence and remind them that they are strong enough to execute this lift. For example, “ You just hit 150×3 last week, you’re going to kill 155×1 today!” Or you could comment on how much better their form is looking and remind them of all the progress that they have made in comparison to where they first began.
4. Don’t set them up for failure. Picking accurate weight for training and a meet is necessary in building confidence and success. Be strategic about the way you make weight jumps and pay attention to how your client is feeling that day. If they’re supposed to hit 150lb on bench for a single but 140lbs was a struggle that day for some reason; be smart and realize that it’s best to stop there. Missing a lift is way worse than not attempting it that day and then getting it later on in the cycle. One reason being that you’re avoiding a break down in confidence that will likely affect them later. Another reason is to avoid possible damage to the body that could have been prevented.
When choosing attempts for a meet you want to choose a first attempt that ensures they will continue through the meet and that it is easy enough for them to not struggle during lift. This will build momentum and moral for their second attempt and will also keep them from bombing out of their first meet (anyone’s worst nightmare let alone a beginner). The rule I use is to pick something that I can do for at least 3 reps easily. Based on the look and feel of that attempt, pick the second. If all goes well, the third attempt should be used for a personal record. If a client experiences a positive and successful first meet, I guarantee they’ll be back in the gym the very next week ready to train for a second one.
It’s all about confidence and providing positive experiences when training a beginning female athlete. If you follow these basic tips for coaching, your client will develop a strong foundation for success. She will become more tolerant to criticism, can train more intensely, and you can be more aggressive as a coach. All three of these components are necessary if you want to produce a high skilled, professional level competitor.