5 Habits Of Effective Coaches

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Unfortunately, I have found that many professionals in the sports performance industry separate themselves far too distantly from the last word in most of their titles: COACH.

While JTS has become a forum largely filled with information on strength sports and the close approximations, I do not consider myself a lifter or an athlete. I am, and will always be, a coach.  While you may not find yourself in a similar role, I do believe you will find the following information pertinent to your role as a contributing member of society. There is a shortage of quality leaders, and I challenge you to think about how you might apply the following to your day-to-day relationships.

Greg Robins is a competitive lifter, but a coach first and foremost.
Greg Robins is a competitive lifter, but a coach first and foremost.

Lastly, I find this information timely given that JTS will soon welcome their inaugural class of interns.

Recently, we hired a terrific individual to coach at our facility. Oddly enough, I found myself writing a letter of recommendation for this person a few weeks prior.  Our coaching staff made it a point to sway our facility owners to hire this individual, even though at the time we probably didn’t need another coach on the floor.  I would like to begin this article with a glimpse into this letter. The character traits described must be present before any talk of effective coaching habits can ensue.

I have changed the audience to be more general.

I am fortunate that my role at Cressey Sports Performance has allowed me to mentor over 70 interns in three years; people whom I view to be the potential leaders of the strength and conditioning world in years to come. This, coupled with my nearly 10 years of experience in the industry, and five years in a military leadership role, has given me a unique perspective in assessing the quality of both an individual at a personal, as well as professional, level. It speaks highly that upon requesting my recommendation I didn’t even have to bat an eye before willingly agreeing to give him my highest accolades. Here’s why.

Having had the experience of working in both the college sector and private sector of performance enhancement, I know that the right person for this position must be: a talented coach, eager student, and quality person.

A talented coach is a great mind, a great teacher, and a willing subject.

A coach must first be an excellent teacher. It is fair to say that the greatest amount of knowledge is rather useless if it cannot be applied effectively to the athlete. The quality in which the exercise is carried out is far more important than the quality of the plan or program laid out. The best can supply both an intelligent plan and the means in which to carry it out correctly; this is a rare combination.

A quality coach has a vast amount of his or her own ‘in the gym’ experience. I cannot stress enough how important this is to the success of a program, and to a coach in this industry. Too often I see coaches who do not walk the walk. Hiring anyone short of someone who has put his or her own time in learning first hand how to move, and perform better, is a grave mistake. One can coach and teach because they continually apply lessons learned for themselves first. Helping people learn anything is about knowing how to create context. If you as a coach can create context, that alone makes you a stand-out candidate.

I’ve already commented on this in depth here at JTS, but it bears repeating: Great coaches operate with a growth mindset. This is crucial to being successful in rapidly changing, and improving industry. You must be a student of strength and conditioning, willing to go the extra mile to better your understanding of human performance. The college and professional sector in particular is inundated with coaches who do not challenge the status quo, both within the system they are in, and in the field itself. No program should want to hire a follower; they should want leaders. Leaders put in the time to learn, and to find solutions for how to make a system better. Coaches are leaders.

More than anything a true coach is a quality person. They are genuine, honest, and driven. I ultimately evaluate our interns not on my perception of their character, but our athlete’s perspective. A coach approaches each athlete with a smile, and personable tone, genuinely engaging them with interest and warmth.

The qualities described above lay the foundation for being a coach. These items must be addressed first, and in many cases they cannot be taught. Rather, they are a question of an individual’s motivation, make-up, and concern for improving the performance and lives of the athletes they are fortunate enough to work with. Below, I would like to discuss a few habits of exceptional coaches. These habits can be learned, through application and continual practice.

1. Set Your Expectations Upfront

Setting expectations for your athletes is the crucial first step in being a coach. Without expectations, one has no framework for what is expected of them. As a coach, you cannot effectively evaluate an athlete’s performance or character without a two-way understanding of these expectations.

What is the athlete’s role on the team, what is considered appropriate behavior, attitude, time commitment, attire, and so on? Moreover, what can the athlete expect in terms of work load, communication between coaches and players, and last but not least – opportunities?

As an example, I will clearly lay out expectations for each client or athlete that begins at our facility. “You can expect this, and I expect this in return.”

Without laying down your expectations, you can only blame yourself for any action, or lack of action, you deem inappropriate.

2. Create An Identity For Your Athletes

The notion of creating your team or facility’s identity is largely dependent on point number one. If you have some experience in athletics, you know the power of a unified identity. Sure, a unified team is intimidating, but the real value is deeper than that.

For starters, athletes who identify with the team have bought into the system. At that point, meeting expectations is not a task – it’s something they want to do, and it’s something they believe in.  That is powerful beyond measure. When each member of the team has embraced the identity of the team as a whole, each member feels that they have a place, a role, and can instantly step in to fill the spot of someone else. This makes a team deeper, promotes healthy competition, and makes it easy to acclimate new athletes.

You can look to athletic examples like the New England Patriot’s recent dynasty (yes, I’m biased), or to clear fitness examples like CrossFit. Athletes identify with the team, the organization, the facility, and the expectations of the coaching staff are not only met but also continually exceeded.


3. Shape Your Athlete’s Choices

Too many choices cause confusion. The examples are practically endless, and especially pertinent to fitness-related topics. For example, if you want someone to improve their nutrition, give them fewer options. Simply telling someone to eat real food is ambiguous. Instead, tell them to choose from a small selection of options, and as they build better habits, expand the selection.

The same can be said for advising athletes. If you want them to make better choices off the field, or outside the gym, don’t advise them to make smart decisions. Literally outline what you want them to do with very little room for interpretation. When outlining a training session, be specific.

As a coach, influencing decision-making helps give athlete’s some ownership of the process while simultaneously helping to shape the path from A to B.

4. Challenge Your Athletes To Grow

There is an age-old analogy to what coaching should be like. Fellow CSP coach Miguel Aragoncillo recently reminded me of it. Think of each athlete as a flower. If you plant a flower, you don’t tell the flower how to grow. Instead, you nurture the flower; give it water, sunlight, soil, and let it grow.

Coaching should involve challenging your athletes to discover their potential. You will not be as successful in molding athletes by dictating their every move. Instead, as mentioned to this point, lay out expectations, put them in a nurturing environment (identity), influence their choices, and let them figure it out. Expectations give them a clear goal. Forming an identity sets the environment. Influencing choices helps clear up the directions. From that point, it’s your job to let them walk the path.

5. Create A Support System

As coaches, it is our duty to support the athletes we coach. Indeed, there will be times we need to push, or demonstrate “tough love.” But in the end, athletes should feel comfortable knowing that you are 100% behind them. As a coach you do not need to, nor is it productive to, appear untouchable to your athletes.

Ideally, your athletes should feel no fear in coming to you for advice and input.

Furthermore, as a coach, it is your job to set up an adequate support system on various levels. Your opinion leaders should be those who are willing to help new members. You should have a network of other individuals you can rely on to take care of your athlete’s needs: positional coaches, specialists, doctors, etc.

The larger you can layer support, the stronger the team or facility’s sense of community grows, and the more people it reaches.

I value my role as a coach so much more than I value any of the other hats I may wear making a living in the sports performance or fitness industry. The opportunity to be a coach should not be taken lightly. Your actions, decisions, and opinions can make a tremendous difference in the lives of the people you work with. I try to remind myself of this everyday I go to work, and I take pride in meeting both my responsibilities and the expectations of my athletes.

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Greg Robins is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA. Greg has worked with clientele ranging from general population to professional athletes. His unique experience in many different aspects of fitness, strength training, and athletic preparation have helped him become an unbiased authority on all things fitness and performance related. Outside of coaching Greg is a former collegiate baseball player, active member of the MA ARMY National Guard, and enjoys power lifting.

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