Written by Mike Tuchscherer
As strength athletes, most of us face an interesting split. On one hand, we are athletes who participate in a sport. It’s even right there in the name – “strength athlete.” But the split comes when we have to take on other roles as well, the main one being the role of a coach.
Many of us are self-coached. We read endlessly about training. We think about it often (at times maybe too much). We’re probably even connected with other like-minded folks through social media or other online outlets. This thinking alone isn’t coaching behavior, but the actual decision-making is.
When you decide to change your template from low frequency to high frequency, that’s a coaching decision. When you decide to change the width of your squat stance or the amount of time you spend on prehab movements, those are coaching decisions. Conversely, when you’re in the middle of training and you’re focused entirely on executing the required work and turning in the highest quality performance you can, that’s you being an athlete.
So many of us juggle these roles and possibly many others, too. This “wearing many hats” approach is very common, especially among hobbyists, especially among strength athletes. It presents some difficulties.
The main difficulty in being both a coach and an athlete is that you have to become skilled at switching your mentality between the two roles. For example, while you’re doing a set of deadlifts, you absolutely have to be in an athlete’s mindset in order to perform at a top level. But after the set is over, when you’re trying to decide if your back feels good enough to do another set or if you should just call it a day, that’s a coach’s decision. Trying to do your work with your mind stuck on “coach mode” can lead to second guessing, over-analyzing, program hopping, bad breath, gout … you get the idea. Similarly, trying to make coaching decisions with your mind stuck in “athlete mode” can lead you down the path of dumb choices. You’ve got to analyze the situation, appropriately weigh options, etc., in order to make good coaching decisions. That’s not your strong suit when your brain is flooded with adrenaline.
So the trick to being self-coached (or at least one of the tricks) is to get really good at switching between roles. When it’s time to execute, you execute with focus and energy. When it’s time to plan and analyze, you do so with just a bit of emotional detachment – similar to if you were making decisions for a training partner who was a good friend. This isn’t an easy thing to do, but it’s something you must do if you’re going to be self-coached. The better you can get at switching between these two roles (and others too), the better off you’ll be.
So I’m known in powerlifting circles as being the RPE guy. One of the cornerstones of the RTS method is RPE (rate of perceived exertion – if you’re unfamiliar with it, read this article). The ideal way to use RPE is to execute your set as you planned it – say 100kg for 5 reps. During this execution, you’re in “athlete mode.” You are entirely focused on your technique and the execution of the work. Then, after you rack the bar, you take a deep breath and think about how hard/easy the set was. This is “coach mode.” I’m asked sometimes why we don’t adjust the number of reps on the fly, why we don’t take that 100kg on the bar and just do as many reps as we can until we get to, say, a 9 RPE. This would require you to switch between athlete and coach between every rep, and that’s just too much to ask.
Similarly, I realize that some will even have difficulty switching between sets (though this is rare in my experience). Some guys get really jacked up for a set, then can’t turn it off right away once the set is over. I don’t really advocate training that way for several reasons that we should discuss in a separate article. But if that’s you, and you’re not interested in changing it, then consider that RPE-based training might not be the best choice for you. Training with RPE requires at least a moderate ability to accurately assess performance. Which role is best suited to accurately assess performance?
This is also where having a coach manage your training can be helpful. A good coach, of course, will have a broad and deep knowledge pool that they can use to help further your athletic pursuits. But as you now know, hiring a coach isn’t only renting their knowledge base. Having them perform the coaching role for you can take some pressure off of you while you focus much more on being the athlete.
But what if you don’t have a coach? You obviously need to switch between roles to get the most out of your performance, but how do you go about doing that? Switching is a skill that you’ll get better at with time, but that doesn’t mean it has to be done through sheer force of effort alone. In fact, that’s probably the worst way to go about it.
The best way I know of to get better at being self-coached is to set up systems. RTS is a system that helps you manage the training process by knowing when to go heavier and when to back off. You can set up systems to help you know when you need to take a deload week or whether to make a technical correction. A good system doesn’t make the decision for you – that would unnecessarily turn you into a cog. A good system helps you make the right decision with less effort; it makes switching between roles a bit easier. There are tons of systems out there to help with this as well. Of course, there are all the systems we use/teach at RTS, but others too. Consider a heart rate variability app like iThlete. The app uses HRV, which is a tool. But on the whole, it helps you simplify a decision-making process – am I recovered enough for training today?
I have been self-coached throughout the majority of my lifting career. This has afforded me the opportunity to get really good at switching roles and developing systems to help me make good training and competition decisions. If I were to go back to being an intermediate-level lifter, I would either find a qualified coach or adopt a systems-oriented approach much earlier. To do well in training, we need to both know what the right thing is and have the discipline to do it. Addressing the problem-of-many-hats goes a long way to helping both.
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