What Makes a Great Strength and Conditioning Coach?

Breaking down the characteristics of the best strength and conditioning coaches.

The strength and conditioning industry has evolved. Strength coaches were once considered a luxury item in athletics but are now integral pieces to the puzzle we call human performance. Some professionals despise the label of "strength coach" however, for its limiting perception and prefer a title (e.g., performance specialist) that more accurately encompasses the sphere of our work. Contrary to popular belief, a coach's role reaches far beyond hoisting clipboards, twirling whistles and screaming for "ONE MORE REP!"

Crafting effective strength and conditioning programs requires an inordinate amount of time and effort. Coaches today must understand human physiology to a degree that is as extraordinary as the feats of performance their athletes wish to accomplish. In-depth knowledge of training for speed, strength, power, endurance, mobility, stability, acceleration, etc., must also be matched with the ability to effectively communicate and motivate. Coaching is a delicate blend of both art and science.

I take tremendous pride in my work and in doing so recognize that I will always be an unfinished product who continuously yearns to grow. I have weaknesses, but I do my best to sharpen the skills that matter most in an era when it's nearly impossible to throw a rock without striking a self-proclaimed youtube or instagram "fitness expert." Most of these individuals are unfortunately in it for a quick buck or notoriety. The pyramid of coaching excellence occasionally gets inverted which leaves some to believe that a quality coach is defined by the number of followers they have, or likes they receive on social media. Fortunately I have had a number of fantastic coaches demonstrate to me what excellence is throughout my career and I aim to do the same for coaches to come.

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The strength and conditioning industry has evolved. Strength coaches were once considered a luxury item in athletics but are now integral pieces to the puzzle we call human performance. Some professionals despise the label of "strength coach" however, for its limiting perception and prefer a title (e.g., performance specialist) that more accurately encompasses the sphere of our work. Contrary to popular belief, a coach's role reaches far beyond hoisting clipboards, twirling whistles and screaming for "ONE MORE REP!"

Crafting effective strength and conditioning programs requires an inordinate amount of time and effort. Coaches today must understand human physiology to a degree that is as extraordinary as the feats of performance their athletes wish to accomplish. In-depth knowledge of training for speed, strength, power, endurance, mobility, stability, acceleration, etc., must also be matched with the ability to effectively communicate and motivate. Coaching is a delicate blend of both art and science.

I take tremendous pride in my work and in doing so recognize that I will always be an unfinished product who continuously yearns to grow. I have weaknesses, but I do my best to sharpen the skills that matter most in an era when it's nearly impossible to throw a rock without striking a self-proclaimed youtube or instagram "fitness expert." Most of these individuals are unfortunately in it for a quick buck or notoriety. The pyramid of coaching excellence occasionally gets inverted which leaves some to believe that a quality coach is defined by the number of followers they have, or likes they receive on social media. Fortunately I have had a number of fantastic coaches demonstrate to me what excellence is throughout my career and I aim to do the same for coaches to come.

The Coaching Pyramid of Excellence

Coach Pyramid - STACK

The pyramid of coaching excellence I've created. Character, which is most important, is labeled at the bottom followed by communication, knowledge, education/certifications, and physical.

Character: The backbone of a quality coach is their attention to detail and care for others. A coach with 25-plus years of experience who cares little about others is in my eyes far behind the rookie who demonstrates nothing but care for his or her athletes. Excellence in coaching is founded on trust, respect, taking care of others and showing others that they came to the right place when deciding to train with you. Coaches must do all of the little things right and lead by example, inspiring their athletes to be great day in and day out.

Communication: In addition to quality character, coaches must possess the ability to effectively communicate with whomever they are training. A wide variety of personalities exist, as Brett Bartholomew explains in his book Conscious Coaching. He details the wide variety of archetypes individuals possess, as well as effective methods for communicating with each one. Brett does not suggest eliminating your boundaries or becoming a doormat who aims to please all, rather, he enlightens us on the importance of finding a way to connect with athletes of varying needs and personalities.

Developing a coach's eye and better coaching language only assists with getting your point across to athletes more effectively. Some of the best coaches I've ever known keep detailed records of effective cues for every movement they teach. Nick Winkelman is phenomenal at this, and I highly suggest checking out some of his work. A great coach can teach with precision and doesn't overcomplicate things. Furthermore, they control the room and breathe life into those who they are coaching whether it is a team sport or individual setting.

Knowledge: The amount of knowledge a coach possesses is paramount to their success. I've listed this trait after quality character and communication skills only because what's inside a coach's mind is useless if they are not a good person or cannot articulate themselves effectively. That being said, years of quality practice, reading, testing and application day in and day out is what makes a coach who they are. I stress quality because this is where experience and knowledge differ dramatically. It's not enough to just show up, one must strive for greatness every day and innovate. They take what they've learned, make it applicable for their populations, and add to the profession. These coaches have systems in place to develop their athletes while never blindly throwing a program or exercise at somebody in hopes that it magically yields results. If you ask a high-level coach why they do what they do, down to the most minuscule detail, they have a justifiable answer. Nobody gets it perfect the first time, but hours, days, and years of dedicated practice lead to learning from one's own mistakes, thus creating wisdom.

Education and Certifications: I consider knowledge quite different than education and certifications, because although these things are great to obtain, they do not immediately qualify somebody for coaching. There are plenty of coaches with master's degrees and every certification known to man who couldn't coach their way out of wet paper bag. Similarly, I've met coaches who have minimal certifications and a degree in a completely unrelated field that are phenomenal. I do believe that every coach should obtain an undergraduate sport science degree and CSCS as a baseline to better our industry as whole, in addition to taking their continuing education seriously, but there will always be exceptions to the rule. I thoroughly enjoy continuing education (hence why I write these articles) but I don't do so to earn another piece of paper I can hang on the wall. I strive to effectively apply what I learn.

Physical: Previously I mentioned that our coaching pyramid of excellence has been inverted, meaning that coaches who "look the part" automatically get a pass with little to no effort or research done on their credentials. I am in no way saying that a coach who possesses all of the aforementioned traits has a pass to obtain the lazy-soft "dad bod" either, but aesthetics are not everything. Most of us got into health and fitness because we not surprisingly like physical activity and living a healthy lifestyle, thus we should maintain it throughout our life.

Part of being a strength coach is certainly looking the part and walking the walk, but that doesn't mean a 19-year-old YouTube "fitness guru" with shredded 6-pack abs and 3 million followers knows his stuff better than some of the greats like Eric Cressy, Dan Baker, Loren Landow, Dan John or Nick Winkelman, to name a few (all of which train like crazy and are wicked strong). In the human performance industry, we all go through the bell curve of knowledge at some point in our career. We start with little to no knowledge and feel overwhelmed by the extraordinary amount of information available to us. After obtaining a little bit of knowledge and success, we believe we've figured it all out and have the blueprint for success. Eventually, however, we are confronted with rare situations that push us outside of our comfort zone and humble us to the point that we know only a fraction of the knowledge we could ever hope to obtain. A great coach always maintains the "white belt" mentality, viewing everyone and everything as a learning opportunity.

My intention with this article is not to dismiss nor put down any person or anything in particular. I hope instead it lifts others up and sheds some light on what's truly important in the coaching sphere. I have so much respect for all of the great leaders in our industry and hope that everybody can model themselves after them as well.

Photo Credit: SolStock/iStock

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Topics: STRENGTH COACH | PERSONAL TRAINER