Wise Words from Busta

There are a handful of factors I consider whenever approaching a professional opportunity. One of them is Professional Development. When an employer or manager doesn’t have an established system of development, there is a good chance I’m not going to be interested. At the very least, I am looking for regular evaluations so that I can make the appropriate steps to address my critical areas of improvement. However, in the athletic development coaching industry, these employee development programs are few and far between. Additionally, guided professional development becomes exceedingly difficult when you become a Head Performance Coach or Director and are now responsible for the development of others. Who is left to develop you? Or what if you’re an entrepreneur and run your own business?

Although development systems are great, especially when individualized, I might also look at the prospective coaching staff that I would be joining. Early on in my coaching career, I felt like I made the biggest strides in my professional development when I was working with coaches that were more experienced and simply just better coaches than I was. Having models of coaching excellence to learn from cannot be replaced by an employee development plan. However, there may come a time when you are the best coach on staff and you are the model of excellence that others are learning from. Again, what about you?

Well, I think Busta Rhymes said it best in his late 90’s chart topping hit Gimme Some More.

If I ain’t gonna be part of the greatest,
I gotta be the greatest myself.

When you work somewhere that doesn’t have a development system in place, where you are the best coach on staff, and you lack the opportunity to access a suitable mentor; it is time to take control of your own development. Listen to Busta. After all, he does own a green Lamborghini Murciélago nicknamed “Peppermint”.

Here are 10 ways to become master of your coaching destiny:

Self Reflection: Across the board, all great coaches are constantly evaluating themselves. Much of this happens internally, but you could also have someone take video of some of your training sessions so that you can assess yourself at a later time. The point is to be consciously aware of what is working and what isn’t working, then seek more optimal behaviors.

Circle of Peers: Establish a group of fellow sports performance coaches that you can bounce ideas off of. The key is to make sure each member of your group has their own strength and is willing to offer honest feedback and analysis. A group of coaches that are so like-minded that they agree on everything and are afraid to provide constructive criticism won’t do you much good. Before recently relocating, I was part of a small Mastermind group like this.  We met twice each month to talk shop, discuss training and leadership, review industry products, and troubleshoot dilemmas. It was invaluable.

Observation: Take time every few months to remove yourself from your own coaching environment so that you can visit and observe someone else in their facility or gym. Visiting local competitors can be a little tricky, but when handled professionally, most folks realize that sharing amongst coaches is a win-win. Additionally, observing sport coaches during their practices is great to find new ways of organizing and communicating with large groups of athletes.

Literature: Combine a library of classic training and coaching books with industry journals and/or online articles. Make it a priority to read every week. My book and article collection is a point that if I stopped adding to it today, I would still have material to read until I retire. I might not ever get to read all of it, but the process of searching and sifting through literature always leads me to interesting concepts that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

DVDs: For those that don’t enjoy reading, there is a plethora of DVD or video products on performance training. The growing trend is for industry experts to re-purpose live presentations, which typically have poor production value, but the information is readily available nonetheless.

Conferences and Clinics: Not only a chance to get with other coaches and “talk shop”, but the presentations at the NSCA and Perform Better conferences are also an excellent way to see what other people are doing and hear what concepts are being refined. Big events also draw the exhibitors anxious to show you new products. Hard sells are annoying but being aware of new technology and equipment is part of being a great coach.

Mentorships: These aren’t cheap, but being able to spend 5 days with Mike Boyle, Athletes’ Performance, or Vern Gambetta is probably well worth the cost if you can swing it. I haven’t attended any but the Boyle Mentorship is first on my list.

Discussion Forums: For the quick sharing of information, ideas, and opinions with tons of other coaches; you can’t beat online discussion forums. The ability to ask questions that are answered by some leading minds in the industry is completely unique to online forums. Even if you don’t post on the discussion threads, you can get great information from old threads. My favorite forums are on http://www.strengthcoach.com/ (paysite), Supertraining Yahoo Group, http://www.nsca.com/, and http://www.charliefrancis.com/.

Blogs: If you are reading this, then you have already figured this one out. Find a handful of good blogs that you can check throughout the week to stimulate thought or just remind you of stuff you already know. I’ve listed my favorite blogs by category on my Resources Tab.

Podcasts: These are great for commutes or if you want to torture your wife and kids on long road trips. Best of all, they are usually free. Some of my all-time favorite podcasts are interviews with Mark Verstegen, Al Vermeil, Brian Grasso, Loren Seagrave and the stuff Gray Cook does for the Strength Coach Podcast. I also like the Strength and Power Hour internet radio show.

Leading and Coaching Young Athletes

OK, I admit it.  I’m a bit of a hoarder.  But not in the A&E TV show way.  Actually, Tom Rath and the Gallup folks explain my need for an extra Terabyte of computer storage as a strength in “Input”.  According to StrengthsFinder 2.0, “People who are especially talented in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.”  Two forms of information I’ve compiled and saved over the years are podcasts and audio interviews.

One audio interview in particular has served as a continuous source of inspiration for me.  It provokes a new thought process on coaching and leadership each time I listen to it.  I downloaded it from the International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA) website a few years back when it was part of their Free Resource Center.  Brian Grasso and the IYCA are the leading advocates for the development of the ART of coaching, especially as it relates to working with young athletes.  Their organizational approach is epitomized in this 30 minute interview with David Jack, an Athletic Development coach and General Manager at the CATZ training center in Acton, MA.  Although it’s not available as part of their Free Resource Center anymore, Brian Grasso has allowed me to post the interview here.  So clear 30 minutes from your schedule and listen to two great coaches talk about leadership and the art of coaching.

Listen Here

I know you’ll get a handful useful nuggets from this audio interview.  Here are a few highlights for me;

Give me two athletes…give one of the athletes the worst coach in the world with the best program, and give the other athlete the best coach in the world with the worst program.  100% of the time, the second athlete, the one with the best coach with the worst program is going to evolve into the better human being and better athlete in general… – Brian Grasso

…that is a lifelong impact that every single coach has an opportunity to make on a kid…you can change their life, and you will. – David Jack

…put them (athletes) in opportunities to lead…it lets them own what we’re trying to teach them. – David Jack

Leadership is identifying the latent traits that are great in people and helping draw them out. – David Jack

Thanks again to Brian Grasso, David Jack, and the IYCA for providing great content.

– Coach Hall

First Things First

Coaching Feedback, Part III

The phrase “Paralysis by Analysis” is a perfect description of the way Charles Barkley’s golf swing has evolved. According to Tiger Woods, Barkley had a “normal” golf swing until he took lessons and started thinking too much. As a result, the movement is plagued by his overthinking, and this is what he is left with today (this is his actual golf swing):

Now put yourself in the shoes of the Hank Haney, the former swing coach of Tiger Woods. Coach Haney took the challenge of working with Barkley a few years ago.  In fact there was a TV crew documenting the entire process.  If you were Coach Haney, where would you start?

OK, so chances are you won’t ever need to solve the Barkley golf swing conundrum. But as coaches, we see our fair share of rough technical models when it comes to complex movements. In fact, when an athlete is first learning a new exercise or movement skill, multiple faults are expected. Attempting to fix the athlete, young coaches are often tempted to give feedback and foci for most, if not all, of the faults. Unfortunately, this can lead to the CBE (commonly known as the Charles Barkley Effect). More experienced coaches will recognize the faults, identify the major causes of each, and prescribe one solution at a time to correct the faults. However, GREAT coaches will go one step further and deliver one solution at a time in PRIORITIZED order. Prioritized feedback not only prevents your athletes from being paralyzed by overthinking, but in many cases, fixing the most pressing issue will cascade down to the other faults and clean up multiple errors.

Take Pedro’s Power Clean for example:

I think we can agree that Pedro has more than one thing going on here. After observing his technique, if your only feedback was “Roll your knuckles”, then you would have missed the bigger picture. Even if his grip position at the start does actually need to be fixed, there are more critical issues to be addressed first (start position, early arm bend, finish position, catch position, bar path, joint angles, rhythm & timing…) That said, what would you address first? Then second? Then third, etc.?

So take some time and compartmentalize what areas are most critical to the learning and mastering of the skills you teach and train. From there you can create a more systematic method for the order in which you provide guidance to the movement problems faced by your athletes.

Lets’ recap the Coaching Feedback principles from the last few blog posts.

1. SPECIFIC. What exactly are your athletes doing well? Are you limiting feedback that communicates a general or negative action? Read more…

2. INDIVIDUAL. At multiple points throughout the training session, did you recognize or correct individual athletes by their first name? Read more…

3. PRIORITIZED. Are you attacking one issue at a time? Are you starting with the most critical fault, or the quickest fix?

– Coach Hall

Sierra College Regional Fire Academy

I had the pleasure of stepping in as a Guest Coach for a physical training session with a group of fire academy recruits this week.  Their full-time instructor, Coach John Hofman, does a fantastic job with this program but was gracious enough to allow his recruits to get another perspective on training to be a firefighter.  He gave me 2 hours and free reign, which provided plenty of opportunity to sweat, laugh, and learn.  I took an Athletic Development approach with them and expressed the occupational demands for sprinting, lifting, throwing, and reacting.

I couldn’t have asked for a better group of athletes.  They were extremely respectful, well-organized, fast-learners, and hard workers.  I haven’t seen many groups that can hold a high level of focus and intensity like they did.  Coach Hofman should be proud of the way they represented themselves.

Being able to get out my everyday environment and work with 34 new athletes was a blast, and I definitely recommend doing so if you ever get the chance.  Likewise, I hope Coach Hofman was able to pick up a few things by observing my coaching style and will have me back next year.

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– Coach Hall

The Sweetest Sound

Coaching Feedback, Part II

According to Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, the “sweetest and most important sound in any language” to someone is their own name. The scope of Carnegie’s point goes beyond simply remembering names (a valuable coaching attribute). He goes on to note that a person’s name is what makes them unique; it sets them apart from others. When a coach addresses an individual within a group setting, that athlete has an instant upgrade in status. Another adage from Carnegie is that we all have an innate drive to be important. What better way to let athletes know you recognize their uniqueness, than by taking a few moments to deliver individual feedback as if they were the only athlete you were training that day?

Most of my coaching has been in team or small group settings, so I know the tendency to deliver group instruction and feedback when the training session is moving along. While there is some value in group feedback, there must be an element of individual attention if you are to gain trust, rapport, and accelerate the learning rate of your athletes. If you watch a group of athletes perform a set of 10 yard acceleration runs, jog back to the start line to get ready for the next set; and all you say is “Nice job guys. Remember to lean forward and drive back.”, then you missed a prime opportunity to deliver individual feedback. My coaching goal is to give individual feedback to a different athlete every rep/set. I don’t always hit that goal, but there’s an intentional effort to dish out way more individual feedback than group feedback.

Individual feedback does have some stipulations. In many cases, definitely with children and adolescents, individual feedback in front of the group should be praise rather than correction. I wouldn’t want to scrutinize technique of a 12 year old for the rest of the group to hear. Even when accompanied with praise, it will most always be perceived as a direct shot to their competency. In turn, negatively affecting self-confidence amongst their peers. Instead look to highlight what they’re doing well; “Jessica, I love the how aggressive you’re driving your foot back. That is the best acceleration run I have seen all day!” Specific, individual, and will probably make Jessica’s day. That said, always be aware of individual personalities. Even when praise based, some athletes (any age) aren’t comfortable with being singled out. Those cases call for individual praise to be delivered quietly and off to the side.

Quiet and off to the side is also a smart approach when delivering corrective feedback to individuals. Although mature athletes are sometimes comfortable with receiving constructive information in front of others, most will not be.

So whether it is praise, correction, in front of the group, or done more discreetly; aim to deliver SPECIFIC and INDIVIDUAL feedback.

– Coach Hall

Good is the Enemy of Great

Coaching Feedback, Part I

“Good is the enemy of great” is the first line of Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. Collins’ book uses this phrase to describe how some companies settle for good results and fail to make further progress towards becoming truly great. From a feedback perspective, when a coach overuses the word “good”, they are failing to deliver great feedback.

We are all guilty of it. Terms like “good”, “nice job”, “that’s a way”, “perfect” are meant to communicate praise and affirm an athlete’s performance or movement correction. The problem is that these terms are so generic that the athlete doesn’t actually receive valuable information from us. This is especially true when athletes are in the early phases of motor skill acquisition.

We know that the corrective feedback loop relies on an external source (coaches in this case) to deliver information that athletes can process internally and conceptually. In turn, motor skills are refined and performed correctly at high acquisition rates. So imagine an athlete, or group of athletes, learning and rehearsing their acceleration skill with 10 yards resisted sprints. And after the first rep or set, the coaching feedback they receive to process is “Good job guys”. From their point of view, “Good” doesn’t offer anything constructive that will help them know what to repeat or focus on during subsequent rehearsal. I have been an athlete in this scenario before, and I always thought to myself – “Good at what, Coach?” I wished that my coach would have told me what specifically I did well.

Instead of “Good job Nick”, it might be “Yes Nick!, that aggressive drive back is exactly what I am looking for! Keep it going!” Not only do I recognize Nick’s efforts and competency in front of his peers, but I also give him something specific to process and support his learning of acceleration mechanics. Specific feedback is always better than generic feedback.

This is the first Principle of Coaching Feedback. Be SPECIFIC.

Coach Hall

Clean It Up

One of the reasons I chose to attend the CSU, Sacramento graduate program in Strength and Conditioning was because there was a curriculum requirement to train and compete with the university’s Olympic Weightlifting team. Working with Coach Kutzer and the other lifters was definitely a highlight of that program. Because of my competitive experience in the sport, I’ll often get technical questions from colleagues and friends regarding the Olympic Lifts. Here is a short video I made for a buddy of mine after he sent me some footage of himself learning how to perform the Clean. You’ll notice that I follow a fairly systematic process when observing his Clean technique. Having a prioritized structure of observation and subsequent feedback has really helped me keep my advice concise while being able to deliver information that will make the largest impact on an athlete’s performance.

What Are You Really Saying?

If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.
– John F. Kennedy

I believe coaching to be synonymous with communicating. If you aspire to be a great coach, then you better be a great communicator…period. Without this skill set, messages are destined to be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Not being on the same wavelength with your athletes will most certainly result in sub-optimal physical performance, but also severely hamstring any chance of establishing a solid coach / athlete trust relationship.

In future blog posts, I’ll spend some time writing about aspects of verbal communication and coaching feedback, but for now I’ll turn your attention to non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication is something most of us have habit of looking for and recognizing in our athletes. We sense that an athlete is probably having a bad day when they walk through the doors with slumped shoulders, and eye focus locked two inches in front of each painfully-slow step. Additionally, if you are anything like me, then you know that an athlete continually rolling his eyes at your instruction and feedback is a pretty good indicator that he is about to be kicked out of the training session (half kidding). However, the majority of us are probably guilty of being relatively unaware of the non-verbal messages WE send to athletes.

Some researchers estimate that non-verbal cues represent approximately 70% of all communication. That exact number is probably largely situational, but it is clear to see the power of non-verbal communication when you understand that the way athletes perceive what we say often depends on the facial expressions that accompanies our words. Imagine getting the Coach Cowher scowl (above) while being told how great your effort was. With that look, there’s no amount of sugar coating that would allow his words to be perceived as positive or encouraging.

Non-verbal communication can be separated into 8 main categories, all of which send strong messages of approval, disapproval, frustration, mood, anger, disbelief, alertness, etc. Here is a quick rundown and some examples related to athletic development coaching (think about the messaging of each as you read through them.)

  • Facial Expressions: smiles, eye rolling, scowls, raised eyebrows, wincing.
  • Gestures: hand gestures to signify movement, clapping, head nod, fist pump, thumbs up, yawning.
  • Body Language: posture, sitting, leaning against wall, arms crossed, hands in pockets, pacing.
  • Proximity: moving away or towards an athlete, standing close or far way from athlete.
  • Paralinguistic: how things are said – tone, pitch, volume, clarity.
  • Eye Gaze: steady eye contact, avoiding eye contact, blinking, glancing, darting, glaring.
  • Physical Contact: handshake, high five, shoulder squeeze, light arm touch, manual adjustment, palpation.
  • Clothing & Appearance: clean, neat, wrinkled, tucked shirt, untucked shirt, matching, groomed.

Some of these non-verbal cues can be used to your advantage and some will detract from your coaching objectives, but the first step is to become aware of them. In order to get a better idea of the way athletes perceive your actions and other non-verbal cues, try the following;

  • Have someone film your next training session, then play it back and carefully monitor the non-verbal communication methods you use. Build a chart of the examples and categories above, and mark each instance in the appropriate action or cue. Also take note of whether they seemed constructive or detrimental to the athlete’s experience. The first time I did this; there were a handful of things that I was completely unaware of. To this day, I am still consciously force myself to speak clearly and project my voice.
  • Coach a training session in total silence. You may want to start with just a part of the session. A “silent” warm-up is a good way to get your feet wet, but the real challenge is leading an entire session without saying a word. This includes the athletes; they aren’t allowed to say anything either. You’ll be amazed at how much can be communicated by using facial expressions, gestures, and physical contact.

As I realized after watching a playback of myself back in graduate school, non-verbal cues convey messages whether you know it or not. Here are a few tips to use them in order to become a more effective communicator:

1. Match Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication
Don’t send mixed messages.

2. Maintain Eye Contact
Show confidence and attentiveness.

3. Use Positive Body Language
Have open and engaging posture. Sitting or leaning can be seen as a lack of interest and just plain lazy.

4. Smile
This is the easiest and best way to communicate that you enjoy coaching and spending time with your athletes.

5. Look the Part
Demand respect and establish credibility by showing attention to detail with your coaching uniform.