Are You Over-Coaching? How to Tell if Your Instruction Is Actually Impeding an Athlete's Progress

Sometimes keeping things simple is the best method.

Coaching is an art form.

The science and application of what coaching is has recently been brought to the forefront by the popular Brett Bartholomew book, Conscious Coaching. The book is all about the art form of coaching, the skills it takes to effectively communicate with your athletes, how to refine your skill set, and most importantly, how to apply these concepts. It's a great book, and one I believe every coach should own. And no, I didn't get paid to say that.

A large part of the art of coaching is knowing when to coach. Timing is key. Context is king. Coaching is extremely strategic. In some situations, the best way to coach is to simply do nothing at all. In this article, I'd like to highlight one of the most venomous forms of regression in our athletes: over-coaching.

Over-coaching is when a coach tries to implement too many forms of communication at once, making it impossible for an athlete to properly respond. For example, let's say an athlete is taking on a new exercise for the very first time. All too often, here's what will happen:

  • Athlete does 1st rep
  • Coach: "Get your hips back more! Big air! Tuck your chin! Push the ground away!"
  • Athlete does 2nd rep
  • Coach: "Hips back! Chin Tuck! Abs, Abs, Abs! Legs, legs, legs! Grip!"
  • Athlete begins 3rd rep
  • Coach: "Hold on, hold on!" Manipulates athlete's posture

If you throw out an external, internal and physical manipulation cue all within an athlete's first three reps of their first attempt at an exercise, that's textbook over-coaching. In 99.99% of cases, the athlete is going to be overwhelmed with the info, lose whatever body control or focus they had and probably start to move even more inefficiently. There is simply too much going on at once. We'll dive more into this type of over-coaching later on, but it's just one example of how we coaches can interfere with an athlete's progress. There are several common situations athletes and coaches often fall into that qualify as over-coaching.

Below are the three most common forms of over-coaching. Whether as an athlete or as a coach, odds are you've experienced each of these at one point or another. Learning from these mistakes can have a huge impact in your relationships with athletes and help your coaching become more impactful.

1. You're Babysitting

I always joke with parents that my babysitting rate is triple what my training rate is. The worst case of over-coaching actually has nothing to do with cues, programming or anything like that. The silent killer is all the babysitting and coddling of young athletes by coaches.

If an athlete wants to get better, even in the smallest increments, they need to develop self-sufficiency. The earlier, the better. Athletes who need to have their hands held throughout the entire training process don't typically become great leaders or teammates. This translates to sport because, well, Coach can't hold your hand out there in competition.

The key is to find the fine line between truly caring about your athletes and babysitting your athletes. Toe that line, but never cross it into the realm of babysitting. Part of their success, no matter what age or level they're at, is dependent on their ability to problem solve, troubleshoot and make critical decisions on their own. This expands far beyond the field, court, weight room or any other athletic venue. This is a life thing.

Consistently challenge your athletes in physical and mental aspects. As they start to show signs of growth, try to put them in leaderships roles within whatever world you're in. As a strength coach, you may want to allow them to choose some lifts, lead warm-ups, or challenge them to answer questions other athletes ask.

We focus so much on physically building up our athletes, but it's also extremely important build them up emotionally and mentally, as well.

2. You're Going Cue Crazy

When utilized correctly, coaching cues can be extremely helpful.

However, I think many coaches rely on them too heavily. And when the coaching cues are coming at a fast and furious pace, they often become more of a distraction than a helpful form of communication.

A cue can be verbal or nonverbal. It can be external (athlete focuses on something outside of the body that affects movement, such as "push the ground away") or internal (athlete focuses on their own body to affect movement, such as "extend through the knees"). A cue can be communicated before, during or after a rep. The word cue itself is simply an umbrella term for all the ways we communicate with the trainee.

Make no mistake, coaching cues are essential. I'm not trying to bash them. However, when used incorrectly, they are not efficient or valuable to the athlete. In fact, they can be outright counterproductive.

The proper use of cues is going to change for every coach and athlete. I can't sit here and try to say one way is right or wrong. There are some common best practices, though that can help you navigate when, where, what and why when it comes to throwing out coaching cues.

It all comes down to:

  • Origin of the cue
  • Timing of the feedback
  • Relationship with the athlete

Let's start with the origin of the cue. First, if you haven't given an athlete any context for the cue, they're going to be lost the first time you use it. Even something as simple as "push the ground away" needs to be prefaced by the coach before you use it in live action. Always lay the groundwork for cues.

This is especially true for cues that get shortened or paraphrased during a session. For example, on Deadlifts, people often coach to "get your hips through." But during a heavy Deadlift, coaches often resort to the shortened and easily repeatable version of "hips!"

An athlete and coach have to be 100 percent on the same page as to what that cue is trying to get them to do. Make sure they fully understand why you say what you say, or they may be totally misinterpreting the cue. This can lead to frustration, as they feel they're trying to follow your advice, but the visual says otherwise.

The bottom line is to make sure anytime you think of a new cue, you give the athlete a summary of why you're saying it, what it means, what you want it trigger, and how they can handle that cue when it's provided.

This leads to the timing aspect of the cue. You can cue before, during or after a rep or set. Each time has its own benefit, and all have their place. But the best time to deploy the cue depends on multiple factors, including the lift itself and the specific athlete who's performing said lift.

Pre-lift is great for a debriefing of maybe two big cues that have a huge impact on a lift. For example, before an athlete sets up for the Deadlift, maybe pull them aside and say, "C'mon, you've got this! Remember, take the slack out of the bar and push the ground away."

Assuming you have given them appropriate context on those cues, they now have it in the back of their mind to create a lot of tension pre-lift and to use their legs (not their back) to lift the bar. Those two cues prevent a lot of bad things from happening and are relatively easy for most athletes to digest.

Any more than two cues pre-lift, though, such as "Take the slack out of the bar, get big air, tuck those shoulder blades back, squeeze here (while physically touching their upper back), attack the bar at the top, and finish with the hips," is overwhelming. It's also, unfortunately, super common. You've overloaded the athletes mind before the lift, making it much more difficult for them to train with intent.

When deployed during a lift, cues need to be even more strategic. Changing a person's posture under load can be pretty dangerous. During the lift is a great time to reinforce those pre-lift cues, because it builds an extra layer of context for the athlete. You can also time it up to provide a new cue during a moment of near relaxation for the athlete. For example, using the same Deadlift example from above, as the lifter is just finishing the lockout phase you can maybe pop in a, "keep that chin tucked next rep," for someone looking up excessively, or, "keep that bar close," for someone letting the bar drift away. Timing and context is everything here. If you aren't 100 percent sure the athlete knows exactly what you mean, reconsider even saying it.

Immediately after a set is a great time to use cues, because whatever the athlete did is fresh in their mind and body. They still feel how that bar drifted away from them, so coaching how to keep it close is extremely applicable. They still feel losing their grip on the last rep, so coaching how to re-grip mid-set is clutch.

Staying with this Deadlift example, right after the set, you may give a fist bump and say, "Awesome work, way to grind that last rep out. If you feel yourself losing grip, here's a trick to re-grip mid-set. [Physically show them how to re-grip mid-set.] And keep fighting to keep that barbell close to your body. That's going to really help you get the most out of this lift so your core stays on, your low back is protected, and the hammies are loaded up. Rest up here, we have one more set."

After context and timing, effective usage of cues also depends on your relationship with the athlete. The better your relationship with the lifter, the more effective your cues will generally be. Context is one thing, but actually connecting on a deeper level than sets and reps is something all coaches need to accomplish.

It's the coach's job to adapt to the personalities of their athletes, not the other way around. Sure, there will be compromise from both parties in many cases, but you have to tap into that inner chameleon to get the job done. Make sure your athletes know you authentically care about their wellbeing. They can't be just another hour block out of your day.

You will develop your own forms of communication with each athlete, and it will change for every individual you coach. This gives you unique and highly effective ways to install these cues and get the absolute most out of each person.

3. You're Not K.I.S.S.

First, allow me a quick rant.

K.I.S.S. used to mean, "Keep it simple, stupid." Apparently, due to feelings being hurt because 2018 is weird, some people have changed it to, "Keep it Short & Simple." Wow. I hate that so much. Anyways...just keep it simple, stupid.

The K.I.S.S. Principle is really underutilized in coaching. Many coaches could benefit from utilizing the K.I.S.S. Principle more frequently, but it's one of those "good problems" to have, in my opinion. Why? Because it means you care so much about your athlete's results that you sometimes overthink things to the point of over-complication. We can't manufacture genuine care for our athletes, but we can simplify our coaching pretty easily.

Needing to use the K.I.S.S. Principle more frequently is not the worst thing ever for a coach. Sometimes, we just need to take a step back and look at the big picture from afar.

Simple is subjective. I can't tell you what is simple for you or your athletes. However, these are some things that have worked for my athletes.

  • If you want to get stronger, lift more weight
  • If you want to get faster, run faster
  • If you want to gain weight, eat more and lift more
  • If you want to lose weight, eat less and lift more
  • If you want to be powerful, do powerful things
  • If you want to recover better, sleep more

Please don't take this as saying advanced methods aren't worth it. They are! I love them and use them often, but it has to enhance the situation rather than become an obsession or distraction. The ultimate cheat code is to be able to take something mildly complex and make it simple. When you find your simple is more advanced than what it used to be but still just as effective, it means both you and your athletes are growing.

Over-coaching can kill an athlete's progression. I've committed every single one of these coaching mishaps over the years, identified them as an issue, addressed them, and saw the improved results in my clients first-hand. And the fight against over-coaching never truly ends, as a coach should continually evaluate the effectiveness of their methods.

Part of coaching is holding yourself to an extremely high standard so that your athletes get the absolute most out of you. If you can identify with any of these common brands of over-coaching, please apply some of these tips. Ultimately, it will make a massive impact in your career and the lives you touch on a daily basis.

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