The Art of Strength and Conditioning Coaching

STACK Expert Rick Scarpulla discusses the skills and characteristics that separate great coaches from all the rest.

What makes a good strength and conditioning coach? How can you tell a good coach from a bad one? Can anyone become a good coach? Should good coaches, or coaches in general, be judged purely on wins and losses? What is the most important attribute of a coach?

Truth is, all of the above questions have different answers based on whom you ask. I am very fortunate to earn a living as a coach. I have logged many years doing so and still enjoy my job very much. I have coached some top-level athletes and achieved some success along the way. I also have been able to run my own athletic training center, Ultimate Advantage Training in Middletown, New York, for the past 13 years, as well as serving as the head coach for The Army Powerlifting Team at West Point since 2002.

I would like to give you my opinion on some things I have learned along my journey.

Everywhere we turn today, we are met with data and statistics. We can track everything from an exact time of a package delivery to how much perspiration your body released during a workout. People everywhere can instantly compare their stats and data to the rest of the world and see right where they stand.

Over the last few years, strength and conditioning science has given us some remarkable training tools and provided us with some great technology to help athletes and coaches train more efficiently and safer. Some of the latest technology is downright amazing.

I am a fan of anything that will help me help my athletes. However, I believe they should be regarded as tools, not the basis of a training program.

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Some coaches I have come across base too much of their approach on technology and science. Understand that no matter how advanced or sophisticated the technology and science are, they are still just tools for coaches to use. Coaches are craftsmen, and like any other craftsman, they need different tools for different jobs. No one tool can do all jobs—not even the latest or most technologically advanced equipment.

To go one step further, coaches are also artists. Understanding coaching as an art form is probably one of the most overlooked and misunderstood aspects of coaching. You can have all the tools in the world at your disposal, but the main things you need are an understanding of the athlete's needs and a connection to that athlete.

You need to understand that an athlete's greatest tool is his or her brain. Sports are filled with emotion. I believe the most important emotion is confidence. Athletes must fully believe in themselves and in you as their coach. Without the correct mental outlook, they will never develop to their full potential.

The human mind is powerful enough to overcome even the most difficult situations. It is also capable of handicapping the most talented athlete. I believe this is one of my strengths as a coach. I make my athletes believe they "can!" This applies both to their performance on the field and when they are going for a PR on a lift.

Athletes are built over time, not overnight. A lot of bobbing and weaving is required along the way. Motivation, consultation and celebration, along with success and failure, are all part of the ride. You must be able to read and evaluate each step along the way and know when to massage and when to push. Not too soft, not too abrasive, but just right.

The best coaches know this, and they understand that they can make an athlete do remarkable things with nothing more than their words and emotion. Make no mistake, you must have a solid knowledge and understanding of strength and condioning.

They know coaching is an art, and they are the artists. Think back on your own past. The teachers, coaches and mentors who affected you the most are the ones with whom you connected. It is something neither of you could see or hold in a tangible form, but both of you knew it was there.

That is where the art form lies. That is where great coaches work best.

Unfortunately, this is where many coaches fail. They may sift through every research journal and use the best equipment, but they lack that human connection. And their athletes don't buy into their system.

I love when I work with young coaches who have that X factor. It is fun to watch them grow and become great leaders. I have also worked with some coaches who just don't have it. Sad part of it is, many of those not-so-good coaches end up having a negative effect on their athletes.

Just because you own a pencil does not mean you can draw like a great artist. People understand and accept that fact without hesitation, yet when it comes to coaching, many people feel that because they own a whistle they are a great coaches.

You have an important role to play and you are directly affecting the lives of the athletes you work with. Take a look at your approach and determine what kind of coach you are. With continued focus, you can take the initiative to get better at your craft.

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