How to be a Better Coach

With the number of coaches and trainers in the fitness industry climbing, it’s becoming increasingly challenging to make your mark as a coach. So, this is where understanding more about the psychology and mental processes involved in client learning, can play a big part in enhancing your practice and client base.

Part of the challenge of being a coach is understanding that each client or athlete is different. We all learn and interpret information differently, and it’s the coach’s role to decide which method of teaching will be most effective for the individual.

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We’re all different when it comes to learning new information; some of us learn best through the use of diagrams, some people make written notes, whilst others prefer visual cues. Whilst we also learn differently when it comes to replicating a movement, such as a deadlift, there is plenty of research that has established certain coaching cues as more effective than others for the general population.

Coaching cues can be either internal (focusing on the muscles involved in the movement process) or external (focusing on the role of the surroundings and the resulting movement).  For example, in Olympic Weightlifting an internal cue for would be to ‘extend the hip’, whereas an external cue would be to ‘push the ground away’. Research has shown that, in general, external cues are far more effective when it comes to teaching an athlete a new skill. (Wulf et al., 2007) This is thought to be because focusing our attention internally disrupts the automatic motor procedures which result in movement, whereas an external focus of attention often results in the movement being performed more naturally.

Coaches can use this information to increase the effectiveness of teaching a new movement to a client or athlete. For example, using words such as ‘smooth’ or ‘fast’ to describe how the whole movement should feel, or having the athlete identify with a familiar movement and then apply the key features of this movement to the skill being taught. An example of an effective analogy might be imagining a cookie jar sitting on a high shelf and then to ‘reach for the cookie jar” - a cue associated with more successful shooting in basketball. (Lam et al., 2009)

Starting to do Olympic weightlifting is a great example of this. It’s a very technical sport where coaching cues are hugely important and sometimes difficult to grasp. Personally, I’ve received many different coaching cues from many different coaches, some of which I’ve found more helpful than others. There have been times when I’m focusing on the same movement, and the coach will give me an instruction which doesn’t result in me performing the complex movement, such as a snatch, in the intended way. As a result, the coach has tried to give me what is essentially the exact same cue, but phrased in a different way, and this has resulted in the intended outcome.

However, whilst it’s useful knowing all of this information, it’s being able to apply it to your coaching practice that will benefit both you and your clients. Some coaches are more intuitive than others when it comes to understanding which approach may be most effective for their client and others will find this more difficult and time-consuming. As long as the coach makes the effort to communicate well with their client and experiment with different coaching techniques, then they should be well on their way to coaching an athlete towards the desired result.


This article was written by Lauren Hunter, personal trainer, and health and fitness blogger. For more from Lauren, head to her Instagram, or check out her blog.

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