5 Questions For Coaches

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This article is for the coaches...
It's not that athletes have nothing to gain from it. It's just that if you're an athlete interested in evaluating your coach it should be primarily on two factors -- results and enjoyment. If you are getting results and enjoying the process then I would recommend that you stay where you are. If you are not getting results or not enjoying the process then it may be time to reevaluate.

Yes for the coaches...  I have some questions to ask you.

1) Do you have an Athlete-Centric approach?

The athlete absolutely must be central to a well-designed training process. On that, I can accept no negotiation. Of course, planning paradigms, exercise science, and all other sources of general knowledge are important. But their proper place is supporting decision making in an athlete-centric model.

What does it mean to be athlete-centric?  It's not got anything to do with corporate-style policies where you state that the customer is always right.  It's a description of your processes.  Athlete centric processes start with the athlete in mind -- their experiences, their goals, desires... Their life.  Things that are not athlete-centric (like planning models, exercise science, your experience as a coach) then influence what you should do.  The process starts with the athlete, then adjusts.  It doesn’t start with a stock plan, then seek to tweak it.  

At the bottom, this is a process question and an epistemological question. If the processes that we use in real-life miss the mark and don't satisfactorily prioritize the athlete experience, then the output cannot be ideal.  If there is a compromise where the plan is prioritized ahead of the athlete response -- whether known or not -- then the output can't be ideal. 

Those of you familiar with RTS over the last few years will be waiting for the emerging strategies punchline. And it's no secret that I think that Emerging Strategies is the best system of planning training. If I didn't think that I wouldn't be using it for myself and my athletes. However, I recognize it is not the only way to solve this problem. 

As long as these problems get solved it does not matter to me very much whether the planning process fits the emerging strategies mold or otherwise.  But if we're going to take seriously things like cognitive biases and the influence of systems on people, then we have to take them seriously in the coaching setting as well.  That means systems that give us incentives to "stick with the plan" -- even when we know we shouldn't -- ought to be reduced or eliminated.  It means we should avoid systems that nudge us to make decisions that may be counter to the athlete's response.

Related to the athlete-centric approach is reducing programming noise so you can better see the signal. Constantly changing the program is something I used to do (whether planned or otherwise). I felt as if I was earning my pay if I was *doing* something. But this is a bias. The job isn't to change training. The job is to build effective training (among other things). Sometimes that effectiveness is maximized by a strategic change to some training variables. Sometimes it's maximized by sitting still and letting the situation develop.   

2) How do you go about customizing the training you write?

If you're a coach, then I presume you offer "custom training".  It's even nonsensical to offer "static coaching".  Coaching isn't static.  All coaching at least on some level intends to be customized.

So by what process do you make the decisions that result in this customization?  This was a question I asked for YEARS of my coaching career.  And almost nobody had an answer that I found satisfying.  I'll happily grant that it's not that they don't have a process for customization -- it's that the process isn't explicit.  They know how they do it but aren't able to describe it in a sufficient enough way that other coaches could effectively emulate it.

Oddly enough, this is the same thing that led to me adopting the RPE scale to Powerlifting in ~2005; the best lifters could do a thing, but not describe it adequately so that it was accessible to the masses.

It also just so happens that emerging strategies is a highly teachable system of justifying training choices for coaches who may not have systems of their own. It makes minimal reliance on things like "spontaneous coaching observations" and "planning models" that guide the progression.  Instead, it encourages users to "follow the trail of athlete response."  It's a system that can arrive at conclusions that are very different from the starting position of either coach or athlete. And I think that is critically important. 

3) Do you struggle with Imposter Syndrome?

Every coach I know has impostor syndrome.
I don't think that's a bad thing.  I think it usually comes from an honest place. It comes from introspection and questioning one's own knowledge and beliefs. From asking yourself if you are sure that you are providing as much value to your clients as you can.
The absolute best coaches in the world have this feeling from time to time.

I don't propose to have a solution to all brands and flavors of imposter syndrome. But one thing that I have done that has helped me gain a lot of confidence in the training I write is justifying my training choices. It's not coaching a certain number of lifters or producing lifters of a certain caliber -- that hasn't helped. It's the internal justification of the choices themselves that have made the most difference. Further, a quality justification goes beyond "pause squats usually build bottom end strength".  That is a statement -- and it may be true.  But it's not a statement that ultimately answers the question of "what is the best thing we could be doing right now".  

Some of your uncertainty in writing training might stem from a lack of knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts.  Maybe an athlete is showing excessive valgus in the squat and you're not sure how you should address it.  But very often I see it as a result of this nagging sense that the facts that you have aren't really answering the most important questions. 
From the standpoint of planning training, the most important question is something like, "What is the best thing we could be doing right now."  And to adequately answer that question requires an athlete-centric approach, plenty of information from the athlete, and some creative problem-solving. 
Knowing facts about "X training gets you Y effects" is important.  But then you need a reliable framework for applying those facts to specific situations and recognizing whether or not that is applying as-predicted in this particular case.

4) Is your system of training robust to your own blind spots?

Now I'll say upfront that I don't think it's possible to be perfectly robust to our blind spots.  But we can work to reduce them.  This reduction takes humility -- the acceptance that even coaches don't have all the answers.  And if we take that seriously, then we must at least try to discover these answers. 
One way that this manifests for me is in a thought experiment.  Are my systems robust enough that if I got an athlete who truly responded best to the training I was biased AGAINST, would we still be able to find the right answer and program effectively for that athlete?

Think it through.  Think about a system of training that makes no sense to you at all.  Now imagine that you get a new athlete and you peer into your crystal ball and notice that the best training for them is precisely this system that you think makes no sense.  Would you be able to find that answer WITHOUT your crystal ball?  Are you equipped to plan the best training for that athlete?

Now some of you may point out that this kind of unorthodox training intervention isn't necessary for most lifters and that's true. But isn't our job as coaches to get the best results we can for all of our lifters and not just those with an orthodox response? Static programs offer a great center-of-the-bell-curve solution. Coaches can do so much more. What's more, is that an athlete may have a very average volume response, but not intensity. Or RPE. Or rest intervals. Or exercise selection. Or in frequency. Or the SRA cycle. There are enough important variables in a training plan that I haven't noticed anyone responding in a very average way to all things. So although most people are average, few if any individuals are average at everything. And prescribing average training when better options exist is a disservice.

5) When it comes to developing training, where do you spend the greatest amount of time?

I have to say since we developed Emerging Strategies as a planning framework, we have spent considerably more time on every program that we write, not less.  At first, glance that may come as a surprise since it usually utilizes repeating microcycles to improve the signal-to-noise ratio.  But when you consider that the bulk of your time planning training should be spent studying the athlete's data and communications... then coming up with creative solutions to often difficult problems, it's not surprising.  The main task of planning training isn't typing.

Most coaches I encounter got into this as a way of helping lifters get stronger.  Chances are that purpose is much more effectively realized by solving athlete problems.  If time is spent on a plug-and-play model or worse -- repetitive typing -- then that's less time that can be spent on more important, meaningful tasks.

Of course these questions I pose to you highlight many reasons why RTS has chosen an Emerging Strategies approach.  If you'd like to learn more about it, please check out the Programming with Emerging Strategies course.
Additionally, our free Online training log is designed to help you implement Emerging Strategies in your training. It's free for everyone to use whether you work with RTS or not.  Advanced tools, coach's dashbord, program builder (and program library), and more are available via the RTS Training Lab.