My coaching career began like many athletes trading in the cleats for the khakis. First and foremost, I wanted to stay connected to the game and my team. I was an established leader in the locker room, knew the D-system inside and out, and now as their coach, athletes had to do what I say or else. This coaching thing will be EASY!
Wrong. The cocksure attitude I brought into my first off-season was nothing short of embarrassing. I did not value my responsibilities. My over-demanding expectations crumbled relationships with the athletes. I took for granted the years it took to build connections with team members and over-estimated my understanding of the game. The first few months brought several humbling moments of clarity including the recruiting process (see Potential), overlooking nuances of the game, and worst of all, failing to realize my coach’s responsibility until it was too late.
Like many coaches at the bottom of a totem pole, I assumed the team’s strength and conditioning responsibilities. Falling victim to Dunning-Kruger bias, I greatly overestimated my understanding of strength and conditioning and weight room experience. During one of the first sessions, I asked the team to kick up against the wall into handstands to develop overhead stay-bility and strength. Given campus facilities, this was the most practical method, but as I soon discovered, not the most prudent. One of my former teammates, now my athlete, kicks himself up and immediately goes down with a torn rotator cuff.
I took away his opportunity to compete because I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I needed to find someone who did and learn, STAT.
Don’t repeat my past. This article will dive into my learning phases and highlight how you should approach observation, skill acquisition, and experimentation as you embark on your coaching journey.
Observation & Direction
Injuring my athlete in September 2009 sent me on an all-consuming search for performance education. Where most first-year coaches would dive head-first into their sport, I detoured towards the Essentials and scoured the internet. By the power of Google, I stumbled upon John Welbourn and the classic heavy, hard, fast methodologies of CrossFit Football. Still searching for the why, I felt something was there with the corresponding certification, so I invested my last dollar towards education and direction.
December ’09, I enter the course led by @John and Raph, I purposely emptied my cup of all preconceptions regarding weights, training, and athletes. Naturally, knowledge bombs dropped everywhere, and the magic later known as Bedrock was taught, but there were more powerful observations that forever changed my coaching trajectory.
John and Raph were my first real exposure to true strength and conditioning, and moreover, coaching. While their specific directions for athlete set up, movement execution, and feedback was gold, so much more value came from what was unsaid. I observed how they governed everyone (including themselves) during warm up and training sessions, and how they best positioned athletes for success or necessary failure (like what should happen when people ghost an empty bar).
Something else jumped out to me. A handful of attendees signed up seeking validation for their program or to solely challenge the information. Struggling to manage push back or engage my own players, I watched how they redirected questions to the end goal (on-field performance), identified where presented cases fell short, and guided the student back to their perspective.
My DIII all-star athleticism, size, and speed certainly were nothing special. I remember thinking the only way I could impress these guys was bringing a serious desire to learn. While I only spoke to John and Raph once (each) the entire weekend, I was in full observation-mode, cracking the proverbial bone and taking notes with the fury of a thousand Sun Yellow highlighters.
Approach learning situations with an empty cup. Never bring a closed mind, seek validation, or aim to attack the information. Instead, open your mind. Note the information AND how it’s presented. You will find these factors equally valuable when sharing lessons with your athletes.
Simple & Essential Coaching Skill Practice
While I was confident in what to execute (Bedrock, Field Strong, warm-ups, and speed drills), I needed reps teaching how to execute. After a few sessions of (at best) patchy instruction, I took a play from practicing skill work in sport: focus on the fundamentals. I narrowed it to three:
- Teaching Movement
- Seeing Movement
- Communicating Appropriate Directions
Each warm up and training session was my opportunity to hone these skills. At first I rushed to get the full warm up catalog in, a big mistake that prioritized teaching over watching and correcting movement. I then limited the warm ups and speed drills just to get really fucking good at coaching these. Having no barbells forced me to watch athletes move through space vs a single plane. In retrospect, I would not trade this for the world. Sport practice was my practice: teaching the warm up movements over and over, reps on reps on reps. Teaching became easier, freeing me to observe and provide individual direction efficiently across a forty deep squad.
At the CFFB seminar, John taught weight lifting as a means to challenge on-field posture and position. While it made sense on paper, the proverbial light bulb exploded months after when I started linking warm up movements with specific on-field positions or actions.
Movement truly is a language. If you want to learn it quick, immerse yourself as much as possible until the fundamentals become second nature, in turn enhancing your ability to make connections not concessions in your program.
Experimentation Under Pressure
Coaching and connecting sport and strength for a team was an incredibly enlightening experience, but my goals as a coach transformed. When it came to mastering the movement process, I reached what Darwin called stupefied amazement and, as discussed in Power Coach: Conversations, I needed to raise the stakes.
I jumped across the Potomac river to new coaching opportunities at Gtown, assisting with Men’s and Women’s lacrosse and owning Men’s and Women’s Crew. Learning velocity really took off when my sport was taken away and I was left up the Potomac without a paddle. I speak figuratively of course; no way I was getting in that water.
Fall 2012 was about the time I began interning at CrossFit Football gigs. The overarching filter applied to performance back then was, “What are you training for?” better known in strength circles as the SAID Principle. Taking on Crew teams without ever having stepped in a shell (Crew-speak for “boat”), I leveraged SAID to ensure I developed a program, not a ran-dumb set of exercises. I emptied my cup and met with the coach to learn everything about the sport and her expectations for the fall and spring seasons, then reverse engineered a program per sport-specific demands and their current abilities.
Applying Primal movements, planes of motion, and power to Women’s Crew was a foreign concept for the team. This created the opportunity to build an experimental, long-term movement program and coach new movements to non-field athletes. But first, I needed buy-in from a skeptical sport coach. The connection? Rowing is a speed sport, meaning progress is measurable. I could get creative to see if speed and power improved, but this process revealed multiple gaps in my education and experience, and pressure from the coach pushed me to fill those gaps by learning how movements fit together.
Training must address sport demands and individuals’ respective strengths and weaknesses…as well as (believe it or not) what the sport coach wants to see in the weight room. Before I could reverse engineer anything, I determined adaptations, but more importantly, expectations. The sport coach was not shy about asking questions or lobbing criticisms. I had to constructively turn it into action: research, test, and retest, regardless of past experiences. Over time, this mindset helped me train folks for sports I never played and work with athletes well beyond my abilities. View criticism not as an attack, but as a challenge to critically observe yourself.
Empower Your Performance: Learning Velocity
If you want to survive this industry, you better be ready to learn. Emptying my cup before each experience, but holding onto my skills enabled a high learning velocity.
Don’t waste four years of coaching figuring out how to coach. Instead, accelerate returns by establishing a base level of knowledge, a platform on which experience is built. Learn to observe, acquire essential coaching skills, and develop your own coaching style.
This is why we designed the Power Athlete Methodology – Level One course.
PAM-Level One is essential for the aspiring strength coach needing direction on what to learn, the gym owner who can’t afford the internship route, or the passionate individual wanting to unlock the next level of performance. We combine the what – a tried and true set of principles for developing athletes, and the how – a turn key program ready to implement (just add What Are…You Training For – see what I did there?).
Let’s unlock athletic potential together.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
Never miss out on an epic blog post or podcast, drop your email below and we’ll stay in-touch.