A brand new athlete, regardless of age or experience, comes in wanting to train with you for the first time – what do you do with them on day one? Do you throw them into some sort of structured training and “coach ‘em up” right from the get go? Or, do you take a more mindful and systematic approach to bringing a new member into the fold?
Too often I see or hear of coaches doing the former, vice the latter.
For those coaches with less experience, it’s easier to view the Day One process through the lens of “get them in the door, get them moving, then coach ‘em up”. However, I’m challenging you to change your view of this process, and instead take a more mindful approach. There’s two ways you can go about this: 1) Learn through your own experiences and mistakes, or 2) learn from the experiences and mistakes of others.
Day One with your new athlete is not the opportunity to show them what YOU know, but rather it’s the time for the athlete to show you what THEY know. Before you start getting your hands dirty, a Power Coach must first use his mind. An athlete’s first day is an opportunity to observe, ask questions, listen, and take mental and physical notes. What this allows you to do is determine what kind of athlete you’re dealing with without detracting from the larger group, or even putting the athlete at risk of injury by throwing them into the mix without assessing them.
The goal of this article is to outline a systematic approach you can adopt and implement when a new member walks through your door looking to make your gym their potential new home.
OCULAR PAT DOWN
While we’ve been told not to necessarily judge a book by its cover, it’s important that the mindful coach gives an ocular pat down to a new athlete the moment he or she walks through the doors. But, what are you really observing?
Is the athlete tall, short, average? This will give you a quick idea of what movements may or may not be problematic, at least initially.
Is the athlete lean, muscular, overweight, or skinny? Body comp will give you an immediate idea of not only their nutritional habits, but also their training experience.
Posture & Body Language
When I say posture, I’m not necessarily talking about potential mobility limitations – that comes later. I’m talking more about how the athlete carries him/herself. Is the athlete slouched or hunched over, giving you the impression of self-doubt? Does the athlete hold him/herself high, shoulders back with confidence? Unconscious posture can give you insight into the psychological factors of the athlete, positive or negative.
Believe it or not, watching someone walk can tell you a lot about their biomechanical efficiency. Do they shuffle or take short or uneven strides? Do they waddle like the premiere penguin? Are they pigeon toed or duck footed? Do they have a smooth cadence, and even a pep in their step?
What you observe during this ocular pat down is not designed to tell you anything definitive at this point, but rather is meant to provide some clues and insight as to what may come.
ASK, THEN LISTEN
The second step in this process is to sit down and have a focused conversation, revolving around you asking some basic questions, listening to their responses, and taking notes, both mental and physical, to how they respond. You’re simply trying to get more insight into the athlete’s training age and prior experiences.
I encourage you to fine tune your own questions based on your athlete population. However, here are some of the basic questions I ask during this phase:
Why are you here?
Is the athlete definitive and specific in how he/she answers the question (“I want to hit this total, and compete in xx”)? Or do they fumble and give broad general answers (“get stronger and snatch more good”)? If the athlete is definitive and emphatic in their answer, it can provide you with insight into important psychological factors in training, like motivation and grit.
If the athlete fumbles their way through the question, it can be a window into the potential work you as a coach have ahead of you, in terms of building important psychological factors that go into maximizing their athletic potential.
What’s your sport and/or training background?
Do they even have any? If they do, what exactly were they doing? Do they have any experience doing some type of training that resembles what you do? What sports and at what levels do/did they play?
Again, this will help paint the picture of their athletic and training background. If they have no real training experience in the weight room, their sports background can provide insight into their potential trainability.
How much ya bench?
I don’t really ask this question, but if the athlete does have some training experience, it is important to ask what some of his/her training numbers are. If the athlete answers the question definitively, it may not tell you how well they move (if anything I assume they all move like shit, which is why they are coming to me in the first place – to move better!), but it will provide further insight into their training experience.
It is important to caution, however, not to look too deep into the answers of the last two questions. Why? Often, the athlete’s perception vs the reality of their training age doesn’t always align. Remember, these questions are not meant to lead you to conclusions, but rather set the stage for the next and final step in this Day One approach.
MOVE & OBSERVE
So you’ve got an initial assessment the athlete’s psychological factors and potential trainability. Now, it’s time to see if your initial ocular pat down and Q&A assessment match up with how the athlete actually moves!
While the focus of this article isn’t to provide you with a standardized list of movements for you to use in your evaluation, I want to provide you with the mental framework and foundation from which to build on. Yes, a systemized movement evaluation process is valuable, especially for gym owners or coaches that work with large groups and have a staff of coaches, but it’s also important to point out that this process must be adaptable and fluid.
So what does that really mean? First and foremost, it means creating a checklist of things to look at, regardless of what movements you have your new athlete execute. Here’s what’s on my list of what I’m observing throughout the athletes movement:
The 3 biggest areas I’m focused on are the: a) shoulder girdle, b) hips, c) ankles. Are they hypermobile? If so, it tells you that the athlete probably needs additional work to improve stability in that specific area.
Are they limited in their range of motion? If they are limited in their range of motion, is it a structural issue, or a soft tissue problem? This will give you a better idea of how you may need to adjust the athlete’s training, or at least the range of motion they do on specific exercises. Additionally, it provides you an opportunity to include exercises or drills before, during, or after each training session to improve those trouble areas. At the very least, if they are severe enough, you can refer them out to a trusted clinician with your basic assessment.
Trunk Stability and Capacity
This will typically be a rubber stamp for most athletes that is a glaring weakness when they first walk in. Implementing a non-load bearing tool like a dead bug, or a load bearing tool like a barbell, will provide you with a wealth of knowledge. Are they able to simply hold the home position of a dead bug? If yes, are they able to perform something like a 4 way deadbug for :30-60? They may initially have the stability to hold for :20, but they begin to falter for the last :10. The athlete may have the ability to stabilize, but they lack the capacity to do it for an extended period of time.
The key here is movement, not necessarily movements. How well are they able to squat, step, and lunge? How about vertically and horizontally press and pull? I’m not saying you have to evaluate the athlete’s ability to do ALL of the primal movement patterns on Day One, but you should get a basic picture of what you’re dealing with.
On the surface level, you’re observing how they move through space. On a deeper level, you’re evaluating their biomechanical efficiency (the athlete’s ability to coordinate different muscle groups to work together in movement) and their neuromuscular efficiency (the athlete’s ability to move explosively).
This assessment will provide insight into where the athlete is currently, and what needs to be done to get them where they didn’t think possible, without necessarily throwing them to the wolves. Is there a lot of work that will need to be done to get the athlete to move well? Or are they already moving like a champ?
Is the athlete getting smoked during the assessment? Or do they barely break a sweat? This will be a good indicator that they either need to take things slower to ramp up to what the rest of your athlete’s are doing, or if they are good to go.
The specific movements or implements you use to assess these areas are almost irrelevant. After all, there are many different ways to skin a cat. HOWEVER, it’s important not to be beholden to a set menu of movements or implements. While the barbell is a great assessment tool, it may not be the right tool for certain athletes. On the flip side, body weight movements might not tell you the whole picture. An experienced coach understands this, and embraces the fluidity that exists on Day One.
OBSERVING AND MOVING INTO INFINITY AND BEYOND
It’s important to remember that our role as a coach is to set our athlete’s up for LONG TERM success, and if you expect to maximize that, I encourage those young eager coaches out there to reevaluate the Day One Process with your new athletes.
Instead of throwing the athlete into the mix right away and simply “coaching them up” or scaling the work for them, consider taking a more systematic and methodical approach to your mindset when evaluating. This will have the potential to set your athletes up for greater success when they actually get into training, and you’ll find yourself that much more prepared and effective when you start getting your hands dirty as you coach your athlete from “Day Two” and beyond!
I want to hear from you coaches out there. How do you approach Day One with your athlete’s and what have you found to be effective? Post your thoughts and comments below and let’s get this discussion going!
EDUCATION: Power Athlete Methodology
BLOG: Certs, Seminars and Letters, Oh my! by Adam Campbell
BLOG: The Mental Energy Systems of a Coach by Don Ricci
Don was a two time National Champion and All-American water polo goalie at the University of Southern California prior to getting involved in coaching strength & conditioning and weightlifting. He is the founder and head coach of DELTA Weightlifting, a high performing USA Weightlifting Club. The Power Athlete Methodology has been a crucial component in developing better overall athleticism with his competitive weightlifters with international level athletes and national medalists to show for it. In addition to proudly being a Power Athlete Block One Coach, Don is also a USA Weightlifting Level 4 International Coach, a USA Weightlifting Lead Instructor USA Weightlifting Coaching Courses and a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA). Don has coached and trained athletes from virtually every sport at levels ranging from youth beginner to National Team level. He resides in Charlottesville, VA with his wife and 3 young kids.
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