Advice from industry-leading educator and 2007 Fittest Man on Earth, James FitzGerald
I have programmed thousands and thousands of workouts and programs for athletes over the past twenty years. Despite all this experience, I have made mistakes. Sometimes I see my mistake immediately upon writing and reviewing the program, other times the mistake has taken years to discover. It was only when I became a coach of coaches rather than a coach of athletes that I finally was given a different perspective that allowed me to not only learn what caused my mistakes but how to fix them.
Here are five mistakes novice coaches make when programming for their athletes.
(Shortcut: Skip the process of learning from your mistakes and master these principles of program design.)
While the relationship for an athlete and a coach takes time to develop, it never will develop if you don’t learn to listen and observe. Too many coaches become obsessed with ‘displaying’ their fitness knowledge rather than practically applying it. The result is a lot of communication between the coach and the athlete but not a lot of understanding. A coach is most effective when they ‘understand’ their athlete.
When coaches resonate and ‘understand’ the athlete they can call them on their mistakes, recognize when they need to speed up or slow down, know when to guide them, as well as when to let them guide themselves.
Another important part of this principle is that coaches should not divulge ‘too much’ information to the athlete. Coaches should know in their head what the programming plan is, but in most cases, it should remain in there. Sharing information for which the athlete is not educated on or will not understand could damage the relationship by making the athlete feel inadequate or too ‘dumb’ to communicate with you.
When the athlete creates little ‘windows’ in conversation or emails that are cries for help or cries for recognition that may mean that something is going awry in the relationship.
Being a great listener and fine tuning that over time enhances the relationship with your athletes. In order to first listen a coach must create the space to listen, however in a number of cases, the best way to start the process of listening is by taking every opportunity to sit back and watch when speaking with your athletes. Only intervening when necessary allows the athlete to blossom, learn how to pull themselves back up and come to you for support when needed.
Surprisingly, many coaches don’t actually analyze the finer details of how their athlete improves. What I mean by this is that many coaches don’t understand how to determine how different fitness characteristics change (positively or negatively) throughout a training plan. Without a full understanding of how the different phases of your training will affect your athletes, it’s hard to plan for important events like a competition.
An example of watching performance trends is noticing how athletes respond to peaking and sharpening phases. In the case where an athlete has to increase ‘work’ and is going towards real capacity, everyone reacts differently. In some cases, the coach never notices how in the training program how that athlete failed to recover after a few pieces. Because of this isn’t able to increase ‘work’.
Coaches will never know how to plan accordingly for those peaks should the same problems come up in competition prep or competition, because they simply could not see it. As they were not watching the readiness of the athlete throughout the plan.
As a general rule of thumb, you shouldn’t coach or train an athlete for a sport of which you have never experienced or know nothing about.
For example, in competitive functional fitness, there are plenty of coaches that have never competed in the sport, or even tried it. Yet they propose to just ‘know’ how things feel and will go?
The coach remains in their own little bubble all the while protecting the athlete from the ‘outside world’, guarding them against seeing what is real and the truth in the sport. The coach must be inside the game, at the field level, in the trenches, in the books and in conversing with other coaches about the sport as well.
Keeping up to date with all that is happenings within the sport is important. A coach must study the past, the art, the science, the politics, the training, the business, etc… In any case, a simple fix for this is to get dirty and hands-on, let your athletes know that you competently understand the demands.
If you recruit only ‘good’ people in the sport, or the other end of the continuum, those that are just starting, then, of course, the same tried and true program will work. Great athletes can do any program and get better.
I say ‘over time’ as there will come a time when the adaptation occurs and they need a program that works well for them and specifically address their weaknesses. And if the coach does not know what do when the learning curve starts to flatline, then just “more”, or more “fancy” prescriptions will not work. To fix this, coaches need to get educated on the sports requirements, its demands, the learning curve, the speed that someone adapts; then and only then will the coach understand the importance of individualized programs.
There are truths to humans. A few things; we start small, we grow, and we age. Organs and systems grow then weaken over time as all cells do. These simple things are very important to know. Understanding some small things like why someone’s teres minor lights up on Wednesdays. Maybe that coach decides that a lot of athletes are doing a certain style of program, so they prescribe weightlifting density on Monday and Tuesday every week.
You know why they do that? I am not sure actually, and neither are they. So, they continue to also practice 2 forms of grip dominant work in their “conditioning” sessions on both days as well, as conditioning is just conditioning right? Well, the facts are that the person cannot handle the work that little muscle is requiring for all the barbell work along with all the dynamic grip dominant activities. So the coach and athlete are baffled.
They don’t know how that area of the body works, how it recovers, how much work is needed on it for progressions when there are imbalances, etc…
We have taken these answers and our knowledge from over a decade of designing individualized programs for athletes and compiled it into our course Principles of Program Design. This 10-hour course covers the basics of how to assess your clients the OPEX way, program progressions to maximize each energy system, and how to train across the Strength Continuum to elicit the correct dose response. And provides the base programming knowledge for coaches seeking to professionalize their passion.