This is not intended to be some sort of fluffy “mission and vision statement,” but instead a distillation of the actual, on-the-floor decision-making processes that our coaches use when working with our clients.
Coaching is a highly complex skill.
Coaching involves not just being able to explain a workout, program a timer, shout encouragement, and see and correct movement flaws…
Coaching involves the ability to lead people, the ability to take the emotional temperature of clients, the ability to consistently give feedback without becoming frustrated, and the ability to constantly iterate on feedback to create progression toward a desired result.
Here are our principles of coaching at South Loop Strength & Conditioning.
Meet People Where They’re At
People come into the gym with various levels of experience.
Some are long-time athletes with backgrounds in multiple different sports.
Some have minimal experience with fitness, but have done extensive reading and self-educating online.
Some are experts in their field, but are looking to completely outsource any type of decision-making with their fitness.
Each of these people will come into the gym with different beliefs, questions and expectations.
There is rarely “one size fits all” solution.
And, in fact, if we don’t recognize that everyone has a different starting point in terms of their skills and their knowledge surrounding fitness, we will do them a disservice.
What do we mean by “skills”? Do we mean back squat technique, shoulder mobility, and understanding of pacing in long workouts?
Sure, that’s part of it.
However, we are not just referring to someone’s ability to express themselves physically in the gym.
We are referring, instead, to things like:
•The ability to plan and structure your week so that you can get to the gym often enough to meet your goals
•The ability to differentiate between pain, soreness, and discomfort in training – so that you know when you should “push through,” when you should back off, and when you need to modify what you’re doing altogether
•The ability to ask questions of coaches so that you can get advice on your specific sticking point
•The ability to come to the gym and adjust your effort relative to what you have going on outside of the gym – ie don’t expect to set personal records when you’ve been traveling across multiple timezones for the last ten days and you just got off a long flight
•The ability to understand the normal, day-to-day variation in things like training results and bodyweight so that you’re not reacting emotionally to things that are effectively noise in the data – and that you’re able to stick to a plan long enough to see results without getting upset and frustrated because you think you’re not progressing quickly enough
Based upon where you’re at with these skills, we can help you try to find the most important thing to work on.
If we give you the “perfect plan,” but you don’t have the skills necessary to execute on it – then it is not the perfect plan.
If we try to inundate you with best practices and complexity, but you are just looking to lose five pounds, we will struggle to get buy-in.
People tend to fail in achieving their goals for three reasons:
1. They are focusing on the wrong priorities
2. They are doing the wrong things to work on their priorities
3. They are inconsistent in executing in their work
It’s about understanding where someone is at with their knowledge and their skillset, and finding the most sustainable thing that they can do that will progress them in the right direction.
It’s much easier to stack skills and knowledge piece by piece through a long-term, iterative process than it is to try to introduce several complicated, challenging and nuanced behaviors all at once.
Prioritize Long-Term Results Over Short Term Results
You can certainly “fast track” fitness.
You can do a 30 day “nutrition challenge” and load your workouts with intensity.
Will your results be better in 30 days than if you started with a simple, sustainable habit with your nutrition and executed on it for two weeks while working on your technique and pacing in the gym?
Absolutely. However, we’re not terribly concerned with what your results are in 30 days.
We’re much more interested in what your results are in 3 months, 6 months, and 12 months.
Based upon this, we prioritize long-term progression over the short-term results whenever possible.
What does this mean?
Don’t skip steps.
To develop more advanced skills in the gym, you often have to spend a long time developing more basic movement patterns, working on your technique, and building up the base necessary to support training.
You can fast track development, but you will likely have compensation patterns and limit your ability to progress over the long term.
Prioritize technique over speed or load lifted.
While many people are concerned with having perfect technique, that’s not quite the most effective paradigm with which to approach exercise.
In order to learn, you will need to do a lot of reps with pretty bad form.
And, there is a window of “iffy” movement that is acceptable – even necessary – for learning.
However, we don’t want to go outside of this window just to lift more weight or move faster.
There are times when it is appropriate to trade-off technique in order to maximize performance. If you’re a competitive athlete and you’re in the last few seconds of a workout, by all means round your back and bend your arms early to finish off a set of cleans.
For everyone else, it’s not worth it.
While we expect you to have regular flaws in your technique as you learn, we want to keep these within the paradigm of “learning” rather than pushing you to go harder to the point that your technique breaks down due to excessive effort.
Train most of the time – Test only occasionally
Within the CrossFit community, it’s easy to fall into the habit of viewing each workout as a “test” or an “evaluation.”
While we do value the data that the structure of our workouts provide, we want our clients to focusing on training most of the time rather than pushing to get their best score possible every time they come into the gym.
This means that we would rather focus on pacing, technique, and learning in most of our training sessions.
And we don’t really care who can do a workout “Rx’d” or who has the fastest time for a given day.
We also recognize that constant testing – while in some cases creates a fun environment of competition – will tend to more often burn people out and create perverse incentives for people to shave reps, alter movement standards, or sacrifice their technique.
We recognize that thinking long term can be at odds with “meeting people where they’re at.”
Clients often want to push harder than is appropriate. They often want to attempt skills or weights that they’re not ready for. They want every training session to leave them rolling around on the ground gasping for air so that they feel like they “worked hard.” They want to try fad diets that we’re pretty sure aren’t a great idea.
So, what do we do in these scenarios?
Do we allow clients to experiment or do we force them to do what we consider the “right” thing?
This is all about balancing the psychology of our clients with what we consider to be best practices.
We want to allow our clients to have agency to make their own decisions about what is best for them, while also giving guidance as to what we think is appropriate for them and their goals.
We’re ok with people experimenting and trying new things, and we’re ok with making some concessions to “best practice” in order to keep things fun and interesting so that people keep showing up.
But we won’t sacrifice our principles just to cater to the demands of clients, either.
Offer Individualized Feedback
In many group class based facilities, the coach serves as a cheerleader first and a logistics organizer second.
While there is value in each of those roles – and, in some cases, logistics organizer may even become the most important role – simply shouting at people to “keep moving” or that they have “one minute left” is insufficient coaching to create progress.
Without one-on-one communication and feedback, it’s very difficult to create change for individuals – either in technique, in pacing strategy, or in long-term behavior outside of the gym.
Even if people are told the “correct” thing over and over and over again, they often have a specific, unique hang-up, misconception or missing skill that is impeding their progress.
Through regular, individualized feedback, we are more likely to find these issues and give individuals the tools to solve them – or throw in a helpful reframe that may get them past a sticking point.
Cheerleaders and rep counters will rarely be able to make this kind of difference.
Based upon this, we prioritize individualized feedback in all of our classes.
We’re ok with interrupting someone’s workout, taking weight off the bar, telling people to reduce the reps, giving folks target rpms, etc.
Even though this may frustrate clients in the moment, we are more concerned with their training sessions in two weeks than we are with their specific results on any given day.
More Discomfort Doesn’t Mean Better Results…but be Prepared to be Uncomfortable
Many people think that there’s a linear relationship between the degree of difficulty of a training session and the results that they’re going to get from that session.
If I’m rolling around on the ground after a workout, that must mean that I’m getting better, right?
All of that effort certainly translates into body composition change or increased capacity, right?
Maybe…but not necessarily.
There’s certainly value in knowing how to push yourself. And it’s a key part of any training program to occasionally push the limits of what you think you can do.
This means that you should sometimes load more weight on the bar than you have in the past or to try to hold a pace on the bike that seems a bit reckless or unsustainable.
However, just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that it’s going to give you better results.
In fact, good training principles involve balancing the amount of effort in each training session throughout the week. Much of the result from training comes from consistency – and a key aspect of consistency is accumulating more and more quality work, week after week.
If you’re pushing yourself to a maximum effort every single day, you are trading off your ability to get quality, consistent work in over time for “working harder” on one specific day.
There’s an optimal balance between the number of times that you push yourself to maximal exertion, and the number of times that you get into the gym and just “put in some work.”
For the type of hard-charging, driven person who tends to be attracted to something like CrossFit, they will typically err on the side of pushing too hard too often.
Instead, these individuals need to develop some restraint and understanding of how to modulate their effort – so that they can get more quality training in over the course of months if not years.
Based upon that, they will learn more about themselves and their capabilities, and they will have better results over time with less likelihood of burnout or injury.
Differentiate Fitness and Sport
Programming for CrossFit can be a bit tricky in that it is both a fitness program and a sport.
There seems to be more conflation between what is appropriate for people who wish to compete in “CrossFit as a sport” and those who simply wish to use CrossFit as a training program than in other modalities like running, bodybuliding, or swimming.
We have three main archetypes of individuals in the gym. There are, of course, subtleties and folks who fall between categories, but understanding why people train is crucial.
Those who are only interested in CrossFit as a training program
They don’t really care about setting personal records. They don’t really care about beating their classmates. They don’t really care about doing local competitions. They’re not particularly interested in mastering the snatch or ever getting a muscle-up.
Instead, they are primarily concerned with looking good, feeling good and having fun in the gym.
For these individuals, there is no need to dig into the aspects of CrossFit as a sport that potentially involve higher risk movements – or to push super hard in the gym with any frequency.
Those for whom CrossFit is a recreational sport
Many of our members fall into this category.
They are not seriously competitive in CrossFit, but they treat it as a recreational sport. These folks often have some sort of athletic background, and they find that they miss the camaraderie, competitiveness and physicality of playing a sport. CrossFit scratches that itch for them.
They enjoy getting better. They keep track of their numbers. They may participate in local competitions, and they have clear performance goals for themselves.
However, these individuals are often full-time professionals. They are not interested in going “all in” on competition – and they do not have the bandwidth nor the time to do so.
Even though CrossFit is their hobby, they want to do as well as they can given the constraints on their time and their lifestyle.
Those for whom CrossFit is a competitive sport – and they’re fully committed to maximizing their performance
These individuals are extremely serious about getting as good as they can be in CrossFit as a sport.
This means that they are dedicated to their athletic achievement, and are willing and able to sacrifice other aspects of their life to maximize their performance.
They are potentially training multiple hours per day, are ultra-disciplined with their nutrition, and they set up their lives outside of the gym to maximize their ability to recover.
At the highest level, these individuals are competing in multiple events throughout the year, and are potentially looking to qualify for highly competitive events where their priority is performing as well as they possibly can.
Not everyone in this group is at an elite level, however. Some folks in this group simply enjoy the process of getting better, and are willing to put in the effort and make the sacrifices necessary to get as good as they can be.
Individuals in this group are also willing to trade-off their long-term health and wellness in order to do more training, lift more weight, go faster on conditioning workouts, and get as good as they possibly can.
If we don’t understand that each of these avatars have different needs, it’s easy to make prescriptions that don’t make sense. A lot of the confusion in the CrossFit community surrounding training methods and nutrition recommendations comes from people taking that which is applicable to people who are primarily concerned with looking good and feeling good and applying that to competitors – and vice versa.
By having a clear understanding of the differences in best practices for these different types of individuals, we can steer people in the right direction and help them cut through the confusing and seemingly contradictory messaging.
Allow People to Have Agency – Optimize for Learning
Anyone who has asked an expert an opinion in a complicated field has probably gotten the unsatisfying answer of “it depends.”
Is it better to back squat or deadlift?
Should I wear weightlifting shoes when I squat?
What do you think about the keto diet?
Should I do additional training on my own to improve my engine?
Yup…the answers to all of these questions depend on a variety of factors.
It’s the role of a coach to help a client prioritize what they should be working on.
And, it’s also often the role of a coach to help clients ask better questions.
We’re not just about giving clients the answers to their questions.
Nor do we want to overwhelm them with technical information.
Instead, we want to help client’s think through their issues so that they can develop a better mental model of their training so that they can learn over time to improve their ability to ask questions.
And our role as coaches is to not just explain “what,” but also “why” and “how.”
We also want to avoid the drill sergeant mentality that is prevalent in a lot of fitness programs.
Rigid instructors barking orders, people being scolded and punished for “falling out of line,” programs and prescriptions that tell you exactly what to do (meal plans, super specific strength progressions)…
The problem with these kinds of programs is that they don’t allow people to have agency.
Sure, we can potentially create structure and – through force of will and hand-holding – drag people to getting results in the gym.
But, is this sustainable for the long-term? Usually not.
Not only do people burn out from these types of programs, but they fail to develop the skills to deal with obstacles, ambiguity or grey area.
In the real world, people need to be able to navigate trade-offs and tough decisions. Is it more important to “stick to your diet” or to enjoy a meal out with your friends? Should you go a little bit heavier on your squat and try to set a new personal record even though your form is starting to break down? Is it more important to exercise or to get another hour of sleep?
There’s no “right” answer to these questions. And, if we enforce top-down, command and control style coaching, then clients do not develop the mental models necessary to be able to make these kinds of decisions.
Anyone can “buckle down and obey orders” for 6 weeks or even 6 months.
Instead, we want people to learn to make decisions and weigh trade-offs on their own so that their still making progress in 6 years.