A quick start guide to coaching movement

Often coaches and physios are armed with a wealth information on training methods, trends, and data. Coaching is about how you turn that information into a successful outcomes with their athletes or patients. Unfortunately most formal training does not identify or teach those steps. This is what I realized after I finished university and started working as a physio. I was taught WHY and WHAT, but never taught to coach.

Below I’d like to share some simple ideas that can improve the art of coaching. The information and methods I am going to share 13 tips on coaching that I use on an everyday basis with real people. It isn’t fancy or cutting edge, but it works. I’ve learned these methods through experience, reading, observation but mostly through mentors. It is vital that you learn the craft from those who lead the way, those who have worked and observed and tweaked over years of practice.

Step 1: preparing for training

Performing a solid assessment to gauge an appropriate starting point is essential to making your coaching easier, a topic I talked about with Tracy Fober on our new podcast. Here are some ideas on improving the starting point. Essentially, the correct and most appropriate starting point can allay a lot of coaching challenges before we even begin

  • Know their level: Rather than choosing a starting point and trying to fit the person to that, if you know their current level is then you can start right there and not give yourself a mountain to climb. You wouldn’t introduce a squatting movement to a novice with a front squat. There’s too much going on, so simplify to where they are and progress appropriately.
  • Learn their history: An appreciation of their movement or training history can also be useful in determining the best avenue of progression. Have they had any bad experiences in training, do they have any negative beliefs about certain methods?
  • Understand how they move: As a physio I find myself thinking a lot about anatomy when assessing and coaching movement. This has both a positive and a potential negative side if too anatomically cautious. I do find it invaluable however to be able to understand the source of movement restrictions: are they  joint restrictions (sometimes unchangeable), soft tissue changes, or simply coordination issues. This informs where I can and can’t push as I progress with a patient/athlete.

Step 2: before the movement

Coaching begins before the movement begins. There are several points a coach can do to accelerate the movement acquisition before the athlete begins to move.  Four points that have helped me are:

  • Demonstration and peer modeling: Simply show them what you want. We learn how to move by observing movement. That’s proven, just check out Barbara Tversky’s work for more on that topic. Have them watch you, or a peer, or even a video. This lets them make sense of the movement in their head before they attempt it.
  • Coach by contrast: On a similar point, show them what you definitely don’t want. This will be dependent on the goal of the movement, be it postural alignment, force application, balance. Allowing them to see both the right and wrong way to perform the movement can lead to less confusion and can inform your cueing later.
  • Deciding on cues: I find myself at times using the cues that make sense to me, but in order for a cue to be effective for an athlete it is more important if it makes sense to them. To do this we need to involve our athletes in selecting the cues. “Keep your chest up” can mean one thing to me and a completely different thing to them if we haven’t discussed it or explored it in contrast coaching. I’m sure someone much more scientifically informed than me will delve into cueing (internal vs external, etc.) but I do find value in both. Sometimes rehab patients need to feel (internal) what we are looking to work on before we tie that in with more external cueing for movement quality and progression.
  • Relate movement to sport: By referring to sporting postures and positions we are tapping into learned movement in the athlete or, at the very least, giving context to them. Be it tennis ready position, lineout lifting stance in rugby, etc., we are connecting movement with an experience which they know and are confident in. This may be only relevant to a narrow band of movements but can lead to a movement goal or posture really clicking into place for an athlete or patient.

Step 3: during the movement

Once the movement start, what a coach says (and don’t say) and how they alter the exercise are important. Here are four more points that have helped me in this area:

  • Cueing: At the right time, cueing during movement can remind them of a particular point they may be neglecting. But cueing too much can negate the learning process so use it sparingly or at least only during initial progressions.
  • Pauses: I like to use pauses during movement progressions early on to allow time for a patient or athlete to feel a certain position and correct it if needs be. This acts like a form of internal cueing whereby muscle fatigue can become very apparent to them. Also it allows for us to gauge whether or not someone is really in control of each portion of the movement.
  • Tempo: Performing the same movement at different tempos is a method of accruing but also gauging mastery of a movement. Slow, fast, eccentric focus, concentric focus, long isometric, whatever. Can they maintain the same movement quality regardless of the tempo?
  • Raise awareness: This could be described as similar to cueing but is a little less invasive to the patients or athletes concentration. If they are achieving one of the movement points well and consistently, simply highlighting that and raising their awareness of it is likely to solidify that particular point in their movement vocabulary.

Step 4: after the movement

Perhaps the most important in the coaching process is after the movement takes place.

  • Review: How did it feel? Did the cues work, or not? Have the athlete watch themselves on video and talk me through it. By reflecting on movement and observing from a third person point of view we are implicitly teaching movement mastery. Rather than simply going from set to set, reviewing between sets has the potential to enhance the training stimulus by improving the performance of the desired movement each set.
  • Peer coaching or mock coaching: Ask them to teach their training partner or you how to do the movement. We learn a lot by teaching and it can show us where the gaps in understanding are.

I use all of these points with every single person I see during the day. It is by no means a complete “how to” for coaching, but it works for me. It’s up for review, so I’m looking forward to some feedback and discussion.