Are you a teacher or a trainer? Lessons for S&C coaches from the PE classroom

Are you a teacher or are you a trainer? The difference might seem trivial, but it is fundamental in how you approach your athletes and sporting environment.

All too often the strength and conditioning community focuses on training, leaving a gap in how we interact with our athletes. This is one key area where coaches can learn from the teaching profession. Specifically there are some ideas from physically education teachers that can help strength and conditioning improve their craft.

» Learn more: GAIN recently launched the GAIN PE initiative, including a free newsletter which provides insights, videos, and more about PE from James Marshall and other coaches in the GAIN community.

The measuring mindset

I have undertaken two strength and conditioning accreditation processes: one in the UK, one from the US. Both times I had to spend a lot of time reviewing sport science and training theory. The exams reflected this. The first question I had to answer in one was: “What is the purpose of a bone notch.” It went downhill from there.

Whilst I passed both exams on my first attempt, I never felt that I was a better coach . . . instead, I knew a lot of information (at least I thought I did). I only had to conduct one small coaching session with another person during the whole accreditation process: the rest was just theory.

My impression of sports science is that it focusses a lot on measuring and monitoring. This transfers to the S&C culture of testing and benchmarks. Training sessions are reverse engineered from the desired number. These numbers become very important and are shared with other people. The S&C coach or sport scientist may have their performance benchmarked by the measurements of the athletes trained.

The most important aspect of coaching is the interaction between human beings. If we start to see athletes as numbers, rather than people, we can easily fall into the trap of just measuring and monitoring rather than teaching. Compounding this trait is the rise of the super-facility. Power platforms, watt bikes and bar-velocity tags mean that if it moves, it’s measured. Forget about the quality of movement, we need a number.

This mindset is taking over PE as well. In recently reading the book Play Practice by Alan Launder and Wendy Piltz, the authors noted that: “the preparation of PE teachers moves from an approach based on a thorough background of physical activity and sport with relevant practice-referenced theory to ever-increasing volumes of theory separated from the realities of the context.”

Learning from the art of teaching

Some strength and conditioning coaches are able to automatically create athlete engagement, as they have a captive market of athletes required to train with them by their coaches. This can result in less than ideal practices: the coaches can get away with things because the athletes have to comply if they want to get selected. For example 13 -year old girls will only being doing 8 RM back squats because they are forced, rather than because they choose.

Compare that to the daily life of a PE teacher who has 30 children in a class with minimal equipment and limited time in which to teach. Physical education teachers have to create an environment and lesson structure that generates an active interest in a non-volunteer cohort. Their lessons have to show progression, precision and variety. They have contact with the children for many years in a row. A child will be in school for about 13 years, longer than they will be with a single coach, or possibly a sport.

Whilst the S&C coach can judge their status by the success of the top athlete or team with whom they work, the PE teacher is judged by the results of all the children in their class. If the S&C coach applied some of the soft skills and sound practices developed within physical education, they might find that all their athletes improved, rather than just the highly motivated few.

If that teacher has only got a sports science degree and then has done a one year postgraduate certificate in education to become “teacher-trained,” they may well get a shock to find out that the pupils respond in a random, chaotic fashion, rather than sit diligently waiting to be measured. Engaging and teaching that class takes a very different skill set.

Case study: coaching and testing the broad jump

The broad jump is frequently used to assess an athlete’s ability to demonstrate power. I have been told many times by federation to get a number for each of the athletes that I coach. Often I have been told to do this on Day 1 of meeting the person (they are a person, remember). The introduction then would go like this: “Hi, I am James, I need to get a number from you. I don’t care about your dreams, aspirations, background, experience, problems and life. Stand here and jump.” The athlete jumped, I measured, they repeated it twice more, I recorded and sent the data to the NGB. We all congratulated ourselves on “a job well done.” Two weeks later and the athlete has not got any better and I am then told to have a conversation about their “lack of engagement.”

That is not how I approach the broad jump now. Greg Thompson pointed me the way to educational gymnastics. Along that route I found a useful piece about guided discovery and jumping. The broad jump is just a 2 foot to 2 foot action. There are four other possible foot combinations (each of which has multiple variants). You can see me coaching this here:

This has some advantages over just testing:

  • I can observe how the athletes move and whether they can jump and land safely or competently.
  • They get to lead their own discovery, automatically developing “engagement.”
  • They can do a lot of repetitions without doing too many of any one thing.
  • They learn by doing.

The assumption that every athlete is a competent mover and can perform a maximal effort jump (and landing) test is an assumption too far for me, no matter what their sporting level.

By using some skills gained from physical education, I can help the athlete learn to move and build a trust and rapport with them. This trust has to be earned and I need to work hard to create a safe and positive environment for them rather than be another authority figure with a tape measure and clipboard.

This doesn’t mean I am trying to be “down with the kids,” rather that I am making an effort to understand what life is like in their shoes.

After a few sessions of developing their jumping, including some exercises where we “see how far you can jump,” I can then get a tape measure out and record their maximal effort. I am still uncertain as to what this tells me, other than the obvious, but we can then help the athlete develop their jumping ability and remeasure at a later date.

Learning from PE

Kelvin Giles uses the phrase “Random Number Gatherers” to describe people with clipboards (or tablets) who measure athletes. It is no surprise that many athletes respond indifferently or reluctantly to being treated as a number. We can strive to do better than this as a profession and looking at physical education gives us some ideas of how to do it. Using sound teaching principles from physical education, coaches can develop their athletes and improve the performance measures simultaneously.