I’ve been coaching for over ten years now and I like to think I’ve improved a lot in that time. I think about it a fair bit and have some rules/guidelines which help me and are hopefully useful to any new coaches out there:
1. Understand your model of the lift you’re teaching.
Think about the key positions and understand why these are important. This will help you to understand when some aspect of the lift is non-negotiable and when there’s room for different styles. If you’re not clear on why you need to hit certain positions it’s hard to be sure if some aspect of a lifters technique is an example of lifting style or a technical error which needs correcting. For me examples of this may be different start positions with varying hip and foot positioning which are all in evidence at elite level so can be considered style differences (though there might be advantages and disadvantages to each style) compared to positioning when the bar is at knee height which is fairly standard so not as open to differences.
If you don’t understand the lifts, read about them, ask other coaches and gain a working knowledge of the key positions and why they’re important. Without this knowledge you’ll always be teaching by rote and won’t be able to adjust to teach the lifts to people who may look different to elite lifters when they lift.
2. Decide on a “hierachy” of errors
If a lifter makes lots of mistakes it’s best to try and fix them one at a time. It’s often the case that correcting one thing will make other positions better anyway so providing a long list of things that are wrong with a lift isn’t usually the best coaching technique. As well as being confusing it’s often discouraging. This is one that I get wrong a lot. I find it hard not to keep adding to what I’ve already said and soon find myself on the third or fourth technical mistake that needs fixing while the lifters eyes glaze over or a look of terror slowly grows on their face at the monumental task that fixing all these things will surely be. Less can be more. Decide which is most important and get to work on that problem. Fixing technique in small steps also allows the lifter to feel a sense of accomplishment when each step is conquered which makes training a much more pleasant experience.
3. Don’t rush to offer technical advice.
A lifter may make a mistake during a lift which they never make again. If you regularly coach the lifter you’ll know if they’re making a consistent mistake or if it’s a new thing which may just be a one off. If it’s something they often do then it’s worth nipping it in the bud as soon as you see the error creep in. If you haven’t seen them make this specific mistake before it’s often worth seeing if they repeat it. Also with new errors you might want to ask if they’re carrying an injury or recovering from hard training and still feeling it in their legs or back. Recently one of my lifters was repeatedly letting their backside come up too fast in the first pull. He doesn’t usually do this and it turns out his legs were knackered from heavy squats the day before. No need to go through a load of technique work, it’s normal. Worth mentioning to the lifter so they can focus more on that part of the lift or perhaps taking the weight down for the rest of the session but nothing to worry about.
We’re all aware that sometimes we have really good sessions where everything just seems to click. Sometimes the opposite is true and nothing goes right. This doesn’t mean you’re suddenly rubbish. A bit less weight often solves any technical problem (I don’t think you should practice bad technique by repeatedly making the same error) and chances are it’ll be fine next workout.
4. Decide what you want to achieve with your coaching cue then decide how to achieve it.
In general, and especially coaching beginners and intermediate lifters, a technical explanation of what’s going wrong with a lift is more confusing than helpful. If you’ve spotted an error that needs correcting use simple coaching cues to correct the problem instead of long winded descriptions of what you’re looking for. One I use quite often is to shrug up hard at the top of the pull. This often works for me to get a lifter using less arms in the pull or to get them finishing the pull more without leaning back too much. Just telling them to keep their arms straight or not to lean back might also work but I’ve found that focusing on pulling with the shoulders is a better bet to start with even though it doesn’t directly address the problem. No particular cue is infallible and we should all have as many good coaching cue’s in the memory banks as possible so we can change the way we instruct the lifter to suit. I’m always on the lookout to steal a good coaching cue from other coaches at competitions or when I visit other gyms. As long as we know what we’re trying to achieve the cue can sometimes be quite different from the required result. If it works that’s all that matters.
5. Coach the basics, let the details look after themselves.
I’m not sure it’s even possible to coach all the small things which go together to make really good technique. You can help, make suggestions and give coaching cues but continually doing this stuff gets confusing. If a lifter is basically doing it right then the most powerful technical work they can do is repetition. Your body is good at finding the most efficient way to do something. The pressure of hard training encourages this process and over time technique becomes more efficient with no input from the coach. A coach needs to make sure all the basics are there and the lifter will look after the details if they can just get on with their training without worrying too much. In my opinion this is where style is developed, a lifter finding the best way for them within a basic framework of sound technique.