This is Part 1, read Part 2 on how Coaches are ALL Liars here.
Last night, my wife and I went over to my step-dad Nasko’s place for dinner along with our family friend, Dimitri. Both Nasko and Dimitri are Bulgarian, were once members of the Bulgarian national gymnastics team, and competed at the world level. They are now coaches here in the Portland area. My wife, as you know, is a middle school substitute math teacher. After throwing me in the mix, it was like the set up to a bad joke:
“A weightlifting coach, two gymnastics coaches, and a math teacher walk into a bar …”
Here were four educators sitting around a small table with too much home-made brandy, wine, BBQ chicken, and Nasko’s heavenly Bulgarian salads (which he thinks of as “chasers”) while blasting traditional Greek music. In other words, nothing out of the ordinary for us.
Bulgarian food is a heck of a lot like Greek food (they share a border) and the cultural habits are also rather similar. If you’ve ever seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding you’ll have some appreciation for the style of our family gatherings: Loud, fun, relaxed, long, and infused with much alcohol, meat, and greek-like salads.
Environments like this inevitably lead to wandering conversations where the loudest of the bunch often do the steering. Dimitri, Nasko, and I are all VERY loud.
Given how much we all love our jobs we obviously spent most of the time talking shop.
The result was a massive explosion of great ideas surrounding what it takes to effectively coach/teach people complex and technically difficult subjects like gymnastics, math, and weightlifting. The next few articles will each go over what I think are the most relevant to you. It doesn’t matter if you are a coach, an athlete, or just someone who finds lifting weights fun – these lessons apply to you.
Make Them Climb The Rope
Dimitri and Nasko work with a lot kids far younger than I do. The youngest kid who has ever been in our gym was 14. Most of my members are adults, with the “young” folk being college-age.
These guys deal with 10 year olds all the time – sometimes younger! And, they teach them to do things that are potentially VERY dangerous – Dimitri nearly ripped off his biceps catching a girl who fell off the high bar last week!
With kids so young, discipline is an issue. What do you do if the athlete is NOT doing what you need them to do?
“Make them climb the rope”
“Why the rope?” I ask Dimitri.
“Because it is something that makes them better at gymnastics. You don’t want a punishment that is not making them better.”
I laughed and said, “Do you ever find fault in what they’re doing just so that you can make them climb the rope?” I said it intentionally to be a joke.
Surprisingly he said, “Yes, all the time! Sometimes their landing will be almost perfect, but they didn’t point their toes just right, so … Climb the rope!” He laughed.
For Dimitri, its climbing the rope.
For us, it’s either more squatting or more back-off sets on the snatch.
Often I’ll see a lifter struggling to hit a 1RM for the day that would otherwise have been easy and I have a decision to make. What do they do next?
One option is they can get off the platform, head to the squat rack, and spend some quality time moving up and down with the bar. When I honestly think a lifter just can’t possibly do anything technical that day, that’s the go to. More squatting for a weightlifter is just like more rope climbing for a gymnast. It builds the underlying strength we are going to need later. And you can nearly always do more of it.
Another option is to have them spend a lot of time doing back-off sets. If the lift was the snatch, then we’ll drop the weight by about 20% or so and start going for doubles with a focus on whatever they didn’t do correctly with the heavier version.
I don’t have very many “go to” exercises. I don’t believe that you should! There are only a few things that are honestly deserving of the title “The Basics” in any sport. Everything else is a luxury.
Two of those in weightlifting are technical work on the snatch and more squatting! 9 times out of 10, if someone is struggling, I’ll default to one of those two things and have them hammer the hell out of them.
Beyond the Rope: Consistency is Key
Dimitri’s point wasn’t that you should go around punishing people randomly and haphazardly, but that your training system needs to be coherent. No matter what you have someone do, it needs to fit in with the program.
Heck, you’re students don’t even have to know that you are “punishing” or “rewarding” them. Those words, in fact, miss the point!
The goal is to make them better at what they are doing. To do that, you need to alter their behavior patterns as much as their body. But, that doesn’t mean you have to be direct in your approach.
Subtle things make a big difference when added up together.
When I see problems arising I don’t start flipping-out on my lifters. I instead start implementing systematic changes that will steer the boat in the direction I want to see it going. This happens without their knowing it in nearly every case.
A tweak to the program here, a shifting of the schedule there, an altering of how I respond when a lifter makes or misses a lift, an inclusion of certain exercises or the taking out of others … these aren’t just simple program adjustments. They can result in attitudinal adjustments in the athlete.
Find a few things that are fundamental, and keep going back to them – over and over and over. No matter what the problem is, your solution must be in line with the goals. If your solution is something like, “Climb the Rope” (or your sports equivalent), then you’ll be consistent naturally.
Always default to the basics.
Take Home Lesson for the Athlete
Obviously, if you are not a coach but an athlete, then this stuff still all applies to you. Why? Because you ARE a coach – of yourself!
You are the most important coach that you have. The coach you hire is there to give you advice, to write programs for you, tell you what exercises to do, how to do them, etc. But fundamentally it is you who must decide what you will do and what you won’t do.
You will make the vital decisions daily about how much effort and energy you’ll put into your workouts. Only you can decide if you are going to “try harder” or quit.
My best athletes are the best self-coachers. They take my advice, and they put it into action.
They also know when it’s time to Climb the Rope and get back to basics – which is nearly all the time.
Next time I’ll relay our conversation about how coaches are all liars … and how that’s a GOOD thing!