20 Random Things I’ve Learned From Being A Pro Level Strength Coach

  1. Don’t tell anyone what to do. This is not dictatorship. This is and always will be a democracy. Lots of give and take.
    2. This job is not about you. You are in the service industry. Serve
    3. You’re working for someone’s childhood dream. I always felt a great deal of responsibility when I worked in the Minor Leagues. Every kid you work with is trying to fulfill a dream they’ve had since they were a small boy and they are trusting you with that dream. It’s unacceptable to half-ass your effort with that on the line.
    4. Building relationships is the biggest thing you can ever do with your athletes. This. Is. Everything.
    5. There are a million ways to skin the cat. There are a million different systems, modalities, philosophies and methods. None of them are all right or all wrong. The best coaches pick and choose from all of them.
    6. Every strength coach thinks that every other strength coach is an “idiot.” By far the worst part of the industry.
    7. The most glamourous part of being a pro strength coach is being able to tell people you are a pro strength coach. Making coffee, little sleep and tagging luggage at the hotel at 4am in the snow in Toronto are all “perks” of the job. It’s not as glamorous as you think.
    8. Pro athlete’s have an idea of what works for them. That matters. If you think it works, it probably does.
    9. They are full of dysfunction. 99.999999999% of your athletes will never be “neutral.” Providing resiliency to that dysfunction is your job. Plus, that dysfunction, dysfunctioned them all the way to the pros. So how much does your “neutrality” matter.
    10. Recovery is 90% of the battle. Playing every night. Changing time zone. Hideous sleep schedule. Put down the barbell and take a nap.
    11. You’re going to be wrong….A LOT. Simple enough.
    12. Trusting the right people is a big freaking deal. When I decided to be a strength coach, I trusted Brijesh Patel, my college strength coach. I had no idea he was good. I liked him. He seemed good. But I didn’t know that he was as good as he is. If I had never left my first college and I trusted that strength coach, he would have probably sent me on a completely different career trajectory. And believe me, I was ready to go full-steam ahead into Bicep Curl City. Coach B will confirm that. You have to be EXTREMELY careful with who you place your trust in. They could make or break your career before it ever gets started.
    13. You have to be able to think on the fly. I cannot even begin to tell you how many programs I’ve written and the second I’m showing it to my guys I instantly hate everything about it. I also cannot even begin to tell you the amount of ridiculous reasons that I have had to change, scrap or completely re-do my plans. Figure it out, NOW!
    14. Nobody will ever acknowledge your work. Deal with it.
    15. You’re not a big deal. Who’s your favorite team? Do you know their who their strength coach is? Do you really care if they get fired?
    16. You will never know it all. I once sat down to learn the ins and outs of the visual system. It took me about fifteen minutes to realize that was not going to happen and I should find someone who has devoted their life to vision.
    17. If you want to get to the top, you have to go take it. If you’re sitting at home watching House of Cards and waiting for the phone to ring…get comfortable.
    18. Understanding the brain is very important. Ask yourself why! The brain is king in the body. Everything you do in the weight room is a conversation with the brain. If the brain is in charge of the body and you are in charge of that body, shouldn’t you learn about the brain?
    19. You should always have a reason for everything you do in the weight room. There should be no randomness. No fillers. No warm-ups because that’s what everybody else does. Everything should have a purpose. If it doesn’t, leave it out.
    20. Your warm-up program isn’t the difference between winning the World Series and not. It’s just not.

Why Every Level of Strength Coach Needs Understand The Brain

It took me several years being involved in the Strength & Conditioning world before I became immersed in the subject of neuroscience. These days it’s becoming a bit trendy to say things like “it’s all about the brain,” or “the brain always wins” but does anyone really understand the brain any further than those statements?

Why should you have some understanding of the brain if you’re a Strength & Conditioning Coach? Well, for every level of S&C Coach, I will tell you why…

High School Strength Coaches

It’s a bit ironic how high school strength coaches are considered the “lowest” level while they have arguably the most dramatic impact out of any of them. They have a ton of athletes with ZERO experience in the weight room. They have almost exclusively blank slates. That’s honestly incredible.

Something that I’ve noticed along the way is that there really is no better way to slam the fast forward button when trying to create a change or new pattern than blasting quality tone into your muscles with weightlifting. When you have nothing but blank slates, you are going to get what you want really fast. On the flip side, if you’re screwing around, you’re going to get to a bad place really fast.

Whatever patterns you’re creating here are the patterns that they are going to use for the rest of their lives. Good or bad!

Just like your muscles, any pattern you create is also being cemented in the brain. Good or bad! The coding for all these patterns are held in the brain and they never get deleted, EVER.

You need to understand how your brain is receiving these inputs or you’ll never be able to control the outputs.

Lastly, you’re setting the stage for how they perceive training for the rest of their lives. How many times do you hear something like so-and-so won’t go swimming because they had a bad experience as a kid? Same thing goes with the weight room.

What kind of experience are you creating? Is it positive or negative?

 Are they going to be the kid who never goes swimming again? High school strength coaches have ALL the say in this!

College Strength Coaches

A lot of college athletes are stepping into the weight room for the first time when they get on campus. High School Strength & Conditioning is starting to become a lot more regular but it’s still quite a bit for being standard practice. Because of this, a lot of college strength coaches will have the same neural responsibilities as High School coaches.

However, building upon the brain-oriented obligations of high school strength coaches, college coaches will have an increased requirement to be cognizant of balancing a student-athlete’s stress-load.

As far as performance training goes, this isn’t a perfect environment. These kids go to class for several hours a day, they party…. A LOT and their actual sport practices are extremely intense and super time consuming. Somehow, these warriors of the weight room have to find a way to get their athletes to improve in the midst of this onslaught of stress.

ALL OF THIS HAS TO BE CONSIDERED!

As much as you may not want it to, the girl that keeps turning your athlete down for a date is playing a role in what you’re able to get out of him in the weight room. So does his midterm exams, late night party habits and the fact that he didn’t get a snow day when he really wanted one.

Everything counts!

What can you do to stimulate recovery and efficiently schedule your work?

You have to be aware of all these factors when you’re programming. This is stress management.

You also have to be able to think on your feet and be ready to scrap your plans for any given day when you get thrown a curveball.

Finally, college strength coaches may have the most access out of anyone to their athletes. They have the ability to have a ton of hands on time over the course of four years (sometimes more). This gives them a tremendous opportunity to build great habits that will carry them through life.

It also makes it super important to really understand the psychology of each of your athletes. What makes them tick? What makes them happy or sad? Do they love the weight room or hate it? How can I accommodate their individuality to maximize our weight room product?

Pro Strength Coaches

This is where becoming a neural-stud muffin is a HUGE deal. I’ve been fortunate enough to ride the bus in the Minor Leagues for five years grinding through a 140-game schedule as well as fly around the country with the Los Angeles Lakers throughout an 82-game schedule.

At this level, traditional strength coaches are screwed. Programming barely exists. You have to be able to think on the fly every second of the day. There are so many variables and the biggest one is the schedule. There is a disgusting amount of travel and an un-forgiving game schedule. If you need recovery time to make performance adaptations, then understand that you’re not getting any of those adaptations as long as the season is going on. It is about eight consecutive months of sleep deprivation and stress.

Now you have to be really savvy with your neural understandings. You need to know everything that drives these players up the stress level and you MUST do whatever you can to help them come back down.

You HAVE TO know each player and their personality better than anyone. You need to know that each player is going to have a very different recovery menu and you have to be willing to crack their code.

At this level, you need to be diving down as deep as you can. You should be fluent in visual processing, auditory responses and nutritional fundamentals. You need to be making as big of a dent in their stress as possible.

I’ve always thought that the best pro strength coaches are the ones that are able to get their athletes to recover the best.

This takes a great amount of humility and a huge amount of dedication and selflessness.

The other thing to consider when dealing with pros is that they all likely have a number of years of experience with weight training which means that getting performance gains is going to be much harder than it would be for a high school strength coach. A lot of times you will be splitting hairs to get a fraction of an improvement. So you have to be willing to consider all contributing factors.

Take all of this and add in choppy offseason availability, super strong personalities and a collection of athletes with a wide assortment of training preferences and you’ve got yourself a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell (the cowbell being the brain of course)

Private Strength Coaches

The interesting thing about private sector strength coaches is that they need to tip-toe the line of giving their clients what they need and giving them what they “think” they need/want in order to maintain their business. In the other realms of performance coaching, coaches are given clients and they never have to worry about having enough clients to make a living.

Because of this, private strength coaches have to be all over neural adaptations because much of what they do may require some real fancy footwork to satisfy both parties. One of the biggest aspects of personal training is progress. Clients want to see their money being put to good use.

The problem is, after several years of training, it becomes harder and harder to make progress and most people aren’t willing to put the effort in to make that happen. In addition, most people’s lifestyles put a cap on their progress even though they are still expecting you to make it happen.

Private strength coaches need to understand the sensory system and how to manipulate it so they can organize the system and set it up properly during their programming. They need to understand the role that emotions play in motor control and nervous system activation. They need to be willing to set aside what they believe to be right and be creative as hell because the simple concept of the client not understanding your methods will put a hard ceiling on your progress.

They also need to be ready for anything. For my entire career I’ve had the luxury of working with one extremely specific population. Private coaches can train a professional athlete, a grandma, a middle school lacrosse player and a pregnant 30-year-old all in one day. You have to have a really good grasp on how the brain works to cope with that roster. Each one of these clients will have very different neural responses to what goes on in the gym and you better be ready for it.

Human brains run on memory. Every client or athlete you see is going to be running on different memories. No matter where you work, it’s going to be in everyone’s best interest to have at least somewhat of a grip on what’s going on between the ears.

Fighting Evolution with Treadmills

Evolution is some crazy shit.

This is my understanding of evolution: Over the course of thousands of years, the human race has a constantly changing list of demands and the species accommodates these demands by slowly altering our children to better fit the needs of our day to day activities. I’m guessing this is why giraffes have humongous necks, why dolphins can swim for so long but still need to come up for air and probably why some snakes can blend perfectly with their environment without being detected.

According to the single website that I read to tell me a little bit more about evolution, humans used to be much taller. 40,000 years ago, European males were six feet tall on average. The reason behind this is said to be because they had a much more physically demanding lifestyle. They led a hunter-gatherer lifestyle that required a great deal of strength just to survive

30,000 years later, the average European height dramatically shifted to five-foot-four. Much of this is attributed to global climate change as well as failed agricultural changes.

Fast forward all the way today, Europeans are back on the rise, measuring in at an improved five-foot-nine which is said to be caused by the improved state of diet and health care.

Other things that have changed in the past six-thousand years include smaller teeth and jaws which are largely due to massive dietary changes.

The bottom-line is, whatever we need to support our lifestyle, we will get…..in five-thousand years.

Predicting the future of evolution is tricky but there are a lot of things that we can look at across the human race that are likely to play a huge role in shaping what a human will look like in the year 7018.

Low Back Pain
Pretty much everyone at point or another has experienced some low back pain. Some people experience some tightness after a tough workout. Some have debilitating, chronic low-back pain and others have low-back pain that only acts up in certain situations.

MRI results show that just about everyone has some degree of disc herniation in their lumbar spine regardless of whether they are in pain or not.

If this is so common, I think it’s safe to assume that the species is going to try to accommodate it.

Things like thicker intervertebral discs, and thicker lumbar spinal segments may be in our future.

Maybe even some increased abdominal strength capacity to alleviate the pressure on the lower spine. Or maybe an increase in nociceptors (pain receptors) to send warning signals to the brain before things go too far.

Sedentary Lifestyles
Back in the good-ole days, humans had to walk pretty much all day with a spear, scanning the prairie for something to eat. They would probably go days sometimes without finding food. An endless process requiring a ton of aerobic energy and mental fortitude just to have a nice meal.

Today, if I leave the door unlocked, I can actually have the pizza-man walk into my living room and hand me and extra-cheesy, pepperoni pizza that I ordered from that very couch 96 seconds ago in which I will not tip because I was promised it in only 90 seconds. Some business you’re running over there, Dominos!

So now we have these bodies that are designed to hunt on the open prairie all day looking for beavers or something and I literally haven’t moved in sixteen hours, consumed three meals and ran a business while completely naked in my bed.

I have a hunch that evolution is going to do something about that.

Imagine trying to catch this horse out here!!!

Technology
OK, so we all stare at our phones, computers and televisions all day. I’m actually a little sick and tired of hearing people talk about how this is the reason for all our problems in today’s world. While I do believe it is a massive contributor to the world’s pain, it’s also massively helping our species evolve to accommodate the ever-increasing presence of technology in our world.

Future humans may have a less robust visual system that doesn’t really see the need to look out in the distance and drastically improves our ability to see things close to our face.

Future humans may see a different spinal curve in their neck to allow for more prolonged looking down at our screens.

Future humans may have less visual neurons go to the postural centers of their brain because the information they are receiving may not need to be analyzed for danger as much as our ancestors did.

Who knows how it will interpret the needs of our species, but it will do something.

The Fight
Physical Therapists, Strength & Conditioning Coaches and Doctors all have their gloves on, dukes up and are fighting evolution every single day.
You have a client with back pain and you fix it? BOOM! Suck on that evolution! We don’t need your changes.

What’s that? You have a headache from staring at your phone all day? Well allow me to give you some corrective breathing exercises to melt that pain like buttahhhhh! Stick that in your pipe and smoke it evolution!!!

Oh, you sit at a desk all day and evolution wants to change human beings as we know it to make them less capable of exerting themselves? Sounds like a wonderful time to blast a monster CrossFit workout, filled with epic amounts of pullups, savage distances on the air-dyne bike and mind-numbingly heavy power cleans to confuse the shit out of evolution.

“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT, SUSAN?!?!?!?!” said Evolution.

Of course this is a fight that we have no chance of winning. For the betterment of mankind, maybe we shouldn’t even be trying but the desire for health will always prevail. People will get sick and go to the doctor. Their backs will hurt, and they will go see a Physical Therapist. And people will want to get in shape for beach season and they will go see a Personal Trainer. And in every workout with their trainer, appointment with a doctor and session with their PT, you will take one big swing at evolution and in five-thousand years, evolution will have whooped your ass.

Change is a-comin’ whether you like it or not.

The Brain Doesn’t Care

About a month and a half ago I gave a presentation to a group of high school athletes and their parents. The topic of the conversation was basically what you should know if you’re looking to start a strength & conditioning program.

The underlying theme of everything I talk about now is the brain. I spoke about vision, hearing, anatomy, energy systems and safe exercises to do. I talked about natural talent, what it’s like in an NBA weight room and working smarter not harder.

What I really wanted to highlight was that doing the wrong stuff can royally screw up your body. I wanted to show that performing difficult tasks wasn’t necessarily helpful and I wanted to demonstrate that you NEED to be working super hard on recovery if you want to be the best.

“Weightlifting is an extremely complex topic. Way more than you think. Your high school baseball coach has no business telling you how to lift weights. As a matter of fact, most strength & conditioning coaches and personal trainers have no business telling you how to lift weights,” I said.

During the Q&A portion of the presentation, one of the dad’s in the back asked a GREAT freaking question…

“Three times a week my son and the rest of his team go into the high school weight room and are put through a workout program lead by the high school baseball coach. They do all the stuff you said they shouldn’t do. How do I go about dealing with that?”

 I was surprised by the question and knew I had to be direct with my answer.

I told him that he can try a lot of recovery strategies. Improve nutrition. Concentrate on sleep quality. Do things that can improve recovery. But my real advice was simple…

Wear it and pray!

 You don’t have a choice. It’s not good. I understand your circumstance but the brain doesn’t care. It’s not going to be good. Pray that your son has a knack for your recovery because that coach holds a lot of power over your son’s baseball career. You can’t screw with that but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s probably going to develop bad patterns and increase the amount of bad stress flooding into his system.

The brain just doesn’t care about your circumstances. It’s cut and dry. Black and white. Good luck.

Mindfulness & Meditation

The body runs on memory. When you prepare for the gym, it predicts what it will need to successfully complete your workout. When you are about to take a big test, it makes you nervous because it knows it’s a big deal. And when your anxiety starts to tick up when a cat comes around because you know you’re allergic and you remember what happens when you’re around cats, your body, yet again is operating on memory.

Maybe the best story of this concept that I’ve ever heard comes out of the Australian outback. A guy was walking through the outback when he stepped on a tree branch. It stung a little but no big deal. He kept walking. A few minutes pass and he notices that his foot is a lot more uncomfortable than it should be for stepping on a tree branch. As the discomfort gets worse and worse, he realizes he didn’t step on a tree branch. He had been bitten by one of Australia’s most venomous snakes. He was helicoptered into the hospital while in excruciating pain. The entire, near-death experience was extremely traumatic.

Flash forward a few years later when he was back out in the wilderness, he stepped on another tree branch. This time, it was an actual tree branch and not a deadly serpent. His body reacted off of his memory and he was immediately in horrific pain. Crippled, he fell to his knees and began writhing in pain. His body was sending a signal that this needs IMMEDIATE attention because it remembered what happened last time he felt that.

This is an incredible display of the body’s incredible ability to protect itself. But what happens when this system isn’t working right? What happens when the memory isn’t protecting us at all, rather it’s hurting us?

What if the body’s memory on how to squat is wrong? What if the body signals that it needs pain medication when you have no pain? What if the brain is signaling danger when there is no danger at all. How can we overwrite this faulty programming?

Meditation and mindfulness.

When we can quiet the brain and shut down these thoughts we will operate, not based on memory but based on the way we are supposed operate. If our memory of the past is causing us harm, then the solution lies in the present.

“It takes repeated journeys into the present to let go of the past.”

Focus on your breath. With each breath you can feel the present. You can feel your lungs fill up and empty out.

Pay attention to your body. What do you feel? Not what you think should feel or what you want to feel, what do you feel?

If thoughts creep into your head, that’s fine, that’s normal. It’s going to be hard to shut it down at first. Just accept that the thoughts are there and let them fade away with each breath.