5 Traits of a Successful Coach

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Ask ten different people their opinion on what traits or characteristics make for a great or successful (strength) coach and you’re bound to get ten different answers and iterations.

Some will use adjectives like strong, experienced, knowledgable, professional, motivating, or destroy the back of my pants scary.

Others will use less germane markers such as bald, has an epic beard, fights rap moguls, or sleeps with a copy of SuperTraining underneath his or her’s pillow at night.

All are important – some more so than others – and all can be used to describe many strength coaches – or any kind of coach for that matter. What’s more: it’s not an exhaustive list.

Today, though, I’d like to cover some less obvious characteristics I feel constitutes a great (strength) coach and/or personal trainer. Some are based off of my own personal experiences (Read: baldness), while others fall into the camp of “it’s true because it’s my blog.”  And, because I said so.

1. Coaches Coach

Seems like an obvious point to start with, right? But it amazes me how many “coaches” out there don’t train anybody. Like, ever. In real life.

Such is the paradox of the technological age we live in. The internet has made everyone into an “expert” or authority all because they 1) say it in their byline or as part of their “About Me” page.1 or 2) have “x” number of followers on social media.

Listen, having thousands of followers on Twitter or Instagram is impressive. Anytime you have that many people interested in what you have to say, you’re obviously doing something right.

But don’t call yourself a coach or “expert” if you’re not actually coaching people.

And this is where things get little murky. The weeds get a little higher.

This isn’t to disrespect or devalue those who make a living doing more online “coaching.” I understand that sites and apps like YouTube, Skype, FaceTime, and Periscope have made the barrier to interaction much less cumbersome.

I have many friends and colleagues who do really well for themselves coaching people in a distance based fashion. They’re able to help more people this way, and they get people results. I can’t bemoan that.

I do it too.

However, I also still spend 25 hours per week at the facility coaching athletes and clients. In person. That’s still very important to me. It keeps me fresh and on my toes. Moreover, if I’m going to sit here and write blog posts and articles about how to train people, I sure as shit better be practicing what I preach. There’s a degree of integrity that comes with the territory.

I’m willing to bet there are many smart people on the internet who would probably suffocate in an avalanche of fail if asked to coach and troubleshoot someone’s deadlift technique in person. Yet they’re an expert.

Pfffffft, whatever.

2. Embrace Your Coaching Style

I think many people who come to Cressey Sports Performance to observe are surprised to recognize that none of the staff is too “Rah Rah” with their approach.

Sure, we’ll get animated, crank up the music, and pump people up when it’s needed and warranted. But for the most part we’re a pretty civil bunch of coaches.

I’ve spoken to this topic at length in past with my popular two-part article Confessions of an Introverted Strength Coach PART I and PART II.

To be clear: no one – coaches included – is 100% introverted or extroverted. We’re a mix-n-match of the two. What I find unfortunate is that it’s the more introverted side of the spectrum that tends to get the shaft.

Introversion is often seen as aloofness or worse, a weakness. When all it really means is that some people are “mentally drained” in more social environments and need a little more “me time” to re-charge.

As such, those who are more introverted are often forced to be something they’re not. Much to the detriment of their comfort level, happiness, and career success.

Extroversion – while having its own set of advantages AND disadvantages – is seen as a strength and preferred trait in our society.

We introverts have a TON to offer as coaches, and I’d encourage anyone who falls into this camp to embrace their introversion, understand that compromises are going to have to be made, and that preferring to hang out with your cat on a Friday night is total boss status.

3. Pull Coaching vs. Push Coaching

Pigging back on the previous point, CSP coach Tony Bonvechio brought up a really neat concept I never heard before this past weekend during our annual Fall Seminar.

Well first he nailed home the point on how using more EXTERNAL cues when coaching is far superior to using INTERNAL cues – especially when working with beginner and intermediate level lifters.

To Summarize:

Internal Cues = specific bodily actions or what it’s doing in space.

External Cues = intent, distance, or an action.

Exercise                                    Internal Cue                            External Cue

Deadlift                                       “Chest up.”                                   “Show me the logo on your shirt.”

Squat                                            “Knees out.”                                 “Spread the floor.”

Bench Press                                 “Arch your back.”                       “Meet the bar halfway.”

Sprinting                                      “Extend your hip.”                      “Push the ground away.”

The part which I felt was really cool, however, was the idea of “Pull” coaching vs. “Push” coaching.

Pull Coaching = Helping someone solve their own problems….Listening to understand, asking questions, paraphrasing, suggesting options.

Push Coaching = Solving someone’s problems for them…Telling, instructing, giving advice.

Both scenarios enter the picture and have a time and place, but I’d argue we need more of the former compared to the latter. As a coach I want to EDUCATE my athletes and clients to be their own best asset. I don’t want them to have to rely on me for everything.

I think far too many coaches and personal trainers push at the expense of pull…and empower their athletes and clients to have the luxury to do things on their own.

4. Insatiable Desire to Get Better

Dan John sits in the front row whenever he attends a workshop or seminar. Mike Boyle still attends numerous events every year and is never afraid to backtrack or admit when he’s wrong. Robert dos Remedios is the same. Eric Cressey just bragged the other day he’s listened to 25 books on Audible this year.

With the exception of Eric, all have 25-30+ years of coaching experience, and all are still striving to get better.

Who in the holy f**k are you?

You’ve got it all figured out huh? No need to continue to learn from others, right? It’s YOUR way or the highway. Got it.


5. Lets Stop With the “Grinding” and “Hustling”

I’m so sick of seeing stuff like this:

We see them on Facebook all the time. The “Grinders.” The ones who are soooooo busy and soooooo swamped and have sooooooo much more of a work ethic than everyone else.

Then why are you on Facebook telling everyone about it all the time?

Listen, I can appreciate people with work ethic. And I’ll be the first one to champion hard work and the notion that nothing happens without some degree of sacrifice and inconvenience.

But please, spare us the inspirational quotes and grandstanding because you happened to get up before 6 AM two days in a row or, I don’t know, haven’t eaten a carb since Saturday.

Grinding is four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Grinding is raising a child as a single parent. Grinding is going through intensive chemotherapy and still putting a smile on your face.

It has nothing to do with bragging about training eight clients in one day.

Speaking of which:

Trust me: you’re NOT the same coach at the end of the day as you are at the start. Which speaks to what kind of coach you are at the end of the week if you’re someone who’s more concerned with quantity of sessions over quality.

It’s not a coincidence most trainers/coaches putter out after two years. They hate life.

I understand if bills needs to be paid, but be cognizant that there are only a finite number of hours where you’re an affective coach and where you’ll inevitably burn out. There’s is a healthy balance.

And when you find it, you can spare us the grandiose notifications on your wall.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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  1. I always roll my eyes when I see the words “expert” or “world renowned” is someone’s bio. I don’t know about you, but the only thing I’m an “expert” in is peeing standing up (and being awesome). Worse is when you see those words describing someone who’s been in the industry for three months. I also love it when people think they’re the shiznit and call themselves a “celebrity trainer,” as if that actually means anything. Oh, what’s that? You trained so and so once, five years ago? WOW! Excuse me while I go pleasure myself.

Comments for This Entry

  • Tster

    Hate to be that guy, but I've put a lot of work into my website TalkSupplement.com recently -- I promise there's some good content up there!

    September 15, 2015 at 1:41 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Rachel

    As a newer coach, I struggle with finding the appropriate amount of cueing in trying to promote client autonomy. I'm quite extroverted so I have no trouble speaking up, but I also really believe in the value of teaching others to be independent so I don't like to constantly cue. I've shadowed/worked with more experienced coaches who will cue over me if I am being quiet. In those times, I've been a little frustrated because it's not that I didn't know any cue they said but that I simply didn't want to bark commands. I guess my point is that it's been a little difficult for me to be able to assert my coaching skills/knowledge while at the same time not hand-hold. Do you have any advice for finding your style as a new coach?

    September 15, 2015 at 3:38 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      It's important to recognize your client's learning preference as well. Some are more auditory learners. Some prefer kinesthetic. Some are visual. Some are a mix and match of a few. I find that less is more. Try this: limit yourself to only giving THREE cues when teaching a new exercise. Of course you'll have too adjust as you go, but I do feel many coaches get too fancy with how they cue exercises, which only confuses things. And, some clients will HATE to be over-cued.

      September 15, 2015 at 4:41 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Kyle Schuant

    Interesting point about the pull style of discussion, one of those things we might do without thinking about it, but if we do think about it will do better.

    September 15, 2015 at 7:22 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Very true. Both have merit and their advantages/disadvantages. I do feel the "pull" style is more beneficial in the long run. Sorta like teaching some how to fish.

      September 16, 2015 at 7:08 am | Reply to this comment

      • Kyle Schuant

        This ties into Rachel's comments above. With every movement, with every routine we give, there are some things we need to get right straight away, but other things which we can leave to later, some of which the person will probably figure out for themselves given time. So this is debatable: assuming the fault won't injure them, is it better to fix it NOW in one session, or wait 3 sessions for them to figure it out themselves? How about 3 weeks? 3 months? And so on. I think as with the load so with the technique, a bit better each time is good enough. Just going on with what Rachel's said, I'd be on her side. Don't chivvy the poor bugger.

        September 16, 2015 at 7:58 am | Reply to this comment

        • TonyGentilcore

          Which goes back to what I said as #1. Coaches, coach. We need to COACH our clients, be more hands-on, proactive, etc. But at the same time, sometimes, we just need to chill out with all the cueing and prodding and allow them to figure things out for themselves. Too, this is why we have regressions and progressions. If someone can't back squat due to shoulder mobility issues (as an example), adjust. Adjust the lift to the lifter so they can be successful, not vice versa.

          September 17, 2015 at 9:37 am | Reply to this comment

          • Kyle Schuant

            Of course. Your comment on the squat reminds me of a story I always tell lifters, since at the beginning they get a bit overexcited with it all. It goes like this. Much is made of the differences between famous coaches, I'm more interested in what they have in common. There's a vid of Dan John and Rippetoe talking, and it comes up, one advocates front squats, the other back squats. OMG why the difference?! Who's right?! Well, I think Rip is, BUT... let's look at this. One says front squat. The other says back squat. Front, back, which... wait, what do they have in common? They BOTH say: YOU GOTTA SQUAT The overlap between the great systems, that's where the good stuff is.

            September 18, 2015 at 9:21 am

  • Gary H

    Number 5, huge pet peeve. You just lost a follower if I see for the millionth time another inspirational quote. Rise and grind? You mean wake up and go to work because you're a responsible adult and need to are fortunate to be a fitness professional for a living?! #endofrant

    September 16, 2015 at 1:51 am | Reply to this comment

  • James Fitzgerald

    i'd add another trait that might trump more than others - RESULTS; after all, who are we to say what is or what is not "proper" coaching if the client is safe, has fun, is consistent, AND improves in more ways than just one... there are a lot of online trainers who can get results with the right audience because they in fact teach that client how to eat, survive and fend for themselves, and in that case, i think that trait is admirable - to teach others how to train themselves....with results

    September 17, 2015 at 10:36 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Of course James. Couldn't agree more. Which is why I made a note of saying I know plenty of people who are very successful doing online training. I do it too. Getting results is king. I figured that that was an obvious point, and I wanted to highlight some other "traits" not many other people talk about. If you took offense to me calling out online trainers, I apologize. That wasn't my intent.

      September 17, 2015 at 10:51 am | Reply to this comment

      • James Fitzgerald

        no offense taken at all (although we are trying to fix that area - of balance in online and in person "work" and what the market perceives vs. what is legitimate) understood on the other traits and agreed thank you for responding onward

        September 17, 2015 at 11:11 am | Reply to this comment

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