Methods & Madness: Developing A Coaching Philosophy Outside Sports

When I first started working as a strength & conditioning coach, I thought the keys to becoming an effective and respected physical preparation specialist was through experience in performance sports and being able to keep up with my athletes physically.

I’ll be the first in line to admit I was wrong about that.

I’ve seen some truly abysmal examples of coaching in my athletic career; coaches who governed instead of lead, produced results out of fear instead of respect, lacked engagement beyond the pitch or the weightroom, and gave the feeling that they didn’t give two shits if you died a miserable death once you left practice as long as you resurrected in time to train tomorrow.

But I have also had the honour of seeing really exceptional examples of coaching. Those who lead in front and from behind, those who take responsibility, those who invest deeply, those who are constantly looking for creative solutions to difficult problems, those who will stop at nothing to pursue excellence for and with their team, and those who care.

So, from the day I entered the weightroom in a green George Mason University Athletics polo shirt instead of my grey t-shirt, I knew it was up to me to design my own philosophy and take responsibility for how the athletes in my care respond and learned from me.

Baby Coach Julia & Co. in Year 1 at George Mason… I truly will never understand why we needed to wear khakis, but I’m thankful that my hair, eyebrows, and acne have been redeemed since then!

Baby Coach Julia & Co. in Year 1 at George Mason… I truly will never understand why we needed to wear khakis, but I’m thankful that my hair, eyebrows, and acne have been redeemed since then!

But, as a baby coach who had only seen high-performance sport from the view of an athlete, I was scared as hell and tried to mask it with confidence.

In effect, I wound up looking very arrogant for a smooth minute.

I quickly learned that, when you coach in a weight room for a living, you miss out on development.

Because development is actually not at all about the seminars, the schooling, the amount of alphabet soup on the back of your name when you send an email. It’s not about the number of years you’ve coached, at which level, and which CEUs you last took.

Learning and experience in coaching are very important. But they’re not everything.

(In fact, I’ve seen a strength & conditioning intern host a better session on the pitch than a well-respected head coach with a 20+ year career, simply because he knew how to earn respect and communicate.)

The single most important part of of my career has been learning from the outside.

At the end of the day, being either a strength & conditioning coach or a psychologist has very little to do with how much I know and how my methods can help.

It has a LOT to do with how I communicate with my athletes, work to earn their trust, adapt to their needs, and care about them.

More often than not, that means shutting up, listening well, and sticking to basics, not flexing about who I worked with last weekend or trying something brand new in the middle of the season because I just learned it at a seminar.

That’s become my coaching philosophy: basics, communication, and care.

And that philosophy has developed more every time I learned something new, both inside and outside the weightroom.

It developed from reading, experiencing, and trying other things in normal life outside of sport. And, as someone who loves words, meanings, and values, much of my philosophy has been influenced by quotes from great thinkers and those I respect.

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Some Favorites:

From Claude Kelly: “If you’re alive, there’s something for you to learn”.

It’s not about putting your head down and hiding out in the weightroom, about proving yourself amongst the weightstacks, and closing oneself into the performance world exclusively. Isolating myself to a performance context didn’t make me better. It started to make me narrow-minded.

From Simon Sinek: “Value is the transference of trust. You have to earn it by communicating that you share the same values and beliefs.”

It’s not unusual for athletes to come in questioning why we have to do something (especially here in Germany, where S&C is chaotic disaster zone and thrown out faster than a rotting banana). Giving an Executive Order of “yes, we are indeed lifting/sprinting/conditioning; if you don’t want to do it, you can leave and explain that to Coach” is the nuclear option and should not be in regular use. Taking the time to prove myself as a coach and to gain trust comes with the territory of working in new situations with new athletes and making a difference. And one of the fastest ways to prove competence, build confidence, and earn trust is to take the time to explain why we’re doing something, why it matters/how it helps, and address concerns or questions.

My goal is to help my athletes stay healthy and perform at maximum capacity. Not shockingly, that’s what they want as well. When we both realize that we are on the same page, it makes asking a player to start lifting or to change their sprint technique a lot easier.

From Brené Brown: “People are hard to hate up close. Move in.”

This changed how I work with coaches. People in sports can be REALLY petty and insecure. But it’s hard to be upset with them when you see them as simply human. They, too, probably feel isolated and stressed and overworked and not entirely sure what they’re doing. A lot of the words and attitudes are insecurities and defensiveness on display. Just be a good human to everyone and don’t take it personally.

From Roxanne Gay: “Refuse to pull up the ladder when you make it to the top” & from Rupi Kaur: “I stand on the sacrifices of a million women before me thinking ‘what can I do to make this mountain taller so the women after me can see farther?’ Legacy.”

These two were big ones for me, especially as a female in a very aggressive and historically male-dominated field. I am honoured to stand on the shoulders of women who worked hard and sacrificed before I arrived in the sports world. I want others to stand on mine. I want them to find benefit in and use for my work. I want people to “steal” my ideas (within legal reason) - it means they were worth copying.

That’s the point. When one of us wins, we all do.

From Kid Fury/Greg Smith: “Mind the business that pays you”.

Having been an athlete, I was used to the noise. But I wasn’t prepared for the kind of noise and petty competition that exists in high-performance coaching and the politics of the sport industry on the administrative side. There’s a LOT of mess in performance sport. I learned quickly that, if it isn’t relevant to my job or the health of my athletes or if doesn’t pay the bills, it doesn’t concern me or deserve my energy. Forget about the petty shit.

From Benjamin Hardy: “Lukewarm means you have nothing to say. Lukewarm means you’re trying to appeal to everyone.”

Breaking into the industry is tough. It’s like rookie year all over again, and it’s certainly not the time when you want to stand up for or against something to people who have been doing your job a lot longer than you.

However, it comes back to values. If you want to make a difference, if you want to be authentic, if you want to learn and grow and change, you have to have a value system and hold to it. A lot of times that will mean speaking your mind and sometimes going against the systems in place. And, often, you’ll be hit with resistance. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It means you’re doing something according to your values.

Lastly, from Reagan Gomez: “‘No’ is a complete sentence.”

Stop justifying everything. Just say “no” when that’s what you mean. Justifying opens up discussion, gives the illusion to others that you can be debated or argued out of your opinion or statement. Just no. Period.

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If I could go back and talk to myself as a baby coach, right before I walked into the weightroom in that hideous green Nike polo, I would tell her to love her time in the weightroom but to get out of it as much as possible, to live a lot, to learn everywhere and from everyone, to shut up and just listen to what people are really telling you, and to always stick to the basics (because they always work) for as long as she can.

Put down the textbooks and stop watching YouTube videos about Biomechanics and programming according to energy systems. You don’t have to conquer Rome in one day. Read something else. Talk to somebody who is better at something than you. Go outside more.

Oh, and also, lay off the Starbucks. Your $18,000/year salary is going mostly to tuition, gas, and work shoes anyway - wake up 5 minutes earlier and make that coffee at home, kid!