Coach or Trainer?

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By: Gym Jones

This is a daily post from the Salvation site back in April 2011 cross-posted here to give an idea of the type of content available on the membership site.

Coach or Trainer … or Neither
Some events and conversation over the last few days has got me thinking about the role and responsibility of the trainer or coach. To me these are two very different "jobs", with coach being far more personal, and intimate, which is what I will focus on here.

A coach and mentor is a very special individual in one's life. He or she assumes enormous responsibility whenever speaking to the trainee. As a climber I was fortunate to spend time with my mentors 24/7, often we were under a lot of stress in the mountains. I also worked side by side with one of them so we got to know each other very well indeed. All of my mentors knew me. They depended on me. They were my leaders and role models. Our interaction earned them the right to suggest things like, "you need to quit lifting weights and climb more instead" or, "you need to get out of the Cascades and go to where the big boys are playing" or, "if you want to improve you should move here and work for us and train in a more rigorous environment." When they said those things I respected them, and usually complied because I knew they were invested in me; they would facilitate whatever the objective was, and share responsibility for making it happen.

A coach unwilling to do that is a coach in name only, which makes him or her a trainer. Not less, not worse, but different by way of commitment.

I hear runners and cyclists and fitness enthusiasts talk about their on-line, remote coaches and how great it is to be held accountable, and to be told what to do and when. I can't argue with that because a remote training relationship can be an effective means to ensure compliance. But I do object when the trainee waxes poetic about how the on-line coach cares, and listens and understands, and how the training is individualized based on the after-action reports and data submitted by the athlete to the trainer, etc. This usually lasts until the trainee receives the first email with someone else's name in the header, suggesting a mass, auto-fill workout prescription. Or maybe it lasts until the trainee and trainer meet in person or talk on the phone and it is clear the "coach" has no idea who the trainee is or what he/she has done/not done in the recent days or weeks. This is not coaching. It is a few steps above counting reps but it isn't coaching in the style of Percy Cerutty, Woody Hayes, or John Wooden.

My current project reminded me of the coach's responsibility. A wise, experienced mentor can shape the course of an athletic career, of a life, especially if the coach truly cares. Not all do, or can. But when a coach earns the respect and trust of the athlete, when a coach proves the student is worth his energy and attention by trusting him or her there is no length to which the pair cannot go ensemble. Care must be taken though. The relationship is intimate. Words cannot be thrown away. Topics and timing must be chosen carefully because in the right post-workout condition, when hormones and endorphins are flowing the athlete is very susceptible. At this time there is a direct pipeline to the brain, to the soul. Whatever is said must be the right thing to say.

Lisa, Rob, Johnny, James and Michael are all very good coaches because they do care. They lead. They inspire. They cajole, hint, educate, push, pull ... and they are careful. They also do what must be done, which often means telling a student what no one else is willing to tell them. Gym Jones is that kind of place.

This brings me back to the notion of remote training and whether it is effective beyond a certain level. What we do in the gym is very effective because we control the environment, which affects the outcome. We shape the relationships, casting different trainees with different, appropriate coaches. And while we do engage in remote training, for the most part the trainees have attended seminars or private mini-camps prior to establishing the remote relationship. Knowing them personally and having developed the terms of communication is the key to effectively guiding what they do on their own.

Most remote training is not done in this way and is therefore limited. A virtual trainer should never make big, life-changing suggestions about diet, training, focus, etc. The trainer doesn't know how the words will be received, what condition the athlete is in when he reads the email, or how much the words weigh according to whatever misconceptions each has regarding the relationship. It's too easy to throw words away on the internet. There is no consequence, and no visible reaction. We can't share tone or feel the tension in a pause while the listener searches for the appropriate response. We can't see the eyes or appreciate posture. These missing pieces doom a virtual coaching relationship to the closed on-ramp where all such relationships either end or change. Without care, or without accurate communication the potentially life-changing relationship between coach and athlete can only go so far. A coach must be leader, diplomat, psychologist, antagonist, supporter and friend on top of his or her expertise at adjusting volume, intensity and means. Training within a true coach-athlete relationship goes far beyond picking stuff up and putting it down.

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