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September 15, 2016 • Strength & Conditioning

Powerline: The art of strength coaching

There is a powerful, profound line in the United States Marine Corps Manifesto entitled, Earned — Never Given: “You will not be measured by how much you have, but by how much of yourself you’re willing to give.” It’s a mindset that has monumental implications in the USMC’s daily commitment to honor, duty and courage.

strength-gymThat hard-hitting statement also applies to athletes and coaches, even though the bottom lines are not matters of life and death. As strength and conditioning coaches, we must hold true to the standards that provide the basis for the art of our craft.

The strength and conditioning field is at a high point regarding the influx and utilization of evidence-based data. As recent as 25 years ago, though science was certainly testing the credibility and reliability of the various procedures and protocols in place, there was still a relative paucity of substantial scientific research. Today, peer-reviewed journals from many different fitness-related disciplines are inundated with new material. The sports science industry has become more than an adjunct luxury; it has now burgeoned into a must-have commodity.

In light of all of this, I’m still reminded of the words of the former Cincinnati Bengals’ strength and conditioning coach Kim Wood: “Strength training is as much an art as it is a science.”

Power of the profession

The strength and conditioning setting is one in which feedback should be ongoing. Athletes need this vital constituent of learning for improved performance over time.

We are blessed in this profession to be afforded quality time with the athletes. Communication regarding the importance of academics, guidance in their pursuits outside of sports, and overall direction in life matters are mainstays in our profession. It’s one of the true pluses of the field.

In the training environment, we must build a unified, cohesive and well-understood playbook on feedback. Today’s athletes thrive on communication, and they want to know how they are doing and what needs improvement.

Here are some key reasons validating feedback:

  • Provides positive reinforcement. For example, “Great job with your posture on that set of squats. Your feet, hips and back were properly set. Your heels were flat and the depth was on-point. Great drive and head/shoulder lead from the bottom position, and excellent job maintaining a big chest and neutral head position.”

That’s a lot of information, but it runs parallel to our teaching cues in the learning phase. Inserted in this feedback should be those short teaching cues during the actual execution of the movement — “hinge the hips,” “spread the floor with your feet,” “press the heels to the floor.”

  • Informs the learner. Specific information on the execution of a lift, drill or position-specific movement is crucial to both the current performance and future attempts. Athletes will store this information in their motor memory centers for future recall.
  • Motivates the learner. When initiated in a consecutive manner, feedback provides the incentive to achieve better performance levels.

For example, “You’ve made tremendous progress in your stance, start and running mechanics for the 40-yard dash. As a result, you’ve knocked one-tenth of a second off your last personal best. I can see you having one of the better times in your position group in the near future.”

This feedback provides both detailed reasons for improvements and an incentive to stay on track with the techniques and mechanics that resulted in those improvements. The take home point here is that feedback should be constant, consistent and meaningful.

Valued feedback

There are two basic categories in play here. The first is intrinsic feedback, which provides each athlete with cognitive and neural information on the correctness of movement patterns of any specific skill. This is especially true of the sensory interpretations of the movement; i.e., the feeling of limb positioning, body posturing, in addition to visual and auditory cues that may accompany its execution.

The second is extrinsic feedback, known as augmented feedback. It consists of information that’s sent to athletes from an external source, such as a coach’s verbal cues. It’s an important segment of feedback, as the coach can intervene immediately with corrective measures.

When feedback centers on the correction of errors, the coach should attempt to pinpoint the biggest miscues early in the learning process. A gradual reduction in errors will prevent a lapse in overall performance, especially in consequent attempts.

» MORE: A tribute to the strength of coaches

This is known as summary feedback, where a set of trials (or repetitions) are reviewed for critique. The rationale here is to encourage the athlete to analyze his or her own performances and verbalize it to the coach. Both the coach and player will come away with a better understanding of what is being learned.

Here are some final thoughts on feedback:

  • Be positive. Look for things that are being done correctly, and acknowledge them frequently.
  • Provide immediate feedback. The less time that passes, especially in error correction, the better chance you have of the information sticking with the athlete.
  • Correct one error at a time. Attempting to correct too many errors at one time can confuse the athlete and be detrimental.
  • Use both group and individual feedback. John Wooden once said, “Criticize the group, praise the individual.” The occasional use of group feedback reduces the perception that you are persistently picking on a small contingent of players.
  • Be specific. Give precise, meaningful and useful information in an easy-to-understand format.

The average person has a limited ability to acquire, store and recall detailed data on a specific task. That’s why it’s so important to develop a library of short, to-the-point teaching cues that fit your system. Most importantly, these cues should be used universally among the entire coaching staff for appropriate carry-over.

Relationship building

The majority of strength coaches are value-strong men and women with a positive approach to developing athletes.

When negativism rears its ugly head from do-nothing, weak-minded individuals, strength coaches are the first line of defense. This is due to our daily, weekly, monthly and yearly interaction with the individuals and teams we coach.

I can say that our profession is immersed with good, courageous people who make a selfless, positive impact on young people. They bring an unbelievable work ethic and inspiring attitude to their craft. They’re wonderful role models for their athletes — a trait that represents our most profound duty.

Our field is about tough coaches who never get caught-up in the hype, fluff and nonsense that suffocates athletics. There is no better platform for building life-long relationships in any segment of the coaching profession than that of strength and conditioning.

In every sense of the term, regardless of the level of competition, strength coaches are men and women who are built for others.


Ken Mannie is the head strength and conditioning coach Michigan State University. His column, Powerline, appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine. 


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