The most effective coaches are the ones that can clearly communicate with clients and help them learn the necessary skills to accomplish their goals — not the ones with the fanciest program.
Ineffective communication can kill a good workout. Coaches and trainers often feel like they’ve given a great demonstration or cue, only to be met with blank stares. Use these tips to improve your communication and keep your clients engaged during a training session.
1. Prepare your demonstrations.
Some of the most important cues are the ones that don’t come out of your mouth. Sight is one of our fundamental senses, which is why good demonstrations will make you a better coach.
If you give verbal cues in a long string without a demonstration, your clients won’t be able to tell what’s important, leaving them lost and confused. To help clients learn the proper movement pattern, give a crisp demonstration while using cues to call their attention to one or two specific areas.
Make sure your demonstration is error-free. Poor demonstrations outweigh even the best cues because clients will copy what they see before they think about what they’ve heard.
2. Plan your coaching cues.
Don’t waste time explaining unfamiliar anatomy and physiology terms. Instead, provide meaningful feedback with external cues. External cues don’t mention any part of the body and often use metaphors to help the client relate the cue to their everyday life.
Here’s an example for the concentric portion of a split squat: “Move the weights in a straight line back to the top by making a big footprint in the mud as you push into the ground in the front.” Notice that we cued three things here:
1. Keep your weight on your front leg.
2. Use your whole foot, not just the ball of your foot.
3. Don’t let back extension be the first movement you make to get back to the top.
This type of cue will be more accessible to your clients because you’re using terms that they understand: straight line, footprint, mud, push, and ground. The best coaches can communicate obscure information in an accessible way.
3. Build on instincts.
Trying to make your clients interpret everything you say before they get moving slows down the learning process. Help them instinctively learn and solve issues by creating automatic responses through position, pattern, and power.
Position – Adjusting the position of your client’s body can automatically influence range of motion and stability during exercise. For example, adding a heel lift during a squat can improve ankle and hip mobility and lower back stability.
Pattern – You can use your client’s innate impulses to focus on movement patterns. Try using an external weight to make your client’s brain naturally troubleshoot a more efficient movement pattern. The key is that the weight is just heavy enough to help them feel problems with the movement without overloading them.
Power – Help your clients instinctively optimize their intensity by introducing elements of competition, either with others or with their own past performance. This can push them to increase their efforts in strength or speed.
The key is to find the right combination of position, pattern, and power for your specific client and the specific movement. Customizing your approach can help clients use their body’s natural instincts to reach goals faster.
4. Fix movement errors.
There are two sources of feedback: internal feedback the client feels and external feedback from you. Limit external feedback to only a third of the time to make clients responsible for recognizing internal signals before you step in.
After you’ve given them a chance to think through the internal feedback, give positive, noncontrolling feedback. Praise the effort the client made while encouraging further self-analysis of the movement during subsequent reps.
For example, let’s say your client is struggling during a single-leg Romanian deadlift. You can tell them, “Great job staying flat like a table at the bottom of those last two reps. Next time, let’s pause for two seconds at the bottom to make sure you’re able to push the ground on your way back up to the top.”
Notice that we did three things here:
1. We praised the effort the client made.
2. We reinforced our instruction with the externally focused cue “flat like a table.”
3. We encouraged further introspection by adding the pause.
5. Prepare your clients for the future.
The best coaching cues remove you from the equation so your client can learn and master the movement on their own. If your client needs you to coach them through every movement to do it properly, then you haven’t done your job.
Think of yourself as a resource to help your clients build knowledge. You only have them for an hour a day, so you need to optimize your cues to allow them to succeed during the other 23 hours. Focus on giving them the foundation they need to succeed in the future.
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