Today I wanted to revisit an older piece titled Coaching Yourself (originally “How to be your own coach”), originally written in 2009 and heavily re-written/re-edited/re-formatted for today. I gotta get those good SEO scores.
Dan John in Salt Lake City
The piece was originally spurred by two occurrences. The first was attending a seminar by Dan John while I was living in Salt Lake City (2005-2010). Called A Philosophy of Strength Training, Dan was asked “How does someone coach themselves?”
Now, I love Dan, he’s one of the best in the industry and knows more than Methuselah (because they hung out). But let’s just say his answers are often…undirected. He wouldn’t disagree with me, by the way. The problem is that he’s got so much information in his head he gets side tracked and forgets the original question. A similar question came up on my support forum (yes, it’s down right now) about the same time so it seemed like a good topic to tackle.
So let’s talk about the difficulties of coaching yourself.
Let’s start with an obvious question: why would someone get coaching to begin with?
Well, coaches can bring a lot to the table for athletes. I won’t address them all here, maybe a future article. The three I want to focus on are technique, motivation and the training process.
Perhaps the most important aspect of good coaching is technical guidance. In many sports, it’s relatively impossible to learn good technique without a coach. Learning the Olympic lifts well can be done but is difficult. Nobody tries to learn how to pole vault or high jump without a coach. Swimming technique is so hard it might as well be impossible. Most people can go run even if most people’s technique is appalling.
And then there’s general weight room activity which is where I tend to put my focus. And where I think it’s far less likely for people to get a coach.
Now I’ve been in the weight room since I was 15 (man, I’m old) and was always a student and obsessive about good technique. And it long bothered me that what I saw people doing in the gym was more wrong than right.
I thought it should be the opposite. That is, I felt that most people should get it right. It didn’t even matter the movement. Squat, deadlift, curl, bench press, triceps. You name it and most did it very poorly.
There were lots of reasons for this and they aren’t relevant here. Also at the time I was watching primarily men since the weight room was very male dominated until very recently. And well men, among their other myriad flaws seem to assume that having a penis gives them expertise in two topics: cars and sports. With sports being inclusive of the weight room. Men seem to think that they just intrinsically know how to lift properly.
Certainly, in 2019, I have seen proportionally more people doing things right. There is more instruction than ever online and some of it is even decent. It’s still not in the majority unless you lift at a hardcore gym with a lot of good lifters teaching everyone coming in the door.
Go to the average commercial gym and you know I’m right. And where it was maybe 95% wrong, 5% right in 2009, it’s maybe 90/10 or 85/15 now. It’s better but most people still do things wrong.
And a coach can help with this, at least in premise Mind you, this presumes that they know what good technique is to begin with. In the weight room, that’s not necessarily a good assumption but let’s go with it. It also presumes they know how to teach it well. This isn’t automatically correct with. People who are good at doing things are often terrible at teaching them.
Irrespective of that I will assume going forwards, probably incorrectly, that you have good technique.
A coach may also bring the ability to motivate to the table. I’ll be honest, when you’re dealing with driven athletes, motivation is rarely the problem. It’s usually the opposite and you have to hold them back. They almost always want to do too much, too hard, too often. A coach’s job is often to rein them in more than the converse.
It’s the reason I never ask someone I’m coaching “Do you want to do another set?” Driven athletes always WANT to do another set. The right question is “Do you think you should do another set?”
What they want to do is often at odds with what they should do.
This isn’t automatically the case with the general trainee or personal training client. In many cases, they need to be pushed a bit since they may not know how to push themselves. This isn’t meant to be a criticism, just an observation. Various studies show that the average trainee doesn’t self-select an intensity anywhere close to being effective. A good trainer can teach folks how to push over time.
I’ll assume here that, like everyone on the Internet, you are internally motivated and work harder than any normal 10 men. That’s what everybody says is the case even though what I see in the gym brings that into question. I’ve seen video of some of the current “experts” in the field and their work sets look like warmups to me.
So if your technique is good and you train harder than any 10 people, what can I possibly tell you about the coaching process? Why might a coach still be useful? If you won’t or can’t get a coach, how can you best coach yourself?
The Training Process
A coach should also be controlling the training process. Volumes, intensities, frequencies, variations, progressions, all that stuff. When to work hard, when to rest. You get the idea.
And in many ways, this tends to be where people falter in coaching themselves. Even if technique is good, even if their drive in the gym is good, this is where they mess it up. It may be in a single workout, or a week’s structure or long-term. But this is where it goes wrong.
They train too often, too hard, with too much volume, never taking a break, etc. And they eventually pay the price with injury, overtraining, burn-out, etc. Something a coach should hopefully prevent.
What’s the problem?
Proximity, Objectivity and Rationalization
There’s an old saying to the effect that ” “A man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.” We might extend this to say “A man who tries to be his own coach has a fool for a athlete.” And there is much truth to that.
I think the reasons are proximity, objectively and rationalization.
By proximity I mean that as your own coach you are too close to the athlete, yourself. Because that makes it impossible for you to be objective about the situation. Which leads you to rationalize that what you want to do is what you should do.
It’s far easier to be objective about other people. But it’s damn near impossible to be objective about yourself or even someone you have a close emotional bond with. Everyone reading this has been in a bad relationship, one that you’d tell someone else to get out of. But somehow they justify why it’s ok for them to stay while someone else should leave.
Doctors, by and large, can’t treat themselves. They can’t be objective. Most can’t (or shouldn’t) treat their family. Because the emotional connection means that they aren’t able to be cold, clinical and objective to make the right decision. The same likely holds true for a lawyer. You can’t represent yourself because you can’t be objective about what really happened or how to be present it to the judge to get away with it.
And most lack the same type of objectivity for their own training.
Things that, as a coach you would NEVER let someone else do (or your coach wouldn’t let you do), you will choose to do yourself. You rationalize. You’re different. You’re special. Your situation is different and unique to everyone else in the world.
I have long joked “What separates man from the animals is the ability to rationalize.” It’s no joke.
When it comes to the gym, or dieting, or what not, you are not different. You just think you are.
Unless you’re one of a few exceptions, usually athletes with endless experience, you can’t coach yourself. You can’t be objective. And you’ll be too busy rationalization why the excellent advice you’d give only applies to everyone else.
Coaches Coaching Themselves
I’ve talked to many coaches over the years, guys with decades of experience and world level athletes. To a one they tell me “I can’t coach myself. The things I’d never let an athlete do, I’ll find myself doing.”
So they may be proponents of low-volume, high-quality training. And yet when training themselves, they add a set here , a set there, an exercise here, you get it. Suddenly they are doing twice the volume of their athletes.
It holds for technique too. If you were coaching someone and saw their technique falling apart or bar speed dropping you’d stop them. A coach would do it for you. And yet in your own training, you keep on going. The workout says do X and by god you’re doing X and maybe a little extra.
Perhaps my only major injury in my career happened because of this. I was deadlifting with 2X5 as the goal. On my second set, I felt my form breaking on rep 3. And kept going. I was getting those last 2 reps. With the end result being a strained lumbar ligament. I lost 9 months of training and it still bothers me to this day from time to time. At least it wasn’t a career ender.
And it happened because I did something I’d never let anybody else do.
Mind you, this is a lot of how people who eventually becomes coaches learn. Usually you break yourself a few times as an athlete. Then you break your first few athletes because you don’t know what you’re doing. And hopefully you eventually learn not to do that.
I would do the same thing dieting. I’d change something every 3 days, keep messing with it and never give anything long enough to work. The same things I told everyone else never to do. But I’d justify and rationalize it in various amusing ways.
And the solution I came up with was to ask people in my online social circle to email me every so often and go “Are you sticking with the plan?” I didn’t want to tell them “no” so I stopped being my own worst enemy.
This actually one “solution” to being your own coach I suppose, having external accountability. This is predicated on not finding someone who tells you what you want to hear of course. But at that point why not hire a coach? Because it still presumes that your overall training approach isn’t completely wrong to begin with. And that’s not usually the case.
Now I could stop here and the message of the article would be “Don’t be your own coach.” But that’s not helpful. So let me off two potentially useful strategies to at least help to save you from yourself. For how you might be able to coach yourself without screwing it up too badly.
Self-Coaching Solution 1
The first solution to the problems of coaching myself I came up with all by myself. I’m very proud of it and it only took me about 10 years of screwing my own training up. So I might be in the gym lifting or doing intervals on the bike or whatever the specifics of the workout are. And no matter what I am determined to do the workout as written.
And that solution is to ask myself:
If I were coaching someone else in this situation, what would I tell them to do?
Oh so simple but still effective. By putting it on those terms, I forced myself to take a step away from the situation to try to be objective, or at least more so. What would I advise someone else in this exact situation?
Because if the answer to what I think I should do is different than what I’d tell them to do, there’s a problem. If I can’t come up with a GOOD reason why I should do something different, then I shouldn’t do it.
That reason can’t be “Because I wanna.” I mean a good physiological or objective reason why I should do something I wouldn’t have anybody else do. If I can’t, that’s the answer: I do what I’d tell them to do.
If that means stopping the workout for the day, spinning down, moving to another exercise or whatever, that’s what I’d do. Putting it in those terms makes it no longer an issue of what I want or think I should do. It’s what I’d have someone else do.
It forces objectivity even if it makes me unhappy.
You can use this in a lot of situations. Consider the relationship one. You’re in a bad relationship and can’t see it. So ask yourself “If someone else described this exact situation to me, what would I tell them to do.” Usually it’s “Get out.”
Well that’s what you should do even as you justify and rationalize the difference between them and yourself. Which you’re doing because of your emotional investment and connection to your partner (or just not wanting to stop getting laid regularly).
Self-Coaching Solution 2
From 2005 to 2010 I pursued ice speed skating in Salt Lake City, Utah. And within a few months of being there, hired a coach. The sport was technically absurd, I didn’t understand the physiology and he was the man.
He had nearly 30 years of coaching experience and had done what I described above. He broke himself as an athlete in his youth, training 3 times per day 7 days per week. I’m sure he broke his first few athletes. Three decades later, he knew his stuff.
He had his own solution to the “coaching yourself problem” And his approach leaves even less wiggle room than mine.
In his opinion, asking the question provided the answer.
So say you’re in the weight room, or doing bike intervals, or flying laps or starts on the ice. If you even have the thought “Should I do this next set, repeat, lap?” you have your answer. And that answer is always no.
He felt, rightfully in most situations, that if you have any doubt about the intelligence of doing something in training, you shouldn’t. Your brain has doubts. Your brain is probably smarter than you are.
Just listen to your brain and not do it. Invariably it’s that next set, that next interval, that next start or lap that gets you injured. Or pushes you over the edge to overtraining. The presence of doubt means you should stop.
This is even more important when you consider that by the time you get to the doubt stage, you’ve probably gotten a training effect. If a speed skater has done 6 standing starts, they have done enough to improve. That 7th, that they have doubt about, might get them a bit more. Or it might get them hurt and lose them months of training.
Charlie Francis talked about this a lot, how it was better to undertrain than overtrain. Because doing 90% of your maximum volume will make you improve over time. Fine, maybe a little slower than doing that last 10%. But doing 100%+ will eventually break you. This isn’t a race. Ok, well sprinting is a race. You know what I mean.
Again, for the general public, this doesn’t work so well on average. In many cases they don’t want to train (or train hard in the first place). I KNOW THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS. If you let them stop whenever they doubt working out, they won’t ever show up.
I also know some coaches believe in “working through the darkness” and just pushing through until you adapt. They are typically using programs predicated on maxing all the time. But they tend to leave out that this approach breaks most people along with lying about their athlete’s drug use.
I’d mention another approach of my coach’s, perhaps even smarter. The simple fact is that most of us draw up training programs that would kill the most elite athletes that exist. More is better, right? That’s what more means.
In that vein he advised:
Take the training program you wrote up and cut it in half.
Because that invariably ended up being about the right actual workload. My coach was hella smart.
Coaching yourself is difficult as hell. Even if your technique is good and you have the training drive of any 10 normal men, you will probably screw it up in terms of the training process.
It can be done, moreso if you use the strategies above.