How to Be Your Own Coach

Many months ago, I attended part of Dan John’s excellent A Philosophy of Strength Training seminar held here in Salt Lake City as part of Dave Draper Days (if you’re interested, there’s a 4-part DVD Set with the entire thing captured including some comments by yours truly).

In any case, during the seminar, one question that came up from one of the attendees was “How does someone coach themselves?”  Dan gave a usually thorough, but I fear somewhat undirected, answer (a problem Dan has is that he has so much great knowledge that he often gets side-tracked by all of it and forgets what he’s talking about).

But since a related question (sort-of) just came up on the forum, I thought it would be worth addressing: how can you be your own coach?  Now, I want to point out that a good coach can offer a lot more than I’m going to discuss in this article and perhaps those things, discussed in detail, will be the focus of a future article.

At least one of those things is technical guidance, teaching people to do the movement correctly.  A disturbing trend over the last 15 years is that the number of people in gyms doing things right is far far far outweighed by those doing it wrong.  Nobody knows what proper technique is, much less how to teach it, and it saddens me a bit that the handful of people using good form on weight training movements stand out more than the converse.

Of course, for more technical activities or sports, a coach may move from a good idea to absolutely required because there’s simply no way to learn the movement on your own (the Olympic lifts spring to mind as a weight room example of this).  But I’ll make the perhaps poor assumption here that folks reading this already have good technique.

Something else a coach often provides is motivation. Interestingly, how much motivation a coach (or personal trainer) needs to offer depends on the population.  With athletes, usually they are too driven and want to work too hard too often; a coach spends more time keeping their exuberance in check.  With the general public, it’s often the opposite, getting them to work out of their comfort zone is the hard part.  I’ll also assume (perhaps incorrectly) that your motivation is good, you don’t need someone pushing you to work harder.

So far, so good, right? Like everyone on the Internet, your technique is brilliant and you work harder than 10 normal trainees put together.  What can I possibly have to tell you about being your own coach?

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The Problem: 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’s be much truth to that.  In a related vein, there’s a reason that doctors are often unhealthy (and can’t treat their family members) and mental health professionals are complete nutjobs.

And I think I can sum up the reasons for that with the heading to this section: objectivity and rationalization.

Simply put, it’s staggeringly easy to be objective about what someone else should do.  Folks do it all the time, give other people stunningly excellent advice that they fail completely to follow themselves.

Why?

Because it’s easy to be objective about other people, and damn near impossible to be objective about yourself (or people that you have a close emotional investment with).  You’re too close, you can’t look at yourself/folks emotionally close to you and carry that same level of objectivity.  A doctor can’t treat his own family members because he can’t be cold, clinical and objective; his emotions will come into play.  And the same holds true for training.

Most people can’t be objective about themselves and their own situation.  You’re too close.  So…you rationalize.  That you’re different, that you’re situation is special and unique and all of that crap.  But here’s the thing, you’re not different.  You just think you are.

But you’ve lost objectivity and are too busy rationalizing why that excellent advice (that seems to apply to everyone but you) somehow doesn’t apply in your situation.

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How Does This Apply to Training?

I’ve talked to many coaches in the strength and conditioning field about this and they all basically report the same thing to the effect of “I can’t coach myself.  Because the things that I would never let an athlete do, I’ll find myself doing.”

One example comes to mind, a coach who generally follows a low-volume, high-quality approach to training his athletes and clients.  Yet when he’s in the weight room, he starts adding stuff. A set here, an exercise there until he’s doing double what he’d ever have an athlete do.  There are plenty of other examples.

But that’s what happens.  If you were a coach watching someone lift and you saw that their technique was falling apart on a movement, or they clearly looked exhausted, or their bar speed was dropping or what have you, you’d stop them and either send them home or move onto something else.  But if you were training yourself, you’d be far more likely to keep plugging on.  The workout calls for X and you’re going to do X.

In fact, one of my very few major injuries came from this type of thing: I was deadlifting and my form was going to hell, by rep 3 of the set it was just terrible.  Had I been coaching someone, I’d have stopped them after the third rep of the set. But I kept plugging along, my workout called for sets of 5 and I was going to get 5 no matter what.  And on rep 5, I heard the pop that echoed up my spine.  I was lucky, I only pulled a ligament, rather than ending my career with a blown disk.  But for doing those last 2 reps, I lost 9 months of training while I healed.  All by doing something that I’d never in a million years have let someone I was coaching do.

In my 20’s, I was my own worst enemy in this regards because I did the above constantly especially with dieting.  I’d tell people to do one thing dieting (following fairly standard dieting practice) and invariably start messing with stuff with my own diets.  I’d rationalize that I was ‘testing out new ideas’ or that I was somehow different.

The good, mind you, was that this was part of the overall learning process.  I learned a lot about what didn’t work.  But the bad is that I was always hamstringing my own progress by being an idiot and doing things in my own training or dieting practices that I would never let someone I was coaching do.  I was different, I was unique, I was special.  No, I was just stupid. But that’s often how you learn (quite in fact, many good coaches are failed athletes who did everything wrong but learned how NOT to train during their own career).

In that context, until I figured out the solution I’m going to present next, the absolutely best and most productive experience I had was one where I basically side-stepped my own stupidity.  I set up a basic plan like I’d give to anybody else and then had a bunch of friends email me once per week to ask simply “Are you sticking with the plan?”  By giving myself the accountability (that a coach might provide) and not wanting to tell them “No, I messed with the plan.” I kept myself from screwing it all up by changing a bunch of stuff and doing things I knew better than to do.

I’d note before moving on that that is certainly one approach to coaching yourself, just make yourself responsible to an outside force (that is hopefully objective and won’t just tell you what you want to hear) so that you don’t mess with the plan and start rationalizing a bunch of mistakes.

But beyond that, I’m going to give you two simple strategies to hopefully keep you from becoming your own worst enemy.

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Solution 1: What Would I Tell Someone to Do?

The first solution is one I came up with all by myself; I’m very proud of it and it only took me 10 years in the field to do it.  If I’m in the weight room, or doing intervals on the bike, or whatever the specifics of the workout is and I have any doubts about what I’m to do next (should I increase the weight, do another interval, increase the wattage), I’ll simply ask myself the following question:

If I were coaching someone else in this situation, what would I tell them to do?

Yes, that’s it.  That’s the exciting solution.  But by putting it in those terms, I force myself to step outside of myself and be objective, or at least more objective.  Because if the answer to that question would be different for them than it would be for my own training, then there’s a problem.  And if I can’t come up with a real reason (and I don’t mean “But I wanna do the next set.”), then the answer to the question is made: I do whatever I’d tell them to do.

If I’d tell someone I was training to stop for the day, spin down, move onto another exercise, that’s what I do in my own training.  It’s no longer an issue of what I want to do or what I think I should do. Rather, I make it an issue of “What would I tell someone else in this situation?”  This forces me to find objectivity even if the answer doesn’t make me happy.

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Solution 2: Asking the Question Provides the Answer

My own coach takes a slightly different but equally useful approach to the issue.  He figures that if you’re in training, in the weight room, on the bike, on the ice (speed skating, remember) and you ever ask the question “Should I do the next set or repetition, the next start, the next flying lap?”, the answer is always no.

His approach, and this is based on nearly 30 years coaching, is this: if you have any doubts whatsoever about the intelligence of doing something in training, you should listen to your brain and not do it.  Because invariably it’s that last start, that last set, that last interval that you get hurt on anyhow and you wouldn’t be asking the question if you didn’t doubt doing it in the first place.  And the simple presence of doubt is a good enough reason to stop.

I’d note that the above is more an athlete application than anything useful for the general public.  Athletes are almost always too motivated (if they are anything) and always want to do more than they should (another one of his suggestions is that, when athlete draw up their own training programs, they should take what they wrote, cut it in half and that’s probably a good workload).  Athletes tend to fall into the trap of thinking they need more and more and more work when what they usually need is more rest.

For the general public, the above doesn’t really work that well since, in my experience, most of them don’t want to really train (or train hard) in the first place.  If you let them ‘stop whenever they doubt working out’, they won’t ever show up in the first place.

But as I noted in the introduction to this article, I’m going from the assumption that you’re a little more driven than most.  In which case, his approach applies: if you’re training and have any doubts about doing the next set, the next repeat, the next drill, the next exercise it’s your brain telling you something that you should listen to.  If you have to ask the question, you already have the answer and that answer is “No, don’t do it.”

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Summing Up

And that’s that, a quick and dirty way to save you from yourself in your own training, to avoid the dangers of loss of objectivity and rationalization.  It’s hard enough being your own coach but it’s even harder when you become your own worst enemy by doing things that you’d never let anyone else do.  Hopefully the above two strategies will (at least some of the time) save you from yourself.

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