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Coaching Humans

by Luke Day, CSCS

I want to start a discussion centered around common sense and training athletes. The two have been like a separated married couple and it’s stressing the kids out. During this discussion I promise to not to do or say anything that promotes myself as a guru or attempts to reinvent the wheel to prove how smart or insightful I am. We have all had enough of that. So here is my ground breaking discovery: Athletes are humans.

Humans are walking bags of water and electrical impulses that change drastically throughout the day based on how many carbohydrates they’ve had, how much sunlight they’ve been exposed to, what another human says to them, how much they’ve slept, and how varied their heart rate decides to be that day. How consistently they perform as the best version of themselves all hinges on this information. With all this in mind as a strength coach, we should probably make training sessions and track progress based on this “leading research that athletes are humans” and we should train them with the whole human in mind.

I’ve trained teams that broke every stupid lifting record on the stupid record board and then took the field and played selfish and soft. I’ve trained teams where on the way out of the tunnel I was having a panic attack because I didn’t think we had any athletes—and then watched that team go out and put on a gritty, total team selfless performance with Rudy-like inspiration. What gives? Here’s what I have come to believe: Human interaction supersedes human performance, and psychology trumps physiology. Insert motivational “coachy” quote here about how it’s all mind over matter. But if we all believe that as coaches, then why are we trying to convince ourselves that training should be otherwise.

As coaches, what is our number one responsibility? The answer is cloudy nowadays, but I think the original answer—and the purest answer—is to teach, and teach intensely so the lessons instilled last under immense pressure. To assess if our teaching is effective, we constantly need to be asking ourselves what the most important themes we should be stressing. Then ask ourselves: Are we teaching them in a way the information is being retained. Finally, and most importantly, how are you tracking your progress?

A statement made by Bo Schembechler hits me right between the eyes. “If it’s important to your program, you better track it.” It makes so much sense. If I am stressing some key point in our program but we never keep track of it, then it was all just words and kids know when something is real or just noise.

Chip Morton, the Head Strength Coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, has a message on his white board to every coach that works for him. It says to leave out buzzwords and overused phrases, reminding everyone who takes the floor that day to coach specifically and stop with the fluffy nonsense. So if toughness and accountability really do impact performance, and we’re performance coaches or whatever we are calling ourselves now, then shouldn’t we be studying where toughness and accountability comes from and what is influencing these traits? Because if we don’t take a hard look at these things, then they really are just buzzwords and we should just stick to staring at Prilipen’s chart.

I've used a system over the last couple of years that tracked what we said was most important to us: toughness, accountability and performance. We found some actual statistical evidence with our own athletes that proved  toughness when properly defined concretely influenced weight room and on-field productivity. We watched accountability be directly correlated with off the field issues and decision-making. We saw physical performance rise and fall with the rise and fall of toughness and accountability.

We could go down a rabbit hole on each category for hours, but the conversation should start with this: Let’s get back to some common sense in the weight room by starting with the idea we are training humans, and we need to be better human coaches.


Luke Day CSCS, is a Strength and Conditioning Coach for Ingition Athlete Performance Group. He has served as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Marshall University, and has been a strength coach at University of Central Florida and University of South Florida.


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