Good Coaching

If you have the Assessing Movement DVD of the event at Stanford with Stu McGill and Craig Liebenson, you know I talked about coaching. Okay, I talked a lot about coaching. Recently, at my first StrongFirst event with Brett Jones, we taught many correctives . . . and we coached them a lot.

Coaching movement is where the science meets the art but I think most of us pride ourselves in the style in which we coach—probably a unique style that has contributions from many important people.

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An elite coach can use a verbal cue, a touch or even a nudge and we miraculously see their desired response, we can’t wait to go apply that in our own situation.

As a novice, we take that wonderful observation and apply it to our biggest bag of problems and our most difficult individual, hoping that the magic bullet will aim itself directly at their weakest link and make us look amazing.

Fortunately, the elite coaches and teachers among us go through a filtering process before they dispense their coaching advice.

A long, long time ago, a guy named Harvey Penick wrote a book about golf called the “Little Red Book” and it is a perfect example of elite coaching. There are no graphs, charts or biomechanical analysis. There’s simple instruction that’s filtered by an expert in strategically targeting the weakest link of a golf swing or even golf strategy. Supposedly, it’s the highest-selling golf book in history.

weakest link4Golf fitness and golf instruction have become complicated. TV shows, magazines and entire organizations have been developed to improve an individual’s golf ability and the fitness that supports it.

Yet, long before much of the science was available to Harvey Penick, he was the premier coach, choosing his words sparingly and making each one profound with an almost immediate and tangible result. He demonstrated his expertise not by his authority but through a quick analysis of an issue and observable resolution of that issue. He knew that his pupils’ confidence in him would be built upon the outcome of his first instruction.

This ability to instruct change is why I’m so passionate about movement. It takes time to lose weight, gain hypertrophy and develop strength, endurance and sport-specific skill.

Movement can change in a single session. Check it, screen it and test it, and this truth will be revealed to you.

Find the weakest link. Identify whether it’s a motor control or a mobility problem, because only one will respond to direct coaching—direct observation of movement.

From the coaching perspective, there’s a huge difference between mobility and motor control problems. It is almost impossible to coach a true mobility problem directly. If you’re able to change mobility with your words alone, you were probably observing a motor control problem that presented itself as stiffness.

Think about it. When the body feels vulnerable and out of control, it’s not concerned with efficiency and effectiveness. It is concerned with preservation and integrity of the structures that may not be ready for the loads you’re trying to impose.

A true mobility problem can be directly addressed with a hands-on technique by a qualified individual and this usually involves somebody with a clinical background. I am not suggesting that clinicians have better or more intuitive hands than some excellent body workers and massage therapists. I’m saying that a clinician has at their disposal a thing called a differential diagnosis.

A differential diagnosis is what we do first to make sure that another disease process is not actually the underlying cause of the musculoskeletal disharmony that we observe through faulty movement, mobility and motor control problems.

A differential diagnosis is the first filter that a clinician should employ. Mobility problems can be attacked directly but when you have a frozen shoulder, there is no coaching technique on earth that I can use to talk you out of that frozen shoulder in an efficient or effective manner.

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Pilates, Yoga and Feldenkrais have all offered techniques to gain movement through verbal instruction and cueing but when needed and appropriately applied, a manual technique to restore range of motion and mobility at a stuck segment or a high-tension area like a trigger point is one of the most efficient and effective ways to break through a mobility problem.

Recently, we’ve enjoyed a huge amount of self-help information for these same mobility problems. We use foam rolls, balls and sticks to manipulate the soft tissue, work through sore and tender muscles and even release some tension prior to workouts.

My critique: if you continuously use these methods, then they are not changing anything. They are simply placating the problem so you can assume that your training is more effective than it naturally is. A true change in mobility should have a program behind it that sustains the mobility and reduces the necessity of the direct technique.

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A coach improves mobility by appropriately identifying the location of the restriction and advising the athlete or trainee in a series of techniques to use as a warm-up in preparation for an activity that should help sustain the mobility.

When there is no underlying mobility problem but we see the knees collapse or the feet cave in or the back round under load, there is an opportunity for direct coaching. Remember, they’re doing this thing because of a lack of control—not because they’re forced to do so in compensation for poor mobility elsewhere.

There are three levels of direct coaching that occur when a motor control problem is objectively identified and observed. (My word ‘objectively’ there means that you have a test). The three levels are quite simple:

1. Coach the pattern without load—Mimicking the exact pattern that will be loaded or coaching the pattern with some degree of assistance. This could be as simple as a Goblet squat with a heel lift or it could be a complete change in body position like an overhead press from tall kneeling.

2. Assist the pattern—We often work with individuals who, because of a motor control issue, cannot even roll to one side. The verbal cues aren’t enough to get them to find the coordination path to perform the roll. However, a few Airex pads under the side of their body that they’re rolling away from enable rolling. Reduce the assistance to gain functional control.

3. Load the pattern and observe—Let them feel the correct pattern—that is learning. Verbal cues are a last resort to get them to the correct pattern. They’re learning from the movement, not from your cues.

Remember, both direct- and indirect-coaching fall under corrective exercise. Unless you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s a mobility or stability problem, you may be bringing an excellent coaching cue to an inappropriate position.

Elite coaches use filters but it took them a long time to build those filters and gain that wisdom. Objective tools like screening, testing and assessment help us gain those filters early in our career and achieve a level of expertise at a much younger age than those who came before us. All we need to do is identify good coaching when we see it and then find the filters that enable us to get there quicker.

For more on coaching movement for correction and improvement, watch Assessing Movement: A Contrast in Approaches and Future Directions.


This event took place in early 2014 at Stanford University, where Craig Liebenson moderated a day-long conversation between Stuart McGill and me. Dr. McGill is a back pain expert and researcher who has reviewed the current science covering the FMS and related movement screen research.

• Full event video—5 hours & 40 minutes
• PDFs of the lecture transcripts
• MP3 audio files of the full lectures
• Presentation slides PDFs
• Research material
• Pre-event study material
• Post-event reflections from the participants
• Bonus lectures from
• PDFs of the lecture transcripts
• MP3 audio files of the full lectures
• Presentation slides PDFs
• Research material
• Pre-event study material
• Post-event reflections from the participants
• Bonus lectures from

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The FMS is the Entry Point

A screen sends you in one of two directions, up the pyramid toward skill, or into assessments to determine what to do next. The FMS is the entry point to discover which direction to go. People seemed to really enjoy this simple overview.

Click here for more information on the Assessing Movement digital download or physical DVD, and more preview clips.


Stanford Event Closing Comments

The only thing harder than opening a seminar is closing it down, because ultimately you remembered by your parting comments. My comments displayed my honor to be in that room at Stanford among my peers. My message was one of communication and accountability. The metrics provide cleaner communication. If our methods are governed by that, then we know who’s accountable for what and when. All the time.

Click here for more information on the Assessing Movement digital download or physical DVD, and more preview clips.

Assessing Movement Video Clip

When I opened the Stanford talk, I introduced the idea that we shouldn’t talk about methods unless we have metrics to measure success and failure. To some, that message sounds cold and analytic, but placing a number on movement that is clearly defined creates a category that can benefit from the best development program.

Click here for more information on the Assessing Movement digital download or physical DVD, and more preview clips.