Coaching versus Correcting


Coaching versus correcting can be confusing if we don’t look at it in a proper way.

It’s absolutely amazing to watch someone like Pavel, Brett Jones, Mark Toomey or Dan John coach a movement. They can take a bad lift or a bad movement and with just a few well-placed words, make that movement better. We’ve all stood back in awe of how economical they are with their coaching cues and instructions.


That’s by design. We’ve learned this by watching an inexperienced golf professional stand on the driving range and give a student 45 things to think about in the golf swing. That’s not a good idea, and it’s not a good idea to do that in the kettlebell swing either.

We’ve learned from about 25 years of motor learning research that we shouldn’t give internal cues—we should give external cues. We don’t tell people what to engage or what to fire or what to relax. We give them an external cue, like ‘float the kettlebell.’

We could say ‘engage your lats,’ or we could just coach a movement that requires that to be done. If you’ve ever seen me put a little elastic tubing in someone’s arm pits, pull backward and let them reach down to try to deadlift a kettlebell, I’m articulating that same lat engagement cue with a tactile weight shifting, vestibular and proprioceptive cue.

Since I wrote Athletic Body in Balance, I’ve been saying that the language of movement is written in feel, not in words or pictures.

When we first learned to move, we did it by the way it felt. If toddlers lean too far forward trying to run, they land on their faces. When we run and don’t lean far enough, we don’t really go much faster than walking.

Natural movement

That forward lean is something that’s communicated to us through gravity and the environment. Whenever possible, we try to do those fundamental tactile, proprioceptive, feel-based cues, and then maybe just add a word to refine it. 

Now, consider coaching versus correcting. If I take an athlete to the ground and ask them to do crocodile breathing or ask them to learn to breathe or open up their chest when doing an arm bar, that’s different. I’m actually coaching a correction, and in those cases, we can give a little more verbal insight.

Often, when people are doing a corrective maneuver—and I’ve seen Pavel do this very well—we coach breathing. Pavel said in Simple and Sinister that two very complementary yet contrasting breaths are seen in the Turkish getup and in the swing.


We can use the breath to relax the neurological system, or we can use the breath to fortify greater strength in a very powerful, crisp movement. The breath can often be the driver.

Here’s my point: When I watch expert coaches coach, they always (or nearly always) get it right. They don’t bring the coaching cues that work to everyone, only because everyone is not ready for those cues.

When an individual can’t even bend over and touch their toes, they’ve got a problem, and not just a movement problem. It’s a sensory problem. They feel the kind of tightness most people feel when grabbing and clasping their toes, but they’re feeling that halfway through the range of motion. I don’t know if there’s anything I, or any of the other coaches, can say to make that better.

toe touch

We’re going to have to do a corrective. If we’ve cleared their leg raise or if we’ve cleared a lot of the barriers to that, I may do something like the toe touch progression or leg lowering. Now, these aren’t exercises in and of themselves. They’re just correctives because I’ve still got to get them touching your toes.

Once I get them touching their toes, I’ve still got to make sure they have proper alignment, balancing and coordination in deadlifting. Then, one day I’m going to convert that to a crisp hard-style swing.

The art of this is in knowing when to coach and when to correct. Using the movement screen as a strength-and-conditioning filter, your best investment is to try to correct first if somebody gets a ‘1’ on the movement screen. Break it down. Use a corrective strategy.

I think Mark Cheng, Jeff O’Connor and Brett Jones took this to the next level in Kettlebells from the Ground Up 2. They took what Brett and I did with Kettlebells from the Ground Up, a breakdown corrective view of the Turkish getup, and demonstrated that within the Turkish getup are corrective opportunities.


















Listen to what the getup tells you. Do the correction. Resume the getup. Is it better or not? More correction may be necessary, but if you listen to the breathing cues and the movement cues, you can easily get over some of these obstacles or speed bumps within the getup. These are two products I think will really help you get your head around correctives.

I want to add one bit of advice—when the people I work with and the people I train do correctives, it’s not a month-long thing. It’s a session thing. As a matter of fact, it’s a ‘couple of minutes’ thing. We drop a corrective that’s not so difficult that you can’t potentially see the benefit almost immediately.

If Pavel tells you a certain way to breathe, relax and to stretch, or we tell you a certain way to do a crocodile breath before your rib cage mobility efforts, these are going to get you a very big bang for your buck—tangible results in the opening part of a workout.

That is my definition of a corrective. I’ll run the entire loop, hopefully within five to ten minutes. If you’ve been to a previous event of ours, you’ve probably seen us do this. We do the corrective where it’s needed, but we don’t introduce unnecessary correctives.

We often see people in our workshops sampling a corrective they don’t need, only to look up at the instructor and say, ‘I really don’t feel much from this.’ Why should they? They don’t have anything that needs correction. They’re reading far beyond a third-grade level. If I hand them a third-grader’s book, they may not get much from that, but the person who needs it is going to notice a tangible benefit.

How? we’re going to go through the extra inconvenience to set a baseline beforehand with a simple move, a simple breakout, a simple corrective or even doing the screen. Then we’re going to revisit that to confirm the fact that the investment was worthy.

From there we go right back into coaching. If you’ve got ‘2s’ and ‘3s’ throughout your movement screen, there’s a good chance the biggest barrier to you doing a respectable lift is just technical precision, whether it be bodyweight, straight bar or kettlebell.

When the movement screen gives you at least a ‘2’ or ‘3’ on everything, you’re demonstrating the requisite mobility and motor control. You just need to learn to control your breath, own your alignment and have a good feel perspective of what that lift is supposed to do.

This is when the coaching cues change everything. I became a better presser the moment Pavel said, ‘Pull the weight down out of the air with as much energy as you used to press it up into the air.’ That helped me reset my scapula. I was standing there thinking, ‘Why didn’t I think of this?’


It was because Pavel has spent a lot of time coaching pressing. The cue worked for me because I was at least ‘2s’ on my shoulder mobility at that time, maybe not now or maybe it’s better. Who knows?

The point is this: Had I been a ‘1’ on my shoulder mobility, I wouldn’t have received the benefit of that coaching cue with nearly the impression I did. A ‘1’ is a simple template that says we should probably correct this. In most cases, if the person is fit and otherwise ready to train, they should be able to go from a ‘1’ to a ‘2’ in the preparatory phase of a strength session.

When that ‘2’ is in play (a lot of the things we’ve done in the past tell us that ‘2’ is going to be available for about 30 minutes) that is the window of opportunity where most good strength-and-conditioning effect can occur in a single-dose workout. That means even though someone walked in with a ‘1,’ we’re going to be training with a ‘2.’ Now, if we overload them or let them have poor technique, we might insult the move and send them back to a ‘1.’

Let’s be honest here. What is a ‘1’ on the movement screen? In many cases, we might want to call it a mobility or flexibility problem, but flexibility problems don’t respond to stretching like we think because many times that ‘1’ on the movement screen isn’t just a tight muscle. It’s a strategically placed parking brake with agreement from the brain and the body suggesting ‘If we allowed any more motion, this idiot would probably injure us. We’re not going to allow this person’s drive to train or be fit actually sideline us and injure us in the process.’


When we see a limited leg raise, limited shoulder mobility, an inability to lunge on one side or a horrendous squat, instead of just thinking, ‘Let’s find that tight muscle and attack it with foam rolling,’ let’s figure out why the parking brake is on in the first place.

Sometimes, the biggest problem with  flexibility is that the person performs a few powerful moves—loading moves, sprinting moves or lifting moves—without enough motor control or integrity. They scared their body so bad or leaned against the edge of their ability that they imposed a parking brake, and that parking brake has been engaged since they’ve been training. Sometimes, the biggest performance gain comes from correcting the ‘1s’ and then re-coaching the ‘2s.’

This is a very important thing to consider going into the StrongFirst event that Brett and I are doing in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania on June 20-22, 2014. We’re going to breeze through the movement screen, but then show how everything is in play if you know when to coach and when to correct.

The Functional Movement Screen as a coaching asset does that for us. Don’t waste your valuable coaching cues on a ‘1.’ In many cases, you’re only 10 to 15 minutes away from a ‘2’ anyway. By using video or still photography, we can get quick feedback on how clean movement gets.

Save your coaching cues so you and the person you’re coaching can get immediate and tangible benefits from them.

If you’re standing there taking the coaching cues you’ve learned from the masters and putting them on somebody who has their parking brake on, or who has closed down learning pathways because of a few ‘1s’ on the movement screen, you’re not going to bring much honor to the wisdom of those coaching words.

Drop coaching cues where they belong and you’ll get the same benefit as the masters.

Know when to coach. Know when to correct. Come see us in June.


For more on correction through Reactive Neuromuscular Training (RNT) listen to my lecture available through



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