What not to Coach?


After reading another blog post about cueing, I was in horror of the suggestions. I am not a fan of magic words as most of the time coaches speak to hear themselves. At first, many coaches want to ensure the athlete knows that we (coaches) know what we are talking about and share too much information at the wrong time. In battle nobody has long discussions in the trenches, and with such limited time our words must be very careful. Cues words or even gestures are the tools we have to communicate and I am seeing some rather feeble suggestions in articles. I don’t have an arsenal of magic words but the luxury of traveling gave me a nice pallet of ideas after visiting some far better coaches.

When I was at the Stanford Swim Camp I was just 16 years old and star stuck with Summer Sanders and Brian Retterer. During one practice session Skip Kenney (Stanford Men’s Coach) shouted with megaphone my error during one of the drills. I was mortified as all 130 summers stopped as my name was called. I was exposed, alarmed, and embarrassed as I was from Massachusetts and not very talented. My grandmother’s brother was visiting being from the Sacramento area and shared the the fact that I was a state champion, an incorrect interpretation of our team winning a state title. My times were very average and even winning a few gold medals at states my senior year on relays was still at the bottom of a state such as California. Skip said I was too good of an athlete not to acquire the skills we were learning that day and it stoked the fire to focus more and I quickly gained the fundamentals they were teaching.

Richard Quick was the Woman’s coach at that time and was also very important to me learning the combination of what to say to an athlete. Later when I became a track an swim coach I attended the VSS Swimming Clinic and Richard was presenting. One question from the crowd was how he coached some hand pitch actions and his response was thought provoking. He said the following.

I don’t think you should coach that.

Some things are to fast or reactive/reflexive in swimming to coach, and with limb velocities being higher in track, Tom Tellez was extremely sincere that you can’t cue certain things as well. When I sat down with Tom in Houston he was almost hostile of not making mistakes in playing with fire that had no proven benefit. With foot strike being so rapid, cueing how forces are applied is not going to happen.My belief is that the more distal the activity the less you should mess with things, especially at higher velocities.

Yesterday two Triple Jumpers were doing hurdle hops (39 inch Jumps) and I was the assistant for the day ensuring both safety and execution. With such a demanding activity words were similar to the hands defusing a time bomb. You had pressure to be perfect and the wrong statement or phrase could be risky. With the air time being higher with vertical jumps pretension was more likely to be conscious and stiffness was necessary to get COM projection. Simple task if done right, but who starts out right all the time? Veteran athletes seem to have the best cues as they speak athlete while sometimes coaches speak too much sport science. Trying to be fluent in athlete is not easy as sometimes a word or simple gesture is only perfect for that rep, never mind session or season.

I don’t use anything besides slow motion on video feedback as I can mime better than any system and add instant language. Sometimes the word is great, but how you say it more powerful. Sometimes nothing is just trust that the athlete knows you know that he gets it but is struggling to make change.Too much noise drowns learning. This is why workout design is teaching if done right, not just training. I am a fan of giving tasks and let the athlete solve them but guiding them with a few hints seems to work with me. Research can overwhelm us with information that is not applicable on the track or in the field as limb velocities and force plates are tools for understanding but not teaching. Sport science audits us as coaches but as teachers we need to let sport science be translated into digestible information.

Visting good coaches is seeing teaching live on stage with no filter. It’s not easy as it often means leaving your own team to visit in season. Some of the best coaches I have visited have been anticlimactic because it was very analogous to farming, and magic beans didn’t produce a stairway to the clouds. Later I was able to see the subtle and gentle and little changes that added up the the spectacular. Richard Quick said that ten years ago, and I thank him for his insight.
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Carl Valle

Carl Valle

Track & Field Coach
Carl is an expert coach who has produced champions in swimming, track and numerous other sports. He is one of the foremost experts in the fields of nutrition and restoration.
Carl Valle

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