What Makes a Great Coach: Progressions and Regressions

In an attempt to hone in on What Makes a Great Coach, over the next several posts I will outline some concepts I have learned over the past several years while coaching both music and fitness. While this list will not be exhaustive, it should be a good start for those interested in improving their coaching skills, whether in CrossFit, martial arts, yoga, or even drum corps.

What Makes a Great Coach: Progressions and Regressions

To begin, it is useful to consider the subtle differences between the trainer–client and coach–athlete relationships, especially because they can be blurry at times. Trainers typically train one or two, maybe three clients at a time, whereas coaches typically have larger groups of athletes to manage at once. Trainers have to be aware of their client’s needs, wants, and desires, because ultimately the clients are the ones paying the trainer’s bills. Coaches, however, typically have a bit more trust from their athletes to do what’s right, and it helps that the coach’s paycheck usually gets written by someone other than the athlete.

With this considered, a Great Coach has to be a master at managing a large group. He or she must be able to quickly scan the room and identify the most pressing issue to address at any given time. In 2006 I marched a group called The Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps, and I remember vividly how well the staff was able to make one or two specific comments after watching us rehearse a long, dense chunk of the show. In a sense, this is a skill of knowing what to omit rather than just what to include.

Thus, in the group setting, a Great Coach has to masterfully employ the use of Progressions and Regressions. If you have a room full of CrossFit athletes performing squats, you need a large toolbox of options you can use to address the needs of each individual. Is Suzie coming up on her toes too much? Then regress to her a kettlebell goblet squat, or stick some tiny weight plates under her heels. Does Tommy have trouble getting low enough in the bottom? Perhaps instruct him to squat down to a box, and prescribe hip flexor mobility drills in between sets.

In music instruction when clarity and quality is the ultimate goal, this is a necessity. You cannot assign a particular exercise to a group of musicians if that exercise is above the average skill level of the group at that time. It would sound terrible, the musicians would become frustrated, and they would not improve! However, if you can figure out exactly where the group is at skill-wise, then you can choose an appropriate task that will both challenge them and help them progress.

Last example: handstand push-ups. Here is one possible sequence of regressions and progressions for a group of athletes of varied skill levels:

Hands-elevated PU -> PU -> Feet-elevated PU -> HS hold -> HSPU negative -> HSPU -> Full-ROM HSPU

This can be used as a warm-up before doing more advanced work, or it could be a road map for guiding your athletes on a more individualized path for their practice.

Hope this helps some aspiring coaches out there, and keep an eye out for another installment in the What Makes a Great Coach series next week!

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4 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Coach: Progressions and Regressions

  1. Another similarity with classroom teaching theory: In reading instruction, there are a variety of levels of texts that a reader may choose, existing on a continuum from easy at one end (where the reader knows 100% of the words and can understand the sentence structure and vocabulary and thus the content of the text) to frustration (where the vocabulary and/or sentence structure is so advanced the reader does not gather meaning from the text and ultimately gives up). In order to help that reader progress and grow, you have to find a text that is “appropriately challenging”–one where the reader may stumble over a couple new words, but can, with coaching, gather meaning and even enjoyment from the text, and ultimately improve his/her reading ability, in preparation for a more advanced text as they move up the continuum.
    To draw a parallel with your coaching advice, I would posit that part of the goal as a trainer/coach is to provide the skill progression that is most appropriately challenging for the client(s). This requires not only a strong working knowledge of various skill progressions and “fix-it” drills, but also a strong working knowledge of the individual strengths/weaknesses/needs of the clients. Know thy clients!
    Thanks for another engaging post!

  2. Pingback: Range of Motion as a Method of Progressive Overload | Chris Garay

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