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!


Top Five Coaches You Should Follow

Keeping it simple with this Monday’s post: the Top Five Coaches You Should Follow, along with brief commentary about my experience with each one. I hope this will inspire you to pursue some of their educational offerings!

1. Charles Poliquin

I had to list Charles Poliquin first because he has probably influenced everyone else below in some capacity. Although he recently separated from the Poliquin Group, he is now building his own brand called Strength Sensei. My experience with Charles was initially through his Poliquin International Certification Program, and both Levels 1 and 2 which I have completed were chock full of great quality information. Another thing that really stands out when you attend a Poliquin event is that they have seriously high standards for everything that they do. Taking an online exam? You have to score 92% or higher to pass. Doing squats at their gym? You will be prescribed split squats if your butt winks even the slightest above parallel. Drinking green tea from their café? It’s organic from Whole Foods. Charles Poliquin and his team are all-around health and fitness experts, so I recommend you follow them for advice on everything including strength training, conditioning, nutrition, supplementation, and lifestyle.

2. Ido Portal

I would be completely remiss if I did not mention Ido Portal and his team on this list. A CrossFit trainer first pointed me in Ido’s direction online in 2009, and I have been hooked ever since. Let me try to do his work some justice with a few brief links: The Floreio Art and his Self-Dominance video, The Improper Alignment Speech, and the Raw Brahs Interview with Ido Portal. Movement is the central theme in Ido’s work, and movement can come in various forms, such as handbalancing, capoeira, gymnastics, weightlifting, dance, etc. I am currently working through some online coaching through Ido and his team (thanks Odelia!), and I am looking forward to meeting him at the Dynamic Movement in Sports Symposium in Rhode Island in November.

3. James FitzGerald, aka OPT

The bottom line is that if you coach CrossFit, you need to learn from James FitzGerald at Optimum Performance Training. Not only did he win the CrossFit Games in 2007, but he also has more experience both in the gym and in the research lab than anyone else I have ever heard of. His Coaching Certification Program will be the gold standard for fitness coaches moving into the future, as it includes modules on Assessment, Program Design, Nutrition, Life Coaching, and Business Systems. Furthermore, his Big Dawgs blog is probably the best example of group programming that’s out there, as he has different levels for different athletes. Having met James and heard him speak a few times, he is as passionate about health, fitness, and sport as they come.

4. Martin Rooney

I was only recently pointed to Martin Rooney and his Training for Warriors program, but after watching him speak a few times, I could tell he was someone I needed to learn from. The biggest takeaway from the Training for Warriors online certification I completed this summer was Martin’s simple yet profound commitment to walking the walk in addition to talking the talk. Not sure you can trust what your coach is telling you to do? What if he is also having his very own daughter complete the same style of training? That probably means he believes what he’s telling you is true! Plus it doesn’t hurt that Martin’s coaching background includes these guys from Brazil who do jiu-jitsu… oh yeah, the Gracies!

5. John Berardi

Last but certainly not least, is John Berardi from Precision Nutrition. It’s just impossible to argue against what John Berardi has accomplished through his career: multiple degrees in exercise and nutrition, coached athletes at the highest level (GSP, for instance), and developed the largest online nutrition coaching programs in the world. I would recommend reading his short e-book “All About Intermittent Fasting,” as well as his role in Nate Green’s hilarious journey “Bigger Smaller Bigger.” Currently I am about halfway through the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification program, and the textbook, workbook, and videos are absolutely top-notch.

That’s it, thanks for reading! Feel free to comment with any other coaches who have you inspired you.