You can be your own coach. Not everyone desires this, and even those who do might not ever take that leap. Not everyone should self-coach, but everyone is capable of developing the skills, knowledge, a ruthless self-honesty that it requires.
I promote these ideals and subsequent skill sets, not as advocacy to go it alone, but to bring depth and understanding to yourself as an athlete, no matter who your coach is. Self-coaching requires the ability to write and alter an effective program, assess your long-term progress and short-term movement patterns, and develop intention and awareness in how you move. Working toward these aims makes you a highly self-sufficient athlete regardless of whether you ever eschew assistance to completely go it alone. In this case, the journey is far more valuable than the destination.
Self-coaching hinges on a three-pronged set of expertise: program design, assessment and feedback, and real-time awareness. Think of these as gathering the data, analyzing it to determine what it means, and then using said analysis to inform your future program. Strong abilities in each support success in the other two. For your self-coaching practice to truly shine, all three pieces must stand on a foundation of brutal but compassionate honesty.
Program design can take many forms. Different schools of thought prioritize different things. Putting together an effective program can be as technical or a simple, as prescriptive or as loose, as you choose. The only universal rules of effective program design are these:
1. Have a Purpose
What are you trying to accomplish? What are you working toward? There isn’t a wrong answer to this question so be honest with yourself about why you train in the first place. Don’t think you have a purpose? “To have fun and feel good” are perfectly acceptable stated purposes to train.
2. Cover All of Your Bases
Maintain a commitment to constantly vary your training sessions. I categorize movements into upper body pushes and pulls, lower body pushes and pulls, core movements, and speed and power movements. Most training sessions (both personal and prescribed) that I write, begin with a combination of core and power movements followed by strength blocks that pair upper body pushes with lower body pulls and vice versa. I find this very broad strokes approach to bring the perfect balance of structure and freedom. For a more detailed dive into my programming philosophy, check out The Fundamentals of Self-Programming and The Five Pillars of Athletic Training. I also cannot recommend more highly enough Ultimate Athleticism from Max Shank.
3. Address Your Weaknesses
Every effective program will also place a heavy focus on finding and eliminating weaknesses. I use the word “weakness” broadly to describe any aspect of your capabilities lacking in comparison to others. These can take the form of: side-to-side imbalances, disproportionate capabilities in either cardio or strength, inefficiency in specific movements or skills, or lack of mobility, balance, or coordination. Keep in mind that “weakness” is also relative to your purpose. I expect marathon runners to have disproportionately strong cardiovascular abilities, as I have expect baseball pitchers to exhibit very pronounced side-to-side differences. These seeming imbalances actually support each athlete’s purpose.
Assessment and Feedback
While you probably understand that you should work on your weaknesses, finding them and fixing presents a whole different challenge. Honest self-assessment uses both internal and external tools to examine how you move.
1. Sensational Awareness
You can turn to new tools like videos with slow-motion and freeze-frame abilities to give you a clear vision of how you move. However, no external resources will ever be more valuable than real-time sensational awareness. Some people are born naturally hyper-aware of their bodies and others are not. Natural proprioception and physical awareness lay on the same bell curve as all other human qualities. However, anyone can improve upon these abilities. Natural awareness might be a gift, but paying attention and actively trying to improve are choices.
As you progress through each training session pay attention to how you feel and how you move and genuinely seek to improve. This is now your highest responsibility if you decide to go it alone. Simply going through the motions (in any aspect of life) has never moved anyone forward.
2. Video, Coach, or Partner Feedback
These are all amazing tools available the modern self-coach and it is foolish not to utilize them. External feedback from both videos, photos, and the discerning eye of an expert coach or training partner can help you both find and fix issues that otherwise remain obscure.
Use these tools to supplement your self-understanding, not as a primary means to develop it. The argument stands to simply record every rep and every set because we now have the capability to do so. I recognize the merits of this case but posit that internally driven self-discovery and body awareness are higher-order tools that bring value far beyond any specific issue.
3. Strategies for Insight
Every repetition of any movement presents a learning opportunity. However, you can build your program and individual training sessions with strategies to promote insight. Many movements inherently drive deeper understanding.
Use the following strategies to promote deep physical insight:
- Slow Down: If you truly “own” a movement pattern, you can perform it with control and grace at any speed. Speed hides need, thus slowing down is a test that teaches you about how you move.
- Unilateral Movements: Use single arm or single leg movements for the bulk of your training. Nearly all functional and athletic movements have a unilateral component. Unilateral movements will also help you uncover any side-to-side difference you have that symmetrical movements might mask.
- Balance, Stability, and Coordination: Train unstable loads and balance movements to highlight deficiencies in smaller stabilizing muscles that more stable and macro movement patterns will not show. My favorites are the bottoms up press and single-leg deadlift for upper and lower body, respectively.
Attention and intention are the glue that holds together a self-coaching practice. This third prong of the system weaves interstitially between the programming and assessment branches.
Beyond attention and intention of how you move, learn to determine if your plan for the day is well-designed or in need of alteration. Every training session is a series of decisions: Should I take more/less rest? How much weight is appropriate for this set? How many rounds should I do? Is it best to scale this back? Should I go more intense than planned? Self-coaching means learning to honestly answer all of the ongoing questions that arise while training. This ability comes with time, but only if you commit to developing it.
No program or training plan, whether self-prescribed or from a coach, is written in stone. Think of your written program as a road map and a launching point from which to begin your journey each day. You will learn to strike a balance between pushing yourself, remaining safe, and the difference between needing time off and the general day-to-day laziness that creeps in for all of us.
Bringing It All Together
These are all strategies to go it alone. However, thriving as a self-coach goes far beyond the technical skills of writing effective programming and developing the eye and sensation to assess movement. Honesty, perhaps ruthless or radical, yet compassionate underlies the entire practice. Anyone can learn to be their own coach, but it requires developing a technical skill set, a love for asking difficult questions, and seeking even more uncomfortable answers. While not for everyone, self-coaching can be a gateway to a world of honest self-discovery.