Athlete, Coach Thyself

The job of a coach is never done, and that applies double to the self-coach.

The predominant lesson instilled in me as a child was self-reliance. My mother’s father grew up in the grip of the Great Depression and was a Sea Bee in the South Pacific in World War II. When he got home, he became a jack of just about every trade. He remodeled houses, drove trucks, and repaired, rebuilt, and sold everything he could get his hands on. He raised his kids in rural Indiana, where you didn’t pay for things; you did them yourself.

The predominant lesson instilled in me as a child was self-reliance. My mother’s father grew up in the grip of the Great Depression and was a Sea Bee in the South Pacific in World War II. When he got home, he became a jack of just about every trade. He remodeled houses, drove trucks, and repaired, rebuilt, and sold everything he could get his hands on. He raised his kids in rural Indiana, where you didn’t pay for things; you did them yourself.

I spent the summers of my teenage years sweating in the sun alongside him. We re-graveled his driveway with two shovels and a wheelbarrow. We heaved railroad ties into place as the borders of his garden, because they were cheaper than landscape timbers. He taught me to measure twice and cut once and to swing a hammer like you mean it, as we laid the subfloor in the family room he built onto the house himself at the age of 70.

Mom taught me to handle the practical realities of life, including the mysteries of the kitchen, and how to mend my own clothes and dress my own wounds. Dad demonstrated that no skill was unobtainable, provided you were ready to study hard and work harder. He worked his way through an engineering degree with two young kids, and later taught himself calligraphy, photography, and sailing. He also taught me that the only standard for a job is your absolute best effort, and that your best is probably a lot better than you would have guessed.

They all demonstrated a tireless work ethic and a total devotion to causes higher than themselves. Better still for my eventual success, they demanded the same from me. There was no Google in those days, but we had a book case full of dictionaries, encyclopedias, Bibles, and how-to manuals for everything from automotive maintenance to stitching. If those failed, the library was a short bike ride away. The most common response to inquiry in our house was “look it up.”

The result was that by the time I was old enough to drive, I knew how to work on my own car, buy my own groceries, prepare my own meals from scratch, and figure out anything else I needed. I entered adulthood just as the digital age came to maturity, and as “looking it up” became even easier, the pace of my self-education accelerated. I taught myself how to drive a manual, ride motorcycles, and build and fix computers.

The seeds of self-reliance and determination sown in my youth grew into the confidence to try my hand at just about anything as an adult. This mindset has been the greatest resource of my professional career, and the most reliable tool in my personal life. It has led to adventures and opportunities far too numerous to list in this article, and saved me a whole lot of time, money, and heartbreak along the way.

The decision to become your own coach requires some degree of this same mindset. To do the job right will require an investment of time and effort not unlike that required to enter the profession formally, though it will be a lot cheaper. Above and before all the other concepts I’ll bring you in this article, you must be voraciously hungry for knowledge and not easily discouraged. You must develop the ability to characterize and analyze problems, and reflexively seek answers rather than giving up. You must be willing to fail, and to have nobody to blame but yourself.

Being your own coach takes a lot of work, and I won’t pretend that it’s the shortest distance between A and B; that would require hiring a coach. But if you think you’ve got what it takes and you’re the kind of person who prefers to do things for yourself, grab a strong cup of black coffee and read on.

You Could Be Your Own Best Coach

Abraham Lincoln once said, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” I served on a jury for a trial once that proved Mr. Lincoln correct. But he who coaches himself might have made the best possible choice. For instance, if you travel a lot for work, as I have for the past few years, the ability to coach yourself can be an invaluable asset. If you have a set of goals that would require the hiring and coordination of a whole staff of coaches, the most accurate plan might be the one you write for yourself.

But beyond raw necessity, there are advantages to self-coaching, provided you have the ability to be brutally honest with yourself and possess the other attributes I mentioned above. If you successfully coach yourself, you’ll have the ultimate program: perfectly tailored to your needs and goals, instantly adaptable to your evolving situation, and free of charge. You’ll become intimately familiar with the mechanisms at work in your training, because you will witness firsthand the effect each stimulus has on your body, rather than trying to convey it to another person. And you’ll be able to diagnose and correct issues in your performance on the fly, rather than waiting for your coach to be around, or to notice, or to get back to you with an answer to your question.

Self-coaching isn’t just for us lowly amateurs, either. Lots of professional athletes self-coach in one or more areas of their training, including top-flight weightlifters and CrossFit athletes. And there’s never been a better time to do it, because the accumulated knowledge of all of mankind is available to you in seconds, for free, on the internet. All you have to do is learn to use it. Simple, right?

Information, Knowledge, and Understanding

Before we get into the details of how to become your own coach, there are a couple concepts that need to be clarified. The first is that being your own coach doesn’t mean you have zero coaches, ever. In fact, to some degree, you’re probably already coaching yourself, so long as you leave your brain turned on while you train. Ever make a technique correction in the middle of a WOD? Decide to go a little heavier or lighter than your written squat program for the day? Those are coaching decisions, however minor.

I have coaches for weightlifting, but I only get to train with them twice a week; on the other days, I am self-coaching. I have running coaches, but my most successful season to date included nine months of writing and executing my own programs and workouts. I don’t work with a cycling coach formally, but I have a small group of (very fast) friends and mentors that I look to for advice and guidance. Whatever your sport, chances are you spend a large percentage of your time on your own, making your own decisions in the heat of the moment.

A useful construct of the learning process is to divide it into four phases of progression: information, knowledge, understanding, and mastery. It is beyond the ability of human beings to impart understanding on one another. Instead, we convey information, which is just raw data. Knowledge is the ability to organize and apply information in a meaningful and useful fashion. Understanding is what occurs when you fully digest and synthesize knowledge to the extent that you can create new ideas from it. Mastery is self-explanatory. If the information is the seed, knowledge is the tree, understanding is the fruit, and mastery is the most perfect apple strudel you ever put in your mouth.

To become effective as a coach, whether for yourself or others, your goal is to reach at least a basic level of understanding of your sport and associated training modalities. Mastery should be your eventual goal, but it is sufficient to start out with fundamental understanding and work upward from there. Alright; now that Pedagogy 101 is over, let’s get into it.

Make Useful Friends

A bit more than a decade ago, I got a series of wake-up calls. At the time, I smoked like a chimney, ate like a moron, and drank like it was my calling, usually in front of the TV or a computer screen. The physical neglect of my late teens and early 20s had made me so fat and out of shape that I almost failed an Air Force fitness test (I know, I know, go ahead and laugh). My lower back was a disaster. One day I had to ride my bike a couple miles up the road to get a part to fix my car, and it almost killed me. I had grown up as a scrawny kid, so when a picture of me with my shirt off showed rolls (rolls!) on my sides and back, I was utterly shocked.

Even when I noticed the problem and decided I should do something about it, asking for help never really crossed my mind. Lucky for me, the first lesson in becoming your own coach happened by accident. A coworker was studying for his CSCS at the time and gave me a few workouts to try, providing enough basic instruction that I wouldn’t hurt myself and had a general sense of what exercises did what.

This was the beginning of a pattern I still follow today: find somebody significantly fitter than me, and then find out how they got there. Every time I met somebody at the mountain bike trailhead, I’d try to learn something else about the sport. When I joined my running team, I watched and listened to the fast guys and girls as they warmed up or cooled down (which was the only time I could keep them in sight). A handful of people genuinely have no idea of how they got as fit as they are, but the majority usually have some sort of information or advice to offer to the neophyte.

Maybe the most useful friend I made during my early forays into self-coaching walks on four legs. When my wife and I adopted a puppy, we knew he was going to be work. We didn’t know we’d invited a wiggly little Drill Sergeant into our home. The puppy needed exercise—a whole freaking lot of it—or he turned into the very devil. So every day, I’d walk or run a few miles with him in the morning before work, and my wife (the most wonderful woman in the world and my favorite training partner) would take him out for a few more miles every evening. The puppy stayed happy, and fat started melting off of us like soft serve at a 4th of July parade.

Our dog unwittingly (or perhaps intentionally; he’s very smart) became our first coach, and the biggest lesson he taught us was consistency. I’ve often joked that he’s the best athlete in the house, but it’s true. He eats perfectly, fasts regularly, stretches all the time, sleeps as much as he needs to, throttles back when he’s tired, and trains with regularity and intensity. Even now, as he enters middle age (for a dog), he’s got a sub-4-minute mile and hasn’t gained a pound from his mature adult weight. Someday, I hope to be half the self-coached athlete my dog is.

Get Obsessed

A vegan, a fighter pilot, a CrossFitter, and a triathlete walk into a bar. Who bores the bartender to death first?

We all get a chuckle out of the single-mindedness of those four groups, but the truth is that it’s the very thing that makes them good at what they do. Their enthusiasm and drive to learn all they can and become the best they can be bubbles over into daily conversation. They just can’t help it.

And why should they? Being well-rounded is a hugely overrated quality. All the cool stuff in life happens at the bottom of the proverbial rabbit hole, and if that comes at the cost of not being able to make small talk about the latest Twitter controversy or Kardashian shenanigans, who cares?

The early phases of learning to coach yourself will require you to eat, sleep, and breathe your new sport. Read, watch, and listen to everything you can get your hands on about it, until you know the principles, the history, and the science and trends shaping its future. Going this deep will allow you to evaluate your own strategies and performance through a wider and more objective lens, which will help you create more effective and sustainable plans.

There’s nothing wrong with becoming obsessed enough over your new athletic pursuits that it makes you a little awkward in polite conversation. The most successful people I know in any given field share an allergy to small talk.

Study Everything, Believe Half of It

While you want to devour information, you also want to maintain a healthy level of skepticism. Everybody’s got something to sell, and coaches and scientists are no different. Alarm bells should ring especially loud when anybody claims a superlative about their ideas. The best diet, exercise, training plan, or supplement is only the best in the full context of its application, and there will be no application that’s a mirror of your own circumstances.

Check out more photos like this by Bev Childress on Instagram

Nutrition and supplementation might be the murkiest area of study, in this respect. The way people assign meaning to both scientific studies and personal experience belies a flaw in human cognition, in that we love simple explanations and single factors. This error is reinforced by the way most studies are conducted and published. The right way to do science is to control as many variables as you can, then change one thing and document the effects. Unfortunately, too often this leads both scientists and lay people alike to expect major results from minor changes.

The only effective (though not foolproof) antidote for this is broad consensus. For instance, the case for the safety and efficacy of creatine as a dietary supplement is pretty well closed. But other details, like fish oil supplements or optimal protein intake, are still widely debated. Reading meta-analyses and research summaries can help cut through the fog, but the end game is to intelligently experiment on yourself to figure out what works for you.

Be Willing to Make Mistakes

Coaching yourself is not for the faint of heart. There’s a certain amount of gambling involved, and the chips on the table include your time, money, and most of all your body. To improve, you have to challenge yourself, and that means a certain amount of risk.

You’ll occasionally lose one of those bets. That could mean you don’t PR at your highlight event of the year and have to deal with feeling like you wasted six months of your life. It could even mean you find yourself injured and have to spend the next six months rehabbing.

It’s important to take calculated, intelligent risks, but it’s equally important to not become so risk-averse that you don’t try new things, learn, and improve. Along the way, there will be plenty of people who feel it’s their duty to point out your shortcomings, including coaches who want to sell you something and friends whose egos are threatened by your ambition and accomplishment. Some of that feedback can be useful, but it’s no reason to stop trying. One of the biggest advantages to self-coaching is that you are intimately familiar with the training plan, because you wrote it. If it doesn’t work to your satisfaction, chances are you will have a good idea why.

Invest in Yourself

If you were shopping for a coach for yourself, you’d likely be interested in their qualifications. Why should it be any different when self-coaching? Most certifications, courses, and seminars are aimed at people who will go on to coach other people. But the information offered is just as useful to enhance your own program, and you’ll have the advantage of being able to immediately apply new ideas and concepts to yourself.

One thing you’ll have to be ready to do is leave your preconceptions at the door. If you’ve been a one-man band for a while already, you probably are used to doing things a certain way when it comes to movements or programming methods. Holding onto those ideas might cause you to miss or disregard some useful concepts offered by the course.

For instance, I had a few years of success with my running programs before I got my USATF certification. But the progressive, layered model I learned there has become indispensable in the plans I write today. Likewise, the bros had me convinced that behind-the-neck presses and jerks were dangerous to my shoulders before I got my USAW certification, where I learned how to properly program and perform them.

Be Ruthless, Be Reasonable

Taking charge of your own training requires a heaping helping of stoic, honest, objective self-criticism. You have to become aware not only of your obvious weaknesses, but of your tendency to avoid things you need, but don’t like. If you’re a weightlifter and you run out of gas in a competition environment, you might need some of that dreaded cardio. If you’re a cyclist who falls apart at the slightest hint of a hill, maybe it’s time you find your way under a heavy barbell. You must become ruthless in the way you attack your liabilities as an athlete.

At the same time, you have to avoid the temptation to expect too much out of yourself. Rapid progress is fun, but once you’re past those newbie gains, it’s unlikely to occur without taking substantial risks. Trying to improve too much, too fast, is the number one cause of injuries, in my observation. When you set the goals that will form the backbone of your training plan, take a minute to ask yourself if they’re reasonable. Knocking a few seconds off your mile time over the course of the season is probably reasonable. Lopping off a whole minute probably isn’t.

Another common mistake I’ve seen from people who write their own plans is what I call “shiny rock syndrome.” There are so many cool and useful exercises out there for any given training goal that the temptation is to try and cram every single one of them into a single training cycle. Constant variation is all well and good, but you still need to get enough exposure to a type of stimulus that your body can create the desired adaptation to it and improve.

Instead of burying yourself in excess volume or complexity, pick a reasonable number of items to work on, and rotate them out every 1-3 months. Let’s say you want to improve your footwork in the split jerk. Instead of devoting four hours a week to a half-dozen different drills, spend a few minutes on one or two of them at the end of your session a few days per week. Once they’re sufficiently grooved in, swap them out for something else.

The overall concept should be one of proportionality. Spend the bulk of your valuable training time working on the biggest holes in your game. Majoring in the minors is a great way to grind your overall progress to a halt.

Practice on Your Friends

If you consider self-coaching as an elaborate science experiment, the obvious downside is the extremely limited sample size: one. Good thing you’ve worked so hard to become smarter than all your friends! Chances are they’d love to copy off of your homework, especially if they’ve watched your performance improve year after year.

This is not an invitation to become the know-it-all gym bro. People will likely come to you because they see how you’re killing it. Don’t be that guy.

Coaching your friends can get a little tricky, as you’ve now added relationships (or even marriages!) to the risks of your coaching program. With that in mind, stick to offering concepts and programs that you know the best, and keep the prototype stuff to yourself. Soon, the rate that you accumulate coaching experience will have increased exponentially, and you might even become the recipient of a steady stream of free beers.

Go Forth and Get Better

The job of a coach is never done, and that applies double to the self-coach. There’s no end to the ways you can grow, and that means you’re never done learning. For me, that’s part of the fun, because as I evolve as a coach, I improve as an athlete. Conversely, as I mature as an athlete, I improve as a coach. I’m never bored.

It’s tempting to say that anybody can be their own coach, but the further I get down this road, the less I believe that’s true. You have to be a certain kind of person to be successful at it: reflexively self-reliant, endlessly curious, and risk-tolerant without being reckless. But if you have the right personal attributes, there’s never been a better time in history to blaze your own path.

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