Featured Coach: Sean Waxman, Part 2 – On Being a Coach

In part two of our interview with Sean Waxman, we talk about coaching CrossFit athletes, the common mistakes in lifting, and how to become a great coach.

olympic weightlifting, olympic lifting, weightlifting, coaching, crossfit

Last week we spoke with Olympic weightlifting coach, Sean Waxman, about his competitive experience, how he was inspired to become a coach, and his dream for creating a team of international level weightlifters. This week the topics are training CrossFitters, the most common mistakes in weightlifting, and what makes a great coach.

For Sean, CrossFit has been a blessing. The exposure Olympic weightlifting has received as a result of CrossFit’s success has brought him students and allowed him to essentially coach only weightlifting full-time. Sean is inspired by the competitive spirit of the CrossFit athletes he works with and wants to take them to the next level of their sport. “I train a lot of the top competitive CrossFitters in Southern California,” said Sean. “I would love to continue to develop my reputation in that world and become the go-to person. Once they’ve gone through Mike’s [Burgener] stuff, which is a great introduction, when somebody is looking for some specialty work, they’re going to come to me.”

But coaching CrossFit athletes comes with its own special set of challenges. Typically, CrossFit competitors are used to higher numbers of repetitions and weights that are not as heavy as what Olympic weightlifters train with. In addition, because of the broad range of skills that CrossFit incorporates, most CrossFit athletes have not taken the time to learn the nuances of the lifts.

When I get people coming to me that their first experience with Olympic lifting has been through CrossFit, they’re all consistent – they all make the same mistakes. It’s kind of ironic. Everybody’s looking the same way. They do a very good job teaching what they want to teach, I just think some of the things they teach are wrong, or they’re focusing on the wrong things. There’s a disconnect as far as how to really develop that power that’s needed to move the bar. I think part of it stems from the fact they’re not really asked to lift very heavy weights. So in that case, you can lift a light weight a million different ways. The focus tends to be on the start and the finish of the lift. You don’t pay attention to the process – the stuff that’s in the middle. Because it’s a light weight they’re lifting, the mistakes aren’t really magnified.

olympic weightlifting, olympic lifting, weightlifting, coaching, crossfitFor Sean, what this represents is inefficiency of movement. Inefficiency of movement in CrossFit could mean all the difference between winning and losing a competition, because a movement could needlessly tire you out for what comes next.

If you’re competing, even if you’re not doing the Games, but you’re competing with other people in the gym on a daily basis, if you calculate the work that’s being done in the exercise, if it’s a bodyweight exercise or a wall ball, the work being done in those exercises is nothing compared to the work being done with the barbell. If you’re being inefficient with the barbell then you’re wasting energy that would be better off spent with the other stuff you have in that WOD. If you have power cleans and then you have muscle-ups, you can get through those power cleans and have a very good time, but at what cost? If you’re inefficient, then you have less energy for the next thing. If you can do these things efficiently, if you can lift the barbell efficiently, you’re going to have a lot more in the tank for everything else. And that’s really the biggest mistake that I see – that they’re just really inefficient lifting the barbells. They do things incorrectly, because they can.

For those of you following along with Sean’s Strength & Conditioning workouts or wondering what it is Sean tells his athletes when he is working with them, Sean had these two bits of advice:

  • Learn how to prepare the torso for lifting something quickly. Most people know the words. They hear the words – lumbar spine or arched back. Whatever those words that people say, but they don’t tell them how. You describe an action without really describing what’s supposed to happen.
  • Everybody comes to me trying to squat on their heels. Squatting in your heels isn’t necessarily incorrect if you’re doing a certain type of squat, but the weight on your foot is related to the angle of your torso. So, if your torso is inclined forward, which is fine in a powerlifting style squat, then your weight can be back, but if you’re talking about the Olympic lifts, where the vertical torso is necessary, then in all the squatting action the torso should resemble the angle that it’s at in the clean and jerk, which is as upright as you can – then you can’t be in your heels. You can’t squat on your heels if your torso is upright. You can’t keep your knees back, your shins vertical and your weight in your heels if your torso is vertical. It’s just not something that’s a strong position.

For Sean, coaching athletes to an elite level is a long and potentially slow process. Sean is interested not just in creating quick and easy success for his athletes, but growing them beyond competing on the national level. As such, he creates a general program for his lifters to follow, but then tailors it to each individual athlete’s needs.

I think there are very basic elements that need to be addressed with everybody and then as they progress certain individual needs will pop up and the training will be altered to meet that particular need. It’s not necessarily a one size fits all. I think it’s important for young lifters to do a lot of lifts and really form that strong technical base first. I’m constantly holding them back from lifting max attempts, because I think if you’re not technically sound, your ceiling of improvement is going to be lower if you’re pushing too heavy too soon. When you lift a max attempt you go to your default motor patterns, it’s like fight or flight, it’s a reaction. If your default is something incorrect then that’s what you’re going to do all the time when you’re lifting a heavy weight.

One of the biggest problems I see, especially in this country, is we have very talented kids and they’ll develop four or five years and they’ll stop developing, stop improving because they’re limited by some technical flaw. Generally the answer given is to get them strong, but at some point that’s not going to work. To me it’s really working the parts of the technique individually, the different parts of the pull, different parts of the positions, working them individually for a significant amount in the beginning, along with doing the full lifts – really spending the time and instilling the patience in my lifters to do things correctly. I don’t know if that’s a philosophy, but they have to earn the right to lift heavy weights. They earn the right by being consistent. When they show me consistency then that’s when their intensities will start to creep up, but I’m not going to have a talented kid go out there and lift real heavy weights early on just because he can. There has to be a period of development. I’ll probably lose kids because of that, but in the long run it’s more important to me they’re going to reach whatever their hundred percent of potential is. That’s more important to me than a quick hit and to win some medals at the national level and then he’ll be in the C group at an international meet. That’s not what I’m interested in.

For Sean, all the passion he once poured into his own athletic career now comes out in his coaching. It is clear when interacting with Sean that the success of his athletes means more to him than anything else, whether that success be in CrossFit, Olympic lifting, or simply meeting their own maximum potential. Sean takes the title of coach seriously and has committed himself fully to his profession.

For those wanting to become coaches, Sean had this to share:

olympic weightlifting, olympic lifting, weightlifting, coaching, crossfitIf you want to be a weightlifting coach, then you need to be a weightlifter at some point. There are some examples of coaches in this country who have not been weightlifters, but I can only think of one or two who have actually done anything significant in coaching the sport. I think you have to pay attention. You have to ask questions. You have to continually learn. Continually talk about what it is you’re trying to coach, with other coaches, with other people. It’s a lifestyle; it’s not a part time thing. It’s a trade. It’s a skill. Guitarists play guitar all the time. They don’t just show up at a concert and play. Their whole life is guitar. In my humble opinion, if you want to be a good coach, your whole life you should be coaching. Everything you do should revolve around coaching. It’s too easy to become a coach, especially in this country. Because the barrier of entry is so low, I don’t think people truly understand what it takes to become a good coach. You can go to a weekend, pass a test, and be called coach. In other countries, being called coach is an honor; it’s like being called doctor or lawyer. It’s a huge accomplishment. It takes years. In Russia and some of the Eastern Bloc countries it takes six, seven years to actually be designated a coach. So I think just respecting the profession, not dishonoring it by just spouting your opinions on things. Have some grounds. If somebody asks you why you’re doing something with an athlete, you should always be able to answer that question. You should never do anything just because. And if you can’t answer “why” on anything you do then you need to either not do that or go learn why.

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