- (“Into the mind of the coach” – all the interview links)
- Please tell us something about yourself: where and when were you born and places you lived. Where do you live now?
I was born in 1991 and grew up in rural North Carolina. I went to college in Searcy, Arkansas, and since then I’ve lived in Orange County, CA and the North Carolina mountains. My wife and I are thinking about moving to Toronto soon, but that’s still up in the air.
- How would you describe yourself as a child? Very active? What types of activity interested you the most? Did you get involved with sports at an early age?
I was a weird kid. I played sports, but I spent most of my time with math and books, or out in nature. I grew up out in the woods and spent a lot of time exploring, chopping down trees, building forts, etc. This was before cell phones and in the earliest days of the internet, and I never got into video games quite as much as some of my friends, so usually I was doing something in the woods when it was light outside, and reading or doing math for fun and to pass the time when it was dark.
I was a pretty good athlete and played most sports as a kid. The three sports I devoted the most time to were basketball, baseball, and football. I was generally a team captain and made all-star teams as a kid, and I was a starter on every team I can remember being a part of. I also played a bit of soccer. In hindsight, I wish I would have stuck with soccer instead of football (I had to choose since they’re both fall sports).
I got knocked out of team sports when I was 15 due to concussion issues. The last one was pretty severe, and the doctors said my next concussion of that severity could kill me, and would likely leave me with lasting mental repercussions. I’ve always valued my brain more than my body, and I’m partial to staying alive, so that’s when I had to give up team sports. I still have some lasting issues from those concussions (I’d several more before that last big one), but nothing too severe.
Once I was knocked out of team sports, I started focusing on powerlifting as my main sport.
- Was any athlete your hero as a kid? If so, who?
Not really. I always thought it was strange to have athletes as role models. My hero (at least among famous people) as a kid was Bill Gates. I admired him equally for his intelligence and his philanthropy.
- Were you involved in sports during Highschool? How was that experience? At that age, did you already entertain the idea of becoming professionally involved with sports/training?
I played basketball, football, and baseball through my freshman year, but that last concussion that forced me to hang up my cleats took place between freshman and sophomore year. The experience up to that point was positive on the whole.
I do think, however, that there’s too much pressure placed on young athletes. I think a lot of coaches, parents, and players have forgotten that, first and foremost, it’s supposed to be fun. I distinctly remember losing my starting position on one basketball team (I was the team leader in scoring and assists, second in rebounding, and second in steals) because, to quote the coach “Nuckols, you smile and joke around too much, and I don’t think you take the game as seriously as you should.” He didn’t realize that when I was smiling and relaxed, that was a sign that I was locked in, focused, and ready to start causing the other team headaches.
I always entered the game a little jittery, but once I really figured out the other team’s offensive and defensive schemes, and I figured out how to predict the moves of whatever player I was guarding, I’d calm down, take control, and tear them apart. Why wouldn’t I be smiling? It was fun! I always played sports with a smile, because I always loved playing. Some coaches embraced that, but quite a few resented it.
I never really had any aspirations of playing sports professionally. Sure, I flirted with the idea (as I’m sure most kids do), but I was always one of those weirdos who actually enjoyed school, and I knew I was better in the classroom than I was on the field or the court.
- When and how did you decide to become a coach? Can you tell us a little about that choice and what it involved? Did your family support your decision?
I actually started coaching when I was 15 or 16. When I was getting into powerlifting, I had a great crew to train with. Our de facto coach was Travis Mash who was, at the time, was one of the best 3-5 powerlifters in the game. However, Travis got another job in Chicago a few months later, and most of that crew split up. I was the best lifter left, and I knew the most about the sport (not nearly as much as I thought I did, though). So, I started training the other powerlifters at that gym pro bono, and did so for the next 2-3 years until I left for college.
I decided to be a coach as my actual career at the start of my third year of college. I went to school as a history major, and had tested out of most of the gen-ed classes. By the start of my 5th semester, I was in the history capstone class, which was primarily focused on research, writing, and exploring career opportunities. That was the first time I’d really considered the jobs I could get with a history degree. I just loved reading and learning about history. Being a college professor was reasonably appealing, but I didn’t want to go to grad school right after undergrad, because I was getting married soon (I proposed that winter, and we got married the next summer) and I wasn’t interested in starting married life with six figures of student loan debt. The only other options were teaching grade school or working in a museum, neither of which appealed to me.
So, since I’d always liked sports and coaching anyways, I changed my major to exercise science three weeks into the semester. I was debating between pre-law, engineering, and exercise science. My brain said law, my skill set said engineering (I was always best and math and problem solving), but my gut said exercise science. I went with my gut. My family wasn’t disappointed, but they weren’t overly thrilled. Most trainers and coaches are broke. But they were supportive.
- Did you / are you involved in sports as an athlete? If so, how is your experience as an athlete influence your decisions in coaching?
I still train for powerlifting. I don’t train quite as seriously as I used to. I have plans to focus on it more again in the future, but I’ve previously been a pretty high level lifter (my best total was 1885 drug-free, raw with wraps at 242) and I know the type of time commitment that entails, and I just don’t have enough time to train at that level at the moment. My focus at the moment is on my athletes and helping as many people as possible through my website, so those are the things I devote most of my time to.
I think the biggest thing my experience as an athlete brings to the table is that I can give my athletes some perspective about what it takes to reach the top levels of their sport, not just in terms of training, but in terms of all of the factors that go into preparation. Mindset, nutrition, sleep, stress management, recovery work, etc. all play a role, and I don’t think many people understand just how large of a role they play unless they’ve been a high level athlete themselves and have lived that lifestyle.
- What is your educational background? Do you think school provided you with good tools for the profession you chose?
I have a BS in exercise and sports science. I definitely think school was important. I certainly don’t think it’s sufficient – it absolutely doesn’t replace experience – but it lays a valuable foundation. Most people who haven’t been through an exercise science program don’t have as solid of a handle on the basics – physiology, anatomy, sports nutrition, biomechanics, etc. – as they think they do. Once you understand the basics, you become much better at troubleshooting issues as they arise (i.e. the educated guesses you make when an athlete is having an issue are much more likely to be right), and it’s much easier to learn and assimilate new knowledge (because you have a solid base to build on) and separate useful information from BS.
- How do you feel about combining an academic career with coaching? What are your plans concerning that?
It’s hard to master two things. I can’t think of many really good coaches who are also really good sports scientists, and vice versa. I’m at that crossroads myself. I’m not sure whether I want to keep coaching full-time, or whether I want to go back to school for my MS and PhD to be a physiologist or sports scientist. Check back in about 5 years. 😉
- You are a provider of technical information to the wider public, to practitioners and to other coaches alike. Can you elaborate on this role and how you feel about it?
Sure. I’m just trying to equip people with the basic level of knowledge I got from an exercise science program, along with some pointers about application so people can see how it’s relevant to them. I write to myself, 5-10 years ago, and think, “what could have stopped me from making a lot of the dumb mistakes I made when I first started training or coaching?” Hopefully, if people have gone through some of the same challenges I did, and made some of the same mistakes I have, it’ll connect with them.
It’s something I enjoy doing. I can reach and help a lot more people that way, and that’s why I’m in this industry in the first place.
- The power of information: can better information for decision-making concerning peoples’ own body influence the current epidemiologic trends of increasing morbidity and mortality rates due to inactivity? (this question may overlap with the previous)
I doubt it. For most people, lack of information isn’t an issue. There are some fringe elements with whacko ideas, but 99.9% of people know that to get healthier and lose weight, they should eat fewer calories, eat generally healthier foods, cut back on added fats and sugar, and move around more.
People don’t lack information about what to do. They lack information about how to do it, and they’re playing with the deck stacked against them. Default options in most areas of life are generally unhealthy options (calorie-dense, highly processed foods, being sedentary instead of moving around, etc.), and most of us are on autopilot much more often than we realize. If we don’t consciously make good choices, we’ll generally unconsciously make bad choices.
Addressing that problem on an individual level is pretty doable; reworking our environments to make good choices the defaults (easy stuff, like laying out active wear and running shoes at night to make yourself more likely to go for a morning stroll or jog, or putting fruit on your counter instead of cookies so you’ll be more likely to make better snack choices), and addressing our habits so that we naturally make healthy choices and avoid unhealthy choices when we’re on autopilot. The process of changing your habits can be a little tricky, but it’s not a huge hurdle for most people who are willing to put a little effort into it.
Addressing it on a societal level is a bigger issue, and it’s well outside my realm of expertise to opine about it. But it’s a multifactoral issue that’ll require a multifactoral solution. Education is a step in the right direction, but I’m confident that it’s woefully insufficient by itself.
- At what age did you start coaching at a professional level? How was that beginning (where, who helped you the most, what were your greatest challenges)?
I was 20. I was coaching at Travis Mash’s gym (he’d moved back to NC from Chicago), working primarily with high school and college aged athletes – a few soccer players, runners, baseball players, and wrestlers, but mostly football and basketball players.
Observing Travis helped me a lot. He’s a lot more dynamic than I am. I’m personable, but I’m pretty reserved and analytical (unless you get a few drinks in me. Then I’m boisterous and analytical). That connected well with a few of the athletes, but most of them had come to expect strength coaches to be louder and more enthusiastic, from their prior experiences in weight rooms. I realized that coaching is also an acting job, to a degree. The athletes get a lot more from you than just a training program; they feed off your energy and try to rise to your expectations. So, it’s your job to bring the energy level up and set the bar high. That wasn’t something that came naturally to me, but it’s an area where I’ve been trying to improve.
- Who were your greatest influences? Who and what impacted your work the most? Can be anything: a member of the family deeply involved with something that geared you in that direction, an athlete you admired, an author that made a difference, an experience that changed your life, etc.
My parents, three of my teachers (Mrs. Johnson, who taught the nerds at my elementary school, who assured me that it was okay to be a nerd; Mr. Byrd, who taught history at my high school and made history interesting. He was the biggest reason I initially majored in history in college; Mrs. Noel, my high school English teacher, who thoroughly kicked my ass, while helping me become somewhat proficient at writing), and my wife (who pushes me to never settle for “good enough,” while also not letting me get so lost in my work that everything else suffers). And, like I said earlier, I always really admired Bill Gates. He did something that helped a ton of people, and in doing so he earned a lot of money that he could use for philanthropic work. I’d be a fool to compare Strengtheory to Microsoft, or myself to Bill Gates, but I hope my life can follow a similar arc, if not as grand of one.
- If you feel comfortable, I’d like to know your thoughts about the educational background for coaches in your country: are the programs available adequate for your needs? What do you think makes a strong basis for coaching? How did you obtain this?
On the whole, I’m not too pleased with the current system. As it stands now, you basically just have to study a book, sit for a test, get a certification, and voila, you can start coaching clients.
I wish being a trainer/coach was more similar to becoming a physical therapist or dietician. A PT needs to get a college degree, and then go to grad school, with internships and hands-on experience being an integral part of the graduate program. Dieticians generally don’t require a graduate degree, but they still need a four-year degree and a year-long internship before they’re allowed to practice independently.
Both the time in a classroom, and the time learning the craft under an experienced practitioner are crucial, I think.
If that happened
- Being a trainer/coach would be more societally respected (most people outside of the fitness industry, and even many inside the fitness industry don’t hold trainers or coaches in very high regard). That would influence more bright people to become trainers or coaches. There are some smart folks in the field now, but if we’re honest with ourselves, most trainers and coaches are ex-athletes who didn’t see any other viable career paths, and they were at least partially enticed by the low barriers to entry.
- Earning potential would be higher, because the market would be less saturated. Again, this would help attract more talent.
- It’s likely that insurance would reimburse for the services of a trainer. This probably wouldn’t help athletes much, but it would be a big benefit to society. Obesity and obesity-related diseases cost the US billions of dollars per year (and I’m sure it’s similar in other countries as their obesity rates catch up with ours) and it’s obvious that the medical system as a whole isn’t adequately equipped to deal with the problem. If a doctor could prescribe physical training under the supervision of a professional to someone who’s overweight, the same way they refer people with joint injuries to a physical therapist, and insurance would help foot the bill, that could help a lot of people who are currently unable to afford training out-of-pocket.
- The golden question: what is your approach to training (your “training philosophy”, meaning the way to organize exercises in a program, progression, principles to observe, whatever you think defines YOUR approach)?
I don’t really have one. It starts with the athlete. I start with their goals, strengths, weaknesses, schedule, and (as much as possible) preferences and then base their training on those factors, instead of starting with a pre-determined style of training I try to cram them into.
Ultimately, getting good results for people you train is a matter of getting as much effort out of them as possible, while keeping them as fresh as possible. That’s partially physical, but it’s mostly psychological. The training needs to be enjoyable and challenging without being excessive. Not everyone finds the same things enjoyable, and not everyone responds well to the same types of challenges. Once you figure those two things out for an individual, it’s not hard to manipulate the traditional programming variables (volume, intensity, frequency, etc.) within the constraints of that individual’s needs and preferences.
- The gap between science and practice: in your experience, how much does current scientific knowledge on exercise physiology, kinesiology, biomechanics, etc contribute to your daily decisions in coaching and how much does it fail to?
It’s hard to say for sure. I think in models. Not good/bad, right/wrong, but rather degrees, interactions, risk/reward, etc. Those models are informed by both science and experience. It’s very rare that I do something or recommend something because of a specific finding in a specific study, but it’s also very rare that I do something or recommend something with no scientific support (either direct or indirect) whatsoever.
The important thing to keep in mind about science is that it’s the best way to get accurate, reliable information about a particular phenomenon, but that knowledge gained through the scientific method, at least in most biological disciplines, generally isn’t 100% applicable for all people at all times. Some stuff is (the difference between calories in and calories out dictating change in body weight, gas exchange being a reliable indicator of energy expenditure and the proportion of energy substrates you’re using, etc.), but most of what we “know” about how people respond to various interventions (i.e. training programs) is based on average results.
I dug into this issue a bit more in this article (http://www.strengtheory.com/pubmed-doesnt-replace-a-strength-coach/), and this infographic actually does a pretty good job summing it up: http://ylmsportscience.blogspot.com/2015/07/heres-one-reason-why-being-humble-open.html
When I write, I’m wearing the hat of a scientist (or at least science interpreter) – what’s most likely to have the most positive effect for the largest number of people? When I coach, that’s usually my starting point, but the responses of the individual athletes are what future decisions are primarily based off.
- What were your biggest challenges as a coach?
For coaching in-person, my biggest issue is still energy level, and not being quite as reserved.
For online coaching, the biggest issue is just getting reliable feedback. I’m always shocked by the number of people who don’t shoot straight with me. They’re missing workouts, or skipping exercises, or making their own adjustments to the program that I don’t find out about until weeks later, or they’re clearly lying about how much they’re eating (or they just don’t record it accurately). I don’t care if someone goes off script from time to time, but I need to know about it so that I have an accurate view of what’s going on so that I can make informed adjustments.
- Some professionals in the health care fields become so traumatized when making a bad call with a patient/client that they give up. Did you ever make a bad call? How did you handle that? What advice would you give to younger people starting their coaching career?
Oh sure. I’ve made plenty of bad calls. It’s bound to happen; no one’s right 100% of the time.
The difference between a good coach and a bad coach is that a good coach will own up to their mistake, offer a refund if the screw-up is egregious enough, learn from their mistake, and not make the same mistake again. A bad coach will get defensive, stick with the default assumption that they must have been right, and the athlete screwed up, and keep making the mistake over and over again.
Being good at coaching (or anything) requires a balance between confidence and humility. You need to be confident in your decisions, but you also need to be able to get your ego out of the way and honestly evaluate your decisions after the fact so that you can learn from your mistakes and improve. If you’re not confident enough, you’ll always play things too conservatively, second guess all of your decisions, get mediocre results with your athletes, and wind up a basket case. If you’re not humble enough, you’ll make the same mistakes over and over, and never get better at your craft.
- How do you handle special groups, such as the elderly, pregnant women and the disabled? How is the communication with their primary health care professionals? Is it necessary and is it easy? What advice would you have for younger coaches when they are contacted by their first “special” client?
I refer out. I don’t have enough experience working with people like that to be confident in my ability to do a good job, and I know that someone who specializes in one of those populations could do a better job with those people anyways. I’m always after the best outcomes possible for the people who contact me, and if I think someone else could help them more than I could, I have no problem sending them to someone else.
- What is your clientele today? (types of people and their needs) Do you have a preference for one or another type?
Mostly 25-50 years old, mostly male, and mostly healthy. There’s a pretty even split between competitors and people who are just training for personal satisfaction. There’s not necessarily one demographic I prefer over another. It’s a person-by-person thing.
- Athletes: in which way are they different (or not) from other clients?
They’re generally the ones who are more likely to go off-script, and they tend to be a little more neurotic. There aren’t any major differences, though.
- Emotional / psychological aspects of coaching: if you had to instruct a group of young coaches, what would you say is the best professional attitude a coach must have concerning the emotional burden clients bring into the coach-client relationship? Besides a general approach, do you think some types of clients demand extra emotional work? Examples: anorexic young females, low self-esteem people in general, depressed or other psychiatric condition patients, over-stressed business people, etc.
If someone has an actual psychological disorder (like anorexia), I refer out.
Other than that, the most important thing you can do is just to legitimately give a shit about the people you work with. If you don’t truly care about the people you’re working with, you picked the wrong job. You need to listen to them and take what they say seriously, instead of expecting everyone to fit into the same mold, and assuming they care as much about training as you do (it’s easy to forget there’s life outside the gym if you spend 10 hours per day in the gym).
- Non-presencial coaching (online programming and/or coaching): what are the challenges? What to you require from clients to conduct a successful program?
The biggest challenge is getting thorough and honest feedback. I need to know what they did in the gym, how the workouts felt, how well they stuck to their diet (if I’m also helping them with their nutrition), how much energy they have, any challenges from the past week (deadlines, nights of poor sleep, abnormal stressors, etc.) and foreseen challenges for the upcoming week, and regular form check videos.