I was going to write “the reality”. This would be not only false and simplistic, but arrogant and illogical. There is no “the” reality. Every good coach who distance-coaches (online) does so after years of on-ground coaching.
Here I will share how one feeds back into the other for me, how the variety of programs I had to create along the years provided, at the same time, the perception of regularities and the perception of uniqueness (again, for me) and the mistakes I made and learned from.
The first thing I will share about me – and whether it can be generalized or not is outside the scope of this article, whose weird objective is to restrict the issue to my professional experience, regardless of anybody else’s – is that I can’t even imagine myself coaching at a distance if I didn’t think, breath, read and live strength training 24/7. Besides that, being an international powerlifting judge at a reputable organization, where judges work their ass off sometimes over 10 hours/day during important meets, provides an “eye” experience with the lifts that is hard to explain. A judge sees, observes, is responsible for analyzing an average of 40 squats, 40 bench presses and 40 deadlifts in the space of an average of 4 hours. That makes it an average of 30 lifts per hour or one lift every 2 minutes, which needs to be judged to perfection. Although coaching is a totally different universe, I doubt if “chair time” can be substituted by anything else in terms of variety of body-types, styles, skill mastery, etc. Not to mention commitment to lifting.
The second thing about me that I’m pretty sure most people don’t know is that I am a very conservative coach. I never apply to any athlete/student any exercise, protocol, routine or equipment that I haven’t employed on my own training. I’ve discarded many because they were ineffective or even harmful. There are plenty of things that sound awesome, but really don’t work.
I got hurt a lot. I learned a lot from each of my injuries. Most were my fault.
I became familiar with my shortcomings, many of which are chronic and emanate from deep wounds in my mind.
This real life, first hand experience is what provides the basis for building any program.
Of course, a profound knowledge of training principles is the foundation of everything, including the mistakes I make. But no conceptual knowledge substitutes experience.
The flipside of this coin is that distance coaching improved my communication ability with on-ground athletes. If I can develop skill on someone I can’t even touch or demonstrate anything with the incomparable resolution of the human eye, then I can teach anyone, anything.
Also, distance athletes train in a variety of training settings and I learn how to make a program feasible and productive under ANY condition. It’s my job to do so.
I’ve been doing this for 10 years. Actually 12. During these 12 years, I accumulated a huge library of program spreadsheets for different people (hundreds), with different objectives, different levels of skill mastery, ages, sex, availability of equipment, of time and mood variations. Along over a decade, it is possible to observe a few regularities. These regularities can be made into templates over which individual training programs may be developed.
And this is where the first mistake was made. Because the uniqueness of the individual being coached is more important than the regularities and only sufficient experience allows one to be accurately perceptive to such singularities. When I partnered with a colleague to provide this service, I broke the chain. I designed the programs, the templates were all mine, but I delegated the monitoring of athletes. And that’s wrong. Only I can effectively see where something is not going the way I planned and will not produce the desired result.
I can decide whether the best block size for a certain athlete is 12 +/- 2 days, as I did with one elite athlete in need of some help with a difficult period. Only I can decide if this athlete is still too young, chronologically, to have a skill retention that allows for a greater pre-meet rest (or deload, if you like). Only I can interpret his feedback as indicative of early peaking and take measures to prevent it.
So I changed everything. I decided that I want daily feedback from all of them. I also want videos at least once a week. I want timed workouts. I need to know how they feel, their weight and their subjective perception of everything.
I have a special folder for them where their emails land and allow me to check on a daily basis.
I also changed how I approach the program. Before I even decide what to propose and, together with the athlete, decide on the best or possible course of action, I need to analyze videos, then prescribe one or two test weeks, get videos of those, analyze again. Only then we talk program and… money.
I’ve been criticized for all this. It was pointed out to me that this approach is not economically sustainable. If it is not, so be it. Working with the athletes I have right now takes many hours of my week. I can’t handle too many in this format. I have a friend who provides a great service with interdisciplinary analysis of their athletes. They handle their team as a team. It works for them. Maybe I need to learn from him and build myself a team of highly knowledgeable coaches who can work together. Until then, I’ll coach what I can.
It will get worse if I have to write more or accept a teaching position at a university I am working with now. What am I going to do? No, I won’t change anything. The only consequence this will have is that I won’t be able to coach as many athletes because the day has only 24h and I am only human.
About the unprofitable nature of what I do, this is what I have to say: I chose to live in Oklahoma City. I have dreams to accomplish here, which involve using the combined academic knowledge I have on the life sciences and exercise sciences and my experience in coaching to make a contribution on relevant social issues, the most important of which is suicide prevention and PTSD management among psychological trauma-victimized servicemen – veteran or in active duty.
I live in a small rental house. I am perfectly aware that I won’t make a lot of money.
But that’s ok. I’ve lived a long and rich life that led me to my present choices. Concerning online coaching, they involve a time consuming process. Therefore, less money, because I simply don’t believe in charging a lot and maybe I don’t want the people who can pay a lot.
My library is rich. Like everything I build and produced, I can give it to anyone: it won’t help them be me. Because what makes my work unique is something that is glued to my neck and resides inside a bone box: my brain. And, well, there’s only one of that.
There are several awesome coaches out there. As I said, my goal here was to specifically speak from my subjective experience. But I suspect they’d agree with me. Their work is something only they can do.
And that’s the beauty of it. So many unique approaches, yet so many are efficient and successful.