This past May, I attended the Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group’s Summer Seminar at Northeastern University. The lineup of speakers was outstanding, and the very first speaker was a sports rehabilitation specialist named Bill
Knowles. Admittedly, at the time, I had never even heard of him (which I’m now embarrassed to say). He was an excellent speaker and gave a very interesting lecture, which turned out to be one of my favorites at the whole seminar.
In his talk, he mentioned a book called The Talent Code and briefly discussed its implications in the world of coaching and sports “reconditioning,” a term he preferred over “rehabilitation.” Coach Knowles stressed that this book was a must-read for the strength and conditioning professional. The Talent Code was actually on my Amazon wish list, but after listening to Coach Knowles speak, I knew I had to get my hands on it and read it right away.
The book turned out to be awesome, as expected, and I couldn’t put it down (I love those kinds of books). It was jam-packed with a lot of great information that translates directly to the field of coaching. I learned things that I could apply right away with athletes and clients to help them improve their performance. In today’s blog, I’d like to share just some of the things I took away from The Talent Code, in no particular order, that helped me to improve my coaching and make it more effective.
The Talent Code focuses on a microscopic substance called myelin. Some of you, like me, remember learning about the “myelin sheath” in junior high or high school science class; I know it was not something we spent a lot of time on where I went to school, and I merely knew it as something that wrapped around a nerve fiber to increase the speed of signal transmission. While that definition is accurate, it is much too simplistic, as more and more research has shown that myelin has many more far-reaching implications. One such implication is that of skill acquisition, and we as strength and conditioning coaches have the ability to harness this power in our athletes and clients. Here is a more complete definition of myelin, pulled directly from The Talent Code:
(1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of nerve fibers. (2) Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy. (3) The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.
Now that you have more of an understanding about how myelin works, here are some
ways to enhance its beneficial effects through coaching (again, this is in no particular order).
1. M+, M-, M+ – This was a sequence noted in the research of Ron Gallimore and Roland Tharp when they did a study on the coaching methods of the late, great John Wooden.
John Wooden, the “Wizard of Westwood”
It happened so often that they actually nicknamed it a “Wooden.” This was a three-part instruction that Wooden used in practice where he modeled the right way to do something, then showed the incorrect way, and then modeled it the right way again. Wooden was a master at conveying a great deal of information in short, succinct bursts (i.e. “Hard, driving, quick steps.”). In fact, his demonstrations rarely took longer than 3 seconds and he rarely spoke for more than 20 seconds. From the months of practices that Gallimore and Tharp observed, they calculated that 75% of what Wooden said was “pure information.”
When you’re coaching, try to convey as much information as possible in as few words as possible. Give repeated, “short bursts” of information until you see the task at hand being performed correctly. I’ve made a point to use the “M+, M-, M+” method with clients and athletes this summer, and have found it to be really effective. Show your client what you want to see, then what you don’t want to see (essentially what they were doing), and then reinforce what you want to see as a “little reminder,” as I like to say.
2. Use External Cues – I noticed an interesting parallel between an aspect of The Talent Code and this excellent blog written by Sam Leahey (which you should read, too). In The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle spends some time with Tom Martinez, a quarterback coach who is perhaps most famous for his work with Tom Brady.
Tom Martinez coaching Tom Brady (sadly, Coach Martinez passed away earlier this year)
He watches how Martinez coaches and listens intently to what he says to his players. Here are a few snippets from Martinez at one of his clinics where he was coaching 6 high school quarterbacks:
“Get the ball back faster. The ball’s on fire, and you got to get it out.”
“Keep the ball high; it’s like an airplane taking off.”
“The ball goes from butt to armpit.”
“You’re like a waiter. Keep the ball up, deliver it.”
What is so special about these phrases? They are all external cues. External cues refer to the effect of a particular movement or the environment, whereas internal cues refer to the specific movement of a body part. For example, an external cue for the deadlift would be “chest proud,” and an internal cue would be “retract and depress your shoulder blades.” Research has shown that the use of more external cues has led to better performance outcomes. That is not to say that internal cues should be completely thrown to the curb, but most of the time, external cues tend to be more effective.
I think the best way to learn more external cues is through experience. Go and observe good coaches and listen to what they say when they coach. Also, the more personal experience you have coaching, the easier it is to come up with your own useful cues.
3. Make Sure Your Athletes/Clients are Firing the Right Circuits – The more you fire a particular circuit, the more myelin will wrap around it, and the more it will be optimized. In other words, the more you perform a particular movement, say, a squat, the more myelin will wrap the “squat circuit” and the more “automatic” that movement will be. However, you want to be sure that the given movement is being performed correctly so the right circuit is fired! I think there are a couple of ways to ensure this:
- Slow it down – Do not focus on the speed of the movement right away. Myelin wraps circuits regardless of how fast or slow a movement is performed. Once correct technique has been established, then it’s appropriate to gradually increase the speed of the movement (i.e. bar speed in the bench press). To quote coach Tom Martinez, “It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly.” Prioritize movement quality first; new clients or beginner athletes will make mistakes, and that is okay, as it is necessary to the learning process. Just be sure to correct those mistakes, ensuring quality of movement, so that the right circuit is fired and wrapped.
- Keep the reps low – When I’m programming a compound movement for a new client or athlete, I never go above 5 or 6 reps per set. Yes, beginners need repetition of a given movement, but I feel that the best way for them to get those repetitions is through added sets, not reps. Again, you want to make sure that the correct circuits are fired. If your client can only perform 3 perfect trap bar deadlifts at a time, then so be it. It may take several sets for them to get the volume you want, and that’s okay. Giving your client 8 sets of 3 where every rep is perfect is going to do a lot more for them than 3 sets of 8 where the majority of the reps are crappy.
4. Everybody is Different, So Coach Them That Way – When Gallimore and Tharp studied John Wooden, they realized that he distributed praise and criticism unevenly. In fact, he was very open about this to his players, telling them that they would each receive individual treatment because they were all different. Their personalities, backgrounds, intelligence, and talents were all unique. This is true no matter where you coach or who you coach. Realize that everybody is different and responds differently to certain methods of coaching. For this reason, I think it’s important that you do not coach every athlete or client the same if you want them to get optimal results.
The best way to find out how to coach somebody is to take an interest in them and get to know them better. Approach new clients with the curiosity of an investigative reporter: find out more about their life, their family, their interests, their motivation, etc. Monitor how each client responds to your cues, as you may have to adjust them to make sure they understand what you’re trying to convey. Your choice of words and the tone of voice with which you deliver them can positively or negatively impact a client. It’s your job to find out what they respond to best!
5. Choose Your Words Wisely When Giving Praise – Dr. Carol Dweck, a social psychologist at Stanford University, did a study with 400 New York 5th graders where she gave every child a test that consisted of fairly easy puzzles. The catch was, half of the children were praised for their intelligence (i.e. “You must be smart at this”) and half were praised for their effort (i.e. “You must have worked really hard”). After the initial test, the kids were tested a second time, with the choice between a harder test and an easier test. What resulted was astounding: 90% of the kids who’d been praised for their effort chose the harder test, whereas the majority of the kids praised for their intelligence chose the easier test. Dweck was so surprised that she repeated the study 5 times, but each time the result was the same.
According to Dweck, “We are exquisitely attuned to messages telling us what is valued.” In other words, we generally do not respond as well to motivational language (“You are the best!”) as we do to language that “ignites” us, instilling a sense of passion. Language of ignition affirms the value of effort and slow progress rather than natural talent or intelligence. Effort-based language works so well because it speaks to the “baby-steps” and the “struggle” necessary in the learning process. When coaching, make sure only to give out praise when it is truly earned, though; Dweck states that motivation does not increase with increased levels of praise but often decreases.
For 8 weeks this summer, I was in the weight room 3 days per week working with a local football team. I was very careful with how I praised them, and made sure only to dish out praise when they truly earned it. My two phrases of choice, which have been shown to motivate far better than “empty” praise, were “Good job,” and “Nice effort” (“You really tried hard” would work well here, too). Throughout the summer, as I used these phrases, I noticed that their focus and execution in the weight room got consistently better. I’m not saying that this was solely because of me and my choice of words, but I certainly believe that it had something to do with it. Dweck has demonstrated that a mere six words can have a huge effect on outcomes, so as a coach, know that every single one of your words serves a purpose, and be sure to choose them carefully.
6. Show some love – In a study conducted by Dr. Benjamin Bloom of the University of Chicago, he asked 21 internationally accomplished pianists to describe their very first piano teachers. Take a look at a few of the descriptions:
“She was very kindly, very nice.”
“He was enormously patient and not very pushy.”
“It was an event for me to go to my lessons.”
Do you see the similarities? These teachers are essentially teaching love, which, like effort-based language, is another way of igniting passion and motivation. Bloom’s study sums it up nicely:
“The effect of this first phase of learning seemed to be to get the learner involved, captivated, hooked, and to get the learner to need and want more information and expertise.”
As a strength coach, I feel our primary objective is to get people interested and excited about fitness. By being nice, patient, caring, and having fun, people will be more likely to look forward to their training sessions and stick to their program. When you’re coaching, be happy, be enthusiastic, and let your actions demonstrate to your clients that there’s nowhere else you’d rather be than here, helping them reach their goals. Give every client your all and coach your ass off. Be the one to help them set up a foundation for a lifelong commitment to health and fitness.
These are just some of the takeaways I had from reading The Talent Code. Obviously, it’s a great read, and I highly recommend that you read it if you are a coach in the gym, on the court, or on the field. This book has made me a better coach, and I hope this post has helped you become a better coach, as well.