One of the primary tasks of strength coaches is to teach weight training exercises to athletes. This could be considered one of the most important jobs a strength coach can perform, as the teaching of proper exercise technique improves the overall safety of the athletes involved. In addition, properly learned technique increases the effectiveness of the training exercises and methods being used. It is therefore incumbent upon strength coaches to not only learn how to skillfully teach such exercises but also to find the most efficient manner in which to do so. Efficiency of teaching allows the athlete to properly learn the exercise in the quickest way possible. The amount of practice an athlete receives on the skill will improve performance in the long run. The quicker it is learned, the more practice they will acquire (18).
There are many teaching resources available for strength coaches, including articles, videos, and clinics from a multitude of sources. Many of these resources feature research-based approaches to teaching and reflect the overall improvement in professionalism and legitimacy this field has experienced in recent years. However, for a number of reasons, many coaches routinely make common mistakes when teaching exercises. Whether it is the fault of using traditional and/or unsupported methods of teaching or not fully understanding the many different teaching options available, ultimately it is the athlete who may suffer the consequences of these coaching mistakes. The common coaching errors discussed in this article are that of using too many coaching cues, too many steps, and/or too much feedback when teaching relatively simple exercises. This causes the coach to sacrifice valuable training time in order to do so. This phenomenon is referred to as overcoaching. While overcoaching may delay an athlete's learning of an exercise, it becomes more damaging when it delays the athlete's physical development. The latter scenario occurs when a coach forces an athlete to practice a particular step or exercise for many training sessions (without increases in load). This will go on until the coach deems the skill to be proficiently learned. When skill practice occurs for weeks or months without any meaningful training during that time, the concept of strength and conditioning becomes obscured. It is at this point where a coach needs to consider which of the 2 following goals he or she wants to achieve: perfect exercise form in a skill unrelated to the sport or actual training for the sport that the athlete participates in.
CAUSES OF OVERCOACHING
Overcoaching typically does not evolve in a vacuum but is usually the result of several causes. These include confusion in finding an optimal teaching method, overconcern for safety, obsession with perfect technique, and a lack of confidence in coaching ability. A summary of the causes of overcoaching may be seen in Table 1.
CONFUSION WITH TEACHING METHODS
When sifting through training articles, it becomes rather easy to see how some coaches can become confused as to how many steps or cues are optimal when teaching certain exercises. One example is the vast amount of variability in the recommendations for teaching the clean or its derivatives. Some articles suggest using 6 or more different steps, with upwards of 26 different coaching cues for the hang power clean (6). Another article refers to using 12 separate steps when learning the clean (7). Still another suggests an 8-step method for the power clean, with up to 7 cues per step (9). USA Weightlifting and a former Soviet Union national weightlifting coach recommend using 7 steps when introducing the clean to athletes (12,21). In contrast, international weightlifting powerhouse Bulgaria uses only 4 steps to do the same (5). A coach who reads each of these articles would be faced with a rather daunting task of deciding just who is correct and which progression should be used in favor of the others.
Interestingly, using lengthy teaching progressions with numerous steps and coaching cues such as those cited above seems to be a trend largely associated with weight room activities. If the reason for such detailed and careful sequences is the safety of the learner, one has to wonder about the teaching of other sporting activities that have higher rates of injury than weight room exercises. In a sport such as basketball, for example, a complex skill such as the jump shot may be described as having only 5 separate phases (2). It may often be taught with even less steps, which is far fewer than that of the clean described above. This is despite the risk of injury in basketball being much greater than that in weightlifting (0.3/100 h compared with 0.0017/100 h, respectively) (20). If a coach uses little to no weight when teaching an exercise, there is even less risk of injury. One may ask why a skill, such as the clean, requires so many more steps and cues than another equally complex skill such as the jump shot? Another example is the discus throw, which is arguably more complex than most, if not all, weight room exercises, yet has been described as only having four parts (4). There are many other examples in sports of movements that require far more motor precision and skill than weight room exercises and carry with them a higher likelihood of injury. Some of these may never be overcoached on the practice field, court, or mat. Perhaps the answer may lie in the familiarity of one skill over another, with the jump shot being far more familiar to most athletes and coaches than the clean. Although that is hardly an excuse to overcoach this particular skill, it may offer a clue as to why it occurs.
OVERCONCERN WITH SAFETY
As is the case with the clean and other seemingly complex weight room exercises, a coach may become primarily concerned with the safe execution of these skills. Although safety is certainly something to be lauded, too much concern for safety, and not enough concern for training, may lead the coach down the road to overcoaching. Although technical mistakes may occur in the weight room and injuries may result, such scenarios are relatively rare (10,19,20). It is important that exercises are taught in a manner that allows for safe execution, but it is equally important that once the skill is mastered, the athlete work toward physical improvement (adding resistance for purposes of training). After all, one of the purposes of strength and conditioning is the prevention of injury, and if the athlete does not receive some sort of meaningful training within a reasonable amount of time, he or she will not be any more less prone to injury than someone who has not trained at all.
OBSESSION WITH PERFECT TECHNIQUE
Related to an inordinate amount of concern for exercise safety is an unproductive fixation with the perfect execution of an exercise. Again, the clean provides an example of this obsession with technique in action. There are many articles and books available, which discuss the appropriate execution of this lift (1,5-7,9,12,16,17,21,22) with as many different descriptions as there are teaching progressions. Although these sources may agree on a few basic ideas concerning the lift, they may differ on the biomechanics, positions, and points of importance. This may also lead to confusion on the part of strength coaches seeking to know which technique is correct, but this does not have to be the case. The majority of these articles and texts describe the form of elite-level weightlifters. Novice athletes of sports unrelated to weightlifting do not have the same amount of training and experience with the clean as these elite athletes. Therefore, any expectation of achieving similar positions, bar speeds, and other measurements is unrealistic at best.
All athletes differ in height, weight, strength, flexibility, and other measurements of configuration and performance; it is impractical to expect each of them to perform an exercise in the exact same manner. What is effective and safe for one athlete may be ineffective and unsafe for another. An often-overlooked aspect of the teaching process is finding the best technique for each individual athlete and maximizing his or her own potential. There will always be a basic technique or rhythm involved with any movement or exercise, but the coach needs to recognize and account for individual style differences based on the unique structure and abilities of each athlete. If a coach can do this, as opposed to overcoaching in the pursuit of a “perfect technique,” he or she will expedite the learning process.
It is also essential to remember that most athletes do not compete in sports that involve weight room exercises or movements. For example, aside from competitive weightlifters, no athletes actually perform the clean in competition. It is much more crucial for coaches to train these athletes as specifically as possible for the sport that they actually compete in, as opposed to spending unnecessary amounts of time perfecting movements unrelated to their sport. Once the athlete has learned a particular exercise, it is important that they begin to train with it in order to become stronger or more explosive (depending on the purpose of the exercise). If the athlete is unable to master the exercise (due to structural or functional peculiarities or a lack of interest), it is the coach's responsibility to find a different exercise to train whatever physical quality is being sought after. This may work much better than wasting valuable time overcoaching an exercise that may not be necessary for training in the first place.
LACK OF CONFIDENCE IN COACHING
A lack of confidence when coaching athletes in the weight room often accompanies a lack of experience but not always. Some strength coaches may be afraid to make mistakes teaching athletes new exercises due to a fear that they may become injured, frustrated, or lose confidence in their coach's ability. To avoid this, these coaches may tend to cling to strict teaching methods and progressions found in articles and books and steer clear of allowing for style differences. The result may be overcoaching for those athletes who do not fit the coach's expectations of perfection and a general lack of physical progress. Although this may be understandable, there are plenty of reasons why it may be beneficial for the athletes to make minor mistakes when learning a new exercise (provided they can do so without risk of injury). Elite athletes have a distinct ability to detect errors in their own performance, and based on such feedback, they work to correct those errors (8). This is not something that is inherent but rather trained and developed. If a coach has confidence in his or her abilities and allows the athletes to make or detect mistakes on their own, the learning process may be accelerated (8).
SOLUTIONS TO OVERCOACHING
The solutions to overcoaching primarily lie in sound motor learning theory, namely the type of instruction used, the number of cues given, and the feedback provided during or after performance. A summary of the solutions to overcoaching may be seen in Table 2.
TYPE OF INSTRUCTION
The manner in which a coach introduces and teaches an exercise or a skill to an athlete is crucial to whether or not the process is successful. It may be of benefit for a coach to learn several different teaching methods to be able to provide a number of different approaches for each athlete. Individual athletes will vary in the manner in which they learn new skills. Some may prefer less oral instruction and more demonstration, whereas others may prefer to practice the skill in order to understand and master it (8). It is important for the coach to determine which learning styles work for each athlete and to use appropriate teaching methods when providing instruction. If a coach is dependent on only one form of communication, such as oral, many athletes will not connect with what the coach is trying to convey and overcoaching may result. Sometimes, the best way an athlete may learn is by actually practicing the movement and figuring it out by him or herself. An athlete will often learn to correct mistakes on his or her own if given the opportunity and perhaps a little guidance.
The human brain is incredible, and allowing the athlete to use it to problem solve while learning a new movement should be put to the coach's advantage. There seems to be little use in preventing such natural processes from occurring. When given a certain amount of input, such as exercise instruction, an athlete will identify the information and select a response based on what he or she considers to be appropriate. This is known as information processing and may be used as a simple model for understanding how the brain takes in data from the environment, identifies it, and responds to it (18). The response that an athlete chooses is not always correct, and coaches may decide to address a specific area within the information-processing model where mistakes are suspected. If the athlete is unclear as to the meaning of the instruction provided, the coach may choose to simply clarify what was addressed. On the other hand, if the athlete understands the instruction but cannot produce the appropriate response, the coach may choose to alter the manner in which the instruction is given or change the information outright. In either scenario, the use of pertinent cues plays an important role in information processing and learning.
LIMITING THE NUMBER OF CUES
When providing or clarifying instructions, a coach needs to remember that each athlete is limited as to how many coaching points and cues he or she can retain in short-term memory. This number has been estimated to be somewhere between 5 and 9 pieces of information (13). If the athlete is not paying full attention to the coach during instruction in a noisy weight room, he or she may miss certain cues, further limiting how much information actually becomes stored in memory. It then becomes paramount that the coach limit the number of cues to only those that are most important, closely related to the task at hand, and easily understood. If a coach uses too many cues, the athlete may become confused and suffer performance detriments, which will make the teaching process much more difficult (14). The concept of keeping the experience short and simple seems to make sense in this regard. Additionally, athletes tend to remember the first and last coaching points best when given a list. This phenomenon is known as primacy and recency, respectively (11). The coach may put this to his or her advantage by emphasizing the most important pieces of information first and last.
Similarly, in choosing to address only those cues and points that are most important, a coach may be able to figure out which mistakes may be causing others to occur. By correcting one critical mistake first, subsequent errors may be corrected, thereby eliminating the need to spend further time addressing each of them. An example of this may be seen when teaching the snatch. An athlete may be experiencing too much separation between his or her body and the barbell during the second pull (looping) and may be missing the lift behind. Instead of taking the time to address each of these problems individually, a coach may simply choose to tell the athlete to slow down the first pull. This may help to keep the athlete in a more balanced and proper position when initiating the second pull. Once that happens, the athlete may be able to keep the barbell closer to the body, which will allow it to be more easily secured overhead. Another example may be seen in an article by Rippetoe (15), in which common mistakes made by athletes performing the back squat may be corrected by simply putting the athletes into a proper squatting stance beforehand. By allowing the athletes to gain a feel for the position at the bottom of a squat, they are able to know when their form is incorrect and can fix this problem largely on their own. This simple approach to teaching limits the propensity to use too many cues and overcoach this exercise. There is also little point to spending enormous amounts of time teaching an exercise to the point of frustration and fatigue. In doing so, a coach may actually degrade performance and inhibit the learning process (3).
As mentioned earlier, many athletes will be able to self-correct mistakes, especially if they have been taught how to detect those errors (8). As important as it may be to point out a mistake, it may be equally important that the athletes learn how to feel or detect those same mistakes themselves so that they may be able to correct them on their own with further practice. By giving less cues, and allowing for more practice, a coach may actually speed up the learning process.
Feedback on performance supplied by the coach to the athlete is a critical part of the learning process. Unfortunately, some coaches do not know how much feedback is optimal or what types of feedback may be most helpful. The quality of the feedback is usually more important than its quantity, although beginners will typically require more feedback than intermediate or advanced learners (8). However, although it may be crucial for the coach to provide performance feedback, it may be more important to help the athletes identify for themselves what is correct and incorrect about their performances (8). This way, the athletes receive information about their performances and the chance to develop their own mechanisms of feedback for matters of self-correction (18). A coach may certainly provide technical feedback about an athlete's execution in an exercise, but he or she should also ask how it felt and about what they thought were the positives and negatives of the performance. This type of feedback encourages athletes to think about their own performances and learn to detect errors (18).
An example of this may be seen when instructing the power clean and power snatch. For complex exercises such as these, coaches often find it best to break the movements down into parts to further facilitate learning. This way, the coach may be able to provide fewer cues at a time and ensure that the athlete focuses only on a limited amount of information. If an athlete is having difficulty repositioning his or her body under the barbell after the second pull (squat under), assistant exercises such as the drop clean or drop snatch may be used to help develop the athlete's own sense of rhythm and kinesthetic awareness (1). Timing is critical to success in these 2 exercises, and the athlete will be forced to move quickly and with the appropriate rhythm. The coach can help the athlete to understand and become aware of the skill by asking how the lift felt and focusing his or her attention to the speed of the exercise. Once the athlete has discovered the necessary timing and speed of the squat under with the aid of these partial movements, he or she will be able to complete a competent power clean or power snatch.
A constant and persistent stream of feedback from a coach may actually degrade performance and retard the learning process (18). Inhibiting error detection and self-correction by forcing the athlete to become completely dependent on the coach's feedback delays the overall goal of mastering the exercise (8,18). It is far better to also ask the athletes how the movement felt and looked and to guide their ability to see and feel those errors, as opposed to only providing performance feedback and commands. As the athlete begins to master the exercise, the coach should cut back on feedback (even positive feedback) to allow the athlete to develop his or her own mechanisms of feedback and learn to depend on them instead. Only when the athlete's performance strays significantly away from optimal should the coach once again address the situation. Then, once the errors have been detected by the athlete and corrected, feedback should be reduced once more (18). Similarly, when the movement or skill was executed properly, it is best to avoid “correcting” any minor or purely superficial aspects of the performance because subsequent performance may become degraded (18). The old adage, “if it is not broken, do not fix it,” seems to hold true in this regard. Allowing the athletes to continue to perfect the movements using their own mechanisms of feedback will ensure that the skill is sufficiently learned and the training process may continue to the next level.
Overcoaching negatively influences learning and training in the weight room. Although the causes of overcoaching may be diverse and complex, the solutions are quite simple. If a coach has an urge to step in and dictate each and every movement of an athlete, a better approach may be to back off and help the athlete figure out the situation for him or herself. By doing so, a coach assists with the development of the athlete's own feedback mechanisms and ability to self-correct. This boosts the learning process and may allow the coach to begin training within a shorter time frame than with overcoaching. Keeping the learning process simple saves the coach time and energy and allows the athlete to consider only the most important aspects of the process. In the end, both coach and athlete benefit greatly from such an approach.
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