The Many Facets of Performance Coaching
With the Open fast approaching, coaches all over the world are gearing up to help their athletes perform at their best during the 5 weeks of the CrossFit™ Open. Coaching the sport of CrossFit requires a coach to wear many hats. The skills that are needed to be a good ‘training coach’ (i.e. good program design, movement quality, and educating athletes on the consequences of lifestyle choices) differ from the skills needed to be a good ‘competition coach’. The scoreboard of a competition is the ultimate proving ground for your training year and as coaches, we must strive to understand the things we can do on game day to optimize performance in a workout for our athletes. The problem is that many of the things that we want to do, like screaming words of encouragement or repeatedly telling athletes to ‘pick up the bar’, are just a glorified form of cheerleading that doesn’t really lead to better performance. As a coach it is important to actually coach your athlete and let the community rally behind them to provide moral support.
So what kind of game-day coaching actually helps athletes perform at their best? In the moment athletes respond best to very clear, simple directions. Coaching feedback needs to include relevant information about movement cues, pacing, elapsed time, transition or weight change instructions, and changes to the breaking structure that they laid out before starting. Effective coaches will deliver this information in a calm but firm manner that will not distract the athlete from executing their game plan. The words we use, the intensity of the environment, or yelling can put some athletes in the wrong physiological state and actually make them perform worse, become distracted or feel that they are letting you down by not trying hard enough. Coaches should view competition as a time to communicate clearly to the athlete what they should do; not what their doing wrong.
We believe that good coaches provide clear movement cues like: “punch out” for overhead movements or “drive the legs” for kipping HSPU, or calming cues like “relax and breathe” when an athlete is panicking from elevated respiration levels. By providing the athlete with simple cues, you are drawing their attention to the critical parts of a movement which will help them execute more efficiently. This can be particularly effective for an athlete who is struggling with a ‘bottleneck’ movement in an event as it can shift their thought process from “I can’t” to “i can”. Unless the athlete is not meeting the required movement standards, or they are at risk for sustaining an injury, this is not the time to provide movement corrections or criticism. Note that competition is different than training where you should be reinforcing good movement at all intensity ranges. During competition, these corrections should be provided after the athlete has finished during a review of their performance.
Many athletes who are competing in the Open have developed a pre-competition plan that includes information about how they are going to break specific movements, their rest times between sets, and where they should be at certain points during the workout. As a coach you should (1) be aware of this pacing plan and (2) assist the athlete in executing the plan or be able to make adjustments to the plan on the fly that will lead the athlete toward their desired outcome. Good examples of this include providing the athletes with clear instructions for breaking their movements (5 unbroken reps here) or informing the athlete of the length of their rest breaks (5sec rest here). If the athlete clearly cannot maintain their pre-event plan then coaches should be ready to provide them with a clear plan of execution (switch to quick singles here, keep your rest breaks short). Again by giving your athletes clear instructions regarding what to do you will help them stay in the moment and keep them confident in their plan.
One of the biggest areas of opportunity I’ve seen from athletes in the sport is a slow transition between movements. In CrossFit the transition between movements commonly has athletes shifting between different primary muscle groups (i.e. HSPU -> Power Clean). Athletes typically rest much longer during these transitions than they need to. Coaches can help athletes make these transitions faster by (1) discussing their transition plan before the workout (i.e. 5-sec max transition between movements) and (2) giving them clear transition instructions during the workout (i.e. 3-reps left then quick transition). As well some careful planning of the competition space before the workout can benefit athletes in reducing their travel time between movements. If the goal is to maximize performance it make sense to position equipment as close together as possible to reduce this transit time. If left to their own, most athletes will rest much longer than they need to trying to “get their breathing under control” (as if our conscious mind knows better than our mammalian brain) when they really should be transitioning right into the next movement and then breaking to avoid local-muscular fatigue. With a little foresight and good instruction, coaches can keep athletes moving much more efficiently during Open-style workouts.
Developing the right coaching toolbox to help your athletes perform at their best is critical to coaching high-level athletes. Preparing athletes physically for competition is only a part of the battle. Coaches need to understand that their demeanor, their words, and their actions can have a dramatic impact on their athletes ability to focus and perform when it counts. The most important job that a coach has on game day is to remind our athletes to focus on what they can control and keep them in the moment. As a coach, if you can keep a cool head and communicate with your athletes clearly, even when every fiber of your being wants to scream “just keep going”, then you can be confident that you’re doing everything you can to help them perform.