by Andy Gillham, PhD, CC-AASP, CSCS
NSCA Coach June 2017
Every training facility has a culture, an atmosphere, and a feeling when a person walks in. This is true because humans using the same space will develop their own set of group norms, customs, behaviors, and modes of interaction, whether someone actively directs those behaviors or not (13). Some atmospheres, or cultures, are more conducive to training than others and the leaders of the facility can directly influence that culture (13). A typical coaching staff has at least three levels between head coach, full time assistants, graduate assistants, interns, and volunteers. While these titles remain consistent across organizations, rarely do the job responsibilities.
This is one way to highlight the need for an effective culture to be developed. There are multiple leaders (i.e., coaches) and when messages sent to athletes are out of alignment or otherwise confusing, athletes may become confused and uncertain how to behave. This could be as simple as one coach focusing on technique, while another coach focuses on the load. An example of this confusion is when a coach is so focused on increasing an athlete’s load that an athlete develops poor technique habits in an attempt to adhere to the coach’s direction, only to have a different coach come by and tell the athlete to reduce the load until the technique is squared away. This leaves the athlete in an unenviable position of needing to lift differently based on which coach is currently coaching or observing the lift. Building a situation where all of the coaches are on the same page will put the athletes in a better position to train and thus improve. The purpose of this article is to explore what a facility-level culture may look like, identify some of the expected benefits of purposely developing that culture, and discuss some misalignment between what coaches say they want the culture to feel like and the message the athletes are likely to receive.
The importance of having a coaching philosophy is well established in sport coaching (2,8). Coaching philosophies have been explored to the point that there is now a line of research critically examining how coaching philosophy has been used (3). Some work has been done examining how “philosophy” is used in the strength and conditioning context (5). Additionally, a roundtable discussion on coaching philosophy was recently published on top-level strength and conditioning coaches (7). High school, collegiate, and professional level strength and conditioning coaches were included in that roundtable study and four commonalities were found across the competitive levels: a) having a coaching philosophy was viewed as being important, b) a coach’s philosophy must be adaptable and is expected to change over time, c) ensuring athletes and sport coaches know the strength and conditioning coach’s philosophy improves their buy-in to the training program, and d) a strong need to develop your own coaching philosophy instead of copying something from somewhere else. Additionally, there is some evidence that more novice coaches are less aware of their own coaching philosophy and how that translates to the bigger picture of sport, competition, and social and cultural experiences (10). However, those connections between individual actions and the collective activities of athletes and coaches have been cited as critical to the success of building an effective program (14,17). One way to picture moving beyond an individual’s coaching philosophy to a more macro viewpoint is to consider the culture within the training facility.
Strength and conditioning facilities are busy places; hundreds of athletes typically move through the facility on any given day, most days of the year. In addition, there are tours, faculty members, athletic department staff members, recruits, and the strength and conditioning staff. The schedule is always well planned out, but sport coaches change practice schedules, athletes have conflicts, and some teams train as individuals, which transforms the well-planned schedule into a series of peaks and valleys of activity. That can all blend together into what seems like an uncontrollable herd, but as long as no equipment was broken or people injured, the day can be counted as a success. However, the situation does not have to be that way. The strength and conditioning staff oversees the entire training facility, which presents the staff with an opportunity to develop and systematically institute a culture for that facility. Strength and conditioning coaches are quick to detail problems stemming from working with sport coaches (16). Yet the training facility is under the direction of the strength and conditioning staff. Stand in the training facility and look at the equipment: which piece did a sport coach purchase? Watch the athletes train: how much of that training program was written by the sport coach? In both cases the answer is usually “none.” There is often no need to seek approval from sport coaches on how to run the facility.
Some strength coaches can get maniacal about what clothing is worn in the facility. A mandate that dark shorts and gray or white tops are to be worn inside the facility is not a culture. Sometimes dress codes of that nature are done in reaction to offensive clothing items, but that is not the same as building a culture. When thinking about building a culture, the first step is to identify what is most important to the strength and conditioning staff. This idea of a vision being critical to success has been repeatedly cited by sport coaches as the first step toward launching competitive success (14,17). There is no real right answer here, but the task of identifying the most important characteristics is a worthy discussion in and of itself. Strength and conditioning staffs can vary widely in composition, training, and backgrounds across the different levels of coaching staff members. How many levels of coaches are involved in the discussion to identify the most valued characteristics is likely to be a highly context-specific decision. There is some logic behind having the full-time staff settle on what characteristics will be emphasized within the facility, leaving lower-level staff members to follow the directives of the full-time staff.
When the strength and conditioning staff begins to identify the most valued characteristics, the discussion needs to be focused on recognizing how those values get expressed as behaviors. Those behaviors are what is seen, heard, and felt by others and that is how the culture gets reinforced. Having taglines or expressions plastered on the walls of a facility do not foster a culture on their own. We have all been into a facility with some sort of a cliché (i.e., train like there is no tomorrow) and found more than a few athletes not giving high effort and coaches not pointing to the expression on the wall. That is not to say all expressions posted on walls are bad, simply that to systematically develop the culture of the facility, slapping some decorative words on the wall is not going to get it done.
Respect is often at the top of the list when strength and conditioning coaches discuss what they want their facility to look and sound like. For athletes, this means paying attention when the coaches speak, making and maintaining eye contact when the coaches speak, not abusing the equipment, and can even mean keeping the facility clean. Where coaches often make the mistake with respect is when they do not model those same characteristics. Yelling incessantly and demeaning the athletes is not respectful behavior. Bad mouthing the sport coaches, athletic training staff, faculty members, referees, janitors, or anyone else does not show respect. Talking down to the interns sends a horribly disrespectful message to the athletes because the interns are typically closest in age to the athletes and they may even have some classes together. The music played in the facility can also be highly disrespectful. Anytime these pieces are misaligned, the reality is that the message of respect gets muddled or lost and that makes it tough to emphasize the message of respect and have the athletes heed the message.
Coaches often seem to focus on exercise technique when highlighting what will make their facility stand out. Noticing when coaches are focused on lifting technique is easy because they rarely stand idle with arms crossed looking pensive. Instead, the coaches are more engaged, interacting with the athletes and truly teaching lifts and providing corrective feedback. This could be specific with respect to a pronated grip for one exercise and a supinated grip for a different exercise. It could be about refining and improving activities to have less wasted movement, such as no false steps when moving over and under hurdles as part of a dynamic warm-up. Often, the increased adherence to exercise technique leads to reduced injuries. The biggest challenge with technique as part of the culture is that coaches quickly tire of correcting all the mistakes athletes make during training. It is virtually impossible to correct every error in every session and attempting to do so would be highly ineffective coaching. The challenge is to find the line between what makes coaching an overly involved tedious day of training and what will keep the athletes safe and push them to consistently improve their technique and performance. When the afternoon group of athletes comes through the facility that may be the fifth group of the day for the coach, meaning that coach has corrected the angle of back flexion on the barbell back squat 50 times already that day. However, an athlete in that fifth group of the day has not been training all day and is just as likely to need the technique coaching as an athlete in the first group of the day.
It can get tedious to pause a workout to fix a technique issue, but if that is the identified characteristic that the staff has selected, then stopping the workout to correct the flawed technique is what is necessary. Coaches need to be aware of what they say. If a coach points out an athlete’s technical flaw and pushes the message that technique is important, then the coach simply must pause the workout to make progress toward correcting the technique flaw. Rarely are the most junior members of staff involved in programming, but that does not mean they cannot or should not be in charge of monitoring back flexion on the back squat, for example. At the most basic level, if the staff wants to push the message of proper technique, then that verbal message needs to be followed with specific coaching behaviors to emphasize that message.
Giving high effort is a necessity because no training program yields positive training adaptations without the athletes putting forth high effort. Effort is also one of the easiest characteristics to notice. There is a palpable buzz in a facility where athletes are flying around giving high effort. With most strength coaches being longtime gym rats, they know that buzz and feeling of a facility filled with high-effort athletes. Yet, finding effective ways to push the athletes to that level can be problematic.
Gone are the days when simply yelling louder and verbally demanding more was the quickest route to improving athlete effort. Effort is about buy-in and, once a coach can get that proverbial ball rolling, success breeds success. Perhaps that is why getting more effort from athletes is so frustrating to so many coaches because they know with a little more effort the athletes will see more training adaptations, which likely will yield further increases in effort. That recursive effect is supported in multiple lines of research such as: a) self-determination theory (SDT) and increased competence, b) achievement goal theory with a self- and task-focused approach, and, c) self-efficacy theory and mastery experiences (1,4,11,15). SDT stems from the three basic psychological needs (competence, autonomy, and relatedness) being met. When an athlete gets the feedback from a coach that he or she was successful in a lift that serves as a boost to competence, which feels good and thus meets one of the three psychological needs. One of the critical pieces of adopting a task-focused approach is the belief that training today leads to a higher performance tomorrow, and that is both important and worthwhile. The single strongest way to improve self-efficacy is through mastery experiences, which can be as simple as increasing the load or having a coach comment on the athlete’s high effort. Getting increased effort out of the athletes is an opportunity for the strength and conditioning staff to work smarter, not harder. More attention needs to be paid to setting up the environment so that increased effort is rewarded (positive reinforcement), instead of just penalizing poor effort with some form of punishment.
Working as a team is also an idealized value for most strength coaches. Athletes typically want to work in groups, so the notion of teamwork is not a difficult one to emphasize. The benefits of both social and task cohesion are well established (12). There are also some potential downsides to overly cohesive teams (9). One of the main tenants of SDT is relatedness, and teamwork and a sense of belonging clearly fit within that framework. The challenge for strength and conditioning coaches is to maximize productivity from their teams, which requires more work. One of the most asked questions is how to form groups. There are a variety of choices: a) allow the athletes to group themselves, b) position groups, c) similar ability levels, d) similar motivational levels (i.e., high buy-in athletes together), or e) opposing motivational levels (i.e., high and low buy-in athletes mixed together). With so many varieties, there is no single best answer across all contexts. One recommendation is to be purposeful in how training groups are formed and to understand and anticipate both the positives and negatives with each grouping choice. In terms of maximizing the alignment with teamwork, the coaching staff must also act as a team. This can be difficult with the differing levels of coaching positions but, nonetheless, sending the message that the whole strength and conditioning staff values one another and demonstrates working together is the important part. Coaches can also institute some peer technique checklists, where athletes specifically assess the form (e.g., depth on a back squat) of their workout partner, or peer-rated goals to further the connections across athletes and strengthen the message of teamwork being valuable (6).
Ideally, the previous examples of characteristics or values as part of a culture have prompted the thought of what happens next. According to Prim, there are three components that must be considered when developing a culture: structure, process, and people (13). The structure is the foundation and establishing that means understanding how the strength and conditioning staff wants the facility to look, sound, and feel. The process component is to purposefully build systems, customs, and norms that are aligned with the structure and reinforce the message the coaching staff wants to send. Finally, culture comes from people and this cannot be denied. Coaches get the culture they build, not simply the culture they want.
This article originally appeared in NSCA Coach, a quarterly publication for NSCA Members that provides valuable takeaways for every level of strength and conditioning coach. You can find scientifically based articles specific to a wide variety of your athletes’ needs with Nutrition, Programming, and Youth columns. Read more articles from NSCA Coach »
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