“Coaches Can’t Agree on Anything” | Coaching in the Social Media Age

It was about two years ago that I took a break from Twitter.

It wasn’t necessarily by choice. Thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), my Twitter was locked because of a song playing in the background of a video I posted in 2016: Rhianna’s We Found Love was being played on the speakers of DeLand High School’s weight room as I performed a set of Incline Dumbbell Press. The company that owned the rights to the song filed a complaint, and that was the end of my Twitter account.

Despite many appeals, emails, and followings-of-protocol, I was never able to resuscitate that account. It was incredibly disappointing (and still is) on many fronts, not the least of which because I had always found Twitter to be an incredible platform for connecting with other coaches, adding to our field of applied knowledge, and helping others. Given that I had spent nearly a decade building my following with steady and free content, I had a hard time swallowing the idea of starting over. So, I didn’t. Not right away anyways.

And, for about 18 months, I rarely checked Twitter for anything. And then I logged back on with a new account.

Boy, did a lot seem to change over that year-and-a-half. Twitter hasn’t always been the safest of places, nor has social media in general been the most healthy for us all. But today, things seem a whole lot different than they were in, say, 2014. I don’t think I need to go into a ton of rationale as to why I say that: if you are reading this, then you are probably on social media, and therefore you have more than likely witnessed (or felt the heat of) some of the flames that often arise from “deep dive” threads, viral content, and all of the subtweets flying around out there.

This is not to say that all things social media are bad – trust me, I am not that get off my lawn guy (well, not yet. I am only 30-years old as of this writing). However, I have experienced a few shifts that I believe have afforded me a detached perspective on it all:

  • As already mentioned, I took a break from Twitter for a substantial period of time. Much like anything else in life, time away from something typically allows for some space, along with less biased and (hopefully) more thoroughly formed beliefs
  • One year ago I transitioned out of Strength & Conditioning, moving into a Sports Science role. Not only did this remove me from the all-day-every-day life in the weight room, it also allowed me behind the curtain of some new aspects (to me) of sport performance, and exposed me to new thoughts, ideas, methodologies, and lines of inquiry
  • In the five years preceding this transition, I served as a Performance Coordinator for a professional baseball organization. In a role like this, my personal approach to social media was not obligated, but it was more than likely the safest: I often err on the side of conservative and measured, along with plenty of political correctness. That is because I was not representing myself, but also the organization, not to mention trying to set a positive example for those whom I was tasked to support and serve on our staff. Oh, and in this period of my career (years 8-12), I had come to appreciate all that I did not know as a practitioner

Although I have already belabored it, here is the point: I feel like I have come to not only see the difference on social media in our field over the years, but also some working theories on why, as the click-bait-y and intentionally ironic title of this post (which wraps a strong opinion in absolutes), strength coaches don’t agree on anything. My two theories include a thought on social media and all that goes unsaid on these platforms, as well as what it actually means to be a strength and conditioning coach. And, my hope is that this post can help others – those who may get frustrated by the current state of the field on platforms like Twitter – take a breath and come to understand why some people act and speak the way that they do (for better or worse).

I. Social Media and What Goes Unsaid

I already spent entirely too long on the introduction (and the next part will be oh so lengthy), so I will keep this part brief: the platform (Twitter specifically, but realistically most social mediums) naturally lends itself to be a place of superficial thought.

Generations/centuries ago, people sent letters to communicate. Correspondence, thus, not only took days and weeks to travel, but it also took substantially more time to materialize on paper. Have you ever written in a journal? Written a blog post? A book? These mediums, whether hand-written or typed, naturally provide more time to think as you plod along. They also offer more space – infinitely, really.

On the other hand, Twitter only affords so many characters before you need to move your thoughts from a tweet to a thread. Generally speaking, social media only allows as much time for thought as the audience will give: if you or I picked up a book to read, we would be committing to sitting still, reading, deliberating (and maybe even notating) for a least tens of minutes, if not hours. On social media we swipe; we are there for quick, punchy hits of content. Thus, it rarely pays for an author of a tweet to spend the kind of time or thought on the craft that, say, a book or research article requires.

And, again, where most other mediums are judged on the thoughts behind the prose, it is social media that operates much more like marketing, rewarding the combination of catchy, strongly-wielded words crafty multimedia content.

If you think about it, Social media is actually more like a book cover than a book itself. Tweets are often more like bait to bring you in as a follower or encourage interaction (likes, retweets, etc), in the same way that a book cover entices readers to thumb through the text, purchase and ultimately read.

An example from something you see today on social media: often, coaches are posting videos of themselves coaching a drill. These videos tend to get a lot of traction, and for good reason. They are really cool, and have the potential to give you some insight into who the avatar-of-a-coach is in vivo. But, when a clip is constrained to 240s (but is usually more like 30s), so much is missing.

What are you teaching the athletes? Why are you teaching them that? Does it change their behavior/movement? How good is your programming really? Do you get results? Why did you post this video in the first place– what are your motives?

These are the types of questions that are left open for interpretation in the very same way our minds can run wild when we only see a book cover.

And social media, in part, rewards the creative, the catchy, and the often-times divisive. Not the boring, straight-forward, and mostly-agreed-upon things in our field (at least not without multimedia to dress it up). Think about the book store parallel once again: are our eyes and interests drawn to the Reference Section (complete with the 3rd, 4th, 5th… 8th… 10th editions of the basic, most agreed-upon aspects of most fields of study)? Or, are we drawn to the curated books in each section? The best-sellers with vibrant covers, hot-takes or interesting titles and sub-titles?

Much like visiting the book store, there is a ton of value in perusing and engaging on social media. We just have to remember that what lies behind the cover is what actually gives the books their context and meaning, just like asking great questions, connecting with other coaches, and maybe even visiting other programs are some of the best ways to garner the true meaning behind what others are sharing on their socials.

II. What it Means to Be a Strength & Conditioning Coach

I won’t get too existential here, but I will get a bit semantical. It may seem trivial, but words matter. Calling ourselves “Strength & Conditioning Coaches” denotes expertise in both strength and conditioning. And, while anyone who can write CSCS next to their name is in fact a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, the truth of the matter is that we all possess varying competencies, bases of knowledge, and applied experiences in these two areas of study. And I think that is where we get a little lost: in the expectations of other coaches that we all do (or should) have the same level of skill and expertise in both strength and conditioning.

Sure, if we are CSCS‘d, then in theory we should all have the same minimum bar set for knowledge in strength and conditioning. But, I also have my drivers license just like most who read this. Yet, chances are each of us remember the rules of the road a bit differently at this point; these rules are also not universal, they are applied differently between our states/countries. Also, the ability to drive a grocery-getter car does not mean you can drive a Formula One car, nor does it guarantee you know how to ride a bicycle; oh, and a drivers license doesn’t afford you the footing to hold others accountable to the rules of the road. So, despite our common licensure in strength and conditioning, that really can only say so much.

I am not suggesting name or title changes, however I am advocating for changing our expectations of others. Rather than Strength and Conditioning coach, instead consider each one of us something more akin to Performance Coaches. Why?

For starters, it reduces the pressure on each of us to live up to some high-bar, unrealistic expectation that we should all be experts in all of strength and conditioning (it might also minimize the likelihood that a CSCS’d individual overestimates their expertise in both). Instead, putting Performance above all else shifts the focus on what matters most to the majority of the stakeholders that we support: coaches, athletes, front office… everyone wants top-notch performance. And, the chase for the highest of performances is so context-dependent that — if we stop to think about the bigger picture for just a moment — we truly ought to be mind-boggled when anyone squabbles about a singular exercise, a specific set/rep scheme, a particular approach to fitness.

Every sport, age-group, demographic, style of play, institution and their available resources – each one of them does not just have their own vantage point, each one necessitates it. Not only are there individual differences in players and teams, but there are also individual differences in coaches and staffs.

Master of both strength and conditioning? Well, how about all of the other pieces of the sports performance puzzle…

  • Strength
  • “Conditioning” (although, as quoted from Andrew Althoff on, of all places, Twitter: “Everything is conditioning”)
  • Change of Direction/Agility
  • Movement Competency
  • Tissue Quality
  • Tissue Tolerance
  • Workload Capacity
  • Speed
  • Technical Sporting Skills
  • Tactics and Strategy
  • Nutrition
  • Hydration
  • Sleep
  • etc…

There is so much to tackle, how could we wrap that all into just the two buckets of strength and conditioning?

And, I think this is often where we lose focus when banter arises on Twitter. We can’t forget that each piece of that puzzle carries varying degrees of weight and value proportional to the context in which it belongs to that person who is sharing on Twitter — their sport, their team, their level of competition, etc…

It is not that any one of the above does not matter to performance in a given situation. It’s that each one matters to a different extent in each sport/level of competition/etc. And, the the cost of (and ability to) spend the time on each and every area to the maximum just isn’t feasible – not in any situation can you elevate all areas of physical preparation and sporting execution to the top of the priority and resource allocation charts. Naturally, coaches must then allocate their own personal and institutional resources on what they deem provides the most values to performance.

And, the longer we stay in any one situation (one sport, one age demographic, one organization, one culture), the less likely we are to accrue knowledge and experience in other areas. For most of us, our teams’ successes (and our livelihoods) are tied to what we know and how we apply it in our current circumstances – not what we know about other sports, age groups, technologies, etc outside of our own.

An example from my own journey: I began coaching high school baseball at 18-years old. I trained players in that sport and age demographic for all 4 years of my undergrad; I interned at a university in that time as well and naturally was given sports like baseball and softball. I also did not get much time outside learning and working conditioning sessions, as it was just the Director and I. So, we would often split coverage, giving me the weight room more often than not (because that is where I was most comfortable and could be trusted). I then interned with a professional baseball organization, graduated, and entered professional baseball full-time.

Despite working with other sports as well, you can probably see how my experiences might have shaped my personal philosophies on something like, say, conditioning. I did not spend much time conditioning high school baseball players (right, wrong or indifferent). The greatest bang for the buck lied in building basic strength and movement competency — it was the tide that raised most boats for that age demographic. Working at a mid-major university in its infancy of strength and conditioning yielded a similar approach (we only had two S&C coaches most of the time, the Director and myself [a college intern], so we focused on the “meat and potatoes” as well). And, let’s just say that conditioning in professional baseball once traditionally meant many different things than what conditioning means to the rest of the sporting world. My beliefs and knowledge were shaped by these experiences. To put it frankly: despite being a Strength & Conditioning Coach just like you and so many others, I probably valued the ‘C’ much, much less than most (and knew less about it too). Was I a bad strength coach? Maybe. But, I would argue that we still had high performing teams that were bought in and getting better from season-to-season.

My approach to conditioning might still be the same today had I not been challenged: first by coworkers in a new environment, but also by the attempt to become a decent cyclist and runner myself. All of the sudden, conditioning took on a knew meaning: it meant work capacity, it meant tissue tolerance, it meant power outputs and repeatability, it meant recovery, it meant health, it meant performance.

The point to this long-winded digression into my past is this: my knowledge and applications were shaped by my experiences and environment. And, that didn’t make me a lesser coach. It made me different. It made me adapted. Just as you are different and adapted for your current circumstances. And, much like all living things, we have the capacity to evolve and adapt further.

This dichotomous perspective of S&C Coach vs. “Performance Coach” seems to also explain why we often get up in arms when an individual from a different sport or sector has an opposing view to our own; e.g. when an Endurance Coach minimizes the importance of resistance training, or when a Strength Coach minimizes the value aerobic training. It is not that either is necessarily right or wrong (they could be either!), but thinking of each individual as a coach of performance within their own domain helps us to seek understanding: maybe there is a legitimate why behind their line of thinking. It adds the critical thinking and context that we are often missing when we judge a coach for tweeting something that seems counter to the things we believe.

Orienting our perception of the field around “Performance Training” rather than just “Strength & Conditioning” might also help us come to grips with the often-threatening prospect of coaches working “out of their lane”. One of the realities we are faced in the field today is that many organizations/teams/managers are looking for unique and diverse skill-sets. That is why we are seeing dual-credentialed S&C/PT’s, Skill or Sport Coaches with CSCS certifications, or (as is my case) “Analysts” with coaching backgrounds. By the standard definition of Strength and Conditioning Coach, this seems beyond our scope of practice – and if you truly are only qualified as a Strength Coach, then those areas would be beyond the scope. However, with the requisite experience, study, and (when necessary) credentials/licensure – and a performance coaching perspective turned on – this can not only become normal, but it can also be a pathway incredible people in and out of the field to flourish with their own unique upbringing and taste for the game. Heck, I have a close friend who went from college pitcher to college S&C coach… to college sports scientist… to professional S&C intern… to professional Bench Coach… to professional Performance Analyst… to professional hitting coordinator. Their versatility goes well beyond “strength coach”, but that is still baked into their mission and skill-set. Ultimately, they are a performance coach that has outfitted themselves to adapt in each environment they’ve faced.

I must reiterate: this is not about the title. It is about the mindset and perception that we take when hearing out others in their beliefs, experiences, and methodologies. It is about opening yourself up to learning from everyone, asking great and meaningful questions, and considering that there may be more than one right way.

And, simply put, I am offering those who navigate the field (especially via social media) a different, more gentle and understanding perspective of others who put themselves out there for us all to see, hear, and watch.

And ultimately, that is what I have strived to do with this post in its entirety: provide (what I believe to be) a frame of context around the interactions we all see on our socials. I hope you take it for what it is: one performance coach’s friendly and humble perspective on a complicated field of very passionate and diverse practitioners.

Respectfully,

RJF

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