Weightroom Wisdom

In his new book, Weight Room Wisdom, Ron McKeefery recognizes the “opportunities our work affords us to provide a positive influence on the lives of those we train.” He’s not talking about winning a championship. He refers instead to the idea that some of the most empowering moments in an athlete’s life come not from gameday, but through training.

As strength coaches, we work with teams – large groups of people with a shared purpose, working and learning and growing together. Athletic communities. Once the game comes around, only one player at a time can score. We might understand as coaches, spectators, or teammates how others have impacted the outcome of a play, but one name goes down in the stat sheet. One name is announced on the P.A. system. Fans wear one jersey at a time, and it is rarely the jersey of the role player whose consistent spacing and accurate passing facilitates the “star” athletes on the team.

But in the weightroom, everyone has a chance to shine – success is not measured in three-point percentage, but through improvement. In that way, it has potential to be the ideal learning environment. And the captain of that learning environment, the lead teacher, is the strength coach.

Coach McKeefery selects his words carefully. He does not claim that coaches are a positive influence – he recognizes that coaches have the opportunity to be a positive influence. The first step on the road to being a positive influence begins with the recognition of the opportunity.

The second step toward impact is a longer one. It is many steps. It is the thousands of touchpoints that a strength coach will have over the course of his or her time with an athlete. There is no other coaching platform that allows quite the same impact as strength coaching. Do the math. A nine-month offseason, four times (over the course of four years) – that’s the equivalent of three full years spent alongside student athletes during the most influential time in their lives.

That’s some serious time. Add physical and psychological intensity, add an atmosphere full of a group commitment to improvement, a communal drive to fulfill potential and adhere to the healthy processes that yield such results, and the opportunity Coach McKeefery refers to just might be the most powerful learning environment on the planet…

if we are intentional about how we use it.

The old adage is misleading: sports do not teach life lessons. Neither does strength training, unless we as coaches become explicit about the lessons we hope to teach, and design cultures to uphold them. Oftentimes this is dependent on framing the experience our athletes are going through.

Jared Ka’aiohelo and his staff at Athlete Inc. in Oklahoma City imbed language into their training concepts. They are explicit in identifying how “time under tension” builds both bodies and minds. They ask their teams and clients to imagine other areas in their lives where the capacity to endure – to go through momentary pain for long-term improvement – will be beneficial. They challenge their athletes, frame the situations they are putting people through, and provide them with language to transfer those lessons into other areas of their life. That’s how to teach life lessons. Don’t assume it’s happening automatically. Be intentional and work at it.

Coach McKeefery’s book provides some fantastic groundwork to have those kind of discussions.

· Teena Murray of the Sacramento Kings reminds her athletes to “have the common sense of a goose,” referring to the purpose-enhancing cooperation that the flying v formation offers a flock. She identifies that geese increase flying capacity by 71% by flying in formation. Geese take turns leading and settle back in formation when they need to rest. They take care of injured geese, and they honk to encourage the lead goose. She goes on to draw resonant comparisons to teamwork and identifies how her athletes can use these metaphors to reflect on their own processes.

· Lorenzo Guess, Director of Player Enrichment at Michigan State, smashes the fears of those afraid to be dubbed “try hards.” He talks about going the extra mile. He reminds us that going a little further, a little farther, by working a little harder, we have the opportunity to be unique. The extra mile is reserved for those who want to be elite – “if it was easy, it would be called the normal mile,” he reminds us that “there are no traffic jams on the extra mile.”

· Nick Winkelman of the Irish Rugby Football Union gives a fantastic lesson on the value of focus that coaches can immediately use in their weightrooms. He asks for a volunteer athlete to extend an arm and, as the coach presses, hold it steady. The coach presses down on the arm lightly, then harder, until the arm begins to move. The player will usually report feeling fairly strong. That’s part one. For part two, the coach asks the athlete to extend an arm and perform the same task, but this time while counting backwards from 100 by twos while following the coach’s index finger as he moves it back and forth. The player will undoubtedly perform poorly by comparison and report feeling weaker. It is a fantastic and poignant lesson in focus. When it’s time to focus on squatting, or spotting, or transferring lessons in the weight room to the field, focus is essential.

· Donnie Maib of UT-Austin contributes a parable-ish story about a young man throwing starfish which have washed up on the beach back into the water. Noticing that the beach is covered in starfish, an older man chides him, saying that there is no way his efforts will make a difference. The young man laughs and chucks another into the ocean and says, “I just made a difference for that one!” Too many people become overwhelmed or intimidated by tall tasks. That’s understandable. But if we can teach people the value of incremental improvement, we will be empowering them to change the world.

· In line with the ideas addressed by Coach Maib, Michelle Diltz of the University of Alabama identifies how performing at full potential – in the “sweet spot” as she refers to it – is often complicated by fear. She calls this the greatest regret of her athletic career. The times she played afraid, she recognizes that she was not playing at her best. Through this personal recognition, she is able to motivate and support her players through similar moments. She can build confidence through preparation and understanding, hopefully allowing her athletes to play without fear – a lesson that can certainly be transferred to all areas of life.

There are more than 300 pages of quick, digestible wisdom in Ron’s book. Definitely worth checking out. And whether it’s these stories, stories from your own experience, or narratives you come across along the way (in books and movies) – share them. Use language to frame the experience of the weight room and equip your athletes with strategies to transfer the benefits of that experience to all areas of their life.

Life lessons begin with intentional coaching, are built in experience, and are transferred through language. If your goal is to impart life lessons, don’t expect the weights to do it for you.

Go Beyond Strength. Teach for life. Be intentional. And when the seasons get tough and long and your athletes are grumpy and the weather isn’t exactly the way you’d like it to be, keep going, keep coaching. The wisdom of the weightroom comes from you.