As coaches improve their skillset, they become more adept at pattern-matching and quickly being able to diagnose flaws in someone’s movement or approach to a training session

They also develop more “soft skills” in communication, approaching clients, dealing with emotions, and generally navigating the interpersonal issues surrounding coaching.

We often talk about “best practices” – meaning that there are in, in fact, “best” ways to assess our clients, prescribe a program, and engage in ongoing communication.

However, after reading a bit about Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, I think that the domain of “best practices” is not necessarily appropriate for thinking about coaching.

When a coach is getting start, they must go through the process of learning how to handle “simple” scenarios. 

If clients are rounding their backs on deadlifts, tell them to stop rounding or go lighter. If clients are going out too fast on long workouts, tell them to back off and slow down. If clients are struggling to put their arms over their head, have them foam roll their upper back and do serratus wall slides.

Each of these scenarios can be put into a basic flowchart of decision-making.

However, everyone who has been coaching for awhile recognizes that this kind of simple decision-making is often inadequate and, in some cases, can be counter-productive.

A lot of these scenarios are “complicated” – meaning that there is a right answer somewhere, but it may be difficult to get to and often requires deep knowledge and expertise. 

And, there’s often more than one way to get to a correct answer.

Why can’t someone get their arms over their head. 

Let’s dig into their breathing patterns. Let’s have them do a variety of different scapular motor control exercises. Let’s have them work on repositioning their ribcage. Let’s have them get soft tissue work to release facilitated and inhibited muscles. Let’s have them try both unilateral and bilateral movements.

The underlying issue could be any of these things, none of these things, or some combination of all of them.

An expert is able to conduct a thorough assessment and come up with a plan that will ideally end with the “correct” outcome for the individual.

A lot of movement correction falls into this bucket.

But, as we move up the layers of abstraction into coaching an individual rather than just fixing a specific movement issue, we are now playing with complexity

Rather than thinking of the human body as something like a Ferrari where you have a schematic and you can figure out the “broken” piece and repair it in order to get everything back on track, we are now have a dynamic system with emergence, bidirectional causality and many layers of competing systems.

There is no schematic, every change you make to the system causes multiple different feedback loops to kick in, and there are huge contributions of randomness and chaos to the actual outcome of coaching someone.

So, what is our role as a coach in such a complex system?

How do we help individuals stick to a workout routine and change their behavior surrounding nutrition?

How do we help athletes maximize their potential in sport – especially when the competitive landscape is constantly changing?

How do we navigate the self-sabotage, lack of consistency, deception, and self-deception typical of working with both every day people and high level athletes?

So, coaches need to “probe” through conversation and try out different prescriptions to see what is working and what is creating buy-in, then attempt to execute on that.

Coaches must also enlist clients to do their own probing to figure out what works for them and to more accurately characterize the obstacles that are holding them back – not just from an exercise perspective, but, more importantly, from a behavioral perspective.

And, when we make changes, we must also recognize that inputs into the system change the system itself, and that there is also always the lurking specter of black swan events like injuries, overtraining, and large life events outside of the gym.

So, some coaches live in flow charts:

Don’t round your back when you deadlift.

Eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.

Push your knees out when you squat.

Some coaches live in nuanced assessments and detailed program design:

Here’s your two week testing period to figure out your relative strengths and weaknesses.

This is a 12 week squatting progression with accessory work meant to strengthen your upper back and improve your front squat relative to your back squat.

These are your macros. Make sure you weigh and measure all of your food, and we will check on that every week.

But, the highest order coaches combine the flow charts with nuanced assessments and detailed designs – and also enlist the clients themselves to probe at what is working and what’s not working so that the real challenges can be uncovered and solved through bottom-up behavior change rather than top-down design.