What Makes an Elite Coach?

Chances are if you're reading this post, you work closely with people (or have at some point in your career). You are motivated by the constant rewards that come from helping others achieve their deeply held goals. Better health, improved performance, and massive jumps in self-confidence are all what we, as an industry, can offer our athletes and clients. 

Simply put, I had an amazing time working in college athletics for 8 years and in my own business working with athletes young and not-so-young. The rewards were many: energy, smiling faces, witnessing challenges be overcome, setting new records, winning more games, kids making that team, etc. But, by and far, what I found most rewarding was when I knew I was helping someone on a level deeper than improving their squat or doing their first pull-up. It was what any of those achievements signified to that client or athlete's soul. 

That's what always kept me going and my argument is that I really believe tapping into the ability to connect on that level is what makes a great coach - a Level 5 Coach, if you will.

I'm going to take a concept from Jim Collins' book Good to Great and use his leadership pyramid as applied to coaches and trainers.

Collins' pyramid is build for executives, but change a few words and it applies to leaders in fitness and coaching.

Collins' pyramid is build for executives, but change a few words and it applies to leaders in fitness and coaching.

This pyramid is based around executive leaders within companies, but I believe it applies here. So, let's break this down for coaches and trainers, specifically:

  1. Level 1 - Highly capable individual - can run a session, won't hurt anyone with bad coaching cues, but probably won't build much of a relationship and almost certainly will not go "above and beyond" in any capacity.
  2. Level 2 - Contributing team member - in my experience, this is where most coaches and trainers land; their pumped up to help people, great team members with excellent technical/teaching skills; but that's about it.
  3. Level 3 - Competent manager - maybe this is someone organizing a team or maybe it is the management of goal achievement for an individual - it's very similar; when things get off track for achieving the goal the Level 3 coach/trainer will take action, they have the ability and drive to plan, predict, execute.
  4. Level 4 - Effective Coach & Trainer - now we're getting to the good stuff! This is a coach or trainer that can motivate and inspire others to gain and keep laser-like focus on goal achievement. Level 4s are capable of building strong relationships, although they are usually quite superficial. This level coach/trainer relies on their strong personality to be the catalyst for goal attainment (vs. helping the client find their own intrinsic motivation).
  5. Level 5 - Elite Leader/Coach - this is where very few of us find ourselves; the Level 5 Coach/trainer is capable of making deep connections with their clients and athletes not through the sheer force of their personalities, but through careful cultivation of understanding what motivates and drives their trainees. Personal humility and professional willpower to get things done are a very rare, but extremely effective, combination. This leads to our trainees learning more than "how to squat" or achieving weight loss (although these are both important, don't misunderstand). It leads to their deep understanding of what discipline, goal setting, and achievement are all about.

Naturally, not everyone is built to achieve Level 4 or Level 5 leadership abilities. That's just fine! But there are lessons to learn from the Level 5s that can trickle down to those who thrive on the different levels of leadership with their trainees. 

Personally, I don't think it matters one way or another where you *officially* fall on any given day. The important point is that you strive to constantly connect and motivate on a deep level with those who you are guiding.

If we all do this, as an industry, we will find the expectations of the general public are raised and we can all have a better work-life balance. But it starts with the foundation.

Sarah Walls

A little about me: I've worked in pretty much every corner of the fitness industry for about 10 years. I've had the great fortune of spending most of this time working with gifted athletes at every level. I've also had the great opportunity of designing and conducting research projects, writing occasionally for various publications and blogs, competing in powerlifting, and just generally having a killer time pursuing my passions wherever they may take me. Now I own two businesses: one is an athletic performance training company that I started in 2007 at age 26 and the other is a software company startup that was launched in 2014. Paramount to all the awesomeness of my professional career, is my family. My kids are a thrill and my husband continues to be my most critical and important supporter.