Coaching Athletes, breaking down mistakes

So I work with athletes on occasion trying to get them to improve their skills and rise to their highest potential. Also known as I coach. I’ve been doing this for a little while in different areas like cheerleading, strongman, powerlifting, water polo, Olympic lifting, and even a bit of baseball. Obviously each sport has different skills that are necessary to win. There are some things in common between each of them, but the goal with coaching is to find a way to get your athletes better. Here is a basic flow of my thinking with athletes in order to make things better when things aren’t working.

The skill is not successful, so:

Was the failure due to a physical limitation, technical limitation, or psychological limitation?


This type of limitation then fans out again immediately in to a number of different forms. Were they not able to get in to the position or maintain the position needed for success? This could be due to a lack of mobility or strength. If they weren’t able to get in to the position for the start or finish we are probably talking mobility. If they weren’t able to move from one to the other or hold either position we are now talking strength. Finally if they weren’t able to go from one position to the other fast enough we are now talking power. If they are making mistakes after trying the skill multiple times this could be an issue with conditioning.


Within strength you need to then ask is it just a gross movement pattern problem (aka multiple muscle groups holding them back) or is it just one muscle group. An example of this in lifting for gross movement is when someone gets stapled in the squat (aka went down and didn’t come back up) if their technique was fine, simply their muscle groups are not strong enough to support and move the load. Whereas the one muscle group could be from an exercise like the deadlift where a lifters gets the bar up but the bar falls out of their hands. This would be an example where their issue is simple grip strength (yes I know the grip is made up of lots of muscles and multiple joints, but it was to show a point). If strength is the limiting factor there is a lot of work that is going to have to get done to overcome it.


Not to be confused with strength this is your ability to move something quickly. An athlete can be strong enough to move an opponent, but not powerful enough to do it rapidly and get to where they need to be on the field. They can obviously be strong enough to stand up and walk, but aren’t able to rapidly accelerate out of the blocks.


This is key when you are no longer just practicing the skill, but they are having to do this in competition energy requirements. If skill breaks down and not because of being stressed (mental) you now have a problem with their conditioning. Good news is if this is anaerobic program you will be able to get this up in a painful week or two, but if there is an issue with aerobic ability in these athletes this will take some time to build up so that the athletes will be able to keep their performance up for the entire period that they compete.


If the athlete is not able to hold the correct posture of the skill without load you have a mobility problem. This could be an issue with only one muscle group, but often will be a larger pattern that has deficits which you will have to work with. Look for things like compensating with the spine, coming up on to the toes, or excessive bend in the wrists when an athlete is making up for lack of mobility in other joints such as the hip, shoulders, and ankles. This can take a while to fix, but sometimes simple drills and a longer warm up can help fix this problem.


Hope that all the mistakes that you work with end up here. This is simply the skill wasn’t done correctly. This is where as a coach you can make a huge difference in a pretty short period of time. I like to break this down in to gross and specific (or you could say big and small).

Gross Skill

This is when your athlete is screwing up in a big way. This could be improper stance, posture, or basic movement pattern. These are the glaring mistakes that are easy to spot and hopefully easy to correct. When you do this aim to correct them by giving external cues. Using internal cues often causes the athletes to not fix their mistakes as quickly. Using terms like “contract your spinal erectors” when an athlete is squatting tends to not be as effective as either “chest up” or “tall posture”. Think about what is the simplest cue you can give an athlete to fix the problem without eating too much of their mental bandwidth.

Specific skill

This is a very little mistake, it could be as simple as not flicking their wrist or turning their hand. This is something that you need to take some time to really watch your athlete perform their skill. Try to see it from different points of view. From here you can hopefully figure out what type of cue to give. What also makes this tricky is athletes making these mistakes are already most of the way there to the skill they are working on. So giving them lots of instructions here could cause a decline in performance not moving forward. Use of special exercises here (breaking the movement down) I find can be pretty useful along with only try to give one cue at a time and have them practice it a few times before trying another cue.


This is a big one in certain sports. Cheerleading (feel free to make your jokes about it being a sport) requires flipping and spinning over a hard surface. One wrong move and you can literally land on your head from ten feet off the ground. Part of the mental game is working with your athletes to learn what way they tend go and figure out how you can progress them mentally to use the skill you want them to. The mind is the most powerful limiting factor on the body (my recent concussion has solidified that point for me), so figure out how to make best use of theirs. The biggest two factors of the mental game (aside from not paying attention, or just being a little dense) that I often encounter is issues with fear and arousal.


Some skills are scary. If you don’t believe that I want you to get up right now, go outside and throw a standing back flip. Some of you are crazy enough/can already do a back flip so that isn’t an issue, but most people will agree that isn’t something most rational people will do. I like the quote from Dune on this one. Your goal here is to really talk down the fear, spot your athlete, or work with them to build their confidence. This is a normal part of any sport, especially when you get up to a high level. Take your time here and build skills as much as you can in low risk situations and then build your way up. You wouldn’t start practicing MMA by sparing against the current world champ in your weight class, so the same can be said about riskier skills such as tackling, basket tosses, and batting against curve balls to name a few, so start off on an easier note.


Take a moment and read up on the inverted U theory of arousal (written by a very smart friend of mine Brian Mann). You will find that athletes tend to perform their best at a certain amount of arousal (think how psyched up you are). I have trained and competed with athletes that have ranged from appearing like they are about to fall asleep to looking like a rabid dog. Each has their use in certain sports (high levels of arousal works great for low skill sports like powerlifting, whereas low arousal works great for high skill accuracy sports like archery and golf), you need to figure out how to talk with each of your athletes. Too much arousal with an athlete and they are likely to make a mistake by over doing it on a skill (throw too hard, swing too early, or over run your route for examples). Too little arousal and now you have an issue with an athlete going too slow, not being aggressive enough, or under powering a movement. Learn where your athletes on an individual basis tend to operate the best. Some athletes do work well when you get in their face and yell at them, others just break down. This isn’t a fault of character, this is just individual differences. Your job as a coach is to maximize your athletes, so work to figure out how you can maximize each of them.


So I hope if you are working with athletes this basic scheme might be helpful for you to find the way to make athletes better. Now you do need to know two things also when it comes to coaching. One is that you need to know the basics of the skills that your athletes are looking to do (I won’t be coaching fencing to anyone since I have never done it), but also know where your expertise runs out so that your athletes can work with someone of their own level (this is me when it comes to really any tumbling other than falling on the ground with style). Thanks again for reading this and let me know if you want me to build on this in the future.

coco flying kinda
Example of working on skills. This was a technical mistake (we put Coco in the air).
nationals 2016 night before
EKU 2016 Coed and All Girl Squads the night before the competition.

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