Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group, LLC Blog

Give Up Control: Build a Great Athlete

Posted by Guest Blogger on Sun, Mar 28, 2010 @ 14:03 PM

Dr. Adam Naylor, AASP-CC and Matt Shaw, MS

Strength and conditioning programs are written and, ideally, followed by athletes. Often time’s athletes record weights and reps on workout cards. When it is time to condition, the strength coach shouts out times and, occasionally, encouragement (or sometimes just let the "beeps" do their motivating best). This is all a quite reasonable approach to building faster and stronger athletes. The question however that must be asked is, "Does it build better athletes?"

Better athletes being one's that bring enthusiasm to the gym, make optimal performance gains, and can execute basic principles of preparing the body for play away from a coach's watchful eye... empowered athletes that learn better, sustain gains longer, and perform at their peak potential. Writing programs and closely directing athletes' workouts lead to physical gains, but will this approach alone lead to excellent performances?

How the strength coach directs his or her weight room can be the difference between good and great athletic performances. The art of this performance difference is in being less a director of conditioning programs and more of an empowerer of athletes. The key to this transformation is understanding the coaching nuances that encourage and teach "mindfulness."

This lies in giving athletes both choice and voice. Ellen Langer, psychologist at Harvard has spent decades examining how developing cultures of mindfulness creates greater learning in classrooms and better health in wellness settings.  Individuals who are regularly encouraged to engage their mind (not just their body) and have direct responsibility in their activities, have sustained health, better attitude, and greater ability to commit knowledge to memory. This mental engagement can be fostered by giving athletes choices on a regular basis... encouraging them to make decisions and consider the details of their training.

Similar to creating a mindful approach to the gym in your athletes is “questioning” athletes.  It has been found that "questioning" during the coaching process leads to superior long-term athlete development and greater athletic self-competence (Chambers & Vickers, 2006). Questioning involves asking questions to stimulate the athlete's analyzing of their own technique. This cognitive stimulation leads to improved self-awareness ultimately increasing autonomy and learning.  Asking questions as simple as, "Wow, how'd you do to that?" or "Tell me the keys to a good front squat?" make a better athlete and a better teacher-coach.

It is important to note, not all athletes are created equal when taking this coaching approach. A tightly structured coaching environment helps novice athletes learn fundamental techniques. As an athlete skill level increases, overly structured coaching may decrease motivation and prevent continuous improvement. Lack of cognitive freedom can produce boredom and unchallenged individuals. Experienced athletes reap benefits from mental engagement and freedom of choice. They are more motivated and progress in training most efficiently.

The two most common challenges/criticisms to this approach are time and patience. A coach might complain, "I only have a limited amount of time to make a large number of athletes stronger. Where will I find opportunity to have intellectual discussions with my athletes?" Finding time is simply about building new coaching habits and realizing, as illustrated above, it is about quick thought provoking questions not extended debate. As for patience... simply find it. Seeing a skill performed perfectly the first time is nice, watching an athlete master a technique after a bit of struggle is most rewarding. A little extra time and patience are worthwhile investments that pay dividends in long term learning and high performance.

A comprehensive way of considering combining technical teaching with athlete engagement is by:  1. Taking sufficient time to educate athletes on the form and the purpose of exercises; 2. Encouraging an environment where athletes may begin to help coach fellow teammates or freshmen.  This will actually create a more efficient training environment.  There will be greater consistency in form when the strength coach’s eyes are elsewhere. Furthermore, team communication and cohesion will be improved. This creates a win-win situation, where the coach can be most efficient, while the athletes can learn the most and make the greatest gains athletically.  Ultimately a strong, trusting bond is created between coach and athlete.

It is unfortunate when the coach of collegiate and elite athletes teach solely through direct instruction and feedback. This creates an athlete that is over-reliant on the coach and ultimately decreases motivation. Without the necessary cognitive challenge and stimulation, an athlete may become stagnant. We often we find the name of the strength coach on the doors of the gym, in reality however it ought to be the athletes' names there, claiming ownership over the gym and what goes on within. Encourage a mindful approach to strength training you will find athletes reaching their maximum potential.

Chambers, K. & Vickers, J. (2006). Effects of Bandwidth Feedback and Questioning on the Performance of Competitive Swimmers. The Sport Psychologist, 20, 184-197.

Dr. Adam Naylor, AASP-CC. is the Director of the Boston University Athletic Enhancement Center (  He has serves as a mental conditioning and player development resource for players at all stages of their sports career.  More reflections on player development and sport psychology can be found at and Dr. Naylor can be reached at
Matt Shaw, BS is a Graduate Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach at the Boston University Varsity weight room.  He has been coached athletes from youth to adult at Boston University, Harvard University, the BU Athletic Enhancement Center, and elsewhere in the greater-Boston community.  He is currently working on his masters degree in coach education at Boston University.



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