Focus on the feeling: How I’ve been coaching wrong for over 10 years

I’ve had a few “aha” moments over the last couple of months, including the one about High Tension vs. Rythmic Cardio that I covered in the podcast posted on Monday. Another one that I’ve had comes from Gray Cook’s book Movement, in which I gained a better understanding of how to execute exercises.

In the book Gray mentions repeatedly that you shouldn’t focus on the end result of an exercise, focus on the process that gets you there. Don’t try to mimic the movement you see and “act” the exercise, focus on the feeling and learn the movement behind the exercise. In other words, don’t show people how to do an exercise, explain what they should be feeling and then have them concentrate on that.

This made me realize that I’ve been going about teaching exercise the wrong way for a long time. The whole “watch me and then do what I do” way of teaching is superficial and misses the real process behind good execution of that exercise. Even throwing in some basic coaching cues like “squeeze you glutes” isn’t getting there – you have to focus on feeling the exercise, not doing it.

Good movement is really a series of feelings along the way to the position you want to achieve. A good set up feels a certain way, a good start feels a certain way, a good lock out feels a certain way and a good return feels a certain way. If something is off with any of those areas I will guarantee that you are focusing on getting to the end of the exercise, not on the series of feelings needed to get there.

Now I show people how to do an exercise 2-3 times, explain a few basic things and then have them do it.  I check each step of the process and see where they are off. I go back to that step and put them where I want them and have them focus on how that new position/ movement strategy feels – I don’t tell them anything about how they should look, simply show them how it should feel.

I then have them do the exercise again focusing on the new feeling they learned and 9 times out of 10 they’re doing it right. I just repeat the process as we get the movement cleaned up and eventually they are doing it right most of the time with minimal coaching because they are focusing on how it feels, not how it looks. Your body remembers how things feel much more effectively than a list of bullet points about how it should look.

On a side note, this also speaks to the difference between form and execution. There are a lot of trainers who can coach the former but not really the latter – I recently had a client that was very proud of their form developed from years of working with a personal trainer. They looked at attempts at coaching as telling them that they had bad form, something they were resistant to.

Once they understood that it isn’t just getting there, it is how crisp and strong your execution is that really matters they actually started asking for more feedback. Form is just the beginning; technique and execution are your real goals. Doing the common exercises uncommonly well is the mark of true strength.

So, don’t worry about how it looks, worry about how it feels. If you are trying to be strong and efficient with your movement then even something that looks “bad” can have value; if you don’t focus on that then a something looks perfect can have little value.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Steve Mahoney says:

    Kudos, on owning up to your reality. It’s nice to see integrity.
    Although, I’m not surprised. You’ve been a stand up guy all along.
    Thanks for all your hard work!

    Reply • February 10 at 9:08 pm
  2. max says:

    In addition to being a mtn biker I am also an avid tennis player. I taught myself how to play tennis out of a book called “Play Better Tennis in 2 Hours” by Oscar Wegner. His whole coaching/teaching principle is learning and playing by feel, not by analyzing and breaking down mechanics. I have adapted a lot of his principles to my mtn biking and it has been very effective. He feels that if you focus on the most important factor for any given situation that all of the other things fall in line. Like moving your head to ball in order to teach court movement. Giving yourself these cues I have found to be very effective and the mechanics of the movement tend to fall into place.

    Reply • February 11 at 3:59 pm
  3. Rob Lawrence says:

    Great stuff!
    The ” how it feels” enables the student to focus on the experience of doing the exercise, and knowing the feedback they should be feeling.
    It also would put their mind in the present ?


    Reply • February 12 at 6:14 pm
  4. electric says:

    If you haven’t already you should read “Tao of jeet kune do”… Bruce lee’s posthumous book on martial arts philosophy.

    “The superior style is that of no style.”

    Reply • February 12 at 10:23 pm
  5. Marty says:

    As a retired trainer (still studying all the time though) I can tell you that even 10 years later I still learn something every time I work out. As for form, function and fee they all have there purpose. Example what is the perfect biceps curl, I guess it all depends on your end goals.

    My goal when working/training my clients was first and foremost to teach them everything that I new to be true or valid at that time and never to be afraid to tell them I learned something new that might conflict with what I just taught them yesterday. I used to call it the “Mack Truck Theory” — If I was gone today would they be able to continue working out or would they be lost. (( almost forgot – Mack Truck Theory == me getting run over my a Mack truck and not making it to the next workout)).

    That being said I can give one example of stretching that has always bothered me. When a trainer tell there client that being able to do the splits, touch there toes, do a calf stretch or pec stretch but they leave out the most important detail. What are the joints actually range of motion. If your doing the splits you’ve actually gone past the joints range of motion and your now doing damage to the joint.

    Little things make us better athletes and people and James you’ve truly inspired me over the last year to study more and to actually do more strength training and to do a little less riding and I can tell you my riding skills have increased and so has my family life.

    PS – I still think you need to Fly out to Milwaukee and hit Rays Indoor MTB Park I think that could be your next big revaluations.

    Reply • February 17 at 10:29 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Thanks for the feedback, being able to admit that you’ve grown and learned a better way is something that not everyone can do. The amount of trainers still doing 3 sets of 10 reps on a machine circuit tells us that!

      Glad the time off the bike is helping on the bike, I tell my clients that you have to sacrifice a little quantity of riding to really increase the quality of it – would you rather drink a 12 pack of Coors Light or 2-3 Fat Tires? I’d rather ride a day less and be able to dominate the trail than ride every day and not really see any progress.

      Reply • February 19 at 10:51 am

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