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by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC

The coach-athlete system may be complete. But it may not be completely ideal.

Everybody hurts from something.
Training is not ideally a solitary activity. Training benefits from the social dimension.

Lifting by yourself is often necessary, because Life. It can be productive and even pleasant—a nice change of pace. And it is certainly preferable to the alternative of not training at all, which, as we all know, can only lead to weakness, despair, spontaneous decapitation, felo-canine connubiality, and Total Protonic Reversal. That’s all bad. So even if circumstances mandate training alone, you should do so—safely of course—for all our sakes. But it’s not the ideal, at least not over the long term. We have always maintained, in line with Rippetoe, Bradford, Brookes, and Soleyn, among others, that the athlete-coach system is the complete system, one in which both human entities interact with the internal and external realities manifesting on the platform. In this system, the internal performance model learned and conceptualized by the athlete is interacting with and being modified by the coaching model embodied by the coach, and in this process both models reify and modulate each other. This is the system in which form creep is minimized, safety is maximized, and efficiency and progress are optimized. As in most (but sadly not all) human endeavors, the presence of two heads minimizes irrational, emotive, and ill-considered impulses. And this coach-athlete complex is the one in which both learn and grow. Everybody needs a coach. But Noah (Coach Hayden and I) have been talking, and a question that came up today was: is even this coach-athlete loop complete? I believe it is functionally complete and far preferable to the solitary athlete training without feedback. Nevertheless, I think I would get an almost unanimous agreement from the athletes and coaches of Greysteel that the coach-athlete structure, while effective, is still missing something: training partners. When you’re training alone with a coach, you’ll get the work done, but there are minimal referents outside the coach-athlete system. When we train with training partners, we have entire new dimensions, both social and instructive, in which to embed ourselves. The social dimension is pleasant, of course (depending on who you’re with), but at the end of the day you’re not in the gym to shoot the breeze, and in fact the social dimension has to be pruned back hard to keep it from becoming a metastatic talking grabass weed that interferes with the job at hand. But the social dimension is more than that, and valuable beyond the agreeable company. We and our training partners offer each other validation, encouragement, solace, and a certain esprit de corps. We share in each other’s triumphs and help each other through the rough patches. Okay, so I really hate that I just wrote that sentence. It sounds so disagreeably Hallmark and Lifetime to me, like a cheap internet meme with a puppy and a kitten doing something creepily unnatural but toxically cute, just to make us all forget that humans can never have nice things and the universe is doomed to heat death.

But it’s true, dammit: training partners actually make lifting seem more like this:

No. The universe is not like this. The sun will die and one day the IRS will audit you. Now excuse me while I find some insulin.

And I guess there’s nothing wrong with having warm fuzzy puppy-kitty feelings, as long as you don’t get carried away. But there’s an instructive aspect to having lifting partners too, in a situation where a coach is present. You get to see other people getting coached, and this opens a unique and valuable perspective. You get to experience what’s happening on the platform, not just from a lifter’s perspective, and not just from an onlooker’s perspective, but from a coaching perspective. You begin to see what the coach sees, and you begin to develop your own coaching eye, a repertoire of cues, and to see the errors you’re making and not making from within a different frame of reference. This will come in handy on those occasions when you’re forced to coach yourself, preferably with a video camera, and when you’re forced to take turns coaching with training partners when the coach isn’t available. You see that you’re not the only one who drops his elbows too far in a press, you’re not the only one who misses a heavy single sometimes, you’re not the only one who gets yelled at for knee slide, and you’re not the only one who gets winded, tweaked, or discouraged from time to time. Your own issues shrink to a more proper and more manageable perspective. This is one of the reasons I think Greysteel is such a magical place. We have a model in which the athlete trains with one coach and two lifting partners. I’ve seen many friendships blossom in this system, and I’ve seen people support and nurture each other through good times and bad. (Cue the puppy and the kitten again! With sparkles!) And I’ve seen people learn from each other by watching their partners train under a coach’s supervision. It’s a valuable and powerful model, one that was imposed on Greysteel by circumstances and limitations rather than any special insight on my part. But it’s perfect. So the coach-athlete system may be complete. But it may not be completely ideal. Most of you reading this aren’t at Greysteel, and to you we’d say: find someplace like it, or at least find good training partners. And don't forget: strive to be a good training partner yourself. Training has manifold domains and dimensions: the technical, the biological, the biomechanical, the psychological. There’s a social dimension there, too, and we are social animals. As a species, we have always achieved our greatest accomplishments in community with others. Why would training be any different?

(Thanks to Coach Noah Hayden for the idea and the discussion that led to this essay.)

Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.

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