Chris Holder: Coaching with Confidence to Share Knowledge and Experience

We all want to feel like experts in our coaching fields.

We want to be someone who can be trusted to have answers, give great advice and serve as a strong example.

Young coaches, particularly, might be more reluctant to share their ideas, express themselves honestly and be willing to say, “I don’t know.” What each of us need to understand is that our individual experiences have merit, our perspectives are unique and we can learn from each other . . . if we will simply have the courage to speak up.

I work in the collegiate setting. I have over 500 kids who pass through my doors on a daily basis. I’ve been doing this for almost twenty years now.

Whether I like it or not, I have copious amounts of experience.

My wife and I were talking about how many athletes have crossed my path over my career. Understanding that the turnover yearly is between 80—120 kids (along with a couple of job changes), I’ve coached over 4000 student-athletes.

With this level of immersion, I have developed a few skills that make me highly effective when it comes to coaching, particularly large groups. But this has also shown me that I have a genuine and humbled understanding of what I don’t know.

Coaching is about Being Yourself

There is nothing more off-putting to me than a person who cannot be authentic. This is both in daily life and in the coaching world. Unfortunately, we see this in the coaching setting more often than not. You know, the guys who try to be just like so-and-so, and go as far as to dress like, have the same mannerisms as and regurgitate the same exact information as their coaching idol or mentor.

The reason I say this is because when I was coming up, I was mentored by Mike Kent, and I did exactly that. Coach Kent is currently the Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Florida and is genuinely a one-of-a-kind. He’s brilliant, but perhaps more importantly, he’s the most unique personality that I have come across in my twenty years of coaching.

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My first year on my own, my default was to be like Coach Kent. I told his jokes, I used his coaching vocabulary and I modeled my days just like his. Problem was, I was a total fraud and my athletes could smell it. My girls, particularly, didn’t warm up to me and it took a long time and a lot of repair to get them on board. They didn’t know Coach Kent, but they could feel the inauthenticity of what I was doing. It wasn’t until I became comfortable in my own skin and stopped trying to be someone who I wasn’t before the athletes really became responsive.

Be yourself. Trust me, no matter how old you are, you have experiences that are valuable for someone in your setting. There is nothing more attractive than someone who is genuine and is comfortable in their own skin. One of my favorite coaches/trainers I have ever come across is a guy by the name of Ben Trapp. Ben works at a high-end gym up in Los Gatos, California and has a dedicated clientele. I worked with Ben for almost a year and even to this day, I can’t tell you what Ben knows or doesn’t know. But what I can assure you is, Ben is loved by his clients and his co-workers because he is the real deal. No fluff, just Ben Trapp to his fullest abilities. He’s a people person, is the most likeable guy around and could sell ice to an Eskimo.

Coaching is about Stifling Fear

How many of you want to continually grow? You know, walk away from the job every day and have a new level of insight that you didn’t have that morning. These “ah-ha” moments are fueled by communication and observation. I have spent my entire coaching career seeking out the best in the business to deepen the scope of my knowledge. If I have ever done anything right, it’s that I have zero fear about approaching people, asking for help and nearly stalking someone to get the opportunity to learn from them. This goes outside the scope of my coaching career also (no, not the stalking). I simply took the steps forward to get a hold of my favorite author and eventually get the opportunity to study with him. Diligence pays off.

Fear of rejection can paralyze a person. None of us want to be turned down, told “no” or ignored by a person we would like to learn from. I can assure you, I’ve been blown off by more coaches than I can count . . . but, I have also made friendships and spent time with some of the “who’s who” in all of coaching. My lineup of mentors are some of the biggest names in the business. The partnerships I’ve forged and the relationships I’ve pursued have molded me as a coach. This doesn’t make me special, mind you. It just makes me persistent.

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If you want to rapidly increase your credibility in any field, you have to put yourself out there. I am a firm believer that every opportunity, along with every rejection, is exactly what you need at the time. It’s as if the universe is conspiring with you to provide you the exact experience that is necessary at that moment for your growth. Trust your own momentum, stand firm with the understanding that you are exactly where you need to be. Put yourself out there and get in contact with the people you want to learn from. You will eventually get like I am when I reach out to someone for advice or with a question and get ignored.

My first thought is, “Wow, now they don’t get to learn anything from me.”


Coaching is about Relationships

Whether you are the one doing the teaching or the one doing the learning, coaching is about developing relationships. If you are not a people person, this is definitely not the profession for you. Your ability to communicate verbally and non-verbally becomes the focal point of measuring success. As mentioned above, you need complete confidence about opening your mouth and be willing to take measured risks to keep the communication moving forward.

If I can give any coach the best piece of advice I know, it would be learn how to build relationships. Believe me, if your athletes don’t trust you, it doesn’t matter what you know. You could be the smartest mind in all of strength and conditioning and if you can’t get your people to buy in, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. I have seen both ends of the spectrum and even those folks who knew the least and had minimal experience, yet were charismatic and likable, were able to get the most from their athletes. I don’t care what anyone else tells you, if they like you, you can get them to work their fingers to the bone for you.

I’ve also worked with people who were brilliant but had no people skills and watched them burn out due to frustration. It’s sad to see because you know what potential they hold due to their knowledge base.

Learn to be a great communicator. There are countless books, workshops, classes on public speaking and internet videos on how to be an effective communicator. If you know you are lacking in this area, take the time fix it.

I have studied Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) for a few years now. It is the study of how we process dialog and how to use language to achieve a desired goal. It’s completely fascinating. It gives you the tools necessary to understand how your listener is hearing you, versus what you think they are hearing . . . from pace of speech, physical orientation to the person you are speaking to, the tone you are using, you name it. Take an NLP course. Do whatever you have to do to make sure you know how to relate to your athlete.

Coaching is about Knowing Your Audience

This one will feel similar to what we just covered, but it’s so important it needs its own section. Knowing your audience can give you the confidence to say the right thing in any given situation. I know this sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many coaches miss on this one.

You need to be certain that you fully understand who you are talking to. A crude, yet effective, example would be explaining the concept of gravity to a four-year-old, in comparison to a physics major. One has all the tools and vocabulary to follow, understand and perhaps even contribute to the conversation. The other has a very limited vocabulary, a gross lack of experience and is nearly void of any way of conceiving what you are saying.

I see this in coaching all the time. For example, where I work right now. Cal Poly is one of the best academic schools in the country. Aeronautical engineering, agricultural business and a killer kinesiology school (to name a few) are just some of the majors we have here. The kids I coach are smart . . . really smart. It takes an act of Congress to get admitted here. So I can come at these kids with larger concepts. I can coach from a scientific basis and use a deeper vocabulary because I know they have the education behind them to hear what I am saying.

I’ve worked at other institutions that were, well, not Cal Poly. I coached at two places where the academic standards were minimal and I was coaching a very diverse group of kids from all walks of life. Yes, I could go big concept with some of them, but with others I needed to say things at their level. I’m not saying insult a person’s intelligence, just know if you are talking to a potential Ph.D. candidate or someone who is studying sociology because it’s easy to stay eligible.

Knowing your audience is about having the verbal flexibility to say the same thing 14 different ways. When I’m mentoring a young coach, I’m big on having them explain things to me multiple different ways.

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It isn’t unusual for me to grab one of my assistants out of the blue and ask them to teach me how to squat. I know how to squat. I know they know how to coach a good squat. I want to hear them tell me from the ground up. And not like they did the last time I asked.

Coaching is about having the guts to say, “I don’t know.”

Do you know? Are you sure? Because if you don’t, there is no shame in telling your audience that you, either don’t know, or don’t have enough information to be certain. And the beauty with being brave enough to say, “I don’t know” is that it gives you complete insurance on being wrong.

When I was in grad school I was taking an advanced exercise physiology from a woman who was an absolute ball buster. Her name was Susan Puhl and she was tough, and extraordinarily smart and I loved her for it. We had small 12-15 person classes that were quite intimate and highly interactive. At the beginning of the quarter we were broken up into small groups and each group was responsible for teaching major sections of the material to the entire class.

The very first group to go were four of my classmates who were teaching hypobaria. The first girl got up and began to teach and quickly, Dr. Puhl began shooting questions at her. In an attempt to BS the class and our professor, this person began to make up answers, bob and weave questions and dig herself a horrific hole. Dr. Puhl would ask a question, she would give a wrong answer and Dr. Puhl would say, “Nope, try again.” After repeated failed attempts this girl began to cry in front of the class. For over 30 minutes, this girl sobbed and stuck her foot in her mouth, over and over. We all were sick to our stomachs because we were waiting our turn to be put through the grinder. At the end of the 30 minutes, Puhl stopped her and said, “The only thing I want you to say is, I don’t know.

Listen, if you don’t know, say it. The worst thing you can do is the very thing the girl did in that exercise phys class. If you are worried about saying the wrong thing, or if you aren’t sure about something that is asked, the worst thing you can do is make something up. Don’t do it. Tell them you don’t know, or that you aren’t sure but you will get them an answer asap. Not only does this keep you from tripping over yourself, but it gives you an out when you need one.

Listen, coaching is about all the things above. But it’s mostly about you, your unique experiences. The world seen through your lens.

I go back to the “teach me how to squat” example. Take it from someone who’s been in the game for a very long time. There is value to hearing everyone’s perspective. I am a sponge when it comes to learning and I know that everyone’s take has value.

If you think you are too inexperienced to speak up, let it go.
If you think you don’t have enough information, share what you do know.

Your experiences will be the take home message for many in your audience.


Chris Holder is the head Strength and Conditioning coach at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. His football background, a Master RKC certification and 20 years of coaching experience at the college level have given him an edge in developing his athletes. Holder is also a Doctor of Medical Qigong and has found training success in his unique blending of eastern medical and spiritual approaches with western strength science.


More at OTP on Strength Coaching Philosophy

Training College Athletes, Training High School Athletes, Strength Coach For College AthletesBrijesh Patel: Strength Coaching for College Athletes 

Strength Philosophy by Dan JohnDan John: A Philosophy of Strength Training

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