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Going From Level 3 to Level 7: Athlete & Coach Ability
Matt Foreman

Let me tell you one of the best things I know about coaching and athlete performance.
 
First of all, good coaching is important. If you’ve got an athlete (or an entire program) that’s stuck in a hole, inserting a good coach into the equation can change the whole landscape. Athletes can go from mediocrity to ass-kicking in a big hurry if they have the right leadership. Alexander the Great once said, “I do not fear an army of lions, if they are led by a lamb. But I do fear an army of lambs, if they are led by a lion.”
 
However, you can’t get carried away with this idea too much. At the end of the day, even the greatest coach in the world can only take athletes as far as their talent level will go. Whether we like it or not, the athlete’s athletic ability is going to be the ultimate determinant of their success. Lifters with mediocre talent will never win world championships, regardless of who their coaches are. This is one of the hardest pills to swallow in sports, because it isn’t fair.
 
A great athlete with mediocre coaching is going to beat a mediocre athlete with great coaching, 99% of the time. If you don’t believe me, just look around at the landscape of your sport. You’ll see plenty of situations where championship teams and individuals are being handled by coaches who aren’t even legitimate experts.
 
If you’ve got an athlete who’s a 100% thoroughbred race horse, the coach doesn’t have to do a lot of work. Once these athletes have learned the basics and accumulated some training, they’re going to kick the hell out of everybody. You know why? Because they’re more talented than everybody.
 
Granted, it is possible for a thoroughbred racehorse athlete to flounder around in mediocrity if the coach is a complete brainless jackass. This happens sometimes too. Even with a thoroughbred, the coach has to have a basic level of competence. As I said, they’ve at least gotta be mediocre.
 
I’ve been on both sides of this equation. I’ve been a track and field throws coach (shot put and discus) for 19 years. I had some of the biggest success of my coaching career in my first four years, when I was still fairly mediocre. I wasn’t a great coach back then, but I just so happened to have some of the most talented athletes I’ve ever worked with in my stable. All I had to do was teach them the basics and give them solid guidance, and they won championships. Now, 15 years later, I’m ten times the coach I used to be. And guess what? Many of my athletes still haven’t surpassed the accomplishments of those animals I had in the early years. I’ve definitely got a lot MORE high-level performers because I’m a much better coach and I can bring lots of athletes up, regardless of their talent level. But most of them can’t reach that stratosphere level of success because they just don’t have the rare ability as my studs from the old days.
 
Here’s an easier way to look at it. Let’s put this stuff on a scale of 1-10.
 
10 Superior athletic ability and perfect performance
9  
8
7  
6  
5  
4  
3  
2  
1 Bottom-of-the-barrel athletic ability, lowest level of performance
 
Got it? Okay, let’s say you’re a coach and you work with an athlete for an extended period of time. On the 1-10 scale, the athlete’s progress looks like this:  
 
10 Superior athletic ability and perfect performance
9  
8
7 Where the athlete is functioning after you’ve coached them
6  
5  
4  
3 Where the athlete is functioning before you start coaching them
2
1  Bottom-of-the-barrel athletic ability, lowest level of performance
 
If you want to be negative, you can look at this athlete and say, “He/she is still only at the 7 level. That’s not perfect, dammit!” Okay, that’s true. But the important thing you have to remember is that you’ve coached that athlete up four levels. They’re four times better than they were before you started working with them. That’s a hell of a coaching job, brothers and sisters.
 
Is that athlete ever going to go from 7 to the 10 level? I don’t know, maybe. If they don’t have a shred of 10-level talent in their bodies, it probably won’t happen. Being a 10 requires a special set of skills, the kind of things you’re born with. If you don’t have it… you don’t have it. Donkeys don’t win the Kentucky Derby. This is unkind, but so is weightlifting.
 
If you coach long enough, you’ll work with athletes who start at 1. These are the poor suckers who have almost no athletic ability at all. They can barely walk across the gym without falling down and hurting themselves. But if you coach these people from 1 to 5, you’ve done a tremendous job. They’ll never be 10s, but you’ve made them better than they ever thought they would be. And you probably changed their whole life in the process.
 
The thoroughbreds? These are the athletes who start at the 9-10 level, right from the beginning. As a coach, your main job is not screwing them up by trying to change too much. They’ll be successful without a lot of tinkering. It’s in their DNA. As we’ve said, they don’t need great coaching because they’re already naturally better than everybody else.
 
When people see great athletes, they often automatically assume they’ve got great coaches. Sometimes this is the case, but often it isn’t. Many times, the coach is just an average joe who got lucky enough to have a thoroughbred walk into their gym.
 
If you work with people who start at 5, and you coach them up to 8, you’re a good coach. If you consistently make people several levels better than where they started, you’re an outstanding coach. The greatest coaches are the ones who can elevate ANYBODY.
 
If you’re an athlete, you fit into this discussion somewhere. I have no idea what your talent level is. What do you think it is? After you’ve accumulated a little experience, you’ll probably have a good idea about your place in the universe. If you beat everybody around you and a lot of big-time coaches talk to you about how you’ve got potential to be a champion, you’re probably high on the scale. And if you stay at the bottom of the pile without any movement upwards, you’re probably near the low end.
 
Whatever your level is, the main point of this discussion is PROGRESS. If you’re a 4, make it your mission in life to become a 5, then a 6, then a 7, and so forth. Will you ever be a 10? Don’t worry about it. Take it one step at a time.
 
Coaches, your job is to make people better. Athletes, your job is to fight your way up the scale… no matter how long it takes. What level are you all going to end up at? You never know, but it’ll be a lot of fun finding out.  

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Matt Foreman is the football and track & field coach at Mountain View High School in Phoenix, AZ. A competitive weightliter for twenty years, Foreman is a four-time National Championship bronze medalist, two-time American Open silver medalist, three-time American Open bronze medalist, two-time National Collegiate Champion, 2004 US Olympic Trials competitor, 2000 World University Championship Team USA competitor, and Arizona and Washington state record-holder. He was also First Team All-Region high school football player, lettered in high school wrestling and track, a high school national powerlifting champion, and a Scottish Highland Games competitor. Foreman has coached multiple regional, state, and national champions in track & field, powerlifting, and weightlifting, and was an assistant coach on 5A Arizona state runner-up football and track teams. He is the author of the books Olympic Weightlifting for Masters: Training at 30, 40, 50 & Beyond and Bones of Iron: Collected Articles on the Life of the Strength Athlete.


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