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How Athletes Become Like Their Coaches: Leadership & Gym Atmosphere
Matt Foreman

If you’re an athlete, you’re looking for information that will improve your training. If you’re a coach, you’re looking for information that will improve your program and the way you develop your athletes.
 
Can we all agree that your daily attitude in the gym is hugely important to your success as both an athlete and coach? I hope so. Programming, technique, etc… Those things are the foundations of your weightlifting life. But the 27 years I’ve spent as a competitive athlete and coach have taught me something that I can absolutely, positively declare as one of the biggest truths in this business:
 
The way you think and act when you’re training will be the dividing line between success and failure.
 
Your attitude, along with the attitudes of the people you work with, will create the atmosphere in your gym. I’m a pretty big believer in the idea that atmosphere is just as important, and sometimes even MORE important, than programming and technique. And I’m also a big believer that every single member of the gym contributes something to the atmosphere, whether we’re talking about national competitors or low-level lifters who will probably never make it to the big time. Regardless of their rank, everybody brings something to the table every day and it all gels together to produce the overall mojo of the program.
 
The personality of the coach is contagious. Athletes, without even realizing it, gradually develop the characteristics of the leaders who are guiding them. If you’re a coach, this is one of the best pieces of input I could ever give you. I can’t even count how many times I’ve watched this happen throughout my career, and it’s obvious that there are both positive and negative directions it can take.
 
If the coaches are positive, enthusiastic, and confident, their athletes will most likely have those same qualities. This happens both directly and indirectly. There are times when the coach might pull a lifter aside and say, “Listen, this is a program where people support each other. That’s how it works here. If you want to be a part of this program, you’re gonna have to support the people you train with. I’m not saying you have to love them. But I am saying you have to be a good teammate. If you’re a good teammate, it’s gonna make other people want to support you too. And your lifting will be a lot more successful if you join in with how we do things here.
 
These direct conversations are needed occasionally. However, most of the coach-athlete personality stuff happens indirectly. When coaches get excited about an athlete’s success, the other athletes see it and it makes them excited as well. When coaches are calm and reassuring during an athlete’s failure, the other athletes see it and it keeps them calm and reassured during their own failures.
 
Certain things are guaranteed to make a program stronger. Friendliness, respect, high work ethic, desire for progress, sense of humor, commitment, loyalty, toughness… These are surefire home runs. And a coach can ingrain them into the gym’s DNA simply by modeling them at all times.
 
These are the positive things a coach can instill into the athletes, but it’s also important to address the potential negatives. Remember how I told you about the countless times I’ve seen the coach-athlete relationship develop throughout my career? Unfortunately, some of these situations have gone in the wrong direction.
 
Some people just don’t have the right disposition for leadership. They might have successful track records as athletes and a bottomless pit of technical knowledge, but they’re lacking the interpersonal skills necessary to teach others and manage personalities.
 
These are the coaches who refuse to congratulate anybody or acknowledge any progress because they’re so consumed with the idea of being a perfectionist. Believe it or not, it’s entirely possible to be a perfectionist and still let people know they’re doing a good job and getting better.
 
These are the coaches who spread a dysfunctional vibe throughout their program by doing things like talking bad about people behind their backs, publicly humiliating athletes, not enforcing the rules equally with everybody, or just being plain moody. Moodiness is a rotten quality for a coach. Whatever personal hang-ups or issues you might be having, you can’t let anybody see them when you’re on the job. Your athletes will lose confidence in you because you’re showing them you’re not strong enough to deal with something. That’s not the behavior you want to model.
 
So… Those are just a few of the numerous ways a coach can impact the atmosphere of a program. Many of you are coaches, so this is food for thought. For those of you who are athletes, here’s where you fit into this conversation: It’s actually very simple. All the things I just said about coaching are equally applicable to athletes. Even if you’re not the leader of a program, you’re still a direct contributor to the gym’s mojo. You might not think this is true if you’re one of the bottom performers in your gym, but you’re wrong.
 
Think about the engine of a car. There are dozens of moving parts in the engine, and they all have to work together. They’re all important. Some of them might be considered more essential than others, like the carburetor. The carburetor is one of the main “superstars” in the engine. It’s very recognizable. Everybody has heard of it. Its performance determines a lot of things about the success of the engine and people talk about it a lot. However, you have to remember that there are a bunch of little hoses, valves, and cables that surround the carburetor. If any of them are defective, it’s going to affect the way the engine performs. If the hoses and valves don’t do their jobs, you’re going to wind up with a decreased level of performance.
 
When you’re a member of a gym, you’re one of the parts in the engine. Even if you’re not a big celebrity like the carburetor, YOU MATTER. The car won’t run perfectly unless you’re doing your job. The main point of this article is that your “job” is to strengthen the program through some kind of daily contribution, and it all starts with the personality and attitude you demonstrate to others.
 
Believe me, there will be a correlation between these things and the success you have as an athlete. You might not think your snatch and clean & jerk will be affected by how you interact with your teammates, but I can guarantee it will be. Trust me. I’ve been doing this a long time.  
 
If you’re the coach, you’re the mechanic. And if you want the best possible performance from your engine, you have to handle every single part with the importance it deserves.     

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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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2 Comments
Gary Echternacht 2015-05-25
Well written.

Perhaps I was just lucky, but I have never trained in a gym that had a bad atmosphere. The best place I ever trained was at the York Barbell gym. I lived about a two and a half hour drive from York and would go there one or two Saturdays a month to train. Most people training there would total and maybe do some squats. When you walked in the place, through the hall of fame, it reeked of strength. Some of the best weightlifters in the country were usually there. They were the top dogs who set the tone for everyone else. Professional. No real talking. They were models for those of us aspiring to their level. No one got excited when if they did something great or poor.

Socializing happened after training over Hi-Proteen shakes at the dairy bar or over beers at the nearby tavern.

It was a great place.
Juliana Keller 2015-05-29
Thank You Matt! Excelent!
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