What Elvis Presley’s Horse Taught Me About Coaching

“Until Elvis got here, we didn’t even have phone lines. He had them installed cause every night he had to call his mama.” I’m sitting on top of a horse at a ranch in Sedona, Arizona. The same ranch that served as a location for “Stay Away, Joe,” one of Elvis Presley’s lesser-known and predictably terrible westerns. The cowboy in charge is retelling this story of the King and his well-documented affection towards his mother. For a moment I have the thought to raise my hand and tell our guide that he is clearly mistaken. I mean, everyone knows that “Stay Away Joe” was filmed in 1968 and Gladys Presley died nearly a decade earlier, so this story could not be true.

But then I quickly realize that I am the only Elvis super-fan on this slow trot through the Arizona desert. And while the movie backdrop still standing on the ranch may be fake, the hardened, weathered look on the cowboy’s face seemed authentic, so I decide to keep my mouth shut.

I was daydreaming about what it must have been like to be Elvis in those days. Making bad movies, knowing your star is fading but being surrounded by enough yes-men to stave off depression when the cowboy snaps me back to attention.

“Now all these horses, they can NOT get too close to each other. Except you,” the finger inside the cowboy’s weathered leather glove was pointing at me, “that horse can get right up on the tail of that horse in front of you.”

And with those words, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I learned one of the most valuable coaching lessons of my career.

People Buy Into Trainers, Not Training

As coaches, we love systems. Systems are predictable. They feel safe and justifiable. It’s why we put so much stock in programming. All programming is, if you are smart about it, is a progressive system that should, more-or-less, yield predictable performance results. Of course, nothing is that cut and dry. While the system or program may be rock solid there are tons of factors that are outside of your control. If your client or athlete is going through relationship stress, or just had a baby or is in the middle of finals or is working three jobs or any number of lifestyle factors their results are just not going to be optimal, no matter how great your program is.

But there is another factor that does occur within the gym walls but has nothing to do with systems or programs or technique that you can control. It’s something that goes beyond training. It’s coaching. I’ll give you an example.

I currently have four lifters on our competitive Olympic Weightlifting team. And with some minor tweaks, we all generally follow the same program. This may actually not be ideal but it does lead to a good team environment and works well within our facility. However when it comes to coaching these lifters each one needs a very unique and specific approach. One lifter needs a lot of positive vibes and encouragement during and training and competition. Another needs to feel like he is in control and has to focus attention on a mortal enemy that he is trying to defeat (whether real of imagined). The third needs to have fun, keep things loose and dance and joke around between sets. The last needs to visualize the movements, have laser-like focus and move through the workout quickly. And knowing this about them and tailoring my cueing, how much I say, my tone of voice, my physical proximity and about a dozen other sub-conscious factors is what makes me a coach. Not writing 3×3 back squat at 90% on the white board.

Real coaching lives outside of tangible factors. It’s the ability to relate to your client or athlete in the moment. To understand their struggle and their success. To determine what makes them tick. Of course this takes time but the faster you can determine these “x” factors the quicker you will gain trust, build success and command loyalty. I’ve seen excellent coaches size up people very quickly. This is definitely a learned and valuable skill and one all of us as coaches should be working on developing.

This building of connection rings just as true for general-population clients as it does for athletes. Knowing which of your clients really appreciate technical advice, which ones are really affected by the musical selection in the gym, which ones prefer fewer words and which ones need cheerleaders is more than important – it’s critical. It’s exactly what the cowboy knew about his horses. Most of them couldn’t stand each other. But mine was going to move much better if he stayed right on his girlfriend’s hindquarters.

Coaching: The Dark Side

Before I make it seem like coaching is all lollipops and rainbows and hugs after PRs and gold medals, there is a sort of dark side. One I struggled with for years and will still make me pop up out of bed at 3AM with a lump in my throat.

Coaching requires emotional investment. It rewards commitment. It will often have you putting the needs of your clients and athletes above those of your own. You will often want success for them more than they want it for themselves. And this level of desire and dedication will not always be reciprocated. And that, my friends, is a tough pill to swallow.

I wish I had a simple solution to share with you. But, as I mentioned, I still struggle with this myself. I realize that it’s probably a good thing. It means I’m passionate about what I am doing and care about the people I’m working with. But, damn, it doesn’t feel good while it’s happening.

And while I don’t have a solution, I do have some advice – suck it up, buttercup, and deal with it. The alternative is to be a non-caring robot who is going through the motions. And that is not good for your business or your soul. You carry the cross of your calling when you become a coach.

Priorities, Priorities

I apologize in advance for the lack of subtlety in this next statement, but if you hire an online coach because they are constantly showing their hot ass on Instagram and you think they can get you the same you, my friend, are a sucker. If you do hire an online coach you should do so because you admire their body of work (not just their body) and/or the results they have gotten for other clients. To take it one step further, you should really, really be cautious about going the online training route at all.

Now there are people who will benefit from online coaching. Mainly, these are clients who do not live near a qualified coach, have a good amount of training background themselves or are seeking out a specialty. Full disclosure: I ran a decently successful online coaching business myself with the majority of my clients being fellow coaches and personal trainers. But the biggest reason not to hire an online coach is that you really miss out on a lot of the benefits of training when you don’t have a coach in front of you. And I don’t care how many Skype sessions, video analysis and training apps are included in your monthly online coaching fee. The relationship you develop with an in-person coach can not be replaced by technology, though people are trying really hard to do so. So unless you fit into the criteria above, try to find an in-person coach and work with them for a while. Trust me on this one. And while I’m not saying that we will never foray into the world of online products, I will say that we will always prioritize face-to-face coaching.

This is the part of the post where I would make a plea to online coaches to not rip-off clients by doctoring your website photos and using cookie-cutter programs written by your intern , but that will certainly fall on deaf ears so I’ll restrain (see what I did there?!?).

Finally, when it comes to coaches, whether online or in-person, I highly recommend actually hiring a coach who has helped her clients achieve goals (whether that is shedding body fat, stepping on a bodybuilding stage or winning gold medals) rather than hiring an athlete who has only done this for themselves. Of course being a high level athlete gives you an understanding of what it takes to achieve goals, but their level of insight is very different than the coach who has had to find a way to motivate, program, cue and come up with ways to get those athletes through the finish line. It’s a very different skill than doing it yourself. So hire the coach, not the player. Just my opinion.

Straight From The Horse’s Mouth

The majority of fitness specifics such as program design, nutrition, strength qualities, energy systems, anatomy, cellular biology and a host of others should be dictated by science – they do call it exercise science, after all. But coaching is the opportunity to bring your art into the mix. And it’s the ultimate exercise in trust and relationship building.

And if Elvis’s horse taught me anything it’s that trust is key if you are planning to constantly be on someone’s tail.