A Path To Coaching Excellence

Bob Takano
Olympic Weightlifting

There is a sizable number of folks out there interested in coaching the Olympic lifts. They are showing up at Crossfit Oly Certs and USAW Coaching Clinics. Most of them are working along diligently learning the nuances of identifying technical errors and trying to provide positive cues that will lead to improved technique. When they come to clinics, many of them are impressed at the visual acuity of the instructors who can spot even the smallest of technical malfunctions.


When most people first watch an experienced weightlifting coach working, they can't see the technical errors taking place, and are amazed to see someone spotting them so quickly. After all a top level snatch takes 1.2 seconds or less, and involves a great range of motion of a large percentage of the joints of the extremities. All of these movements take place in a very specific sequence with very specific timing. Some people are better at recognizing technical errors than others and there is no real road map for developing the ability to see technical errors.


I was thinking about this topic earlier and thought that some readers might benefit from my history in developing my coaching eye and perhaps evaluate what they have been doing to become a more effective technical coach.


Part of my history is affected by the technology available at the time that I started following weightlifting which was 1962. There were only magazines and a few books and courses available describing technique. Strength and Health magazine was the only regularly available source of viewing technique and that was full of still photos. In those days squat style lifting had just taken over as THE technique, and perhaps due to the cameras available at the time, most of the photos depicted lifters in the bottom of the squat snatch and squat clean and were captioned as "good technique". I remember attending meets where a lifter would have marginal (meaning slow) pulling technique, but a solid bottom position and the announcer would proclaim that the lifter had excellent technique. So bottom position was king and nobody knew very much about what happened during the pull.


Not knowing any better, I concentrated on engraving into my mind what was a good bottom position. If my high school and college notebooks from that era were still available I'd find the margins adorned with little drawings of lifters in a bottom position. I had some artistic ability (having won a children's art competition in the third grade), so drawing seemed a perfectly legitimate way of etching those positions into the part of the brain that watches weightlifting technique. This was helpful.


In later years I noticed that two people with coaching eyes that I respect were also pretty good sketch artists so the connection between observing technique and drawing skills was formed in my mind. Jean Holloway, who was a member of my lifting team for a couple of decades spent hours watching lifts and was a proficient drawer and painter. She has an excellent eye for technique. So does Bob Hise, III who grew up watching lifting and was a pretty fair artist himself. I know that having a strong visual component to the brain is a big plus in spotting technical proficiencies.


There was precious little video available at that point in history, so I was stuck looking at photos of the top international champions sitting in a low squat or low split in the jerk.

In the mid 1970's, former U.S. Olympic coach Carl Miller wrote some articles that noted that top international lifters were re-bending their knees into the pathway of the bar and were thus able to use an extension of the knee joint in addition to the traditional hip joint extension to develop a more powerful pulling mechanic. Suddenly all the photographers that regularly covered weightlifting events were taking pictures of lifters performing the pull, many of them with the bar at mid-thigh or higher showing this re-bending of the knees.

A little later motor drives came down in cost enough that non-professional photographers could afford them and thus sequence photos became available for publication. Of course, my friend John Garhammer, had taken literally miles of video footage, and had dissected the biomechanics of the pull. Suddenly weightlifting coaches had a clear idea of what took place during an efficient pull and had the photos to etch the critical images into the part of the brain that watches weightlifting technique.


I am convinced that there was and is a a tremendous value in watching sequence photos. They provide the coach with a visual target to look for during actual coaching. Modern day coaches have the advantage of watching video since it is so inexpensive to shoot videos and so many are available for viewing on You Tube. The caveat of course, is that for novice coaches, it may be hard to determine what is excellent technique versus adequate technique. In some cases I've seen some websites that post videos that are supposed to demonstrate exemplary technique, but are often plagued by not so subtle technical errors.


Another problem with video is that the rhythm is slightly different from a real time lift. I've spoken with a number of video students, video fans and videographers and although several of them have attempted an explanation, none of them has provided a comprehensive explanation. While video can provide the novice coach with some sense of rhythm and timing, it is not entirely accurate. The advantage of video is that it can be slowed down, stopped and reversed, but that is merely a revisiting of sequence photos.


The final and best solution, once the positions have been etched into the mind's eye, is to watch literally thousands of lifts in the gym and on the competitive platform with an experienced coach. There is no substitute for this type of mentoring. Although it is possible to develop the coaching eye in isolation, the amount of time that it takes is greatly increased without adequate mentorship.


Although I've personally observed probably several hundred thousand, if not a million lifts, a great deal of insight was also gained from watching some of them with Jean Holloway, Bob Hise, III, Bob Hise, II, John Garhammer, Harvey Newton and many others, not to mention listening to the comments of coaches about their own lifters during competitions.


The development of the coaching eye is not a well defined pathway, but it is one that must be undertaken if one wishes to become the best coach possible.