The influence of CrossFit has dramatically increased the popularity of weightlifting without a doubt. Attendant to that increase are a few other changes: The number of weightlifting coaches in the world has increased, the number of gyms in which weightlifting can be trained has increased, and the percentage of the total number weightlifting coaches who are actually good at coaching weightlifting has decreased.
In a normal world, this dilution of coaching ability wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but we don’t live in a normal world; we live in a world in which social media is meaningful. And in such a world, the misrepresentational power of social media, combined with people’s general lack of willingness to perform even the most cursory of background investigations, means that essentially anyone with an Instagram account can be a weightlifting coach to whom poor souls dying to learn the snatch and clean & jerk will offer themselves unquestioningly.
The fact remains that, despite its growing popularity, the sport of weightlifting is still an extremely small one, especially in the US. By way of comparison, USA Weightlifting, even with its recent swell in membership, is still about a seventh the size of USA Gymnastics, itself not a particularly large sport. This means that for every one person who happens to live within reasonable driving distance of a qualified coach, there are far more who do not. The demand is well above the supply, and as a consequence, coaches who would otherwise be laughed out of the sport are themselves laughing all the way to the bank (posting selfies every ten paces, of course; am I the only semi-public figure now who doesn’t have a full-time photographer on staff?).
But enough of that depressing digression, because in reality the situation is in fact much better than it was ten years ago—even if the relative number of good coaches is smaller, the absolute number is larger, which means more opportunities; and you may have to do more homework, but you also have more tools with which to do that homework very easily if you just take the initiative (and let’s be honest—if you can’t take initiative for something like this, you don’t have much promise as a weightlifter… or anything).
Step 1: What Do You Want?
First, you need to determine what exactly you’re in the market for. That is, who are you and what are your goals? This will make a big difference in who will work best for you as a coach.
If you want to be a competitive weightlifter at the highest level possible, your choice of coach is critical—one of the top few most important choices you’ll ever make in your life with respect to weightlifting. A coach can truly get your maximal potential out of you, or he or she can hold you back in various ways, be they technical, program-oriented, or by in some way ruining the joy of training and competing with their attitude or behavior.
If, on the other hand, your interest is simply to learn the lifts for recreation and you have no intention of taking it any further than a little fun training a couple days each week, your choice of coach is not nearly as impactful—pretty much anyone who can show you what a snatch and clean & jerk looks like may do as long as you like them reasonably well. In such a case, you’re probably going to be more concerned with the training environment—that is, do you like the atmosphere and the people you’re training with? If not, you’re going to be hard-pressed to get much enjoyment out of the experience.
In short, the more ambitious your goals and the more competition-oriented you are, the greater the need for qualification and experience in your coach.
Step 2: Find Potential Coaches
Now that you know what you’re looking for, it’s time to find coaches in your area. This is the step in which you may find yourself uncontrollably ecstatic or inconsolably depressed based on your place of residence. Go to USA Weightlifting and find the clubs in your state. If you live in California, you have a lot of clubs to sift through. If you live in South Dakota… this will be a quick process.
But what if a coach doesn’t have a USAW club? Well, chances are that coach doesn’t coach much weightlifting, so go ahead and don’t worry about it, at least initially. If you get to the end and haven’t found a coach you can reach, you can go back and broaden your search. Finding a coach who runs or works with a USAW club will let you know that he or she coaches at least some competitive weightlifters, which is usually a good sign for a number of reasons, and it lets you know that if and when you decide to compete, you won’t have to go searching again for a coach who can help you.
Of course, you can always just search the entire internet for weightlifting coaches in whatever area you’re willing to travel within. Most coaches will be on the internet in one way or another, whether or not through their own doing. You may not find someone with a website or social media (some of our country’s best coaches couldn’t care less about posting on Twitter), but you’ll at least find references to their names to learn of their existence and basic credentials so you can investigate further with specific searches for them.
This is also a good time to decide what you’re willing to do to train with a good coach. I moved down the length of California. I know others who have moved across states. Again, this is a matter of goals.
Step 3: Do Your Homework
Once you’ve found some coaches within your traveling radius, it’s time to do your background check. A few questions to consider:
· What competitive lifters has this coach produced or does he/she work with?
· What was this coach’s weightlifting career like?
· What is this coach’s primary focus/job?
· Who would you be training with?
· Where would you be training?
Let’s have a look at each one of these quickly.
What competitive lifters has this coach produced or does he/she work with? This one can admittedly get tricky. Athletes do change teams and coaches sometimes during their careers for a number of reasons, so it does unfortunately happen sometimes that coaches take and are given credit for lifters whose achievements they had little to no involvement in. In other words, that athlete didn’t start working with that coach until after he/she had already hit his/her highest performance. In such a case, that coach has no business promoting him/herself based on that performance. Coaching and recruiting are two entirely different endeavors, and a good recruiter won’t make you a good lifter. If a coach is using something like that as a selling point, check into it.
Athlete production for a coach is also limited by the athletes that coach has to work with. In other words, if you put the greatest coach in the world in Siberia, he’s not going to produce many great weightlifters because he has no material to work with. If you put a mediocre coach in a talented-athlete-rich environment with a pipeline into the weightlifting program, he’s going to pump out a lot of good weightlifters. Take this into consideration before giving a coach too little or too much credit.
What was this coach’s weightlifting career like? You don’t have to have been a world-class weightlifter to be a great coach. In fact, many great coaches were not particularly great lifters, and many great lifters are terrible coaches; being an athlete and a coach are very different things. However, experience as a weightlifter is very important, and I’d argue necessary, to be a good coach, and that includes competitive experience, probably at the national level. A coach has to have a genuine understanding of what the training process is like, what the competitive experience is like, what it’s like to shape your life around lifting. Those things can’t be learned in a book or at a seminar or even from a mentor. If a prospective coach has never done a meet, it’s a red flag. If they’ve never competed at the National Championships, it’s at the least a sign to be cautious, although it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker. If a coach has consistently produced and trained high-level competitive lifters yet has never competed a single time, it should be obvious which criterion is more important, although as mentioned in the previous point, consider the supply of athletes.
What is this coach’s primary focus/job? Many of the best coaches in the US don’t coach for a living. They have other jobs that support them financially and coach on the side. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that—my coach was a high school teacher, and I can think of a couple other high school teachers that produced Olympians. This question is more about what role weightlifting plays in this coach’s life. Is it the only sport they coach? Is all of their coaching energy and attention and focus going into weightlifting? That’s what matters. If they have to wrangle a bunch of snotty, entitled brats from 8-3 every day before coaching you, for example, that’s fine as long as once they’re out of school, their world is weightlifting. If instead they’re trying to coach weightlifting, football, badminton, CrossFit and combative yoga, you’re going to get a limited amount of energy and enthusiasm, and a division of resources; if you have lofty goals, this is not the ideal person to entrust your athletic career to.
Who would you be training with? This is a big one. Your coach doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They have other lifters (hopefully), and as one of his/her lifters, you’ll be training with them frequently. These will be the people you spend a potentially significant amount of your life with. All successful people have discovered that part of becoming successful is surrounding yourself with other ambitious, motivated people. The best athletes in the world know it’s best to train with other athletes of their own caliber and better. As Jimmy James said in News Radio, You can’t fly with the eagles if you’re surrounded by turkeys. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to train with a bunch of Olympians, but it does mean that the more serious you are about weightlifting, the more serious your training partners need to be. You can’t expect to be focused and motivated and enthusiastic and push yourself as hard as possible if you’re surrounded daily by people more concerned with crafting perfect hashtags for the twenty photos and videos they need to post during each workout than the workout itself, who whine about working hard and skip workouts, or who put more energy into slamming bars than lifting them. Train with the people who are similar to you in terms of personality and better than you in terms of weightlifting.
Where would you be training? I’ve made the point before that the facility and equipment are relatively minor concerns—coaching, athletes and atmosphere are far more important. That said, a well-equipped facility with enough space and gear to accommodate the athletes training there and the training programs being implemented is helpful. Consider this part of the equation, but don’t miss an opportunity to train with a great coach and great lifters because they don’t have a flat screen TV for video analysis. I’d choose a great coach in a dirt parking lot over a mediocre coach in a world-class training center any day.
Step 4: Meet the Coach
Eventually you’re going to have to get off your computer or phone and interact with an actual living human. If you care about weightlifting, this should be the enjoyable part anyway. Get in touch with the prospective coaches you’ve found and ask if you can come meet them and get in a workout. Be completely honest with them about what you’re doing—you may end up coming back long term, so don’t start out the relationship being weird or dishonest. Introduce yourself to the lifters there. If you don’t actually train, at least stick around while they’re training and get a sense of how the coach interacts with his/her lifters and the atmosphere of the gym.
Don’t be offended if the coach doesn’t let you train at this time—if you’re brand new and he/she has no idea who you are, it’s not unreasonable for him/her to not invite you to jump in with a bunch of experienced lifters. If you do train, remember you’re a guest and act accordingly—this means always doing things the way they’re done in that gym, making sure you’re not in the way, and generally being polite and respectful. Trust me, even if it seems like they’re ignoring you, every single lifter in the gym is evaluating your suitability to come back. Don’t act like you’re doing everyone a favor by training with them.
If you like the place and the coach, tell the coach exactly what your intentions are and ask how to proceed. If you’re just interested in training recreationally, don’t mislead the coach into thinking you want to be a competitive lifter. If the coach tells you that you need to try out, work with another coach initially, take classes, whatever, understand that he/she probably has very good reasons for this and don’t take it as an affront—it’s more than likely nothing but practical considerations.
Depending on where you are and what you’re willing to do (such as relocate) to work with a coach, you may have quite a few choices, or none at all. If you have a choice, do the work and make it wisely—it can make all the difference.