I want to start off by thanking everyone who writes in to ask us questions.
First, thanks for the privilege of helping you. It’s not something we take lightly, and it’s something we are honored to do. Plus it’s something we love! Few things in life are better than helping out other people.
But also I want to thank people for writing in with questions – because if someone writes in with a question, chances are lots of other people have the same questions and just have never asked.
And when we get questions, we love answering them right here on our podcast. So listen in!
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During the recent Max Out Friday, the entire team did incredible. I believe the final count was 10 lifetime PRs in ones session.
We had visitors from all over the country in the house – including my buddies Anders Varner and Doug Larson from Barbell Shrugged, Will from Barbell Stories, Tim and Karina from CrossFit Rugrats, Lance, and my athlete from New Zealand, Isaac Lawgun (who was experiencing his first American Max Out Friday). As you can imagine, the gym was filled with energy and excitement.
Some people thrive in this environment, and some can get distracted. I want my athletes to thrive no matter the environment. An athlete truly becomes great when he or she can perform regardless of circumstances.
Here’s a quick rule of thumb: if an athlete somewhere around the world has performed at a top level with a particular set of circumstances, then those circumstances are no longer an excuse for anyone. For example, Alyssa Ritchie trains alone and has managed to earn the top spot in the 48kg class. (By the way, this is not an article for just weightlifters or strength athletes. This has to do with the coaching of athletes in any sport.)
All of my kids at one time or another make excuses for their performance. I get it. It’s human nature, but my job as a coach is to not allow the excuse to stick. What happens if you are in the Olympics and it’s a bit crazier than normal? Are you going to use that as an excuse for a poor performance? What happens if you are playing quarterback in the Super Bowl and it starts to snow? Are you going to fold?
When Chris Mason and I used to train together as professional powerlifters, we would purposely train with less than optimal circumstances. I wanted us to be prepared for anything at a meet… and we were. I can honestly say that I have never used the circumstances at a meet become an excuse for a poor performance. Here’s the thing: the circumstances are the same for all the competitors. So if one person can do well, there is no longer an excuse for poor performance.
This brings me to my point. During this Max Out Friday, Hannah Dunn absolutely flourished. She tied her all-time snatch PR of 75 kilograms and took some close cracks at a much bigger weight. She clean and jerked up to 92 kilograms (which is 1 kilo below her PR) for a massive lifetime PR total of 167 kilograms. The best part is that she only weighs 57 kilograms right now, so she is in great shape for the 2020 season. She is by far my most improved athlete. In the past all the extra people would have been a distraction for her, leading to a poor performance. Not during the recent Max Out Friday!
So how did she make the progress? I will start with what she has done on her own. She has taken responsibility for every aspect of her weightlifting. She has a sports psychologist who coaches her consistently, and I can say firsthand that the results have been fantastic.
Let me be the first to say the biggest roadblock for most athletes is their mental game. I have personally coached athletes in weightlifting, powerlifting, football, softball, wrestling, and many other sports who were only missing that one aspect: a strong mindset. As coaches we can help with this, but this is not our craft. A professional coach surrounds themselves with an amazing team to refer their athletes to depending on the need. If you are trying to be everything for your athletes, you are doing them a disservice.
Hannah has learned to ignore distractions. She has learned to embrace the energy, clear her mind, and only focus on the task at hand. A couple of weeks ago she showed me these new skills during a competition in Charlotte, winning the overall best lifter as a youth athlete with a 71kg snatch and 93kg clean and jerk for a PR total and PR clean and jerk. The snatch tied her best ever, and she went 5 for 6.
Her improvement has been nothing short of miraculous. She has set somewhere around 12 major personal records in the last three weeks. Hannah, I bet USADA is showing up at your house the day after this is posted.
It’s not just the mental game that she has improved upon. She has taken responsibility for every aspect of her training. She works with Jacky Bigger Simeone, Mash nutrition coach and overall awesome human, to perfect her nutrition game. Is she perfect? Not yet – she’s just 16 years old – but she is ten times better than last year. She is learning to form a healthier relationship with food and bodyweight, which I attribute directly to Jacky. She gets it as a coach and as an awesome athlete. That makes her the perfect coach.
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Hannah has also focused on her recovery, sleep, and overall preparation. My favorite thing she has started doing is coming over to me before each of her working sets to make sure I am watching so she can get my feedback. In a room filled with great athletes, I can’t always see everything, but she makes sure that I see her lifts.
Growing as a Coach
As a coach I feel that Hannah has forced me to get better. When she moved to the Mash Compound with her family, she of course improved a lot. It was new and exciting, leading to lots of personal records. When the newness wore off, things got a bit tougher. I don’t think that my normal coaching style met her needs as an athlete, so she immediately became my project. I wasn’t going to let this young girl fail. She entrusted her hopes and dreams to training with me, and personally I take that seriously.
For a while I had Coach Crystal work with her more than me as I worked on my approach. A great book to read is “Conscious Coaching” by Brett Bartholomew, which is about understanding the different archetypes of athletes. The book defines each of those and then explains best practices for coaching and getting buy-in from the different archetypes. Too many coaches want the athletes to mold to fit their personality. Hey, that’s one way to do it, but you are going to lose a lot of potentially great athletes because of this style of coaching. Even if you don’t lose the athletes, you will 100% not get the results from the different archetypes that you could have by just making some adjustments.
Here are a few things that I learned about coaching Hannah:
I maintain 100% positivity.
We smile and laugh a lot. Things are already super serious in her brain, so she doesn’t need extra tension from me.
I listen to her suggestions for jumps as we get near maximal. That way she is confident and certain of her attempts.
We talk about situations a lot – and proper mindset for different situations. That way she is prepared long before she goes to a meet, contest, or a crazy Max Out Friday.
I spend more and more time with her, making sure that she understands how much I believe in her.
I tell her my honest opinions about the potential of her athletic ability, which I believe to be limitless. This one is huge. Not all athletes grow up believing they can make Team USA or the NFL or the NBA until someone tells them and shows belief in them. I tell Hannah a lot that I believe she can be great, and now she’s starting to believe.
These are just a few of the changes that I have made. I am contemplating a book using her as a case study because I think this is an area where I could help a lot of coaches improve. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in the next year, but I know this one thing. We have made tremendous strides over the last year. We will continue to make strides because she is focused and dedicated as an athlete, and her coaches (Crystal and I) are focused and dedicated to becoming the best possible coaches. That combination will lead Hannah directly to the genetic potential that God gave her at birth.
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I hope this helps and encourages a few of you coaches and athletes out there. We can all get better. We can all improve. Coaches and athletes alike must continue to attack their weaknesses, so that each and every year brings and new and better product. I vow to all my athletes that I will never stop reading, researching, talking to other coaches, and listening to podcasts until I am the absolute best coach I can be. Let me give all the coaches out there this bit of advice: none of us will ever be done improving as a coach. If you think that you know it all, you should retire. That’s one absolute I have no problem throwing around.
P.S. I am proud of several athletes that I am currently coaching. It just so happens that Hannah and I have made the most strides of late. Let me be clear on one more thing: Coach Crystal has been a huge part of this process. It definitely helps having a female coach in the gym – especially one as good as Crystal.
This is the hardest thing I have ever tried to write.
I wrote something about Coach Pendlay, and that was hard. However, this is something different. Coach Pendlay is someone I respected. Don is someone I loved.
We coached together since 2014, starting with our time at MuscleDriver USA. I remember my first day there – and man, did I ever feel intimidated. Don and Glenn are arguably two of the best weightlifting coaches in American history. Glenn was the motivator and recruiter. Don was the technician who didn’t care one bit if you were going to be great or just good. He simply wanted to make a difference in the lives of every athlete he coached.
Don was a big reason I was offered the position at MDUSA. Coach Pendlay had a stroke at the 2013 American Open, leaving Don all by himself to coach the best weightlifting team in America. At the 2014 Senior National Championships in Salt Lake City, he asked me to help him coach the team. Luckily there were cameras in the back room, so the owner of MDUSA, Brad Hess, saw me coaching the team. At the time I didn’t think there was any selfish benefit to helping out, I just love coaching athletes. Brad Hess saw that passion. When Don got home, he told Brad the team needed someone like me to help assist him with the coaching. Since Brad had already watched me fervently coach his team, he called me in right away to offer me the job.
It was a dream come true to get paid a good salary to coach some of the best weightlifters in American history. Until that point, there had never been such a position. However, like him or not, Brad Hess had created this amazing organization, Team MuscleDriver USA. When I started working there, Coach Pendlay was coaching but wasn’t fully focused. But Don took me under his wing, and we were off and running. I would watch an athlete complete a repetition, and he would ask me what I saw. At first I was way off. His eye was better than a slow motion camera, but over time I got better and better.
Everyday we talked technique and philosophy as it relates to weightlifting. He taught me all about his beloved catapult technique. I laugh at least once per week when I hear it mentioned incorrectly online. There were so many misconceptions about the way he coached. But this article isn’t the place I am going to discuss weightlifting technique. At this very moment, I could care less about weightlifting technique because all I want to do is talk to my friend.
Black and White
Most of you know him as the weightlifting technique guru – and yes, he taught me loads about technique. However, there is something else he tried to teach me – and maybe, just maybe, he has taught me this final lesson in his passing. Coach Don McCauley was unwavering in his beliefs and values. He was black or white, and there was no gray with that man. I like to find common ground when discussing controversial topics. He often criticized me for this. Now looking back I am agreeing with him.
He would say, “Travis, you are such a politician. You need to let people know where they stand with you. Wrong is wrong, and right is right.”
Not doing this has often got me in trouble. I want to please others with all my heart, and often that desire to please does nothing but cause more grief in the long run. It’s funny that Sean Waxman, someone Don disagreed with so much, is also my friend. That quality of me is something they both agree on, so maybe I am like that so the two of them agree on something.
The Real Don
One thing we shared was a love for the athletes. His athletes were his children. He was married to the sport, and in that I am 100% positive. He didn’t care if he was working with an Olympian or someone trying to make the American Open. He was going to give them his all, and they were going to know that he loved them. It wasn’t his words that let them know. Heck, his sarcastic humor was downright brutal at times. It was his actions. It was the way he watched them like no other lifter in the world existed in that moment but them. His steadfast stare was one of passion and intensity.
Nothing pleased him more than to help an athlete overcome a challenging technical issue. You could tell that he shared in their joy way down deep. Every athlete was a puzzle that he was going to solve. It was his oxygen; his reason to live.
I saw him perform miracles with athletes. I saw him take Jess Kinzler in only 10 weeks from the ninth best in her weight class to a silver medal (she darn near won the thing on a final jerk). I wanted to impact athletes like that. I wanted to see athletes enjoy that feeling of accomplishment because I helped them overcome obstacles. He helped me get to that point.
It was Don who gave me the desire to help other coaches. He worked with coaches like Vinh Huynh and me as intently as he did with the athletes. He would share his thoughts on technique, programming, and overall coaching into the late hours of the night (with a few glasses of wine, of course). I believe that some part of him realized he wouldn’t be on this planet very much longer, and that feeling of urgency persuaded him to teach us. A lot of coaches want to keep their “secrets” to themselves, but Coach Mac wanted his understudies to get it… really get it. Only the coaches who can see the barbell like an experienced coach will understand what I am talking about.
Is the bar path “in, up, and back” or is it “out, up, and in front”? What’s causing the issue? What verbal cue or drill will help fix it? When is a good time to use the Mac Board? This man lived his life to master this one thing and one thing only. He understood the sport of weightlifting from both a physics and a philosophical stand point. He got it! He simply got it!
Let me end by making one final point. There are several of you who didn’t agree with everything he said, and that’s fine. I didn’t agree with everything he said. Yet none of us can deny his coaching worked. He coached athletes all the way to the international level with Team USA throughout three decades of his career. Most of you haven’t been coaching three years let alone thirty. Most of you will never coach an athlete to the world championships let alone the Olympics – but yet he did it with four different teams and multiple athletes.
You can debate him all you want, but his resume is probably going to win out over just about anyone else’s. That’s why I normally kept my mouth shut when I didn’t agree with him. I always thought it was funny when people would criticize his coaching. Not everyone thinks that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player in NBA history (although he is), but no one ever doubts that he is at least high on the list. You might not think Don is the best weightlifting coach in American history, but his record clearly places him high on the list also.
I want to celebrate Coach Don’s life by giving all of you a few of the gold nuggets that I learned from him:
Rhythm is the most important skill a weightlifter can have.
The angle of the torso can indeed change during the pull and normally does a bit – but by the time the bar is right below the knee, it shouldn’t change at all until the lifter begins the second pull.
Any extra time spent at the top of the pull is wasted time.
Oompa Loompa! If you know, you know. If you don’t, ask me about it when you see me.
Push with your whole foot through the floor during the pull and the jerk.
Sweep the bar in after the knees.
As you pull under the bar, keep the bar moving right up the shirt (close to the body).
Never sacrifice technique for more weight during the process of developing a weightlifter.
Drive the back foot down on the jerk, and a lot of your problems will be solved.
You only get one chance to do it right the first time, so don’t mess (most of you know that he didn’t say “mess”) it up.
I am a better man from knowing the great Coach Don McCauley. I miss him. I watched him get hurt by athletes countless times – and man, did it cut him deep. I saw him help athletes go from good to great, and then watched the same athletes leave him for some other guru. It baffled me. The best thing I learned from this process was that he never let his heart get hardened by the actions of an athlete. He opened his heart to the next athlete in exactly the same way.
Lately I am still learning what appears to be his final lesson to me. I have the tendency to harden my heart to protect it from being broken, but that’s not what Don taught me – and surely isn’t what Christ taught me with His actions. I love my athletes. Don, I promise that I will love each of them in the exact same way as the ones before them. The scary part of being a coach is opening your heart up to new athletes, but it is also a necessary part. Coach Mac, tonight I will raise my glass in honor of you, and I promise to love each of my athletes the same way that you loved all of yours – no matter what hurt that love might bring.
So here’s to your final lesson! I love you, Coach Don. Your life’s work will live on with me and the countless other coaches and athletes that you touched during your time on this earth.
The words you use have more of an impact than you may realize.
I’m not just talking about the words you say to others – I’m talking about the inner dialogue you have with yourself.
I have always believed that the strongest athletes were also the ones who controlled themselves mentally. And the best coaches are the ones who can use their words to motivate and drive athletes instead of beating them down.
Mark England is a master of these concepts – and he joins us on the podcast today to tell us all about it. There’s a lot of science to this and a lot of common sense, so listen in as Mark sheds some light.
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Coaching youth athletes is the most rewarding job that one can have if your motives are in the right place.
We get to help mold young men and women not only as athletes but also as humans. We get to help them avoid the mistakes that we made (or at least make fewer mistakes). We have the opportunity to make sure they enjoy the process, so they can look back at their time as an athlete and smile.
My goal is to make sure they walk away from their chosen sport as healthy as possible and to make sure then end up enjoying the process of health and fitness. I want my athletes to work out for the rest of their lives, and I want them to teach their children and spouses the joy of strength and fitness.
Some of you might remember Hannah Black. I was her strength and conditioning coach for volleyball and softball, while she was in high school. She also became one of my first national medalist weightlifters. Now she is becoming a high level CrossFitter, and more importantly she is in love with fitness. Several of my former athletes have gone on to enjoy weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, CrossFit, and general fitness. When I see that, I know I have done my job. I taught them to love strength and fitness, making it a part of their lifestyle.
Once in a while I get the chance to work with very high level athletes. Some are team sport athletes like football players or soccer players – and of course some are weightlifters or powerlifters who are amazing. What I’m saying in this article applies to all athletes.
Sometimes as a coach, you have to get your athlete to take a few steps backwards to go forwards.
It’s easy to let your high level athletes move forward with less than perfect technique.
If you work with gifted athletes, then you already know they’re going to figure out some way to complete a task if you tell them to perform it. Even with horrible technique, they might lift more weight than the other athletes. Heck, they might lift more weight than any other athlete in the country – but that doesn’t make the way that they are lifting automatically a good thing. If you’re letting them persist with bad technique just because they’re putting up numbers, it makes you a lazy coach – or worse, an incompetent one.
When I am referring to perfect technique, I am well aware that none of us are going to 100% agree on technique. However there are a few nonnegotiable items like a vertical bar path, close to neutral spine, and knees tracking with the toes. I’ll give you a few suggestions for the six main lifts:
Jerk- Feet straight in the catch, neutral/stacked spine (no excessive lumbar extension), back knee bent in catch, and arms locked aggressively overhead above or slightly behind the ears.
Snatch- Long legs during the first pull, staying over the bar for as long as possible, vertical bar path with no horizontal displacement, whole foot through the floor for as long as possible, vertical and stable spine during the catch phase, and aggressively locked out arms in the catch above or slightly behind the ears.
Clean- Long legs during the first pull, staying over the bar for as long as possible, vertical bar path with no horizontal displacement, whole foot through the floor for as long as possible, vertical and stable spine during the catch phase, and continuing the pull until the bar meets the shoulders with minimal to no crashing.
Squat- Neutral and stable spine during all phases of contraction, knees tracking with toes without any valgus or varus, and proper bracing techniques utilized at all times.
Bench- Shoulders tucked together and down (retracted and suppressed), stacked bar/wrist/forearms/elbows, and drive the bar back toward the head off of the chest.
Deadlift- Neutral and stable stacked spine, some thoracic flexion is acceptable for elite powerlifters only, and vertical bar path with no horizontal displacement.
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Now some of these are absolutes in regards to lifting maximal amounts. However most of them are absolutes for avoiding injuries. For example, if you continually catch a jerk with an externally rotated femur, you are going to get injured. In my experience, an athlete who jerks like that can expect a knee injury. If an athlete squats over and over with a flexed spine or hyperextended spine, that athlete can expect a back injury in short order.
How the Mash Mafia Has Taken a Step Back
Lately I have taken a few steps back with several of my athletes, and now they are starting to reap the rewards of their labor. Their strength is skyrocketing – and more importantly, I know they are safer with solid technique. I am going to give you a few of those instances and explain how we are trying to fix the issue. Let’s start with Ryan Grimsland.
Ryan came to me from CrossFit with a hairline-fractured hip. I am not going to explain the details of the injury, but just know it was from some CrossFit programming that wasn’t well thought out. Over time this caused Ryan to experience back pain and to twist during most of his heavier lifts and even some lighter ones.
We took a team approach on this one. I referred him to my lifelong chiropractor, Dr. Gray. Dr. Gray started him on the “All Core 360” machine, which is an amazing tool designed to stabilize the entire spine. I also took advice from Kelly Starrett about using some unilateral work paused in the lunge positions with a focus on a neutral spine. The isometric contraction with the hip in extension really helped to balance out the constant flexion that weightlifters are in. We also used a lot of slow eccentrics and long paused isometric contractions to stabilize the body in the proper positions. The result has been way less twisting, almost zero back pain, and now lots of PRs.
I want to make a quick point before I move on. The moment one of my youth athletes mentions pain is the moment we stop what we’re doing. I have an amazing group of practitioners who I trust to get results. Dr. Gray is one of those, and he is amazing. I am not sure why so many strength and conditioning coaches try to step out of their lanes nowadays, but it’s a sign of immaturity and arrogance. If you’re not a physical therapist, don’t pretend you are. Your athletes deserve better. Look, if that’s what you want to do, go back to school.
Morgan McCullough is my 16-year-old phenom. We have now taken steps backward twice in his career. The first one was with his jerk. His positioning was all off. His split was so shallow that he couldn’t get under weights that he could push press. When he did get under the weight, his positioning was all off. His leg sometimes was externally rotated, his back foot was flat and pointing out, and his overhead position looked downright painful. Here are a few things that we did to fix his jerk:
Press from Split- We had to teach him exactly where he should be in the split. We also had to stabilize that position, so he would feel comfortable getting into the proper position at the high speeds of a jerk.
Jerk Step Balance- This is very similar to a press from split, but you start in a shallow split. Then you dip, drive, and push off the back foot into the correct position. This teaches the athlete to drive the back foot down, stabilize, and end in a secure split position.
Jerk Dip Squats- Let’s face it! If the weight feels light, you are more comfortable driving that weight overhead.
Pauses in the Dip and Pauses in the Catch- Slowing a movement down allows the athlete to perfect positions during certain portions of the movement.
I am most proud of Morgan’s jerk improvement, as it now is just as beautiful as his clean. The last few months have been spent on the snatch. One thing I find funny is the wannabe coaches on the Internet. Morgan ran into a slight plateau with his snatch earlier this year, and all the armchair coaches were screaming that we needed to work on his snatch (like I needed the peanut gallery to inform me). Then we took the time to step back and fix his movement. During that time we did a competition where he clean and jerked 190 kilograms for an American record. His snatch was only 131 kilograms because we were in the middle of fixing his movement. All they wanted to point out was the snatch to clean and jerk ratio. Laughable really!
Anyways just this past Friday he smoked 140 kilograms for an all-time PR with much better technique. Of course none of the Internet coaches had anything nice to say about him improving his weaknesses. It has really become an ongoing joke at our gym. The moral of the story is that it was nice to see his hard work pay off. Now it’s going to be fun to watch him run with his new movement to all new heights.
Morgan’s main issues with the snatch were:
The bar was moving horizontal to go around the knees. He’s 6’0” tall with a long tibia, which is a challenge.
He was getting impatient and moving behind the bar too soon. The goal is to stay over the bar for as long as possible, driving with the legs to take advantage of his strong legs and to ensure a straighter bar path and more consistency.
Here are a few things that we did to improve this movement flaws:
Slow Eccentric pulls and Hang Snatches- This is to get him stronger and encourage more hypertrophy in the areas needed to stay over the bar as long as possible.
Lasha Pulls- Pyrros Dimas brought my attention to the way that Lasha does pulls, which is basically an exaggerated first pull never moving behind the bar at all for a second pull. This movement will strengthen the position (especially if you throw in some isometric contractions and slow eccentrics), and it teaches the athlete the movement.
Lift Offs with a Pause at the Knee- This movement is great for practicing the initial lift off with bringing the bar in and “clearing the road” by moving the knees out of the way. If you focus on driving your feet through the floor, this will happen naturally.
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I am not just talking about weightlifting. This goes for coaching youth in powerlifting, CrossFit, strength and conditioning, or any sport. The goal is long-term development and safety. What good is it for a running back to kill it in high school only to get injured as a freshman at his new D1 school because you didn’t take the time to teach him squats properly? What good is it for a 16-year-old to deadlift 700 pounds only to hurt his back when he’s 17?
I have some news for all of you coaches that is probably going to hurt some feelings. Just because you find a Michael Jordan at some basketball hoop in America who goes on to the NBA, that in no way makes you a good coach. That makes you a good recruiter. However if you find that Michael Jordan and teach him better ball handling skills, proper jump shot mechanics, and strength training that keeps him from injury, now you are working toward being a great coach.
Coaches need to coach! It sounds simple, but I see quite the opposite almost everyday of my life. Writing a program and cheering for somebody as they lift big weights doesn’t make you a good coach. Great coaches:
Teach proper mechanics
Continue sharpening those mechanics everyday of the athlete’s life
Individualize programming that works and continues to evolve
Work on communication.
Teach their athletes about life
Teach athletes how to have fun – so they will learn to love strength, fitness, and sport for the rest of their life.
These are just a few of the things a great coach does every dang day of their life. Are we always 100% killing it? Nope. I just came out of a funk that I had been in for several months. I recognized that funk, I made some changes, and now I feel like I am on my way to being a better coach because of it.
Coaches, we have to continue sharpening our saw until the day we die or the day we retire. You will never perfect this craft. The moment you feel like you have perfected coaching is the day you need to retire or find something new.
I hope this article has given all of you something to think about. We are in a profession that happens to be a very important influence on many young people in the world. My high school coach literally changed the course of my life. He had such on impact on me that I wanted to pass those lessons on to other youth in my community and around the world. I hope all of you will take your position as a coach as seriously as I do. It has absolutely nothing to do with your ego and everything to do with those young people who you are working with. I hope all of you will change at least one life for the better. Then you too will be able to look yourself in the mirror with a heart full of joy. I thank God for my ability to coach my young men and women.