Coaching the Individual: A Case Study with Hannah Dunn

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.

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