I’ve been at this a while now. As a lifter, I’ve spent well-over a decade with the iron. Granted, out of that decade plus of lifting, I’d say it’s only been a decade where I feel as though I’ve had any clue as to what I was doing (that’s still a third of my life, however). While I’ve only coached for three years, I think, if we combine the length of those experiences together, I can say I know a thing or two. As I begin the second microcycle of my return to training, I feel as though I’m starting to get a taste of where I used to be. The difference this time around is that I’m doing it with the identity, first and foremost, of a coach. This presents some interesting questions…

Where does my experience as both a coach and a lifter meet? What conclusions can I draw from dual experiences, dual identities even, especially now that I am actively in the process of doing both? I’ve coached quite a few athletes at this point, and, by the same token, trained alongside quite a few, too. The aim of this article is to give you a framework with which to both interpret and reconcile the experiences you have as a lifter by yourself on the platform, and the input you receive from your coach. I’m going to discuss three points that I think “harmonize” the training experience between athlete and coach using perspectives I’ve gleaned as both a coach and athlete, but more importantly, as someone experiencing both roles at once.

1) You must be a coach to yourself, too.

I got lazy a while ago, and started only Snatching with straps. Eventually, I actually forgot how to properly Snatch without them. For those unaware, Snatching with straps confers an advantage to the lifter that he or she would otherwise not have. When using straps to Snatch, the lifter becomes that much more connected to the bar, ameliorating any issue with grip strength. Where they really shine, however, is that they allow the lifter to guide the bar into an excellent receiving position since the sensation of a heavy mass in your hands is negated, allowing you to turnover much more efficaciously. To quote one explanation I’ve seen: “[you] pull longer and turnover faster.”

In all my Snatch work thus far, I’ve had major issues turning over properly without straps. My coaches all offered different cues and directions to help me correct the issue. Unfortunately, these were all to no avail. I’m sure you’ve all experienced similar situations in your own lifting careers. You receive myriad cues, directions, and explanations from your coach(es), and yet you’re still repeatedly making the same mistake, getting more and more frustrated as you lift. I mentioned slamming bars in frustration last week. This was why.

When I’d Snatch, my arms would feel stiff, and unresponsive as I would extend in my second pull. I wasn’t pulling up and under so much as I was just trying to row the bar into place. First it was that my arms were too slow. I was told to pull sooner with them, a timing cue. This made it even worse. I tried gripping the bar less tightly. No good. The tried and true elbows up cue did nothing, either. Now we were really stumped. The bar would still swing outwards whenever I’d Snatch without straps. Even though they were the problem, the more my coaches and I focused on my arm movement, the worse my Snatch got in execution. It was then that I had an epiphany…

I went back to what I knew. I focused on the feel. The next time I went to Snatch I didn’t think about my arms at all. My Snatches all felt horrible, and I could feel something was very wrong with how my arms were moving. Back to basics, I thought. If I extend correctly, everything should fall into place, right? On my next attempt I simply tried to jump with the bar and get under it. Voila. I re-learned how to Snatch sans straps. My brain suddenly knew exactly what to do with my arms since, if it didn’t, that bar was going to come right back down on my head. As it would turn out, it was indeed a timing issue.

Here’s the thing: it was the order of the timing.

I was pulling with my arms too soon. It just wasn’t obvious because I wasn’t bending at the elbow early. The more I was told my arms were the problem, the more I tried to use them when I shouldn’t be. This was making the lift feel very disjointed. When I focused on jumping first, pulling my shoulders up, my arms simply did what they were supposed to do. It felt great, and more importantly, it felt right. My coaches had definitely identified the problem. They just didn’t feel the problem the way I did, and as such, couldn’t explain it in a way that made sense for me. This leads us to point number two.

2) Getting good is mostly up to you.

The athlete has the most active role in their development. As I’ve said before, if something feels wrong, it probably is. It’s up to everyone to communicate with their coaches about what they’re feeling, and what they’re thinking in order to ensure both parties understand one another, something I wasn’t doing. I think of it this way:

Imagine a line. On one side you have the mind of the athlete. On the other you have the mind of the coach. There’s a problem, though. Neither coach nor athlete can simultaneously interpret their bodies or world’s the same way at the same time. Let this middle of the line represent a common understanding between our two hypothetical agents. For our purposes, understanding means you’re able to execute the commands of your coach, and conversely, your coach understands both how to communicate with you, and what they can reasonably expect of you. How do we inch either of these people closer together on our line? Communication. That’s what. And, I’ll tell you this: even though the coach is “boss” it’s still fundamentally up to the athlete to drive the both of them to that middle region of the line. This is because the athlete has a more complete understanding of their lifts than their coach.

Notice that I didn’t say the athlete necessarily has the better or correct understanding. They just have more raw information to work with because they’re experiencing the lift. The athlete can feel the way the bar moves through each phase of the lift; they know how their setup feels, how receiving the bar feels, if something felt good or bad in their second pull, and so on. Even though the coach may have a better understanding of theory, programming, and technique than the athlete, they can only really see what the athlete does, and then apply what they know to what they see. It’s up to the athlete to get their coach to understand what they’re feeling, and subsequently, help the two of them bridge the gap between what the coach sees and what the athlete feels.

Going back to my Snatch example, it was only once I was able to articulate to my coach what I was feeling at the moment I was making my mistake that I was able to get better advice. Of course, I’d already wasted close to a hundred lifts before this dawned on me. It was only after my epiphany, and more importantly, the communication of it, that my coach re-thought how to cue me, and what she needed to get me to do. As it would turn out, to fix my arm problem, giving me cues relating to my arms was all wrong. The cues I received shifted towards emphasizing extending straight and upwards using my shoulders to direct my movements instead of my arms. Still, taking all the time off that I have, it’s not as though turning the bar over is my only problem.

3) One thing at a time… If your coach isn’t beating you up for it, neither should you.

Even though I’ve now (mostly) fixed the issue with my arms, I still have this problem of not moving my feet wide enough when receiving the bar at the bottom. No worries, though, right? My arms are working better, so now I can move on. Not so fast.

When given the cue to move my feet out in the receipt of the bar I’d screw up my extension, and it would be back to square one. This was a simple fix, however. My coach just stopped cuing my feet. I could still feel I was moving incorrectly, but my coach decided not to worry. It’s not that she got lazy on me or didn’t see the error. She absolutely did see it, and even tried correcting it! It’s just that she knew I couldn’t work on fixing both my arms and feet at the same time. Just because we found the reason why I wasn’t turning over properly doesn’t mean I’ve actually fixed it yet. We’ve only identified the fix, and have begun implementing it. It’s been exactly two workouts now where I’ve been turning over correctly in my Snatch. If we could fix these errors back-to-back that would be fantastic. But, evidently, we can’t, for whatever reason. So, for the sake of efficiency and efficacy, were only going to worry about my turnover correction until it becomes automatic. Then we can worry about fixing my feet.

Your coach is your strategist. If you trust your coach, then, you should listen (and if you don’t, then, why aren’t you just coaching yourself?) They’re both the diagnostician and tactician that will help guide you to where you want to be. If they’ve prioritized something for you, then, you should also prioritize it. Perhaps this point is more informed by my experience as a coach than an athlete. In my experience, the athletes who adhere the most closely to my recommendations tend to do the best. All it takes is discipline with a bit of trust.

Getting good at the Olympic lifts is a lengthy pursuit. A “quest,” a “journey,” or whatever other metaphor of the day you want to refer to the process as, expect it to present you with a diversity of problems. Just remember that, on those rare times where both you and your coach are unsure of what the next step is, that your problem might not be the technique error itself. It might simply be that neither of you is working with the same information. Take the time to communicate both what you’re feeling and what you need to your coach. You might be surprised at just how easy it is to solve your lifting faults when you make the effort to communicate what you’re feeling.