What Great Coaches Do

Coach vs. Trainer: Is there a difference?


There is an on-going discussion in the personal training and strength and conditioning industry regarding the difference between a (personal) ‘trainer’ and a (strength and conditioning) ‘coach’.  The general basis of the argument is that ‘trainers’ tell or dictate to their clients what to do, while a ‘coach’ is guiding or facilitating change through collaboration with the client.

I hold both designations (i.e. certified personal trainer and certified strength & conditioning coach) and use them interchangeably, depending on the client and setting I am working within.  Personally, I tend to view myself more as a coach versus a trainer because I grew up playing sports and being taught and mentored by coaches; however, for those who did not play sports or are not comfortable thinking of themselves as an athlete, they may feel more comfortable working with someone under the title ‘trainer’.  In the end, whether you refer to yourself as a trainer or coach, I believe it is more important to have sound teaching principles that you abide by day-in and day-out.  Regardless of my title, the over-arching manner in which I work with my clients remains the same.

Just like any profession, I believe there is a large spectrum ranging from very high-quality trainers and coaches, all the way down to very low-quality.  The better trainers and coaches will all have similar principles that they follow.  On the other hand, the lower-quality trainers and coaches (regardless of their title) will likely be missing or under-utilizing certain qualities or principles with their clients and athletes.




Here are my top (not all!) principles for great coaching


Unconditional positive regardevery person is treated with the exact same level of courtesy, respect, and compassion.  Whether they are a professional athlete or have never stepped foot inside a gym, they are equally valued.  I believe it is always important for every client to feel respected and welcomed.  A simple gesture of saying ‘hello’ and smiling to every person who comes to our training studio is an important step in cultivating the inclusive environment we want to promote and perpetuate.


Client-centred – coaching is all about the person you are working with.  Understanding their goals, desires, and barriers are all paramount to helping guide them in the right direction.  During a session, my focus and attention is on leading them through a workout, but always watching for verbal and non-verbal cues to see if any adjustments need to be made: is the client feeling the exercise as he/she should?  Is there any pain being felt where a modification would help? Can I tweak the exercise to better target what we are intending to work on?  Is the volume and load appropriate for not only the exercise itself, but also for how the client is performing during this particular workout on this specific day?  The key to being a client-centred coach with the utmost integrity is to give your full and undivided attention (i.e. not being distracted and on the phone!) for the entire time you are with your clients.  Providing the highest-quality of care should be equally imperative to both the coach and the client.




Observe, observe, and observe! – Understanding the client is the first step toward building a program that makes sense for them.  Knowing not only their goals (i.e. lose body fat, gain strength, injury reduction, etc.), but also understanding the underlying reason of why their unique goals are important to them will make a difference for the client’s level of motivation, adherence, and the angle in which you develop the program to help them succeed.  A good coach always listens, examines, and learns.  For example, watching their non-verbal cues and body language when they first arrive – do they look tired, stressed, or energized? How are they moving – do they look stiff, sore, or immobile anywhere? (If so, why?!).  Do they respond better with counting their repetitions up or down?  The list goes on and on!  The bottom line: the more a coach understands the client’s values, priorities, and tendencies, the better the coach can help direct in an appropriate fashion.





Focus on the behaviour, not the outcome – it is easy for people to want to strive to lose a specific number of pounds, squat ‘x’ amount of weight, or win a particular race or competition; however, setting a goal based on a particular outcome could be setting yourself up for disappointment or failure.  Outcome-based goals often have variables that are out of one’s control.  For example, maybe you achieved a personal best (PB) on race-day but the level of competition was exceptionally high, as well, and therefore, you placed in the top 5, but did not win.  You should still be proud of your accomplishment of a new PB, regardless of your ranking.

A better approach is to focus on the behaviour that can lead to an accomplishment because it is something under the client’s control.  For example, consistently eating vegetables and cutting back on alcohol consumption lead the client to losing ‘x’ number of pounds – congratulating the client on eating well and moderating their drinking is the success to focus on.  Regardless of the weight loss, the behaviour of improving one’s diet is something to congratulate because it is a “small win” in the right direction.




Focus on the client’s/athlete’s strengths – Focusing on the client’s strengths does not mean ignoring their weaknesses; however, to build confidence and maintain a positive attitude, it is always beneficial to recognize when someone is doing something well and for them to be applauded for their effort or accomplishment.  Building on a success, no matter how small, is a great way to keep a client engaged and striving to improve – and, understandably, the more time someone commits to a goal, the greater likelihood of reaching or even surpassing that goal.  Time will need to be spent working on their weaknesses as well; however, finding one small success within the weakness can substantially help maintain perseverance.  For example, if someone is having a difficult time learning how to execute a biomechanically sound squat, it is still good to end on a positive note finding at least one portion of the squat they performed well (e.g. “you were consistent with keeping the spine tall”) and knowing for next time to continue working on the components that need more work.



Take Home Message

Whether someone is a teacher, trainer, coach, professor, instructor, or facilitator, the ones who stick out above the rest will share some common attributes.  Great coaches and trainers need to be good listeners, astute observers, open to learning and adapting, and have the ability to problem-solve on the spot.  Being open to evolving and maturing as a coach/trainer through mentorship, education, and hands-on experience is paramount to the ultimate success and growth of both the client and the coach.

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