Conscious Coaching in Weightlifting

Contributors: Doug Berninger

To begin, I’ll say that if I had both the ability to time travel and erase minds, I would go back in time right before Coach Bartholomew coined the term “conscious coaching” and steal the idea from him because it is THAT powerful!

All kidding aside, we have to be aware that conscious coaching isn’t necessarily an idea, per se, but a certain way to coach. It is through the awareness of our physical and verbal actions as coaches in the form of cues that may help enhance movement and subsequent performance. To paraphrase Coach Bartholomew, we can relate coaching to a GPS when we make wrong turns (wrong decisions, cues, etc.), we need to reroute, or recalculate, to reach our intended destination (coaching goal).

There is not one steadfast way to do anything in this world and coaching is no different in this regard. That’s at least my take on conscious coaching, but I’ll defer the exact definition to Coach Bartholomew and really look forward to reading his new book.

This post is not on the discussion of WHAT conscious coaching is (as I said, check out the book for detailed information) but, rather, HOW conscious coaching plays a very large role in the coaching of weightlifters.

I thought being paid to be a weightlifting coach would be the best, easiest job EVER. While it’s probably my true dream job, it’s not as easy as I thought it would be. I wanted to bring some of this to light for everyone, but especially coaches who may be considering making a similar move to what I’ve done with my career.

As having been both a Strength and Conditioning and Weightlifting Coach, I’ve been able to compare the differences in coaching styles (verbal and physical cues, timing of cueing, demeanor, etc.) and programming of each. This is mostly in terms of comparing myself in each domain (a large part of conscious coaching is self-awareness, right?), but I’ve also been around enough coaches in each setting to draw conclusions from their styles as well. These differences are the main reason in writing this piece.

I want to make it clear that I am not taking a side here as to one being better than the other; you have to be damn good to last as a coach in either setting. I just want to point out some differences I’ve noticed through the years. It has actually been extremely beneficial to my development as a coach to have had the experience I have on both sides.

We all know that, in a bare-bones sense, coaching is coaching; meaning in any setting it begins the same. At its heart, coaching involves teaching the specific subject matter to pupils, whether the setting is in a classroom, on a field, or in a weight room. Once we have a sense for the basic concept of what being a coach means, we can begin to add complexity in forms such as HOW to best teach the subject matter; for, as Coach Bartholomew has said before, the basics (simplicity) of (insert subject here) should not be avoided, but often used in order to create, and build upon, success.

To take this one step further, let’s now compare settings; a traditional team setting in strength and conditioning versus that of a weightlifting team.

Traditional S&C Vs. Weightlifting: Setting

I began to write the differences here but, honestly, I don’t have the research and do not quite know all the roles that environment psychologically plays in determining performance. I included this to make you all aware, though, that environment definitely does make an impact and, while there are not huge, dramatic differences between strength and conditioning and weightlifting, there are certainly some.

The biggest difference I wanted to bring to your attention is that of music. I don’t have any metrics for you (I’ll leave that to Coach Bartholomew), but I will say that many weightlifting coaches have their lifters train in silence. What does this do for performance? Again, I’m not completely sure, but I do know that it is much easier to speak with my athletes and get cues and concepts (if they are younger/inexperienced) across to them with low volume or no music at all.

As a weightlifter myself, I can say from experience that it is much harder to focus and motivate yourself for big lifts in silence. So, if an athlete can make a big lift in silence, when all eyes are on them, they can certainly make a big lift with music and, more importantly, a big play on the court/field, when all eyes are on them and they’re in their element.

Traditional S&C Vs. Weightlifting: Coaching

And now to the meat and potatoes of this article; The coaching differences between weightlifting and traditional strength training for sports.

More times than not, the biggest difference you’ll see between strength and conditioning coaches and weightlifting coaches is the general demeanor and tone of voice. That’s not to say that you can’t have both louder and softer coaching styles in both environments but, in a general sense, we see “louder” coaching in the traditional setting and “quieter” coaching in weightlifting.

Why is it so quiet, thought? To an outsider, it would seem strange to walk into a weightlifting setting and watch as these amazing athletes crush heavy weight…in silence. We’ve established that the music is usually low or off, but many of the coaches I’ve witnessed are extremely selective in when to use their “big boy/girl voices.”

Just as in a snatch, clean, or jerk, there are certain moments when you need to put the jet pack on and other times that call for more control. The coaching style matches the lifting in this sense. I’ve tried to learn from some of my mentors over the years in this sense and it really seems to help in getting my athletes’ attention; knowing when to hold, when to explode, or just when I’m genuinely excited for what they’ve just accomplished.

After all, it’s usually not the typically loud person that surprises everyone when they raise their voice, but the quiet person who usually is the thoughtful observer standing off to the side. They make the biggest impact in their coaching when it’s absolutely necessary.

I’ve always felt that “being loud just to be loud” never really worked well (at least not for me). Observing as an outsider to this way of coaching (almost bullying at times) has led me to believe that athletes just seem to become desensitized to the volume and “threats.” However, when used sparingly, at the correct times, this is another tool to use for a desired coaching outcome.

Tactical decisions

Another big difference lies in the duties of the weightlifting coach, who serves as strength and sport coach. This is certainly an advantage over just assuming the strength coach role in the traditional field/court sport setting because you have complete control over every aspect of physical training; training is practice and practice is training.

This comes as a double-edged sword, though, because now there is more on the weightlifting coach’s shoulders in terms of athlete progress. Not only do you have control (and subsequent responsibility) of writing each athlete’s program, but you also must coach them, monitor their adaptation to training, and then coach them in competition.

What’s the Difference?

How, then, does conscious coaching differ between weightlifting coach and strength and conditioning coach? The all-encompassing responsibility of the weightlifting coach on their athletes’ progress changes the way that they coach each individual. They must consider everything that goes on with each individual due to their responsibility within the training and competition process, but also due to the nature of the sport being mainly individual.

Of course, that’s not to say that strength and conditioning coaches do not need to consider extraneous variables as well. The main difference is that a strength coach must deal with a sport coach’s decisions and adjust from there, while a weightlifting coach has the responsibility of adjusting everything that is training-related.

In terms of cueing movement, the weightlifting coach must be far more detailed than that of the strength and conditioning coach. I’m not saying that all weightlifting coaches are better than strength coaches; far from it. I’m simply stating the necessity of the task within weightlifting where the coach is constantly trying to identify the smallest of errors in the most-technical of movements that can be coached. This is especially true of the higher-level weightlifting coach on the international stage. I’ve been coaching the weightlifting movements for 10 years and could not even imagine trying to coach an international-level weightlifter; my knowledge and expertise just isn’t there…yet.

One thing to also consider is what I’ve already referred to in weightlifting being mainly an individual sport (even though there are team awards at competitions). While strength coaches are coaching a room full of athletes, who may all be squatting or whatever the exercise is at the time, weightlifting coaches are coaching a room full of weightlifters. These weightlifters may also be training the same exact exercise but, in these two distinct instances, there is a difference.

What many may not realize is that weightlifters could be doing the same exercise in their program for X number of reasons. Lifter 1 is doing the No Hook, No Feet Snatch (where an athlete snatches with a normal, overhand grip and does not lift the feet from the floor) because they do not extend fully, whereas Lifter 2 is doing the same exercise because they do not pull under the bar actively enough. Remember, training is practice and practice is training, so the weightlifting coach uses exercises to drill as a strength coach would use cone patterns to drill or something similar. This is, of course, different than when a strength coach uses a snatch movement because, most of the time, they’re just wanting to use it for power development. Again, totally fine, just different.

Conscious Coaching…

Having discussed all of this, both environments call for conscious coaching; it’s just a little different for each. I’m sure that as I learn more about everything involved in conscious coaching I will change my mind about some of my thoughts, as well as my coaching practices. As they say, knowing is “half the battle” and I feel it’s the first half. You shouldn’t start something without first knowing what is involved in that “something.” Once you have all of the pertinent information, you can make informed decisions about what needs to be changed, if anything, to finish the “battle.”

These are just some of my thoughts on the differences between the two coaching styles and settings. I find myself often pulling knowledge and experiences from both sides to help me become a better coach. We can all learn from each other to become better and advance the profession to higher levels of performance and respect.

Author Bio:
Doug Berninger is the Director of Weightlifting at NC Fit in Santa Clara, CA. Prior to joining NC Fit, he worked as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the NSCA Headquarters for nearly 4 years. He has also coached athletes of all levels at other institutions such as the Olympic Training Center, University of Michigan, Athletes’ Performance (EXOS), and Bowling Green State University. In addition to coaching, Doug has a huge passion for Coach Education and runs a blog at

*Keep an eye out for Doug’s upcoming eBook, The Reality of Strength and Conditioning: Expectations for New Coaches which will release in March of 2017