November 2013: Joe DeFranco Q & A

by on November 23, 2013

The Psychology of Coaching

Q I know a lot of highly qualified trainers that just can’t seem to get or retain clients. It’s not that they lack the knowledge required to help people reach their goals, but they seem to lack the communication skills. Something just seems to be missing. Talk to me about the psychology of training athletes/clients. How important is a trainer’s communication skills compared to his/her understanding of exercise science and program design?

A I could tell you with certainty that your clients won’t give a shit about your certifications, education, how many books you read, or seminars you’ve attended; if you can’t speak their language – you will not last long in this industry. One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein when he said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

I can’t tell you how many trainers and coaches I’ve been around that waste the majority of their time and energy pissing and moaning about how “unfair” it is that “less intelligent” trainers have more clients than them. Instead of complaining, they should work on improving their communication skills. There’s much more to being a great coach or trainer than just knowing the science behind sets, reps and program design. If you’re unable to speak to your clients in understandable terms, you may as well trade your Nike sneakers in for a microscope and take a research position in a lab somewhere. I tell people all the time; there’s a difference between being a great researcher and a great coach or trainer. Both are important, but they’re different.

Q So how do you deal with so many different personalities in your gym?

A I’m able to get the most out of so many different types of athletes through something I call “bipolar coaching”. It’s a technique that I’ve mastered during the past 15 years of working with such a wide variety of athletes.

My coaching style shifts depending on who’s coming in to train. One example would be the college and NFL football players that respond better when I call them pussies and tell them they don’t belong in my gym. That’ll make them do anything.

Case in point: This summer I had a group of college and NFL guys warming up with some hurdle jumps. As usual, it started getting really competitive. Once we got up to the 50-inch hurdle I said, “Whoever is fat and scared can sit the last two jumps out.” Needless to say, no one sat out (laughing)! On that day, nine out of nine athletes ended up clearing a 52” hurdle. This was a PR for seven of the athletes. For one of the college kids, it was a seven-inch PR! That type of performance would not be possible if that athlete was training alone without the “pressure” of my gym’s atmosphere.

But this type of pressure is not going to work with a 15-year old girl who walks into the gym for the first time looking intimidated. I’m not going to get in her face and pressure her like that on day one; she’ll never come back. Instead, she gets the kinder and gentler Joe D.

Female athletes often need reassurance and explanation. They need to know we’re not going to make them “big & bulky”. Instead we’re going to make them “strong, lean and less susceptible to injury”. Once they’re comfortable in their surroundings you can begin to push them – many times, harder than the guys.

Check this out…

Here’s a real-life example of bipolar coaching.

This is how I may describe the benefits of the exact same exercise to two different athletes. Let’s use the dumbbell row as an example.

Athlete #1: 19-year-old college football player who came to my gym because he’s a huge Brian Cushing fan, he needs to gain 10 pounds, and he’s obsessed with watching my YouTube videos

“This exercise is going to get your back so friggin’ jacked you’re gonna have to walk sideways just to get through the damn doorway”!

Athlete #2: 17-year-old female soccer player whose coach recommended she come train with us to help with some shoulder pain she was having

“This exercise will help strengthen some of the weaker muscles that are located in your upper back. Strengthening these weak links help support your shoulder joint, which should help decrease some of the shoulder pain you’ve been having. But, the best thing about this exercise is that girls always tell me how much better they look in their prom dress after doing them for a few weeks.”

Same exercise. Huge difference in how I explain it for the first time. That’s bipolar coaching.

Q Very interesting. It sounds to me like the best trainers need to be part scientist and part psychiatrist. Would you agree?

A Yes, I agree. The good coach or trainer has to treat everyone a little differently. You have to be able to read the athlete. It’s not just about the “X’s and O’s” of training. It’s about being able to look at an athlete and get a sense of his/her demeanor and personality. Adjust your approach based on that and you’ll get the most out of the athlete.

Q Would you consider this to be one of the secrets to your gyms success? Your ability to balance the art and science of training seems to set you apart from other gyms that may look similar to yours ‘on paper’.

A Why is my gym successful? It’s our ability to combine scientifically sound training programs with a killer atmosphere and the ability to cater to each athlete’s individual psychology. That’s bi-polar coaching. We figure out what makes that athlete tick and then we use that to our advantage. I guess you can refer to this as the perfect blend of science and art.

I’m definitely not the smartest guy in the world. But I’m able to get better results with my clients, compared to coaches that are smarter than me on paper, because of my ability to communicate with them. It’s about knowing when to be a hard-ass and when to be a little softer; it’s about knowing when to explain the science behind the program and when to “dummy it down” and speak to your client like a second-grader. When you do this, athletes start to understand and believe in your program. And when they truly believe in what they’re doing, the sky is the limit.

Simply put, it’s about knowing each individual athlete’s personality. That’s my secret weapon and that’s what separates me from coaches who scored higher on their SAT’s and have higher IQ’s than me.

Q I know you hold a lot of coaching clinics for trainers who want to learn from you. How many of these coaches come in lacking those communication skills you talk about? Is this something that’s not being taught at the University or certification level?

A I can tell you first-hand that communication skills are absolutely NOT taught in school or at any certification I’ve been to. Because of this, I’d say more than half the coaches and trainers I meet are lacking in this area. That is why we made it one of the focuses of our CPPS certification course. One of the very first things Smitty (Jim Smith, co-founder of CPPS) and I spoke about when we designed our certification curriculum was that we wanted coaches who can COACH in the real world. Book-smart trainers are a dime a dozen. At this point in my career, I can give two shits about how book-smart you are. At the end of the day, all that matters is if you get results with your clients. If you can’t properly communicate with your clients and apply your knowledge, what’s the point of having the knowledge in the first place?

Vince McMahon, the Chairman and CEO of the WWE says, “Intelligence is NOT what you know, it’s how you apply it.” I couldn’t agree more with his statement.

In order to become one of our Certified Physical Preparation Specialists (CPPS), we require you to speak in front of the class throughout the entire course. You must also have the ability to explain the most difficult and scientific aspects of our curriculum in the simplest terms possible. There is a huge emphasis placed on creating easy-to-understand coaching cues for every single exercise in order to effectively communicate with your clients. No other certification course places this type of emphasis on public speaking and communication skills. I feel this is one of the main reasons certifications get such a bad rap. They may help you become more “book-smart”, but they do absolutely nothing to help your real world coaching skills. I know this first-hand because I was the guy with every certification under the sun when I graduated college. I had all these pieces of paper on my wall – yet when a real person walked into the gym and I had to help them – I realized that my certifications didn’t help me at all. This was my motivation to develop a certification that actually helped trainers get results in the real world with real people. I’m very proud of the curriculum that Smitty and I came up with and the trainers we’ve certified thus far. In only one short year, we’ve certified over 100 coaches from 7 different countries. I think we’ve really raised the bar and brought credibility back to certifications – and we’re just getting started! If anyone reading this wants to become part of our global network of CPPS coaches, you can learn more about the certification by going to

Q Since you mentioned Brian Cushing earlier, was he always an animal from Day 1 with you or did you have to pull a lot of that intensity and drive out of him? With that in mind, are champions made or are champions born?

A Cush was an animal from Day 1 with me. I definitely can’t take credit for that. He has something inside him where he has to be the best at everything he does. The dude is just a savage. Period. I think my biggest contribution to Cush has been with the structuring and organization of all the different training variables – basically, helping him channel his energy in the right places at the right times so he doesn’t burn himself out every day. More times than not, I’m trying to convince Cush to do less, not more.

As far as champions being born or made is concerned; genetics will always be the trump card. If you got the right mommy and daddy it can definitely make life – and your athletic career – a whole lot easier (laughing). With that being said, champions can definitely be made with the right training and atmosphere. If an athlete has a great work ethic, they’re mentally tough, and they train properly – they can definitely beat out someone with more God-given talent than them. I’ve seen it happen. In fact, working with those types of athletes is what “put me on the map” in the first place. My entire NFL Combine training program was built on working with small-school, underdog-type kids who were told they couldn’t make it. Miles Austin was told he was too slow to play receiver and too small to play tight end in the NFL. He went undrafted in the 2006 NFL draft. 31 wide receivers were chosen over him, but I always knew he was going to make it. Fast-forward seven years from then and Miles is still in the NFL. In 2010 he signed a 57 million dollar contract. His work ethic, attitude and mental toughness helped him “leap-frog” players that were ranked way ahead of him because they were considered more genetically gifted.

Q Wow, that’s amazing.
You mentioned mental toughness. How would you define mental toughness? Is it possible to make someone mentally tough or is that something an athlete is born with?

A I define mental toughness as “a psychological edge that enables an athlete to remain focused and confident during high-pressure situations, which allows them to perform at their full potential”.

Some people just have it. They’re born mentally tough. But I do think you can take someone who’s “softer” and make him or her mentally tougher with the right training and the right environment.

Mental toughness is something that displays itself when times are hard and things aren’t going right. You’ll know if an athlete is mentally tough or not during times of duress. They’re able to stay on task and not get rattled. You can train that into a kid by developing certain attributes. I start that process with the atmosphere of my gym. Those who aren’t mentally tough are probably going to be intimidated at first.

I have an indoor warehouse facility with a turf area for prowler pushes and sprints, yet we still go outside year-round and train in the parking lot, winter or summer. If you want to develop a mentally tough kid, don’t baby him. People often ask me, “But what if you’re a little too tough on a kid and he doesn’t come back?” Well then, he probably wasn’t capable of being developed in the first place.

Training environment plays a huge role. The first time a kid walks into my gym, he’ll see a lot of big, strong guys and hear the music blasting; then we’ll make him go outside in bad weather. He’ll eventually train in the rain, snow and 100-degree heat. My gym doesn’t have an air conditioner and it’s brutal in the summer. But if that kid comes back, year in and year out, he’s going to eventually be immune to heat and cold, loud music isn’t going to affect him, and bigger, stronger guys aren’t going to get under his skin or intimidate him anymore. He’s battle-hardened.

During his sport, there’s not much left that can be thrown at him. He’s faced big and strong guys, he’s trained with them, he’s already competed in brutal heat and blistering cold. Facing those things in his sport is just another day for him. I’ve watched timid kids from wealthy families transform into tough, competitive dudes right before my very eyes. It happens all the time at my gym. Our atmosphere has built the foundation for mental toughness.

Q Since you work with athletes of all levels would you say that today’s athlete, amateur or professional, is mentally weaker than 10 or 20 years ago? And if so what would you attribute that to?

A Unfortunately, yes, I would say most athletes today are mentally weaker than years ago. Generally speaking, this new generation of athletes are used to everything being so convenient that they’ve become lazy and mentally weak. It starts at school. They don’t even have to go to the library anymore to research a topic, they just google it. Shit, if you like a girl you don’t even need to have the balls to physically go up to her and introduce yourself. You just send her a text or a friggin’ tweet! To me, that’s too easy.

And don’t even get me started on youth athletic programs that don’t keep score because they don’t want any of the children to experience “losing”. Guess what? In life, there are victories and there are failures. Even Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. If he didn’t experience that “failure”, he may have never become the Michael Jordan that we all know.

Show me a successful person and I’ll show you someone who’s probably been through some tough times. In fact, everyone that I look up to in business, athletics and life all have a “back story” where they had to overcome some really tough times in order to “make it”. Parents that hide the losing aspect of life from their kids and constantly tell them they do no wrong are doing them a tremendous disservice.

I have 2-year-old twin daughters. I love them to death and my life now revolves around providing them with a great life. But you better believe when my girls get older you won’t find them playing in any youth soccer leagues that don’t keep score! And please don’t misinterpret this as me trying to be a hard-ass. It’s actually quite the contrary. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a big friggin’ softy when it comes to my baby girls (laughing). But that’s exactly why I want them to experience the wins with the losses and the ups with the downs. I want to do everything possible to set them up to be successful in the real world – not some bullshit fantasyland.

Q There are two types of communication skills: verbal and non-verbal. What is your opinion on the type of trainer or coach who has never worked out or at least looks like they have never worked out? Many clients and athletes wouldn’t find that person believable. I always said, “Never go to a dentist with jacked up teeth.” As a former college football player at Florida State we had a coach who looked more like a librarian than Head S&C Coach. What’s your take on this?

A In my opinion, you have to look the part! You only get one chance to make a first impression. And in this business, the client’s first impression of you is how you look.

Who the hell would want to take diet advice from a fat trainer – or strength advice from someone who can’t bench 225? I could tell you first-hand that athletes are more impressed by looks than books! I’ve probably been asked how much I bench quadruple the amount of times I’ve been asked what I studied in college.

With that being said, you don’t have to be the most jacked person in the world in order to be a successful coach or trainer. In fact, many of the best coaches I know have average or below average genetics. During their athletic careers, they had to work their ass off to get on the field. These types of people usually make the best coaches because things didn’t come easy for them; so they had to figure out superior training methods to keep up with their genetically superior competition. People who are genetic freaks don’t usually make the best coaches because everything came easy to them. Many times, they don’t know what the hell to do if they need to help a “hard gainer” get results.

As you get older and more experienced in this industry, your client list and the results you helped them achieve become your resume. At this point in my career, your first impression of me when you walk in my gym isn’t my physique – it’s the jerseys and 8X10’s that hang on my walls. I had a tumor in my spine that took four years, four back surgeries and countless procedures to remove. The surgeries and procedures left me with nerve damage and a tremendous amount of pain for over 20 years now. I’m extremely limited with what I can do in my own training, so at this point in my career, my athlete’s goals are more important to me than my own. But, even with my chronic pain and physical limitations, I still do everything in my power to “look the part” the best I can. I do this because I know how important it is in this industry. There’s no excuse to let yourself go if you’ve chosen this as your career.

Q As a coach who probably has to turn away people at this stage in your career. Who is more enjoyable to train, a high school or college athlete or a professional athlete? Why?

A My first instinct would be to say college athletes that are on the verge of going pro. They have a different kind of hunger and drive. Imagine being a broke, 21-year-old kid that has two months to prepare for a job interview (the NFL Combine) that has life-changing implications for you and your entire family. Training someone for that type of reward is why I continue to train guys for the NFL Combine, even though I don’t “have to” anymore. There’s so much at stake for these kids and they’re putting their trust in me to help. I take that responsibility very seriously. I really enjoy the pressure of that type of preparation. I’ve prepared college football players for their NFL “interviews” for 16 straight years now and there’s nothing that really compares. It’s a very cool, unique experience.

Q You’re working crazy hours, recently married, have kids. Where do you find the energy and what’s your secret?

A I have a severe caffeine addiction (laughing)! Although caffeine is my one vice, my true energy comes from my passion. After 16 years as a professional in this industry – and over 25 years of training – I still genuinely enjoy what I do. It would literally be impossible for me to “work” 12-15 hours a day if I hated my job. The key to my success is that I made my hobby my “job”. Anyone who is able to do that will be successful. I guarantee it.

With that being said, as I approach 40 years old – and now that I have a wife and two kids – I’m trying to revamp my business and my schedule in order to spend more time with my family. Thankfully, I built the foundation of my business when I was single because there aint a woman alive who would have put up with me during that time! Fifteen straight years of training athletes 6 days a week, only one vacation in a ten-year span, and spending my weekends answering ASK JOE questions for free on my website. I have literally been engrossed in building all aspects of my business for over a decade. It’s crazy how time flies.

My goal for the next phase of my career is to cut down on my training hours and focus on my CPPS certification, while continuing to create educational products for trainers and coaches. I feel this is the most efficient way to share my knowledge and experience with people from all over the world, without spending all day, everyday, in the gym.