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Differential Coaching within Strength and Conditioning

What is differential coaching?

When we say ‘differential coaching’ we’re referring to a term known as ‘differential learning’. Differential learning is a method of training that emphasises the exploration of movement patterns.

Differential learning suggests that practicing a variety of movement solutions in a random manner facilitates the development of movement patterns that can be adapted to novel situations.

Adapting coaching approaches to meet athlete’s individual needs

When looking to improve coaching performance in relation to athlete or client training results, practitioners will often instantly consider changes that could potentially be made to programs, exercise selection, or applying any new training interventions. However, often the importance of actual coaching practice is overlooked, when this is equally, if not more important than any specific applied training method.

I find it fascinating when elite Olympic weightlifters from varying nations across the globe all claim their home nation training methodology to be the best, despite the varying approaches that different nations apply (e.g. Chinese system with slow controlled pulls, leg strength emphasis, Russian system of high training frequency and assistance lifts, and Bulgarian system of regular near maximal loads and extreme training specificity). However, despite such varying training methodologies, many different nations produce world championships. This demonstrates the importance of athletes or clients ‘believing in the program’. The importance of such positive psychology and ensuring that athletes/clients ‘buy’ into the program cannot be underestimated.

Things to consider

One important aspect that needs to be considered by practitioners when aiming to embed this ‘buy-in factor’ in athletes is the differences in individual athlete personalities, and how coaches can adapt their coaching approach to accommodate these differences. Therefore, it is of great importance that practitioners firstly establish an athlete’s individual personality traits, and consider how coaching and motivational strategies can be adapted accordingly. One such method is the application of a DiSC profile.

What is a DiSC profile?

A DiSC profile comes from a DiSC assessment. Within the DiSC assessment athletes are taken through a specific consultation process involving questionnaires and basic profile analysis. The practitioner then selects the appropriate profile group depending on the results of the questionnaire process. For example, consider an athlete with a highly ‘dominance’ oriented DiSC profile, such an athlete may find an ‘extra praising’ coaching style demotivational. Such an athlete would most likely prefer direct feedback based on performance results rather than coaching praise. Likewise, an athlete that suits a ‘steadiness’ personal profile would require a differential coaching approach, preferring detail on performance data, rationales for program design decisions, and graphical representations of performance improvements.

Motivational strategies to apply to coaching

In addition to DISC profiling, coaches should consider the motivational strategies they apply when coaching athletes. Unfortunately, most individuals relate ‘motivation’ with coaches providing a motivational speech when needed, or famous sports celebrity quotes seen within sports industry advertising. Both approaches could be considered externally driven motivational strategies, which are extremely limited in longevity, and are purely reliant on a coach continuously providing athlete motivation. However, if coaches can encourage internal motivation in athletes, encouraging athletes to reflect on ‘why they want to gain strength’ or ‘what drives them to train day in day out’ then the athlete becomes partly responsible for their own desire to progress or excel in competition. Employing such an internally motivated strategy encourages a working environment whereby the coach becomes a teammate rather than a normal directing style coach, athletes will be encouraged to take ownership of situations where extra motivation is required.

Build a relationship with your client


Furthermore, such a ‘teammate’ relationship between the coach and the athlete will help to further develop an effective working rapport between the two. Such a greater working rapport, coupled with a greater understanding of an athlete’s personal profile and favored motivational style, will lead to more effective training during session, overall enjoyment for all involved, greater work ethic, and ultimately, greater results.

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