Reactive Coaching Part 2: Comprehensive Coaching Knowledge

In the first segment of this Reactive Coaching topic, we discussed the utility of a vast Mental Movement Library (MML) in adding value to your practice, gaining your clients trust, and displaying professional competence.

In this second part of the series, we will discuss the importance of technical knowledge, your client’s effort setpoints and communication. These remaining elements flesh out a more complete understanding of the skillset that is reactive coaching. As written in the previous post, the term defines our ability to react quickly and appropriately to the changing states of our clients.

 Technical Knowledge

You may have noticed that once you’re out in professional practice, a large amount of your capacity is devoted to communication and rapport building, rather than your technical knowledge in anatomy, physiology or biomechanics. There is however, a large place for that knowledge.

When a client needs a movement modification, random movements may start popping up in our heads as alterations. However, appropriateness of movement selection, as discussed in the last blog, should lead our modification-making process. We can ask ourselves some quick guiding questions in the moment:

1.  How important is this particular movement in the program, and in the context of the client’s goals?

a.   Is it specific to the client’s goals?

b.  Is this movement important today?

2.  What specific parameters are important in this movement?

For example:

a.   What joints are moving?

b.  What muscles are being used?

c.   Is the load important?

d.  Is the pace or heart rate important?

The first question can be answered quickly in the moment, or upon deeper analysis of the program as a whole at a later time. Let’s explore an example similar to part 1.

Example: A client presents with acute back pain during the floor position in a conventional deadlift session, with the express goal of deadlifting 225kg.

As explored in part 1, some movement alterations can be made in the moment, namely block pulling to avoid the aggravating range, modification of the intensity, and broader program analysis after the fact. We can now add a temporal aspect to our coaching reaction – is it important today?

What is the focus of this specific training session? Week? Month? Is this athlete close to a competition? Knowing that specificity should increase as we near a competition for example, we might bias the modification to a movement that replicates the competitive angles & demands more closely, referencing the principle of Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demand (SAID). In this case, it may also bias us towards the block conventional deadlift rather than the sumo, which they might not have enough time to learn from scratch.

The next question we can ask is in regards to movement parameters. This is where your technical knowledge really becomes useful. In my practicum placement at Okanagan Peak Performance, I was given a program to execute with the clients – and you may find yourself in similar situations if you work at a clinic or under another coach. If your program designer deems this movement important, you have to work within their specifications.

Example: Your client is programmed arm wall slides, but they find it incredibly strenuous and uncomfortable, and can barely get their fingers and head to touch the wall. Their range is incredibly limited, around 40-50% of what you could expect.

The head coach deems it necessary to work on the limitations in this client’s thoracic posture and shoulder mobility, specifically in that overhead range. Since you try to keep up with the literature, you might remember that a relationship between kyphotic position and shoulder range exists, namely that a more erect posture elicits greater shoulder ROM (Barrett et al., 2016). One way to increase this shoulder range then, could be to put them into a more passively extended position, such as lying on their back on a foam roller parallel to the length of their spine.

That is exactly the modification we decided to take in this scenario, and it resulted in greater range at the shoulder as well as greater comfort, while remaining appropriate to the goals of that movement.

In situations or sessions where the specific parameters of a movement are not as important, you can experiment with greater freedom in movement modification or complete substitution. If for example, the goal of the session is to burn a lot of calories in a short window, focus on that would take precedence, and a difficult, uncomfortable or otherwise unenjoyable movement can be entirely substituted for something that doesn’t mirror the original prescription, but will get their heart rate elevated. As discussed in part 1, we must take the client’s investment of time and money seriously. 

In most cases, clients should be engaged for their whole session. Is it worth their time to be drilling certain minutiae of a certain movement for 45 minutes? Or should we be asking ourselves “Can we be doing something else right now?” 


One factor that shows up frequently in practice is client effort. Specifically, how hard does a client want to work, how hard do they expect to work, and what is their effort limit? From my own experience, it’s quite difficult to predict the effort limits of anyone specific, and getting to know the athlete personally and over time should reveal their preferences and tolerances.

It’s important to note that not everyone is at the gym to work maximally. Many come with goals to improve their mobility, balance, spatial awareness, reduce pain, or even just to socialize. It’s beneficial to explore those goals with each individual, and establish their willingness to push their boundaries. If a movement, weight, or rep amount exceeds a client’s effort tolerance, it may be prudent for modifications to be made. Continual dissonance between your client’s expectations and your own may strain your relationship and lead to retention issues down the road.

In the other direction as well, if the client expects and enjoys pushing themselves tremendously, but is continually underwhelmed, the same issues may arise. Thorough communication regarding effort expectations, preferences and goals can avoid these scenarios.

Communication and the Relationship

Some clients respond to “tough love” or intense coaching, but many also don’t. It’s imperative to be aware of your own coaching style and tendencies – not every client that comes your way will match your style. In terms of client retention, it is probably a far better plan to “meet them where they’re at” and go from there.

Your coaching style is in large part, an element of communication. When a client fails a lift, what do you say to them? When a client says they are feeling beat up, tired or stressed, what do you say to them?

These scenarios are frequent, but building a trusting and transparent relationship over time can help you navigate to the most appropriate response. Lindgren and Barker-Ruchti (2017) call this a holistic approach to coaching, and is client or athlete-centered, with a sincere interest in the client beyond performance.

Empathy and sensitivity to the client’s current mood also holds obvious utility – if a client seems agitated, sad, or sensitized, insistently pushing them to perform at their usual level might carry risks. Alternatively, if a client is well rested, in a great mood and performing above expectations, an opportunity to push a little harder could be grasped.

Providing feedback is one of the most common forms of communication that coaches engage in. Some coaches provide feedback almost constantly – “correcting” movements, diving into the “why” a client moves in a certain way, or why something hurts. If your client is a beginner, room for feedback is necessary as they learn new movements and skills. However, how, when, and how much feedback we deliver are important factors of that process.

If this is the client’s first time performing a squat, how important is it that they hit every bullet point of our goal set? Depth, knee tracking, lumbar rounding, neck position, gaze etc. – the list can be exhaustive, but generally flows in importance from the gross details to the minutia. While it may seem logical that a novice should require more feedback because they may have more to learn, attention should be focused on delivering quality feedback that tackles the most important, larger movement characteristics in priority.

Swamping the client can create a feedback overload. If you ever hear them say “there’s just so much to think about”, consider reducing your feedback to what is more important.

Reactive Coaching is a set of interpersonal and technical skills that allows a coach to react quickly and appropriately to the changing states of their clients. This skill set allows a coach to display competence, attention, empathy, and value for the client’s investment.

It is by no means a new invention or even a new term, but instead a concept that can be thought of during your practice. It’s about offering a better service and reacting more concomitantly to your athletes goals.

Author: Artem Biziaev.

Since 2012, Artem Biziaev has been practicing fitness coaching through his business, Northlift (@northlift on instagram). Passionate for critical thinking and providing easy-to-understand strength and fitness content, he is currently finishing his Bachelors of Kinesiology from the University of Alberta.

  Barrett E, O’Keeffe M, O’Sullivan K, Lewis J, McCreesh K. Is thoracic spine posture associated with shoulder pain, range of motion and function? A systematic review. Man Ther. 2016;26:38–46. doi:10.1016/j.math.2016.07.008

Lindgren, E.-C., & Barker-Ruchti, N. (2017). Balancing performance-based expectations with a holistic perspective on coaching: A qualitative study of Swedish women’s national football team coaches’ practice experiences. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-Being, 12(sup2).

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