I was just editing the Custom Strength Coaching Manual, and as I got to the how to coach section, I decided to share it publicly. I feel lucky to have spent a decade teaching skiing prior to becoming a trainer. The CSIA (Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance) does a phenomenal job of teaching their teachers how to teach. It’s really impressive, and in fact it’s something I am trying to emulate with the trainers who work with me. They provided daily opportunities for the instructors to take “session” with senior instructors to work on their own skiing ability as well as their teaching ability. My guess is that every ski instructor in Canada (maybe the world?) knows the term Pedagogy. I wonder what percentage of trainers do?

My goal is not to disparage personal trainers. Because it’s not their fault. Unfortunately the infrastructure surrounding personal training, including the certification process, is weak in comparison with other industries. This unfortunately leads to many personal trainers being in a situation where they are ill-equipped to be a great trainer. In my opinion, lack of focus on pedagogy is a big part of that. And so without further ado, here are ten pedagogy tips from the Custom Strength Coaching Manual:

  1. When teaching a new movement, should you say it or show it
    • The answer is both
    • Sometimes you will also need to put them in the position so that they can feel it
      • Tell them before you do this. “I’m going to put my hands on your hips” or “do you mind if I put my finger on your butt” (if you want them to feel their glute).
      • I do not recommend butt-touching when coaching teenagers.
  2. Are you talking enough? Too much?
    • Auditory learners need to hear it versus just seeing it, but resist the urge to ramble. I still have Frank’s (Ski School Director) voice in my head on this topic as a lesson during ski instructor training: “Shut up and ski”.
  3. How many things can a person focus on and how many corrections can you make?
    • There’s no single answer, but it’s probably 2 or 3. Aim for as few things to focus on as possible.
  4. When is in-gym performance “good enough”; when must it be corrected or changed?
    • This will depend on the client.
    • We strive for excellence, but not everyone has the movement capacity for excellence (yet).
    • If their current movement is horrendous, then we work to a standard of acceptable.
    • If it’s good, now we aim for excellent.
    • There are a lot of steps between first year on skates and Wayne Gretzky, and each step in between is an accomplishment.
  5. If you asked a client to focus on keeping their back straight and pushing through the heels, and they do that, but you see them also moving their hand incorrectly, do you correct their hand?
    • Unless it is dangerous, the answer is NO! They did exactly what you asked of them – congratulate them for it. Fix the hand at the next session.
    • Even at the next set – let them focus on the same few points as the last set – let’s make that correction really stick.
  6. How much encouragement does your client need?
    • Everyone is different. Aim to figure out what works best for your client and offer that.
    • Or figure out what is your way and stick with that. Just make sure everyone gets at least some encouragement each session.
  7. Are your cues and instructions working?
    • If you find all of your clients are doing a certain exercise wrong, the problem is probably you. Maybe it’s your demo, or maybe it’s how you’re saying it. Either way – give thought to whether you could be teaching it better.
    • If you see or hear someone else using a coaching cue that really works, don’t be shy about copying it. There’s no shame in learning from others. I have some coaching cues that come from clients. Sometimes they just put it in a way that really makes sense. If that happens, thank them and tell them you’d like to use that. They won’t judge you for your lack of perfection; they will be flattered and honoured to have contributed.
  8. Most of the time your instructions should be movement-based instead of muscle-based
    • Your clients are unlikely to know their anatomy like you do, and even less likely to have a finite enough sensation to be able to discriminate what muscle they are engaging.
    • There are of course exceptions, but this will largely be when breaking an exercise down; the default should be to describe the movement you want to see, not the muscles they will use to get it.
  9. Bring out the video camera
    • Sometimes we try to correct a client’s movement, but in their mind, they are already doing what you’re asking. Show them! Video them doing the movement and then show it to them. Talk about what you see. Tell them “this is where your back is rounding a bit. If you bend your knees more here, you’ll be able to stay straight.”
  10. Are they listening? If not, why not? Is it you? Is it the program? Is it them?
    • Do your clients trust and respect you?
    • Is the exercise level appropriate? Too easy? Too hard?
    • Are they engage-able?
    • Anyone can coach a motivated athlete with great movement, but are you a good enough coach to get results from that difficult client who doesn’t work hard, or has poor movement, or poor comprehension? They will tax you, but they will also make you better.

Here’s a great blog article about pedagogy that I highly recommend for anyone who works with people.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc. CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada

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  1. I haven’t had a large enough sample size of Canadian ski lessons to comment on the overall quality; what this article provides is a great opportunity for anyone working with the public to check how they speak to people and whether their teaching style is respectful and engaging. Thanks!

  2. Awesome JP! CASI/CSIA should be very proud of what they’ve put together, as should the snow schools who continue to implement the how to teach stuff via their sessions. The NCCP is great too but I think the snow folks rule here! Awesome that you do training and teaching as well.

  3. This is a very helpful post! I believe teaching is a special skill that requires special attention to improve just like anything else. These tips are great reflections and insights to my own coaching in its present state. Thank you for sharing the chapter.

  4. I’m a trainer/snowboard and ski instrutor and coach living in Whistler BC. This article resonates so much with me. I’m often bringing things from my NCCP , CASI and other modules in to the training floor with my team. We’re not just slave drivers cracking a whip. We’re coaches guiding our clients to their goals.

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