Observations on online teaching and coaching

In the new Covid19 world, I enjoy listening to podcasts as I go for my daily walk, and my favourite podcast while I’m walking is Dan John’s podcast. If you haven’t read Dan John’s extensive library of work in the strength and conditioning and coaching world, there are 35 of these podcasts already, and they only started recently!

In today’s podcast, Dan was fielding a question from someone who asked about online coaching being “the way of the future” post-covid19, and I was interested to reflect on Dan’s response. He noted that he had been doing online / remote coaching for a very long time, originally via the post (yep, writing regular letters to his coach about his workouts and training, and getting responses on how he was going and what to do next), and then via the Web (in what now might be called a Blog, but in the olden days was just a regular website).

The key feature of remote or online training is the fact that it is asynchronous. Dan reminded us that, even when it is synchronous, or live, it is asynchronous in the sense that we don’t know when or where our participants might be. When I tune into someone’s live-streamed lunch-time exercise class from Melbourne, it may be midday for me, but it might be 3:00 am for another person in Paris … and the whole way of thinking about 3:00 am training is different! It may also be summer in Melbourne and winter in Paris or vice-versa.

So while many people are happy to put on a Jane Fonda style aerobics video and “follow along”, or tune into a TV or web-cast yoga class, if you are seriously into teaching or coaching your individual students and you need an income stream from so doing, there is a whole lot more going on. Importantly, I am very happy to pay a subscription for Dan John’s workouts and member resources because I already know who he is and a bit about how he thinks, which makes me confident I will get value for money. Do you have enough free content yourself to make someone happy to pay for your ongoing services, and do you have the time, energy and skills to keep on creating fee-worthy materials?

In the podcast, Dan also talked about his experience putting college level courses online, emphasising the huge amount of work required to prepare the materials. This is the very steep learning curve many academics and teachers are on right now – the idea, as Dan expressed it, is that there is a whole lot of work required to create an online learning site, but the payoff is that it is then a bit of a doddle to teach … you just need to pop in regularly to see how people are going and to answer their individual questions. This is when I started gesticulating and trying to talk back to the podcast (so yes, asynchronous, but still synchronous in how my own mind connects with what is being said). The part that Dan may well take foregranted is that the ability to “pop in and see how students are going” is a high level skill in itself. The thing about asynchronous learning is that people have a lot of time to think about your materials – they can ask you things and raise questions that you had not anticipated, and may not be prepared for, and they can do it at times when you are not “in that headspace”. Many teachers get by with knowing enough to fill the scheduled teaching time, and answer a few extra questions, and then “sorry folks, time’s up”. Dan can “pop in and field questions” because of his own formidable depth of knowledge in strength and conditioning, and in religious studies, along with his own dedication to learning from his students. Some of us find interaction with our students to be challenging in a very enjoyable way and it’s what motivates us, but for others, it is very anxiety-provoking. The podcast and forum on Dan’s site emphasise his commitment to “closing the loop with feedback”, whereby he reflects on and responds to people’s feedback. This ensures that he is tailoring his knowledge to each individual, while sharing that learning with his broader community of practice. This is not something that many newbie online coaches will have the skills, experience and enthusiasm to pull off, and they will also not be aware of how much time it takes to do this.

Online coaching has been a “thing” for quite a few years now, and I have pretty much learned all I know about strength and conditioning online, originally through reading the work of people like Krista Scott-Dixon, Brett Contreras, Mark Rippetoe, Jim Wendler and Ross Emanit among others, but eventually settling on Dan John as my “go-to” source of information, particularly after discovering that two young Australian people I know through taekwondo, had randomly stayed at Dan’s house and trained with him (and I say randomly, because it was not a visit planned in advance, but rather Dan’s amazing generosity and hospitality to total strangers because they were interested in his work and were passing through the US with a flexible itinerary).

All of the online people I have learnt from have been building impressive online sites for training for the last decade or more, and most of them have also been building subscription services for some of their material more recently. In the time of Covid19, they already had the platform, the existing content, the strong client base, and serious skills to take it all online. People completely underestimate the amount of deep knowledge, time and other skills required to maintain a steady stream of online content, and to generate new material that matches the changing needs of a changing audience. I have worked in online education for the better part of 25 years, and for the past 5 years or more, I have a flurry of blog posts around Christmas/New Year about how I’m going to update my online presence and reorganise my resources, and then my “real work” of university classes begin, and it all falls in a heap – it really takes dedication to generate regular high quality online content and helps to be part of a team.

So after listening to Dan, I thought I would put together some thoughts on what people might consider if they are thinking of taking their face-to-face training business online. This is a non-exhaustive (but somewhat exhausting) list:

  1. Do you have a loyal face-to-face clientele who want to continue training through Covid19?
    • If they are in the same time-zone, can you have them log in to their regular time-slot of class, which you live-stream?
    • While the training itself may be sub-par compared with live classes, you will be maintaining the social cohesion of your classes and allowing clients to maintain a routine, which is really important in times of upheaval (for you as well as your clients).
  2. Are you planning on your Covid19 strategy being part of your “new normal”?
    • You will have a LOT of work to do in building the range of skills to make it sustainable – I think of this as being in Dan John’s quadrant 3 of training – lots of skills at a high level.
    • You will also need to know what your value proposition is in this new normal – with full awareness that your competition will not just be the guy down the street or in the next suburb, but will be a whole global audience.
    • At the end of Covid19, people who were ready to go online before the crisis began may have a whole new clientele some of which may originally have been your clients, but there will also be people craving for face-to-face instruction … so you need to be clear about where your primary skills lie and what that will mean into the future.
  3. Do you want to be able to give your clients feedback?
    • You can use Facetime, Skype, Zoom, Messenger as easy ways of connecting with your students and running the classes in a way that is familiar TO THEM.
    • If you are live-streaming via You-Tube or Vimeo, will this be possible? Let’s Plays have the advantage that the activity being videoed is on the screen, so it is easy to interact with your live class, but it is harder to chat while you’re teaching or participating in a physical class where you may not be able to see the screen or stay in your video shot without someone actually being at the other end of a camera.
    • You can have them send videos of their session for you to critique. This is a great way to do things, but VERY time consuming, and not at all sustainable if you have a large client base or a lot of time, or excellent Shark Habits. Apps like Coaches Eye work well for this.
  4. Do you want to be able to pace your session according to how clients are going?
    • If they’re your regular clients, they may be comfortable interacting, but you’ll need to be mindful of whether they have space, and whether there are other people also doing your sessions with them.
    • Pacing a session to a live audience is a skill, but it is a different skill doing it online where you can’t quickly see people, you can’t quickly see or hear their breathing, when the video is not good enough to notice subtle changes in coordination that might tell you to slow down or switch things up or offer technical corrections.
  5. Do you want them to be able to socialise with their regular training partners?
    • You’ll need something where everyone is able to see each other, but your classes will need to be smaller (which is good, but will take more work)
    • Forums are a great place to build a community on line, but not everyone is comfortable with “socialising” in this way.
  6. Are you proficient with technology?
    • For the most part, to be successful with online coaching, especially if you don’t have a bespoke team of tech support people, requires that you use technology you’re comfortable with.
    • For many people (both coaches and clients), that will be their smart phone and services like Instagram and Messenger or Skype. You can also pay for hosted services that allow for live streaming of content, or you can use a host of available Apps, but it is important that you can use those tools well and you know how they work and what data they are capturing (e.g., your members to whom they can target their advertising …).
    • Dan makes a great point that I think many people miss: he makes lots of, as he says, “crappy videos” that are “right-now” videos of people actually doing stuff and they are for instructional purposes. They are NOT beautifully curated videos of Insta-perfection and there is a whole other post to write on the difference between right-now online teaching materials for your own specific audience at a particular time versus professionally made digital resources for “everyone”. The short story is that you need a lot of deep knowledge to know what are the important instructional qualities that will help your clients, whereas Insta-perfection is more about advertising your look
  7. Are you able to spend money on pay-for online services?
    • If you are just looking to see your business through Covid19, can you really afford to be investing in pay-for online services?
    • However if you are trying to create a future business model, can you afford not to. In my experience, you will need to pay for the infrastructure, and you will need to have professional technical support to take care of website issues, live streaming issues if that’s what you are offering for a fee, payment gateways and security if it is your long term business. Would you really set up a physical gym as your main business, and leave all the doors unlocked including the door to your office and to any resources you sell, and never do any maintenance on your equipment? It’s a serious undertaking to create and maintain a website with content that people pay for.

As I noted, these are just a few ideas that came to mind after listening to Dan’s podcast, and the reason why my own website is only updated in bursts and spurts, is that I vacillate between publishing what I’m thinking right now (as blogging used to be) versus trying to write the perfect go-to article. I’m trying to be more like Dan, to put my stuff out there quickly in case it’s useful to others, even though the primary value has been to clarify and record my own ideas and reflections. And I’m trying not to clog up Dan’s forums with overly long posts 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.