John Coffee’s Trick to Push Lifters to Their Full Potential

John Coffee’s One Weird Trick to Push Lifters to Their Full Potential
by Edward Baker

It’s finally time for people to know: How did the relentless John Coffee push his lifters to their full potential?

He didn’t. He held them back instead.

As I was growing up and playing sports, I came to believe that based on how I was coached, that being a coach entailed motivating and psyching up athletes. It meant helping athletes learn how to reach their full potential by pushing them harder than they’ve ever been pushed. In the football strength & conditioning community, you hear of head coaches talk of how great their strength coach is by their ability to ‘motivate and push the players inside and outside the weight room’. Once I started working with John, his attitude towards my training said otherwise. I wouldn’t consider myself the hardest worker in the world, but I have trained to injury to the extent that I would have trouble walking and sitting, and John would have to step in to stop me from worsening my injury to the point that it became completely debilitating. A phrase that he said to me years ago has stuck with me:

“From my experience, being a coach is more about holding someone back then pushing them harder. Everyone wants to go heavier”.

Mental toughness is an ability that’s cultivated through years and years of successes and failures; that can be in a sport, in school, or just life in general. Many of the athletes that I’m fortunate enough to work with have a background in gymnastics, and make me look like a baby. They’ve ripped off a torn callus mid set and kept lifting where I would have stopped to tape my hands up and start over. There have been more serious issues that they would gladly push through on their own will.

John has had lifters in meets hyperextend their UCL after a missed Snatch and they would insist to go out and make another attempt, yet he would step in and pull them out of the meet. This very instance happened to me at the 2011 Junior Nationals. I had one more attempt and wanted more than anything to make the lift. He withdrew me from the meet, and told me “I know you’re pissed off, I’m a little pissed off too. But you don’t want to (mess) with an elbow injury. This is something that could take a week or two to recover, but chances are if you go out for another attempt while the ligament is lax, then you’ll go and blow it out”. Sure enough, two weeks later and I was back to putting weights overhead again. I’ve seen others whose coach made the other choice, and they in fact blew their UCL out.

In training, he is very much the same way. He has a rough plan of what he wants his lifters to do each day, but nothing is set in stone and is based appropriately on how the athlete says that they’re feeling and how the warmup sets look. When the athlete gets to what John deems as a top working weight, he’ll say “that might be a good weight for today”. Most of the athletes that he has worked with are plenty self-motivated, and always want to put more weight on the bar. Sometimes with convincing John will allow the lifter to go heavier, but there are also times that he will put his foot down and keep them there as well. One of the only times I’ve ever been cussed out by John was when I decided to go heavy on the Clean & Jerk on a day that was supposed to be moderate. I still remember Kelly and Caleb Williams asking if I was okay after he left the room.

Pushing an athlete to fight through their physical limits in the incipient stages of their lifting career (when they may not have yet acquired the resilience that takes time to develop) is tantamount to expecting an athlete to perform too much weight for too many reps; their body is simply not capable of it. If an athlete like CJ Cummings fell into the hands of a coach that wanted to push him hard right from the get go, I wonder If he would have stuck around to win the International meets and break the World Records that he has. It also makes me wonder how many potential lifters there are out there that will be turned off by a coach who expects the world of them on day one? It’s incredibly tempting for coaches to stumble across a talented athlete and become greedy and push them to improve at the expense of their enjoyment of the sport or worse, at the expense of their physical well-being. John is never one to boast about the personal accomplishments of his lifters, but he is always proud to say that in his coaching career a Weightlifter under his guidance has never required surgery.

In my article Misconception of Developing Strong legs that appeared in the December 2014 issue of the USA Weightlifting e-magazine, I wrote something that I still feel is relevant today:

“One can take a look at the training system of the weightlifting superpowers of the world and mistakenly presume that mimicking their training program will yield excellent performances, when they have little relevance to athletes that don’t have the training backlog of their much stronger counterparts, don’t have the leisure of training as an occupation, and must attend an educational institution or work a full-time job.”

I’d like to say that I take my training seriously, but if the livelihood of me (and a possible family) were at stake based on my performance in this sport then I could certainly see how my mentality would change. That isn’t the case in this country though, and it’s only recently that some Weightlifting coaches in this country can make a living just coaching. I’ve heard the argument that coaches don’t want to push their athletes hard enough because they want them to stick around and keep paying; John coached during a time where there was no money to be made at all (he actually gave up plenty) and did so in the ‘hold them back’ fashion, so that decimates the argument that he does so to get his lifters to ‘continue to pay him’. It also makes me wonder if a Weightlifting coach’s salary in other countries is dependent on their athlete’s performance in competitions as well? If mine were, I could see how I might push lifters harder than ideal. It’s easier to push someone else rather than oneself to the brink of injury; if it’s someone else and they do in fact get hurt, that someone else is the one stuck with living with that injury.

I’m only slightly familiar of the physiological effects of anabolic steroids based on what I’ve learned in my college education along with second hand knowledge, but it seems to be that steroids (and other performance enhancing drugs) enable one to train harder and more frequently. Could this be juxtaposed with the use of the stimulant Adderall on children with ADHD:
Say that holding (presumably) drug-free athletes to the same standard as steroided athletes in their ability to train hard and frequently would very loosely be analogous to expecting children with ADHD that aren’t administered Adderall to perform to the same level in the classroom as children with ADHD that are (in terms of the reduction of inattentive and oppositional symptoms). This is not to completely discredit the Weightlifting superpowers of the world by throwing out the word steroids, but it should be noted that it does cause a significant change. That’s why they’re used in the first place.

Perhaps the times are changing and John’s approach to coaching is becoming more irrelevant as Weightlifting moves more towards a sport where lifters can make a little bit of a living competing. It could very well be that his success was just happenstance, and that he was in the right place at the right time. Or perhaps his lifters could have performed even better with the quality of lifting overall in this country being higher? Maybe Robin Goad could have done more than an 80 kg Snatch and 100 kg Clean & Jerk as a 48 kg lifter (when she was 30) had she not been lifting to break her own National Records and to beat the World Standard in her weight class in her earlier years? I honestly find it quite fascinating that many different approaches are used in this country, and that many are successful. Success will speak for itself, or as Bob Hoffman would say, “Proof is in the puddin’”!

Also, A few weeks ago I posted this Facebook status:

Question to experienced coaches: In your experience, do you find that you more commonly have to push talented athletes to try heavy weights, or hold them back from doing so?


Here are a couple of responses from authorities:

“Easily, hold them back. No question. The best athletes are HUNGRY for heavier weights but also usually have some sense of when the right time may be. If the coach has their trust, and can be completely objective on their behalf, it can be a powerful partnership.” – John Thrush

“Talented lifters or not, coaches are often challenged to hold a lifter back. Many times that’s what’s needed for long-term progress. Developing lifters are more likely to be the ones that need encouragement to attempt lifts they may think are beyond their capabilities. Here we encounter the science of coaching vs. the art of coaching.” – Harvey Newton

Common Sense: Approach to CJ Cummings' Training

Common Sense: Approach to CJ Cummings’ Training
by Edward Baker

American Weightlifting is flourishing with talent, and it could be argued that CJ Cummings is the front runner for what appears to be a Renaissance for the sport. My first memory of CJ is him lifting at a meet about four years back in Flowery Branch, Georgia where he Clean & Jerked 96 kg weighing 48 kg (double bodyweight). I had thought to myself, “how would you train someone that young with that much talent”? A couple of weekends ago at the American Open I got the chance to sit down with Ray Jones, who has been CJ’s coach since day one, and want to share bits of his training philosophy that he sums up as: Common sense.

Listening to Your Body

This is commonly overlooked. As Ray said to me, a lifter needs to listen to their body and the signals that it elicits, and this becomes especially important as they start handling heavier weights. “Little things become big things when you try to push through them”.

A question that I’ve heard John Coffee ask his lifters before every workout is “How do you feel today”? The training would then be based on the lifter’s response, coupled with the context of where the athlete was in their training cycle and how the warmups appeared. There is certainly a phenomenon that happens from time to time when a person is feeling completely run down when they enter the gym, but once they start lifting they seem to be in top shape (My best Snatch in training to date was done on a day that I was tired and getting light headed just warming up with the bar) but these days are the exception, not the norm.

When there are aches and ailments, it’s more sensible to train around the injury and to ‘live to see another day’, than it is to push through and possibly worsen the injury to the point that you can’t train at all.  Ray is very particular about this, and saves his lifter’s heaviest lifting for the day of the meet.

Squatting Frequency

When I asked Ray how many times per week CJ squats, he stated, “Everyday. He Overhead Squats, Snatch Squats, Clean Squats…” Ray was reinforcing the fact that many of the lifts we perform involve a squatting motion. When deciding the amount of times an athlete Front and Back Squats per week, one should remember that many of the exercises that are performed already involve squatting. Early on I Front and Back Squatted about everyday, and wound up with a bad case of patellar tendonitis (an overuse injury), so much of my training is predicated around limiting the amount of times I perform squatting motions each week.

Later, I rephrased my question to Ray as “How many times does CJ squat after un-racking it from a squat rack?” He replied, “about once a week, as leg strength isn’t a weakness now.” He also has CJ perform complexes involving Cleans and multiple Front Squats.

Snatch and Clean & Jerk Meets

As we were talking about his philosophy regarding squatting, Ray stated that he bases his lifter’s squat percentages off their best Clean & Jerk rather than their best Back Squat. As he sees it, we’re training to compete in the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk, not the Squat, so the training should be reflected as such. He’ll start with 100% of the athlete’s best Clean & Jerk and have them perform 5-6 sets with that weight, and will base a progression on how the squats look each time they’re performed.

Most Important Thing

Before Ray begins coaching a lifter, he prefaces it with telling them the most important thing to remember when doing this sport: Go out and have fun. If an athlete is going into a workout or a competition with big expectations about their performance, they can easily make the scenario into a bigger deal than it is; if you go about this sport by enjoying performing the lifts, and taking time to enjoy traveling, seeing friends, and enjoying the whole experience that competing in this sport entails, then you are much more likely to succeed.

I hope that lifters and coaches can find this article useful. As an athlete and as a pretend coach I can easily over-complicate training, or lose sight of the forest for the trees, as one might say. Go out and have fun, listen to your body, and use common sense.

The Coffee Complex: John's Lacking Trait

by Edward Baker

– 70 medals at the Women’s Weightlifting Senior Worlds have been amassed by the United States. John Coffee’s lifters have earned 30 of them.

– The last Senior World Champion for the United States was Robin Byrd-Goad. Robin was coached by John.

– The first Women’s Senior Nationals took place in 1981. Since then there have been 36 Nationals contesting a Women’s division. Coffee’s Gym has won 19 of them.

All of these accomplishments, but after the 6 years I’ve spent with John, a lacking trait has manifested itself. Self-recognition.

Everyone likes to boast from time to time about their accolades, and rightfully so! You should be proud of anything you put your time into. I’ve loved to tell people about PRs that I’ve hit, people that I pretend to coach hitting PRs, it makes me feel good to share and get affirmation that I’m doing a good job. For others I’m sure it’s the same, people love to vocally exclaim how much they love their lifters, and how selfless of people they are, and how much they’ve accomplished in their time in this sport.

This boastful desire is absent in John. I trained at Coffee’s for months before I even learned that he has a women’s team. It wasn’t until a while later that I learned of the Olympians that came through there. None of this came from John’s mouth. Wear a Coffee’s Gym shirt out in public in Marietta and you’re sure to get someone to strike up a conversation, with the typical comment being “That was the place to train back in the day”.

He’s always so concerned about bettering and taking care of his lifters, and improving himself as a coach, that he has never really stopped to get acknowledged for what he’s done. When any other person would stop after an accomplishment and allow themselves to be recognized, John just goes right back to his obsession of making his lifters better, and becoming a better coach. I call this the Coffee Complex. Even those closest to John know that he isn’t one to proclaim himself as an expert, or elaborate on how much he does for his lifters. He is very much an ‘actions, not words’ kind of guy.

After 50 years of coaching in this sport without taking time off, anyone would agree for you to take all the time you need to recover. You deserve the rest. Please get well John.

Is This Rocket Science?

Is This Rocket Science?
by Splitter

Recently, I read an opinion on weightlifting technique nomenclature. Here is the truncated position – “the terms first pull, second pull, pocket and triple extension – these terms do not exist in the scientific communities of weightlifting. These are simply pop culture terms of people trying to dumb down weightlifting to the masses”. The author continues by stating that weightlifting is apportioned in phases due to the pull being a continuous motion with no pause, then offers to discuss phases of the pull. At the article’s conclusion is this statement – “weightlifting is all parasympathetic nervous system and fast twitch fibers”. Typically, comments such as this are the author’s attempt to validate themselves by using big words which will undoubtedly be taken as fact by most of the target audience whose expertise lie elsewhere.

At initial glance, the contrasting statements on pull technique seem to be a minor grammatical or semantic error – first pull and second pull do not exist yet phases and periods of the pull do exist. Simple deductive reasoning brings us to the conclusion of a first phase of the pull and a second phase of the pull. I assume the overwhelming majority of true olympic lifting coaches (not the self-aggrandizing internet strength coach) would agree with the previously quoted statement “there is no pause in the pull, it is one continuous motion”. Any pause, no matter how brief, during a competition lift would be counterproductive, not to mention against the rules. We all comprehend the continuous motion of the pull – mention of this point is stating the obvious.

Do terminologies which classify the pull into teaching and training segments exist in scientific weightlifting communities? Absolutely. To argue otherwise exhibits a lack of knowledge or at the very least, a lack of simple research. Alexsei Medvedyev, author of A System of Multi-Year Training in Weightlifting writes “the first period – the pull – consists of 2 phases”. In Managing the Training of Weightlifters, Laputin and Oleshko segment the snatch into 6 phases. The Training of the Weightlifter by Roman utilizes phrases such as “first phase of the pull” and “second phase of the pull”. Tamás Fehér’s Olympic Weightlifting text categorizes the pull into “pull phase I – first pull and over pull” followed by “pull phase II – explosion and maintenance of power”. I assume agreement on the synonymy of “first pull” and “first phase of the pull”.

Now that we have established the use of pull segment terminologies amongst the scientific communities of weightlifting, we will examine the veracity of such practices in other sports.

A previous strength and speed coach whose career stints included an MLB team as well as an SEC football program, explained the segmented mechanics of a sprint – the start which comprises 2-7 steps (most sprinters cover 10m in 7 steps, Usain Bolt covers 10m in 6 steps), the transition which is characterized by a gradually elevating torso and finally the top end.

A former European Cup and American Cup bobsled athlete discussed the various phases of the sled push which can be categorized as a loaded sprint. The bobsled start is the “hit” phase during which contact is made with the sled bars. Alterations in mechanics exist based on position on the sled – brakes vs side. Following the start is the transition and top end.

Not only are movement patterns segmented for teaching and training within weightlifting, they are also segmented for teaching and training in many other sports. A complex movement pattern can be taught by utilizing both the complete range of motion as well as various segmented ranges of motion. One of my graduate school texts, Motor Control and Learning by Schmidt and Lee, validates this concept – “A very common technique for teaching motor skills is to break them down into smaller parts. This would seem to be an effective procedure when the task is very complex and cannot be grasped as a whole.” Examples of such include the separate practice of arm and leg strokes in swimming or performance of specific stunts in gymnastics that will later become part of a more complex segment. Both examples utilize partial movement pattern practice which will eventually become integrated into a more complex movement pattern.

Given the requirement of specific strength in weightlifting performance, the concept of strength gain within the component parts of snatch and clean and jerk is evaluated along with the aforementioned requirement of movement pattern proficiency. A deficit in strength when lifting a static barbell from the floor will render a suboptimal performance even within a highly proficient clean movement pattern. The same suboptimal performance will apply to an individual with an inefficient clean movement pattern who displays superfluous strength in lifting a static barbell from the floor. When faced with the former example (strength deficit), some coaches may prescribe strengthening movements intended to increase the performance when lifting a static barbell from the floor. Transfer to the clean of these strengthening movements will directly correlate with the specificity of joint angles, speed of movement and lifter-barbell center of gravity. Conversely in the latter example, building proficiency within the clean movement pattern may include training segmented portions of the clean in order to optimize the same 3 variables – joint angles, speed of movement and lifter-barbell center of gravity.

In regards to the comment on parasympathetic dominance during weightlifting (which can be easily invalidated via the Google), we will refer to my medical school text Gray’s Anatomy by Drake, Vogl and Mitchell – “the sympathetic system innervates structures in the peripheral regions of the body and viscera, the parasympathetic system is more restricted to innervation of the viscera only”. Interpretation – the sympathetic system promotes blood flow to skeletal muscle as well as secretion of adrenaline which increases heart rate. Conversely, the parasympathetic system promotes blood flow to the abdominal viscera and decreases heart rate. Draw your own conclusion as to which nervous system is dominant during weightlifting – the one which promotes digestion or the one which promotes skeletal muscle activity and adrenaline secretion.