The adage of “No pain, no gain,” is one of many misconceptions when it comes to training athletes. Mistaken beliefs like this can lead to negative consequences, including injury and overtraining, especially when athletes are returning to competition after a break.

Identifying these common coaching mistakes and how to correct them was the topic tackled by Dr. John McNamara in his episode of our free webinar series, Return to Play: Strategies for Athletes to Retrain and Recondition Without Injury.

Dr. McNamara specializes in training theory and exercise program design. An NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and Certified Personal Trainer (CPT), Dr. McNamara has a doctorate in kinesiology. He’s also a tenured professor at St. Francis College, one of the most affordable private colleges in New York.

St. Francis offers a BS in Exercise and Movement Science and an MS in Exercise and Sports Science. Both courses are fully online and asynchronous, meaning you can easily fit study around your life and existing commitments.

Dr. McNamara identified some common mistakes that athletes and trainers make when designing training programs. Using case studies from well-known athletes, he showed how these mistakes can lead to negative consequences for the performance and the health of athletes.

Finally, Dr. McNamara shared his tips for avoiding and correcting these mistakes. Drawing on his own experience of working with athletes, he showed how a scientific, back-to-basics approach can improve performance without risking injury or overtraining.

You can catch up with the full recording of Dr. McNamara’s webinar here.

Common Coaching Misconceptions

Trainers and athletes alike can be at risk of falling prey to these common misconceptions of how to improve performance and get the best from a training program. Indeed, one of the main challenges of being a coach is convincing athletes that these ideas are incorrect.

Mistakes like these can have negative consequences for the health and wellbeing of our athletes, as well as reducing their performance. Here are the misconceptions to watch out for:

  1. Pushing Athletes to the Limit

No pain, no gain is a common saying that many athletes believe. But it is simply not the case that athletes need to train hard every single day. Indeed, doing so can lead to injury and overtraining. Coaches rarely need to push their athletes to their absolute limits, and it should be reserved for the few occasions when it is genuinely needed.

  1. Restricting Water Intake

Although this is, thankfully, now rare, there was a trend for coaches to restrict their athletes’ water intake to “toughen them up”. This ill-advised approach has serious health consequences, including risks of heat stroke and death.

  1. Eliminating Rest Breaks

Rest is crucial to strong performance, so eliminating rest breaks is never a good idea. Instead, coaches should set appropriate rest breaks depending on the sport/exercise, the athlete’s level of conditioning, and the type of competition they are preparing for.

  1. Practicing Hard Every Day

There are numerous examples of athletes who have wrecked their performance by training too hard. Practicing at high intensity every day leads to injury, overtraining, and burnout. Coaches should vary the intensity of training from day to day and according to the needs of each individual athlete.

  1. Focusing on Winning

Focusing too strongly on winning can harm athletes’ psychology and performance. And when they do win, what is the next step? Instead, focus on the journey and making progress against their goals.

  1. Negative Feedback

A coach or trainer who is too strongly focused on giving negative feedback and criticisms can quickly discourage athletes and destroy their morale. The sandwich approach can be a useful model to use instead. First, focus on something positive. Then state the area for improvement, followed by the benefits the athlete will see from making that improvement. This wraps the criticism in positive language, making it more motivating.

  1. Lying to Athletes

The relationship between a coach and an athlete needs to be based on trust and honesty. Lying to an athlete to increase their performance may work in the short term, but when they find out it will break the trust they have in their coach. This can have serious consequences for the relationship and for the athlete’s performance.

  1. Restricting Recovery Time

Trying to restrict an athlete’s recovery time can lead to poor performance and increases the risk of injury. Instead, coaches and trainers should use recovery time strategically depending on the sport/activity and the athlete’s level. This can really boost performance.

  1. Eliminating Social Events and Fun

Sometimes the main motivator for someone to participate in sport or exercise is to have fun and socialize. If coaches and trainers are too focused on performance and remove these aspects, it can have a negative impact on athletes’ motivation and psychological health. Embracing the fun side of sports and exercise can make the journey more rewarding.

  1. Parents Focusing on Winning at Youth Level

This last point is especially relevant to young athletes. Parents are generally well-intentioned, but their excitement can mean they become pushy and overly focused on their children winning. As the Coach Up Survey revealed, this can harm more than it helps.

Case Studies: Common Coaching Mistakes at Elite Level

To illustrate the impact that these coaching mistakes can have on an athlete’s performance and career, Dr. McNamara offered four case studies of well-known athletes.

Truthfully, none of us know for certain what really went on in these cases. It could be that everything was executed perfectly. However, there are indicators that the coaching teams involved with these athletes could have made changes to their approach to improve the outcomes.

  1. Simone Manuel

Simone Manuel is one of the best swimmers in the world. At the Rio Olympics, she won two gold medals. Everyone expected her to be a serious contender in Tokyo. But she didn’t even qualify for the team for one of her signature events.

Manuel herself said that she had spent too many hours in the pool and was overtired. She ended up needing to go home for a few weeks to rest. This sounds like a classic case of overtraining that could have been avoided if her coaches had recognized the warning signs and adapted their approach.

  1. Sha’Carri Richardson

Sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson admitted that she had made a mistake when she smoked marijuana to help her deal with the emotional stress of losing her biological mother. However, it is important to note that athletes at this level are surrounded by a full team of coaches, doctors, physiotherapists, and sports psychologists.

Her team should have had 24/7 support available to her, including psychological and social support. The evidence suggests that this is an area they could have improved upon.

  1. Mary Cain

Mary Cain was hailed as the fastest girl in America and was the 2014 World Junior Champion in the 3000-meter event. However, Cain ended up quitting running, citing the immense pressure she was put under by her coaches at Nike. She was pressed to maintain an unreasonably low weight and given a gruelling training regime that affected her physical and mental health.

  1. Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka

Both gymnast, Simone Biles, and tennis player, Naomi Osaka, withdrew from major competitions because of their mental health. Had their teams been well-prepared, they should never have needed to take this step.

Athletes are often so engrossed in training that they can’t step back to see when something isn’t right. It is the role of their coaches and support teams to have plans in place to recognize and alleviate the pressure on them.

Correcting the Mistakes

Although pushing athletes too hard is common, this approach doesn’t have to be the rule. Take Vashti Cunningham for example. The Olympic high jumper is coached by her father, a former NFL player. Their focus is on longevity, which is a fantastic approach, although an unusual one.

As a result, Cunningham has a reduced training load and does fewer jumps than most high jumpers. She also focuses on weight training. This is a long-term, scientific approach.

Stephen Curry’s coach also takes a balanced approach to training. They vary the intensity of training days and include plenty of rest days. Training also tapers off before a big event to allow Curry the rest he needs to perform at his best.

Again, this is a logical plan that follows scientific principles.

Going Back to the Fundamentals

When Dr. McNamara meets with an athlete for the first time, regardless of their level, he always focuses on three simple but fundamental questions:

  • How is your sleep?
  • What do you eat?
  • What is your exercise program?

Getting these basics right is essential. But he often finds that athletes aren’t getting enough rest, aren’t eating correctly, and are trying to follow a training program that is far too intense.

Dr. McNamara’s core area of research is flexible nonlinear periodization. Essentially, this means adapting training to how each individual athlete feels that day.

He tested this idea by splitting athletes into two groups. As far as possible, everyone was given the same exercises: same load, same number of reps, same intensity. But one group had the option to switch the workout for a less intense one if they were tired that day.

When the study concluded, the group which had the option to switch their workouts had gained more strength and power than the other group.

Paying attention to the daily fluctuations in an athlete’s energy level and mood and adjusting training as needed results in better performance. Of course, this is only possible where there is a trusting and honest relationship between the coach and the athlete.


Coaches and athletes aren’t usually trying to push too hard. In many cases, mistakes come about because they don’t have the right information.

Ensuring the fundamentals are in place and following the basics of exercise science is the best way to keep athletes happy, healthy, and successful.