Can the ‘Soft Skills’ Really Be Developed?

“Hire for character, train for skill.”

We’ve all heard that before.

It’s even been said by us at Two-Brain Coaching.

The notion that quote puts forth is a simple one: I can teach someone the technical skills they will need to do the job well, but if they aren’t a “good person” then it’s a non-starter.

I remember when I first adopted that phrase in my gym. For quite some time, I wanted to hire people that were highly qualified through education and experience. Basically, I wanted a copy of myself. I had a university education (GO GATORS!) in Exercise Science, a bunch of letters after my name (yay cert collection!), and more than a decade of coaching experience when we first opened.

Soon though, I realized that grumpy people could easily run off clients, no matter how educated and experienced they were.

That’s the point that I started telling myself: “Hire for character, train for skill.”

But over the years, I’ve realized something very interesting: we say this phrase not because its easy to train for skill – it most definitely is. Rather, we say that because it’s hard to train for character.

Painfully hard.

In fact, most people I talk to say it’s just not possible. Here’s a recent quote: “You can teach anyone to be a coach- you can’t teach effort or empathy.”

Let’s run an experiment –

Step 1: The next time you go into your gym, I want you to observe a class and write down 5 instances where the coach missed an opportunity to directly improve someone’s technique.

Step 2: I also want you to write down 5 times where the coach could have done better to connect with their clients. Maybe they gave a back-handed compliment that they didn’t see as such. Maybe they missed an opportunity to show empathy. Maybe instead of listening to a client they were just waiting for their turn to speak.

Put another way: write down where they “missed the boat.”

Step 3: Pull them aside, privately, and look them in the eye while you let them know what you observed.

Now be honest with yourself, which list was easier to deliver? Without asking, I already know the answer – list 1. By a moonshot.

Here’s the reality: pointing out the shortcomings in someones technical knowledge is easy to do. Knowing the points of performance for an air squat? Chances are that’s relatively new knowledge, so it’s easy for someone to see how they have room to grow. Telling Coach Sally that she hurt someone’s feelings? Like I said earlier, its really really tough.


Because it can easily come across like you are challenging their character. Character is something developed over a lifetime. I’d wager a guess that none of your coaches would ever deliberately do or say something to hurt a clients feelings. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Here’s what I’ve learned from building our coach development program – the character piece, the soft skills, CAN be taught.

You just have to actually do it. You also have to be patient. Remember you are making changes to traits that have been practiced for a lifetime. You are turning a cruise ship here, not a speedboat.

In a perfect world, it’s where you would start with their development. People skills first – learning the nuance of social interactions, empathy, compassion.

Maybe you already have a veteran coaching staff but realize this is low-hanging fruit to level up your team. Your first step is to identify where people are coming up short. Tell them. Then you need to give them a plan to improve. Then you have to evaluate them again. And then – repeat.

If I’m being totally honest, what I’ve found in the hundreds of calls I’ve done with gym owners and coaches is that this part simply isn’t being done. In the off chance someone has had a tough conversation with a coach to improve these skills, it’s not followed through with ongoing development. Related: I have yet to get on a call and have someone say they, or their coaching staff, are lacking in technical knowledge.

(The mental picture I jokingly have is an army of coaches with abnormally large left sides of their brains. That’s where the technical, logical, science-y side of coaching lives.)

Courses on improving your coaching skills in gymnastics, energy systems, programming, Olympic weightlifting, functional bodybuilding, etc are a plenty!

Courses that start out teaching the basics of social interaction and the psychology of exercise? There’s only one: Two-Brain Coaching.

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