Our coaches must be willing to stop athletes who are performing poorly
Whether it is fear, frustration, or something else, a coach must challenge that athlete and being unwilling to step in relegates not only that coach, but the whole program to being just another CrossFit gym that might be real good at reading white boards and counting down clocks, but which brings little in actual value.
With our knowledge of infinite scalability, there is really no excuse for poor movement patterns once the workout has begun. Coaches have the general warm up along with any specific warm up elements to assess the movement ability of the athletes. And with most classes being full of athletes the coach is familiar with, the coach really only has a small percentage he or she must check in with.
It is not the coach’s fault if the athlete does not take to a particular movement right away. HOWEVER, it falls squarely on the coaches shoulders if that athlete is given the green light to attack the workout with that very same movement pattern.
So why are we failing to do this?
1) Perceived busyness
When there is a lot going on around us, owe believe we had a lot going on. This absolutely applies to life but more specifically, it applies to our classes. Because there are 10 to 20 moving bodies on the mats, we believe we are busy even if those athletes are not requiring much individual coaching at that time. Never mind the fact that these moments are exactly what we are paid to be effective during. It is our decision to sit back or to push forward. The choice to engage with the athletes on their individual struggles is precisely what we not only should do, it is what we must do.
Yes, the crowds may be overwhelming, but if thats the case, this is not the job for you.
Yes, there are other things you must keep an eye on, but that is why you have developed your ability to be concise in your cues and corrections.
2) Lack of confidence
Though few will admit it, coaches often hesitate to step in simply because they do not have an undying believe in their expertise in the area of movement. This is an endearing quality outside of the class. I look for coaches who do not see themselves as the know it all and who look to always expand their knowledge and experience in movement. But once that class begins, whoever is in charge must operate as though they are the go to source for all things technique related.
Engagement takes energy. And to always be on the lookout for opportunities to engage takes more energy still. I do not believe a coach who is failing to expend that energy is a terrible person, but I do believe, outside of the occasional “off” day, this job is not for that type of person.
We limit the number of classes our coaches coach back to back to just two. Why? For this exact reason. I will not fault a coach whose effectiveness fades as their overwhelming 3 and 4 class in a row schedule progresses. To operate at the level we are capable of, we must focus on bringing high quality coaching through manageable time periods.
If you are not being asked to coach class after class after class, then the very valid loss of energy is avoided. That then leaves us with just being lazy if we still fail to engage.
The Social Media Test
Something I pass off as a joke during my classes but that carries very real meaning is the ida of the social media test. I remember when Vine was popular and then Instagram soon offered 10 second videos. Gyms all over the world began to post unedited videos showcasing their ongoing classes. Unfortunately, more often than not, poor movement was put on display for the whole world to see.
If I video your class today, will you be proud of your name being attached to it on the world wide web? Or will you then have to explain why 4 of your athletes were not squatting anywhere near parallel on their wall balls while another 2 refused to sit all the way up on their sit ups?
What We Must Do
Our athletes will never all be perfect in how they move. Impingements and other mobility issues, confidence in their own ability, as well as experience in gym settings are all factors that are out of the control of the coach. Some movements simply do not present well when excited by certain people. They may be achieving the best version of the movement they are capable of achieving that day and it may still not be visually perfect. That is not what I am referring to here.
Sacrificing form for speed or for comfort, or being unable to achieve the required positions but not having a coach to assist in the modification that would allow for the best possible workout are the factors I want to address.
How do we get it right?
1)Use the warm up as an assessment
This often overlooked opportunity is a key separate between good coaches and great coaches. Good coaches get athletes warm, making sure the athletes understand the movements, how to approach them, and then encouraging those athletes as they complete the task. But the great coach does those things as well as watch with forward thinking keeping in mind what is to come later in the hour. Air squats tell us a bit about what to expect for their front squats in that days strength. Double unders during the warm up tell you if the athlete is ready to knock out the Rx 3 sets of 100 doubles in todays workout. The strict pull ups will tell you if the athletes should be kipping during the conditioning as well as if the athlete has respect enough for movement to come all the way down and pull all the way up with their chin breaking the plane of the bar.
There is no real excuse for being blindsided by an athlete who struggles later in the class time. Sure, a barbell being introduced after they warmed up doing slam balls does create an opportunity for the athlete to stand in their own way (barbells often become mental blocks to new athletes), but if I watched them take to the motion of the slam ball easily then I know we may be able to overcome the obstacle relatively quickly. And if they had a hard time with the rhythmic movement or long arm pull of the slam ball, then I will know I am probably moving to dumbbells fairly quickly in order to give them the most effective workout possible.
2)Speak to the athlete early
I want my coaches engaging with the athletes in their class early and often. Something I have played with in the past is requiring every athlete be addressed by name within the five minutes prior to class starting and then again within five minutes after class begins. This can be done with a simple, “Hey Erin, how’s your day going?” or a “How was your weekend, Stephen?” before, and then general encouragement after like “Great job Michelle, keep moving through those squats.”
Why? Because whether we acknowledge it or not, there is a barrier between the coach and the athlete every day. It is as if the channel of communication (which is the entire relationship between coach and athlete) has a new paper thin wall each day. And as the class progresses, if a coach has not engaged with the athlete on a personal level (and I do believe just saying their name out loud does this) then that paper thin wall actually becomes tougher to tear through. If you do not say boo to me and then with 15 minutes left you try to help me with my thruster, I am less likely to take what you say to heart because you have not invested in me at all for 45 minutes. But if you asked me how my day was, or you touched base with me at the start of class then I am primed and ready to take your advice. And if you are correcting me and I did not believe I was wrong in the first place, then I certainly am not going to listen to you.
When we connect early we are able to tear through the paper barrier like a state champ 5a football team. But when we wait, then we, the coaches, will bounce off that paper like a JV team destined to be forgotten.
3) Demo everything
My first CrossFit workout had wall balls in it. If I recall correctly it was a long 5 rounds for time with 5 or 6 stations. It was a Saturday community workout so the gym was full and the spirits were high. At the sound of “Go” I was happy to be moving and enjoying the people around me. However, nobody had demonstrated anything. I ripped out 20 wall balls with lightening speed. Turns out, when you don’t squat and you just do a 3” dip to push press the ball to the line, wall balls are not that miserable. I had no idea how far off from the actual movement I was until the coach came to me with an incredulous look on his face. “What are you doing?” As far as I knew, I was crushing some wall balls. He fumbled his way to an explanation and once I realized a squat was involved we were done talking and I continued, now moving properly.
It is easy to blame the athlete for not maintaining the standard. And every gym seems to have at least one athlete who likes to test those standards almost daily. But for the most part our athletes want to do things properly. Fault usually falls on the coaches because demonstrations get glossed over or removed altogether. Or the intricacies of the movement pattern are taken for granted. It may seem logical to me (now) that the wall ball is simply a squat while holding a medicine ball with my elbows underneath the ball for support and my torso as upright as possible, but it is not obvious to everyone, especially to someone who has never even heard of a wall ball.
Even a hasty demonstration is not enough. A coach should not do 5 quick wall balls and then assume everyone is good to go. Not in a setting where the coach is not familiar with everyone. ALWAYS BREAK EVERY ELEMENT DOWN. You’re new athletes need the details and your old athletes CAN ALWAYS IMPROVE on the details they have forgotten.
Let’s refocus our efforts and our willingness to intervene. Our engagement is why we are able to guarantee the great experience our athletes deserve to have in our classes. And when we fail to do what is expected of us, we not only risk delivering a bad experience for new athletes who then feel that is how all CrossFit must be, but we allow the progress of our current athletes to stagnate.
Finally, when we engage we create the opportunity for impact. This is not something I am able to easily explain. But for whatever reason, connecting with the athlete during the workout forges a bond that is the defining quality of excellent coaching. If you cannot connect, you are not meant for this.