You Coach Like a Girl

From: CrossFit Journal


“Am I going to be doing all my personal-training sessions with you? Or will I have some of the other male coaches, too?”

Those were the questions a new client asked me on his first day.

A former college football player in his mid-20s, he had never been coached by a woman before. I could tell he was incredulous about getting stuck with a female CrossFit coach.

I’ve been a coach for almost nine years; this wasn’t the first time I’d encountered a client like this. I knew exactly how I was going to show him I was worthy of his time.

On Day 2, I had him work up to some moderately heavy sets of 5 deadlifts. The final set at 235 lb. looked quite heavy for him. He kept his form but looked perturbed by the weight and was visibly fatigued after the fifth rep.

Though he was polite and listened to my cues, he was somewhat dismissive, almost aloof. I wasn’t sure if it was just in my mind, but it just seemed like he didn’t really care what I had to say.

On his last set, I noticed he wasn’t bracing as much as he should. This was my opportunity to gain his respect. So I stepped up to the bar—at 6 a.m. and completely cold—and busted out 8 leisurely reps at 235 lb. as I casually spoke about breathing and bracing. Of course, I made sure I didn’t look even remotely fazed by the weight on the bar.

His eyes bugged out. I could almost hear his thought process: “Holy shit! This bitch is legit!”

ALT TEXTThough Emily Beers has nearly a decade of coaching experience, she sometimes feels the need to out-lift chauvinistic male clients in order to gain their respect. (Cheryl Boatman/CrossFit Journal)

At the end of his conditioning workout that day, he came over to me.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Yes. What’s up?”

“Um, what’s your max deadlift?”

I smiled to myself. My intuition had been correct.

The following session, he showed up a changed person. He had clearly done some research. He eagerly picked my brain about the best ways to clean up his diet, and he had 100 questions about my CrossFit competition days. Part of me wanted to tell him he was naïve. A good athlete with well-developed hamstrings isn’t necessarily a good coach. But I didn’t say anything because all that mattered to me was that his skepticism had disappeared and he seemed excited to embrace his new female coach.

Another man transformed.

ALT TEXTEmily Beers is fitter than you. But that’s not what makes her a great coach. (Tai Randall/CrossFit Journal)

Caveman Says: “No Woman Teach Me!”

Unfortunately, not all men are as easy to transform as my 6-a.m. deadlifter. Some men still don’t realize it’s 2018 and women coach now. Though the female coaches I spoke with say these men are in the minority, they still exist, and they continue to wreak havoc wherever they go.

Pete Mongeau, owner of CrossFit Zanshin in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, once encountered a male client who refused to join a class if a woman was running the show.

“He would show up and warm up, and then if a female coach took the floor, he would pack up and leave,” Mongeau said. Eventually Mongeau caught wind of what was going on and spoke with the man, who admitted he wasn’t into taking instruction from female coaches.

“Then he asked if he could see a schedule—our schedule is somewhat fluid—so he could plan his schedule around when a male coach was coaching,” Mongeau said. “I told him I wouldn’t do that. So I reimbursed him and he went to a gym down the street.”

While Mongeau’s situation was extreme, some female trainers say the signs of sexism are often more subtle.

ALT TEXTBeth Homan Vannata has been dismissed by discriminatory male clients before giving so much as a single cue. (Courtesy of Beth Homan Vannata)

Beth Homan Vannata is a 40-year-old coach at CrossFit Bradenton in Florida. She said she can sniff out male skepticism pretty quickly.

“It’s almost like they have a look in their eyes when they walk in and see you’re a female and that you’re the only coach there—this attitude of ‘I’m going to know more … so there isn’t much I’m going to learn from you,’” Vannata said.

She recalled a prospective client who began introductory classes with her husband Paris Vannata.

“The intro went really well,” she said. “My husband said he had seemed excited, and he signed up for foundations at the end.”

But when the man showed up to his first foundations class and noticed it was Beth, not Paris, who was coaching, his entire attitude changed.

“Right away when he saw it was me who was going to coach him, there was a shift in his demeanor,” she said. “I remember he kept crossing his arms and putting his foot out to the side like he was bored. He wouldn’t engage with me much, and then he started talking over me, not allowing me to finish what I was going to say. He let me know he already knew how to squat.”

“I was so confused because my husband had had such a great experience with him. He had experienced a completely different guy.”

Though the man had already paid for his foundations classes, he never showed up again.

ALT TEXTAshely Cheribuni admits it’s tempting to try to one-up men who doubt her competence as a coach. But earning respect with good service and quality coaching yields the best results in the long run. (Courtesy of Ashley Cheribuni)

Professionalism Over Posturing

As easy as it was to blame my client for his skepticism, I realized that I was part of the problem.

He was a young 20-something, a former college athlete and already pretty fit. Showing him I was fitter was just as much for me as it was for him. It helped me build my own self-confidence and reassure myself that I was capable of coaching a young male athlete.

“Why did I need to show him I could deadlift more than him to convince myself I was capable of teaching him something?” I asked myself that day.

I’m not the only female coach who shows off her physical fitness to male clients as a way to increase her confidence.

Ashley Cheribuni, a coach at CrossFit Double Barrel in San Marcos, California, said she’s found herself in a similar position.

“I have trained younger football boys from the local high school, and you could tell there was this feeling of ‘Oh, this girl’s going to teach us how to do weightlifting. Oh, OK.’ But then I go and easily power-clean 135 pounds, and they’re like, ‘Oh, maybe she does know what she’s talking about,’” Cheribuni said.

She added: “Or sometimes I can tell a guy is skeptical, but then I’ll demo a bar muscle-up for the class, and he’ll be like, ‘I can’t even do one of those, and she just jumped up and did one without warming up first. Damn.’”

Though Cheribuni said her first instinct is to default to proving her coaching capabilities with her fitness, she’s learned she doesn’t need to. Instead, she’s realized she can prove herself just as easily by demonstrating her knowledge. It takes more time, she said, but when you’re patient and you continue to provide good service and results, men often come around.

Recently, Cheribuni put an overtly resistant man through 10 personal-training sessions. Initially skeptical, the man changed his attitude after the sixth session.

“You know when you told me that I needed this many sessions (before group classes), I didn’t really believe you,” Cheribuni quoted her client. “I was like, ‘She’s just trying to take my money,’ but I have seen a reduction in my shoulder pain and an increase in my hamstring flexibility already, and I feel a lot stronger, so I want to keep doing personal training with you even after I get to group classes.”

Vannata is of a similar mind: It comes down to confidence and self-worth, she said. Before you blame someone else for not trusting you, you need to improve your confidence in your abilities.

It took her some time to develop this confidence, she explained.

“I grew up overweight, so building confidence in coaching has been the key for me. Males, especially collegiate athletes, have been the hardest to coach in terms of me being confident in my coaching abilities, but there has definitely been a shift in my thinking from when I first started coaching. … Now I’m confident that I know what I’m saying is helpful.”

She added: “It comes down to experience and believing in yourself.”

ALT TEXTVilma Rosario says the best response to ignorant or skeptical clients is to demonstrate your expertise with authority and self-assurance. (Aban Lluberes)

Vilma Rosario, owner of CrossFit Antics in Ocala, Florida, admits she encounters jackass men from time to time. She’s 5 foot 1 and 26 years old, so she gets a triple dose of discrimination, she said.

“People will say things like ‘Aren’t you a little too young to be a business owner?’” Rosario said.

Because the tiny Rosario isn’t going to show her male clients up on a deadlift day, she said she has learned how to be calm, confident and persistent in her coaching.

“No matter what gender you are and no matter how old or how young you are, being assertive and showing people over and over that you’re a knowledgeable coach and that you know what you’re doing is the number-one key to earning respect,” Rosario said.

She added: “Don’t act from an emotional place. A lot of people get reactive when they feel insulted. But I have found it’s better not to engage emotionally—or if you do, keep it professional and use the knowledge you have.”

This can’t be done without continuing education, she added.

“I read the CrossFit Journal every day and I listen to all the podcasts. The more you know, the more people will respect you, and that is the key. You can’t just be a good athlete. You need to be constantly learning more,” she said.

“When you’re constantly learning new things, you’ll start to believe you’re worth it. And you have to believe that you’re worth it for others to believe in you.”

ALT TEXTWhat’s the most important factor to consider when evaluating a coach: quality of cues or number of X chromosomes? (Ágúst Sigurjónsson/CrossFit Journal)

What Makes a Coach?

During the process of writing this story, I spoke with more than a dozen women—either informally or on the record—to discover whether a story even existed. Was I alone in feeling less confident coaching certain men? I quickly learned I was not.

While everyone had a slightly different perspective on the topic, a common thread appeared: acceptance.

Whether due to a lack of self-confidence or just picking up on some ignorant asshole’s vibe at the gym, most of the women I spoke with—including myself—have blindly accepted that we have to work a little harder to build self-worth and to prove to men that we can teach them something.

I also reached out to a handful of male coaches and asked if they ever felt less confident coaching a certain demographic. While some admitted that older athletes with long histories of injuries or health problems sometimes make them nervous, coaching different genders wasn’t a concern.

ALT TEXT“Listen to your coach and push your knees out or leave. It’s 2018, and I’m in charge.” —Emily Beers (Courtesy of Emily Beers)

I tend to be somewhat critical of people who identify themselves as feminists, to be honest, so it shocked me that I started to feel angry. I have always been so accepting of the way things are. During university, I accepted that the stands only filled up in the final five minutes of my basketball games because the men’s game was about to start. After all, we couldn’t dunk; it made sense that our only fans were our parents.

I have always accepted that I need to show off my physical capabilities to male clients so they don’t feel like they’re shortchanged with a female coach.

And to be honest—big reveal—it still amuses me to think about a woman coaching in the NFL or NBA.

Clearly, I still have work to do on myself. It would be great to get to a place where I don’t feel the need to prove myself by risking my back doing dozens of heavy deadlifts before I even warm up. And it would be great to get myself to a place where I don’t see a client as male client or a female client but just as a client.

But most importantly, it would be nice if the ignorant men of the world started to see their coaches the same way: not as a man or a woman, but just as a coach. After all, what determines a trainer’s ability to coach well: years of experience, credentials and results? Or whether the coach has a dick?

So to all of you men out there—you know who you are: “Listen to your coach and push your knees out or leave. It’s 2018, and I’m in charge.”

About the Author: Emily Beers is a CrossFit Journal contributor and coach atCrossFit Vancouver. She finished 37th at the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games.



Editor-in-Chief and founder of Web developer for the stars of CrossFit, and all-around fitness enthusiast and fan.

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