How to Coach Your Coaches

BY HILARY ACHAUER

From: CrossFit Journal

Most gym owners crave a life of crashing barbells and sweaty faces, not fluorescent lights and TPS reports. They open their doors to avoid the corporate world, and performance reviews seem more at home in a beige cubicle than a warehouse. As a result, many CrossFit gym owners avoid regularly scheduled evaluations of their coaches.

This is a mistake.

Evaluating the people who have the most contact with your members is essential. Without performance reviews, you’re missing an opportunity to improve the experience for your members and the skills of your coaches.

This doesn’t mean performance reviews have to follow a stuffy corporate model. Here, affiliate owners talk about the different ways they handle performance reviews and why regular employee evaluations are a necessary part of any successful CrossFit gym.

ALT TEXTYour employees might spend more time on the rig than in an office, but that doesn’t mean they won’t benefit from regular evaluation. (Michael Seminerio)

Two-pronged Approach

CrossFit Oxnard in Oxnard, California, began as a class project.

Owner Joe Dahl was finishing his MBA. He had to create a business plan for a class, so he wrote a plan for a CrossFit gym, then graduated and used that plan to open CrossFit Oxnard in 2012. He’s always taken a business-first approach to running his affiliate but only implemented regular performance reviews in early 2018.

“A lot of people’s coaches are their friends, and you are just kind of bros hanging out, (but) you have to treat (the gym) like a business,” he said. He added that though many people perceive evaluations as negative, that doesn’t have to be the case.

“Most of my evaluations are like, ‘Look man, you’re killing it.’ I think evaluations should be a positive thing,” he said.

CrossFit Oxnard has about 160 members, five coaches and two interns. Two of the coaches are full time, which for Dahl means they coach 40 hours per month in addition to performing various administrative duties.

Previously, Dahl didn’t review his coaches after they completed the intern program. Then, in 2018, he promoted full-time coach Brenda Lorca to head coach and decided to get serious about performance reviews.

“So now how it goes is every quarter each coach gets graded or evaluated twice—once by Brenda and once by me. Totally different evaluations, (with) totally different criteria and metrics,” Dahl said.

Brenda focuses on objective criteria: Did the class start on time? Did the coach announce any upcoming events, and did the coach end on time?

Dahl’s review is more subjective.

“I’m actually looking at the actual coaching—the cues, the intangibles. ‘Do you have a relationship with that person that you touched?’ … I want (Lorca) to dive into the quantifiable things versus I am looking at the more intangible stuff,” he said.

ALT TEXTPerformance reviews don’t have to be scary or negative. Regular constructive criticism yields opportunity for growth. (Tony Pacheco)

After he observes a class, Dahl sits down with each coach. He goes over their scores, talking through the reason for each one. Measuring performance is an integral part of CrossFit, but Dahl tells his coaches not to get too fixated on the scores.

“If I’m debating between a score of four and three, I’m telling you right now I’m going to give you a three—not to be mean, but you should make it blatantly obvious that you’re doing well. Just like an air squat. Make it blatantly obvious that you’re breaking parallel. Because if everyone’s coaching is (judged as) awesome, nothing is going to get better,” Dahl said.

Dahl has a high standard for his coaches. Each must complete a 153-hour intern program before coaching solo. Then, all CrossFit Oxnard coaches must earn a CrossFit Level 2 Trainer Certificate in the first year of coaching. After that, coaches must get a new credential each year.

“You can have the sharpest axe in the world, but if you don’t sharpen that axe, you are going to slow down, get complacent, get lazy,” Dahl said.

Download: CrossFit Oxnard Instructor Evaulation Worksheet

Download: CrossFit Oxnard Quarterly Coaching Evaluation

Dahl also evaluates his coaches on what he calls “social integration.” That’s not simply social-media participation but attendance at community events. Attending community events is not mandatory, but coaches do receive scores in this category each quarter.

Whatever criteria you decide to use, Dahl says the most important elements of any performance review are a consistent standard to track progress and a regular evaluation schedule.

“Doers are going to do what checkers check,” Dahl said. “That’s really all there is to it.”

ALT TEXTWe measure fitness according to set standards, and we track progress over time. Why wouldn’t we do the same with coaching? (Tony Pacheco)

How to Give Feedback

Once you’ve established a structure and a schedule, how do you give coaches actionable feedback to help them improve? A CrossFit coach wouldn’t say “do it better” to a member struggling with his overhead squat. The same is true for coaching your coaches.

Kodi Lovelace is the head coach at CrossFit Madison in Madison, Alabama, and CrossFit Empire South in Huntsville, Alabama. Lovelace started CrossFit while a student at Tennessee Tech in 2012, when now-four-time CrossFit Games champ Rich Froning and Games competitor Dan Bailey were offering athletic-performance coaching at the school.

The 28-year-old Lovelace supervises five coaches at CrossFit Madison and three at CrossFit Empire South. All are part time at the gym due to other careers, so Lovelace has the challenge of giving performance reviews to people who are juggling other professional responsibilities.

Like Dahl, Lovelace performs a formal quarterly evaluation, scoring coaches on a scale from 1 to 10 for a variety of performance points. Lovelace observes a class, evaluating how the coach explains the day’s workout at the whiteboard, his or her authority and command, the general atmosphere of the class, and individual coaching cues.

Lovelace doesn’t restrict his feedback to these quarterly reviews. He also regularly attends different classes at the gym and evaluates the experience.

ALT TEXTJust as he does when correcting an athlete’s movement, Kodi Lovelace (left) uses “short, actionable cues” to help coaches improve. (Shannon R Gray Photography)

“I think about how the class felt as an athlete,” Lovelace said. He’ll ask himself whether the class flowed smoothly through each piece of the workout, and “did it have a good vibe or did it feel militaristic?” he said.

After the class, he sits down with the coach and spends 10 to 15 minutes going over what worked well and what needed improvement.

“I always give them an opportunity to rate their class,” Lovelace said.

If a coach gives herself a 7 out of 10 on the class, he’ll ask why and what she thinks she can improve.

Then, Lovelace offers some specific strategies to help address any issues.

Download: CrossFit Empire South coaching scorecard

A common problem for new coaches is keeping the class on schedule. Sometimes inexperienced coaches spend too much time at the whiteboard, explaining what members can easily read on their own.

“If my coaches tend to be long-winded at the whiteboard, I tell them, ‘Hey, whenever you get ready to start class, I want you to start the clock,’” Lovelace said. Then the coach can look at the clock during a briefing and think, “Wow, I’ve been talking for five minutes. I need to start wrapping things up.”

For coaches who lose the attention of the athletes as the class progresses, Lovelace suggests periodically looking out at the faces of the people in the class.

“If people are starting to wander off or their eyes are starting to drift around the room, you’ve lost them. You can talk while we’re warming up and explain some of these things as we’re going,” Lovelace said.

He also recommends using the clock as a guide for the athletes.

If the class is about to start a workout with a weighted barbell, the coach could say, “All right: I’m going to give you guys six minutes to get the weight on the bar, use the restroom and get a drink of water, and then we will start the workout,” Lovelace said. This structure helps organize the class and keeps everyone on schedule.

During that six-minute break, the coach can check in with newer athletes and people who had questions to make sure they understand exactly what’s coming up in the workout.

Lovelace uses constructive feedback to help trainers improve their coaching and the member experience.

“Short, actionable cues—constantly, over and over—really help develop an athlete’s squat. I think the same thing can be used for our coaches. Those short, actionable cues—and making sure we follow up all the time—can definitely help us develop ourselves as coaches,” Lovelace said.

ALT TEXTUnsure where to start? One way to evaluate a trainer’s effectiveness is to join the class. (Shannon R Gray Photography)

Weekly Evaluations

Formal quarterly performance reviews are a great way to regularly evaluate coaches, but Andrew Frezza, owner of CrossFit Palm Beach in Jupiter, Florida, has switched to more frequent evaluations.

And when he says “more frequent,” he means it. Frezza gives feedback to his nine coaches once a week.

Frezza opened CrossFit Palm Beach in 2012. He runs the 500-member gym with his brother, also a coach. The coaching staff includes Frezza, his brother, five full-time coaches and four part-time coaches.

A full-time trainer at CrossFit Palm Beach coaches 15 to 18 class hours a week and handles an administrative responsibility such as retention, social media, the website or nutrition. Frezza also encourages his coaches to build a roster of personal-training clients, which Frezza calls a “book of business.”

“Then we’ll feed them intros and (people who want) skill sessions. With those three pieces they will hopefully build a career out of it,” Frezza said.

Frezza used to review his coaches every 90 days, but he felt it was reactive, not proactive. He said he’d have great conversations with his coaches every three months, and then they both struggled to keep up the momentum between reviews.

“I felt like I was holding on to information that I wanted to get to them quicker,” Frezza said.

He started experimenting with giving coaches quick bits of feedback right after class, telling them one or two things they could improve. Once he started doing that, he felt performance reviews were unnecessary.

“Now I am saying what I want to say immediately, and they are making the correction as close to immediately as possible,” Frezza said.

The idea of constant feedback sounds wonderful in theory, but how does the owner of a 500-member affiliate make time for these constant evaluations?

Frezza’s solution is multitasking: combining evaluations with his daily workout. He attends about seven to nine classes a week as an athlete, sometimes taking two different classes on the same day.

“Not only am I working out to get my own fitness, but I am doing it as a coaches’ development tool; I’m using it as a member-engagement tool. I don’t even really think about it as my workout, even though I do give my full effort,” Frezza said.

If the coach is available after the class, Frezza pulls him aside and asks two questions: What went well and what can we improve next time? He asks the coach to evaluate himself first, then Frezza offers his own feedback.

ALT TEXTThe boss shouldn’t be the only one doing the evaluating. When trainers critique and learn from each other, everyone improves. (Courtesy of CrossFit Palm Beach)

The second piece to his strategy is the 90-minute weekly coaches meeting. At every meeting, each coach takes the floor for two minutes, sharing one positive thing about a class he or she attended that week and one thing that could be improved.

Saying “I liked the warm-up” is not enough. Each coach must give specific examples, such as how he or she learned a new movement or how the warm-up prepared the shoulders for handstand push-ups.

Frezza says this gets his coaches thinking about their own improvement each week as they learn how to evaluate other coaches and find their place in the team as a whole. For this system to work, the coaches have to take at least one group class a week. New coaches must take at least three classes each week.

“So many gym owners create a gym and a class experience for some unknown avatar, someone they have never met before, someone they think they know. We are creating a product we want to show up to every single day. That’s why it’s not hard for me to take eight or nine classes a week, because I truly love it, and if I don’t, I’m asking myself why don’t I love it and how can we change it next time so I will love it?” Frezza said.

Frezza said affiliate owners expect their members to attend classes every week year after year but often won’t do the same themselves.

“If you got bored and moved away from classes, how can you expect them to not get bored and move away from classes? (Attending classes) forces us to constantly reinvest in the classes and think how can we make this better, because we want to enjoy it every day, we want the coaches to enjoy it every day, and we want to get better,” Frezza said.

He recently made a rule that whatever criticism a coach mentions in the weekly meeting should have been addressed individually ahead of time. Getting everything out in the open and fostering collaborative effort helps prevent gossip.

“It could be passive-aggressive if you wait for the meeting to bring (the criticism) up. If you do it on the spot (after class) and then share it in the group as a talking point or something that everyone can learn from, it becomes much more productive, because now the coach isn’t blindsided by something negative,” Frezza said.

Evaluating the performance of other coaches and getting feedback every week also gives the trainers a new perspective on their own coaching, Frezza said.

“It’s like going from seeing your class in black and white to seeing it in HD or 3D,” he said. “You see all these details you would have missed before, and that just comes from being a part of the conversation and seeing all these new perspectives come in all the time.”

Frezza still meets with his coaches individually about three times a year, and those meetings are focused on the trainers’ professional growth, not necessarily their performance. In those meetings, Frezza makes an effort to get to know coaches better and to understand who they are and where they want to go.

“Performance gets sprinkled in, but it’s not the main focus,” Frezza said.

Frezza is also developing what he calls the “Rockstar Coaching Course,” an online eight-week course with tools and drills owners can implement with their coaching staff. The program is based on what he’s done with his own team.

The most important part of the process, Frezza said, is to separate the action from the person and let the coaches coach themselves as much as possible, offering advice and encouragement along the way.

ALT TEXTWhen trainers get better, so do clients—and so will your business. (Michael Seminerio)

Find a System That Works for You

The vibe in most CrossFit gyms is casual. It’s friends hanging out and a community of people who love health and fitness getting together in a garage or industrial space to push themselves, support others, get fit and have fun.

The casual atmosphere doesn’t mean affiliate owners should overlook regular employee evaluations that can help create better coaches. Performance reviews can take any form that works for the owner—yearly, quarterly, weekly, etc. If you don’t have a regular system of evaluation in place, consider trying one of the approaches described here.

Additional reading:

“How to Make Good Trainers Great”

“Training the Trainers”

About the Author: Hilary Achauer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health and wellness content. In addition to writing articles, online content, blogs and newsletters, Hilary writes for the CrossFit Journal. To contact her, visit hilaryachauer.com.

Cover image: Shannon R. Gray Photography

bengarves

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

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