After returning from my Costa Rica trip with the family, I was invited to officially begin coaching at CrossFit Citrine. I’m now coaching four to five classes per week which is a great start to begin my coaching career. Since I’m now coaching by myself, the lessons I’m picking up have increased significantly. WIthout someone to assist or cover any holes in my coaching, I’m learning the do’s and don’ts much faster than I was when interning. And just like if I was starting to ride a bike without training wheels, I’m definitely going to fall a few times.

Here are a few lessons I’ve already picked up from my first few official weeks of coaching:

It’s not just working out, it’s FUNctional fitness. Bring the energy, joy, and excitement. This is the best hour of their day, and it should feel like a place to relieve stress, not create more. For my first solo coaching class ever, I decided to check out the 5:30 am class hosted by Coach David. It was a struggle to wake up that early, but it was well worth it. It was his advice that it’s important to put the FUN in functional fitness.

Admit your mistakes, then adjust. I made the mistake of overestimating distances for a movement when we had to adapt for poor weather which skewed one of the class’ scores. And then I decided to maintain that decision for the following class, because I thought it was more important to keep the scores similar. In hindsight, I should’ve made the adjustment and reduced the distance for the following class. It’s not about the scores, it’s about the desired stimulus that we want for our athletes.

Always be learning. The athlete’s job is to work towards improving so much that they don’t need the coach anymore. The coach’s job is to continuously improve their own knowledge base and skill set so that never happens.

Keep cues simple. Give verbal cues as if you were talking to a 5 year old. The simplest formula is ‘body part + direction.’ Examples: ‘knees out’, ‘butt back’, ‘elbows up’, ‘eyes forward.’

Don’t skip warm-ups even if a member is late. Warm-ups are hugely important. Make sure all athletes go through some kind of warm-up, even if it means cutting out some teaching pieces or cut into their workout if they show up late. It’s on them to make it to class on time, so we need to set the right expectations.

During the whiteboard brief, remember to check in with athletes to see if there are any injuries or sore spots. In one of my classes, I learned a little too late that one of my athletes does additional morning workouts aside from CrossFit class. The workout included deadlifts, and he did deadlifts that morning — which I would have modified had I asked questions earlier and probed a bit more.

Set the right expectations…for EVERYTHING. Usually we set the expectations for movement standards, culture, and attitude, but we also need to remember to set expectations for equipment usage. I had an athlete drop a completely empty bar from overhead 5 feet in front of me. My heart and soul were crushed.

Be prepared for handling ‘front desk’ logistics. Since we don’t have a front desk, I need to be better prepared to receive drop-in’s and getting waivers filled out. I always forget to ask for waivers for athletes’ guests.

Learn everyone’s story. It’s important to understand why each member shows up. Is it to get fitter? Look better in a bathing suit? To be around longer for their grandkids? To be around good people? Knowing what makes them tick will help you connect with each athlete. Seek first to understand, then be understood.

Speak to the average skill level of the class. If the class has an average intermediate skill level, then you can focus a bit more on the advanced techniques, then have side conversations for the beginners or advanced athletes. Don’t get caught spending too much time explaining modifications for one beginner if the rest of the class is a bit more advanced. And vice versa.

Inspect equipment regularly for defects or malfunctions. There was a resistance band that snapped during class. These things will happen, but make sure to mitigate it by routinely checking items.

Coaches need coaches. It’s not enough to just pass seminars or get certificates. Just like in other industries or aspects of life, a mentor is needed for continual growth. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, so learn from others that have already walked the path.

Learn by observing other classes. You don’t have to always be coaching or participating in a class. I learned how to scale for a 60+ year old grandpa with Fibromyalgia by just observing.

Youth doesn’t translate to higher fitness level. I had a 15-year-old that I had the mistake of assuming he had greater capacity, but moved similarly to a deconditioned 40-year-old.

Use the warm-up to assess fitness capacity and movement mechanics. This was useful for the above scenario of testing a new athlete, regardless of age.

Get your reps in. Just like with anything that we’re trying to improve in, experience is important. It’s hard to become a great coach if you only do 1 or 2 classes per week.

Don’t assume fitness levels for new athletes. Regardless of how ‘fit’ they look, gauge their movement and ability during the warm-up sections.

Take advantage of small class sizes. When a one-on-one teaching situation is available (class of 1 or 2 people), feel free to use the time to dial in the mechanics. I was able to get into squat therapy with an athlete, because of the class size.

For 95% of the time, first timers should be scaling. We had one of the largest classes to date with 4 new athletes as guests, but I completely forgot that just because they ‘look’ more in-shape that the rest of the room, it doesn’t mean they have the capacity or skill to do well in the workout. I was too overwhelmed with the class logistics due to class size that I completely forgot to scale movements/load for those athletes.

Have a watch that can function as both a stopwatch and clock. When the gym clock is used for a clock, use your stopwatch to keep track of time during warm-ups or timed portions. When the WOD is happening, use the watch to keep the class flowing as to not bleed into the other class time.

Triage movement cues. Be wary of overwhelming the athlete with too many cues in one day. Unless it’s a dangerous position under load, get them to focus on one correction at a time. Give positive feedback on the correction, even if other faults are present. Some athletes that receive multiple cues may feel like a failure.

Remember to teach the setup position for warm-up movements. Reinforce points of performance for these movements as well.

Prior to class, set up the room to accommodate modifications. Usually the room will already address the WOD movements, however the choice of modification varies between coaches. Ex. Getting boxes or bands in place for pull-up modifications. This will speed up set up times during class.

Water breaks! Athletes need transition triggers and time to hydrate. Usually after general warm-up and before the WOD.

Volume control on background music needs to be adjusted for different sections of class. Quieter during teaching portions especially. And pump up the volume during the wod!

Some athletes may require direction to skip the workout today and just do mobility. Ex. An athlete came in that’s been having a nagging knee injury for over a week, but has come to class consecutively for the last 3 days. Although they’ve been doing modifications, it’s necessary to restate the importance of rest, recovery, and mobility.

Make deposits into the athlete-coach relationship account. In the large class size, I quickly remembered 4 new names and was able to give positive feedback with their names. It’s better than just saying generic pronouns. People feel a stronger sense of accomplishment and recognition when they hear their name.

After I got my CrossFit Level One certificate, I immediately dove into getting hands-on experience by doing some co-coaching with the coaches at CrossFit Citrine. Each CrossFit class can be seen as 5 different pieces:

  • Whiteboard Briefing
  • General Warm-Up
  • Movement Teaching & Specific Warm-Up
  • WOD (Workout of the Day)
    • Strength (2-3 times a week)
    • Metcon
  • Wrap Up / Cool Down / Scoring

For the most of June, I was able to lead a piece or two for each class I was assisting in. At the end of the day, I would reflect and journal at least one lesson I learned that would improve my coaching ability. Here are some of the lessons I learned.

Say less, be clear and concise. When I did the whiteboard briefing and talked in circles. Explaining a lot during the whiteboard brief is unnecessary. As coaches, we’re not here to show off how much we know. Be quick and clear, so we can get the athletes moving right away. It’s about them, not us.

Come to class prepared to be able to teach the movement to someone with zero fitness background. During my first time teaching a movement, and I had no clue how to explain the box jump in simple instructions to an athlete that’s never seen them before.

When a prescribed movement leans towards high skill and less GPP (General Physical Preparedness) focused, modify to a GPP variation. Example: Hang Squat Snatch modified to Hang Power Snatch with an Overhead Squat. Athletes looking to compete in CrossFit can still do the Hang Squat Snatch.

Instructions need to be short and actionable. Don’t ‘suggest’ to the new athletes, direct and tell them what to do. This is necessary for the new athletes that may get overwhelmed with all the modification/scaling options. Many look to the coach for specific directions and guidance.

Teaching movements means reinforcing the points of performance. Only teach strategy for intermediate/advanced athletes after proper mechanics are visible. I realized that teaching strategy to new athletes just overwhelms and confuses them even more and can introduce bad habits or bad technique in the WOD.

Also know how to teach the warm-up movements. Don’t assume that everyone has a small background of fitness knowledge. I need to be able to know how to teach warm-up movements just as well as teach WOD movements.

Plan scaling modifications before class. When reviewing the lesson plans, think about scaling options for athletes in class. Not only do we have constantly varied movements, we also want constantly varied modifications. Ex. If an athlete always does ring rows for pull-up modifications, switch to jumping pull ups.

Recently I’ve been neck deep in the vast world of becoming a CrossFit coach. It’s a completely different life from my current profession of software engineer. This venture has been in the works for quite some time even though I didn’t know it at the time. Ever since I initially lost 75 pounds in 2015, I’ve had friends and family always asking for advice or help on the subject. Of course I could only share my experiences and talk about my process. Then I let them do their own research and make their own decisions on what best fit them.

From just pointing people in the right direction to different reference guides, coaches, and books, I’ve seen so many of my friends transform their lifestyle and healthy habits. For some, it was just enough to show people that something was possible gave them all the motivation and inspiration they needed to make a decision to change their habits.

In the past, I’ve always been in the space of teaching and mentoring, even as a kid. Once I had my black belt in Tae Kwon Do at around 8 years old, I was helping the instructor lead the class. When I was in 5th grade, I was a safety cadet assigned to assist the teacher in the kindergarten classes. In high school, I mentored the underclassmen in computer science classes, and I was captain of the chess team. In college, I was a student assistant where I helped lead the discussion section of calculus classes, and I was president of a student organization. After college, I had to help manage interns on projects for work, build and lead a team in my nutrigenomics business, and had speaking engagements in rooms of over three hundred attendees.

Having grown up with two parents who both are high school teachers, leaders in their communities, and business owners, I often found myself in a position of teaching and mentorship. But why did I decide to specifically become a coach in the fitness space?

In one of my recent trips this year, I found myself in a globo gym to workout while I was on the road. Like most globo gyms, it’s filled with machines where it’s pretty self guided with nice little instructional stickers attached to them. However, equipment like the squat rack requires some prior knowledge. As I was doing my squats, a nice elderly couple approached me, and the gentleman asked if he could try, pointing at the barbell. I took a quick look at him and then my barbell which had about 155ish pounds on the bar. I could tell he was a deconditioned person (someone who hasn’t physical exerted themself in awhile) and so I took off a pair of plates off the bar. And then I looked at the way he walked and his posture, and so I chose to remove the rest of the plates and empty the bar. But then as soon as he positioned himself under the bar, I knew right away, that maybe we should just try an air squat, and so I moved him towards a wall where I could teach him basic squat mechanics.

Here was a man who was maybe in his mid 50s, but moved like he was in his 70s. We’re in an environment where most people have their heads down, headphones on, and judgement written all over the faces. The personal trainers there aren’t actively going around assisting people either — they’re only going to be training others when they’re on the clock with a client. It bothers me that the standard commercial gym is the first choice that comes to mind when people want to start becoming physically active, yet is not set up for the average person to succeed. Just imagine how intimidating the globo gym is with this massive sea of machines and equipment. Then you look towards the dumbbell and free weights section where you’ll have the young and lean bodybuilders doing their sets in front of the mirror.

Even the people who regularly show up to the gym may see very little progress. They’re the ones who rotate from machine to machine to do a few reps, and then maybe hop on the treadmill or elliptical to get their “cardio” in while taking breaks so they can snap pics to prove to people that they made it to the gym. I commend them for at least trying to get healthier. They’re trying to make a positive change in their life. They’re trying to develop new and better habits. They’re trying the best way they know how.

These are the two populations that I so desperately want to help: the deconditioned person who hasn’t physically exerted themself in 20+ years, and the athlete who is trying to develop a healthy lifestyle, but just doesn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle. The reason that these two populations are the ones that stand out to me the most is because they are my parents and many of my friends who “have tried everything” but just can’t seem to find progress. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen my parents “commit” to going to the gym only to stop going after the second session — and I definitely know for a fact that they have no idea what to do when they get there.

This is another reason why I love CrossFit so much. It’s funny to think that when most people hear CrossFit, they picture what they see at the CrossFit Games. People throwing around 300 lbs on the barbell and doing high skill movements like ring muscle ups. Or they think “injuries”. First of all, in CrossFit, we believe it is important to teach mechanics first, followed by consistency, then and only then intensity; injuries occur when ego gets in the way. What’s more dangerous than getting injured from being physically active? Sitting on your butt and watching Netflix will lead you to your death much faster than working out ever will.

Walk into a CrossFit box and what you’ll actually see is people of all skill levels and ages, working at an intensity relative to their physical and psychological tolerances, modifying their movements to best fit their capabilities, an engaged coach that can provide attention and corrections to help the athletes move better, and most importantly, having fun in a supportive and welcoming community. This isn’t even exclusive to CrossFit; I’d recommend going to any group class based fitness regimen (unless you’re allergic to people or thrive in a one on one environment).

After that experience with the elderly couple in the globo gym, I knew that I not only wanted but needed to become a CrossFit trainer so I can do my part in helping people “kick ass in their 90s” as Ben Bergeron would say.

During my time solo training and self teaching stint, one of the resources I used was the CrossFit Level 1 Training Guide. Usually that guide would only be read if you had plans on getting your CrossFit Level One Certificate (CF-L1), but I found it very enlightening and useful to correcting my movement mechanics and technique. It “pulled back the curtain” for me on what fitness really means and why the CrossFit methodology was created. After learning that, I officially joined the cult.

I also had started listening to different CrossFit related podcasts; one of them is Chasing Excellence with Ben Bergeron, coach to many games championships and creator of CompTrain. On the podcast, he talked about how he had transitioned from working a typical corporate job to now thriving not only as a CrossFit coach, but business owner, father, and husband. In one of his episodes, he mentioned how he would transition into coaching in this day and age. Instead of just getting your L1, and then applying to different coaching positions and random gyms — he said his recommendation would be to explore and actually become a member at a gym to find the coaching culture that fits you.

Not only do the coaches and owners of that gym get a chance to get to know you, but you also get to know them. It’s important to find a place where your core values are in line with theirs — otherwise coaching will become more of a job or meaningless task than a passion. When I got injured and was looking for a box to train, I was also looking for a place to grow as a person. I don’t know if it’s the universe or the power of law of attraction, but when I looking at different CrossFit gyms near me, I saw that CrossFit Citrine was having their grand opening soon. I remember seeing the hashtags on one of their Instagram posts: #BuiltByBergeron and #HappyHumbleHungry (Ben’s mantra/mission statement for his gym). I immediately got the chills and said “no way”.

It didn’t take me long to realize that CrossFit Citrine was the place of growth that I was looking for. While I was “just a member” at the gym, I intentionally observed what and how they taught the class, how they interacted with each athlete, and how the modified certain movements for each athlete. I kept taking mental notes on coaching long before I even started studying for the L1. It helped me tremendously when I was restudying the training guide, because I could see how I could apply what I was reading in the class setting.

I went to the seminar on June 1-2nd, cancelling my trip to the Granite Games where I was supposed to volunteer for the event, and I received my email saying that I passed the exam the Friday afterwards. Now I’m in the process of shadowing & co-coaching where I’m learning TONS from my experience in all the classes. Getting the L1 was the bare minimum, now is where the real growth and learning begins. I’m so grateful and appreciative to all of my past experiences that have led me to this new path. And immense gratitude to Ashlynn and Billie Buss of CrossFit Citrine for leading the way.