Are you A Coach Or a Workout Administrator?

Coach vs. workout administrator

In the decade since Kelly and I opened San Francisco CrossFit and became avid CrossFitters, we’ve had the opportunity to visit many Boxes and to take CrossFit classes throughout the country. In our experience, there are two types of CrossFit Coaches: workout administrators and Coaches. Fortunately, we’ve worked with far more Coaches, but there are plenty of “workout administrators” out there. Make sure you aren’t one of them.

Here’s what I mean. In the early days of San Francisco CrossFit, we did not program the classes in advance. The scheduled Coach would literally show up, see how many athletes they had and program the class on the spot. While there were certainly some downsides to this model, it did teach our early Coaches how to program, to think on their feet, to be creative and flexible, to engage with the athletes, and to learn what worked and what didn’t. Our Coaches really had to teach. They could not hide behind programming that was created for them by someone else.

Like most CrossFit Boxes, we switched many years ago to a unified programming model, which was successful as we grew and became more sophisticated. But, one of the potential pitfalls with pre-programming is winding up with the dreaded robotic workout administrator. This is the Coach who shows up and passively administers the workout that has been written on the whiteboard in advance, engaging in little or no instruction or technical coaching.

I visited a gym last year, for example, with some friends while on a trip. The class began with the Coach showing us the warm-up written on the board, which we all completed in 10 to 12 minutes with no coaching. We circled up again. The Coach described the workout written on the whiteboard, asked us if we knew the movements and understood the plan, and then told us to set up our weights and other equipment. From the time she said “3-2-1 go,” to the moment she called “time” at the end of the workout, the only instance I heard her voice was when she told us how much time was remaining in the WOD. There was little to no technical instruction, and once she said “go,” she stopped meaningfully engaging with members of the class. She also turned up the music so loud we wouldn’t have been able to hear her coaching anyway. She was friendly and well-intentioned, but I left feeling like I didn’t learn anything new. I’ve experienced many classes like this at different gyms.

In contrast, I’ll tell you about what you’ll experience if you show up for Carl Paoli’s noon class on Wednesdays at San Francisco CrossFit. From the moment you walk into the gym, Carl is already owning the room — introducing himself to new members and visitors and chatting with the athletes who have come early to mobilize or warm-up. Once class begins, he almost never stops talking and coaching. In a one-hour class, he is probably talking/coaching for 55 minutes. After the athletes introduce themselves, Carl talks about a technical goal for the class and then begins a movement-specific warm-up tailored to meet that goal. In a recent class, he concentrated on handstands so the warm-up was full of shoulder movements. Then he taught the handstand to the group and they began practicing. While they practiced, he circled the room and literally had one-on-one contact with all 22 athletes in the class, either coaching them technically or providing encouragement. He played music during class, but kept the volume low enough that the athletes could hear him coaching. Once the WOD began, he continued to engage, offer technical guidance and circulate through the whole room interacting with the athletes. He coached his ass off.

After the class, I asked Carl what motivated him. He said it’s his goal to leave every athlete in his class with a little gift, whether that is learning a new skill, spending one-on-one time with them, or making sure they got a good workout. It is his goal to provide every athlete with a feeling that they are leaving the gym with more knowledge and skill then they came in with. That’s coaching.


Photo by Brian Slaughter

Juliet Starrett is the co-founder and CEO of San Francisco Crossfit and, an attorney, two-time extreme whitewater world champion, cancer survivor, winner of the Jefferson Award for public service, and proud wife and mom.