Developing Master Coaches

Coaching CrossFit

One of the greatest challenges of owning a gym is developing a top-notch coaching staff. In his research, bestselling author Malcom Gladwell concludes that skill acquisition takes 10,000 hours. Meaning, it takes a minimum of two to three years of full-time training to become a master coach.

One of the best ways to develop master coaches is to offer internships. At San Francisco CrossFit, we have been running a formal internship program for nearly six years, and it has paid huge dividends in the quality of our coaches and the happiness of our members.

We began our program after learning that interviewing wasn’t working. The coaches we tried to hire – even if they had prior coaching experience – didn’t meet our standards for understanding movement and mechanics. As a result, the people who seemed like a good fit on paper and in-person, didn’t pan out.

I also never was quite comfortable putting novice coaches on the floor with our athletes – many of whom had been members of the gym for years and pay a premium for high-quality coaching. As I was wrestling with the issue, I read an article about learning and skill acquisition and realized that coaching – like any skill– requires a tremendous amount of work to develop expertise. I decided to take matters into my own hands by taking advantage of the excellent staff we already had, and train new staff members in-house.

In psychology, it is often said that there are four stages of learning and skill development. The first is the “novice.” Novices are low on both competency and consciousness. They don’t know what they don’t know. They are eager to learn but have no experience to rely on. The coaches we hired without an internship program were pure novices – enthusiastic, but lacking in competence.

The second stage is the “apprentice.” An apprentice is a coach who is beginning to realize his limitations, but still lacks competence. He knows that he doesn’t know.

The next level is the “journeyman.” This is where the real work begins. During this phase, a coach knows his competence is developing, and that it is only by practicing that mastery.

In the final “mastery” stage, the coaches’ skill mastery becomes automatic, effortless.

My goal with the SFCF internship program is to put only journeyman-level coaches on the floor to teach classes and coach private appointments. I’m fine with their need to develop mastery on the job, but I don’t want novice coaches working directly with athletes.

Our interns are required to shadow or assistant coach classes and private appointments for 160 hours, minimum. Depending on the coach, it typically takes three months to six months to complete the program. Interns are given continuous feedback throughout the program by our staff and intern manager. By the time we hire our interns, they are full journeyman coaches, well on their way to being masters.

There have also been several unexpected side benefits of our internship program.   The first is that the program serves as an extended interview. Some of our interns have not been invited to become staff members because they were either still struggling with basic coaching skills, or because they didn’t fit in with our gym culture. At the end of the internship, it is pretty obvious who is going to work out.

The internship program also has allowed us to create an extremely diverse staff.   Because the internship involves a long screening process, we are able to give coaches a chance to be on our staff, even if they don’t look the part. As a result, we have created an exceptionally diverse staff (one of the things I’m most proud of as a gym owner). Our staff ranges in age from 20-55, is 60 percent women and 30 percent are people of color.

Our internship program has been an excellent way for our members to get to know our interns. If an intern started with us as a member, the internship process gives our community the chance to mentally convert the intern from workout partner to full coach. By the time our interns transition to coaching, they are well known in the community as coaches with a great deal of experience.

To me, a quality professional coaching staff is the cornerstone of a successful gym. If you are having trouble finding quality coaches, I urge you to train them yourself.


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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.