You have two gyms each running the exact same programming and after six months, you have two populations with wildly different results. Why? Because the programming comes second to the coaching, the community and the athletes. How the program is implemented is just as, if not more, important as the program itself. That’s not to say that the program is irrelevant. The program is important and a good program can help foster better coaching and community. More importantly a bad program can really hinder a coach and create road blocks to fostering a good community.
I often hear coaches and gym owners that deal with athletes and clients complaining about the programming. If your athletes are complaining about the program something is wrong but it may or may not be the program. The athletes are unhappy that’s the main problem. So let’s first deal with that problem and then dig deeper into how to implement a good program.
People want to have fun. Fun comes in many flavors but creating a fun atmosphere goes a long way toward keeping your athletes from complaining. Smile, play some music, tell some jokes, don’t take things too seriously and make sure people know that having fun is encouraged.
Training hard is its own kind of fun. Getting after a workout and suffering together with other people is a special kind of fun that people will eventually embrace. They understand that the hardwork comes with a payoff in the way they look, feel and perform. It’s okay to encourage them to enjoy the process as well as work for the outcome.
Make people feel cared for. People like to be acknowledged and cared for. Some people need far less of this and some people need far more. Some guys can get by on a fist bump and you bringing the bucket of chalk closer to them during the workout. Some people need a look in the eyes, a hug, you saying their name and telling them that everything is going to be okay. Regardless, everyone needs to know that their needs will be met for the next hour. They need to feel like this is a safe place to let their guard down and make ugly faces during the workout.
People need to be coached. Coaching is not just counting reps and cheer leading. You need to fix their movement and help them get PRs. That can be as easy as reminding them to keep their heels on the ground or as challenging as setting up a special station for them to do banded muscle ups in the workout. Even a high-level regionals athlete can benefit from a pair of eyes on them telling them to squat a little lower or pick up the bar a little sooner. Nobody is immune from coaching and everyone performs better when chasing or being chased.
Everyone likes to be acknowledged. Find ways to celebrate the victories for everyone. It’s not always a faster time. Sometimes it’s a new skill. Or just waking up early for the morning class. If you notice people’s effort, they will respond.
Scale and manage intensity. Assume more people should be scaling more often. Lighter weight does not mean less challenging. Create conditions for your athletes to experience intensity. They might be scaling the load, but they should be going faster or doing more reps unbroken. New athletes might need to just focus on mechanics and not speed. Challenge them to do 10 or 20 perfect reps in a row. The job of the coach is not merely to administer the workout, it is to train the athletes to perform. That means they within the workout there are many opportunities to improve their performance. Keep newer athletes from overdoing it and make sure the athletes that are ready and capable are pushing themselves appropriately.
Coach your athletes to be successful in the short term and the long term. If the workout involves fast barbell movements, then you should be coaching them on how to successfully cycle a barbell quickly so they can do their best on the workout. I often see coaches teach the same clean & jerk progression whether the workout is a 1 rep max or 30 reps for time. While it is essentially the same exercise, the specifics of how these two movements are done in each workout differ tremendously. That’s short term coaching: coaching them to win the workout. Long term success is giving them opportunities to practice skills that they need to work on more frequently. It’s useless to only do muscle up progressions once or twice a month when they show up in the workout. They should be incorporated much more often if you want your athletes to start getting muscle ups.
Keep your programming simple. You only have an hour to warmup, workout and cooldown. If you try to cram too much into that hour, you take away time from coaching and teaching. You also rob people of time to interact and have fun with each other. A warmup takes 5 to 10 minutes. If you want to actually teach and coach people you need to spend 10 to 15 minutes per movement going over progressions and drills and coaching. If you are going to lift above 80% of your max, then you will need to warm up and do 3 to 5 sets to gradually build to the weights you are going to lift. That takes a lot of time and requires a lot of attention from the coach to try to coach people while the weights are still light enough that they can make some changes.
Lastly you need to educate your athletes. There is no reason why your athletes would understand how CrossFit programming works. Many coaches, gym owners, and high-level athletes do not understand it fully. Find a way to explain that they need to be strong. Find a way to explain that variance allows them to train for whatever life throws at them so that they can be generally physically prepared for life outside the gym. You need to educate your athletes on why cheering for each other is more important than just putting away your weights and mixing a protein shake before everyone else is done. You need to educate your athletes on why doing things you suck at is important and will make them better at the things they’re already good at. You need to educate your athletes on nutrition and why eating like a grown is important and the answer is not another bag of protein powder. You need to educate your athletes on why it’s important to keep a log book of their workouts and when they say that the program isn’t working, open it up and go over the data and see what is and isn’t working instead of just listening to them complain because they don’t want to run a 5k.
When your athletes complain use that as an opportunity to evaluate whether you are doing everything you can to help them be better and keep them happy. See how much you can fix on your end. Then if they still want to complain just turn up the music and say “3, 2, 1, go!”