As a full-time fitness coach for the last six years, it has been my experience there are three components to good coaching – technical knowledge, the ability to manage a group, and communication skills.


I spoke with Michael Stanwyck, of CrossFit Los Angeles, as he is both a CrossFit coach and a life coach and has invested copious time into the development of his communication skills. At CrossFit LA Michael coaches group classes and private clients, but he also trains new coaches through the Instructor Training Program.


“As a general rule the thing that makes a difference as a coach is the communication part,” said Michael. “You can know everything, you can have a plan for everything, but if you can’t get people to do any of it, if you can’t actually communicate it to other people, it’s worthless.”


The Student Who Doesn’t Get It


The most common communication dilemma a coach encounters is the student who just does not comprehend the movement. All too often a novice coach simply repeats the same wording and cues to the student, resulting in an ever-escalating sense of frustration for both coach and student. Michael explained what he would do in this situation:


[What I would do] depends mostly on the student’s level of frustration. If they’ve already blown the circuit and they’re not getting it, it’s probably more important to replace the movement with something else, something that’s similar, something that you consider would build that skill eventually, but will allow them to participate with the group.


If they’re really willing to work on it, if they want to get it, it comes down to what is the smallest part I can teach them at once? What’s the smallest thing? They don’t have to learn all the small parts at that time – they can learn one of the small parts.


Frequently novice coaches teach too much at once, trying to fix every fault in the student’s form. Being a coach is akin to performing triage, especially in a group fitness environment – assess the movement, define what are the potentially harmful faults and fix those first. As Michael explained, there will be time to refine the rest later:


The process of what we do at CrossFit really is about mastery over time and I think the mistake people make is their only victory is if somebody gets it the first time they try it, or they get it completely because of something that they said. The victories really come over time and you never really know what the one thing that you’re going to say or what day that it’s finally going to click. So, if you can have people moving in that direction, constantly, every time they come in, eventually it will happen. The real trick is taking this on as a process and not as ‘this moment has to happen.’


Different People Learn Differently


There are three commonly accepted learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. In addition to this, there are the emotional styles of learning, which will vary broadly across a student body. Michael gave us some examples:


There are people who like to be pushed really hard. There are other people who like to have things really explained to them. Some people like the little by little cues. Some people won’t even listen to them. Some people just want to start at the start and end at the end, no matter what happens. You turn your back on them and they’ll stop doing what you told them and they’ll go back to doing what they think is important. And you have to work with that. Sometimes you just have to give up that you have the best way for that person to learn. If someone is going to insist on doing the whole thing, you’ve got to figure out a way to work with them on doing the whole thing. It all depends on people’s personalities and what they bring into the training.


A good coach is flexible and spontaneous with communication. Being able to switch from visual cues, to tactile cues, to auditory cues, while at the same time taking into account a student’s personality and anxiety level, all play a part in effectively communicating with the student in their personal language.


Communicate Creatively


In line with that spontaneity of communicating along different learning styles, is being open to innovating new cuing and fresh communications. Michael told me one of his experiences of creating a new way of teaching, in the moment:


We were teaching one-arm dumbbell thrusters. It was a ‘Bring a Friend’ weekend, so there were a lot of people in the group who were unclear on the concept. I was trying to explain the thruster and all of the sudden as I was doing it, it felt to me like I was shot putting. I thought, ‘Well that’s something this group of people even if they’ve never done it, they’ve seen it and they might be able to relate to.’ So I said, ‘It’s like you’re shot-putting.’ All of the sudden on the next attempt everybody in the room got it. What was important in that moment was I had an idea and I didn’t shove it aside because it wasn’t inside the box. All of the sudden something became really clear to me and rather than tell myself that’s just not how this movement is coached, I shared it with the group. The ‘A-ha’ moment is that ability to really listen to yourself when you have a really good idea and not censor yourself around something that might seem silly.


Remember: It's Not About You


When it all comes down to it, as a coach, it’s not about you. It’s not about whether you might look silly for coming up with a new way of teaching, or whether you look bad for being wrong, or how things turn out with a difficult student. In the end it’s not about you. One of the most common pitfalls Michael sees in new coaches is taking a student’s performance personally:


Needing someone to ‘get it’ to validate that you’re a good coach. It’s thinking that if they don’t get it there’s something wrong with you. Because the moment you start having that conversation in your head you stop communicating with the person and you end up having this completely meaningless conversation in your head about what’s wrong with you.


Michael's 3 Pieces of Coaching Advice:

  • If you don’t know what to do next, look at the person in front of you and see what they need.
  • Trust your creative instincts and coach from them. They are what make you a unique coach. Don't be the best at what you are doing, be the only one doing what you are doing.
  • Know you have as much to learn from your clients as they have to learn from you.