“Hot or Not” Is No Way to Pick a Coach

It’s high time we get serious about how we judge the aptitude of a coach.

Let’s call it the Kardashian Effect: you can’t help but look. We’re in the age of “made-you-look” marketing, where the latest nude celeb post, vacation bikini pic, nip slip, and hottie bulking up for a superhero role gets you to look… and to click. We are meant to instantly judge these body images and take appropriate action, whether that’s clicking, “liking,” or spewing a string of emojis. Self-promotion via superficial body imagery is at an all-time high.

Don’t Settle for Smokin’ Hot

Let me start by saying I am not judging anyone who prioritizes aesthetics when it comes to working out. Everyone has a right to want what they want. I just don’t care what you look like. It’s cool with me if you are shredded, swole, dad-bodied, or a hulking beast of a strongman who looks like you chew Atlas stones for breakfast. Your looks are not important, and they shouldn’t be the way you are judged as a person.

A professional coach can address the needs of people who come for training and advice.

This is equally true for a person’s ability to train others. Getting “ripped” is an individual accomplishment that reflects a person’s ability to train (and, maybe, their genetics). But it has no bearing at all on that individual’s ability to train you safely or effectively. And it certainly means nothing in terms of how well he or she can run a gym or other fitness facility. Just as a great cook may be incapable of running a restaurant, an accomplished athlete may be incompetent at running a gym.

If we all know that to be true, then we should certainly know that judging a professional coach based on looks is kind of lame. Would you trust your legal advice to the best-looking lawyer, or the most competent? Would you want your kids to think their only value was based on what others think of how they look? Then why on earth would we consider a fit appearance to be a qualification for fitness coaching?

Look, coaching is a profession. It shouldn’t be something you do because you are very fit, or very strong, or very flexible. It isn’t something you should do because you are a world-class athlete. Coaching is something you do if you can address the needs of people who come to you for training and advice. It’s high time we get serious about how we judge the aptitude of a coach and take a stand on professionalism.

Do Look For Coaching Competency

Unfortunately, in the United States, there is no standard qualification for becoming a coach or trainer in almost any commercial gym or independent fitness facility. There are innumerable certifications and programs that tell you that it’s okay to now call yourself a trainer. Most of these courses are short – often just a weekend – and almost all of them lack any post-certification quality control or assessment of graduates. Few require continuing education. Most certifications and programs are also established in support of a particular school of thought, fitness sect, or business model. Because of this, almost all certifications are, unfortunately, in competition with one another. Sometimes vehemently so.

Your role as a consumer is limited to supporting a fitness paradigm instead of a profession, yet you have very little influence with these systems. How many of you have a horror story about working with a coach and getting injured? Yet, what are the chances you sought recourse against a certifying body or organization? You probably believed you had no recourse other than to not go back to that particular coach again, or to quit that gym.

“Simply going for the smokin’ hot coach hardly seems like a smart approach. Instead, you should choose a coach like you would choose a doctor.”

I am not arguing for or against government licensing for coaches or trainers. I’m making a simple point: cosmetologists, massage therapists, accountants, and smog-check technicians are licensed and regulated by most states and have to meet minimum standards. But not trainers, who are entrusted with your health and well-being. This leaves it to each consumer to determine if a trainer is legit, which is why some trainers’ careers are built on little more than a six-pack and a good base tan. If the coach has a facility, a website, and a business card, those are about the best qualifications they can provide.

Simply going for the smokin’ hot coach hardly seems like a smart approach. Instead, you should choose a coach like you would choose a doctor. Sure, it’s unlikely you’ll trust a coach to make the serious medical decisions a doctor might make. But your coach will still be responsible for your physical well being. It’s important. It should be treated as far more important than it commonly is.

The Definition of a Professional Coach

A professional coach should be dedicated to teaching, nurturing, supporting, and programming for their clients. Of course a coach may specialize. He or she may focus purely on strength and conditioning, cycling, MMA, baseball, or rehabilitation and recovery. But, ultimately, a professional coach should be able to:

  • Assess your individual needs.
  • Design or modify a training program that will help you reach a prescribed goal.
  • Teach you how to get it done, and give you a clear understanding of how the program should work for you.

A professional coach should also be able to turn you away if you are not the right client for his or her expertise. Many coaches will say they can train anybody – kids, the elderly, the injured, Olympic bobsledders – and for any purpose, from success in specific sports, to body shaping, to regaining youthful vitality. In fact, the best coaches have generally picked something to be good at. So, let’s show some mad respect to a coach who turns you away because he or she is not right for you.

A 6-Step Assessment

Okay, that’s the state of things. Now let’s look at what you need to do to assess the coach before he starts to assess you:

Step 1: Find the Right Fit

You are a unique individual. So, why not seek out a coach and a facility that teaches folks like you? Ask for references from people who are like you, and check out both the coach and the facility. Do you see people like you? If you are a 55-year-old man and have not worked out since high school, a gym full of 20-somethings gearing up for competition may not be your best option. You want to know your coach is capable of handling your needs, so look for other people like yourself. Just because a coach can teach a 30-year-old doesn’t mean they can teach a 40-year-old. As mentioned earlier, a professional coach will have no problem telling you their limitations as well as their strengths.

You can easily begin this research on the coach’s website or social media. Is it all pictures of the coach? Shirtless? Or does the gym have group pictures, and are there people like you in them? If they’re glorifying puking and passing out, that’s great, provided that’s what you are looking for. Or maybe you’d rather look for images and descriptions about the real achievements of real people like you?

Step 2: Observe the Coach in High-Pressure Situations

How attentive is the coach in the setting in which you’ll participate? One-on-one is a whole different game than group classes, so if you’ll be taking classes, be sure to check out a coach in a group session. The ability to help each person appropriately in a group setting is one of the most telling aspects of professionalism. A professional coach is there for everyone in his class, not just the people he likes or who are easy to train.

Judge a professional coach by his character in a high-pressure situation. There’s nothing like observing a full class with a lot of people who need help to see how well a coach deals with people. And look to see how the coach deals with people like you.

Step 3: Programming, Programming, Programming

Professional coaches should be able to write training programs for a wide range of situations. They should have the ability to adapt and shape programs that are specific to finding the right solution for you as an individual. Now, that doesn’t mean they have to individualize their programming. That takes time, and the coach is running a business. But a professional coach will assess you, understand your needs, and know how to guide you to the right program, even if he or she does not agree with your goals.

If the coach doesn’t talk about modifying the program or giving you specific programming, make sure you are in the right place. If the coach is programming for an older, de-conditioned crowd, your dream of crushing the Caber Toss at the Highland Games just went out the window.

individual coaching

A professional coach will assess you, understand your needs, and know how to guide you to the right program.

Step 4: Assess Qualifications and Certifications

The hardest thing to assess is the education of a coach. We know there are great coaches out there who are largely self-taught. We also know that, other than graduate and undergraduate degrees, the myriad options open to a coach makes any assessment highly subjective. However, there are some simple rules to follow:

Educate yourself about the coach’s preferred certifications. If you don’t know what the coach is qualified to do, go look it up first and make sure you are comfortable with it. Most legitimate certifications have a strong online presence and can be easily researched.

Conversely, you can choose a particular methodology, then see what kind of facilities and coaches are following it, and go to one of those. Often, there will be referrals on the certifying organization’s website. If you want to powerlift, visiting a coach who only has expertise and certifications in Olympic lifting will be a waste of time.

You should also ask yourself whether you would be happy paying to learn what the coach knows. Do they have experience in areas that are relevant to you? Do they have a long history of coaching in these areas?

Last, when you watch the coach work, do you feel he or she is doing a good job? You can trust yourself on this one because, in the absence of standardized credentials, ultimately you are the one who decides if it’s worth paying for. No matter what certifications or awards they have, if you don’t like the look of things, just get the heck out of there.

Step 5: Pay Attention to Marketing

How are they selling themselves? Is the coach selling you based on athletic achievements? Or, worse yet, on appearance? Athletic achievement all too frequently bears no relation to the ability to learn, communicate, assess, and be attentive. And a coach who has more glamor shots than credentials might not be a good choice.

Even if a great physique is your goal, be wary of choosing a coach who struts around shirtlessly sporting his own six-pack. He may be showing off something he can never help you achieve.

Step 6: Sweat the Small Stuff

There are a lot of small things that go into making a professional coach. Check out the obvious things like punctuality and organization. If your coach cannot be bothered to come to class on time and be prepared, that should be a red flag. Is the gym clean and organized? Is there up-to-date information online and in the gym?

Professionals know they have an obligation to at least do the job they are being paid to do. If they cannot be bothered to show up and run a proper business, that’s not acceptable.

Looks Mean Nothing

While superficiality has always been around in the fitness industry, it is getting out of hand. Almost to the point where anyone who looks good without clothes on can claim to be a coach or trainer. “Look at me. You can look like this. I can make it happen for you.”

Experience tells us that the fittest guy in the room isn’t always the coach, and vice-versa. And we know that many good coaches don’t look like underwear models. But, if you take your search for a coach as a search for a professional, you’ll be on the right path.

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Photos courtesy of CrossFit Empirical.

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