Training Coaches: Internships

A cartoon drawing of a number of colored gears meshing together above the word "internship."

It’s tough to hand your baby over to a new caregiver, isn’t it?

But when you own a business, you have to stop being a technician and start being an owner. So you replace yourself in lower-value roles—and, eventually, you replace yourself as a coach.

I’ll outline our process below. The process of training coaches has been one of my most costly mistakes in my 12 years as a gym owner.

Mistakes to Avoid

First, here are some hiring mistakes I made:

  • Hiring people who “look good on paper.”
  • Hiring for education instead of personality.
  • Going straight to a salary instead of the optimal 4/9ths Model.
  • Believing shadowing was a useful teaching method.

Here are some really common mistakes we see in other gyms:

  • Undefined processes (“shadow me until I think you’re ready”).
  • No continuing education plan after hire.
  • Long internships for no reason (“they’ll call you doctor”).
  • Relying too heavily on shadowing instead of instruction—read more here: “Is Shadowing Overrated?”

The most common mistake is an internship process that’s long for the sake of being long. This is typically a sign that the owner isn’t quite clear enough on his or her vision or is a little too focused on the “knowledge” piece of coaching.

When you’re training doctors, this is valid—they need more knowledge than bedside manner. But we’re not training doctors, and we get to see our clients every day if our coaches can keep them coming back.

We believe that coaches should be different but follow the same template in a class. If they tick all the boxes—professional appearance, hearty greeting, appropriate warmup, one-on-one attention to every athlete, motivating coaching, smiling/hugs/high fives—then they don’t need to be a carbon copy of the owner.

For that reason, our coach training process isn’t called an “internship” at all. 

First Filter: The Advanced Theory Course

Every year, we hold an eight-week specialty class called an Advanced Theory Course. It’s open to six members, and we secretly filter the members by personality only.

Here’s the overall template:

1. Four Weeks—Be Taught, Be Trained

Participants attend four lectures by the owner (or the head coach) and are then assigned homework. They watch video modules, submit assignments and group up on Saturday mornings. They’re taught the CrossFit class template and train together in our regular groups. They track workouts on paper, noting how the class followed the template and whether the coach ticked all the boxes.

2. Four Weeks—Teach and Train Others

In the second stage, ATC students do “book reports”—teaching one main point from their chosen author—to the rest of the ATC group. Then they run a class for other ATC participants only. The goal of this stage is to identify people who are comfortable and fun in front of a group and people who can do their homework, absorb information, and teach it back.
After eight weeks, everyone graduates—back to class.

If we identify a person in the ATC who possesses an optimal personality, shows up on time and can translate knowledge into useful information, we invite him or her to the next phase. 

3. Four Weeks—Practice the Art of Coaching

In this stage, the ATC student registers for a CrossFit Level 1 weekend and begins a “six-and-six” transition to coaching. The student will create and lead warm-ups and cool-downs for six groups and assist the main coach in the skill-teaching portion of the class. If those go well, the student will swap roles with the main coach for six more groups and then be evaluated.

New coaches are evaluated on the same criteria as our existing coaches. If they score 7 out of 10 in all requirements, they can start leading on-ramp sessions as soon as they earn the CrossFit Level 1 certificate. If they don’t score a 7 in all categories, they can redo the “six and six” classes—or they can just return to being a student. That’s fine.

The key components of the ATC model are:

  • Choosing people who will make clients happy.
  • Evaluating and providing feedback at each step.
  • Having objectively measurable criteria for advancement (instead of hoping we “rub off” on them through shadowing).

Asking a future part-time coach to succumb to a six-month shadowing process is overkill. It’s inefficient, lacks clear objectives and produces a different result every time.

Remember: CrossFit LLC will let you use its brand after only two days of training. But the L1 doesn’t filter for character and presence because those are mostly taught by our parents.

Identifying the fun, caring clients in your box is the first step; teaching them to teach is the easy part. 

After the Filter

After the ATC, we believe in training coaches in four stages. You can read about them on the Two-Brain Coaching site.

In short:

  • Coaches should learn how to work with 1:1 clients first.
  • Then coaches should learn how to apply their skills to a group setting.
  • Then they should learn how to program for 1:1 clients instead of delivering your programming.
  • Then they should learn how to program for groups based on data and results.

Read more here: Two-Brain Coaching.

You can listen to Two-Brain Coaching co-founder Josh Martin talk about Degrees of Coaching on Two-Brain Radio

Great Coaches Are Method Agnostic

The Two-Brain Coaching progression starts with principles and then moves to methods.

My principles include getting the clients results, first and foremost. I really don’t like the dogmatic adherence to any ideology. That’s what first attracted me to CrossFit: The method combined the basics from kettlebell training, weightlifting, gymnastics, running and even parkour, back then.

I want my coaches to learn how to coach first and how to apply a specific method second. So I put coaches at Catalyst through the Two-Brain Coaching First and Second Degree programs before I send them to a CrossFit L1. This makes them insurable, gets them some experience (and a bit of money), and teaches them how to relate to people before they learn how to spot flaws in thruster technique.

I’d also send them to Pilates certifications if I thought them useful. Or yoga. Or whatever new spin class variation appears next week.

I want my coaches to know how to get results, period. And that means training the best people in the best way.

Other Articles in This Series

Training Coaches: How to Find New Coaches
Training Coaches: Scope of Practice
Training Coaches: Continuing Education
Training Coaches: Building Careers


One more thing!

Did you know gym owners can earn $100,000 a year with no more than 150 clients? We wrote a guide showing you exactly how.