The Role of a Coach = The Role of a Leader

“A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life.” In this episode, I draw my comparisons to being an effective coach in the gym to being an effective leader in the workplace. I am grateful to currently serve in both of these capacities, so I try to use the same tools and techniques in both roles to improve the performance of those I am fortunate enough to lead.

Often time I see my responsibilities as a coach at Revival Fitness as comparative to my responsibilities as a leader in the Air Force. I’ve always believed that one should take advantage of the different “hats” one may wear in life, as they can often inform singular methods that can be applied in multiple situations. After being inspired by an episode of the Varied Not Random podcast with Pat Sherwood and Adrian Bozman, I decided to share my own interpretation of what they see as the role of a coach and how I apply that to my role as a leader in the Air Force. Obviously, this is not an inclusive list, but rather my observations on how I use both of these “hats” to build better performance for both the athletes and teams I am fortunate enough to lead. Check it out!

Role of a Coach – Be a “clarifier.” When leading a class, it is the coach’s responsibility to lead all athletes (both as a class and as individuals) to what they should be doing to achieve the desired stimulus of the WOD. This requires foundational knowledge of broad movement patterns as well as an understanding of each athlete’s goals, strengths, and current limitations. Similarly, the coach must be able to break down and teach components of complex movements to ensure fundamentals are instilled from the beginning. This requires the ability to simply and succinctly explain movements they want to see, be able to analyze whether or not an athlete is following that explanation, and correct any movement inefficiencies through a myriad of methods (there is never one solution for all athletes). That may seem like a lot, but each component is crucial for the coach to be able to clarify for the athlete what and how they should be attacking the WOD. The coach is in a position to remove some of the confusion for the athlete and give them specific actions to take immediately that can support long-term goals.

Role of a Leader – Be an “interpreter.” When leading a team, it is the leader’s responsibility to interpret higher guidance into an actionable plan. This requires foundational knowledge of the broad mission, understanding of the team’s current capabilities, and how their team integrates into the execution of that mission. The team will most likely not have the singular responsibility to complete the entire mission, but rather be part of a larger team effort that ebbs and flows between operating in a supporting or supporting role.  In addition, the leader must be able to articulate how to best articulate both horizontally and vertically on whether or not they need assistance to perform their mission. This requires the ability to interpret tactical information to an operational or strategic level to ensure the receiving audience understands the request and can make a timely decision. If there is a delay in understanding, the fault lies with the “interpreter” who has not taken the time to sharpen their messaging to deliver the desired effect for their team. The answer could still be no, but at least it is an informed decision. The leader is in a position to remove confusion and unnecessary effort for their team so they can continue to make progress towards mission accomplishment.

Role of a Coach – Be the voice and reason and sanity that allows progression towards both short and long-term goals. The coach should be invested in the decisions of their athletes. When an athlete wants to perform a WOD at Rx weights, or substitute certain movements they are weak at for ones they are stronger at, the coach needs to be the voice of reason to mentor the athlete that those choices may be more regressive in effect than progressive. The short-term feeling of “winning a WOD” may seem right to the athlete at the moment, but the coach should be there to help the athlete think through these decisions to see if it is worth it. Sure, sometimes doing something Rx feels good, but does that make sense within the long-term path towards success? Or are you allowing the athlete to have a false sense of accomplishment that could’ve been better served with a slice of humble pie by scaling the WOD? Short-term decisions by the athlete now may negatively affect long-term goals, so don’t let that happen. The coach shouldn’t seek to keep their athletes happy today, but instead, aim to keep their athletes happy over the long term to allow training to continue.

Role of a Leader – Be the external voice that knows when to “talk to” and to “talk with” a rising leader. In the Air Force’s Little Brown Book, there is a comparison drawn to when an enlisted leader must serve as a Mentor as a Coach: “A mentor talks to you, and a coach talks with you…A mentor is a wise, trusted, and experienced individual who shares knowledge, experience, skills, and advice with a less experienced person…A coach collaborates with individuals in a thought-provoking, empowering, and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” This dual nature of a leader can be very powerful when used in the right situation, but it requires the leader to actually recognize the situation and act accordingly. Sometimes this can manifest in letting a teammate proceed with an idea, even if it is not guaranteed success. Perhaps the bigger lesson learned in a potential failure can do more for the person than a half-baked win. At other times, the leader could foot-stomp some left and right parameters prior to execution and allow the teammate to make decisions within those boundaries. Both methods are available for use, yet it is the leader’s responsibility to understand which method makes sense for the moment.

Role of a Coach – Meet people where they are at in their fitness journey. All of us are on different parts of our fitness journey, and your job as the coach is to help the athlete move forward. While it is true that within CrossFit there are performance standards for movements, those standards are what each athlete should strobe to achieve. This implies that some athletes may not have a full range of motion to achieve that full depth squat or have the strength to do pull-ups without assistance. The role of the coach is to meet that athlete where their physical capabilities are currently at so that they can achieve the desired intent of the WOD and grow. To simply assume that all athletes are at the same level is one of the worst moves a coach can use. In addition, when an athlete asks a coach for scaling options that are truly needed (big difference), the coach should not reply with “you have to do it as I say.” Both of these techniques are terrible examples of a coach. Arguably, you aren’t a coach at that point; you are simply a facilitator. A coach must attempt to stay true to the movement patterns of the WOD and get creative on how to achieve the intent. Modifications are ok but don’t use that as a license to make modifications all of the time. The coach must help the athlete either maintain or progress in performance to keep their physical fitness levels aligned with their goals.

Role of a Leader – Meet people where they are at in their professional journey. Spoiler: not everyone starts their career as a Colonel or CMSgt. They start at the bottom of the totem pole like everyone else and must work hard to move up. This means that everyone (even senior leaders) has different experiences and skillsets that are only as good as what their career has allowed them to have. To expect anything above that is a potential recipe for failure. You may see brief flashes of excellence that are outside of their current position, but those flashes are rarely sustained in an undefeated manner. Those flashes often overshadow the grind and mistakes that eventually resulted in success. All of those points are important to growth for a person, so it is up to the leader to recognize where their teammate is at in their professional story and help them move forward. A great leader will seek opportunities to challenge a teammate outside of their comfort zone because often times that will be where true growth can happen. Those challenges can be tough, but Any opportunity you can help your athlete learn the “why” behind the path of functional fitness, the better they can perform on their own. Ideally, a coach will want to evolve their athlete from needing their help, in the beginning, to eventually needing minimal engagement during both training and game time. This isn’t to say the relationship is over, but rather the coach has helped the athlete achieve a level of maturity and knowledge where they can manage themselves to achieve the desired goal of the WOD. If the athlete continues to seek advice from the coach, this is usually because they have earned the trust of the coach and the relationship is worth maintaining. The frequency of advice may change over time, but that engagement is a key indicator of a healthy relationship. For example, if you see one of your athletes repeat what you have taught them to themselves or another athlete, treat that as a compliment, not as a threat to your job. Consider yourself fortunate to have been an impactful influence on that athlete’s journey.

Role of a Coach – The best coaches try to make themselves obsolete. Any opportunity you can help your athlete learn the “why” behind the path of functional fitness, the better they can perform on their own. Ideally, a coach will want to evolve their athlete from needing their help, in the beginning, to eventually needing minimal engagement during both training and game time. This isn’t to say the relationship is over, but rather the coach has helped the athlete achieve a level of maturity and knowledge where they can manage themselves to achieve the desired goal of the WOD. If the athlete continues to seek advice from the coach, this is usually because they have earned the trust of the coach and the relationship is worth maintaining. The frequency of advice may change over time, but that engagement is a key indicator of a healthy relationship. For example, if you see one of your athletes repeat what you have taught them to themselves or another athlete, treat that as a compliment, not as a threat to your job. Consider yourself fortunate to have been an impactful influence on that athlete’s journey.

Role of a Leader – The best leaders are actively grooming their replacements. Regardless if you want it to be true, you can not serve in the Air Force forever. The time that you are fortunate enough to serve can span over a long period of time, but eventually, you will leave the service either by choice or by limitations of the law. With the exception of being a first-term Airman or Second Lieutenant, you will always have some junior in grade serving beside you. The best leaders are aware of this relationship and actively spend time coaching and mentoring the junior grade member in the preparation for them to move up and assume the responsibilities of the senior grade member. This is what I believe helps us create the best military in the world: an active responsibility to simultaneously develop the total force at all levels. By leaders spending time in developing the junior grade members, the Air Force can continue to upgrade our capabilities as a team, independent of the tools or technology at hand. We will remain the greatest Air Force in the world if we continue to focus on the “next man/woman up” mentality that focuses on the development and eventual replacement of leaders, not tools.