So You Think You’re a Coach? – Coaching with Intention


As a new coach, leading a group fitness class can be an overwhelming experience. First there is the material to know, then there are the people with all their needs, questions, and personalities, and then you have space and equipment to manage. Amidst the requirement of being able to teach a movement, respond to inquiries, adjust for injuries, and keep everyone moving safely and having fun, sometimes the true core of coaching is lost.

Observing new coaches, what I most see lacking is intention. Recently while taking class from a novice coach, I asked her what her intention was in teaching a particular movement. Her reply was, that was the programming, so that was what she was teaching. Here’s what I think of that – you are not a coach if you are just showing up and following a list on a piece of paper. You are not a coach if you merely mime movements for me, press start on a stopwatch, or write my weights down in a manila folder.

There should never be a point at which during your coaching you cannot answer the question of why. Are you teaching things because that is what there is to teach or because there is a lesson inside of that exercise? As a CrossFit coach, are you simply running people through deadlifts and pull ups, occasionally cheering? As a rowing coach, are you just putting students through cardio intervals? Is it just a day to lift heavy in powerlifting? Or, is there something deeper – the lesson with which the students should walk away?

What Is Intention?

I think of intention in coaching as if I were writing an essay. If I wrote an essay I would have a thesis statement – something to tie my words together and be the underlying theme through all the paragraphs. Each paragraph would have a topic sentence relating to the thesis and identifying its individual purpose.

The intention is what I intend to teach today – what I intend for you to leave the classroom, in this case the gym, having learned. The paragraphs are the portions of the class – warm-up, mobility, workout, post-workout. Each portion of class has a purpose that relates to the bigger intention of the class. The sentences are the exercises that build the foundation for all of this to happen.

Create for yourself:

  • Intention with each movement
  • Intention with each portion of class
  • Intention for the entire class

But I Didn’t Write the Workout

Not having written the programming is never a reason to lack intention. You may not have the identical intention as the person who wrote the programming, but you can still have an intention. It is like interpretations of music. The notes are on the page and each coach will have different nuances or emphasis, based on what they see in the notes. The pieces are the same; the delivery is slightly different.

Is it easier to create intention when you have written the programming? My answer is no. My answer is – it is easier to create intention when the programming is done well. At CrossFit LA the coaches took turns writing three week cycles of programming. More often than not, I was teaching a curriculum I had not written. The programming was thought out to such a level that it was never a problem to find intention in each other’s workouts.

What’s It Really Look Like?

So, what does this mean in practical terms? If I were handed programming for a class, I would construct these intentions for myself before walking into the classroom. For example, if I were given a workout to teach that contained handstands I would consider, what do I want to teach about the handstand? I might decide what I really want to talk about is the hollow position. I might put shoulder press into the warm-up so I could have people practice proper shoulder position, core tension, and hip position so they understand and practice what it means to be “hollow.” I might even declare right at the beginning of class, “Today our focus is going to be on the hollow position and where that shows up for us in various exercises.” Because as a student, if you know what it is you’re supposed to be learning, you might have better luck actually learning it, right? Think of it as verbal bold print.

Another example could be a day of rowing intervals. If I was handed programming that declared the workout would be four 1,000m sprints, I could decide the day is going to be about learning to hinge at the hip so students develop the proper hip swing in their rowing stroke. I could program good mornings in the warm-up or do toy soldiers as a dynamic stretch. We could practice excellent form on sit-ups. Or if I have more advanced students, I might decide the day is about strategizing a race and we would talk about the racing start, race pace, when to start sprinting it home, etc. and practice it on each of the four sprints.

What I would never do in either scenario is just verbally run through the technique, outline the workout, and then say go. A coach is not a timekeeper and a cheerleader. A good student of most any athletic endeavor can manage before long to get themselves from one end of a workout to another. They don’t need someone to say start and stop. They need someone to take their training to a deeper level. They need someone to guide them who understands the nuances of the movements, the purpose of the workout, and the intention of the practice. A coach is someone who provides that for them and who at any given moment can answer the question why.

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