In Coaching, CrossFit

August 24, 2009

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Steven Shrago, a British psychologist and CrossFit trainer, offers coaches advice on how to get better results by building better rapport with athletes.

Coaching is not just about stopwatches, whiteboards and learning progressions. It’s about relating in a meaningful way to a diverse group of people. At the core of the CrossFit model is the relationship between athlete and coach. This relationship may be on a one-to-one basis or as part of a group.

Coaching knowledge and virtuosity are strong determining factors in the results achieved by individual athletes. But sometimes coaching relationships do not work as well as hoped. That doesn’t have to happen. So how to improve the athlete-coach relationship?

Let’s start with a truism: Everyone is different. From physical size, ability, capacity and potential through to more subtle and ethereal concepts like beliefs, personality and values, it’s clear we are all unique. Your mum was right about that. Coaches need to bridge differences to relate to everyone in productive and effective ways.

I’ll outline three progressions you can work through to develop your awareness and skills around building a relationship with your clients. The techniques increase in complexity and build on one another. It goes without saying that although these skills have great utility in CrossFit context, they’re also pretty useful in life outside the box.

The three progressions are active listening, building rapport and rich communication.



16 Comments on “Coaches and Athletes: The Psychology of CrossFit”


wrote …

GREAT article. Any coach could definitely benefit from the tips Shrago provides.


wrote …

This article falls under the same heading as the Dave Tate videos... someone with something to say that's very much worth saying. Wonderful read.


Shane Skowron wrote …

This article was very interesting, and the pictures were very helpful in understanding it. I did end up taking that learning styles survey linked at the end of the article. It turns out I'm heavily kinaesthetic -- had me surprised.


wrote …

"...Communication is the message you get back..." good point. Another way of saying this is "Communication is what the listener does."

Great application of communication concepts to Crossfit coaching.

Mirroring and active listening are great tools.

"...At the core of the CrossFit model is the relationship between athlete and coach. This relationship may be on a one-to-one basis or as part of a group..."

But, ou don't have a relationship with a group. You have a relationship with individuals.


wrote …

How something as controversial as NLP managed to creep into something as common sense as CF, beats me. This is the last place I would expect to see it.

Let's just say that if Coach Glassman had been busy building rapport, instead of sticking to his principles of dismissing SB, he wouldn't get kicked out of every Globo Gym and maybe we wouldn't be even enjoying the benefits of CF today.

Should a good coach carefully observe his athletes - definitely. Should a good coach be able to give clear instructions - definitely. Should a good coach worry about modalities and trademarked fancy psychological names - maybe not.

The CF website has so far been a good place for tried and proven information and it has been respected for keeping good quality. Let's keep it that way. An alternative view on NLP you can find here -


Jeff Barnett wrote …

I'm going to love using the cue he relays from the owner of CrossFit London about active shoulders during overhead squat.

"Angry squirrels! Angry squirrels!!!"


replied to comment from Jordan Stoyanov

Thanks for posting another view, Jordan.

We're always interested in the other side of the coin.

I'd be interested to hear if any trainers out there have successfully or unsuccessfully used some of these techniques in their gyms. Is anyone planning to do so?

Mike Warkentin
CrossFit Journal


wrote …

The Ken Hill quote "...simple brain..." used in a side bar in the article...Is that the British Playwright, Ken Hill?


wrote …

Susan: the Ken Hill in question is (possibly was) a pioneer in the field of Artificial Intelligence. It is strangely difficult to find much information about the man himself, aside from the ubiquitous quote. This was the best that I could come up with:


replied to comment from Jordan Stoyanov

What is SB?


replied to comment from Daniel Meyer

Ever read any of Rip's missives?

Read 'em, and you'll know what SB means brother!



wrote …

The impact this could have in effectly leading my subordinates is tremendous. Well written and very interesting. I have a feeling I'll reference this article frequently in the months leading up to our next deployment. I notice many of the troops in my squadron carry over the mannerisms of out chief. Perhaps there's more to "Lead from the Front" than I realized.


wrote …

With all due respect, I think you may be more hung up on rejecting good advice if it comes from a source you don't like than Steven Shrago was in presenting this material based on a source he does like. I found the article filled with practical advice that was mostly independent of its source in NLP.

For what it's worth, I happen to share your general skepticism of systems of "awareness" or "happiness" or "power" or "liberation" or whatever miracle solution might be promised. They are often based on profound truths, but they seem to get packaged in dangerous ways. We've sent several articles describing one or more aspects of such systems back to the drawing boards because they didn't fit a measurable, observable, repeatable approach to improving human performance.

Whether or not you agree with the term "rapport" and it's place in the NLP system, there's little doubt that the quality of interaction between coach and athlete has A LOT to do with the success of the coaching. Whether you call this rapport or just good coaching or anything else, the reality is there. And while I wasn't in the gym with Coach Glassman until 2004, I know he made a tremendous impression on almost everyone he trained. Is that rapport? It's as good a word as I can come up with.

Some coaches and trainers are able to establish strong connections with their athletes and clients seemingly automatically. For them, this article probably has little value. But there are many trainers out there who scratch their heads at the end of the day wondering why their gym is mostly empty or why another client didn't renew. For them, articles like this, wisely applied, can be career saving.


replied to comment from Jeff Barnett

So, tonight, we did heavy OH Squats at my box. My trainer is saying something to me about pushing my hands apart, and that makes me think, "ANGRY SQUIRRELS! ANGRY SQUIRRELS!" and I about lost it and dropped the barbell, lol.


wrote …

Absolutely fantastic comment, Brian. I have been note taking on a lot of these nuances between coach and clients. I am hoping to help my other coaches become more proficient at interpersonal relationships and group dynamics.

Grant Scalf


wrote …

On May 30, 2009, Coach Greg Glassman told participants at a CrossFit 101 seminar at CrossFit By Overload that he has a big problem with the fitness industry in general and even some CrossFitters: there is too much in the way of unsubstantiated claims and too little in the way of evidence. At the heart of the issue is the failure to distinguish between narrative, data and method.

Narrative is a story. “I’m the greatest trainer in the world” is an example of narrative. If not supported by data and method, narrative has little value. But, too often, discussion about fitness begins and ends with narrative. Nothing else is offered.

Data is concerns something that is measurable, observable and repeatable. “All 35 members of my gym, 20 of whom are female, have muscle-ups” is an example of data. But not everyone with data is willing to share it.

Method is the exact approach you took. What did you do that worked? Implementation of the Zone Diet would be an example.

The most useful structure is to begin with data, follow with method and conclude with narrative. But sometimes the narrative comes first and is used to justify data and method that are sketchy or non-existent. Don’t make the mistake of attaching any importance to that form of discussion.

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