How to Not Totally Suck as a New Coach: A People BusinessThis article lays out a series of mindsets, practices, and options you can use to improve the client/coach relationship and ensure that you don’t faceplant right off the starting blocks. Following them won’t make you a good coach—that takes experience and skill—but you won’t suck, and in the process, you can start changing lives and learning from the start.
How to Not Totally Suck as a New Coach: A People Business
By: CJ Gotcher, Barbell Academy Director
To become a good coach, you need experience. But to get experience, you will spend months or years being a not-good coach.
In the previous article in this series, I broke down the professional practices new coaches can use to manage risk and start with a strong foundation of knowledge and trust with their clients.
But, even if you start right and mitigate risk, the experience could still totally suck for a new client. Just as importantly, poor practices could make the process totally suck for you—your happiness matters too, after all. The world needs more people fired up about training and more coaches who can deliver on the promise of greater strength and health. So, anything we can do to prevent the experience from totally sucking is a step in the right direction.
This article lays out a series of mindsets, practices, and options you can use to improve the client/coach relationship and ensure that you don’t faceplant right off the starting blocks. Following them won’t make you a good coach—that takes experience and skill—but you won’t suck, and in the process, you can start changing lives and learning from the start.
Start with the Familiar
Many new coaches feel like they have to be everything to everyone, but this is completely backward. It’s harder to build the broad knowledge and flexibility needed to coach a wider audience, and if your pitch is selling “time-efficient workouts” that “build muscle and burn fat,” you’ll struggle just to stay afloat in a blood-red sea of competition.
It’s okay to stick to what you know in the beginning. You can do much better work coaching lifters with similar goals and training interests while cutting your teeth and improving your craft. At the very least, you’ll have the anchor of your past experience along with that of others who travel in the same communities you do.
You’ll also be more familiar with this community, which will be essential if you choose to turn pro and commit to growing your practice. Which certifications and experts are recognized as being useful and respectable? What local coaches and gyms are in the area? What are the needs of lifters within that community? This will guide your first decisions around content, certification, and marketing, so you’re not left guessing.
Don’t wade in familiar, shallow waters for so long that you fail to branch out and learn, but recognize where your gifts lie. Aim to be uncomfortable, not overwhelmed. Once you feel like you’ve “got the hang of this,” start to reach out to clients with different backgrounds, goals, or needs, or develop a better offering for your familiar crowd.
Borrow and Outsource
When you’re just starting, don’t be afraid to borrow from popular, effective programming templates and stick to commonly-used cues or refer to general advice from reputable sources to answer lifestyle or diet questions that you don’t have personal experience with.
This will tone down the chaos, allowing you to focus on one coaching skill at a time, whether that be your coaching eye on the platform, developing effective systems for check-ins and tracking achievement, or marketing to keep the gym doors open.
At first, this might sound like “cheating.” You might think, “They’re not paying me for a template; they’re paying me for coaching!” Most clients don’t care about what ”counts” as coaching. They’re looking for results, a relationship, and an experience at a price where they don’t feel cheated—not a particular set of features. How you deliver that is up to you.
Barbell Logic Staff Coaches have been coaching and programming for years. We’re expected to apply MED principles to a broad range of strength-centered goals, tools, and interests, but when you’re just starting, you’re unlikely to come up with something better than a simple progression or one of the basic strength programs already available if you’re working with novices who have general strength and health goals.
Don’t pretend to be the expert you’re not (see the next item), pay close attention to your lifter’s response to the training, care about their progress, and the results will often speak for themselves.
Collaborate, Don’t Command
The more we position ourselves as experts fixing broken people with invisible problems that only we have the knowledge to solve, the more ownership we take on for their progress, and the more we take from their ownership of their results.
This mindset is rampant in the coaching field at all levels. Lifters are told that if they don’t move the way we tell them, they’ll get hurt or won’t progress. If they struggle to complete their training, it’s because they lack the willpower to do the work. If they do everything we say and still don’t get results, they must be broken and should consult a doctor for chemical assistance.
As a new coach, avoid the incredible burden—and inevitable crash—of this kind of authority by shifting your mindset:
- Let your lifter know why you’re making the choices and recommendations you do. Involve them in the conversation about what to do next. If you’re a new coach, even if you have a few years of lifting experience and a few books behind you, your expertise won’t match the client’s experience in their own skin.
- Get used to saying, “I don’t know,” “I’ll look into it,” and “Let’s try it and see the results.” These three phrases free you from needing to have all the answers and help drive your education. As a new coach, what could be more important to learn than the needs your clients have right now?
- Check on what matters. It’s easy to watch the metrics we’re familiar with—weight on the bar, weight on the scale, technique improvements—and assume we’re succeeding when all the while, we’re losing the lifter. Do they still look forward to going to the gym? Are they seeing improvements in the things they care about? Do they know where you’re going with the program?
- Join a community of professionals. Join groups of other coaches at different experience levels. Get to know physical therapists, doctors, dietitians, and specialty or sport coaches. Not only can they provide unique insights into your problems, but you can provide a critical service to your lifters by making the connection when they need a referral.
These are useful practices for a coach at any level, but ironically, it’s usually the novice coach who is most afraid to use them. This fear comes from insecurity:
“If I don’t seem like an expert, they’ll quit.”
It helps to remember that if you’re just starting, you’re not an expert, and that’s okay. They chose to work with you anyway. By being client-centered, professional, on time, authentic, and by giving them your care and attention, you’re likely able to provide a better service than any of the Insta-gurus they could find.
And if they do choose to quit, that’s okay too. Obviously, we want to provide the best service we can so they continue seeing value and choose to stay, but that’s the best we can do, and pretending to be what we’re not means providing worse service.
Get Skin in the Game
One of the most common concerns we hear from new coaches is price. They feel guilty charging the friends, family, and acquaintances that they’re starting to coach. They also often worry about being seen as overcharging or failing to deliver enough value to justify the cost.
However, coaching entirely free—without any skin in the game—usually leads to lackluster results. Without any barrier to entry, coaches often end up with lifters who only follow the plan 50-75% of the time, and that’s unsatisfying for the coach and lifter both. The coach learns something, and the lifter sees some improvement, but there’s a better way.
For new professional coaches, it’s natural to look at your local market and try to pick something on the low end of the current offerings to get your first clients.
In general, this is bad practice. You have no idea what service others are really offering, how effective they are, or if they are slowly—silently—going broke. Even worse, without some forethought, you can get caught (as some do) with clients 1-2 years down the line who are paying less than your time is worth but to whom you feel obligated to continue serving. These strategies can help:
- Consider going through the ”freedom number“ exercise recommended by Jonathan Goodman. Find out what you need to meet your life minimums each month and subtract other continued earnings from that. I recommend including a 10% buffer in addition to this. Divide this number by the number of new clients you have the time and energy to serve at the level of service you plan to offer, and this represents the bare minimum you can charge. If it looks too high, don’t drop your price—it’s a minimum for a reason. Instead, find out who can pay it, improve your offering to wow them at that price, then sell it.
- Start with a fixed time commitment at a lower price: a “fundamentals,” “onramp,” or “challenge” offering for 1-3 months (I recommend three months, generally) with a higher cost if they want to stay for follow-on training. Be transparent about this from the beginning—no switcheroos.
- Include in your client agreement a renegotiation every year where you may (or may not) increase your rates by a certain limit (I used 15%). After a year of experience, learning, and development, your time should be worth more. You still want to honor the relationship you have with your early adopters, so you may consider different rate increases—new clients paying more than current clients.
- Remember, above all else, that your customer is a consenting adult. If they don’t find the value to be worth the price, they can—and will—quit. Be honest and transparent and provide a killer service, don’t pressure or guilt them, and you don’t have to worry about your price causing resentment.
Over half of the students going through the Academy are in the “shallow beach” phase of coaching. They already have primary jobs but are considering a transition to coaching. At the moment, many are giving basic movement and programming guidance to friends, family, and other people they may feel uncomfortable charging. If you’re in this pre-professional category, consider getting skin in the game in other ways besides paying you directly:
- Ask for a fixed time commitment of 1-3 months and an honest review for a professional Facebook page, Google Business Profile, or in an email you can use as a testimonial. Make this commitment clear when you start, keep a pulse for their feelings about the training throughout the process, and they will almost always come through. At the end of the commitment, it’s easier to untangle gracefully if you choose or to offer continued coaching for pay.
- Have them donate a set amount per month to a charity of your (or their) choosing instead of paying you.
- Schedule regular feedback sessions (usually 5-15 minutes) as the “cost” of coaching and hold them to it. Be responsive, listen, and ask specific questions about how you can improve during these sessions.
- Keep a mindset of “resentment insurance,” a concept that helps prevent overenthusiasm from biting you later. “Shallow beach” coaches tend to take on new friends/family clients when their routines are stable. Then life gets busy, and they begin to feel trapped. They provide lower-quality service, stop learning as much, and start resenting the obligation. Consider what you would need to feel satisfied even if coaching took an extra 30 minutes out of every
Get Certified (If Needed)
Depending on what, where, and how you’re coaching, you may never need to get a formal certification.
No one is going to give you permission to coach, a fact that can be at once frightening and freeing to you. However, you may still have some hoops to jump:
First, if you plan on offering nutrition coaching, know the law. Different states, provinces, and countries have different rules about the services you are allowed to offer and what titles you are allowed to use. There are tools to help coaches navigate these distinctions—in the United States, for instance, the ANA keeps a summary page—but these are not always up to date. Use summary resources to point you to the actual text of your local laws.
Although few locations have formal licensing requirements for personal training (Brazil is one exception), most gyms and institutions will have de facto minimums. For insurance reasons, many CrossFit gyms can’t allow you to coach on the premises without a CF Level 1 Certificate. Some big-box gyms in the United States expect a personal trainer credential from an NCCA-accredited organization, and in the UK, most gyms expect you to have a credential through REPS.
We don’t recommend getting a certification just to “keep options open.” Certifications can be expensive and waste time that could otherwise be spent coaching. Identify where you intend to coach. If it’s your garage or a small, private space, you probably don’t need credentialing at first unless you’re coaching an audience that expects it. If you want to coach for someone else, learn what they expect as a minimum and get to work earning it.
Start to Develop a General, Broad Knowledge Base
Learn in parallel with your experience, and avoid hyper-specializing early.
It’s not important that you be an excellent coach to start coaching. People are surprisingly resilient, and many gym-goers manage to not get hurt and get some results, at least for a while, on their own.
For novice barbell strength coaches, this is what the Barbell Academy Principles Course is designed for, covering the basics of anatomy, physiology, mechanics, programming, and the basic lifts to serve as a baseline of practice.
But regardless of your coaching aims, the principles remain the same. You can get this education through quality college exercise science and kinesiology programs, studying to earn a personal trainer certification, or through self-study, but it’s essential to the new coach.
Purists may balk at this: “Why should I learn this stupid stuff that’s mostly wrong and is never going to apply to me as a barbell coach?”
The amount and type of “stupid stuff” will obviously depend on the specific program in question, but a general education—even one with some details that you reject in the future—is invaluable. It provides a framework to understand platform movement and the effects of programming choices. It provides a common language to talk to other coaches. And it provides a starting point to later disagree with.
In the words of American psychologist and author Wayne Dyer, “The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.”
Coaching well takes time and practice, like any skill, but you can’t practice if you don’t start.
You won’t be perfect. You’ll come back and refer to this and other resources often. You won’t feel like you have all the answers. And that’s okay. None of us do.
What’s not okay is waiting years for permission to start because of fear. The fact that you’re afraid—that you want to do well, that you want to help people—is a good quality and speaks to the fact that you care. Take what you’ve learned here, cover your bases, and get started.