The CrossFit L1 Cert Doesn't Make You a Coach

You are no more qualified to be a CrossFit coach on the Monday after your cert than you were going in. How do I know this? Simple -- because I was the world's shittiest CrossFit coach for easily two years.
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I am going to go out on a limb here with a statement:

Attending a CrossFit L1 Cert does not qualify you to coach CrossFit.

Now, before this is railed as blasphemy, let me put this into context.

How many college-educated graduates set upon their first teaching job with the intent of changing the world with never-before-tried teaching methods, their Dead Poet's Society "rip it out!" shtick, and a commitment to bringing to life the concepts of teaching they'd imagined since they were just kids themselves? Then the real world sets in and they find that what they thought would be effective actually doesn't work at all. In fact, it takes years of honing skills, relationships, methods, curriculum, and practical experience before they can really call themselves "teachers." You get a teaching certificate. But only after exposure to experience and ongoing real-world practical experience, do you become a teacher.

You can be a coach, or you can be "Coach." The former is a title bestowed upon you by the certification process; the latter usually takes years of honing skills, relationships, methods, curriculum, and practical experience to achieve. And the idea that you can wander into an L1 Certification course just a CrossFitter on a Saturday morning and emerge Sunday afternoon as "Coach" is pure fantasy.

Here's what usually happens. You begin CrossFitting and shortly thereafter, begin to consider getting your L1. You start to think about how you would coach. You start planning your warm ups, in your head, and start creating WODs. You know just how fantastic a coach you are going to be. You are going to set the world on fire with never-before-seen novelty workouts that will blow your clients' minds!

Then that fateful day comes, after you have passed your cert and begun covering classes in your local box, when you start getting the inevitable questions. "Can you watch my snatch and tell me what you see?" "Can you show me the best way to set up for a deadlift?" You watch a student failing a clean repeatedly, but you're just not sure how to help them fix it because you can't spot what they are doing wrong. The bottom line is that you are no more qualified to coach on the Monday after your cert than you were going in.

How do I know this? Simple -- because I was the world's shittiest CrossFit coach for easily two years.

I got my L1 in May of 2010, and promptly began coaching classes at my box. The problem is, I knew next to nothing. Sure, I was one of the best CrossFitters in the box at the time, but that did not mean I knew anything about exercise physiology, energy systems, programming, technical aspects of lifts, kinesiology, or nutrition. I could kip but was clueless as to how to teach it. I could do double unders, but had no idea how to show others. ("Just jump once and swing twice. Got it?")

When I think of some of the cues I used to coach people, I literally cringe. I had a couple of coaching cues on cleans that are so embarrassing I won't even mention them here, but suffice to say, they have nothing to do with executing a proper clean.

It's really not the fault of the L1 Cert process. The L1 Cert is nothing more than an introduction to the basics of coaching. Much time is spent in a circle with a PVC pipe trying to elicit from students what they see when someone is failing to fully extend their hips. But frankly, that kind of insight and wisdom takes years and thousands of reps to identify.

In my first year of coaching, I couldn't have told you whether clients executing a snatch were set up properly, whether they were keeping the bar in close, or whether they were fully extending their hips. I couldn't have told you how to correct a butt coming up early on a clean or how to correct an early bend in the elbows. I had no idea how to fix a "donkey kick" in a snatch or even begin to teach a muscle up. I couldn't even do a muscle up! Is it at least fair to say that you should be able to perform the movements you are coaching?

What it took in order to make me even a decent coach was continuing education. Realizing my limitations, I began to pore over articles and videos from Mark Rippetoe, Greg Everett, and more. I tried to consume every bit of information I could about the squat -- how to execute it, how to fix issues with it, the difference between low-bar and high-bar back squat and why one might be preferred over the other. I watched videos from Carl Paoli and Kelly Starrett, and then I would go into the box and try it for myself. I became a student of programming, voraciously reading anything I could about periodization and looking at OPT, Outlaw, Simmons, and Invictus, trying to find the common themes and what differentiated them from the everyday box WOD and CF main-site programming. I spent six months, two evenings per week, at Cincinnati Weightlifting, where I was able to perform hundreds if not thousands of coached reps on just the snatch and clean and jerk.

And after all of this, roughly three years, two CrossFit Games berths, and hundreds of hours coaching classes, I still realize that I have a long, long way to go. I want to believe I am a good coach, but I also realize there are many who are much more knowledgeable. My task is to glean every possible bit of data from those folks whenever possible.

So what's the upshot here? That every recent L1 grad is unqualified to coach? No. But here is what I wish for, as more and more people put their health and fitness in the hands of brand new CrossFit coaches across the world that are imbued with, perhaps, a false sense of security about their own qualifications:

  • That box owners will apprentice these coaches in under the watchful eye of a more experienced coach before turning them loose on the general population. Don't leave me alone with the class until you know that I know what the hell I am doing.
  • That each new L1 grad commit to a lifetime of learning starting with the Monday immediately following their cert, and continually avail themselves of the wealth of knowledge that exists online in order to become better coaches. Admit you have a lot to learn and start learning it.
  • That CrossFit HQ consider, even every-so-briefly, that perhaps in addition to an L1, that prior to opening an affiliate, some additional basic competencies be demonstrated. I am not sure how this might look, but I believe it's a worthwhile discussion to have. Perhaps two years minimum practical experience before opening a box and training others? Seems logical to me.

I met a guy at my L1 Cert who had literally started CrossFit three weeks earlier. He told me so. He specifically said, "I don't even know what I am doing here, LOL." (Okay, I added the LOL.) That guy could have started coaching the following Monday. L1 certs are a dime a dozen.

Make it your mission to be the best coach in the world. Use the L1 as only a starting point to a lifetime of continuing education and always, always coach your clients from a position of humility. This means that you understand that hubris will get them injured, and humility will get both you, and your clients, the best information available on how to become more fit.

Patrick McCarty is a Level I Certified Crossfit trainer and masters athlete. He is a featured coach on Breaking Muscle, where this article first appeared.

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