What single trait do the best CrossFit coaches in the world nearly all have in common? An encyclopedic knowledge of the CrossFit methodology? Endless cues and movement substitutions for seemingly any scenario? The ability to spot the tiniest movement flaw from across the room?
Those are valuable skills, and it’s true that most of the best CrossFit trainers have spent years refining them. But none of them are the most important.
In the excellent article titled “What Makes a Great Coach?,” published in the June 2021 edition of the Professional Coach, Matt Swift (CF-L4) touches on what is truly the key to unlocking your full potential for using CrossFit to change people’s lives: relationship building.
Building meaningful relationships with clients will open the doorway to the mutual respect and trust that are prerequisites to helping people develop the habits that will change their lives. Being the smartest CrossFit trainer on the planet won’t be particularly useful if your athletes don’t like and trust you enough to listen to you.
“PEOPLE DO NOT CARE HOW MUCH YOU KNOW UNTIL THEY KNOW HOW MUCH YOU CARE.” ― JOHN MAXWELL
Because relationship building is such an important skill, it makes sense that it might also be the most challenging to develop and master.
After all … how, exactly, can a trainer get better at relationship building?
Step 1: Be a servant first.
The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader,” and it can be invaluable in helping trainers build meaningful relationships with the athletes they coach.
Simply put, servant-leaders are servants first. They strive to put the needs of others first and help them develop and perform at the highest caliber possible. Servant leaders believe in “emptying their cup” into others — finding ways each day to pour all they know into the people around them.
Here are some of the most important things trainers can do to put servant leadership into practice and build better relationships in the process:
1. Be genuine. Learn your athletes’ names and use them at least three times per class. Greet them with a smile and a high five. In short, be nice. Positivity is infectious.
2. Be an active listener. Look your athletes in the eye and seek to really understand what they’re saying. Empathize. Don’t interrupt. Be deliberate in your responses.
“WE HAVE TWO EARS AND ONE MOUTH SO THAT WE CAN LISTEN TWICE AS MUCH AS WE SPEAK.” ― EPICTETUS
3. Encourage athletes to dream big dreams. Be relentless in holding them accountable to doing the work it will take to achieve their dreams. Support them along the way and don’t let them give up on themselves. Don’t accept “I can’t.” Be the person in your athletes’ lives who tells them “you can.”
4. Be humble and self-aware. Leave your ego at the door. Don’t be afraid to be honest with your athletes about the things in the gym you’re not good at. Being vulnerable makes it easier for athletes to see you as a normal person instead of a fitness cyborg who couldn’t possibly relate to them.
5. Do the little things each day that demonstrate practical service to others. Help newer athletes as they struggle to set their equipment up. At the end of class, jump in and help tired athletes put things away. Clean up any trash that is left behind and leave the gym as you found it.
The benefits of a service-before-self mindset don’t stop at improving one-on-one relationship building. A gym full of servant-leader trainers is also guaranteed to have that elusive quality prized by gym owners and athletes alike: a community full of high-character individuals who are humble, driven, and happy.
Coaches who practice servant leadership are dedicated to becoming better coaches because it will give them more tools to help others; not because it will bring them personal acclaim or recognition. A trainer’s personal goals should never infringe on their ultimate duty of helping others.
Practicing servant leadership will require a paradigm shift for trainers who are accustomed to a more traditional, top-down style of leadership. But for coaches who want to build the collaborative relationships that will allow them to use CrossFit to instigate lifelong change for people, it will be an absolute game-changer.
About the Author
Edward Getterman is a Certified CrossFit Trainer (CF-L3) and the owner of Twin Bridges CrossFit in Waco, Texas. If he can’t be at the gym or at home, he’d prefer to be at Walt Disney World. He loves deadlifts, hates running, and believes above all else that CrossFit is for everyone.
**“To Build Better Relationships, be a Servant First” originally appeared in the September 12, 2022 edition of The Professional Coach, CrossFit’s bimonthly email sent to all CrossFit trainers. It can be found in its original form here: https://www.crossfit.com/pro-coach/to-build-better-relationships-be-a-servant-first