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The Art of Coaching

This was the title of world class strength coach Dan John’s seminar, which I was lucky enough to attend in July 2015. The content of the seminar forms the basis for my coaching article.


Dan John says there are only three types of coaches in the world: the Joker, the Comedian and the Entertainer.


While the Joker is extremely funny upon first impression, they only have one joke to tell.  They will soon not be as funny anymore. From the coaching perspective this may be someone who always coaches in the same way, or may only be capable of pushing his clients to their limits every time. “Go on, 5 more reps, move your a**” – accompanying athletes with (more-or-less) kind words may be one thing we need to supply, but it certainly is not what a coach is for.


The Comedian on the other hand is capable of making you smile for about an hour or maybe even longer. They’ve got a few sketches to show, a few more jokes to tell and they add  more diversity into their program. Nontheless they will stick to one type of joke, one specialty. An excellent weightlifting coach, for example, will give you tons of useful information about weightlifting. But they will most likely not be able to coach you in gymnastics at all. Just like a good comedian can easily fill one hour with his specialty of stand-up comedy – but make him sing and folks will run away.


The Entertainer clearly stands at the top of the food chain in our example. He can entertain the audience in a variety of ways. He can sing, dance, act or tell jokes. Whatever he does, you will never be bored. Need an example? Think of Tom Hanks. He is incredibly funny in comedies such as Forrest Gump, but also impresses in dramas like Saving Private Ryan. This coach is multifaceted but has also specialized in a basic skill. They can and will teach you different training possibilities, and tailor them to your individual needs. They will always keep you entertained and make sure that you always move in one direction: forward.

The Art of Crossfit coaching
Rob Forte is a Coach and an Athlete, and easily understands the needs of his crossfitters.


Anything you think and do has a base in some way. The house you live in needs foundations, your body needs a stable base (which is why we love squatting so much!) even your thoughts need some underlying, say basic, principles.

The base of a coach is his understanding. Period. Which understanding? Good question.

  • On the one hand it is certainly physiological and anatomical understanding, as we need to know how the human body works in order to improve it.
  • On the other hand psychological and compassionate human understanding really is a great deal for coaches to have.

Movement Coach Carl Paoli

‘Behind the leg Pistols are a great progression exercise for the Crossfitters I coach who have difficulty with the movement and their mobility’

A video posted by Carl Paoli (@carlpaoli) on

A great coach needs to see where their athletes’ physical and mental ability is at, and where he or she needs to start their training. The most important part is to set realistic goals in order to improve constantly and change the lives of your athletes. In order to experience where to start, it is not enough to simply ask ‘Where are you at? How good have you been until now?’ That’d just be too easy. Rather we should asses and screen our athletes individually and consistently.

Crossfit coaching: teaching
Crossfit coaching: Coaches must work closely with their Crossfitters to help them hit their goals

This is the only way to set realistic goals and/or readjust them if necessary on your way to elite fitness.


Talking about realistic goals – the most important point is that coaches show athletes what they need to do instead of letting them do what they want to do.

Sounds weird? Well, let’s dig a little deeper.

Everyone wants to snatch heavy. That’s cool and impressive and I totally understand that. Nonetheless, if your mobility is off track, so that you have trouble standing up straight, we do not need to start just yet working on your snatch.

If you can set the right goals it will be easier to keep your focus set on these goals. And you really need a focal point to finally achieve what you’re looking for. Dan John’s principle is: ‘The goal is to keep the goal the goal’. In other words: focus on your target. This focus is so important as it is only possible to effectively measure progress if you have goals. Only the individual with a set goal can do the things necessary to reach it.


DJ says there are three main things you need to understand in order to develop a good understanding as well as great coaching habits:

  • The Know:
    Become very proficient in one topic. May it be weightlifting, gymnastics, endurance or something else. Make one thing your base. Then become a master of your base.
  • The Do:
    Use simple, logical progressions in consistency with your athletes screening and assessment output and individualize these progressions for each person
  • Savoir Faire:
    Be aware of what to do in a variety of situations. Even the most elite athletes are only human beings. Everyone has good and bad days. And the most important thing in our life is, well, our life. That term usually describes everything that’s going on besides the Crossfit Box or your gym. Anything that happens in this ‘outside but real world’ has an immense effect on our well-being and therefore on our physical capacity. If your athlete’s relationship just broke down, then it may be more useful to just sent him or her home and allow for some mental and physical rest, or reschedule the heavy lifting session for some lighter, more relaxed work. A great coach needs to be able to put themselves in the position of their athletes, and adapt planned training to the circumstances of their lives.

Weightlifting and Crossfit Coach and Athlete Anna Hulda

This Icelandic athlete is a weightlifting champion, and uses this experience to help the Crossfitters she works with.


The cost-benefit ratio is something we should pay close attention to. Not only in training but in life as well. Which exercises, systems, machines or behaviours have the best value in relation to their cost? Let’s be honest. Who did not work this way in school? Why should I read the whole book if there’s a summary version which tells me everything I need to know? Reading the whole book would be nothing but a waste of time. Time that’s better spend with your friends. Sound familiar?

Why then should we think differently in training? If I can manage to choose exercises based on the pareto principle, I will have 20% of my efforts that are responsible for 80% of my success. I am talking about exercises like

  • Kettlebell Swings
  • Deadlifts
  • Squats

All of which are relatively easy to learn, as compared to Olympic lifts, but have a tremendous effect on our fitness. Why then should we neglect them? Why should you ever want to switch these ‘goldmines’ of exercises for some jokingly expensive, complicated to operate machine? I therefore challenge you to reassess your exercises, as well as the equipment you are using, on a regular basis.

How much effort do you need to put in to provide yourself with this piece of equipment, and how much do you need to actually use it? How much effect does using this piece really have on your fitness goal? If you come to the conclusion that anything you do or own turns the pareto-principle upside down, say you need to put in 80% effort for 20% results, then there’s just one thing to do: get rid of it!


To summarize this article, there are 4 underlying principles to the art of coaching:

  1. Developing an understanding of the human mind and body
  2. 24/7/365 assessment – i.e. you need to screen and assess everone and everything all the time. 24/7 and 365 days a year as our body doesn’t know holidays from adapting to our cirumstances
  3. Be aware of the cost-benefit-ratio
  4. Have a focal point

Take these four principles to heart and they will lead you from Joker to Entertainer. I am looking forward to every step on this long path and hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.

Finish strong,


For german translation see: heartcore-athletics.com

Featured Image © Nero RX’d Photography

Rob Forte image © reebok.fitness.com

Carl Paoli Instagram © Carl Paoli

Coaching the Deadlift image © functfitbox.com

Anna Hulda Instagram © Anna Hulda

Image Sources

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