Coaching excellence: Are you sure that your coach is actually coaching you?

25 Feb

Back in the 1970’s Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard developed a theory of leadership and development that they called Situational Leadership (later Situational Leadership II). In it, they presented a theory that leadership styles are situation specific and should be matched to the development needs of their followers.

Their view was that leaders have two main resources available to them: giving direction and providing support. These resources can be deployed in four different styles as follows:

  • S1: High direction, low support: Telling
  • S2: High direction, high support: Coaching
  • S3: Low direction, high support: Motivating/supporting
  • S4: Low direction, low support: Delegating/abdicating

Furthermore, their followers exhibit two further qualities – skill (capability/resources) and will (motivation/need) – which also have four configurations (maturity levels)

  • M1: Low skill, high will
  • M2: Low skill, low will
  • M3 High skill, low will
  • M4: High skill, high will

What was most interesting – as I’m sure you have already guessed – is that each of the maturity levels requires a different leadership style. And a mismatch between style and need leads to a very ineffective outcome.

Example of a mismatch? Imagine you are dangling by a rope off the edge of a building. You don’t want to be there (high motivation to escape) but you don’t know how to get out of the situation (low skill) i.e., M1. Do you really want someone shouting “good job” and offering high fives (S3) coming to help you?

Let’s put all this into the context of coaching in the gym.

When clients first enter the gym they are for the most part in the M1 grouping: full of enthusiasm and keen to get started, but generally low skill in terms of technique. So we in turn utilise the S1 style – we instruct! We get you to follow a series of progressions almost by rote to efficiently develop the skills necessary.

We also keep things very simple at this stage: clear, standard progressions that don’t require much conscious thought to complete. Mid-WOD we’ll generally tell you what to do in order to get your technique up to scratch (“knees out!”)

But – oh no – this is kind of hard for most people. If you have any sort of ego, being told or indeed realising that you are not as good at something as you thought is demoralising (M2). Which is why the coach will then switch to a coaching style (S2). This is a delicate balance of motivational support and direction. We are working hard to to ensure that you “get” the drills and skills, while maintaining a level of enthusiasm for the task.

This style is also marked by having you figure more stuff out for yourselves e.g. rather than showing and telling you how to move through “kittens” in the snatch, we might ask you to “keep the bar close to your chest”. We can afford to introduce more more complicated concepts at this stage.

Perhaps after a few months the skills levels come up (S3). Yay! But now the coaches are asking you to do more (heavier weights!) or go faster. You have the skill, but motivation may still be in danger, especially mid-WOD. This is where we turn cheerleader and do our best to keep you going!

We will also expect you – with your improved skill levels – to be able to self-diagnose and fix your own movement patterns. Mid-WOD we should just need to remind you to “hit your depth” in squats, or get your chin over the bar in pull-ups without having to explain how. Of course mid-WOD you might just need to be told what to do again (S1).

(The M4 configuration – in our context – refers more to those who self-train. Its associated leadership style (S4) is based on an earned trust that the individual in question is capable of keeping their movement standards up, while still push as hard as they need to. In the context of CrossFit style training this is a big ask , which is why we generally train in groups!)

Depending on technique in question we will switch between S1, S2 and S3 many times during a session and over your training career with us, although most of the time will be spent in S2.


The sign of a good coach is their ability to recognise the maturity level of their clients and switch between the appropriate leadership style as the situation dictates.

Put another way, if your coach is mainly cheerleading (S3) they are not coaching. Sadly many CrossFit coaches that I have met fall into this trap. The other characteristic of this style is introducing advanced concepts before the basics have been embedded.

If you coach is mainly telling you what to do without any sort of two-way dialogue (S1), they are not coaching. This is quite common in coaches without much experience, or those with deep experience but in a narrow arena (when you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail)

And – God forbid – if all they do is write the WOD on the whiteboard, shout “3-2-1 go” and go and drink coffee, THEY ARE NOT COACHING (S4).


4 thoughts on “Coaching excellence: Are you sure that your coach is actually coaching you?

    1. @AussieCrossFit then you are surely guaranteed 100% coaching excellence 😉

  1. surely, steven, this over stated: I would have thought as long as the coach continues to say “hips, hips, hips, hips hips hip”, or the more sophisticated “ips, ips, ips , ips ips ips”, or perhaps randomly screams  out a body part,  as you are focusing on a  complex move, that would do the trick ?

Comments are closed.

Pin It on Pinterest