Coaching Conversations: Life As a Mercenary Coach

We spend a lot of time here at @powerathletehq dropping knowledge bombs, repeating jokes, and dropping knowledge bombs with repeated jokes, to help prepare coaches across the world to Battle the Bullshit and Empower the Performance of athletes. Today I want to focus on a very specific subset of the Power Athlete Nation that is sometimes overlooked, but definitely not forgotten: the part-time/assistant coach.

For the purposes of this article, we’re not going to use those terms. Instead, we’re going to call them “Mercenary Coaches”, as it better describes who we’re talking to.

Maybe these coaches are finishing one class at a gym, only to hustle across town to a different gym to lead the next class. Or, they’re hammering the keyboard during the day, and hammering on athletes in the evenings. As a coach myself, I’ve fallen under this category since 2010. Coaching has always been much more than just a #sidehustle; it’s a passion. Right now, I crank out power points, spreadsheets, and spreadsheets about power points during the day, and then get the opportunity to work with athletes from all different backgrounds at night.

In this chalk talk we’re going to discuss how you, as a Mercenary Coach, can bring value to your gym or gyms, become a solid team member to any coaching staff, and most importantly, transform from someone your athletes see just  a couple times a week to someone they can rely on for solid and sage training guidance.

Give the People What They Want

As a Mercenary Coach, you may sometimes feel powerless when it comes to the goings-on in the gym or weight room. During the research for this article, I polled five gym owners, each with different backgrounds, experience, and populations, and asked them two questions: what are you looking for when bringing on a Mercenary Coach, and what are you looking for when elevating these folks to a full-time position. Despite their differences, all their answers fell under these categories:

Buy-in

Do you believe and buy in to what the gym is selling? Do you fit in with the gym’s culture? Do you want to work there because it’s a status symbol to be “a coach”, or are you truly there for the right reasons? To paraphrase one owner, are they applying because they love fitness, or because they love our approach to fitness? Another owner said they exclusively hire from within the gym, after someone has been a member for no less than two years. He’s only broken this rule twice, and guess what, those two didn’t stick around very long. They know that if you have passion and buy in for what they are selling, you will bring that passion to every class you coach. And more importantly, that passion will be felt by the athletes and members.

Connection

Can you connect with the athletes you’ll be coaching? Can you keep people engaged and get your message across, or are people glazing over when you’re speaking to them. Books, podcasts, and more podcasts have all touched on this topic. Connection with your athletes is crucial if you want their buy-in (which by the way, you do if you want to keep coaching). To quote one owner, “technical knowledge is far less important to me than someone’s basic ability to connect with a room”.

Movement cues and coaching gimmicks are great, but if you can’t connect you might as well be telling them to a wall. Looking for a good place to start? Humor is always the best and easiest way to connect, especially at first. Not funny? Try watching Fletch. Or take the advice from PA Radio Episode 267 with Gunnar Peterson and take an improv class. Or just try repeating the same jokes over and over again until they become funny.

Be Useful

Are you able to do more than just coach? Are you comfortable wearing multiple hats, and sometimes having to wear them both at the same time? Do you bring skills to the table that the gym might not have at the moment? All of the owners cited this as being a key factor in deciding whether to elevate someone from part-time to a full-time position. As one said: “can they create more revenue than it costs to retain them”.

Growth Mindset

This applies both to the coach and business side of life. As a coach, are you attending seminars, reading, learning, and continuously looking for ways to expand your toolbox? Or are you happy knowing what you know and keeping your cup full. Are you looking for ways the gym can expand its market and reach new athletes? And, of equal importance, are you willing to stand up to the owners and challenge them on their ideas? After all, Iron sharpens iron, and you may bring in a new perspective that hasn’t been considered before. empty your cup

Movement not Methodology

I think it’s necessary to make one distinction here. We touched on how these owners felt buy in and being aligned with the principles of the gym were important, but this doesn’t mean you stop being the unique snowflake that is you and become a carbon copy of someone else. One owner said it best: “you don’t need to be a clone but you do need to align on the important stuff”. And we already said, being willing to challenge ideas is very useful for growth and development. But, let’s make one thing clear: in this position, your job is NOT to change, rewrite, or otherwise manipulate a day’s program beyond reason.

Scaling or modifications for newer or injured athletes is one thing. Deciding to manipulate ordering, remove or select different  movements, or worse, outright change the training day because you think your way is better, is a big, big no no. You’re there because the leadership trusts you to be #MastersofMovement, and as such your job is to ensure the people in your class are moving properly, safely, and with a purpose. You’re not there to pass a value judgement on the programming for the day, and no one really cares what you “would do if you were in charge.”

You’re the Captain Now

The head coach or coaches set the direction for where they want the gym to go, but as the person on the ground, it’s your job to make sure you take their vision and help turn it into tangible results. They put out the programming, but it’s you delivering the product. This means the quality of what’s delivered falls directly on you, Coach. When you’re running the session, you need to switch ON and lean in. Take ownership of your classes, and understand your role in the bigger picture of the gym. Connect with your athletes, be a doer (and not a don’t-er), and make yourself useful.

New to a gym and looking for some ways to connect? Find some folks at your gym you might not know very well, and ask them why they specifically chose your gym to come to, any why they’ve chosen to stick around. Or, try to get to know something about their family and work life. Or just even ask about their favorite bars or restaurants around. You may be surprised how quickly they’ll open up to you, and I can guarantee they will remember that you cared enough to ask about them as a person, instead of just seeing them as a client.

What are some other ways you all have had successes in connecting with your athletes? Drop some ideas in the comments, and let’s keep the discussion going!

Adam Campbell

Adam Campbell

Power Athlete Block One Coach at Power Athlete
Adam grew up a lifetime athlete, playing soccer, baseball, basketball, and practicing martial arts, earning his black belt at age 12. While in college, he decided to join the Navy and soon adopted CrossFit to help prepare him for the demands of the military. Adam earned his commission in 2008, and while on active duty earned both his CrossFit Level 1 and CrossFit Football certifications in 2009. He was part of the first class to go through the Power Athlete methodology course, and the first group to earn their Block One certification in September 2017.

In the Navy he began working one on one with individuals who wanted to make positive changes to their fitness, discovering his passion for helping people improve their performance and health. He continued to work with individuals and small group through the rest of his career in the Navy. He currently coaches at two gyms in San Diego, applying the principles from the Power Athlete Methodology to both general population and field sport athletes.
Adam Campbell

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13 Responses to Coaching Conversations: Life As a Mercenary Coach

  1. Valentin Hernandez

    Great input for people, like myself, who can’t decide if they want to potentially be a “part-time” coach or even a “full-time” coach eventually.

    • Thanks Valentin! Personally, I’ve found that by the end of my day at the office, I’m looking forward to my opportunity to get in the gym and work with our athletes and clients; those days can be long, but they tend to be the most satisfying. My only caution is don’t treat being a part-time coach lightly, or an excuse to not keep pushing yourself to grow; it’s still a full contact position, and you need to keep your blade sharp.

  2. Michaela Kowatch

    I love the title of “mercenary coach” and will now be putting that as my job description! As a full-time coach I hustle between 3 different Crossfit/Funtional Fitness gyms all with VERY different cultures and methodologies. It’s extremely fascinating to go from one to the other in the same day and experience such different people, levels of buy-in, and movement standards (trying my best to hold the standard at each gym while respecting the programming/ownership).

    Connecting with athletes has made me extremely successful in just a short time as a coach. My goal in each class is to connect and actually COACH each athlete as much as our one hour time frame allows. I very much dislike clock starters and clappers. I do not consider myself a cheerleader or “good job”-er. And I’ve found that athletes really appreciate this. Sometimes coaches who have seen athletes workout for years become numb to poor movement patterns or standards. Athletes really seem to enjoy fresh eyes, as well as a coach who genuinely cares.

    That has been my biggest take away. I genuinely care, and I like to think that it show and athletes can feel that when they are working with me. Never be so self important that you lose sight of that.

    • Thanks for the thought Michaela! And definitely feel free to use the title! I’m in a similar boat; the two gyms I coach at are very different from one another, and I really enjoy being able to work in both environments. I couldn’t agree more! When they only get to see you for a short dose of time during the week, making and maintaining those connections become even more important. It’s easy to become a clock starter and cheerleader, but quality coaching requires you to actually care about the people you are working with, and they will pick up on whether you do or whether you’re just going through the motions.

  3. JZ

    Well written article! Love the title too. As a PE teacher I get students who “have” to take my class instead of the growth mindset of “get to”. Once the kids go through and realize that we combine S&C and then get to do AOC (Activity of Choice) they then begin to appreciate the class. After that job is done getting to coach at two local gyms (One CF and One barbell club) offers me a glimpse into the side of people who genuinely want to be there (let’s say 80-20). Getting to connect with the members at those gyms we find shared suffering in our day jobs and it brings us closer with more trust as well.
    Keep up the good work AC

    • Thanks JZ, appreciate the thought! That’s great that you’re able to see that transformation in the kids; I’m not sure what age group you’re teaching, but I didn’t hit that “get to” mindset until around high school, when we finally hit the weight room. And that’s awesome you found some common ground like that to connect on! Out of curiosity, for that leftover 20% who don’t want to go, even if they’re paying money, have you ever asked them why they keep showing up?

  4. Your gym has a Safety Squat Bar. Your gym is legit.

  5. JZ

    I work with 7-12 grade alternative education students. Kids that are expelled from their school because of drugs, weapons, or violence. The “get to” mind set has some time to set in, hopefully.
    I have met with the 20%, it varies due to their goals. Some other gyms might be better suited for their goals so I refer them to those gyms to help them succeed.

    • Got it, very cool. Sounds like you’re able to give them a positive environment to grow in, which is awesome.

      And that’s a rarity that you care enough to actually refer them to another gym. I’ve only met a few people who were willing to do that.

    • Sounds like you’re offering them a positive place to flourish, which is awesome!

      And got it. That’s very cool that you are invested in their goals to the point where, if you can’t meet them, you’re willing to point them to someone else who could, even if it means dollars out of your pocket. I’ve only met a few folks who were willing to do that.

  6. I’ve found that sometimes Merc Coaches can bring a lot more flavor than a full time coach. It’s one thing having a coach that is there coaching as a full time job, and another when someone works all day and then also takes on the commitment to being a coach. Not because they have but because it’s important and they want to be there. Coaches doing class after class can start to approach things like it is a grind but the part time coach can come in with fresh energy. I’ve been a Merc Coach for years and I’ve found that there has to be balance between work and how many classes I take on each week. Too many and I’m burnt out and not enough and I don’t connect with my athletes enough.

    • Thanks for the thought! Speaking from my own experience, I’ve found that even if I’ve had a draining day at my day job, coaching always energizes me and I genuinely look forward to every opportunity I get to work with athletes and the general population. And agreed, that balance is key. There have been more than a few weeks in the past where I took on too many classes in one week, and was left feeling drained by the end.

      Interestingly, I’ve heard some folks echo that same sentiment regarding Merc Coaches bringing in fresh energy compared to full timers. Some blame it on jumping in without being fully aware of the commitment, others on not having a good career path laid out for full time coaches. Either way, I’ve found that by keeping it a side passion of mine, I’ve never felt burned out and am always looking for new opportunities expand my toolbox.

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