10 Coaching Mistakes That Destroy The Coach-Athlete Relationship



My biggest struggle when I first started coaching was adding personality to my classes. While I'd always been great with the technical aspect of things I learned very quickly that athletes are in the gym because they want to be engaged, entertained, and given a world class experience.

Information is available in abundance. But the connection you have with each athlete is irreplaceable.

I apprenticed under my coach, Peter Hellberg, for quite some time before I was brought on to the coaching staff. What I learned the most from Peter is the energy and humor he brings to each and every class. That energy is what I was striving for in my own way.

My barber shop is the best in town because it feels like I’m at a comedy show while getting a haircut. My barber is actually a stand up comedian too...but him and his barbers remember every detail about everyone that walks through the door. They can engage with any client to make them feel like their best friend. And when they see you four weeks later, they pick back up right where they left off.

Coaching is a "people" business, and to be a great coach you have to be a "people person".

Here are the top 10 top coaching mistakes I’ve come across when it comes to connecting with your athletes. Many are ones that I’ve made. And others are some that I’ve witnessed. The first step to finding a solution for mistakes is to acknowledge that they might exist in the first place.

Mistake 1: Not acknowledging ALL of your athletes

When I’m training, I try to stay “in the zone.”

Who doesn’t?

What I’ve learned is that sometimes this might come off as snobby or elitist to other members. Take the time to say “Hi!” and acknowledge people passing you by, even when you're training. It only takes a few seconds and can really make a persons day.

I was at a weightlifting meet this past weekend just stretching out in the corner. The owner of the gym was walking by and said, “Hey Misbah!”

To be quite honest, I didn’t even remember meeting him. If we did, it was very briefly months ago. The fact that he remembered my name was flattering and made me feel guilty for not knowing his name.

Remembering names is my biggest weakness. I used to be really good at it until I acknowledged that I was. It was like I lost my powers after that. So now I’ve started to write it down names in my little journal as soon as I meet someone.

“Remember that a person’s name to that person is the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” - Dale Carnegie


Mistake 2: You Don't Make Your New Members Feel Comfortable

Pete always texts me when new members come in during my classes to ask, “How did they like it?” At this stage, it’s all about them having fun. Yes, technique matters, but if they don’t have fun, they won’t come back.

Think about Sally, who was a spinning enthusiast, but decided to try CrossFit. Her motor control isn’t really there, and her heart is beating rapidly because of how nervous she is.

If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you know this feeling. When you go the first 2-3 times, you feel like a big klutz. You’re looking around everywhere to see if you’re doing the poses right. The voice in your head is constantly saying “Am I doing this right? I’m wobbling all over the place.”

Not all athletes are coming into our facility as former “athletes”. A lot of them might be coming from bootcamps, treadmills, and a lifetime of movement dysfunctions. The last thing you want to do is make them feel awkward by throwing them into a class with advanced people.

We don’t do a fundamental series, but I make sure to give them the lowdown well before “3..2..1..GO!” I tell them how normal it is to not know all the abbreviations on the board. I tell them how they might feel like a flailing fish at times. But it’s okay because it’s apart of the process.

Get in their heads. And acknowledge what they might be thinking. They’ll go from stomach churning nervousness to a sigh of relief because someone actually understands.

Mistake 3: You Worry About Your Members Stealing Equipment

This may sound absolutely crazy to some of you guys, but trust me it’s common.

After swimming in the fitness industry for years, this mindset originates from “Globo gyms.” I worked at a gym where the kettlebells were locked up with a long chain hooped around all the handles. The only time you could use it was when you had a personal training session. And it had to be locked immediately because “People would walk out with it.”


The second you start to come at your athletes with this type of mentality, there’s a loss of trust. Save that for the globo gyms. Your job is to build the trust so that never happens.

"The glue that holds all relationships together -- including the relationship between the leader and the led -- is trust, and trust is based on integrity." - Brian Tracy


Mistake 4: You Kick Your Athletes Out Right After Class

We all have lives, I get it. You have things to do, tasks to balance, family and friends to see. You know what though? After class is prime time for adding some value.

I’m pretty beat after a day of coaching classes just like anyone else. But taking the time to connect with your athletes and learn about their goals and struggles after class will build personal relationships.

I can be too nice sometimes, and I have tough time walking away from conversations like these. But a coach’s job isn’t just technical instruction. The more you know about the athlete, the better you can connect with them and the better you can coach them.

Mistake 5: You Do What You Want, Not What The Market Wants

This was my biggest learning experience of all time.

I might think an idea is golden. But the idea isn’t to serve me, it’s to serve my athletes. I’m not the one paying a membership, they are. A great book on this topic is Talking To Humans: Success starts with understanding your customers.

I strongly believe in making my CrossFit athletes do a lot of Olympic Weightlifting and Strength based movements. If I could, I would have them cut down their conditioning to focus on this. And if we’re really talking about what I want...I’d sign them up for a Weightlifting meet.

Most of the time, that’s not what they want. So do what you need to do to accommodate their goals. They’ll end up having more success, enjoying the process, and making you look good at the same time.

And they'll stick around longer and bring their friends.

Mistake 6: You Don't Conduct Exit Interviews

Exit interviews will tell you the exact reason why you’re losing clients. This should be an on-going part of your business development. So important that you should create an excel file and tuck these nuggets away.

I found out that one of my online clients felt that coaches care about them in the very beginning. They follow up, they check in, and they care. Over time, “they stop caring.” That’s a big red flag. The sooner you can find out things like this, the faster you can fix the bleeding.

Mistake 7: You Stop Adding Value

You go above and beyond to acquire a new client. Once you find that they are happy, you can’t just forget about them.

Ben Crookston wrote an awesome eBook called The Athlete Motivation Manifesto. Read it. Cherish it. Implement it.

Once your athletes have mastered technique, it’s time to get creative and deliver value in other ways that will benefit them.


Mistake 8: You Keep Your Programming In Your Head

Programming is a key part of the client experience.

The workouts can be fun, creative, and varied. When I first started following programs, I wanted to know the nuts and bolts. I wanted to know why we were doing something. That’s probably why I became a coach.

You might be thinking about a certain stimulus you want your athletes to achieve, but it’s not being conveyed as clearly as you think. People WANT to know why they’re doing something. It helps enhance the Coach-Athlete relationship.

When we are going through a deload week, I’ll explain what kind of a deload it might be. I’ll give my athletes a heads up if a certain week is supposed to be really rough. I try to be as descriptive as possible so I don’t leave anyone in wonderment.

This is a great chance for you to share your process. It helps demonstrate how much you care about what you’re doing.

Use software like TrainHeroic to track, deliver and analyze your programming.

Mistake 9: You "Overcoach" and "Undercoach"

This is fairly common with newer coaches. You want to give the world to your clients and let them know everything that’s inside your head. So you give them cue after cue, explanation after explanation, and before you know it they look even more confused than before you started talking.

I did this way too often when I first started coaching. There’s nothing worse than confusing an athlete like this. Take your time. Think about what you’re going to say. And remember that sometimes less is more. As bad as you want to correct all of your athletes problems, you have to focus on one issue at a time.

“A cue is a relationship between a coach and an athlete, specific to that moment for something that is going on - trying to solve a specific problem.” - Diane Fu


Mistake 10: You Don't Take A Genuine Interest In What Your Athletes Do

Talk to them about something aside from pull ups, snatches, and handstands. This was a big struggle for me because I was so focused on coaching. Your athletes are normal people. If you take a genuine interest, they’ll be happy to engage.

There’s a member at our gym who I felt was fairly unapproachable for quite some time. She just didn’t seem to engage. One day I decided to ask, “So what do you do for work?” I must’ve only said two sentences for the next 10 minutes. All of a sudden the conversation was flowing like Skittles coming out of the rainbow. Ever since then, I’ve realized that if you ask great questions, you’ll get great answers.

Coaching Is An Art

By reading an article like this, you’re already on your way to being a rockstar coach. Now go do it! Do what you do and do it with enthusiasm. Think of engaging your athletes as an art.

Throw all sorts of creative ideas at the canvas.

See what works and what doesn’t.

And repeat.

When you fail to do so, don’t beat yourself up.

Just like the athletes you work with, you’re always learning something.

Editors Note: Are you sick of coaching and cueing the Snatch but despite your best efforts your athletes still move with the fludity of a baby Giraffe learning to walk for the first time? 

Misbah put together a comprehensive resouce on the Snatch: head over to the airbornemind.com to grab a free copy of "The Ultimate Guide To Mastering The Snatch" and add some much needed grace and fluidity to your athletes movement.

About The Author

Misbah Haque is the owner of AirborneMind.com. The heart of his blog is centered around strengthening the bridge between Olympic Weightlifting and CrossFit. He strives to make the barbell more accessible to newcomers and CrossFitters looking to get stronger. Misbah coaches both disciplines while competing as a 62kg lifter. He is a USAW-SPC, CF-L1 Trainer, and is studying Kinesiology.