No, this is not some politically correct, pandering to the masses and a public give-in to the pressure of what big mouths in our society deem to be mandatory ways of thinking. In fact, their noise makes most of us want to go the other direction, or at least me, in nearly any topic they are forcing down our throats.
What this is, is a coaching journeyman’s attempt at taking inventory of what works and what doesn’t, what makes things easier and what makes things harder and real self-reflection of where I fall short as a coach. The reality of it, fellas, is we don’t have all the answers for everyone under our watchful eyes.
Yes, I’m sure there are certain scenarios where having a staff full of bald-headed, pre-workout sipping, meatheaded dudes would be an advantage but to this point, I don’t know what that would be. What I’ve come to learn is no matter how well rounded you attempt to be, how educated and accepting you might become, there are certain situations where a woman on your staff is the only answer.
Weight Room Nazi
I took my last snap as a football player in November of 1999. My coaching career began immediately after Thanksgiving the same year and I have never looked back. I was one of the pseudo-lucky ones where the university where I played at (Eastern Kentucky) was just beginning to fund a full-time strength coach, my mentor Mike Kent. He was literally a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.
Hundreds of athletes funneled through our brand new training space daily, so he was happy to have some help. I was dying to be a part of his program and was willing to work 20 hours a day if the job called for it. I would have slept on the office floor and gladly made dip and honeybun runs (staples of his diet) as many times a day as necessary- all to just be a part of his staff.
I was welcomed in and we worked for four months together. I was getting internship credit for my involvement and to this day, Coach Kent will tell you that Chris Holder had the greatest internship of all time. His justification for this was because, in early March, he accepted the football only strength position at the University of Louisville and promptly moved north.
And there I was, little ole me, four months into my coaching career and literally on a moment’s notice I went from intern to interim head coach. If I’m being completely honest, I was one part fired up and the other part scared shitless. Fortunately, Coach Kent was willing to mentor me over the phone and paid visits on random weekends here and there to keep my programming on track.
Prior to graduation, I made a call to the school my sweetheart was attending, Cal Poly. I spent breaks with her in beautiful San Luis Obispo and I wanted to coach there. I called their head football coach at the time, Larry Welsh, told him my story and asked if I could come work for him while I attended grad school- for free.
I knew I had coaching dues to pay and I was willing to be man enough to pay mine. Because they had no single person at Poly who oversaw football’s strength program, he welcomed me with open arms. I got on a plane on a Friday in June of 2,000, flew home, and promptly went to work the following Monday.
Showing you my hand, I was flying by the seat of my pants. I was a meathead through and through and knew how to get big, but the sciences were something I was still learning. I programmed verbatim how Kent did and hoped I could fake it and pull one over on everyone while making it seem like I knew what I was doing. I was also trying desperately to be a clone of Kent.
His mannerisms, his over the top high energy and his unique-to-Kent vocabulary that I made my own. And, as anticipated, the football kids ate it up. When the summer ended that year, the administration saw what I was doing with football and offered me $5,000 for the year to work with all 21 teams at Poly. I gladly accepted.
As fall camp for football was starting, so was our women’s soccer team. They came in for the first time early their first week and I was ready. All 270lbs of freshly bic’d head, handlebar mustache, former lineman of me wanted to impact these girls day one. And I did just that. My alter persona came out, they laid eyes on me and went in on them exactly how I did my footballers… and guess what I got? A nickname: The Weight Room Nazi.
The harder I coached, the more they pulled back. The louder I got, the more they shut me out. The heavier handed I became, the more they rebelled. What I had done was assumed that the formula I used for my football kids was going to work for everyone. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Know What You Don’t Know
I owe that Cal Poly Women’s Soccer team a massive debt of gratitude. I was a new coach and was having success. I made a big enough impression on an athletic department that even their tightwad administrators knew they had something special. What that team did for me was put my feet back on the ground. My ego was swelling to epic proportions and those 25 girls burst my balloon on day one.
They revealed something that would be a major lesson that I was smart enough to learn early in my career: I didn’t know how to coach girls/women. Moreover, this abrupt, shocking revelation has continued to help me become a coaching chameleon. Twenty years later I’ve become someone who feels confident I can read an individual athlete and contort myself into being the coach that they need versus the coach I want to be.
But one thing has become painfully clear for me over all these years. There are going to be kids I cannot reach. No matter how hard I try, how many tricks I use or what type of manipulative language I try and slip into my coaching, there will always be a handful of athletes who won’t connect with me.
Insert, Female Coach
I know you think I’m going to go on a rant about how male coaches can’t relate to a woman’s period or simply don’t understand the female mind. But that would be easy. We can’t relate. We’ll never understand the female mind and the more we try, the more we realize how different we really are and how futile of an endeavor trying to understand can be.
What I’m hoping to convey, beyond the obvious anatomical, biochemical and physiological differences between men and women, boys and girls, are the intuitive differences between the sexes. The nuance and or subtleties that a woman coach brings to a session and can draw out from an interaction with an athlete is vastly different from that of a man.
This does not mean they are better, or worse than a man. What it means is, a woman coach is going to have a different take, however minor, than their male counterpart during an interaction with an athlete. And that difference might be exactly what that hard to reach athlete needs to tear their walls down.
Taking that a step further, when thinking about the athlete’s experience with a coach, some kids will immediately close themselves off when it comes to taking orders from or listening to authoritative men. For example, my seven-plus years at San Jose State University. I came into a staff of four men and quickly hired a female GA named Summer Haines.
Summer came to me from San Diego State on the recommendation of one of my coaching friends, John Francis. We all have those individuals on our coaching tree who when they call during your coaching search and say they have your person, you hire that individual sight unseen. John is one of those people to me and Summer had a job with me before John dialed the phone.
At SJSU, I walked into a situation where the football program was stacked wall to wall with hardened street kids. I loved them but it was a humbling experience for me. I had gang members from rival gangs on this team who I had to keep my eyes on. I coached a kid who, once he graduated, became one of the biggest drug dealers in the Bay Area.
During my first semester at SJSU, we had two kids get arrested for major felonies and both went to prison (one of whom is still behind bars serving out his sentence, over a decade later). We had an athlete commit suicide two days into my first fall camp with the Spartans. And all of this was in my first year.
Several of those boys came from some of the roughest areas of California. You could tell, from the first breath in a conversation whether they were going to take coaching from you or not.
Like I said above, many of these kids have never known their fathers and even worse, never met a man they were willing to trust. And as uncomfortable as it might be for some of you to hear, a lot of those kids would have rather been dead than have another white boy barking instructions to them. It was in these interactions where Summer was able to reach them, for me. A lot of these guys typically had strong women in their lives and there was a willingness to listen when she spoke.
I would pass messages to players through Summer and we were able to get my program moving forward as a result. She doesn’t know this, but her presence was a saving grace for much of our success that year, a season where we saw the biggest turn around in program history and the school’s first bowl victory in nearly 20 years.
My collective staff committed themselves to get that team breathing one unified breath at a time, all heartbeats in synch and the success of my 2006/2007 San Jose State Spartan Football team to this day remains one of (if not the) biggest achievements of my entire coaching career.
Fellas, Humble Yourselves
… If you think you are beyond this. By adding a woman to your staff I am by no means suggesting that you are softening or a woman is going to bring some kind of girly element to your facility. Quite the contrary. On my current staff, I have two full-time assistants.
We probably have the most experienced, high-level coaching staff in all high school sports (across the country). Two men and one woman. And take a wild stab at who is the hardest among us? Who are the kids in the most fear of? Which one of us makes the hair on the back of the necks of the kids stand up more often than not?
When I took my current job, Coach Katie Guizar was the lone staffer, pulling the entire weight of the program on her own as the former head jumped ship months before. We have over 1,100 athletes who grace the floor of my facility, and any one of them would tell you that they never want to upset Coach K. She’s gritty, direct, almost monotone in her delivery.
In most situations, she is emotionless when communicating with the kids and she shows no favoritism whatsoever. She’s first in line to discipline the instant an athlete breaks a rule and I’ve never heard one coach tell kids, “NO,” at the rate Katie does. She’s a zero BS, get to work, stop trying to get over on us no-nonsense coach… and I love every second of it.
Beyond being one of the most well-respected people on campus, what Katie brings to my staff is perspective. My other assistant (male) and I don’t know what it is to be a teenage girl. We have no idea what challenges they face and if I’m being real with myself, I don’t even try to fake that on some level I understand.
I was raised by a single mom (even though my old man lived close by and was involved in everything) and have two older sisters. I am married and I have one son and two younger daughters. I’ve been swimming in estrogen my whole life and, admittedly, I don’t know the first thing about girls. Coach Katie bridges that gap for us.
What she also does is create a matriarchal role in my weight room for my boys who are having an issue taking instruction from us men. Take, for example, our football program. When we as a staff sat down to gameplan this offseason, we split the team up into three groups; Bigs, skills and wideouts and DB’s.
Any of you who work with football know the most challenging group in a football program to work with are the wideouts and DB’s. They are the individuals on the team that have the most swag, and they are the ones you have to push the hardest to get any work out of them. So guess who oversees this group when our footballers are in the room?
Our head football coach and staff thought my decision to group her with them was a bad call. They have the same read on those position groups as I do and thought those boys would walk all over her. I stood my ground, told them to trust me and from day one those boys have been little angels for her. No gruff, no talking back, no big timing, just head down hard work (hard work for a wideout or DB, if that exists).
In 2013 I took the head job at Cal Poly (returning for my second and final stint there). Among other things, I inherited an intern coach named Sara. Sara was a University of Kentucky grad and had cut her teeth in the profession at Arizona State University. She took a leap moving to SLO and accepting an internship at Poly before my arrival.
To say the least, she was duped when she was hired. She was told things that never came to be just to get her to agree to come out and take the job. Empty promises, and being overworked like nothing you can imagine, Sara put on a good face when she met me and was trying her hardest to make the best of a crap situation.
Photograph by Owen Main of San Luis Obispo, California
What I ended up getting was someone who was wide open to my way of thinking, someone who wanted to adapt to my style of doing things and someone who was willing to work her fingers to the bone to make sure our Mustangs were in a position to have success. She worked (basically) another full-time job because we were paying her peanuts.
As a show of my loyalty to her and appreciation for how committed she was to our teams and me, I fought like crazy at each subsequent end of the fiscal year to get her raises and increase her quality of life. By the end of 2017, she was full-time faculty, full benefits and was able to quit her other job.
The reason I worked so hard for her and continued to beat the “We need to get Sara more money” drum was because whatever I was paying her, she was worth 5x’s that. She was literally my right hand each and every day over my five years with Cal Poly. When I say I couldn’t have done what we did without her, I mean every word.
She was the glue to the program. She made it all work. Not only is she the face for half of our teams, but she also took on those little tasks (willingly) that most everyone doesn’t see… those things that make it or break it tasks that only go noticed when they aren’t done.
On top of being someone I counted on daily, she was/is one of the most badass coaches I have ever been around (male or female). See for those of you who aren’t in the know, women in this profession are rare. It’s a male-driven field and I’m not sure why.
Perhaps it’s intimidating to most women. Maybe there are other facets of the fitness industry that are more appealing than S&C for the ladies. But here’s what I have found. All of the women coaches I have been around in my tiny side of the game have all been bulldozers when it came to coaching. Sharp, smart, detail oriented, strong, assertive and true leaders.
My last task before leaving Cal Poly was to make sure that our administration and our head football coach knew that I wholeheartedly felt that Sara McKenzie was ready to be the Mustang’s head strength coach. I needed to plant the seed that they can’t pass over her (like they did when I came in- yes, we went for the same job).
They needed to know that she was ready years ago to lead that program. I don’t know if my suggestion worked, but she went through the interview process and proved to them that she was the only choice. On October 26th, 2018, Cal Poly named Sara McKenzie their Director of Strength and Conditioning.
She’s one of only three women in Division I college athletics to head a strength program.
The Women of CrossFit
No discipline in all of the fitness showcases women in the manner that the CrossFit movement has. And rightfully so. Those women are some of the grittiest, driven and flat out tough people I have ever seen. Yes, believe it or not, I have spent time training in a CrossFit box.
What anyone in my role will tell you is, there are phases in your career where you would rather eat a hand full of dirt than train in the facility you work in. It might be because we spend so much time at work and want to just get away. That was part of it for me.
The other part was I wanted to get away from everyone and wanted new eyes seeing me move. We, coaches, rarely get coached, and I decided to go into my own pocket an pay to have a local CF box make decisions for me. While I trained at CrossFit Moxie, I trained alongside some of the tenacious women I have ever been around.
Over time, I continued to meet women who were in the captain’s chairs of their respective boxes. I would then watch them coach and found myself being nearly speechless as they owned their space. One of my all-time favorite CrossFit coaches is a woman name, Natalie Talbert. I knew Nat at SJSU. She was one of my water polo kids and she took to weight training as she took to the water.
We had lost touch once I left San Jose and there was a large gap of time that elapsed until we reconnected late in 2017. I worked with her and her gym to bring the RKC to northern California. In March of 2018, I met Natalie and around 20 other inspiring kettlebell trainers. Over the course of three days, Natalie and one of her assistant coaches embarrassed the field.
If you know the RKC, you understand that it’s not a fluff cert. We push our attendees because a large part of passing (or not) is determined by the level of fitness you bring to the event. It’s physical, to say the least, and Natalie wiped the floor with the class. Her willingness to push, to put her face in the fire and not pull it out left the others in her wake.
I then spent some time with her at her box at the time, CrossFit Moxie. As I witnessed her lead groups, I watched her one on one with clients, witnessed how she managed her staff, something dawned on me that has left a lasting impression. At home, mom and dad make the rules and decisions. Any of you who really pay attention knows, dad is more of a frontman… cause mom is the one calling all the shots.
What Natalie brought to Moxie and now the box she the head coach for, Coast Range CrossFit in Gilroy, CA, was the “mama bear” quality. The level of suffering that a CrossFit WOD induces on a daily basis can only be likened to staying home from school as a kid with the gnarly flu. And, when you have the flu, who is the only person who can make things better? Mom.
Her predecessor, at CrossFit Moxie, is a woman named Paige Sousa. Paige was the other CrossFitter who accompanied Nat at that RKC. Paige was someone I had not known in person but developed a dialogue with over social media due to her ties to Moxie. She had reached out to me in a lovely note about my relationship with the Moxie community over the years and we have kept in touch ever since.
She was my kind of coach. She believed in her place with the CrossFit community. She loved Moxie with all of her heart and made professional decisions around her role as one of the coaches at that box.
The first thing you notice when you meet Paige is how intense she is… then she opens her mouth and she confirms any notion you had of her. She’s confident, aggressive, owns her space, and coaches like her life depends on it. But what stands out with her, maybe more so than anyone else I have ever been around, is how much she loves it.
You hear about people whose identity is intertwined with their job, their political stance or some other aspect of their lifestyle (vegan, keto, yoga etc) that nearly defines them. Then you run into someone like Paige. CrossFit doesn’t define Paige. Paige is the exact person who makes the CrossFit community so special.
The reason this fitness movement has taken over the world isn’t because of some new way of looking at fitness. It’s because it has galvanized pockets of our society who want to be pushed, who want to have their fitness reach a place they have never known and who want to be part of a family of like-minded individuals. The magic of CrossFit isn’t the CrossFit. It’s its leaders, like Paige Sousa.
Last but Not Least
As I brainstormed for this article, I put together a list of my faves. And without question, one of the coaches who has had an undeniable impact on me in every aspect of coaching is my friend Gianna Bandoni. G is a success story that has to be told when talking about women who are changing the game when it comes to the fitness world.
Gianna came to me during my stint at SJSU as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed sophomore. She was eager to learn and asked if she could intern. Any of you who know me understand that I don’t take much of a shine to interns because 99% of them think they want to be strength coaches, but when they realize it’s not all ESPN and sidelines every day, they all flake.
It’s like clockwork and I had more than my share show up, then disappear after a couple of weeks. I humored her, told her she could come through and if she thought she could stick it out, I’d let her intern. 2 ½ years later, I did something I had never done in my career to that point. I handed Gianna the keys to her own team.
See, she was all in from the word go. She was a sponge to anything and everything we ever tried, including some of my off the beaten path stuff. My Qigong, and energetics, meditation and spiritual work that has become a cornerstone to my programs since. Gianna was a part of it all.
After I left SJSU and took the job at Cal Poly, Gianna applied to grad school and spent the next two years in SLO working on her graduate studies and honing her craft. She had completed her RKC years before but spent all her time in SLO taking the deepest kettlebell dive you can imagine. I travel several times a year to teach RKC’s all over the country and without fail, I let the good folks from Dragon Door know I need Gianna to join me to help me instruct.
What Gianna has done has become one of the most ferocious kettlebell trainers I have seen. Outside of the fact she has an extraordinary eye, can coach circles around any kettlebell trainer in the country, she’s likely the best mover I have ever been around.
Part of the reason I take her on the road with me on the certs is I am dead set on my trainees seeing what perfect looks like. Nearly everyone in the movement based world is a visual learner. They will take on the tendencies of those people who taught them X, Y or Z.
You see this in the martial world all of the time. Nuanced things that you almost can’t avoid to pick up on and to attempt. When I travel Gianna comes with me annually because I need those people under my care to see what they need to aspire to become. Gianna walks the walk and she’s the poster child of how things should be done.
Since graduation, Gianna moved back to her hometown of Merced, CA and opened her own kettlebell gym call G-Fit. She teaches group classes and privates. She still travels with me when I’m on the road teaching, and of all of the coaches who have been with me over the years, I’d take Gianna first- every time.
As much as I would like it to be the truth guys, we can’t do things the way it’s historically been done. I’ve been a coach who prides himself on having uncanny levels of adaptability when presented a problem with an athlete. And even with that skill, I have had athletes and even entire teams that I couldn’t reach- plugged in my female coach- and off they went.
We can’t solve every problem ourselves. If your primary concern is to service every single person who comes through your doors, you need to have a dynamic, versatile staff. Take it from a dinosaur in the game, one of the best hires you will ever make will be that woman who brings to the table things you could never.