The Truth About Online Coaching

Tom Sroka, founder of The Strength Agenda, is a top-level weightlifting competitor, having won the 2013 American Open in the 105+kg division. He was a member on the team at California Strength, as well as an original member of TeamMDUSA. Tom has worked with elite-level coaches like Glenn Pendlay, Travis Mash, Don McCauley and Rudy Nielsen. He has recently opened Big Shoulders CrossFit just outside Chicago, IL, and runs Big Shoulders Barbell Club, alongside TeamSAW, an online weightlifting training group that has run since 2013. A former P.E. teacher, Tom now focuses on his career as an athlete and coach, especially as a barbell specialist in the SAGL (Southern Amateur Grid League).

In the last two years, online coaching has gone from rare and unsophisticated to overexposed and technologically-driven. It seems like if a coach has an email address and an instagram account, they offer some kind of coaching program. Hell, most of the coaches don’t have a USAW Sports Performance (formerly known as a Level One) or even a website. Programs seem to range from pre-written, static spreadsheets to CrossFit-style strength WODs served on an online coaching platform, and then all the way up to ornately customized programs for individuals. I’ve seen pricing range from $10/month to $250/month.

As an online coach myself, I’m obviously a huge fan of the whole idea of it. I think there are a TON of really qualified, talented people out there that are spreading knowledge and passion with a new (huge) crop of weightlifters. I think it’s a smart way for coaches to make money, which is of course, the root of the problem I have with it, too. The old coaches will tell you: “Don’t get in this sport to make money.” The new-age coaches have a totally different idea. With an influx of CrossFit athletes really infusing talent and money into the weightlifting world, charlatans of every flavor have popped up, hawking every product from crotch protection for terrible snatchers to “certifications” that carry zero credentials. Online coaching is no different, and I’ll be honest, it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Maybe you can pick out the guy who doesn’t seem to have been in the game long as a coach or athlete, and has no solid bullet points on his resume. But what about the guy that has a bunch of medals hanging around his neck? Or the guy that says he’s studied under some of the most well-known coaches?

So here’s the real truth about online coaching: it’s hard to find a good coach in a sea of social media stars.

But the second part of the truth? It’s not impossible. I say this with the utmost humility: I have a pretty large network within the weightlifting world. I know a lot of the top coaches and athletes in the U.S., and have had exposure into a lot of well-known programs and weightlifting clubs. I myself began online coaching in 2013, before the majority joined the game. I say this because I want you to understand why I think my opinion is worth sharing on this subject. I’ve kept a close eye on the “market,” and watched with pleasure as some programs grew, and with horror as I watched unsuspecting athletes join a group that they thought would be run with knowledge and professionalism. I mentioned earlier that the problem we as a sport face now is the money chase. There are people out there who want to make a living doing something they love. This is NOT an inherently bad thing. In fact, I think it’s an amazing thing that will grow this sport. But it also means that people who have no business being in the business of coaching are instructing green lifters, and that does no one, especially the athlete, any favors. While a handful of people are peddling products consciously they know they shouldn’t, I think there are far more coaches out there that think they know more than they do, saw a grand idea that could pay their rent, and decided to jump in. I’m not here to debate who should or shouldn’t sell programming…I mean, it’s a free market, and hell, I was once the dude at the bottom who didn’t have as much experience as I thought I did. What I want to do is demonstrate how to spot the top coaches who are worth what they charge from the ones who charge a premium because they have a lot of Instagram followers.

So, without further adieu, here is what you need to consider when looking for a coach:

  • Is this person a coach? I know this one sounds pretty obvious, but there’s a difference between someone who IS a coach, and someone who calls themselves a coach. Does this person share their knowledge? What I’ve found as the NUMBER ONE INDICATOR of a great coach is that they’re not just eager to share knowledge, but have found it their mission in life. Their social media posts will be littered with blog posts, articles, and videos that they’ve written or narrated, or just shares from other great coaches. They talk about technique, methodologies, recovery modalities, and brag about their athlete’s accomplishments (and usually not their own). They raise concerns about governing bodies, about selection protocol for national/international teams, and of the sport’s growth. They are quick to complement other coaches and slow to publicly name and shame other coaches and athletes. They have YouTube videos or livestreams or Periscopes and are never shy about sharing “trade secrets”. Passion oozes from their persona. This isn’t to say their “business” isn’t professional, or that they don’t monetize their knowledge in other ways (camps, custom programs, book deals, etc.). But generally speaking, excellent coaches share openly and eagerly. (**Worth noting: this doesn’t mean they will coach you or offer critiques or reviews for free. That is an entirely different animal and a rant for a different day. There is a difference between sharing their product for free, and sharing their knowledge. Think of it this way: you might ask your barber a question or two, but you wouldn’t ask for a free haircut, right?)
  • Are they knowledgable in their sport? This can be quite subjective. I know many people who are excellent coaches that have no formal degree in Exercise Science. Conversely, I know a lot of people who have nearly every certification offered, but cannot apply what they’ve learned effectively. So how can you tell who knows their stuff and who parrots? I look at how they answer technical questions or how clearly they make their points in online debates. Do they talk about a positional cue with language that makes you stop and think, “OH! That makes sense!” or do they just repeat the same words and arguments over and over, without considering the context or unique body issues (injuries, mobility, levers, age etc.) of the lifter in question? I’m going to be honest: this is not an easy thing to suss out. People who are passionate but incorrect can seem awful knowledgeable…which leads me to the next point…
  • Are they consistent? This is a nice way of asking, “Are they a one-trick pony?” Are they an athlete who excelled themselves, but don’t have athletes that seem to be making significant progress? Are they a coach who only brags about a single show-pony athlete on a daily basis? Or worse, claim to offer programming and never offer glimpses into the progress of their athletes? These are major red flags, and could very well indicate that a coach is coasting on 15 minutes of relative weightlifting fame. Bragging about your athletes is expected and appreciated, but riding on coattails? It’s a fine line, but look at the pattern in their online posting. If you see the same person, or worse, the same cues and arguments in every scenario, buyer beware. It’s highly unlikely that every athlete they coach suffers from the same weaknesses.
  • Do you like them? If you join this person’s program, you’ll become part of their team. You’ll likely talk to them on a very regular basis, and having a strong relationship with a coach is essential to your success. Believing in your coach and trusting him or her is the most important element to becoming a better athlete. If he tells you to fix something, or she programs an exercise you hate, will you fight it, or will you put your head down and work? That really depends on your work ethic and the respect and trust you have for your coach. You can hire someone inexperienced and find huge PRs because you are consistent in your training and persistent in finding and patching weaknesses. Conversely, you can completely backslide under even the most renowned coach if you are constantly pushing back against recommendations because you don’t believe they apply to you.
  • Do their offerings fit your life? If you are looking to be a competitive weightlifter, you should be looking for a coach that offers custom or semi-custom programming that addresses your weaknesses. If you’re a hobby lifter, you might be able to get away with a templated program that has no customization. If you are someone who wants to learn, understand and apply, you want to find someone who will answer your questions and offer thorough explanations. If you train by yourself, finding someone who offers a team can offer you additional motivation and support. If you consistently qualify for national events (or hope to), will your coach be there to coach you? There are a lot of questions you need to consider beyond the price or personality of your coach. I encourage you to look into a few programs and talk to coaches before settling on someone. I would also strongly push you to commit to that coach for a long chunk of time (no less than 3 months, but ideally at least 6 months) in order to fully benefit from their methods.
  • Do others recommend them? Testimonials might be cheesy, but if well-respected coaches and athletes endorse this person, they’re likely a safe bet. One of the most helpful things you can do before hitting the buy button is talking to one of their lifters. Is this coach timely in delivering programming and feedback? Have they seen genuine progress? Does the coach outsource video review and feedback? (Which is not always a negative thing, but you should know what you’re paying for.) Does the coach encourage their goals, and regularly check in towards them? Will they work with you for tapers for meets outside of the normal program schedule? Would they sign up with this coach again?

Choosing a coach is similar to most things in life. A little research and observation is important, but in the end, your instincts will guide you. From that point, buckle down, trust the process, respect your coach, and command respect yourself. Pay attention to the person as a whole and don’t get caught up in the hype on social media. Read their blogs, listen to their podcasts and watch their videos. If they inspire you to be a better athlete and teach you new things, signing up with them is a sure bet.


SHAMELESS PLUG: As of this writing [1/1/16], my online coaching group, Team SAW, is open to new athletes. I only open the group twice a year because of the way I program the macro-cycles. Since starting the group in 2013 I have worked with hundreds of athletes of all skill levels and EVERY one of these athletes has shown improvement in at least one area that we emphasize (but many have shown significant improvement in several, if not all aspects). If you are a weightlifter, CrossFit athlete, or strength athlete that wants to get stronger through a training program with a heavy emphasis on the snatch, clean and jerk, their variations, and squatting then this is the group for you. I DO NOT program metcons, my goal is to make you stronger and you will achieve just that with my group.
What do you get with the group? Access to one of our three training templates: Weightlifting, Fitness, or Masters. Each template provides 5 workouts a week with 8 week training cycles planned throughout the calendar year. Programs are posted in our private Facebook group that only Team SAW members and myself have access to. This serves as both a platform for our group to access workouts and compare results/notes with other members and to build a sense of community for those days where you are simply struggling to get to the gym. You also receive an individualized spreadsheet via google docs that only you and I have access to that addresses weaknesses and technical issues through accessory work and drills to help you keep progressing towards your goals. Lastly and most importantly, every member of Team SAW gets unlimited video reviews from me and a chance to work with me at Big Shoulders CrossFit (via free drop-ins and TeamSAW training camps).
If this is something you are interested in and would like to inquire about pricing or have any other questions feel free to direct message me here or shoot me an email at [email protected]
If you are not looking for a long term membership but would like to jump in on our initial 12 week strength cycle starting January 4th, 2016, message me as well about special pricing for our BASS (Big Ass Strength Series) Program, especially perfect for those gearing up for the CrossFit Open. And, if you’ve read this article, you know by now that you should probably learn a little bit about my credentials.

Comments are closed.