Competition: A Touchy Subject

Competition is the driving force behind everyone’s fitness journey. A person’s “competition” can be the person in the mirror or another athlete in the gym. While it is the coach’s job to channel the power that competition naturally bring, it recognizing with whom your athlete should be competing that is true art of coaching. This is especially true since an athlete’s “competition” often changes during his or her fitness journey.

Athlete profile: Rachel is an overweight mom who has never played a sport or run a race. Her initial goals are to lose weight, change her appearance, and feel better overall. Rachel is a stay-at-home parent who has sacrificed her health, and possibly her happiness to ensure her children are provided for at home.

We have all had the privilege of coaching someone such as Rachael before. Athletes like Rachel, are “competing” with themselves. They need to prove to themselves that they can make it to the gym three days a week, pushing themselves harder each time. They want to lose weight, see their body change, and find joy everyday just through proper movement. As these athletes see their bodies change, they also tend to set skill-based goals, such as getting their first kipping pull-up or first rope climb. Competition with peers is not in the conversation with these athletes yet. However, we know that if these athletes continue to workout using CrossFit as an exercise methodology, supplementing that with good nutrition, their goals WILL be reached, given enough time and focus. What is the next step once an athlete is down to their goal weight, is exercising regularly, and has attained several skill-based goals? The next thing you can provide Rachel is a sense of competition with her peers.

Competing with other athletes is a conversation that shouldn’t even have been approached one or two years ago with a new athlete such as Rachel. However, helping an athlete realize when the “competition” has changed from themselves to other athletes in the gym, can bring someone like Rachael a renewed sense of drive in the gym. Now, she’s checking the leaderboard throughout the day to see how her score stacked up against everyone else. She’s logging her PR’s in her OWN workout book, making sure to improve every year in the CrossFit Open, and maybe even participating in local fitness competitions as well. Just make sure to keep her grounded in what is important and not let beating the girl next to her become all she can focus on. It’s your job now to remind her that improved fitness over BROAD TIME and MODAL DOMAINS is what really matters in the long run. Not getting beat down because she didn’t beat Heather, the collegiate rower, in that 2,000m row.

We as coaches are doing a disservice… if we’re not looking years down the line for them with quiet excitement about their future potential.

The point is: even a client who from the beginning was unlikely to be competitive will eventually need competition in their fitness pursuit. Whether it is competition with themselves initially or with their peers later on, we as coaches are doing a disservice to Rachel, and anyone like her, if we’re not looking years down the line for them with quiet excitement about their future potential.

Athlete profile: Jack is a moderately fit individual who has played sports all of his life. He works a nine to five job in an office, and finally after years of watching others adopt and excel in CrossFit, has decided to take the plunge. After all, he can’t allow his buddies to have better stamina on the basketball court than him.

It is exhilarating to coach an athlete like Jack! He’s excited for every WOD, tracks the leaderboard from the beginning and wants to master every skill that is introduced immediately. Athletes like Jack are super competitive from the start, and they do not need a coach to point this out! What athletes like Jack do need coaches for is to monitor his risk of injury. This guy will lead himself to some pretty great things, and will probably be asking you a million questions every time he enters your doors. But, your job as a coach is to give him just enough to keep challenging him, but not so much that he feels overwhelmed. Most importantly for him is to keep him from getting too over zealous. Do not let him do a bunch of two-a-days every time he comes in the gym. If you hear he is running five miles a day on top of doing your strength and metcon programming, then he is just asking to get injured. You’ve got to love that enthusiasm but he’s going to get burned out and eventually get plantar fasciitis, strain his shoulder, or maybe some injury even worse. I’ve seen it happen! Remind him that this journey takes time and that there is a natural progression to your advancement in CrossFit. The Rich Fronnings of the world are few and far between. If you don’t do this as a coach, he will eventually fall prone to injury. Reign them back just enough to keep them from hurting themselves, but let them wander enough to keep them excited and coming back for more teaching points and PR’s. The coach’s job is no easy task.

Smiles, that’s what we’re here for… and the podium ;)

One thing I can tell you is never to tell them to ignore competition. This individual thrives on it. You must encourage them towards competition and do it in a healthy manner. Never have them chase it at the sacrifice of something else. Your job as a coach is to create happiness (and athletes: to pursue happiness). This should ALWAYS be fun! And fun can mean heated competition for some. I have heard coaches make the mistake of telling all of their athletes, including Jack, to “just worry about bettering yourself, not anyone else’s score!” This is fine for some of your clients (mainly the Rachel’s of the world), but if you have an individual who thrives on competition (aka Jack), do not deny them what they seek or they will eventually leave you. I heard it eloquently put recently from an athlete when he said “If the workout was who could roll their marble across the gym farther, I would want to know how far everyone else rolled theirs.” You gotta love that drive & enthusiasm!

The Bottom line:

As a coach you must know who to, and when to, encourage competition. As an athlete you should know what your goals are and when competition fits in to that pursuit. Introduce it too early or in doses that are too large and you either risk having fun, getting burned out, or falling prone to an injury. Know where you stand.

Do you want to know more about how to set your goals? Maybe you want to know how to be competitive or when to introduce competition as an athlete or a coach? Contact me at or visit and sign up at and I would be happy to help you through that.

If all else fails in the end, don’t forget; always make sure you or your clients are having the time of their lives!

Special thank you to my wife Megan who helps every week significantly editing these works. With out her this wouldn’t be possible, and who without this article would definitely never have been made.