Coach versus Programmer: What’s more valuable to an athlete?

By: Emily Beers

When I was a gymnast, hardly a minute of training would go by where my coach wasn’t watching my every move—scrutinizing my bent knees and unpointed toes.

When I was a basketball player, my coaches controlled every minute of every team practice, and we players responded to commands almost robotically.

And talk to almost any Olympic athlete and they’ll tell you they spend more time with their coach than anyone else in their lives.

A young gymnast spends more time with her coach than her parents.

This is less true for many Regionals and CrossFit Games athletes today.

Instead of working with a coach everyday—like athletes in almost every other sport—many top level CrossFit athletes hire remote programmers to write their training plans.

Their programmers often live in different cities, states, or even countries, and communication usually happens through e-mail, text, on Facebook, and through virtual video analysis. Hands-on time with their ‘coach’ is often limited to quarterly training camps. The rest of the time the athlete trains alone, often slugging through gruelling sessions in an empty gym.

Is this ideal?

Tasia Percevecz doesn’t think so. Not for her, at least. 

She and her training partner Chase Smith both train at CrossFit Free in New Hampshire with their full-time, hands-on coach Brandon Petersen. The two Blonyx athletes finished this year’s CrossFit Games Open ranked 4th and 2nd respectively in the Northeast region, and both have a serious chance to qualify to this summer’s Games.

Percevecz, a former college gymnast, said she can’t imagine training any other way.

“I think having a hands-on coach is the way to go,” Percevecz said. “I wouldn’t be able to function with just a programmer. Brandon (Petersen) understands me physically, mentally, emotionally. That is something that has to be built by spending time together.”

Whether she's training or competing, Petersen is always by Percevecz' side

To Percevecz, spending time together doesn’t mean sharing videos online and texting back and forth about sets and reps. It means getting to know each other in a way that helps maximize her training sessions, and ultimately her long-term athletic development.

“Some days I may come in emotionally drained. If I only had a programmer, how would he know whether to push me or not? Or to even change the workout? Having Brandon as a hands-on coach gives me the chance to adjust my training day-to-day,” she said.

Smith agrees with Percevecz:

“It’s so valuable having him there. Having just a program is great but there are often no details or expectations from it. Being able to look over at him before a workout on any given day and chat beforehand and ask him what he expects from me is really helpful,” he said.

Petersen wasn't allowed on the competition floor at Wodapalooza in Miami, so EZ Muhammad stepped in for Smith instead

Further, Percevecz insists she works harder because her coach is watching.

“I perform better when Brandon is watching me during a metcon. I care about him as a person and a coach, so I care about what he thinks. I want to make him proud,” she said. “It’s also great having him there to tell me when I’m slacking, or to tell me I’m going too hard.”

She added: “I don’t understand how people function with only programmers.”

Athlete Convenience

Natalie Duronio is an up-and-coming athlete from Canada West, who will compete as an individual for the second straight year at the upcoming West Regional in Portland in May.

Duronio is stoked to compete at her second West Regional competition this May

Similar to Percevecz, 24-year-old Duronio explained having her coach Tom Sarosi watching over almost all of her training sessions gives her than just a physical training program.

“Some days you just shouldn’t be doing what’s on your sheet—due to fatigue, or other life circumstances. A lot of athletes feel a kind guilt or unease about not sticking directly to their plan. But if your coach is there, they can help you make decisions about adjustments when needed,” Duronio said.

Like Percevecz, Duronio thinks having her coach there in person improves the quality of her training.

“Yes, you can send videos (to a virtual coach), but there is nothing like real time feedback,” she said. “I see tons of athletes who get programmed for remotely posting on social media about going to spend face time with their coach periodically. I don’t feel like I need to same kind of periodic intensive coaching in any particular movement pattern, because Tom (Sarosi) is always there to fix and adjust on the fly.”

Further, Duronio said Sarosi makes her life easier from a practical standpoint:

“In the most selfish way, it is way less work for (me),” she said. “The work it requires to constantly video yourself and communicate digitally with a coach and be super diligent about that stuff would be overwhelming. Essentially, there is a lot more that I get to leave in my coach’s hands when I can count on seeing him most days during training.”

She added: “All of that—and simply the fact that (he knows me) as a human being—translates to an improved ability for (him) to coach (me in a) competition.”

Sarosi watching his Vancouver athletes compete at last fall's Winter Challenge in Richmond, B.C.

When a Virtual Coaching works with Jacob Tsypkin and Sean Lind

Jacob Tsypkin is the owner of TZ Strength—an entirely virtual coaching business.

Tsypkin used to own a CrossFit affiliate in California, but now he spends his days programming for and coaching individuals scattered across the country. And most recently, he launched an affiliate programming service, which offers general physical preparedness programming to affiliates.

Four of his athletes are heading to CrossFit Regional competitions this spring: Sean Sweeney, who topped the Open leaderboard in the South West region, as well as Alyssa Ritchey Kent Ingalls and Jessica Grondahl, so he's obviously doing something right.

Tsypkin believes a remote programmer like himself can indeed be more than a just programmer: He can be a legitimate coach, said Tsypkin, the author of the book “Fitness as Sport.”

Although much of his coaching happens virtually, Tsypkin is more than capable of getting in an athlete's face

“I consider myself a coach as much as a programmer. My athletes would tell you I’m very involved in their day-to-day training process,” Tsypkin said.

Despite living in different cities and states than his athletes, he meets his athletes needs by catering to their individual demands.

“I have daily interaction with some of my athletes. Others don’t need as much. They reach out maybe a few times a week, or once a month,” he said. The point is, not all athletes need or want undivided hands on attention, he explained.

One of the reasons Tsypkin thinks his system has been successful for high-level CrossFit athletes is because of the plethora of resources he has in place for his athletes: He hosts training camps in various states throughout the year, and he owns a custom-designed, easy-to-use software system that he uses to share training programs with his athletes. And he provides expert specialty coaches to his athletes, who give sport and movement-specific feedback: A gymnastics coach, a rowing coach and a weightlifting coach, he explained, all of whom help video assessment.

“I understand the demands of CrossFit as a sport and know how to organize training for CrossFit. But I’m not an expert rowing coach, so it would be a disservice for my athletes not to get to work with a rowing coach, for example,” he said.

In fact, Tsypkin thinks having additional coaches on board his team is one of the advantages his remote athletes have.

“They get more feedback from other specialist coaches than they would likely get if they just worked with one coach all the time,” Tsypkin said.

Gymnastics coach Sean Lind is a specialty gymnastics coach, who has worked with many CrossFit Games athletes—Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, Talayna Fortunato and Becca Voigt to name a few. Currently, he works with CrossFit Games champion Sam Briggs and Blonyx athlete, two-time Games athlete Emily Abbott.

Lind working with Abbott and West regional athlete Delaina Snider at Hybrid Athletics in Langley, B.C.

Lind believes top level athletes need both a great programmer and great in-person coaching.

“Nothing can replace a hands-on coach or proper programming,” said Lind, who designs some of the gymnastics aspects of his athletes’ programs, and also meets up with them for in-person coaching two or three times a year.

"I do this for a general technical tune-up and assessment,” Lind said. Most (top level CrossFit athletes) understand the technique and move well, but might miss the finer elements in a specific movement that a specialist coach would know.

He added: “No matter how well an athlete can move, they can always have one thing to tune up.”

"Nothing can replace a hands-on coach or proper programming." - Lind

The rest of the year, like Tsypkin, he relies heavily on video assessment:

“Because it’s difficult to be present at multiple locations, having athletes send videos of their movement is the key to remote coaching,” he said.

On top of having specialty coaches on board his team, Tsypkin said a second advantage to remote coaching is the ability to be more objective as a coach.

“In person, you always have to deal with other emotions and attitude,” Tsypkin said. “I have trained a few athletes who, when they were having a bad day, you could feel it, and you didn’t want to displease them. But as a remote coach you can disassociate yourself from that, think more clearly and be more objective in your coaching.”

He added: “I do think with the right network of resources in place, you can take an athlete from good to great and from great to Games athlete.”

What’s best for you?

While Tsypkin—and many other great programmers—continuously have great success working with athletes almost entirely remotely, Tsypkin said athletes need to be at a certain level in the sport before they should hire a virtual coach and programmer. He would never recommend it for someone new to CrossFit.

“A person’s early stages of training simply must be down with an (in-person) coach. If you’re brand new, you need to work with someone in person. I can improve your mechanics if you’re already technically sound, but I’m not going to teach you how to snatch remotely,” Tsypkin said.

Who remote coaching and programming does work well for are mature, experienced athletes, who already move well and aren’t actually aren’t looking for a coach to get in their face everyday, Tsypkin said.

“Some people want a program and they want to coach themselves,” he said. “You’re dealing with adults here. And if they’re experienced high level athletes, they know things about themselves intuitively that you don’t know…”.

And when he finds those athletes—experienced, mature, technically-sound, emotionally stable athletes—remote coaching works incredibly well.

At the end of the day, though, it comes down to personal wants and needs, as well as a bit of luck. Percevecz, Smith and Duronio realize how lucky they are that they happen to go to the same gym as a supportive and invested coach they trust to help them reach their goals.

“Brandon (is) a huge support system for me,” Percevecz said.

“Having your coach with you during much, or a decent amount of your training time on a regular basis, helps (me) feel supported in what (I’m) going, and supported toward achieving (my) goals,” Duronio said.

Smith added: “(Brandon’s) always there looking over me. I don’t think I can find a picture of myself in a competition and not see Brandon in the background. He has always been by my side moulding me as an athlete.”

You can bet Petersen won't stray far from Smith as he makes a run at the CrossFit Games at the upcoming East Regional competition

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