She Wants to See More Women Coaching CrossFit’s Elite
Reebok CrossFit ONE, a Boston, Mass., CrossFit affiliate, sent two teams to the Reebok CrossFit Games East Regional this year.
The first was Team Reebok CrossFit ONE, a powerhouse made up of the gym’s coaches, many of whom were former Games competitors who had already achieved “celebrity” status in the community.
The second was a team of “regular” box members whose impressive performances in the CrossFit Open had earned the gym a second qualifying spot.
Denise Thomas , a longtime coach at the box, took on the role as the B-team’s coach.
One night when the two teams were practicing together, to the surprise of all, the B-team out-performed “the super team” in a workout.
“It was very cool,” recalls Thomas. “It was just tweaks we made that they hadn’t, and it definitely turned a few heads.”
That workout proved a clear turning point for Thomas, who says there are many women in the CrossFit community who are capable of coaching the best of the best.
And it all comes down to confidence.
Raising Her Hand
Regionals came and Team Reebok CrossFit ONE ended the weekend in a qualifying position for the CrossFit Games, the sport’s highest level of competition.
At a celebratory dinner, Spencer Hendel, one of the team’s more well-known members, turned to Thomas and said, “You know we’re going to ask you to coach our team to the Games, right?”
Coaching the sport’s most elite athletes was never a thought that had entered Thomas’ head, despite having 10 years of coaching experience under her belt.
“It came about very organically,” she says.
Thinking about the impending opportunity later that night, Thomas’ mind went to a CrossFit Journal article she had read a few years before. It was an article on EvaClaire Synkowski, a trainer who coached fellow Reebok CrossFit ONE coach Austin Malleolo among other Games qualifiers.
The article profiled Synkowski and drew light to the fact there were so few women coaching the CrossFit elite.
“EvaClaire is confident and knowledgeable, and people really respect her,” Thomas says. “I remember reading that article and thinking, ‘Wow, it would be really cool to do that.’
“I thought why aren’t there more female coaches out there?”
I thought why aren’t there more female coaches out there?
When that Journal article was published in 2014, Thomas was already a CrossFit Seminar Staff trainer, the highest level of CrossFit trainer. And yet even after reading the article, she assumed she wasn’t ready to coach elite athletes.
“It’s never something that I actually thought I would do,” she recalls, looking back and attributing those thoughts to a lack of confidence.
But this summer, when Hendel presented Thomas with the opportunity to take on the role, she confidently raised her hand.
The Makings of a Coach
From May to August, Thomas worked with Team Reebok CrossFit ONE day in and out.
“We needed direction,” admits team member Malleolo. “We needed leadership and someone who could help us become a team.”
“Coaches don’t need ability from a fitness perspective,” he adds. “They simply need perspective and care.”
It is a point Thomas agrees with, and one she wants to make clear to other women who think they are not capable of coaching at the top level.
“Elite athletes don’t need you to tell them to get lower in the squat,” she says. “They already get that.”
“It’s about the fine details and understanding goals,” she continues. “You have to understand that this is a task, and the goal is to win.”
So what makes a male coach more capable of understanding this than a female?
That’s something Thomas and Malleolo agree on.
“Denise is approachable and real when it comes to getting the job done,” says Malleolo. “She can relate, educate and communicate which are the main factors of coaches. Sex does not factor into that decision.”
She can relate, educate and communicate which are the main factors of coaches. Sex does not factor into that decision.
Coaching Team Reebok CrossFit ONE to a fifth-place finish at the Games made Thomas more self-aware that she exhibits these qualities.
She now wants to empower more women to recognize the qualities in themselves.
“After this experience, I feel confident I could coach any athlete,” says Thomas. “I learned a lot about myself as a coach and feel very excited about what the future may bring.”
She wants to see more female coaches gain this confidence.
“There are many women out there who are more than capable,” says Thomas.
“I don’t think it’s that women lack the experience. Because they don’t,” she says. “I think it comes down to priority and for many women maybe the priority right now is not sending a competition team to the Games."
I don’t think it’s that women lack the experience. Because they don’t.
“History has shown that men tend to make this more of a priority. I don’t know why that is, but I think once more women decide they want to do it, we will see them be successful at it.”
Thomas wants to make one thing clear, though.
“You have to earn it,” she explains. “Confidence is only one part of the battle. To lead a team, one must forge relationships and earn respect, man or woman.”
“I put myself in a CrossFit environment to learn,” says Thomas, noting that as the factor that ultimately earned her this coaching opportunity.
“CrossFit has created a platform based on how strong women have gotten. In CrossFit, women are equally respected as athletes. I think we will see that for women coaches, too.”
But for now, it remains a matter of empowering more of the capable women out there to see these jobs as attainable.
In CrossFit, women are equally respected as athletes. I think we will see that for women coaches, too.