"As much as I loved being an athlete, I knew my passion for other people’s fitness had grown larger than what I had for my own, and it just came naturally."
When he first started working at CrossFit Abilene, Aaron Wesson never imagined he would be coaching two of the top athletes in the South Central Region.
After four weeks of the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games Open, however, that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Following his 239 reps on 14.4, Roy Gamboa maintained the top spot on the regional Leaderboard. On the women’s side, Jessie Jo Young scored 194 reps, which was good enough to put her in first place overall.
“All of my athletes’ improvements over this past year have been so fun to watch,” Wesson said. “This is our first year officially competing as a box, and I hope to qualify a team this year for regionals.”
“Roy also established himself as an athlete last year by finishing third at regionals and 22nd at the Games,” he continued, “but after a full year of focusing on sealing up and improving on his weaknesses, I believe he is going to turn some heads this year even more than he was able to in 2013.”
Young finished 15th at the 2013 South Central Regional after only five months of CrossFit. Now with more than a year of CrossFit, Wesson said he believes Young has the potential to compete against not only the fittest women in the region but in the world.
After four Open workouts, Young sits in 32nd worldwide while Gamboa occupies the 16th spot.
With all the talent pouring out of CrossFit Abilene, Wesson must have years of coaching experience, right? Not the case.
Wesson is only 25, has been doing CrossFit four years and coaching for three. He fell into coaching CrossFit by happenstance. His only prior coaching experience was teaching private quarterback lessons during college.
“I actually spent the majority of my high school years thinking I was going to be a preacher, so I was constantly thinking about how I could best take information and communicate it in a way that was effective,” Wesson said. “When I got into CrossFit, I decided to go get my Level 1 before I even knew if a coaching opportunity would arise.”
Months after Wesson earned his Level 1 certificate, the owner of his first box in Abilene gave him an opportunity to take over the early morning classes. Once he got a taste for coaching, he never looked back.
“As much as I loved being an athlete, I knew my passion for other people’s fitness had grown larger than what I had for my own, and it just came naturally,” he said.
Since then, Wesson has developed a distinctive coaching philosophy. He said it is all about prioritizing and giving energy to the “right things.”
Regardless of anyone’s athletic ability, fitness level or goals to be a competitor or not, each athlete needs to feel cared for and respected, he said. He tries to connect with each individual at his gym, which means getting to know them and their goals.
“If I don’t get this right, every other aspect of what it takes to be an effective coach can’t thrive,” Wesson said.
He made a believer out of Young who appreciates Wesson’s approach, personality and selflessness.
“Aaron is very personable,” she said. “He is so good at trying to build individual relationships with each of his members, and he spends just as much attention and coaching effort with his regular members as he does his competitive athletes.”
“He is more concerned with his agenda for his athletes than his own,” Young added. “He also does a lot of research outside the gym in all aspects of fitness, health, CrossFit and weightlifting.”
Wesson strives on a daily basis to continually improve. For him, coaching is a humble experience because of the complexity of human movement and the challenge of teaching these movements to individuals who learn differently.
“Knowing what good movement should look like, and actually getting the athlete there are completely different challenges,” Wesson said. “Through trial and error, I continue to learn how to be empathetic enough to know how to most effectively coach up each person that comes in the box.”
He said he loves teaching the Olympic lifts in particular. The “bread and butter” of both his programming is found in couplets and triplets between five and 15 minutes in length, Wesson said. In addition, he makes sure he programs something heavy one day a week, as well as a longer workout on Saturdays.
“I firmly believe if you are trying to get any of your athletes better at CrossFit, have them do CrossFit, and always encourage them to move with virtuosity,” he said. “You will certainly see drastic improvements in their fitness.”
Moreover, he truly believes in the power of team and community.
“Partner (workouts) always seem to bring the best out of our athletes,” he said. “I love to plug these in as often as I can and watch a new level of enthusiasm come out.”
Wesson is big on having his competitive athletes training together, too. The competitors train each day at 10 a.m. and again at 3 p.m. to work on a mix of skill, strength, Olympic lifting and metabolic conditioning. Recently, Wesson passed the torch to Gamboa to program for the competitors. Gamboa said he makes sure to include two strength sessions and two met-cons per day, as well as skill work added in with three days on, one day off, two days on, one day off weekly schedule.
“Too many of our competitive athletes have tried working out on their own and everyone has realized it doesn’t work—it’s hard to keep up the push you get from others,” Wesson said.
“And if competitive athletes can’t train with the other competitors due to their busy schedules, I’ll often have them train during the regular class times,” he added. “I tell them that, at all costs, regardless of the workout, intensity needs to be preserved first. Then if the programming is such that they can bias towards their weaknesses, then that’s a plus. Doing the ‘regular class’ workout is fine if they keep up the intensity.”
The emphasis on intensity isn’t lost on Young. It’s a concept that propels her forward both inside and outside the gym. As a physician’s assistant in the ER, she works 11-hour shifts 16 days out of the month, and gets off around 5:30 p.m. on workdays.
With a goal of making it to the Games, she heads straight to the gym to warm up and starts her session with a strength set, followed by a conditioning workout Wesson gives her.
“On the days I work, sometimes I am the last one there,” Young said.
On her days off, Young gets in some extra training to make up for missed time. She’s in the gym by 10 a.m. for strength work and a conditioning workout, and then back again at 3:30 p.m. for more work.
“I’ve been working with Aaron since August right after I moved with my husband to Abilene,” she said. “Aaron continually reminds me that the best Games athletes are just all-around good at CrossFit. In order to improve, there’s no big secret other than just doing as much CrossFit as you can.”
And there’s no better time than the Open to measure just how much Wesson’s theories and coaching have paid off. Wesson said the Open has been a bonding experience for all of his athletes. A total of 44 members signed up to compete in the box’s first year of Open participation.
“The turn out each week was insane and a fun atmosphere,” Wesson said. “It’s not really hard to keep our athletes motivated during the Open, and my coaching strategy for each workout is pretty simple: whatever fitness you already have in the bag is what is going to shine through. Sure, strategies can be a cherry on top for helping with little things, but above all, the goal has just been work hard and have fun.”
The greatest reward Wesson gets from coaching?
“Without a doubt, it’s seeing the positive changes that our athletes make in all areas of life because of their fitness,” he said. “I love seeing movement and fitness levels increased, but the real satisfaction comes from how all of those things make our members better parents, spouses, employees, bosses and overall better people.”