Coaching the Sport of Fitness

February 3, 2023

Kelley Laxton

Inside the mind of Chris McDonald: Coach to the elite and a Certified CrossFit Level 4 Coach.

Chris McDonald has done it all. 

He is the former affiliate owner of CrossFit X-Factor, a Seminar Staff trainer, a Certified CrossFit Level 4 Coach — the highest CrossFit training credential you can hold — and former coach to four-time CrossFit Games athlete Carleen Mathews

McDonald found CrossFit in 2008 and quickly became interested in coaching because he wanted to help people become better versions of themselves. He completed the Level 1 Certificate Course in August of that year, and just two months later, he passed the Level 2 exam — which is now the Certified CrossFit Level 4 evaluation. 

Chris McDonald

Chris McDonald during a new-athlete introductory session at CrossFit X-Factor

At the time, the Sport of Fitness was growing rapidly, and McDonald also wanted to dive into the competitive side of CrossFit. He competed at Regionals in 2009 as an individual, and joined teams CrossFit X-Factor and X-Factor Black for the 2010 and 2011 North West Regionals. 

In December 2010, Mathews walked into McDonald’s affiliate. She’s well-known on the CrossFit Games scene today, but back then, she didn't have her sights set on elite competition. When she joined X-Factor, Mathews had been sober for four months and was recovering from an eating disorder and drug and alcohol abuse. Doing CrossFit, she said, made her feel like herself again. The new passion helped her leave her past behind.

CrossFit X-Factor was a competitive gym, and Mathews was quickly drawn to that side of CrossFit. She competed in a local competition in 2011 and the fire was lit — she wanted to pursue CrossFit as a sport. Mathews signed up for the Open for the first time in 2012 and qualified for Regionals that same year — and with his mix of competitive experience plus an extensive knowledge of the CrossFit methodology, McDonald was the perfect coach to guide Mathews on her quest to the CrossFit Games. 

Coaching Varies by Degree Not Kind

Just like a CrossFit athlete and a CrossFit Games athlete, a CrossFit coach and a CrossFit Games coach vary by degree, not kind.

When training the everyday CrossFit athlete, coaches are focused on general physical preparedness (GPP). They want their athletes to be better at life. But the sport side of CrossFit is a test of fitness — coaches don’t just want their athletes to be prepared for whatever might come at them, they want them to be the most prepared of all. 

Regardless, the CrossFit methodology doesn't change.

"The coaches are on the same spectrum," McDonald said. "We're still training deadlifts. We're still trying to squat. We're still training presses. We're still working on our gymnastics, and we're still eating whole foods in prescriptions that are appropriate for supporting exercise and not body fat."

McDonald has coached a 76-year-old woman who told him one day that she had just unloaded 750 lb of tile out of the back of her pick-up truck. The CrossFit programming allowed her to keep moving — herself and external objects — at 76. For Mathews, McDonald’s Games-training programming helped her qualify for the CrossFit Games four times. 

What changes the most for a CrossFit Games athlete vs. a 76-year-old is volume and power output. The Sport of Fitness tests an athlete's ability to maximize intensity — force times distance divided by time — and their ability to hit all of the different areas the CrossFit tests demand. The athlete must be proficient in all aspects of the CrossFit methodology if they seek success at the highest level. 

In order to prepare for this, McDonald had to increase the volume of Mathews' training as compared to that of his regular affiliate members. Games athletes must accumulate higher volume and increased capacity across all elements of CrossFit to excel among the elite. McDonald trained Mathews five to six days a week for three to four hours a day — it takes time, grit, and perseverance to train for the CrossFit Games. 

Although Mathews had true potential as a CrossFit athlete from the start, it came down to training her weaknesses, McDonald said. When coaching an aspiring CrossFit Games athlete, a coach must determine where the athlete is lacking — whether from a metabolic, strength, or skill standpoint. Any gaps in fitness can prevent an athlete from moving on to the next stage of competition. 

"The hard thing about that is while you're working on those weaknesses, you need to continue to make sure their strengths stay strengths so they can gain as many points through those events as they can," McDonald said. 

“It Made Me a Better Coach”

When a coach understands the CrossFit prescription, they can try to get on the same wavelength as the CrossFit Games programmers to best prepare their athlete for competition.

"The people who are designing the Games — you've got Dave Castro and Adrian Bozman — are two of the highest-level CrossFit coaches that anybody can find. They understand the true CrossFit prescription," McDonald said. 

Even with McDonald’s extensive education and understanding of the CrossFit methodology, he said coaching Mathews ultimately made him a better coach. 

Every CrossFit coach assesses and evaluates their athletes to help them achieve their goals. But while most CrossFit coaches see their athletes for one hour a day, CrossFit Games coaches spend three to four hours a day, five days a week with their athletes, and are expected to maximize the time and effort their athletes put into their training. 

Coaches of CrossFit Games athletes are constantly evaluating the athlete's performance and creating ways to improve, all while assessing their competitors and strategizing how to make sure their athlete puts their best leg forward in competition. 

Carleen Mathews

Carleen Mathews at the 2017 West Regionals

As if that’s not enough, it’s also essential that the coach avoid overtraining. 

When McDonald began training Mathews in 2012, devices to track an athlete's vitals, such as heart rate and blood pressure, were not as accessible as they are today. He would manually test her levels to ensure she was not in a state of overtraining. 

On the competition floor, it is the coach's responsibility to relieve their athlete from all other responsibilities outside of competition. They need to provide their athlete with a warm-up, a game plan for attacking the workouts, a nutrition plan, and even recovery between events. 

"When do they need an ice bath?” McDonald would ask himself. “How long do they need an ice bath? What are they eating? What are they doing when they get home from the competition?"

Determining Efficacy as a Coach

"Your efficacy as a coach is how you finish," McDonald said — a measure not so different from that of any other CrossFit coach.

Where Mathews stood on the leaderboard at the end of the season was a way for McDonald to rate his own performance as a coach. A CrossFit Games coach's mission is to get their athlete as far in the competition as possible. 

"One of the cool things about the CrossFit Open is you've got all that data to compare how that athlete is stacking up year after year," McDonald said. "As a CrossFit Games coach, you need to make sure that those athletes are moving upstream."

Each year, the pool of athletes gets better and the tests get harder. Therefore, the coach's job gets harder each year, and it’s their responsibility to evaluate and prepare the athlete for anything.

When Mathews first appeared at Regionals in 2012, she took 18th. She rose to ninth in 2013 and fourth in 2014. Mathews made her debut at the 2015 CrossFit Games after a second-place finish at the 2015 North West Regional. She took 36th.

The next year, she won the West Regional and finished 13 places higher at the 2016 Games, landing in 23rd.

In 2019, Mathews became the second-Fittest Woman on Earth in the masters 35-39 division. 

Chris and Carleen

Photo courtesy of Chris McDonald

This positive trend in CrossFit Games season rankings meant McDonald was an effective coach. 

At the end of the day, McDonald said the most rewarding part of being a CrossFit coach is doing something special. 

"(My) 76-year-old client—gave me a big kiss on the cheek and said she had just unloaded 750 lb of tile out of the back of her pick-up truck," McDonald said. "With Carleen, when she won Regionals and qualified for the Games — to see the culmination of hard work expressed with the accomplishment of goals creates a special relationship."

Whether the aim is to help athletes develop functional competence at 76 or functional dominance at the CrossFit Games, a CrossFit coach’s goals vary by degree, not kind.