Athena Perez Builds Course Aimed at Educating Coaches about Working with Larger Bodied Athletes

April 10, 2022 by
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Athena Perez
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When Athena Perez created the We Belong CrossFit Instagram page, her goal was to provide a platform to raise awareness about obesity and inclusivity within the CrossFit community, as well as to offer support to larger bodied CrossFit athletes.

Two years later, the We Belong community has done so much more.

The stories Perez has learned from her followers has led her to build a course for CrossFit trainers aimed at educating coaches how to work with larger bodied athletes. 

  • “A lot of information we learned from the We Belong page, it just more or less confirmed what all the members that are plus sized in our community have experienced. We have experienced similar things, with clothing, with coaches not having the knowledge on how to do progressions and scale appropriately. A lot of times they just freeze and they’re not sure what to do,” Perez said about what ultimately led her to create the course. 

Remind me: This isn’t Perez’s first time advocating for and supporting larger bodied CrossFit athletes.

  • Perez’ own CrossFit journey began by losing 225 pounds before going on to publish her book, Lifting The Wait, in the summer of 2020.
  • That same year, during the height of the global pandemic, Perez, a member of CrossFit’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion council, opened Scaled Nation CrossFit, an affiliate aimed at attracting those who might be intimidated by CrossFit, as a way to “bridge the gap to help people who are overweight take the first step,” she said. Today, Perez’ trains her Scaled Nation clients at her small home affiliate.
  • Most recently, Perez has been working with apparel company Born Primitive on creating fitness clothing for larger bodied CrossFit athletes. Perez has been “instrumental” in the process, explained Born Primitive co-owner Mallory Riley, adding that the first products in the new clothing line will be available in the upcoming weeks. 

The course details: The course, designed by Perez along with five other CrossFit trainers, including Abigail Brankin, Kim Labora, Lisa Heatherington, Jennifer Pendleton, and Al Sagapolutele, is called “Working with Larger Bodies” and its main goal is to educate and empower coaches to understand how to work with larger athletes.

  • The course is currently in its beta stage, with beta seminars scheduled to be hosted at a handful of affiliates in the United States in June and July. After that, the course will open to the public late this summer. 
  • Right now, the course is a one-day, eight hour, in-person, seminar involving lectures, breakout groups and activities that cover not only how to physically train and progress athletes through common CrossFit movements, but also how to ensure your gym is welcoming and compatible with the challenges many larger bodied folks deal with on a daily basis. Course attendees can expect to increase their knowledge and understanding of obesity, improve their understanding of larger bodies by addressing common concerns these clients experience, and ultimately increase the opportunity for business growth, Perez explained. 
  • Once the in-person course is fully “ironed out,” the course will also become available in a self-paced, online course, Perez explained, hopefully this fall.

One big thing: As important as the technical side of working with obese athletes is, Perez said the bigger hole just might be learning how to understand and connect with larger bodied clients.

  • The best coaches know you coach the athlete, not the movement,” Perez said. “They need to know how to cultivate trust and build relationships with athletes who are accustomed to stares and judgment.”
  • She added: “This is less about it being a physical thing, as much as obesity is more of a mental thing. There are a lot of things that people experience…It’s not that, for instance, somebody doesn’t want to get on a bike. What they’re afraid of is that they might break the pedal or the seat. There are other things that are going on in that brain that would be helpful for the coach to understand.”
  • In light of this, the course takes common CrossFit movements “and we literally break it down to the bare bones, and then we show them, ‘Here’s the pain points. Here’s why someone isn’t going to want to jump, for instance,’” Perez explained.
  • “It’s not about feeling sorry for that person. It’s not about letting that person be a victim. It’s literally bridging that gap and understanding how we can connect, so that that coach understands what they’re asking that person to do.”

The big picture: Perez is adamant that CrossFit is for everyone. That being said, there’s still a ton of room for improvement when it comes to working with larger bodied, obese clients, both when it comes to understanding how to scale movements physically, and more importantly when it comes to understanding, building trust, and empathizing with this demographic, which is exactly what “Working with Larger Bodies” seeks to do. 

  • Perez explained: “I think that CrossFit can be a life saving tool for anybody, but I think that we as a community need to get a little better understanding that with that comes people feeling like they belong here. If the coaching gets better, we can reach more people.”

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