Female Coaches of the CrossFit Games
One year ago, Caroline Lambray called her shot.
- “It would be cool to be the first woman coach [to have her athlete] win the CrossFit Games. That’s something that’s on my bucket list,” she said in an interview with the Morning Chalk Up’s Emily Beers.
But Caroline Lambray’s goal was even more significant than just having her athlete stand atop the podium.
One big thing: Every year, the six fittest CrossFitters in the world step onto the podium at Madison after five long days of competition (three men and three women).
- While these athletes have achieved the pinnacle of fitness, behind them also stand some of the greatest coaches in our sport.
While CrossFit has long been heralded as a sport that brought both equal recognition and pay to athletes of both genders, there still remains one glaring gap. Up until this year, of all the athletes to stand on top of the podium, all of them were coached by men.
- This year, Caroline Lambray changed that when her athlete Jeff Adler stood atop the podium at the end of the 2023 CrossFit Games.
Remind me: This wasn’t Lambray’s first year coaching Adler. Years ago, Lambray began coaching Adler before the idea of the Games was even a possibility, much less winning the whole thing.
- “It started very smooth. I was always interested in programming,” said Lambray.
- “For me, it was that I always wanted to perfect my skills, whether it was programming or coaching,” she continued.
“When we started dating, we didn’t own the box at the time and I wasn’t programming anymore,” she added.“I had programmed in another box and we both enjoyed it. The first step was doing a little bit more programming and keeping track of his scores, watching his technique and watching him move,” Lambray continued.
- “He did a lot of PVC work,” Lambray added with a laugh. “But it was very slow and gradual. Because I had more experience in terms of CrossFit in general, I could see he had potential. His numbers were very good in terms of his years of experience,”
- “Throughout the years, it evolved,” she concluded.
From their start in local throwdowns, all the way to winning the CrossFit Games, Lambray has remained by Jeff’s side, continuously pushing herself to grow and evolve as a coach.
- “What I was trying to do as a coach, was be one step ahead,” said Lambray.
- “Make sure I was learning and doing my research,” she continued.
After Adler’s breakout year at the Games in 2019, Lambray pushed herself even harder to hone her skills and ensure that she was providing the highest possible level of coaching for Adler.
- “From 2019 on, it really was, am I the best person suited for this and the question of ‘can I get you to where you want to go?’” said Lambray.
- “Year after year it was never a given that I was going to be his coach, because I respected him enough as an athlete to ensure that he was reaching his full potential,” she continued. “I put the time in doing the certifications and asking questions and doing my part to grow as a coach to always be one step ahead,” Lambray concluded.
While she may not have had the track record of elite coaches like Ben Bergeron or CJ Martin in pushing athletes to the top of the podium, Lambray continued to persevere and ensure that she was the best possible coach for Adler.
- Her persistence paid off with Adler’s first-place victory last month at the Games, setting a precedent for not just elite female coaches, but any coach looking to break into the space and help cultivate an athlete to be the fittest on earth.
And, she’s not alone: Beyond Lambray’s incredible work to push her athlete Jeffrey Adler to the top of the podium, other women have started to make a name for themselves in the sport as well over the past few years.
- Most notable, has been Pat Vellner’s coach, Michele Letendre, who has been behind Vellner’s three podium finishes in the past five years.
Letendre is perhaps one of the shining examples of what it takes to be a female coach in the elite competitive CrossFit space. But Letendre isn’t just in this for her own glory. She’s here to make a statement for female coaches everywhere.
- When asked how she felt about being not just one of the top female coaches in the world, but perhaps one of the top coaches period, she said:
- “When you say it like that, it feels very good. Like an exclusive club. It feels really good. It’s an interesting dilemma because I always felt that I never wanted to identify myself as a female coach,” said Letendre.
- “I always wanted to identify myself as a coach. But the reality is that it sticks out like a sore thumb. There’s not a lot of women out there,” she continued.
- “I don’t think that being a woman or a man changes anything in the quality of coaching, but it does change peoples’ perspectives,” Letendre concluded.
And those perspectives matter. Especially for how female coaches are not just portrayed but elevated and celebrated in the public eye.
- “Coaching is a very thankless job. We exist in the shadows. Some coaches are better at being outgoing than others. And I think by nature because there are so few female coaches, we tend to stick to the wall,” said Letendre.
- “I want to end that. I want women to realize there are other opportunities beyond being a female athlete,” she continued.
“Women and girls need to see that there are lots of opportunities for them in any sport. Including CrossFit and I think CrossFit was born in an era where that is more of a reality,” she added. “But there are more opportunities in more intellectual positions and more supporting roles that are extremely available and you can do it,” Letendre concluded.
Letendre also spoke of some of the biases that might block female coaches from being given opportunities at the highest level. Namely, the bias that female coaches are often expected to “prove” themselves via prior athletic performance before being offered an opportunity to coach high-level athletes.
- “My concern is that there’s no buy-in to female coaches because they haven’t proved that they can be competitive [in the sport of fitness] as well. And I don’t believe there’s that bias in men,” she said.
While Letendre herself had an incredibly successful career in the sport of fitness, she hopes that future female coaches won’t feel the pressure to have to prove themselves athletically to bolster their authority in the coaching sphere.
- “There’s an expectation of performance from them that’s unrealistic,” concluded Letendre.
And while these biases might seem like a sometimes insurmountable challenge for some, for Lambray, they seemed almost non-existent. Take, for example, the imposter syndrome that many women feel when they achieve something so monumental, they feel on some level they don’t deserve it. Even the athletes competing at the CrossFit Games have expressed that sometimes they feel they don’t deserve to be there.
But for Lambray, that imposter syndrome just doesn’t exist.
- “I’ve never had imposter syndrome. I don’t want to sound super cocky. But I will always put in the work. I think that I’m capable and believe that I can do it,” said Lambray.
- “I never felt like I was not in my place, but I have felt like there might be more people who can bring more value to him [Adler] as an athlete and I respect that,” she continued.
- “I’ve never had imposter syndrome, but I’ve always looked for better opportunities,” she added, noting that while she certainly understands where her weaknesses lie in coaching, she knows that her efforts to stay one step ahead of Adler throughout his athletic career have put her in what she believes is the best position possible to coach him.
For women all around her, Lambray’s confidence and achievements have shattered the glass ceiling and swept up the pieces so the women who come after her won’t ever know it even existed.
- “For me, I never felt like I wasn’t in my place,” said Lambray.
- “I never felt like I didn’t belong or like I had to work harder. I work hard because I work hard. I never felt like I was going against the grain,” she continued.
Beyond Lambray and Letendre, there is a growing number of female coaches looking to make a name for themselves as coaches of elite CrossFit Games athletes.
Perrin Behr, a full-time coach at Training Think Tank has been responsible for bringing Bethany Flores to the CrossFit Games this season, as well as a number of other team and elite Semifinal athletes.
- For Behr, she believes that visibility is one of the most important elements in inspiring fellow females to pursue their dreams.
- “I do believe that public recognition creates more visibility that can help inspire others and I am all for being an advocate of more women in coaching careers,” said Behr.
But Behr is also quick to make sure that the community is not just highlighting the fact that these coaches are female.
- “With any pursuit, the steps to developing yourself as a professional are the same regardless of gender,” said Behr.
- “Labeling someone as a female coach versus just a coach creates a distinction that I don’t always feel is necessary,” she continued.
- “I’d love to see the day where the recognition of the intersections of identity are no longer necessary because the playing field is open to everyone and those who are doing good work are recognized for the work,” she continued.
Behr has also spent time researching why women don’t pursue the path of elite coaching nearly as much as men, as is evidenced by the distinct difference in the number of female versus male coaches at the Games.
- “I actually did some research on this topic during my mentorship with Max El-Hag before I was hired by TTT,” she said. “It’s a complicated subject that would require a lot more investment of research to fully understand the reasoning behind it,” she continued.
- “My inclination is that the lack of female representation in coaching isn’t because organizations are unwilling to hire them,” she added.
- “I think there are probably fewer females who want to pursue a career in coaching elite athletes versus males for various reasons,”
- “It’s not for everyone and requires a lot more time, education, sacrifice, and dedication to refining athletic performance versus coaching in an affiliate,” Behr continued.
Underdogs staff coach Colette Casey agreed, adding “Coaching high-level athletes offers a different level of ‘care’ that creates extra checkpoints in order to make sure a remote relationship with distance feels more like an intimate relationship. This may hinder female coaches from adding it to their list of endeavors,” she said.
- “Training Think Tank has six females on staff, five of which are coaching or involved in program design,” Behr continued.
- “Plenty of female coaches exist, but they’re not always highlighted publicly and they don’t all coach individual CrossFit Games athletes,” she said.
This unique phenomenon is not only recognized by Behr. In an interview with Letendre, she expressed concern that the lack of publicity that women receive was a factor in why many women don’t feel they can pursue an elite coaching career.
Coach of Games athlete Shahad Budebs and Underdogs staff coach Colette Casey agreed.
- “Sometimes I think female coaches doubt their ability to transcend to the next level of things i.e. coaching competitive athletes. To be quite honest I don’t know the answer to this question but can only offer speculation,” she said.
- “I think there is a need for more female coaches coaching competitive athletes as demonstrated by the two top male finishes at the Games this year. If that doesn’t excite young female coaches, then I don’t know what will,” she added.
- Letendre agreed. “It will just take a few female coaches at the top to set that precedent,” she said.
Both Letendre and Lambray want female coaches looking to pursue a career in the elite space to feel empowered to reach out and throw their hat into the arena.
- “If females are struggling to get into high-level coaching, they should reach out. I’m very open to having conversations and helping these women break through. If they have questions, they should reach out to other female leaders in that division,” said Letendre.
- “I think there are different ways of going about it,” said Lambray. “You never know where talent and grit is going to come from,” she continued. You never know where the next champion is going to come from, they might come from your affiliate. You should always be looking for opportunities.”
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so my only advice is: TRY. We will welcome you (male or female) with open arms,” Lambray said in an interview with Femme Fit Society.
The big picture: While the bigger question of how we get more women coaches to the top or why they may not be there already is perhaps too complicated and nuanced to answer at this point in time, one thing is for certain. Creating visibility creates empowerment. Coaches like Lambray, Behr, Letendre, Casey, and all the other incredible female coaches working with athletes from beginners all the way to the elite level are instrumental in forging a path that creates space for women to pursue the opportunities that they want to pursue.
For women looking to put themselves out there, Letendre has one final piece of advice as stated in her post-Games Instagram post:
“Coaching is a male-dominated profession. But clearly, women are up for the task. Ladies, if you’re looking to begin a career as a coach, do it. Because you can and because we need more.”