Secrets of a Barista Competitor: Phuong Tran Focuses on Self-Care

In this series, we share the secrets of barista competitors. From choosing a theme to setting a practice schedule, seasoned competitors open up about how to compete smartly, efficiently, and effectively.


If you’re reading this, then you’re probably competing soon. You’re probably spending hours training, pulling shots, doing run-throughs, and making signature drink after signature drink. And friends, we’re here to tell you to take a breather.

Don’t believe us? Ask Phuong Tran. Phuong is the 2005 U.S. Barista Champion, and is the owner of Lava Java coffee shop in Ridgefield, Wash. Along with running a successful coffee shop, Phuong is also the Director of Coffee Education at Brewed Behavior. And for Phuong, training for barista competition isn’t just about run-throughs or picking the right coffee. “In addition to our regular day job, baristas train two, three or more times a day, and six or seven days a week to get ready for a competition. It becomes important to remember to maintain the quality of life in order to succeed,” she shares. Phuong is mindful of the craziness that can be inherent in training for competition, so here are some of her tips for maintaining clarity and keeping your head above water during competition season.

Phuong setting new goals at her cafe—along with being the 2005 U.S. Barista Champion, she owns the Lava Java coffee shop in Ridgefield, Wash.
  1. Have the right approach.

“To become a barista champion, it takes a whole lot of sheer dedication to training. It takes precedent over pretty much everything else in your life,” Phuong shares. However, so much of the harried feeling of prepping and tasting coffee—while having a life on top of all that—can come from poor preparation. “You need to set a goal and plan further ahead,” she says. “For example, set an annual goal and develop a detailed schedule for the entire year leading up to the competition. Then break it down into tasks and time periods with smaller goals so that you can track your progress along the way.” Having a clear plan will help you feel like you have time to achieve the tasks you need to get done, removing the sense of dread that can sneak up on you when you’re in the thick of competition season. “This requires genuine self discipline and effort, but having a plan will help you stay on track and prevent a meltdown,” Phuong shares. “Prepare your priorities right from the beginning or it’s not worth taking the journey.”

Phuong encourages hard work and careful planning, but she also advises taking breaks and giving yourself days to splurge on things like a good meal or a massage.
  1. Be mentally ready.

“Just thinking about the competition can be a scary thought. You’ll definitely experience stress and anxiety many times from the time you commit to competing,” Phuong shares. So much of doing well at competition is making sure you’re in a clear and calm state of mind, so find techniques to keep yourself centered. “Meditating daily will improve your mental state by reducing stress and calming down your nerves,” she says. “Choosing music that motivates you while practicing will help clear your mind. Use visualization techniques by picturing step-by-step what and how to carry out your presentation to increase your confidence and self-efficacy.” And if that doesn’t help, Phuong recommends turning to friends and coaches for support. “Hire a coach or form a team and train together,” she says. “You’ll see where your strengths and weaknesses are and be able to tweak them.”

One of the easiest ways to prepare mentally is do things over and over. So when you’re at a loss, try running the lines of your speech again. “Invite friends and family to watch you rehearse your presentation,” Phuong shares. “Repetitions create mental readiness.” But at the end of the day, you have to turn your mind off and give yourself a break. “Plan treat days where you can splurge on something like a delicious burger you’ve been craving or do something fun for a change,” she says. “Do treat days to keep yourself sane.”

  1. Be physically ready.

All your hard work and dedication don’t mean anything if you go to competition and are sick or unwell (unless you’re Sasa Sestic, who was in the hospital the day before the World Barista Championship in Seattle in 2015, but we wouldn’t recommend that). “Staying healthy is another key to success. Maintain a healthy diet and carefully avoid excess fats, sugars, salts, and processed foods,” Phuong advises. Some competitors cut out other vices, like alcohol and smoking, as well—obviously you don’t have to do that, but be mindful of your body’s needs and pay extra attention to what your body is telling you. This is a time to prioritize your health. “Drink plenty of water. Go to bed early and get at least eight hours of sleep a night for your overall well-being,” Phuong says. “Sometimes, you might even need to take a 30-minute siesta because it is crucial to recharge your brain and your body.”

And if stress is still taking a toll, do something nice for your body. “Get a massage if you are tense or have aches and pain to rejuvenate yourself. Get a manicure before the competition; clean hands are a must!” Phuong shares. So much of competition preparation isn’t about the routine or the coffee—it’s about taking care of yourself and being in the right state of mind to perform a highly choreographed and fast-paced coffee service. So be well, don’t push yourself too hard, and if at the end you still have some nerves, just remember one last piece of advice from Phuong: “Eat bananas, they help with the shakes!”

About Ashley Rodriguez 413 Articles
Ashley is the Online Editor for Barista Magazine. She's based in Chicago. If you want to share a story or have a comment, you can reach her at