Coach Tip Tuesday: Good Coaches are Good at Pattern Recognition
Hooray! It’s time for Coach Tip Tuesday!
When I answer people’s questions about what I do for a living by replying, “I am an endurance coach”, that response inevitably triggers a string of follow-up questions if the person asking me what I do isn’t familiar with endurance sports.
If someone who is familiar with endurance sports asks me what my job is, they usually can understand at least at a base level what I mean when I say I am an endurance coach. However, athletes who have existed in the endurance sports space for awhile might not have a full idea of exactly what a coach does. This week’s Coach Tip Tuesday is a bit of a dive into one thing that can make an endurance coach a good endurance coach.
Good coaches are good at pattern recognition.
There are so many folks who profess to be endurance coaches out there. The reality is that the growth of both the internet and endurance sports in general world-wide has made this industry accessible to so many people. Almost anyone who wants to become a coach can at least attend an online certification and become a coach (even if in name only). This accessibility can be really beneficial. It has benefited me in my career and growth as a coach; 66% of the athletes I currently work with do not live in my area, meaning that I mostly coach them virtually. But this accessibility can also make it hard to sort out the best apples from the bunch, so to speak.
One of the issues with coaching, and especially with virtual coaching, is that it’s very easy to be extremely formulaic in one’s approach to coaching, and a decent percentage of the coaches out there appear to be falling into this bucket. Coaching someone online doesn’t inherently lend itself to customization. It takes a coach with skills and honed experience to handle this type of coaching relationship effectively.
The reality is this: whether in-person or virtual, coaches need to be good at listening (reading) in order to detect what is going on with an athlete so they can design the best training possible for that athlete. When I say “best training possible” I mean both in terms of the actual specifics of workouts prescribed and in terms of the advice that is given to the athlete as they navigate the path to their goals.
As athletes ourselves, we often lack the full self-awareness that it would take to help us reach our full potential. It takes an attentive and caring third party - a good coach - to be able to see any/all patterns that we may exhibit in our training and daily lives. As any athlete who has worked with me can tell you (perhaps begrudgingly ;) ): I am honest, and I will give the feedback that is best for the athlete, even if it’s not necessarily what the athlete wants to hear.
And truthfully, that is exactly what my job is (if I’m doing it right). While I am here to partner with, cheer on, and support each and every athlete who I work with, I am also here to honestly assess the path that will lead them to the highest probability of success in reaching their goals. If I were dishonest along the path and an athlete wasn’t ultimately successful in reaching their goal or got injured, that would be a massive failure on my part and supremely disappointing (to say the least) for the athlete.
There are many factors that go into those assessments that I make. The “base” of how I do this comes from what I’ve learned from certification clinics, seminars, mentors, and my own experience coaching hundreds of athletes over my tenure as an endurance coach. I then build on that base by taking in information from the athlete themselves: their objective and subjective data from their workouts and daily life. (Objective data most often being used to describe the metrics that are recorded by a device such as a Garmin and subjective data most often being used to describe the athlete’s feedback and notes on how something felt or went.)
It’s “easy” to look at a workout data file and judge it. It’s harder to look at a workout and assess it. (Notice here that “workout data file” and “workout” are two different things.) A workout is more than the data that was recorded as part of that file. It is harder to see a workout for both what it is (a stand-alone session) and how it fits into the bigger picture and greater context of the athlete as a whole person.
That being said, a good coach can do just that - see patterns. They can observe both patterns in objective data and patterns in subjective data and use what they see to help the athlete maximize their training sessions and achieve success at reaching their goals.
It is this ability - to recognize patterns and understand their significance in an athlete’s training life - that helps distinguish good coaches from the mass of folks out there who are coaches.
This may or may not be something that an athlete gets excited about. Sometimes, coaches observe patterns in us that we don’t haven’t observed in ourselves because we don’t want to see it. This often happens when I observe patterns of avoidance (i.e. avoiding doing a certain workout, doing a particular exercise, or executing a training plan/workout a certain way).
But even if a coach sees a pattern that we’d rather run or hide from, it’s honestly in the best interest of the athlete to see that pattern, no matter how hard facing it might be. As I often say: if we want to go somewhere we’ve never gone, we’ll have to do things we’ve never done. This might be revisiting preconceived notions of how we have done things in the past or what we think to be true about something, or it may be confronting things we have avoided on our own.
I can tell you from years and years of experience that pointing out these kinds of patterns to athletes is one of the hardest parts of my job, because I know how this type of feedback is often interpreted and I have to accept that reaction from people. We’re programmed to think that if someone provides “negative” feedback that we are “bad” or that that someone is “mad” or “disappointed” in us. But me and my years of experience can also tell you that this isn’t true. Having a coach who is willing to do the hard thing - both in going deep in assessing the entire workout/how it relates to all of your training and their willingness to be honest even when they know they will face an athlete’s pushback - is an invaluable asset and might be less common than a unicorn.
A coach is a person who should be seeking to help us grow into a better version of ourselves. I know that’s how I view my role with the athletes I work with; I’m here to help them be successful and to achieve any/all things that they set their hearts and minds to.
Not all patterns are bad (but we’re more apt to remember when someone calls out a pattern that we dislike or initially disagree with ;) ). A good coach will also give praise when an athlete has a good pattern that is helping to lead them to success, as that will encourage the athlete to continue that pattern.
If you’re seeking a coach to work with on your endurance journey, be sure to interview at least a handful of them and take note if they seem like they will be observant and attentive enough to notice any/all patterns (the good patterns and the patterns that could use some tweaking) that you may present when working with them. Being sure that this is a quality that your coach has will ensure that you have a good coach, not just a coach. And don’t we all want good coaches in our lives?
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.