Posted On:
Tuesday, August 22, 2023
Updated On:
Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: Is Coaching Right For You?

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Coaching an athlete in-person at the Aquatics Center at the United States Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Is coaching right for you?

In short: Yes.  Anyone - no matter where they are on their endurance sports journey - can benefit from working with an experienced and caring coach.  Whether you are brand-new to your sport of choice or have been an athlete for many years, a coach can offer a broad and helpful perspective to help you reach your goals while minimizing risk of overtraining and/or injury.

I hear so many misconceptions about working with a coach, but two of the most common ones that I hear are:

  • “I’m not good enough and/or experienced enough and/or have big enough goals to work with a coach.”
  • “I don’t need to work with a coach because I have been doing [insert sport here] for many years.”

Both of these are fallacies.  You do not need to get to a certain level of athletic ability to benefit from coaching, and no matter how experienced you do get, there is always something you can learn.

When considering whether or not to work with a coach, rather than focusing on one’s ability level, I find that it’s helpful to think about the following things that are necessary for a coach-athlete relationship to be successful: Engagement Level, Level of Trust, Receptiveness to Feedback, and Compatibility.

Engagement Level

Without a doubt, engagement level (especially when it comes to communications) is one of the most important things to consider when deciding whether or not to hire a coach (and taking it one step further, when deciding which coaching service is right for you).  No matter how experienced or good a given coach is, the output of any coach is only as good as the inputs that are given to them by an athlete.  How much you are actually willing and able to be interacting with and engaged with the coaching process and your training plan will have a direct impact on how successful you are at reaching your goals and on your overall injury risk.

Workout files from devices such as Garmins or Wahoos are nice, but they are a very small slice of what helps a coach determine what plan is best for a given athlete.  Subjective input in the form of post-workout notes is incredibly important.  Clear communication about limitations in scheduling, preferences, life stressors, and life happenings is also incredibly important.  When it comes to any of this - subjective input or clear communications - timeliness is essential.  

Are you willing and able to take the time to give thorough and complete feedback the day you complete a workout?  Are you willing and able to communicate upcoming scheduling items ahead of time?  Are you willing to learn and understand what you’re doing in workouts and why it’s important for you?  If you are, a service such as Performance Coaching may be right for you.  A coaching service like Performance Coaching is priced to include a lot of communication and is one where workouts are written based on what you actually do and how things actually go in training.  The only effective way workouts can be written in this way is if there is constant communication on an almost daily basis between the athlete and coach.  In addition, this level of communication can help identify and resolve niggles early, which can prevent actual injuries from occurring over time.

If you are seeking a workout schedule and are not willing to carve the time for feedback and/or to regularly communicate your needs and life schedule ahead of time, a service such as a Custom-Built Training Plan may be a more appropriate choice for you.  In contrast to Performance Coaching, a Custom-Built Training Plan does not include much communication and is one where workouts are written based on (educated) predictions of how training will go over a given three-month period of time.  This is a coaching option that allows athletes to get guidance and structure in their training without necessitating a lot of frequent engagement on their side of the equation.


Level of Trust

When hiring a coach, there is a huge amount of trust that goes both ways.  For the relationship to be effective and successful, the athlete needs to trust that the coach is competent, that the coach has their best interests at heart, and that the coach will chart a course that will ultimately help them reach their goals.  If an athlete is unwilling to do or does not do what a coach has planned, it almost always is because they do not trust that the plan or workout is best; they feel that there is something else that is better, and choose to do that instead.

Before hiring a coach, athletes are almost always doing workouts based on what they want to be doing and/or what they think is best.  To hire a coach means surrendering this complete control and instead allowing someone else to decide what is best.  While an athlete ultimately always has the final say about what they are doing (because, after all, it is their training), there are often times when a coach plans something that is in conflict with an athlete's desires and/or preferences.  Among other things, a good coach is going to nudge athletes to work on developing their weak points so they can build confidence and skill, and this is going to mean that they plan for things that an athlete may avoid doing when left to their own devices.  In addition, a coach will reign athletes in when appropriate and push them when it’s prudent to do so.  

Planning for things based on what they want (instead of what is actually true and/or what will best serve them) is the number one mistake that self-coached athletes make.  It (altering a planned workout or schedule to be what they want without consideration of all factors that go into training plan design) is also the biggest mistake that athletes who are not fully committed to the coaching process make.  This behavior leads to a significantly increased risk of injury (both acutely and over time) and also significantly decreases the probability of attaining performance-based goals.

On the coach side of the equation, the coach needs to trust that the athlete will do what is planned and that they will be honest about what they are doing, how they are feeling, and how things are going.  Having secret goals, completing unplanned workouts on their own without telling the coach about it (ahead of time or perhaps ever), or being dishonest about how something feels are all counterproductive, to say the least.  The coach needs to be able to trust that they are getting a full, complete, and honest picture of what is going on with an athlete.  Understanding where they are is the only way a coach can help an athlete get to where they want to go.


Receptiveness to Feedback

True coaching helps athletes start from where they are and get where they want to go.  This means that there will be times along that path where it’s prudent for a coach to give feedback or advice.  An athlete’s receptiveness to feedback is a critical component to consider when deciding whether or not to work with a coach.

This piece of the puzzle requires intense, honest self-assessment, which can be very challenging because the results of that self-assessment may not be something we want to see and/or that we are proud of.  But determining whether you are willing and able to emotionally handle feedback - positive or negative - about your training is critical to deciding if coaching is a good option for you and which type of coaching service is most appropriate for you.

Many athletes - whether they will admit it or not (to themselves or out loud) - hire a coach because they are seeking someone to validate the choices that they are making.  Remember: the number one mistake that most athletes make is doing what they want to be doing in training, not what they really need to be doing.  They are making an emotional choice, not a choice rooted in truth or reason.  If you are seeking someone to validate and/or praise what you want to be doing, then coaching honestly may not be the right option for you.

If you are willing to accept feedback - ALL kinds of feedback - then coaching might be a good option for you.  An effective coach will offer honest and constructive feedback, whether it is “positive” or “negative.”  (Basically, whether it’s praising the athlete, or offering insight on what could be changed to improve performance, sensations, or outcomes.)

A good way to assess if you can handle and/or are willing to accept feedback is this: Imagine you have set a goal that is important to you.  Then you have a day when a key workout is scheduled when you do what you want to do and/or alter your schedule, instead of following what the coach planned.  When you let the coach know after the fact what you actually did, what kind of response will you expect and will you be willing to receive?  Will you want the coach to tell you that you did great and that this choice was a good one?  Or would you be willing to hear feedback from the coach telling you that this choice wasn’t the wisest and that it has negative implications for your training and/or your path to your goal?

One of the most important things a coach can do for an athlete is tell them what they need to hear, even if it's not what they want to hear.  When I first started coaching, I was honestly afraid to give negative feedback to athletes because it is often so poorly received.  However, I learned something important.  The hard conversation will happen at some point.  It will either happen when the thing that prompted the need for constructive feedback happens in training, or it will happen at some point down the line.  (In a worst-case scenario, it will happen when a goal is missed or an athlete sustains an injury.)  Telling an athlete what is true will always serve the athlete best, and an athlete who wants to reach their full potential needs to be willing to hear honest feedback, even if it’s difficult (and/or wounds one’s ego temporarily).


Compatibility

Once an athlete has considered the aforementioned factors and determined whether or not they are willing to submit to the process of working with a coach (and which type of coaching service they would ideally be seeking), compatibility is the final major component to consider.  No single coach can coach every athlete out there, and no single coach is going to be the best match for every athlete out there.  

Like any relationship, for a coach-athlete relationship to be successful, it needs to be a good match.  Athletes should interview multiple coaches to get a sense of their personality is a good match for a positive working relationship with a given coach.  In addition, interviewing multiple coaches gives athletes exposure to different coaching styles and methods, which is important to consider.  A caring coach will be honest if they feel that they are not the best professional to serve a given athlete, and athletes should feel free to express their honest opinion about whether they feel a particular coach is a good match for them.

While personality and style are arguably two of the most important factors when deciding on which coach to work with, there are a few other factors that can be important:

  • The coach’s level of experience
  • How long has the coach been coaching?  What other types of athletes have they coached?  Are their current clients happy with the service that the coach provides?
  • The coach’s engagement level
  • Is the coach a full-time coach who is focused fully on coaching, or is this something they do part-time on the side when they have spare time outside of their full-time job or commitments?
  • The coach’s certifications and relevant educational experience
  • Most National Governing Bodies, such as USA Triathlon and USA Cycling, maintain databases of their active and certified coaches. 
  • The coach’s commitment to safe and ethical practices in sport
  • Consult the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s Centralized Disciplinary Database to ensure that the coach you are considering hasn’t ever been found guilty of abuse in sport.

In the end, an athlete should want a coach who is the following: Caring, honest, willing to have hard conversations, ethical, experienced, and the right personality match.  All of these things will contribute to the effectiveness of the relationship.

Coaching is appropriate for any athlete - no matter their sport, their gender, their age, their ability level, or their goals.  It doesn’t matter if you are 65 years old and wanting to walk a 5K for the first time in your life or if you are 45 years old and wanting to qualify for the World Championships; a coach can add value to your endurance training life.

About

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.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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