Around this time of year, many athletes start looking for a coach. Deciding to hire a coach is a big decision – there is money, time and trust involved. Not only that but searching for a coach can be complicated. Over the past few years, there has been a boom in the number of coaches. Learning how to sort through the choices can be overwhelming. Where do you even begin?
Know what you’re looking for. Everyone from complete beginners to elite athletes employ coaches for a number of reasons; change, direction, organization, motivation, accountability, variety. Why are you seeking a coach? Some athletes want the accountability of knowing that someone is “on the other end” keeping tabs on whether or not they are completing workouts. Some want a fresh approach to a sport they’ve been doing for many years. Others need help balancing the sport with their job and families. And yet others seek motivation. Knowing what you’re looking for from a coach is the one of the first steps in going about finding one.
Look at it like an interview. Ask questions of the coach that will help you understand if you will be able to get what you’re looking for. Choose a few potential candidates to interview. Have a list of questions you feel will yield answers to give you a better idea of who the coach is and what they do best with athletes. An email is a great way to introduce yourself and send your questions.
Now, it’s time to write the inquiry.
Start the conversation with who you are. Obviously you are a triathlete but who you are beyond that is much, much more important. Do you work a 40 hour a week job outside of your home? Is it high stress, high energy or low key? Do you have kids? What about your commute? How old are you? What’s your experience level in the sport? Have you lost significant weight or do you have significant weight to lose? Do you have a history of health problems, disordered eating, etc. Do you have any limiting injuries? Dietary restraints? Limited hours for training? All of these factors will give the coach a better idea of who you are and if they’ll be a good fit for you.
Next, what do you hope to do? Finish or win your age group? Complete a sprint or a few years down the road complete an Ironman? Which events have you signed up for this season? What have you already done? List out some of your results, including splits. This will help the coach to better understand your athletic performance and if your current goals are realistic. Be honest about your goals and choose a coach experienced enough to understand what it takes to achieve them.
Then, ask the coach some questions:
What’s your approach? There’s a lot of talk about high volume/low volume, high intensity, etc. Know that just because an approach is high volume doesn’t mean that it’s high quality. And just because something is high intensity doesn’t mean that it’s better than consistent, aerobic work. A successful approach includes the following: individuality (your program should be tailored to who you are and what you want to do), specificity (your program should prepare you for the specific demands of your peak events), sustainability (your program should promote injury-free longevity in the sport). The specific details about the approach: volume, intensity, frequency – should change based on who the athlete is and what they want to do. Approaches are not formulas – they are highly variable and sensitive to the athlete’s unique needs.
Do you integrate data into your approach? Power meters, Garmins – these are all tools that a coach and athlete can use to supplement their experience. Find out just how heavily your coach relies on these tools. Some coaches require you to upload daily and base everything on charts and science. Others combine science and art. Still others go entirely by feel – writing workouts based on perceived exertion. Make sure you are comfortable with the level of data they do or do not use.
Which types of athletes do you prefer to coach? This is a question that any good coach must answer. Some coaches are very much experts and have a hard time diluting their information enough to make it usable for more beginner athletes. Other coaches enjoy showing someone how to clip in to their bike. Ask your coach about the flavor of their roster – is it mostly beginners? Men? Younger athletes? What about masters athletes? How do they adapt their approach/style for the different groups? Who do they most enjoy working with and who they find most difficult to work with in sport?
What have you accomplished with athletes? This doesn’t necessarily mean that every athlete is winning – what you want to see is athletes who consistently improve, reach goals or set PRs. These days, many coaches list their athlete results on a website or social media. Take a look around. Look for success at all levels and success over time. Many coaches have that one outlier who can win everything or do amazing things with very little training. Does this mean they are a great coach? Maybe. Maybe not. Look for athletes with long term progress with the coach. Ask for examples. Also ask: how long do athletes usually stay with the coach? What are some of the things they’ve achieved with athletes over time?
How do you communicate? How will you receive workouts – by email/PDF, Training Peaks or other site? How often do they post schedules? How many changes can you ask for? What about general communication? Are you limited to a specific number of emails or calls? How often can you expect to hear from the coach? How often do they expect to hear from you? Any good coach should be seeking as much information as possible to effectively coach you. You should receive a response within a few hours during typical “business” hours. They should communicate times when they will have a delayed response rate and prepare accordingly for vacations or other days away.
What else do you do? Someone who is balancing coaching with working full-time outside of the home might not be as accessible or focused as you’d like. What activities is your coach involved in? Do they have office hours? If your coach competes, ask how they balance coaching and racing. Are they available on weekends (you race on weekends – they should be!)? How accessible are they by phone, in person, text, email and which mode is the most important to you? While coaches need boundaries with their athletes, a good coach should be available (especially during racing season).
What do you do to further your education? This is one of the biggest areas any coach can use to separate themselves from what often feels like a market oversaturated with coaches. As a starting point, there is the USA Triathlon coaching certification program. Is it a necessary point? Hard to say. But it’s at least a start that the coach has a very basic knowledge of triathlon and is being required to do extra work to retain their certification. Beyond that, ask the coach what they’ve done to further their education. Do they have other certifications? Do they attend workshops? What was the last book they read about coaching or sport? A good coach stays on top of the trends and continually looks for ways to improve their education base. While the “basics” of endurance sport will never change (after all, it’s consistent work over time that yields fitness and progress), a coach should seek out different perspectives (even from other sports!) to stay fresh.
How would you go about achieving my goals with me, the athlete? In this question, you’re asking the coach about their master plan. Good coaches have a long-term vision for how to approach your entire year. Coaching is not writing day to day workouts – that’s the easy part! Building up someone to peak at the right time and work on their weaknesses when it matters most takes careful planning. How does your coach organize an annual training plan? What will it include? How will they measure whether or not you are progressing towards your goals? How will they help you improve technique? You’re making a huge investment not only financially but with your time, your energy and your love for the sport. Make sure the coach has a plan!
What’s your fee? This is not where to start a coaching conversation but eventually it will go there. As someone who has worked with several coaches, coaching quality does not correlate to coaching fee. The most expensive coach I ever worked with was the poorest in terms of quality, reliability and communication. Don’t be afraid to inquire to a coach because you “think” they will be too expensive. In my past coaching searches, I made a list of everyone I would ever want to be coached by and then – I just asked. You have nothing to lose. Chances are most coaches who are worth it are much more affordable that you think.
Ask for athlete references. A coach should be willing to give you the name of 2 to 3 different types of athletes they’ve worked with. This goes beyond testimonials on the site – you’ll only find the good stuff there! Chances are a reference is going to say mostly good things but don’t be afraid to ask what the coach’s weakness is or what’s one thing the athlete wishes the coach would change.
As with any investment you consider making in life, there are some precautions.
Expect the good, the bad and the ugly. Most athletes hire a coach for performance. That performance might be just finishing or flat out winning – but if you seek performance, coaches assume you are motivated enough to do the work to get there without someone cheerleading you into it. This is not to say that a good coach never sends a motivational email or a kudos from time to time. But they should be as interested in communicating the good as the bad. Remember, good coaches tell you things you want to hear and what you don’t want to hear. You employ a coach to improve performance. Doing so requires change and honesty. Be prepared to be open to this process!
A good athlete doesn’t always make a good coach. Beware choosing a coach based on what they’ve done in sport. While someone who has qualified for Kona or achieved elite status might be familiar with the work required to excel at sport, that doesn’t mean they have the ability to effectively communicate or plan what will work with you. A twenty-something male who can train 20-30 hours a week to get to Kona might have limited perspective when working with a stay at home mom in her 40s with 3 kids. Choose who will work best with you. Not who the best athlete is out there.
Experience matters most. The coach should have experience. Whether that experience is coaching or competing, the coach should have an understanding of the demands specific to the sport and how to prepare for what you want to do. In other words, hiring a cycling coach for triathlon doesn’t make much sense. Being someone’s first athlete on their roster is also a huge risk. New coaches should look to partner with more experienced coaches, volunteer with teams or complete mentorships where they can learn the art and the science of coaching. Practical experience far beats anything you’ll ever learn in a book or seminar.
Communication is key. Be prepared to communicate with your coach. In my opinion, more is more. The athlete who provides feedback daily can be coached more effectively. Follow the plan. And if you can’t follow the plan, ask for help in rearranging it. Keep us in the loop about everything: travel, illness, schedule changes. If you have questions, ask. If you have ideas, share. If you have fears, admit them – we can help! Overcommunicate – subjectively, objectively, and yes, we’ve heard it all. Don’t be afraid to tell us that you’re sick, constipated, expecting your period or fighting with your spouse. All of these can influence your recovery and your fitness!
Be coachable. After all of the questions and before you make a commitment, step back and ask yourself: am I coachable? Coachable athletes are motivated, committed and open to change. They are what I call “good soldiers” – with the ability to commit to the system, put their head down and get the work done. At times they might question the work or themselves but in general they are comfortable with someone navigating the ship and their ability to do the work presented to them. That said, the coach you choose to navigate your ship should be worthy of your trust, your well-being, your performance and your health. Remember, a good coach does more than write workouts: they provide guidance with recovery, emotions, thoughts, race planning, equipment, nutrition and more. Coaching is an immense opportunity and responsibility for any coach out there.