Why do *you* have a *coach*?


The dictionary defines coach as

(from the Oxford online dictionary)

noun.  An instructor or trainer in sport.

Never one to got without a second opinion I also reference Miriam Webster online.

noun.  A person who teaches and trains an athlete or performer.

Coaching seems to be a hot topic of discussion, as 2010 draws to a close and athletes start to think about 2011 and their plans.  I have read some great blogs on the subject:

  • Jamie’s on why coaching is not for him

  • Megan’s on why she took on a coach

  • John on the whys and why nots of having a coach

  • Chuckie V’s on why the relationship, above all, matters most in coaching

  • Marky V’s succinct words on the art versus science of coaching

I was recently asked why I have a coach.

My answer is simple: my training – without risk of injury, with physical challenges, in a sport that I am new to – requires help and support.  I have needed help to learn to swim efficiently, to do distances without fatigue.  I have needed help to learn to run, to build stability and strength.  I needed an extra set of eyes and an extra mind on my team – a trained professional to help me, to teach me, to enable me to meet my triathlon goals.

Me and Coach T – July 2010

But, is having a coach simply obsessive behaviour for a non-elite athlete?


Back to the dictionary

From the Oxford Online Dictionary:

adjective.  Affected by obsession [an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind]

And from Webster:

adjective.  Thinking about something or someone too much or in a way that is not normal.

So, I guess the answer to whether or not having a coach is obsessive behaviour depends on how you define normal.

In my case, maybe it is not “normal” to push my limits and to challenge the long-held assumptions that too much activity is bad for someone with nerve disease.  As a starter, I don’t believe the conventional advice – and slowly researchers are proving that activity is beneficial for people with chronic conditions.  And at the same time, I think that taking a coach – someone to work with, who will help me to safely challenge myself and who will help me to become strong without risk of injury – is *totally* normal. 


(from Oxford Online)

adjective.  Conforming to a standard. Usual, typical or expected.

(from Miriam Webster)

adjective.  Usual or ordinary. Not strange. Mentally and physically healthy.

For me, *normal* when it comes to a coaching relationship means developing a student-teacher relationship with someone.  The best teachers I have ever had are those with whom I have engaged in dialogue – not just paying my tuition, receiving my syllabus, and doing my homework—but receiving a syllabus, doing my homework, and discussing its significance and the ways that it shapes my views.  The same holds true with triathlon – I need to understanding the aims of my training, expressing my limits, and becoming comfortable with a system that is designed to constantly push me to the edge of my abilities.  Through this iterative and interactive process, I can then redefine my limits.  Having a coach is as much about having someone to learn from and discuss things with – a trained professional sounding board – as it is about having a “plan”.

I am a huge skeptic of any system or person that tells you “just follow the plan”.  It just doesn’t seem natural to me.  “The plan will help you to achieve your aims.”  Really?  A plan can do all that? 

I couldn’t put my finger on the reason why it seemed unnatural – abnormal – to me.  So I asked a psychologist for some thoughts on “plans” and “coaches”.  As you can imagine, this was a fairly long conversation.  I’ll share with you one key nugget that stuck with me:

“Following a plan – without dialogue, discussion, or two way interaction – is basically saying that someone knows you better than you do.”

This to me sums up what is normal, and therefore sets a rationale for taking a coach.  At the end of the day, having a coach is all about *you*.  You need to know what you want from a coach, explore different options (coach, running group, personal trainer, gym, counsellor) and choose the one that fits you.  I mean, why on earth would you leave *you* out of the process?  Just to get a “plan”?

So when I was looking for help in reaching my goals, I looked long and hard at what I wanted and who I was.  At the heart of it, I made sure that I would be as much a part of the “plan” (the coaching process) and that dialogue and learning would be “normal” with who I chose.  I wanted to walk away with tools, techniques and understanding – not just achieving my goals (although clearly that is the icing on the cake!). 

Why and Who?

Here are the questions I asked myself to help me to decide on both the solution, and the selection of a coach.

1.  Why do I want a coach?  What am I not getting from following an online plan (like C25k for running)?  What are the other solutions out there – running groups, clubs – and would they do the same thing for me?

Ask yourself: What do you want and does a coach offer those things?

2.  What qualifications are important?  Do you know the difference in qualifications?  If someone is a trained personal trainer – do you know what that means?  How much time and practical experience does that mean they have?  Is a 3 day module sufficient enough for you to feel comfortable with a level of knowledge the person has?  Or are you more scientifically driven?  Do you want someone who has a university level understanding of process, biomechanics, and research?  Or is practical experience the most important to you?  How many other people has the person worked with?

Ask yourself: What background do you want in the person you will work with – and make sure you know the difference in qualifications if you say they matter to you.

3.  Does your coach have experience in doing what you want to do?  Is it important to you that they have reached the pinnacle of their field (e.g. that they have been competing as an elite athlete)?  Or are you okay with them having done what you want to do, but at a non-elite level?  What type of references does the coach have?  Do you know people who have used them?  Do you believe the references you have received?  Can you talk with others who have used the coach, to hear some feedback on their methods and approach?

Ask yourself:  What type of experiences does the person have, and what are the experiences of others who have worked with that person.

4.  Is meeting in person with a coach important to you?  Do you require one-on-one help with a discipline, and will you be able to get that from the person?  Or are you happy with email and phone contact only? 

Ask yourself: Will this person be able to work with me in a manner that suits me (facetime, phone time, email accessibility)?

5.  Have you spoken with the person?  Did you gel?  Can you imagine yourself being brutally honesty and open with the person?  (For me this is critical – I have had complete meltdowns with my coach – I needed to feel absolutely comfortable with him, so that I could cry, and have him there to help me rebuild and refocus)

Ask yourself:  Do I feel comfortable communicating with this person?

6.  Will you trust this person?  Do you feel safe with them?  Will you be able to follow their advice without second guessing?  Will you be able to trust them, and their advice, in a way that you believe will enable you to become the best you can be?  In my experience, trust is absolutely vital when it comes to having a coach – you need to trust the coach, and trust the plan…

Ask yourself:  What inspires trust in you, and does this person have those qualities?

So, what do you think?  Would you take on a coach?  Is taking on a coach obsessive behaviour?  What are the factors that are important to you?

10 responses to “Why do *you* have a *coach*?”

  1. Love this post! This is my first year w/ a coach and I’m very excited. I’ve always followed a ‘plan’, but I know I could do more w/ a coach. I was ready to take it to the next level – still age group and still not breaking any land speed records, but better. Is it obsessive and self indulgent? Perhaps? But seriously do I give a rats ass what anyone thinks about that? Does it make me happy? Yes.. do I have only this one life to live? Yes.. do I have the right to be happy in this life? HELL YES! Live it baby. Live the dream.. whatever that means for you. For me.. at this impasse.. it means kickin’ it up a notch w/ the help of a rockin’ coach! Bring it 2011… well as soon as my head clears anyway.

  2. I’m currently trying an online coach (just started), but will still need a swim coach that I can have observe me whilst in the pool. I have a couple of online plans for the marathon I want to do in March but they are just run, run, run, x-train, rest, run. Where are the core, spinning, and swimming workouts? How do you get it all in? I’m not sure I can do it on my own, I like to think I can but given my injuries this year, I think I might benefit from coaching. I would like to make it through the next season any new injuries!
    So I’m trying an online coach to help me with my workout schedule but I am also using an in person coach to help with my swimming. FYI, I am NOT a swimmer so I need all the help I can get.

  3. It is really interesting that you both are using “online” coaches.  This has caused a lot of discussion on my Twitter feed – is online as effective as face to face? Or perhaps better?  Does it open up communication, making some people feel more at ease?  Or are you missing something by only having an online relationship?  I guess to me the key is engagement.  If I felt like I could engage with a coach online in a way that worked for me, I would do it. But for now when it comes to triathlon at least, face to face is for me.

  4. Great post and great questions to ask for anyone considering a coach.

    Since triathlon is a pretty significant part of a lot of our lives, it is disappointing when people don’t give enough attention to picking the right coach. Especially since a coach has such a strong influence on making that part of our life even better.

  5. I think this is a great post. Certainly has stoked some discussion. The decision to have a coach is very much an individual decision. It all comes down to what a person wants or needs in order to be happy. Whether that is to just get more fit, or if they want to podium in races or whatever. Everyone is different and will have different needs. Also, each person has different levels of skill, knowledge, fitness and know-how. So, again, the need to be coached will differ with each individual.
    So too lies the decision to have a local coach who can train with you and meet face to face versus an online coach. I think there is merit in both styles.
    But in the end, (to repeat myself) it all comes down to the individual needs.
    If you already have a good sense of fitness and the training process and are in tune with your body an online coach may be sufficient for your needs. Some people prefer a more intimate relationship with their coach so that immediate communication can occur at each workout. It’s all good.
    If you get what you want, and your race performance is improving, then you are doing the right thing.

  6. Hi Sally – it is very interesting to have a professionals point of view.

    I think what you raise a few fundamental points, that maybe my list of questions skirts around:
    – what type of communication style suits you best
    – are you going to be motivated more by face to face contact, or will online access be sufficient for you
    – what is your budget – and does the solution you desire require any additional purchases (e.g. GPS enabled watches, heart rate monitors with data storage and upload capabilities) – and does your budget cover for this
    – have you explored the full range of coaches available, finding the person that meets your unique needs

    I love the variety of feedback this blog has generated – and that you all have taken the time to comment on here, as well as Twitter!  Thank you!

  7. Hi Scott.  I could not agree more!  I think the reason why the discussion started on Twitter was because my comment, about not “getting” online coaching, was taken out of the stream of conversation. For me, I could not do what I do without having face-to-face work and guidance.  I am just not at that point of either ability or understanding. That’s why I think it is really important to look at what *you* want and to find a solution or method that matches. At the end of the day, it is engagement and interaction which in my opinion turns a “plan” into a “coaching relationship”.

    A few other comments were made which I think are worth adding. 

    A lot of people use coaches to have someone to be accountable to.  That is a great reason to enter a coaching relationship.

    The next point raised was that the end result is the ultimate determining factor as to whether or not coaching works. Very good point – and maybe one that I do not emphasise a lot as my own goals may be very different than someone else’s.

  8. Really good questions – and there are no wrong answers so long as you’re honest with yourself! I like that.

    My experience? I never would have made it through ironman training without a coach. Most of our interaction was online, but he knew me well from having coached me at training camps and I was good at giving him weekly feedback via email so it worked. The first year it was mostly him giving me a plan and me following it – this is what I wanted and needed (I had a very busy job with long hours then and didn’t want to have to think at all.) The second year things were different so we discussed my training a lot more and I asked questions. My needs had changed and the relationship with my coach evolved.

    I’ve parted ways with him now because I’m doing so little triathlon these days that it’s not necessary to have his guidance and besides, I learned a lot from him and can organise myself! I think that’s a good measure of success.

  9. Hi Nadya, I like the element of evolution you introduce. I also like the two way feedback system you talk about. I suspect I fall down a bit on that – if things go well, I feel less inclined to log and send the weekly commentary to my coach. But I am sure it would be better if I did. I have to remember to add this to my routines, to make sure I get the most out of coaching as I can.

  10. Really interesting topic for discussion. There are so many different levels of ability, knowledge and need amongst athletes/exercisers and as many different ways to approach their development.

    I coach, or whatever term is deemed appropriate (but ‘coach’ is a recognised one), people face-to-face and online and a bit of both. Some people respond better with one-to-one contact, they are often people who are at the start of their exercise ‘careers’ and need someone to be there at their side observing them and giving instant feedback and learning points. Or they may be someone with a particular condition, such as a cardiac-rehab client, for whom it is vital to have someone there when training. Others are experienced athletes who have developed a lasting exercise habit but need more structure and science to their training and who enjoy having a knowledgeable, experienced sounding board and for them online coaching works really well.

    As a fitness professional you have to offer different levels of service, and let’s not forget that each comes with a price. For some having one-to-one training for more than a few weeks is just too expensive, yet they can receive expert guidance more cheaply, and get great results, by using an online service.

    I know my online clients as well as I know the direct contact people and of course these days technology is fantastic, allowing me to see their workout in terms of heart rate, pace, elevation etc. Coupled with daily two-way feedback this builds up a really comprehensive understanding and record of achievement.

    In terms of level of qualification and experience it’s essential to have a sound proven knowledge of physiology and exercise theory, whether that comes from a degree or NVQ qualifications (NVQ 4 is degree equivalent) doesn’t really matter. It is the application of that knowledge that matters. Again this partly comes down to the needs of the client; if they are someone with a scientific or enquiring mind they will respond well to discussing the physiology and context of their training, they’ll like stats too, as a rule. Other people really aren’t interested, as long as they get results they are happy for the coach to hold and apply the knowledge. As a coach that can be frustrating but you have to understand what people respond to best.

    Some people want an icon, someone who has been at the head of their field, and that’s fine, others would find that daunting. Someone who has been a top athlete doesn’t necessarily have good coaching skills, although sometimes, of course, they will. I think it’s important to know your limitations as a coach, personally I wouldn’t feel comfortable coaching someone for a 2:30 marathon because I haven’t experienced that level of training, although I know the physiology inside out, I could, however, help them with their training nutrition.

    You have to define your ‘offer’ and your USP and target your services to the appropriate people. And let’s face it, there are enough people out there to suit many different types of coach.

    For me, the fundamental question is “are people getting the results they want?” and if the answer is yes then it doesn’t matter how, as long as it is safe and they are comfortable with it.

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