>TriMadness Coaching Series – How Do I Pick The Right Coach?

>In Tuesday’s article, we laid out the different fundamental coaching models and started to explore the initial steps that one should follow in their quest for hiring a coach.

By additional means of level-setting, the next several articles in this series are predicated upon the thought that you’ve decided to go down the path of the “Relationship Coaching” model, and you’re now trying to decide how to hire a coach, what to expect from a coach, and in turn what should be expected from you. Later on in the series we’ll spend more time focusing on the “Self-Coached” and “Off-the-Shelf” models. We’ll be exploring today how you go about finding a coach, what types of questions you should ask a prospective coach as part of your due diligence, how the coach’s background factors into the decision and finally whether USAT coaching certification is a “must have”.

Where to look for a coach

This is perhaps the easiest question out there when it comes to triathlon coaching. How do I find a coach? Honestly, while coaches are not difficult to find per se, finding the right one for you may take some work.

There are a few primary sources for finding a coach:

  • Personal recommendations
  • Local tri-club, masters groups, workout facilities
  • Social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs)
  • Online presence (coach website, advertising, etc)
  • “name brand” – professional triathletes or coaches

Roughly half of the respondents to the TriMadness coaching survey reported that they found their coach through a personal recommendation. Elizabeth Waterstaat, a coach from Illinois validates this, “It is mostly through referrals from my current athletes.” It’s pretty clear that the power of a friend’s advice goes a long way in an athlete picking a coach.

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, a good number of athletes find their coach via the internet. A simple Google search will return a plethora of hits: searching for “triathlon coaching” returned 404,000 hits; searching for “triathlon coach” rendered 2.57 million results.

Coaches and coaching companies have become quite adept at marketing themselves via the internet. They write blogs. They contribute to online magazines. They advertise. They use Facebook and Twitter. According to Ben Greenfield, a coach based in Spokane, WA, “Most athletes find me online, from reading my articles or listening to my podcast.” In fact, each coach that I interviewed as part of my research indicated that at least some portion of their athletes found them online.

Another interesting phenomenon is that individual coach advertising is not the totality of the marketing space for coaches. Race companies such as Rev3 have developed coaching programs that supplement their existing races. Other companies have partnered with coaches who provide their services for athletes at reduced costs. In addition, there are myriad resources online to help an athlete find a coach. One valuable starting point is USA Triathlon’s website. Other sites include Slowtwitch.com, Beginnertriathlete.com.

How to determine if the coach fits me?

OK, the easy part is done. You’ve found a prospective coach (or coaches) and now it’s time to decide if you’ve met “the one”. How do you start? Do you blindly follow the feedback from your lane mate at your masters’ swim? Do you accept that just because a particular coach has wide name recognition that they will be right for you? Will a person who appears to be a good athlete be a good coach for you?

Now is the time for you to enter into some serious due diligence.

“Being a good athlete does not make a good coach,” says Greenfield. Indeed, this is true. Just because a person is blessed with superior athletic genes or an oversized lung capacity doesn’t mean that they will be able to teach you, motivate you, and entice you to reach your highest levels.

So what to ask? “It is important for athletes to ask me how I will coach them,” says Coach Angela Bancroft. “I want them to understand my methods and my approach to triathlon training.” Mary Eggers, a coach from New York, adds, “Athletes should inquire about experience, knowledge, education, availability and get a good sense of the person that the coach is.”

Waterstaat recommends that athletes ask a variety of questions to better understand the approach the coach has, their strengths and opportunities, and where the coach finds inspiration as a coach.

The following questions are examples of things that you should consider exploring with any prospective coach:

  • Have the coach describe her approach to coaching
  • How often and how will you communicate with the coach
  • What are the coach’s strengths and opportunities
  • Does the coach compete? If so, how does he balance coaching and competing
  • Does the coach focus on any particular type of athlete (elite versus age grouper)
  • How will the coach determine what areas you need to focus on
  • How frequently will the coach provide you training plans? Are they stock plans or to what extent will they be customized for you
  • How will the coach use diagnostic testing (VO2 max, lactate threshold, etc)
  • How will the coach know and understand what you are looking for from a coach, and how will that factor into your relationship dynamic
  • What are the financial arrangements? Is there a contract to sign? If so, is there an exit clause (for either party
  • How does the coach gauge her effectiveness as a coach in general, and with you and your performances specifically
  • Has the coach had any unhappy athletes? What feedback did they receive and what (if anything) did they do to change their approach

According to Greenfield, “Athletes should be interested in a coach’s “time in the coaching trenches”, as well as results of other athletes being coached.” Further, he recommends that athletes gain, “An idea of the overall coaching philosophy (quality over quantity versus lots of aerobic miles vs. emphasis/de-emphasis on nutrition).”

How important is certification?

Coach certification is an interesting topic, and is often a subject on message boards such as Slowtwitch and Beginner Triathlete. Literally every coach that I interviewed is certified in one way or another. All but one are USAT certified coaches. The lone non-USAT certified coach holds a masters degree in exercise physiology and biomechanics.

The root question is does certification make a person a better coach? It’s arguable. The consensus on web forums is that certain levels of coaching certification are tantamount to an entry fee into the profession. Further, the general thought was that higher levels of USAT certification are “more difficult” to obtain, and thus should carry more weight.

In order to become a certified coach by the USAT, coaches are required to undergo CPR training, a background check, a two day training class, and they must take a written examination. Additionally, all coaches must subscribe to the USOC Coaching Ethics Code. Higher level of coaching certification is predicated on tenure as a certified coaching, mentor recommendation, a BA/BS in sports science or related field or certification by USA Cycling, USA Track & Field, or a few other sports. Highest level coaching certification requires additional classroom training and examinations.

And yet, the question remains. Does all of this “book smart” make for a good coach on the pool deck or road? It’s a debatable question. I liken the debate to the age-old question of who should a manager at a company hire – the kid who just graduated from college with a degree but no experience, or the grizzled veteran who doesn’t have much of an education. OK, I know it’s not an apple to apples comparison, but I think you get my point. Essentially, I think it’s OK to hire a coach who is certified, but personally I don’t think them being non-certified would be a deal breaker if all of my other due diligence requirements were met.

The next step in your journey to coaching nirvana is to gain a clear understanding as to how to make the relationship work. It’s not as complicated as “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”, but like any relationship, the coach-athlete dynamic needs ground rules, communication and boundaries. We’ll explore those in the next installment of the series.


4 thoughts on “>TriMadness Coaching Series – How Do I Pick The Right Coach?

  1. >loving your series. I had to craft my own questions last year when I went looking for a coach. This will help a lot of people out, thanks!

  2. >I am enjoying thsi but I do wish You had written it before I signed up with a coach. I'm going to need you to have better timing next time.I picked my coach first because of the financial options he gave. Second, he was a college cross country runner and works at a high school as a cross country andd track coach. that tells me he coaches daily. Third, he is releativly local and for a small fee ($20) I can go do workout and form analysis with him. Thsi was the best arrangement i found.

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