Your Triathlon Coach Sucks
Monday, November 8th, 2010
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I’m not usually one to stir the pot, but with most people’s tri seasons ending and making plans for 2011, coaching is on a lot of people’s minds. The one thing that really gets under my skin is the assumption that hiring a coach means automatic better results.
Over the course of my athletic career, I’ve had at least a half dozen coaches with completely different impacts on my training and racing. Some have made me faster while nurturing my love of the sport. Others have made me hate training and racing and I could have been faster without them. The rest of my coaches fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
What I think the general triathlete community doesn’t realize (or maybe I’m just wrong here) but I think there are a LOT of coaches out there whose athletes would be better off without them. And a pretty significant proportion of those coaches are USAT certified.
Granted, I’ve never gone through the USAT certification process, but as a result of seeing the coaches that the program puts out I’m pretty confident in saying that the ability for someone to be a successful coach coach is completely independent of their completing the coaching certification process.
For some athletes, getting your coaching certification is apparently just a part of life in the sport. You do your first tri, you get a fancy tri bike, you do long course racing, eventually your first iron-distance race followed by becoming a coach. Just because you spend a lot of time in the sport and collect masses of knowledge, what makes people think that not only they are capable of imparting that knowledge on others, but to the level which they deserve to be paid for it?
This sport just has too many damn coaches. Everyone wants to be a coach and is under some strange delusion that with some classes, they will have what it takes add some value to the overall triathlon community. In reality, I think they are doing more to hurt the sport than help it.
I’ve got a whole mess of triathlon knowledge. A whole lot more than my race times show. But I’m not a coach because I know that I don’t have the personality or skill to transfer that knowledge into training anyone other than myself.
My Triathlon Coaching Experience
One of the reasons why I have such strong feelings on this topic is that I made the unfortunate decision to go with a coach that wasn’t right for me. (I fully admit that this was my own mistake and not his.) He was sorta a big deal on the internet, knew a lot about triathlon and was an overall nice guy. Those are all great things, but in no way translated to him helping me reach any of my goals that season. A person can be awesome at self-coaching, but unless I have the same strengths, weaknesses, nutritional needs, personal and professional demands, none of it matters. Essentially, unless we are the exact same person, I don’t care anymore what you were able to do in your own triathlon career. That knowledge base may help, but it may just as well distract my coach from what I need to do as an athlete to reach my goals.
In my eyes, one of the biggest determining factors in whether or not is able to be successful with a coach lies more in the coach’s passion for helping the athlete meet their goals than actually knowing anything about athletic training or triathlon at all. If I ever chose to get coached again, I’d rather work with someone that was had a deep emotional investment in my success and zero triathlon knowledge than someone with all the athletic “book knowledge” in the world but didn’t give two craps about me being successful and happy in the sport.
My Advice On Picking A Triathlon Coach
Communication is key. A lot of coaches ultimately sell what are just training plans with limited or no communication. Unless You can guarentee that I can call you as often as I want with any question or that you will respond to my email within 48 hours, I don’t want to even bother talking to you.
Look at the other types of athletes that they coach. Are they all over the board? Are they all pseudo-elite athletes who return to Kona year after year? Are they all middle of the pack working professionals whose biggest struggle is balancing triathlon and family life? How do your goals math those of their other athletes? Ultimately very few GREAT coaches will be great at coaching every type of triathlete, so if they take on anyone who is willing to fork over some cash, I’d start off the conversation pretty guarded.
Have an escape plan. If you are getting a coach, it probably means that you are pretty serious about triathlon and triathlon is a major part of your life. So why would you not protect what you love? If you are entering a yearly coaching agreement and not month-to-month, make sure you have an escape clause to let you switch gears mid-season if things clearly don’t work out and can’t be fixed.
Analysis. If you’ve been in the sport for a while and have been following a training plan or documenting your workouts, you are probably pretty good at knowing how to repeat the same race day performances. But people don’t go to a coach to do more of the same. Look for a coach that can look back at your training volumes and intensity and race splits and identify opportunities to change things up and address some of your weaknesses.
Let’s be clear. I’m not throwing every coach out there under the bus. The vast majority of coaches out there that have been doing this for years are rock stars. They know their stuff and just how to dole it out. Plenty of my real life and bloggy friends are coaches or have their certification and I respect all that they do. The main point here is that I think people need to take a lot more care when picking out a coach or deciding if they are going to attempt a career as a tri coach.
Self-coaching is an alternative that I don’t think people give enough consideration to. For me, it has worked out great. I get to make sure I’m happy with the type of training I’m doing and I save TONS of money. Could a coach make me faster? Absolutely. Did I ever regret my decision to do the Cedar Point iron-distance race without a coach? No way in hell. Ultimately training flexibility and money is more important than speed, so it works for me.
Don’t confuse self-coached with going it alone. There is no way in hell I would have made it to the Cedar Point finish line on my own. Over the 12 months preceding the race I had countless conversations with coaches and friends who were critical in my successful training and racing. It was the perfect middle ground between going it alone and hiring a coach.
What the triathlon world really needs is less coaches and more mentors to fill in that middle ground. When people go out seeking a coach, I think a lot of them really want a mentor to help evaluate their training, bounce ideas back and forth and prepare for big races on a more informal basis. You save money, leverage the intelligence of those around you and get a built-in training buddy.
I have no interest in coaching anyone, but if you want to be my mentee, give me a hollar. I don’t accept cash or credit cards. Only beer.
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Want to read some other great posts on triathlon coaching? Check out these:
John: On Coaching
ChuckieV: The Coaching Overkill