Coaching sports like running and triathlon: a league of its own.
Back in March (of 2014), my wife and I attended a triathlon expo at MIT. (It had nothing to do with MIT; it just happened to be held at their sports facilities. MIT has a very nice pool, by the way.)
We were there mostly to buy some equipment and supplies in preparation for the season. But we had a couple of nice surprises once we got there: first, we got to meet one of the original ironman finishers; second, we got to listen to Siri Lindley give a talk about coaching. (Well, she spent a lot of time talking about her career as an elite short-course triathlete, but the part about how she got there, and how she herself was coached, was informative.)
For those of you who don’t know her, Siri is coach to Mirinda Carfrae, the current Ironman World Champion (she’s been the champ three times so far) and championship course record holder among women.
So this post is really about coaching adults in the context of sports like running and triathlon, and, more specifically, the coaching of fairly serious athletes (or “intense” athletes, because if not elite athletes, you have to be intensely into training in order to pay for the services of a coach). Combined with the previous post on my personal experience, and the one about coaching in general, it is the background material I’ll need to conclude the series in Part 4.
Now, I have to admit that I’m no groupie of elite athletes or their coaches. I prefer to do, instead of watching or reading about them. We were not at the event in order to listen to Siri. We just thought: “We’re here, and we have a bit of time, so let’s sit down.”
It was time well spent, nevertheless, not just because it confirmed many of my own conclusions about what makes a good coach, and what makes a good athlete. I’ll list those attributes later, but for now, allow me to give a few key notes from her presentation.
Siri only coaches a few athletes. I seem to recall she said 12, but it definitely was something between 10 and 15.
This makes sense at such an elite level as top Ironman competitors, since the pros and elites need specialized coaching, and are willing (or able) to pay for it.
The point, however, is not how much Siri gets paid by her athletes, but what she emphasized: She feels that only with so few athletes can she really provide good coaching.
It stands to reason that the more athletes one has to coach, the less time and attention can be given to each. That’s why joining a club is an excellent way to find a bit of support and coaching advice, but you get less personal attention that way.
For truly personal attention, you need to be one of few athletes being coached. Beware of coaches who work for a team or club and also coach more than a handful of athletes: You may be getting cookie-cutter advice and training programs that masquerades as individualized coaching.
Because she only coaches a few athletes, Siri is able to customize the training regimen of each so as to maximize the effect of the training. Or is it the other way around?
One thing is certain: She does provide very specific attention to each of her athletes; they each have their own season plan, and training session plans, and every plan in between.
This is key because, although the training principles are the same, and the general physiology is the same for all humans, no two persons react entirely the same to training on a daily basis. This is due in part to small differences in biology and in large part to previous training, current state of being, and psychology. That is normal.
Similarly, Siri does not treat all of her athletes the same, either during training or competition. To my surprise, she admitted acting almost like a cheerleader to some, while to others she is the quiet and wise adviser, and to others she can even be the forceful (not to say harsh) boss telling them to get their acts together.
This is squarely in the psychology realm: We are all different in terms of what we need to get, or keep us, in the correct frame of mind to perform. Elite athletes are no different (and perhaps even more sensitive and insecure at times, because of the added pressure of making a living out of sports).
The key point: no two individuals need exactly the same thing at the same time. So personal attention is mandatory for good coaching.
Siri was a top competitor in Olympic distance triathlon. She got there through some good coaching, but also through a lot of grit and determination.
However, there is no need to have been a top athlete to be a good coach. That’s a truth that’s often hard to believe by those who have never really been coached before. But it is true.
What is less obvious to most wannabe triathletes is that, unlike most top triathletes, even those who later make a living out of coaching, not all great athletes make good coaches. Only a few really pick up the fundamentals of coaching, and understand more than what works for them. Because what works for you is likely not what works for others. And a good coach knows enough to adapt to what each athlete needs.
What should a coach know?
In triathlon, it gets tricky, because of the three sports. A good triathlon coach must know enough about the bio-mechanics of swimming, cycling, and running. That’s in order to be able to work on form, not just intensity, in all the three sports while making sure to prevent injury (as much as humanly possible). Ideally, a good coach is able to bring about the necessary changes to technique and form to optimize performance.
But a good triathlon coach must also know about how those three sports are put together in triathlon, and how the body reacts to going from one to the other, and then on to the other.
That means having some first-hand experience in the sport is a good thing. Perhaps necessary. But being a top competitor is not. It can even be a detriment, as I think it is for fitness instructors and personal coaches, because of the “hey, it worked for me, so it will work for you as well” factor. (Or the “look at me, I was a champion, so I must know what I’m doing” factor. In either case, it is a fallacy.)
Also, understanding the physiology, psychology, and science behind training is mandatory. Too many coaches simply push their athletes to the breaking point, under the old philosophy of “no pain, no gain”. For some athletes, this leads to breakthroughs. For most, it leads to breakdowns. That old notion is now dismissed; there are much better ways to train.
The coach has to know when to push, and when to hold back an athlete. And with pros, elites, and would-be top competitors, the holding back part is often more critical. And difficult.
Finally, a good coach, much like Siri indicated, must be able to understand where his or her athletes are at, and where they aim to get, and plan a reasonable path from one to the other.
That’s precisely how Siri started working with Mirinda Carfrae, according to the talk she gave back in March. Although Siri had not done iron distance races herself, she was able to understand what physiological changes would be needed, and to chart a course to make them happen. And with an athlete like Mirinda Carfrae, who was hardly new to the sport, that was a pretty tall order.
Which of course begs the question:
What about athletes?
Being a good coach is only part of the equation. The athletes also have to do their share of the work. And with all the training and intensity, that part is of course the hardest.
But there is one aspect in which coaching for running and triathlon, and coaching in general, differ a great deal: Pros and elites (and triathlon freaks) are highly motivated, so they don’t need to be coaxed into doing the workouts. More often than not, they have to be calmed down, and forced to take rest. Not at all like the majority of folks trying to get into better shape in order to be healthy, who have to be convinced off the couch.
So a coach to such athletes does not need to cajole them into showing up at training, or find ways to keep them interested in the sport. But they should also not burn them out, or make them hate training.
On their side of things, athletes who want a running or triathlon coach and are serious about it must do one thing to deserve their coaches: Listen.
By this I mean to fully engage themselves into the process, and follow their coaches’ advice. Not argue, not go looking for second opinions, not say “I know what I need”.
Perhaps that holds true for any kind of athlete, and any kind of sport. But let’s leave that for the next, and final, post on what makes a good coach…
Picture from Pixabay.