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The Unexpected (But Highly Satisfying) Evolution of a Coaching Career

Coach Scott Saifer discusses what it takes to work with athletes who might lack ability or motivation, or both.

Scott Saifer cycling with another athlete through fog
Scott Saifer riding with one of his clients.

Early in my career, I worked almost exclusively with highly competitive athletes, folks who raced several times per month and who were focused on improving their rank in the world of cycling. Most of them were men in their 20s or 30s who watched the Tour de France and dreamed of competing at the highest levels, even if they mainly attended the local Cat. 2, 3 and 4 races and the occasional district championship. A few of my clients were going to masters road, cyclocross, and mountain bike nationals or worlds, and even picking up some podium spots. 

At some point in the late 90s, I started getting calls from people who had goals outside of bike racing. One fellow wanted to set a speed record for hiking all 10 of California’s 14,000-foot peaks. Another was a woman doing city-to-city inline skating races. At that time, most inline skating was coached from a speed rather than endurance perspective—based on ice speedskating protocols—and she knew she needed to train for endurance, which she knew was my area. When I told her that I’d never skated, she set me straight, “I know how to skate. I want you to teach me how to train.”  

She was right. Training for endurance on skates is similar to training for endurance on a bike in terms of the hours, intervals, and the need for self-awareness and rest. I realized that my expertise was not confined to bike racing. My specialty was training for aerobic sports.  

Meeting a need can be more fulfilling than a PR

As my longtime athletes grew older, some of them continued to compete as much as ever. But more of my athletes considered events as an excuse to train to stay healthy or started focusing on club rides. They needed to be fit enough to keep up with “the guys.” Winning, or coming close to winning a race, was no longer the point. I started to sell my services differently, working with more club, tour, and fondo riders. 

When one of my masters athletes experienced a sudden decrease in heart rate of more than 15 beats per minute over a few months’ time, I sent him to see his doctor, who promptly took him into surgery for a triple bypass. He likely would have had a heart attack due to blockages of his coronary arteries within a few weeks. This athlete credited me with saving his life, and this experience led me to seek out more athletes with health-related concerns. I became more willing to say, “Sure, I can help with that.”  

There was another reality that was setting in. I couldn’t help but notice that if I helped a highly competitive athlete move from 9th in the standings to 5th, they were pleased with the progress, but they were hardly jumping up and down. But take someone who hasn’t exercised for years and show them that they can ride 40 or 50 miles and feel decent afterward, or teach them how to do something that improves or maintains their health, and it’s totally different. When I help people like this gain fitness, they are thrilled and grateful. As a coach I take great satisfaction from those experiences.  

Like coaches, clients evolve in pursuit of goals

I helped one rider with diabetes go from not being able to ride five miles to completing centuries and being the strongest cyclist on his group rides. In other words, he ended up looking a lot like the athletes I coached in those early years.  

Another client survived two ablations (heart surgeries) and completed several Olympic-distance triathlons the following year. His goal-setting process was no different from that of other athletes, it was just his heart issue that required extra attention. As I see it, I help my clients with their problems. Presented with a lifelong athlete and someone grappling with a health-related problem, turning out an FTP of 50 watts, I’ll coach them the same way: Listen to their goals and concerns, understand their available time and physical capacity, write a plan that meets them where they are, and then help them follow it or deviate from it as appropriate. 

Now the majority of my clients might do a single race or maybe up to three races per year. Somehow they seem to be getting just as much satisfaction from their club rides as they do from racing. Beating up on the same buddies week after week can be good. The week where they beat up on the buddy who they couldn’t keep up with a few weeks or months prior is even better! 

Health and client relationships benefit from a longer view

When a client sits me down to say that they are not going to race anymore, my reply is, “Congratulations on maturing out of the need to compete—that’s great! But you have to promise me that you will still exercise enough to stay healthy.” With my older clients who wonder if maybe they are too old to pursue a particular goal, I like to share a copy of my favorite book, Getting Old is Not for Sissies, in which the author and photographer documents dancers, bike racers, surfers, and countless other athletes in their 60s and again in their 80s, still enjoying their sport.  

Somewhere along the course of my career, the source of my own satisfaction changed. It became less about the outcomes my clients experienced and more about the continued business, the relationship.  

And many of my clients see it similarly. Some of them only want consultation. They might call me monthly or only every six months. Among them is a client who I coached for years. He finished the Tour of the California Alps ride when he was 70. He has since developed diabetes and the goals we work toward now are related to health and habits. Training for any event is secondary; the focus is on maintaining consistency and controlling blood sugar. 

Your business depends on clients being happy enough with your services that they will continue working with you. Like any coach, my job is to help my clients formulate and then reach their goals, but I will work with people with virtually any fitness goal; my own work goal is to keep my clients happy and to help them stay healthy so they will stay with me. If they choose to race and that makes them happy, I’ll help them race. If they choose to hike, I’ll keep them ready to hike.  

There’s a would-be triathlete I’ve worked with for almost 10 years. He took up the sport at 320 pounds, worked his way down to 280, then back up to 320. (This is maybe not the story you expected.) Currently, he’s under 300 pounds again, but the bigger accomplishment is that, after many years of my encouraging him to train at least four hours every week, just in the past year he started consistently training 5 or 6 days and accumulating 7–10 hours in most weeks.  

Prior to this, I remember asking him, “You missed three days this week, what’s up?”  

He responded, “I expected you to congratulate me on making three days.”  

Another coach fired him for not following the plan. It’s understandable, but when I’ve asked athletes like this why they are paying me if they aren’t going to follow the plan, they are quick to say that they would be much worse off without the accountability.  

So I just keep nudging them in the right direction, and, in this instance, after 10 years, one day it clicked and I couldn’t have been more proud.  

Of course, it’s great when I can assign “x” and “y” amounts of particular intensity and the athlete just gets faster, but my favorite clients are the challenging ones, the ones for whom standard coaching advice doesn’t work for whatever reason. Helping those riders better understand and improve their situation is rewarding. I love sleuthing for clues and solving puzzles, no matter the athlete’s goal.  

RELATED: Where to Draw the Line

Step up to the challenges clients bring to you

I like to think of myself as a scientist of the human body, its workings and failures. My mother was a doctor and my undergraduate degree in biophysics and masters in exercise physiology suggested to friends and family that I was following in her footsteps. There was only one problem—she never said anything good about being a doctor, and when it came time for me to apply to medical school, I didn’t. In the end, I feel like I committed to the good parts of being a doctor, like helping people be healthy, without the misery my mother described around insurance, long days behind a desk, and dealing only with sick people. 

To expand your client base in the way that I have, you have to be willing to keep educating yourself. You’re not a doctor. You can’t know all the diseases and medications your clients will present. Don’t be afraid to tell your client that you need to go do some research. Many coaches don’t know what to do with sick people and are afraid to work with them. Athletes with challenges deserve support and guidance as much as healthy athletes do, and sick or injured athletes need them more! If you are able to read and absorb scientific thinking around health-related issues, don’t be afraid to take on clients who are dealing with those issues. 

It’s unfortunate, but most medical professionals don’t have a lot of experience with sick people who want to exercise at a high level. As coaches untrained in medicine, we should never contradict the doctor, but it is acceptable to encourage athletes to seek a second medical opinion when the first doctor suggests backing off or not exercising.  

Whether an athlete is looking to simply complete an event, truly compete or just succeed at life, I apply the same method: I listen to their concerns, I help them figure out what their bodies and minds can handle, and I encourage them to push firmly against their perceived limiters. Of course, that means that each athlete gets a unique coaching experience since they have different concerns, different actual limiters, and different perceived limiters (which may be quite different from their actual limiters).