Are You Ready to Step Up to Coaching Pros?

Supporting performance at the highest level will cost you time and money. Coach Joe Friel shares a balanced approach to the high-stakes game of working with pro athletes.

Joe Friel kneels at the edge of an indoor pool to talk with an athlete in the water

Over my four-plus decades of coaching, there are a few pros who stand out for me. These are mostly athletes who won national championships, were on an Olympic team, or taught me a good lesson as a coach (and there were many lessons learned). The coach-athlete relationship is a two-way street that reaches well beyond winning. Ideally, both parties come away from the experience greatly improved in their knowledge of training for sport—and many other things in life.

Some of the most memorable pros I coached were those who were new to the professional ranks. These athletes present unique challenges to the coach. For example, motivation is high for a new pro. They are fully aware that their income is on the line every time they step up to a start line. It’s an exciting rite of passage to compete at the highest level in the world of sport. Most athletes must be held back in training to keep from hurting themselves in some way. It’s not just for fun as it may have been when they were younger or in college. You’ve got a big task in trying to help a new pro get up to speed in a sustainable way.

Eager pros need to know more is not always better

As an athlete is acclimating to your particular way of training, it’s especially important to keep motivation in check. For example, when working face to face with a young pro I saw my primary job as making the decision about when to stop a workout. I certainly didn’t need to encourage them to work hard. If they don’t work hard at this stage in their career, then there is something else amiss and you are unlikely to change it. It’s usually just the opposite problem for new pros, in fact.

Most newcomers are reluctant to stop a hard session as they see it as one of those times when they can gain more fitness—eventually putting that race-day paycheck within reach. I recall working with a young, highly motivated pro triathlete on the running track doing intervals. With just one rep remaining in the session, I told him to stop the workout and cool down. That’s when things got a bit dicey, but I wanted him to learn an important lesson: It’s better to end a workout knowing that you could have done one more interval than to risk injury or extreme fatigue. We had a long post-workout talk that day.

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Pros need to learn such lessons early on as you won’t always be there to intervene. More is not always better—it isn’t an easy message for young, motivated athletes to accept. An experienced pro athlete with a long background in the sport is likely to understand this and be able to apply it without being prompted by the coach. Unfortunately, some veteran athletes learned this lesson the hard way. Watching from the sidelines is not fun.

Get buy-in by explaining the “why” behind the training

Most pros want to understand not only what they are to do in training, but why they are doing it. They may disagree with you. What is your reasoning?

Many athletes have strong beliefs about how they should train. Further complicating things, the methods they support are not always in their best interests. Many pros are even reluctant to work with a coach, but because the other pros have coaches, they feel compelled to do the same. These complications may put even good coaches on a long uphill slog. Regardless, it’s important that you help the athlete understand your reasoning for training in a certain way. Rather than forcing it on them or negating their beliefs, take time away from workouts to involve them in a conversation about training.

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Imparting your training philosophy to your athletes is a long-term goal for the coach. Be prepared to accept some of their training opinions—at least at first. To do otherwise is to lose a client. Take a longer view on bringing the pro to understand why you do things certain ways. As with fitness, cultivating understanding and acceptance takes a long time.

Gather information, ask questions, collaborate

As you get started with a young pro, just as with other clients, do a deep dive into how they have trained and raced previously. Be prepared to ask key questions, such as, how does the athlete respond to volume versus intensity in their training? This is the starting point for more focused conversation. Every athlete is unique to some extent. How is this athlete unique? Asking questions is the way to find out.

While age groupers may be sure they know the right way to train, they are often unable to explain why. Young pros, on the other hand, usually have strong feelings on this topic and some knowledge to back it up. Find out what they think and why. They are often quite sure about how they should train. Right or wrong, you don’t want to turn the athlete away from your coaching by taking a resistant stand. Find out why they are so invested in a given methodology. They may be right. Listen and ask more questions.

Don’t just take the athlete’s word for it. Talk to their previous coaches about how that coach prepared them for competition. Gather all of the information you can about the athlete’s prior training regimens, both those that worked and those that flopped.

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How to offset the lower fees paid by pro athletes

Most pros, especially the new ones, can’t afford a coach. But it’s not a good idea to coach them for free. They need to have some skin in the game. The rest of my coaching clients augmented the lower fees paid by up-and-coming pros. I made my age group athletes aware of who my pros were and I explained that they were helping to pay for the pros’ coaching. If you go this route with your own business, it’s important to keep the age groupers updated on how your pros are doing so they feel a sense of ownership.

In the same way, look for opportunities to have one of your pros meet with your age groupers—whether at a race, training camp, or an industry event. Impress upon the pro athlete how valuable these clients are to their career. Having the pro sign hats or T-shirts for age groupers is likely to be an easy request for the pro, and potentially a big deal to an age grouper. This type of exchange will reinforce the relationship—and the support of your age groupers.

Bring in expertise to serve all of your clients

In working with pros, it is even more important that you have a team of experts to help you. You can’t be the expert in every field. None of us are that smart. And the pro is going to need lots of expert help. Consider including on your coaching “team” a sport psychologist, a sports medicine doctor, a physical therapist with a strong background in sport, a sport testing technician, a sport equipment specialist (to address bike fit, running shoes, etc.), and more. Ask these experts for reduced service fees or even free services for your pros. This can be offset by sending your age groupers to the experts for their paid expertise. Keep your team of experts informed on how the athlete’s season is progressing.

RELATED: Craft of Coaching: Managing Athletes and Service Providers

Guide pros in their transition from racing to retirement

As pros approach the end of their career, there is yet another challenge for the coach to manage. For the pro, the transition presents a new set of problems that often get in the way of training: What’s next? What am I going to do now? The uncertainty affects not only their training, but also eating, sleeping, and racing.

Many pro athletes decide to become coaches after they retire from competing. They are often solid candidates for growing your own business, particularly those who know your training philosophy and methodology at the deepest level.

Other pros are likely to be unsure of what’s next. Because many pros delay their careers to become athletes right out of college, if not earlier, it’s a difficult time. Be available to guide them. This is another good time to bring in a sport psychologist.

Beyond the realm of coaching, your age groupers can be an excellent resource for a pro looking to pivot to a career outside of sport. If your age groupers have been in contact with many of your pros, they may know your athlete quite well. They may even be in a position to give them vocational direction, or perhaps even launch their new career.

Working with pros is sure to test you in many ways. From start to finish, whether you are helping a pro get traction and achieve at a high level or helping a retiring pro create a new life outside of training and racing, these coaching relationships can be incredibly rewarding.