I finished at the back of the pack in my first Olympic triathlon 20 years ago—more than 80% of the field hit the finish line ahead of me. This outcome had no effect on my enthusiasm for the sport, and later in my athletic career I finished first in my age group at Ironman Indiana. Having experienced the view from both the back of the pack and the top of the podium has served my coaching process well.
Coaches are a competitive group and often use their own results to drive business. While my athletic performance steadily progressed over the years, as a coach I have always been more interested in using my business mentoring and leadership background to achieve scale. When I walked away from a lucrative job at IBM to become a full-time coach, I was determined to help a lot of people experience all that endurance sports has to offer. It made no difference to me if the athlete’s goal was to simply cross the finish line or to win the race. My own path as an athlete has taught me that everyone who lines up to race is a competitor.
Coach an athlete who is trading in a sedentary lifestyle for a big goal and you will see this reality for yourself. There are several things about my journey that prepared me to coach these athletes, all of which are good opportunities for coaches looking to grow their business.
Get into the gym
I’ve never been a stranger to the gym. Before I ever raced my first triathlon, I joined the run club at my local Life Time Fitness, and not long after that I became the co-director of the club. We helped members prepare for the Life Time 5K and over years of volunteering I learned how to build a class and execute it. We extended the offering to include sprint-distance triathlons and I led the way. Ultimately, Life Time would go on to establish a national race series and offered the biggest purses the sport had seen up until that point, increasing participation in triathlon and raising the profile of the top pros. It’s proof that the gym can be the start of a good thing!
Establish partnerships to reach athletes
Local clubs, retailers, and races serve as excellent opportunities to make a name for yourself on the local level. Often the race directors prefer to remain behind the scenes. I like to be out in front, whether that’s at the race expo, where I’m doing a demo of how to set up the transition area, or at the finish line, offering a hug or a handshake to every participant. I’m upfront about asking athletes to consider my business, Experience Triathlon, if they decide to look for a coach.
Many coaches find a strong alliance in their local bike shop, and I’m no different. These are some of my closest friends, and a steady source of referrals. The same can be said for clubs, though I often find that athletes are often showing up to find training partners for their long rides. Once they make a connection, they are less likely to show up regularly or seek out coaching. Still, these group workouts can be a great resource for beginner athletes who find them worthwhile.
For years I ran a local sprint race in the Chicago area. Ironically, this event was a touchpoint for both newcomers to the sport and some of the most accomplished local athletes. I needed over 100 volunteers to put on the race, many of whom would show up with their Ironman tattoos in plain sight. It was a good opportunity to cast a vision for a more inclusive sport. I would gather my volunteer staff and captains together on race weekend to remind them, “Let’s not forget that for one-third of the people out here, this is their first race; the equivalent of their Ironman.”
Same coaching process, different dose and progression
If you can coach an elite athlete, you can coach a beginner, but not with the same dose. Over the years, I have picked up a few broken beginners as clients. They physically broke as a result of training with the wrong workouts.
I remember Joe Friel visited a running store in Naperville many years ago when I was getting my own coaching business underway. He had just published a new edition of The Triathlete’s Training Bible, and I asked him about the training progressions in his book, which seemed more methodical than those from my coaching process.
He told me that he watched his athletes every day, noted what happened the day before, and on a daily basis decided whether the plan needed to be revised.
This level of attentiveness makes it possible to coach athletes of any ability because you can see how they are responding. It takes patience because not all athletes progress at the same speed, and you need to be prepared to make changes as often as they are needed. I consistently find that 20% of my athletes need a rewrite of the week’s training. By the time Wednesday rolls around, something has changed.
And changes can be needed for a variety of reasons. There are the obvious warnings—the athlete’s calf is hurting or fatigue is unrelenting—but let’s not miss the most basic question: How are you feeling? From beginner to elite, there is no canned progression for an athlete, it should always be customized. This is the key to optimizing training, and it requires subjective feedback from the athlete throughout the process.
Don’t discount psychology
It’s important to take the time to figure out what makes an athlete tick—and what stops them in their tracks. When I sit down to talk to an athlete, I’m often listening to a story laced with assumptions. The human brain loves to weave a story and it’s my job to ask, “What really happened out there?” Athletes often need help checking the facts. I’m a data-driven guy, so I just start peeling back the layers asking the athlete how they know something is true. Eventually, we collect the facts and from there I can determine the root cause. I can help an athlete act on facts, but it’s unproductive to act on fiction.
Make coaching personal
When I am looking to hire a new coach, I’m looking for someone who genuinely cares, not only about whether or not the goal is achieved, but about the individual athlete becoming a better, more complete version of themselves. Doing this asks that you be a teacher, mentor, leader, and it involves a lot of active listening.
Sometimes as coaches we get too focused on race performance goals. We know that all athletes want to have fast races. But for the individual who has made it their goal to lose an additional 20 pounds, coaching is going to go far beyond race result goals. It’s going to get very personal. You’ll need to know the athlete’s story, be familiar with their family and their lifestyle, and check in on these things as much as you talk about training. But make no mistake, these athletes are serious about accomplishing their goal, just as serious and dedicated as the triathlete who is looking to qualify for Kona. They are in it to win. They are competitive. And when these athletes accomplish that goal, they almost always ask me, “What’s next, coach?”
This is why I stand by my proposition: It’s the same process of improvement applied to every athlete. You only need to get them to engage with these two questions: What stands in the way? What is the work that needs to be done? Truly get to know your coaching clients so you can find out what is keeping each athlete from breaking through. Once you identify the root of the problem, develop a solution to eliminate that barrier.
A long career at IBM taught me to treat every client as a life-long relationship. This is a different level of commitment. Regardless of how long an athlete retains your coaching service, it is a blessing and an honor to help athletes achieve a goal—these are the moments they will carry for a lifetime and they will never forget how you helped them.