Case Study: Gender Inclusivity in Coaching

Pro athlete Rach McBride and their coach Mateo Mercur discuss the importance of gender inclusivity when it comes to coaching, and how their relationship has been a source of support and inspiration.

Professional athlete Rach McBride knows the importance of finding a coach who can be supportive in both an athlete’s career and their personal lives. Since working with Mateo Mercur, they have competed in both triathlon and gravel racing, logging numerous wins and top-10 finishes throughout the 2022 and 2023 seasons.

RELATED: Coaching the Athlete in Front of You

Rach and Mateo discuss the importance of good communication, understanding, and advocacy in the coach-athlete relationship. Though both talk about all the ways their relationship looks much like that of most athletes and coaches, they discuss additional ways to support nonbinary athletes. All athletes want to be seen and understood, and it’s fundamental to coach-athlete interpersonal connection. Rach and Mateo also give their suggestions on what coaches and race organizers can do to support nonbinary athletes as more sporting events add nonbinary categories to their rosters.

Video Transcript

Mateo Mercur  00:05 

So I remember seeing Rach for the first time in person at the… there was a world championship race at Oklahoma and it was after the race. I was there with my athlete at the time and they finished and then we all ran into Rach in the recovery area and struck up a conversation and really hit it off. Later that season, we saw each other again at Ironman Cozumel and then actually hung out the next day, I think Rach rode their bike over to recover the legs a little bit and we had some coffee and some breakfast and, and then Rach and I stayed in touch for the years after that and one thing led to another and back in, I guess it was 2021, 2020 or 2021 we started, I think it was 2021, we started working together as coach and athlete. 

Coaching and Personal Growth with Rach and Mateo

Rach McBride  01:09 

What I saw in Mateo was I mean at least from my experience was I felt really seen. I felt really understood and I felt like we had really great communication as friends and I also knew that just like I knew his coaching experience was quite extensive and I actually also, I gave him an audition. So I’m like, alright, okay, you come to my last Ironman of the year and be coach and let’s see how that dynamic works and I mean, he is like next level at races as a coach. It is amazing and hilarious and wonderful and yeah, it was from that experience. I was like, alright. Yeah no, it’s game on. 

Mateo Mercur  02:11 

I never saw Rach be able to nail it since we knew each other. Rach has had great performances in the past, but I felt like something was missing and I knew that Rach was drawing from a swim coach and a cycling coach and a running coach and I felt that if we could work together and bring that all under one program, that it could be much more focused and deliberate and then obviously, there was the interpersonal dimension where Rach is such a dynamic and loving and engaging person and knowing Rach as a person and a friend, I really cared for Rach and wanted the best for them and I felt that if Rach could have a coaching program that was unified and a coach who really cared for them, then the sky could be the limit and right out of the gates in our first year Rach’s results really showed what is possible when they have that type of a team approach or team in their approach. 

Rach McBride  03:25 

Yeah and I think just to add to that too, at some point, I had another coach of mine say, ‘oh, your ideal coach would be someone who could like really support you emotionally’ and at the time, I was like, whatever, I don’t need someone who’s gonna emotionally support me. I need hard workouts and good training and blah, blah, blah and then I really think that I realized just in some self-reflection in the past year that yeah, actually that is really important and that Mateo has background as a psychotherapist as his other gig is pretty important and really fits well with that. 

Mateo Mercur  04:11 

I’ll just jump in and say that, I don’t want it to sound like it’s all touchy feely because Rach and I can be tough both ways with each other and I think that part of my training and experience as a psychotherapist allows for there to be feelings in the room and for us, for me to be able to tolerate them and manage them and stay professional and for us to then be able to get back to work and do what needs to be done. 

Mental Skills Training and Emotional Management in Sports

Rach McBride  04:45 

I think in general, I feel like sometimes I’ve really put Mateo through the wringer and of just my sometimes I would call insubordination and I can’t tell you the number of coaches that I’ve had, for example, when you sever that coach-athlete relationship that they get really bent out of shape and really, it feels almost like a breakup in a lot of ways and, and I feel like Mateo is really able, I see him even in our email conversations of  if I say something or I do something that makes him have feelings, I can see him taking the time to ground himself and respond and I try and do the same thing, though I’m not as good at it sometimes and just taking a breath and trying not to put your own emotions into it because I think what is so important in that coach athlete relationship is emotion management in a lot of ways. 

Mateo Mercur  06:08 

Yeah, I would amplify that by saying that what we do in our day to day is training and rehearsal for the races. So when talking about mental skills and mental training and mental toughness, I think that we’re talking about individual athletes and athletes in general, regardless of their gender, whether they are in the male category, the female category, the non-binary category, regardless of how they identify or experience themselves. When we’re working on confidence, we do so by being very specific in our training for whatever the next key event is going to be. We do course recon for weeks in the lead up to a key event. When we raced World Championships in St. George, we did a month long training camp leading into that. Right now, as you can see my background, I’m at a month long training camp leading into the World Championships in Kona.

So we’re recounting the course, rehearsing every segment of the course over and over and over again. These are things that contribute to confidence. When it comes to motivation, having meaningful goals and this is something that Rach and I connected on right from the start. When Rach shared that they wanted to race gravel at a very high level, in our first season together, I was a hell yes to that because I knew that racing in this discipline, gravel racing, with it’s affirming and powerful stand for non-binary athletes and having a non-binary category, wasn’t only going to be exciting and motivating for Rach in the immediate, but I knew that it really had meaning for Rach in terms of pioneering the direction of the sport for non-binary athletes and being one of the leaders in that realm.  

Coaching, Identity and Visibility in Triathlon

Mateo Mercur  08:23 

So when it comes to sport and life outside of sport, in our relationships, feeling, having the experience of feeling seen, heard, felt and understood, is fundamental to our interpersonal connections and really essential to feeling affirmed and known and therefore capable and powerful in our lives and so Rach earlier mentioned, when I came to Chattanooga when I was kind of like trialing as a coach because we were friends and I think that during that trip, we got to experience the overlap between the professional realm of coaching and the personal realm of our already established relationship and how those two things could really complement each other.

To have Rach feel seen and felt, heard, understood as a person who is an athlete, and a human being beyond sport and how those two things influence each other how rages life and sport influences their life outside of sport, and how their life and experiences outside of sport influence who they are as an athlete and a lot of the times that Rach and I butt heads is around that kind of work, life balance and getting to experience themselves as a person who doesn’t only train 24/7 and I think that knowing Rach as I do, we’re able to navigate ways of letting them be expressed in social socially, creatively, artistically and personally in ways that ultimately, I think really give back to their vitality and motivation for training and racing. 

Rach McBride  10:50 

My experience with Mateo has just been like I know him so well and know that he understands what non-binary is, understands what it is like to in the different struggles that a non-binary person just moving through the world might have and so again, I just felt very respected and seen and validated for my gender identity and that was an integral part of even myself in sport. 

Mateo Mercur  11:29 

Along the lines of what Rach said about feeling seen, I would say that that’s reciprocal, that it goes both ways. That in our work relationship and in our personal relationship, Rach gets to see who I am as a person too and I get to be expressed. Queer community is a really important community and so I feel like our relationship is really reciprocal in that way and I think therefore, reinforcing to both of us and that’s been one of the pleasures one of the pleasures of getting to coach Rach also and to be a part of the journey that they’re on right now; again, pioneering and leading the way as a non-binary athlete in professional triathlon and gravel and other sports too, but particularly in triathlon, where there’s less visibility than in gravel and it’s a less affirming place.

When announcers are constantly misgendering Rach that cuts every single time. That doesn’t mean that Rach is thin-skinned. They can do better. It’s not that hard to gender someone properly. We use ‘they’, all the time. “Someone left their backpack here. I hope they don’t need their iPhone later.” So simple. People change their names when they get married and announcers don’t stumble and struggle with their new names. It’s a simple thing to respect someone and to see them for who they are. 

Inclusivity for Non-Binary Athletes in Sports

Rach McBride  13:25 

I think the ultimate goal of all of this is really just the normalization of non-binary athletes of non-binary people competing and being in sport just like whatever we are doing to amplify men and women in sport, do the same for non-binary athletes. 

Mateo Mercur  13:49 

Yeah, it would be great for non-binary athletes to just be known and accepted as they are and to be celebrated for who they are to be celebrated for their achievements, period. 

Rach McBride  14:04 

The other thing that I wanted to say is that I think that coaches can also have a role in helping non-binary athletes navigate the world of the binary in sport as it is now, even in the context of gear. So because the clothing in the shoe industry is super gendered and button binary and so it can be really challenging for non-binary athletes to figure out how best they are going to show up at the pool or what clothing is going to fit them best, that is going to be the most gender affirming and so being able to kind of think outside the box and that and have a little bit more awareness is really helpful because non-binary athletes don’t have I think a lot of places to go to get that information and so as a coach who may be coaching someone who’s really new to the sport, helping navigate that space as well can be really key. 

Mateo Mercur  15:14 

Yeah and I would add to that, that a coach might not be dialed in on all the different gear options. However, that coach can still be really sensitive to and supportive of the athlete in exploring what wetsuit might fit best or what kit might fit best or how they’re going to show up to the pool and those types of experiences and concerns for the athlete. So I think that if a coach just at the very least remains open to and supportive of their athlete and understanding that there may be certain challenges because of the way that gear, pools, most of life is so binary, that a person who is non-binary, might face some challenges in those in those domains and just being aware that that is the case is a good step, is one good step in the right direction. 

Rach McBride  16:30 

Some non-binary folks will opt to change their bodies in some way for that gender affirming care, to be their most authentic selves and be in the bodies that they feel is most authentic to them and that in and of itself, in the same vein, navigating those changes in terms of gear and clothing and then in terms of healing from surgery and things like that, I think is also can be really important. There can be so much more done to create a more inclusive space for non-binary athletes and a lot of that has to do with just the visibility. So we need allies, we need allies to use their voice, to also demand inclusion. We need to proactiveness of the press and the media and announcers to respect pronouns to amplify non-binary profiles, to share non-binary athlete content, to celebrate non-binary athletes as well for their wins just like winners of the men’s and women’s categories are done. 

Mateo Mercur  17:52 

From a coach’s perspective, when it comes to the future of inclusion with non-binary athletes, I think it’s a simple thing for coaches to work with athletes regardless of their gender identity and to affirm their gender identity and to get to know them as a person to work with the individual athlete as they are.