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How to Avoid Difficult Relationships with Athletes

No one wants to “fire” an athlete. But there are times when the coach-athlete relationship is clearly not working. Coaches need to reflect on these difficult situations and athletes so they can identify problems before things get personal.

The Craft of Coaching - How to Avoid Difficult Relationships with Athletes

A high-maintenance athlete destined for the podium

It crossed my mind several times in the first few weeks—I have never worked with a client who needs so much attention. In the first week of our coach-athlete relationship, my client called me early one morning and said it was starting to rain lightly.  

“Which shoes should I wear for my run?” 

I suggested it really didn’t make much difference, but he pressed me on the matter again. So, I said, “Wear the Adidas,” just to end the pointless conversation.  

A few minutes later he called again. It had stopped raining, “So now which are the best shoes?” He must have called me a half-dozen times that day about several such trivial matters. But, it didn’t end with the first week. This sort of handholding went on week after week. 

I found myself questioning, Should I fire him? 

I resisted terminating our relationship. Surely this was just a case of an athlete who had never had a personal coach before and was trying to figure out how we should work together. He’s probably a good guy who just needs a bit of handholding to get started. Besides, he appears to be an excellent age group athlete who is certainly going to be on a lot of podiums—that’s always good for my coaching resume. 

A personal boundary crossed

Then I reached my limit. In the early days of TrainingPeaks, the coaches took turns answering questions from athletes on the site’s forum. One day, when I was in the forum, “Anonymous” wondered if it was alright to drink alcohol before a workout. I thought it was a strange question, but, nevertheless, took it seriously and attempted an answer (you know, the normal stuff about why you shouldn’t do that). I thought, “Ok, weird, but that’s the end of that.”  

The next morning, I opened the forum to check for the threads that may have continued from my answers the day before. The first one I came across was from Anonymous, only this time he used his real name. It was my attention-starved client with a follow-up comment: “Ha ha, Joe! I got you!” As you can imagine, I was angry. I didn’t respond online, but I called him expressing my wonder about why he would do that to me. I explained that it was embarrassing. I asked him to go back to the forum and apologize to me publicly. He refused, so I fired him. He had finally pushed me to my limit.

Second-guessing the decision to end the relationship 

Then, of course, the guilt set in. Perhaps I was too harsh. After all, it was just a joke. After arguing with myself for a couple of days, and talking with some other coaches, I decided I had done the right thing. To be honest, I probably should have done it earlier. But the guilt wouldn’t let go. Could this sort of thing happen again, and would I be better at handling it? 

I had never really coached anyone like this. I had gotten along quite well with my previous clients. I had only fired one athlete prior to this. While he hadn’t come close to causing me embarrassment, there was just something about him that rubbed me the wrong way. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but at the first opportunity we parted ways.

That was it. In more than 20 years of coaching, up to that point, I had only let two clients go. “Fired” is probably too strong of a word for what happened with the first guy, who just got under my skin a bit. I simply found a way out of our relationship. Down deep, however, I knew I was firing him. But I felt that was two too many.  

I decided I needed to do something about it. The real issue had to do with how I brought athletes onboard as new clients. I decided it really wasn’t their fault, but mine. I simply needed to do a better job of screening potential clients to make sure we were right for each other. I suppose I had just been lucky up to that point in building my athlete clientele. I wanted to avoid going through this type of situation again. 

Commit to due diligence on client relationships

What came of this was a screening process for potential clients—a list of questions I asked athletes interested in my coaching before accepting them. There were questions that dealt with motivation. I prefer not coaching low-motivation athletes. So, for example, one question was “How often do you work out with others?” Low-motivation athletes often need external help in getting them going. If they spent a lot of time working out with others, that was a red flag. Of course, some sports, such as road cycling, typically involve group rides. That’s the nature of the sport. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with training with others. It was mostly a matter of how often and under what circumstances. Another telling question here was, “Do you often find it hard to start a workout, especially a hard one?” “What do you do to start such a session?” 

There were questions about diet, such as, “What foods do you avoid?” Not eating a few food types is understandable. I can be a bit of a picky eater myself. But my experience was that those who had a long list of such foods were difficult to work with. This was another red flag that this might not be an ideal client for me.  

The screening also included questions about coaching: “Have you worked with a coach before? If so, what did you like or dislike about them?” That gave me insights into what the athlete expected of the coach. If I saw attributes or decisions that could fit me in the “didn’t like” category, then it was best for me to refer this athlete to someone else. I also asked, “What services do you expect a coach to provide?” or, more specifically, “How often do you expect to be in communication with your coach?” This would help me to avoid another “Anonymous.” 

While I’m a stickler for having such equipment, I didn’t really want the athlete to get too deep in the weeds with data after the workout ended. I found that athletes who were too analytical were challenging to coach. They were overly focused on numbers, instead of the big picture goals we had agreed to early on and how they felt in workouts. I consider the last point a critical one for all athletes. Data sometimes gets in the way of performance.

Winning relationships

The bottom line was that I wanted to use this screening process to find clients I had very positive feelings about—people I sensed I could work with and who I could really help achieve a high goal. It wasn’t, necessarily, that there was something wrong with the athlete. It just worked out better if we got along well and saw the world of sport in a similar way. If there were too many red flags, then it was better for the athlete—and me—if they had a different coach. The athlete might even work better with one of our assistants. Everybody was a winner that way. 

After firing two clients within a couple of years, I never let a client go again for the remainder of my career. The screening tool played a big role in this. I got along well with all of my athletes from that point forward, and many of them are still close friends who I have frequent contact with.