How to Protect Your Time

Managing athletes requires time management skills. Coach Ryan Bolton balances the needs of his pro athletes, age groupers, and a team of coaches. He talks with Joe Friel about his screening process and the groundwork that goes into a positive athlete-coach relationship.

“It really helps to be on the front end of the relationship with an athlete to set expectations.”

– Ryan Bolton

Video Transcript

Intro to Ryan Bolton and Bolton Endurance

Joe Friel  00:05

Ryan, glad to have you on board with us to talk about your relationships with your clients. Ryan is the head coach of Bolton Endurance Sports Training, BEST. He’s got a BA in exercise physiology. He’s got an MS in nutrition. And he’s had a number of highly successful athletes at the pro level.
Ryan, we’re glad to have you on board with us today. And again, we’re talking about how you deal with your clients and what things have worked out well for you in terms of how you’ve how you make sure you’re working with clients who respect your time. Let me ask you one question. Let’s get the viewer a little bit more involved in your background. You started coaching in 2004. What sports are you coaching?

Ryan Bolton  00:36

Yeah, in 2004, when I came on, and I was working directly with you, and coaching primarily triathletes. But over the years, I’ve also worked with a fair amount of runners, both of amateur runners and also professional runners.

Joe Friel  00:53

Yeah, I think one of your runners, if I recall right, won the Boston Marathon.

Ryan Bolton  01:00

Caroline Rotich. Yeah, she won the Boston Marathon in 2015.

Joe Friel  01:06

You were just telling me about your athletes’ success at the St. George and Texas Ironman races. So you’ve had a number of really successful athletes yourself, which is really great to hear.

So going back to your coaching, you’ve been doing it for so long, but you’ve got amazing number of coaches working for you. How many coaches do you have now in your company?

Ryan Bolton  01:34

Yeah, we have just under 20 coaches that work with our coaching group.

Joe Friel  01:39

That’s a lot. How did you manage to bring on 20 coaches?

Ryan Bolton  01:42

That’s a good question. It was a pretty organic process. When I started the company, I had a good handful of coaches that I already worked closely with or knew well, and some of them actually were the ones who were kind of prompting me to start my own coaching business. And then from there, it was very much on a referral or word of mouth basis. We never directly recruited coaches, but, you know, through coaches and just connections that I’ve had within triathlon and cycling and running . . . we ended up onboarding coaches onto the group.

Joe Friel  02:21

Twenty coaches is a lot. That means you have your hands are full, how many athletes are you coaching now?

Ryan Bolton  02:25

Yeah, I always try to keep my athlete load in the 20-to-25 range. And that mix… it’s a range of [athletes] from my professionals to age group athletes. It’s a kind of a delicate balancing act.

Joe Friel  02:39

You’ve got a lot of things you’re trying to balance there right now, I can tell with that many coaches and that many athletes, just having 20 to 25 athletes alone is a full time job. I know that 20 coaches that you’re also helping to grow their coaching as professionals makes it all that much more difficult. So let’s talk about your personal clients. Are they mostly local, national, or international? How would you classify them?

Communication with athletes

Ryan Bolton  03:03

Yeah, I would call them [predominately] international. I have athletes around the world. And I guess the other thing I would say about my athletes as that there is a range in the level of interaction with them; it does range just kind of based on, you know, their needs and the level that I coach them at.

Joe Friel  03:21

So you have various levels of coaching … are those levels based on how much time you spend working with the athlete?

Ryan Bolton  03:27

Yeah, it’s based on the amount of interaction, though with my professionals, it doesn’t really exist, it’s much more of a, you know, organic process, and it has to be with them. The process of bringing a pro in with the group is much more rigorous because of that, because you know that the time commitment is going to be really high. With age group athletes, it’s more based on how much interaction they need.

Balancing the demands of athletes

Joe Friel  03:54

Right. And that is then the crux of what we’re talking about here today, which is with lots of athletes, your hands are full, you’re making contact with your elite athletes on a regular basis, daily perhaps with some athletes. And you’ve probably got age group athletes who are looking for more of your time also. Do you have athletes who really kind of try to, I wouldn’t say take advantage of, but they’re really using a lot more of your time than what you perhaps would’ve envisioned doing with that particular athlete?

Ryan Bolton  04:30

Yeah, for sure. And I think, you know, it really helps to be on the front end of the relationship with an athlete to kind of set expectations on [the fact that there] are appropriate times for communication. A lot of times I like to say we have a relatively unlimited amount of interaction, however, that needs to also fall into a specific parameter of time. And, I’ve realized that it’s a tricky job, because there are times, you know, with coaching that an athlete really does need to reach out to you at a relatively inappropriate time—let’s say, at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night because of a specific issue. But, I try to front-load the relationships with the athletes so that they know when is a good time to contact me and also when is not a good time to not contact me. And based on the severity, it’s kind of like a 9-1-1 response. You know, before you dial the phone, does your does your toe that hurts—is that critical to be telling me at 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night or can this wait until tomorrow during more in a more appropriate time? So, yeah, it’s a delicate balance. But I think a lot of that balance is set up with communication and with expectations on the front end of working with clients. I guess the reality is that you end up having to let clients go because of that . . . because they are just wanting too much of your time.

How to assess an athlete’s needs on the front end

Joe Friel  05:56

Letting clients go is an issue all by itself, and all the details of that. But is there anything, any way you can tell up front, this client is maybe somebody who’s going to take a lot of your time?

Ryan Bolton  06:11

I think you can pick up so much information from an athlete or from a client in those initial conversations. I like to talk with [athletes] about a handful of questions. I ask them about their personal lives, how important their job is, how important their family is to them, how important racing and training is [as it factors] into that equation. You can learn a lot from an athlete.

Also, talking with them about how much analysis they do of their own training—you know, looking at their own data, and what [technology] they have for that. You can kind of pick it up by just asking simple questions like that to know How relatively high maintenance is this person going to be? And then, you can ask them if they need [to keep doing all of] that. I think that’s probably the most important thing: How much analysis do you need? How much interaction do you need? Getting those answers from [a prospective athlete] really helps me establish whether this going to be potentially a good relationship that’s going to have proper boundaries.

I feel like over the years, and I’ve been doing this for a while now, I’ve got better on that front end screening. And, I would say that I learned by having to let a couple athletes go in the past. In that front-end screening, I know what red flags to look for (which are the things that we talked about previously).

Matching athletes with the right coach

Joe Friel  07:30

I know what you mean, though I haven’t been there myself, but with 20 coaches if you have an athlete like that who’s just not appropriate for you . . . is there a possibility of one of your assistant coaches being able to work with that person?

Ryan Bolton  7:48

Absolutely. And that happens. I know that once I’ve worked with athletes, I know their personality type. And I’m [thinking], Aha, this person might not be a good fit for me, but they wouldn’t be a good fit with this person. Because I know that [another coach] knows how to manage this really well, or they have the time to manage this really well. That happens on the front end, though, too. We get coaching inquiries within our group, I even will talk with an athlete, sometimes on the front end I determine, Hey, this athlete’s a better fit for a different coach in our group, and then I’ll refer them to that coach. If I am getting indicators that an athlete is going to be a person who does push those boundaries, I’ll let that coach know, too. So I can say, Hey, you need to be really direct with this athlete, because I don’t want to just hand them a headache.

Joe Friel  8:40

You’ve given us kind of a summary of things you’ve done over the years, to protect your time working with athletes, screening athletes upfront, measuring how the relationship was progressing, I assume, is part of what goes into this whole mix, you are also making decisions about whether or not this athlete is appropriate for you? And if not, you likely pass the opportunity on to another coach.

Establishing boundaries, scheduling athletes

(9:12) Looking back now… I assume you didn’t start off doing these things. You probably figured out over time, being in the business of coaching, that you had to do something to protect your time. What advice would you give to a new coach on how they can go about protecting their time?

Ryan Bolton  9:25

Yeah, like I said, on the front end, the standard is establishing boundaries with athletes. One thing that I do is like call times, for example, I say I’m basically available during office hours and letting everyone know that and actually having people pre plan those types of calls, so they know just not to be cold calling.

I think another big piece of it is, and I find this really valuable with age group athletes, is to set up those interactions with [athletes] in pre specified times, like say, you know, on a monthly basis, or a weekly basis at specific times, so that if questions are accumulating, when you meet with them, they can kind of upload all the questions and all the information during that period, as opposed to you know, spreading it out over the course of every day of the week. With age group athletes, it’s different because I find that [structure] really valuable, setting up those concrete calls and interactions. Whereas, you know, with professionals is it is a bit more organic.

Joe Friel  10:31

So Ryan, another question for you. It’s very difficult being a coach when you’ve got so many clients, you said you have 20 to 25 clients and you got 20 coaches working for you also, are you ever taken a day that you kind of like consider a day away from all the front all the responsibilities when you can get other things done besides just working with your athletes working with your coaches?

Ryan Bolton  10:47

Yeah, it’s a unique challenge as a coach, because sometimes the busiest days of our week are actually, when everyone else is having their weekend, Saturdays and Sundays, both from a training standpoint because our athletes are training a lot, but also from a racing standpoint. So I find a lot of my Saturdays and Sundays incredibly consumed by looking at athlete data from workouts, but also following and tracking races and then following up with races. So yeah, I try to, and I’ve always struggled with this, but I’m always trying to find a day of the week that can be my “off” day or my weekend day. Mondays sometimes work really well for that, because it is just post weekend. And I also find a midweek day, like a Wednesday or Thursday, works pretty well too, because it’s [ahead of] Fridays, [there’s] normally some pre-race stuff, and you’re going into the weekend. So I would highly advise coaches to try to find that in their schedule, because [coaching] can be all consuming. And all of a sudden, you can find yourself working seven days a week, you know, nonstop every day. Finding one of those days, identifying a day where you have your lightest load with athletes that you can actually take care of yourself a bit [is important].

Planning for time off

Joe Friel  11:49

And that brings up another question, which is along the same line. How about vacations? Do you ever get a chance to like, take a vacation from coaching? Like, we were talking about my vacation coming up here, which is no problem at all anymore. How about you ever, are you ever able to go on vacation?

Ryan Bolton  12:04

It’s very difficult. And with myself, I find it a challenge. I think the best way to approach it is to create [a plan] based once again on what you know about your season your athletes’ seasons. This may sound not very generous to some people and very generous to others, but you find a week in the middle of the year and maybe a week at the end of the year. You send out a bulk email to all your athletes and you get ahead of schedules (planning schedules for your athletes), and say, “This is my week down.” I’ve found that athletes are responsive to that because they all understand the concept of people taking vacations. A couple of may not forgive you, but most of them will if you give them that heads up.

Joe Friel  12:52

So Ryan, I appreciate your insights. Being a coach is not easy, it takes a lot of your time. And you’ve talked here about various ways you go about protecting your time. So I want to thank you for that. I appreciate your input. And again, you can find Ryan on his website at Thank you very much, Ryan.

Ryan Bolton  13:16

Alright. Thanks, Joe. Thanks for having me on.