When you’re starting out as a coach, the learning curve can be steep, especially in endurance sports. When Julie Dibens—a four-time triathlon world champion and two-time Olympian—began her coaching career, it was not through choice—she had been forced to retire through injury. Yet two of her first clients were world-class athletes themselves—Tim Don and Rachel Joyce—which meant the pressure to get it right was greater than ever. She now coaches more than 25 athletes and has five assistant coaches, all of whom are part of her Boulder-based JD Crew. Here, she gives us some of the biggest takeaways and lessons learned from the first few years of her coaching career.
1. The Power of Coaching
“I’d never appreciated before just how powerful it can be being ‘that person’ for someone, being their coach, being the person they look to for answers and support,” Dibens said. “That was one of the first things that jumped out at me in the early days. I could see just how much of an impact my belief in them had on their training and performance. One of the first athletes I started working with, he had never had someone truly believe in his ability before. That power was remarkable and showed me just how much potential I have to impact someone’s career. It was a big learning point for me about just how serious this is—and how important it is to get it right. It’s a professional athlete’s career, I can’t just screw it up. I could see that simply by standing on pool deck and overseeing their training I had the power to impact their performance on a day-to-day basis, and simply saying you believe in your athlete can have a far-reaching effect. That was a new feeling.”
Check out our Sports Psychology Pathway to find out more about improving mental skills.
2. Every Athlete is Unique
“It sounds simple, but I also learned early on just how individual everyone is,” Dibens said. “What works for one person will not necessarily work for another, and Tim was a great example of that. I realize how fortunate I was to coach him so early in my coaching career as that really helped me see how unique we all are. Tim didn’t respond to the same training that I had responded too, whereas I could see that Rachel did. Learning to tailor Tim’s training to what was best for him was a hugely valuable lesson to learn, in that what might work for one doesn’t always work for another. It ultimately comes down to physiology/genetics as well as psychology and what makes that athlete tick.”
3. Always Be Willing to Learn
“Although the fundamental training principles stay the same, I’ve learned it’s important to be aware that knowledge is always changing, that there’s always something more to learn, new ideas to be open to, concepts that could really help one of your athletes to progress,” Dibens said. “Always being open to learning more and taking on new ideas is so important. I think about some of the things I did when I was an athlete and, knowing what I know now, I sometimes think to myself, ‘Wow, what could I have done if I’d known this back then?’ There’s so much knowledge out there and the sport is really advancing quickly, so being open to talking to other experts, taking on board other ideas and viewpoints, is very important for you as a coach and for the benefit of your athletes.”
4. Collaboration is Key
“Being open to working with other coaches is also incredibly important,” Dibens said. “I work closely with cycling coach Matt Bottrill. While I can see how it can be hard to work alongside another coach, Matt and I have a mutual respect for one another, which means egos get set aside and we work as a team with the best interests of our athletes in mind. It has its challenges, we don’t always share the same philosophies, so as a coach you must be open to collaborating, but it’s helped teach me a lot more about cycling and broaden my experience. I think many coaches are too quick to think they know it all, but I’ve learned you can’t be an expert in everything. I’ve learned when to ask for help or pull in someone with greater expertise than me. I’m the first to admit I’m no expert in nutrition, yet that’s an area where no athlete can afford to fail. I’m not afraid to say, ‘I can’t f*ck this up—the stakes are too high.’” With Matt it’s also been nice to have someone else ‘in your corner.’ Coaching can be demanding and lonely at times, so being able to pick up the phone and have a good chat with him has been valuable too.”
Find out more: This episode of the Fast Talk Labs podcast looks at the differences between fueling and nutrition.
5. Patience, Young Grasshopper
While Dibens acknowledges she’s been privileged to coach some world-class athletes early in her career, she also highlights the equally-as-testing task of developing younger athletes, especially those with huge potential, masses of motivation, and lofty goals. “For me as a coach, the greatest challenge with these athletes has been teaching them the importance of being patient, of understanding that success isn’t going to happen overnight,” she said. “They can be so incredibly hungry and they want it all now. And it can be hard when they’re training alongside some of the best athletes in the world—and keeping up with them—yet on race day there’s a very different level of performance achieved. That’s when teaching them patience and learning to keep their expectations in check has become so important. And this has become a significant part of any conversations I have with any athletes who inquire about working with me: If they are looking for success in six months then I know I’m not the right coach for them. If you can be patient, then we can do great things together.”
6. Building a Business
“I didn’t transition from being an athlete to being a coach out of choice, but I was very fortunate to work with world-class athletes very early on, which helped take care of a large part of my client base and also helped attract more athletes,” Dibens said.
“I’ll admit I’m not good on the business side of things, but over the last three years I’ve taken on other coaches to work alongside me. That was a difficult step, as it’s my reputation and my name on the company, but I’ve found it to be a very unifying process. We’re not just a bunch of coaches doing separate things; we work together, we share our ideas and experiences. We have bi-weekly calls where we come together to chat and help each other.”
Her group of coaches includes Katie Kyme, Paul Matthews, Dede Griesbauer, Rachel Joyce, and Lauren Brandon, all of whom she has coached or still does.
“Between us we have years and years of triathlon training and racing experience, and it’s unlikely a situation will arise that one of us hasn’t encountered before. That puts us—and our athletes—in a great position.”