Onboarding New Athletes
Onboarding a new client can be challenging. It requires that you get to know the athlete quite well in a relatively short time. But it’s critical to your success as a coach and the athlete’s goal achievement. Your first challenge in onboarding is to identify the underlying reason why the athlete is seeking your expertise—a specific achievement or goal. This can be a disconcerting situation. The other major task you must focus on immediately is the development of a season plan. That’s also a challenge given how much you need to know in a short time and the fact that you’re starting from zero.
During the onboarding process, be aware that your decisions regarding the new client are largely shaped by your coaching style, philosophy, and methodology. This works as a filter to tell you how compatible you and the athlete will be. That’s to be expected—in fact, it’s a good thing. You and the athlete will be working together for weeks and months, perhaps even for years. If you don’t hit it off right away, there’s a good chance you will not be successful in achieving the athlete’s goal.
During the onboarding period, while you’re talking with the athlete, you are typically thinking: How will he or she fit with my coaching style, philosophy, and methodology? Be mindful of issues that could affect mutual compatibility and consider a screening process for new athletes that can establish a positive coach-athlete relationship.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the two major details, besides screening, that you must address in your initial conversations with the new client.
Assessing the athlete’s goal
- When an athlete comes to you for coaching, you need to quickly determine: Is the athlete’s goal achievable? That’s a decision you’ll have to make based on limited knowledge about the athlete. It’s rare to find an athlete who sets his or her goal too low, but it does happen at times. This is a somewhat easier, but no less important, matter to address with your new client. More often, the athlete has set a goal that is too high, beyond the scope of a single season.
- Next, you need to identify the limiters that stand in the way of achieving the athlete’s goal. You may discover during your conversation, or in the early stages of coaching, there are reasons the goal is unachievable. These could be obstacles such as time until the event relative to how much performance improvement the athlete must achieve; the athlete’s time available for training; the high cost of needed equipment; lifestyle challenges, such as type of work; physiological or physical limitations; family and friends’ support; experience in the sport/event; geographic and weather conditions where the athlete must train; and much more. None of these alone is likely to derail the goal. Multiple red flags are the primary problem for goal achievement.
- You may determine that the athlete’s chances of achieving the goal are unrealistic. If so, then you will have to explain that to the athlete, find another coach who better suits the athlete’s needs, or use another acceptable way of conveying your realization to the athlete. This is one of the most difficult challenges facing a coach. On the one hand, you would like to see the athlete succeed but you have deep reservations. On the other hand, you don’t want them to be embarrassed by a significant failure, having paid you a considerable fee for pretending there is potential for success. I faced this dilemma twice in my coaching career. They were two of the most challenging coach-athlete relationships I ever experienced. Fortunately, both worked out well in the early stages of our relationships.
- If you believe the athlete is capable of achieving the goal, then your next step is to discover as much as you can about the athlete in order to plan their season. Seasonal planning is critical to starting your athlete on a path to success.
Planning the season
- Focus your attention on the athlete’s unique strengths and weaknesses relative to the demands of the event and the athlete’s specific goal. This process requires knowing as much about the athlete as you can discern at the time. With a new client this is especially difficult. Over the course of your relationship with the athlete, your knowledge of his or her strengths and weaknesses will become more clear. But upfront you may be guessing a lot.
- Consider the training progression necessary for the athlete achieve the goal. How will you facilitate the adaptation required? Remain mindful of what you know about the athlete and all that you have to learn.
- Shape a plan based on your coaching philosophy and methodology. This will make it unique relative to plans for similar athletes. There is more than one way to prepare an athlete for competition, as we will see in the season plans included in this module.
- The plan must be flexible. It is only a starting place for laying out how you intend to prepare the athlete for their event. Update the plan frequently as training progresses. Review the plan on a weekly or even daily basis to ensure that it matches the athlete’s current situation.
- Include the athlete in the planning process. Initially, only the athlete knows his or her status (although it may be inflated), training time considerations, goal nuances, personal history of training and competing, family and friends’ support, financial status for equipment and event travel needs, and a great deal more. No matter how much time the coach invests in the plan, if the athlete is not involved in the planning process, it won’t be beneficial. Athlete involvement establishes a sense of ownership.
- Athlete ownership improves dedication to the plan. An athlete should know what they are expected to do and what is happening next. Otherwise, they are likely to hold back “just in case.”
Adjusting the plan
Now your job as a coach is to watch for small changes throughout the plan’s application. These are likely to accumulate into patterns—either positive or negative—that need to be addressed in daily and weekly iterations of the plan. Continually evaluate the athlete’s progress. Identify subgoals or objectives along the way. These will tell you if the athlete is still on course or if changes are needed. These indicators of progress may be performance metrics, physiological measurements, mental changes, lifestyle adjustments, or any number of other conditions you feel are reflective of progress.
The plan will change before the season’s goal event. If it hasn’t, then you’ve made big mistakes and your client’s success is highly unlikely. For the dedicated, client-focused coach, that is unlikely to happen.