The Future of Coaching Has Never Looked So Good

Expect the emergence of artificial intelligence and new tech to accelerate potential for the business and execution of coaching.

Close up of a female athlete looking at vital stats as a hologram on her fitness watch
Photo: Shutterstock.com/Yuri A

We can expect significant changes to roll out in our profession related to the business of coaching, its technical execution, and the emergence and evolution of artificial intelligence. Since I started my own coaching business more than 40 years ago, endurance sports and personal coaching have expanded in ways I never thought possible. Consequently, I’m somewhat reluctant to make predictions of my own, but experience tells me there is a lot to be optimistic about as we look to the future.

How an escalating health crisis could be a boon for coaches

There is good reason to believe individuals embarking on a career in coaching can look forward to considerable growth and opportunity, particularly as the cost of government health benefits like Medicare and the Affordable Care Act escalate as a result of the greater population living longer in poor health. In fact, U.S. political parties have been talking about this problem for decades.

In the early 1960s the John F. Kennedy administration was looking for solutions, but the Vietnam War and the Lyndon Johnson administration got in the way. Both sides of the political aisle have griped about the cost of benefits in the interim, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that something will need to be done to reverse the overwhelming trend toward more expensive government benefits. It’s reasonable to expect tax breaks for individuals who seek assistance in improving their health.

In the private sector similar incentives have gained traction as effective cost-cutting measures. Some insurance companies offer reduced rates for clients who have gym memberships or work with a licensed personal coach. The increased demand for these services will present a new opportunity to the traditional coaching business.

For coaches who are willing to shift their focus from athletics to fitness with an emphasis on health, there will be a much larger market to serve. The demand for licensed coaches will also bring about growth for this branch of the coaching profession. And fees can increase alongside demand, particularly for those coaches who prove most adaptable. It’s likely that some coaching companies will align with the growing number of health clubs, particularly if they are serving the same demographic.

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Of course, many coaches will remain dedicated to working with competitive athletes, but I believe changes in the broader marketplace will lead traditional performance-minded coaching businesses to raise their game. Coaches are likely to see a need for more on-staff experts in a variety of areas to offer a higher level of integrated services. Nutrition, psychology, strength, equipment personalization, testing, and monitoring can be opportunities to make better use of the ever-expanding data on personal health. As tech offers more tools and platforms to streamline digital marketing and customer services, coaches can take on more opportunity with less risk.

Whether coaching health or performance, we can expect some changes around licensing and certification. Changes like this usually take time, but the landscape is likely to include more government-approved entities to equip coaches and perhaps a stronger presence of national governing bodies (NGBs) of sport. And growth of NGBs should be a catalyst for greatly improved services for coaches and athletes.

Fast growth can have a ripple effect that creates even more opportunity in coaching and research. Better representation of female and BIPOC coaches will be key to reaching new markets, both for athletes and health-conscious consumers. We can also expect an increased demand and funding for research.

Sport scientists will undoubtedly benefit from advances to technology and AI, which will reduce the cost of research and lead to smarter allocation of that money. On the competitive front, race management businesses might use new tech and market growth to take advantage of similar opportunities to cut costs and better collaborate with health clubs, gyms, and coaching companies. With more professional and amateur events, the entire industry wins.

How real-time technology could revolutionize athlete services

Advances in technology have already proven to help coaches better serve their clients and expand their clientele, and this will only continue in the coming years. Already, the access coaches have to international clients is reshaping the industry. As translation services improve virtual communication, the best coaches can expect demand for their services to grow.

We can expect greatly improved wearable devices to gather athlete data and be instantaneously transmitted to a watch, handlebar computer, wristband, armband, phone, or even sunglasses for both the coach and athlete. Whether the coach is at the finish line, at home, or in the office on race day, they will likely monitor the athlete’s performance metrics in real time.

It’s interesting to think about how competition might be affected by the prevalence of real-time data, and perhaps even athlete-coach communication, which is not typically seen in individual endurance sports beyond a quick roadside commentary.

The athlete’s biological data will provide coaches and researchers with an onslaught of information to help us better understand performance. Just as with continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) equipment, changes in the athlete’s biological chemistry are likely to be measured continuously at the interstitial space beneath the skin. This will allow us to monitor blood lactate levels, blood oxygen saturation, nutrient metabolism and estimated nutrient status, heart rate, and more.

All of these metrics will be extrapolated based on sensed secondary physiological changes during exercise. As with any new technology, I imagine that the first generations won’t be very accurate, but that will quickly change. The only thing preventing this from happening now is the fact that the market simply isn’t big enough to justify the investment. CGM is available only because diabetics are a sizable market. In later decades such sport devices will measure physiological status in a non-invasive manner.

How AI could make a bigger funnel and a good business partner

AI is not cheap, which is likely to stall how quickly it is incorporated into independent coaching businesses. However, it is far less expensive than human labor. To the casual observer it appears that it is both widely available to the broader market and inexpensive.

In a play to increase early adoption, tech giants are casting a wide net, and willing to accept losses in the short term to capture a larger market share and survive long enough for adoption to become more mainstream, and by that point, more affordable. In recent history, we’ve seen big businesses like Kodak become virtually obsolete by downplaying the introduction of technological advancements like the electronic photography of the 1990s as fads. Today Kodak is a shadow of what the company once was.

If your income is largely dependent on sales of templated training plans for a broad market, I suggest you look to make a change because this where AI can outperform you with lightning-fast personalization. To remain competitive going forward, every training plan needs to be highly personalized. This will cause some head-scratching because customization involves time, and time costs money. You’ll have to charge more.

Meanwhile, AI-generated plans are likely to be a bargain, lowering the financial barrier to entry for athletes looking for coaching. So, you are in a conundrum. Consider shifting your business focus from training plans to one-on-one or group coaching. Regardless, the key is to make your coaching more personal and social.

Humans are social animals. As of now, AI, computers, and software largely lack that human trait. Your coaching business depends to a large extent on your ability to understand and navigate the thoughts and feelings of others. AI currently can’t detect the subtleties of emotion. It’s essentially a search engine—albeit a very quick one—that doesn’t have people skills.

People skills require a broad knowledge of very nuanced details of other humans (athletes) such as facial expressions, body language, voice rhythms, word choices, and breathing patterns. Most humans are good at such skills. AI has yet to master this, and I expect that it will take some time to begin to pick up on these finer points that factor into performance. In the age of AI, your social skills are critical to the success of your business. There’s no better time to start honing them than now.

AI is also weak in in-depth human analysis and creativity. It’s a robot. Robots are best when it comes to rapidly digging through documents and patching them together to produce a mostly accurate conclusion. Human analysis, again, requires people skills. In the case of coaching, you’ve got to dig deep into nearly all aspects of the client’s lifestyle to decide how best to coach the athlete.

Again, there are nuances here that AI is unable to detect. Once you have determined the critical data, as a human, you are good at creating a plan that precisely meets the individual athlete’s needs. AI can’t readily do that. But it can produce a good generic plan.

There are ways that AI can help you grow your business, particularly as it becomes more widely available and affordable. It can save you a lot of time by automating functions like data analysis, marketing, customer service, and administrative work.

AI may also be able to serve you as an assistant coach proposing short- and long-term training plans for your athletes based on your unique philosophy and methodology. From there, you can closely review and further modify the plan to best suit the human needs of your client. In the long-term, changes like this will save considerable time, effectively increasing your hourly income and opening the door to a larger client base.