It is my hope that you have decided to make coaching your full-time career. At the personal level coaching can be a fulfilling profession, but it’s also important to consider the bigger picture. The professionalization of endurance coaching only started gaining momentum in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Although great progress has been made, the profession itself is still relatively small and immature. This means that as coaches—individually and collectively—we can have an outsized impact on the future of our profession.
Recognize what’s at stake
To lead the coaching profession forward in positive and reputable ways, it is critical for our best coaches to remain relevant to both athletes and their peers. With the growth of the internet, social media, and artificial intelligence, that is not as simple as it sounds. In an era when algorithms amplify gimmicks and 7-second sound bites, the credibility of the entire coaching profession is vulnerable to damage from uneducated, inexperienced, exploitative, or dishonest operators. Research on the spread of misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates that it is easier than ever for bad information to spread and for unqualified and unprofessional people to influence large audiences of athletes. 
To address this problem, I believe we need a two-fold approach. On one hand, professionals and scientists must actively combat misinformation.  We are starting to see more of this on social media, for instance, as respected and qualified experts across a variety of fields intentionally engage the worst (or at least loudest) offenders. Of course engaging every new social media influencer turned endurance coach is a game of “whack-a-mole,” so the sustainable and scalable response requires that we simultaneously elevate the base level of education, expertise, and professionalism that is required to be a reputable coach.
Raising the bar for the coaching profession will improve the level of service and expertise that is available for all athletes. It also exposes unqualified and unethical coaches by creating clearer distinctions between them and professional coaches. Even if there wasn’t a need to combat misinformation, we should be committed to this effort.
The arc of your coaching career
I have spent most of my career helping endurance coaches define and broadcast their ideas through books, articles, instructional videos, and podcasts. In the process, I’ve contributed to the development of coaching education materials and played a role in the professional development of hundreds of coaches. Although there are individual coaches who defy categorization, I’ve observed a common career arc within professional endurance coaching.
Initial education and repetition phase
New coaches enter the profession with great enthusiasm, little to no experience coaching actual people, and a highly variable grasp of sports science. The lack of standardization within the profession and the patchwork of coaching and national governing body (NGB) certifications makes it difficult for athletes to know who to trust. This same scenario makes it difficult for the coaching profession as a whole to protect athletes from incompetence and charlatans.
On the positive side, the initial phase of a professional coach’s career is full of opportunity. New coaches are often early adopters of emerging technologies, which can be advantageous for the athletes they work with and create novel business opportunities.
Repetition is one of the biggest predictors of success in this early phase of a professional coaching career. It’s important to actively coach as much as possible—in person, online, at events and training camps—in the first 3–5 years. This doesn’t mean taking on more athletes than you can serve effectively. It means fully engaging in coaching a variety of athletes across different environments, platforms, and events. A hobbyist or part-time coach working with 10 athletes as a side-gig will not progress as quickly as a full-time coach working with 25–35 athletes.
The growth phase of a professional coaching career is characterized by great ambition, innovative projects, and entrepreneurial spirit. These coaches have earned enough broad expertise that they can dig into a particular area of interest and become an expert. This is when coaches look to gain a following in both the athletic and coaching communities, coach emerging champions, and launch companies and technologies and products that can change the face of the profession.
The growth phase is taxing for a coach. It is an intense period that can only be sustained for a limited time. Coaches will of course continue to learn and grow personally and professionally beyond this phase, but the time, travel, and energy required to pursue innovation and entrepreneurial ambitions take a toll. Some coaches burn brightly at the forefront of the profession or an organization for just a few years; others can extend that to a decade or more.
In my experience, coaches often transition out of the growth phase and into a mentor phase when they reach a level of mastery that encourages simplicity rather than chasing the next shiny object. This phase is not a rejection of innovation, but rather reflects genuine confidence earned through repeated successes with athletes. Furthermore, these coaches share a deep understanding that success fundamentally comes from consistent repetition of simple actions over long periods of time.
Coaches in the elder/mentor phase are extremely valuable to both athletes and less experienced coaches. They are often out of the limelight, focused on leading high-performance programs and facilities and developing the next generation of coaches. Although they are sought for their wisdom and expertise, media attention is typically focused on colleagues in the growth phase of their careers. During this phase of their careers, coaches often become highly selective in terms of the number and type of athletes they choose to work with one-on-one.
Of course, there’s a lot of overlap in these career phases within professional coaching. There’s no set trajectory within the profession, and individual coaches progress and specialize according to their own priorities. There is also no “up or out” mentality that forces coaches to take on progressively greater responsibilities or otherwise exit the profession. A great road cycling skills coach working with a junior development program is just as valuable to the profession as the performance director for a UCI World Tour professional cycling team.
How to stay relevant for the long term
No matter where you are in the arc of coach development, staying relevant is the key to maintaining a long, fulfilling, and respected career in the coaching profession. I’ve watched coaches go from fresh-faced interns and recent exercise science graduates to now lead large coaching organizations, physiology labs, high-performance centers, and professional sports teams. As I reflect on their success in the profession, a number of common threads emerge.
Become an authority in a particular area of interest
To play the long game you need to earn a reputation as a trusted source, an expert. That takes time (several years at least) and patience because you first need to create a broad base of knowledge and experience before homing in on a specialty. However, if you “start broad and go narrow” the reward can be a devoted and engaged audience that trusts you as the authority in your area of expertise. There are certainly quicker ways to generate a following and build an audience, but without a solid foundation of knowledge people will see right through you when you step into that spotlight.
At the same time, be careful not to get so stuck on a particular aspect of science or coaching methodology that you can’t evolve your practice as times and science move forward. Stay up to date with sports science and technology, but don’t chase trends. If the fundamentals of your coaching practice are sound (i.e., based on proven sports science, human-first, holistic, ethical), they shouldn’t be affected by shiny new technologies or the latest fitness trends. That said, you need to stay up to date on the new technologies and trends so you can integrate ideas and devices that align with your core practices and provide meaningful responses as to why you’re not integrating others.
A practical example from my own career involves the evolution of indoor cycling. At CTS, we started producing indoor cycling workout videos on VHS tapes in 2001. We added DVDs three years later and stopped producing VHS tapes soon thereafter. Video downloads followed in 2007, we stopped producing DVDs in 2012, and paid downloads continued until 2020 when we decided to make the collection available for free during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Plenty of other product development and technology occurred across the same timeline, giving athletes a variety of indoor training experiences. In 2009, Sufferfest (now SYSTM) launched a series of indoor cycling workout videos featuring licensed footage from bike races. Up until 2011, Computrainer was one of very few home ergometers that could be networked together or connected to the internet.
In 2011, TrainerRoad launched with a computer-based workout interface that communicated with ANT+ devices (i.e., heart rate monitors and power meters) and later synced with video workouts. Wahoo then started a massive expansion in smart trainers with the release of the Wahoo KICKR in 2012. Peloton launched in the same year, with an option that quickly grew beyond cyclists to reach the mass market. The resulting widespread adoption of smart trainers, smart device apps, and high-speed internet set the stage for Zwift to launch the era of gamified indoor cycling apps in 2015.
The COVID-19 pandemic ramped up the adoption of indoor cycling and the development of indoor cycling apps even further. Coming full circle for me, I co-authored an indoor cycling training book, Ride Inside with Joe Friel in 2020, and I expect to soon return to producing indoor cycling classes—this time live-streamed. From 2001 through today, the technologies and business models for using indoor cycling to improve athletic performance have evolved, and the coaches and organizations who succeeded in remaining relevant did so by sticking with proven sports science and coaching methodologies as the technologies have changed.
Be careful about product sponsorships/partnerships
Partnerships and sponsorships come and go. As a coach, churning through multiple partners over a period of years may start to hurt your credibility. This is a unique problem for coaches compared to events or teams because a coach is a professional in a position of trust. Your objectivity and ability to individualize recommendations for athletes instills trust and confidence that you have their best interests at heart, not your financial interests.
If you pursue partnerships and sponsorships, be transparent with the companies about boundaries and expectations. There’s a difference between recommending a sports nutrition product as “high-quality and effective” versus endorsing it as “the best-ever”. The first is authentic and doesn’t limit you from individualizing recommendations for athletes. The second puts you in a position where your “best-ever” endorsement could change multiple times, and athletes in your long-term audience will notice that.
Look for partnerships and sponsorships that will stand the test of time. Partnership longevity matters more than ever in a culture dominated by social media influencers and short-lived, even single-post, product promotions.
Engage with the community
Lots of endurance coaches work with athletes remotely. With abundant data from power meters, GPS units, and wearable sensors, plus advanced data analysis tools, coaches can end up spending all their time in front of a computer screen. And with ecommerce, you can sign up new athletes without going out of the house to recruit them. In the long run, however, your community engagement creates access to new populations of athletes. When you withdraw (purposely or inadvertently) to just coach your current athletes from in front of your computer screen, you become unknown to athletes outside their circle of friends.
Going to in-person training activities (i.e., group rides and runs), supporting your athletes at races, and participating in events (whether you’re competitive or not) create long-term value for you as a coach. A colleague of mine, renowned ultramarathon coach Jason Koop, put it this way at a recent coaching conference, “Going to races is absolutely an ergogenic aid for your athletes.”
If you’ve done a good job coaching the athlete, they shouldn’t need you at the race. But showing up for them and being available for them boosts their confidence and strengthens the coach-athlete relationship. Your presence is also impactful for other athletes who observe your interactions. Endurance sports communities tend to be small and tightly knit, so a relatively small commitment in terms of frequency and time can have a big impact on your profile and reputation.
Be a professional other professionals want to work with
At one level, endurance coaches are in a competitive marketplace serving a limited number of athletes. On another level, we are part of a profession that thrives on collaboration, and the entire profession benefits when the level of expertise increases. Perhaps more importantly, many of the opportunities in your future will involve working with coaches and athletes who you might currently view as competitors. To be offered those opportunities, cultivate a reputation for honest, ethical, professional, and collaborative conduct.
The business structures within the coaching profession vary. There are many sole-proprietor coaches, some coaching collectives with 2–10 coaches, and a relatively small number of large coaching organizations. In most companies, coaches are independent contractors, although coaches working for performance facilities or teams may be more likely to be hired as full-time employees. It is not unusual for a sole proprietor coach to join a group, for coaches to move from one coaching group to another, or to leave a coaching group and go out on their own. Managing these transitions with transparency and integrity bolsters both the coach’s and company’s professional reputation.
Don’t get territorial over athletes
When you put an athlete’s interests first, you must recognize that means allowing or even encouraging them to move on from working with you. As athletes mature in their sports and their lives, their needs and goals evolve. An athlete “leaving” is not necessarily a betrayal or a failure. The athlete does not owe you loyalty for helping them reach a certain level of performance.
Do your best work with an athlete while you are working with them. If the relationship is no longer working—for either party—part of your role as a coach is to ease their transition to their next resource. This includes the athlete’s training schedules and performance data!
I have worked for CTS for more than 20 years. When onboarding new athletes at CTS, we encounter some athletes who have never been coached before, but many have worked with other professional coaches in the past. The number of coaches who retain or delete an athlete’s past training schedules is concerning. Here are some reasons why our coaches at CTS don’t do that:
- The training plans produced and data gathered during your time with an athlete belong to the athlete. Admittedly, I am not an intellectual property attorney, but in principle I compare past training schedules and data to a patient’s medical records. When you see a doctor, they use their expertise and experience to run tests and create a treatment plan. What your doctor prescribed and the subsequent results are contained in your medical records so that future medical professionals will know your history, what has worked in the past and what hasn’t.
- Deleting or retaining schedules, comments, and athlete data stems more from insecurity than from a need to protect trade secrets. Coaches who do good work and who are confident in their abilities as professional coaches have no problem with colleagues reviewing the work they’ve done with athletes. They are not concerned that sharing past schedules will reveal what worked for an athlete, nor are they insecure about the fact their mistakes will show up in those records, too.
- There’s no “secret sauce.” Your past training plans don’t offer future coaches a way to undermine your career or gain a competitive advantage over the athletes you’re currently working with. And even if you have created very specific workouts or intricate schedules for an athlete, replicating and implementing those workouts and schedules rarely works for their next coach. Your workouts and schedule likely worked for the athlete within the context of mutual communication and interpretation. Your athlete’s next coach will have their own style and way of communicating.
Don’t make an athlete start from scratch with the next professional they work with. How does this help you stay relevant in the next 10 years? Information sharing enhances your reputation as a professional who puts athletes first and preserves your relationships with departing athletes who will later become referral sources or coaches themselves.
Participate in leadership opportunities
Get involved with local advocacy groups. Join the board of directors for your club or team or charitable organization. Speak at coaching conferences. Participate in the coaching education and certification process for your NGB. Participate in collaborations like The Craft of Coaching.
It is easy to get drawn into the day-to-day process of working with individual athletes and developing your own content. Maybe you have a local presence at group training activities or competitions. But it’s important to expand your engagement to include leadership within the athletic community, professional organizations, and local government.
Athletes need places to exercise and events to participate in. Getting involved in the process promotes growth and participation in grassroots sporting events, as well as continued development of and access to outdoor recreation infrastructure. Being a positive leader in the community will raise your coaching profile and bolster your reputation as a trusted resource.
- Muhammed T, Sadiq, and Saji K Mathew. “The disaster of misinformation: a review of research in social media.” International journal of data science and analytics vol. 13,4 (2022): 271-285. doi:10.1007/s41060-022-00311-6
- van der Linden, S. Misinformation: susceptibility, spread, and interventions to immunize the public. Nat Med 28, 460–467 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-022-01713-6