What Makes a Good Coach?

With perspective from over 40 years of coaching experience, Joe Friel shares his detailed list of qualities that make a good coach.

What follows here and what is contained above in the video are some tenets of good coaching. This is by no means a comprehensive list. In fact, it’s fairly intuitive and may even come across as some sort of combination of the golden rule and the Boy Scout oath, but that’s okay as both have merit.

A good coach’s primary consideration is the safety and well-being of the athlete.

This should be one of your first conversations with the athlete. For example, when and where does the athlete do various types of workouts? Are the time of day and the venue safe relative to traffic, weather, terrain, and other conditions? Are there alternatives to consider? What is the condition of the athlete’s equipment kit? Is anything not safe? Is the athlete eating a healthy diet that supports his or her level of training? Has the athlete been diagnosed with any significant health issues past or present? Is the athlete taking any medications? Was the medication prescribed by a doctor? Does the athlete have any physical impairments, no matter how insignificant (from leg length discrepancies to scoliosis to vision impairment and more)? And don’t just take the athlete’s word for it. Get confirmation of a new client’s health and well-being from a medical professional.

A good coach is equally concerned with the athlete’s mental well-being as with his or her physical health and capability for performance.

Psychological stress from any source (job, family, finances, etc.) can have devastating effects on the athlete’s readiness to train and compete. In your role, you need to be ready to identify, not to solve, such matters. Seek help from a sports psychologist or other professionals as needed.

A good coach establishes boundaries around their lifestyle and family time.

While you are employed by the athlete and the athlete comes first, there are times when you can be reached and times when you can’t. Be gentle in making this point with your clients. But do make it. This can be a difficult conversation with some athletes.

RELATED: What Makes a Happy Coach?

A good coach shows respect for their athletes.

Respect starts by accepting that the athlete is exceptional in some way and that the coach’s role is to identify, nurture, and amplify their unique talents—not to whip them into submission. That is best accomplished by treating the athlete as a person, not as an object to be manipulated for your personal benefit. You are here for the athlete, not the other way around. Ultimately, a good coach lives by the golden rule, treating athletes as he or she would like to be treated.

A good coach helps the athlete grow and succeed in sport and also in life, which is secondary but nonetheless important.

A coach fills a unique role in the athlete’s world. You may well come to know more about the athlete than anyone else in their life. The athlete may seek your advice on topics outside of the typical coach-athlete relationship. It’s an awesome responsibility that you must respect while being careful to maintain a healthy distance on significant matters in the athlete’s life. After working with a good coach, athletes should feel they’ve become better people. If you can accomplish that (while keeping a safe distance from the athlete’s complicated personal needs beyond sport), you’re making the world a slightly better place.

A good coach keeps training simple and focused on the basics.

Your first step is to teach the basics of success in sport by setting up the athlete to achieve a goal at the lowest level of previous failure. This could be something as elementary as completing a short block of training or a single challenging workout. Celebrate the accomplishment. Then take a small step toward the next higher challenge. Keep this progression going until you finally arrive at the ultimate goal for the athlete.

The only variable is what the athlete’s specific set of goals are in the progression to the ultimate goal. Every athlete is unique in this regard. While for some athletes it may be simply completing a block of training, for another it may be improving power or pace, or achieving a personal best in a B- or C-priority event. It could even include overcoming fear, as in open-water swimming or fast descending on a bike. Whatever it may entail, continually and systematically ingrain the fundamentals of success while gradually preparing the athlete for the ultimate goal—the event. Make sure the athlete understands what’s necessary for success in that event and drive those fundamentals and metrics home by repeating and rehearsing the details frequently in workouts. Don’t assume they understand because you explained it. Practice it over and over and over.

Nearly all athletes will improve with this simple approach to training. Those who don’t are exceptional in some way and require more focused attention. That’s when the real fun begins.

A good coach uses training language that is familiar to the athlete, not scientific jargon.

This is also a good test of your ability to communicate: If you can’t explain a scientific concept in terms that a child would understand, then you don’t fully understand it. The athlete should have a role in the development and management of their training. Ownership will deepen the athlete’s understanding and improve their dedication to the plan.

A good coach never stops learning.

You can’t possibly know everything—but strive to anyway. Commit to always be a student of the sport, even if you’re considered an expert. The other side of this coin is that it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” The experts I most respect say those three words on occasion. The coaches I least respect appear to know everything. They’re faking it. You can’t possibly know everything. So what are you capable of achieving? What are you working on? How are you growing? A good coach is on a never-ending journey.

A good coach teaches the athlete that the competition is with and within.

Your athletes compete with, not against, other athletes. Competitors are not the enemy. In fact, it’s because of competitors that the athlete is motivated to improve—competitors present a challenge to inspire performance. Once your athletes realize this, the true competition within can begin—motivation, persistence, and patience all occur internally. You can help focus an athlete’s attention, but you can’t give any of these qualities to the athlete. Your role is to give direction to the internal challenge.

A good coach establishes a healthy working relationship with the athlete that grows stronger over time.

You get along with each other, have a friendly working relationship, enjoy your conversations, show mutual respect, and confide in each other. You are honest with the athlete when it comes to progress made toward the goal. If your honesty is questioned, even if it only has to do with small stuff, then your contribution to the athlete’s mission is compromised. Consider your personal integrity just as valuable as your coaching knowledge. Never sacrifice integrity to impress the athlete or anyone else. Be yourself. You’re not perfect, and that’s okay.

A good coach listens more and talks less.

The sign of a good coach is the ability to ask the right questions at the right times—and then listen to what the athlete says. Listening involves understanding. Once you understand then you can be of help. Do not dominate the conversation. You don’t learn anything when you are talking.

A good coach knows his or her own weaknesses and is always working to improve them.

This applies both to your coaching and more broadly to you as a person. Ask the athlete for feedback and accept at face value whatever you are told. Don’t challenge the opinions you receive; instead ask for examples. Are they accurate? They must be, or at least they are to the athlete. Evaluate whether you should make changes. Are there weak links you can be working on to become a better coach? Debrief with the athlete following important events and at the end of the season. Ask for feedback and embrace the learning. Never stop growing personally and professionally.

A good coach doesn’t make excuses.

Be honest about your own mistakes and failures. They happen to everyone. A shortcoming in training or racing isn’t always the athlete’s fault. Your role is critical to the athlete’s success. Evaluate how you did and what you could have done better.

A good coach sees the flow of feedback from the athlete as the key to success.

The path you take to prepare an athlete for an important event involves a careful plan for training (shared with the athlete), persistent and dedicated implementation (documented by the athlete), ongoing and frequent evaluation of progress (including observations from the athlete and the coach), honest progress evaluation (from both the coach and athlete), plan adjustment, and repetition.

Your long-term goal is for the athlete to learn how to successfully self-coach. While it may sound counterproductive to your business, executing on this goal will lead to great success for you as a coach.

Any book about UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, especially The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership. Wooden is widely regarded as the definitive “good” coach with an approach to cultivating performance that extends well beyond sport to the rest of life. 

In stark contrast to Wooden’s coaching career, Win At All Costs: Inside Nike Running and Its Culture of Deception is an eye-opening read on the fallout caused by coaches who pursue performance at the expense of their athletes. 

Video Transcript

Joe Friel  00:00

Tenets of good coaching

I want to share with you some, some tenants of good coaching. This is not going to be a comprehensive list, it’s things that I’ve discovered over the years, this could be taken as some sort of a combination between the golden rule and the boy scout oath and my personal experiences, the first place, the first place we start with being a good coach is by being concerned with the safety and well-being of your athletes. This is the most important thing. For example, if they have to travel in traffic a lot, that can be a real problem on a bicycle or even running in the street. I’ve known people to get hurt very badly being hit by cars but and I’ve had that happen to me and you may have happened to you also, let’s try to prevent it from happening to your athletes. Look at the athlete’s equipment, is the equipment safe? Does it fit the athlete personally, shoe size bike size, helmet, make sure they’ve got safety equipment, don’t leave this to chance. Sometimes athletes wind up with things that are really rundown and in very poor condition, not safe to be on but they don’t really fully understand this. So, step in and make sure they’ve got good equipment is the athlete eating a healthy diet. This is again very basic. It’s something that has to do with the athlete not only being healthy, but also being ready for to train. You don’t want your athlete out in a long workout with inadequate carbohydrates or inadequate calories to get them through the session. So be very concerned with their diet also, has the hat athlete had any health issues find this out up front, when you start working with their athletes, is there anything that they’ve had happen in their life that has to do with their health, that you should know about. There are lots of things in this category could be cardiac problems, it could be lung problems, it could be hip replacements, it could be any sorts of things that they may have had happen, that you need to be aware of also, are they on any medications, have those medications been prescribed by a doctor? Are there any physical impairments of any sort, such as leg length, discrepancies, scoliosis, vision impairment, hearing problems, or anything else that may affect how they how they are able to interact with traffic, with other athletes with pedestrians, with all the stuff that goes into being an athlete. So, let’s be very cautious of making sure you’ve checked out the athlete in terms of their physical well-being and safety. A good coach is equally concerned with the mental well-being of their athletes as they are with the physical health of their athletes. This could be any kind of psychological stress. And there are lots of possibilities here. Your job is not to solve these problems, your job is to identify the problem, know how to deal with it from a training perspective. And if necessary to seek assistance in dealing with that particular problem. The good coach establishes boundaries around their personal lifestyle and family time while the athlete comes first and that’s the most important person in the combination. You don’t want to leave yourself out as somebody who is unimportant. Your time your family’s time is critical to your health and well-being also. So, make sure the athletes know there are times that you can be reached by telephone or, or others means but there are also times when you can’t be reached. A good coach shows respect for their athletes. This is critical that you respect the athlete as much as they respect you and athletes almost always have great respect for their coach, they look up to you as somebody that they hold very high regard, you’ve got to do the same thing for them. Part of that is that you accept the idea that the athlete is exceptional in some way that they are really there’s something about the athlete is really unique. Your job is to identify with that, that exceptional talent is to nurture it and amplify it so as to improve them in their quest to become a better athlete. That always starts with you showing respect for the athlete. Along the same line, treat the athlete as a person, not as an object. You’re not there to manipulate somebody, you’re not there to boss people around. You’re there to work with the athlete to help them become a better person and a better a better athlete.


Joe Friel  04:26

Help your athlete grow in life

A good coach helps the athlete grow and succeed in sport, but also in life and this is well, helping them become better people is secondary to your job is nonetheless important. Your purpose in being there with the athlete as a coach is to help them become a better athlete, but by the time they get done, they should realize they’ve also become better people. That is when you have really done a great job of coaching. If you do that the world becomes a slightly better place. If we all do that, we can make the world a much better place. A good coach keeps training simple and focused on the basics. Sometimes I’m afraid what we do as coaches is we want to experiment, try things that seem unique to us in some way or that we want to try out to see how it works. Probably not a good idea of your clients better to do this with yourself. If you want to try something out, just do it you for your your own journey, not for their training. If you find something that begins to work for you, you may be able to incorporate it in some way into the athletes training. But be very cautious with doing that. Keep on moving up the scale of challenges the athlete is facing, until you finally reach the ultimate goal, which is the athletes’ event that they’re turning for. Drive these fundamentals home for them by repeating and rehearsing them all the time with your athlete. Don’t forget about them. Keep them uppermost in the athlete’s mind, in your mind that these are the most basic things I’m working on for this athlete. And I want to see progress there. Don’t assume they understand just because you told them. A good coach keeps things simple. Now, this really is a this is an interesting one. Because I feel when you’re working with an athlete, and you’re trying to keep it simple the starting place is communication is how do you talk with the athlete, I would suggest what you should always be doing when you talk to your athlete is choosing words that are simple. They’re familiar to the athlete, they’re not words that are unusual. This, this includes things like scientific terms, most of our athletes are not scientists, very few are scientists, when you come to understand what the what level the athlete is at in terms of understanding these terms, then you can begin to open up and talk about things in a in perhaps a deeper manner than what you were doing originally. But always assume at the very start that your athlete does not understand some of the scientific jargon that that you’re used to doing. The idea is we’re moving toward a goal in a very simple manner all the time not trying to make it complicated, or overly complex. A good coach never stops learning. This is critical to your success as a coach throughout your life. And we all know you can never know everything. But it’s okay to keep to strive to do that, anyway, just try to learn as much as you possibly can. In areas of the sport that you feel like you’re you’re weakened; people are going to ask you questions. When they ask you questions, and you don’t know the answer. Don’t make something up, say I don’t know. And that’s okay. Because experts always know when they don’t know, people who don’t know, assume they know anyway, and make something up. That’s going to get you in trouble. Stay away from making things up. Just be honest with your athlete, which you may say is I don’t know, but I’ll check and find out, let you know. So, you’ll go back and do some research or whatever it takes to answer their question. But don’t make up something on the spot that will always come back to bite you. A good coach knows that competition is with and within. This is a little bit of a different way of thinking about competition. We can take the word compete; it comes from the Latin for to strive together. That’s what the word compete is based upon, to strive together together means the athlete and the athlete’s competition are striving together. They’re not trying to beat one another necessarily. They’re just striving together striving to be the best person they can be not necessarily the person who wins the race. But the best athlete the best performance they can have on that particular day is what they’re striving to achieve. That’s what you want your athlete to be always thinking in terms of the competition is not the enemy it’s because of these people, that the athlete becomes as good as they become if it wasn’t for the competition, the athlete would never achieve at a high level of performance. So, let’s treat the athletes the competitors as though they’re a part of your high performance. They’re inspiring the athlete’s performance. So, strive together with your athletes to to do this to achieve at a very high level and help focus their attention on then being persistent, patient and dedicated internal sort of feelings as opposed to external feelings of hate or disregard for other people.


Joe Friel  09:11

Establish healthy working relationships

A good coach establishes a healthy working relationship with the athlete and because of that, you talk with one another in a way that is the way friends talk with each other. You have a strong relationship, you enjoy your conversations you you have mutual respect, and you confide in each other. And you’re also honest with your athletes when things aren’t going well. If the athlete is having some sort of a setback in their training and you perceive this to be happening, what you need to do is be honest with the athlete and say this is what I see happening. Don’t hide it, you know, bring it out in the open and talk about it because it may be something that has a lot to do with how the athlete is going to do down the road. So be honest with your athlete the same way as you’d like them to be honest with you. Your personal integrity is very important. A good coach listens and doesn’t talk a whole lot when talking with our athlete. So, you want to go into these conversations, with your athlete with questions that will allow you to dig deeper into how their training is going. Listen to what they have to say. And by listening, you’re always trying to understand, don’t listen with the idea in your mind that you’re trying to come to the conclusion of what are you going to say next? That’s not the point listening is understanding what is happening with your athlete right now in terms of their training, their life, their nutrition, all this stuff. You’re trying to determine this every time you have a conversation with your athlete. So, ask the right questions. And then listen to what the athlete has to say. A good coach knows his or her own weaknesses and is always working to improve them. evaluate yourself, decide where you are and where your strengths and weaknesses are. And then try to improve those weaknesses. Ask the athlete for feedback after a race an important race, especially but after a race or at the end of the season, ask the athlete what they think, How did it go? Is there anything they would have changed in the preparation for that event? Is there anything they would have changed about their season, ask for feedback and accept it. Don’t argue about the point accept what the athlete has to say. They’re telling you something which is critical for your growth as a coach in all you’d have to do is ask for examples. Don’t say that I disagree with you on that. Because you know this is XYZ. Thing is when somebody coach says to you or an athlete says to you, I think we should have done such and such what you should say is why? Or ask for examples. Give me an example of why you think that, so you begin to get feedback from the athletes don’t challenge it. You don’t take the athlete as doing something to try to reduce your level of coaching. All the athlete is trying to do is answer your question you asked for feedback and the athletes giving you feedback. That’s exactly what you’re what you’re looking for, except the feedback, then once this conversation is over, give it some thought. Is there something here the athlete said that could help me become a better coach, listen, take advice. And then if you decide the advice is warranted, then begin to do things that will make you a better coach. Never stop growing.


Joe Friel  12:25

Be honest and learn from mistakes

A good coach doesn’t make excuses. You’re honest about your achievements, about your failures, we all make mistakes. That’s common. That’s just part of life. Don’t take this as being something that’s shows a fault of yours. But do look at how I could have done a better how could I have done whatever it was, in a better way. The best coaches I’ve ever known has always been people who learned and who grew because of that learning. A steady flow of feedback from the athlete is the key to not only the athlete success, but also your success as a coach. Your job is to prepare the athlete that includes such things as developing a training plan for the athlete, which is fairly common thing for coaches to be doing. You have to become persistent and dedicated to the implementation of that plan, as again, as documented by the athlete. So, the athlete is aware of what’s going on throughout the process. Also, there’s an ongoing frequent evaluation of progress throughout the season. So, you’re always checking to see how’s the athlete progressing toward the goal, you’re always making plan adjustments, the plan is never complete. It’s always a living object. It’s always being revised; it’s always being updated. You’re always involving the client and those decisions to revise and update. And then you’re repeating the process all this repeats over and over again throughout the season. It’s a continuing circle, it never stops. It’s the sort of thing that is really critical to your being a good coach is making sure that you involve the athlete the process, and you’re always evaluating how they are doing relative to your plan and what their goals may be.


Joe Friel  14:05

Teach Athlete to self-coach

Actually, your long-term goal is for the athlete to learn how to successfully self-coach. Now I understand that may sound like it’s counterproductive to your coaching business. But there’s really nothing that’s more important to an athlete, that understanding what’s going on. And what you’re always striving to do is to teach them to understand why you’re doing these things. There not just things that are happening randomly that come off the top of your head. There’s a reason why you’re doing what you’re having the athlete do that is teaching the athlete to be a self-coach. Teach them to understand the process of training. While that may sound like it’s counterproductive to your business, it really isn’t. What you’ll find is by doing this, that athletes really hold you in high regard. They treat you as somebody that really is knowledgeable and is sharing their knowledge with them. And athletes like that. They like to be a part of the process. They don’t want to be just somebody who receives workouts and has no idea why, you’re always teaching them why you did it? Why are we doing these workouts? So that question doesn’t linger in their minds. This is the sort of thing that makes you a coach that is respected that makes you a coach which is held in high regard. And your clients will go out and tell other people and your coaching business will grow.