Do Top Athletes Make Top Coaches?—with Melanie McQuaid

Former XTERRA world champion and coach Melanie McQuaid talks with us about the pros and cons of top athletes becoming coaches.

Melanie McQuaid Fast Talk podcast
Photo courtesy Paul Higgins @higgybabyphotography

Whether you’re a coach, a performer near the end of their career thinking of becoming a coach, or an athlete trying to find a good coach, there’s an important question that you need to consider. How important is it for a coach to have performed at a high level before becoming a coach?  

There are obvious benefits, of course—the athlete-turned-coach has learned what works and has likely been exposed to other top coaches. But there are also concerns. Can an Olympian really understand what it’s like for a Masters rider with a family and full-time job? Attempting to train that amateur athlete the way they trained themselves is unlikely to be successful or enjoyable for the average weekend warrior.  

Joining our hosts today is Melanie McQuaid, a former XTERRA world champion who’s been racing for 20+ years and coaching athletes of all ages and abilities across a number of endurance sports. She talks about how to balance coaching and racing, the importance of building a good relationship with your coach, the steps she took to become a coach, and simply how to be a good coach.  

So, put on your coaching cap—with your race gear, and let’s make you fast! 

RELATED: Julie Dibens’ Top Tips for Getting Started in Coaching

Episode Transcript

Rob Pickels  00:05

Hello, and welcome to Fast Talk, your source for the science of endurance performance. I’m your host Rob Pickels here with Coach Connor. How important is it for a coach to have performed at a high level as an athlete? This question crosses the minds of athletes looking for a coach or thinking about becoming a coach themselves.  Today, we talk with world champion athlete and coach, Melanie McQuaid. She shares benefits such as learning directly from top coaches, but also describes how a dedicated, full-time professional athlete has to change their thinking to understand the coaching needs of a master’s athlete. She talks about how to be a good coach, as well as balancing coaching and racing, and the importance of building a good relationship with your coach. Today’s episode is going to be a good one. So, put on your coaching cap onto your racing helmet, and let’s make you fast.


Trevor Connor  00:58

In our latest Craft of Coaching module 10, we’re turning our attention to the coaches who are bringing up the next generation of elites and enthusiast and endurance sports. Coaching juniors is wildly different from coaching adults and all too often shortcuts and inexperience cause young athletes to burnout or quit the sport. Check out the Craft of Coaching at Well now, welcome back to the show. Always a real pleasure having you with us. And you are joining us, I’m saying this with a whole lot of jealousy. You are joining us from Hawaii today.


Melanie McQuaid  01:30

Yeah, I’m in Kailua on the island of Oahu. And it’s just a little slice of paradise. And I’m excited to join you. I love your guys’s podcast and it’s really exciting for me to be here today.


Rob Pickels  01:43

Trevor, I don’t know you’re talking about it was a solid 50 degrees here in Boulder today. And I broke out at the three quarter length tights today, Trevor when I was riding. So, it’s a heat wave. Who needs Hawaii?


Melanie McQuaid  01:56

Well, to be fair, it’s a little bit rainy this time of year in Hawaii. So the weather’s a little juicy. Let’s put it that way.


Trevor Connor  02:03

So rainy and 80 degrees or what temperature?


Melanie McQuaid  02:05

Yeah, it’s funny. I was having a conversation whining about the weather with Brent McMahon this morning. And he’s like, “You know, 80 degrees in pouring rain in Hawaii is a heck of a lot better than eight degrees and pouring rain in Victoria.” So I should count my blessings here.


Trevor Connor  02:22

So Rob, what are we talking about today?


Rob Pickels  02:24

I don’t know. I think we’re just talking about Hawaii and it being great. No. Let’s see, we have Melanie McQuaid. Melanie, you are an accomplished athlete, you’re an accomplished coach. How the heck do you get there? How do you combine the two?

Former Athlete to Coach

Trevor Connor  02:36

Yeah, so I think this is a really good subject to talk about. And I don’t think we could have a better guest for this because there are a lot of coaches who start as athletes. And you hear both sides of it. There are some people say, “Well, that’s really bad, because they then they just end up coaching athletes, the way they learn to train,” which might not be best for their athletes. But I’ve heard a lot of coaches who didn’t have the background and felt like they’re at a disadvantage. I’ll hear them say, “I don’t feel like I’m as good as the other coaches because I didn’t have that high level experience.” So you can hear the negatives and the positives on both sides. But I will say, it can be a real challenge for athletes and coaches to balance both. And to also make that transition from athlete to coach and Melanie, you’re somebody who, you’re a world champion. So needless to say, you’re a very high-level athlete. But you’ve also been a very successful coach. And I couldn’t think of somebody better to talk about how to balance these two and how to make that transition.


Melanie McQuaid  03:35

Well, I really appreciate that. Those are some really kind words about, what I think is always a work in progress, for sure. And I think right off the bat, if you look at the evidence, there are really amazing, excellent coaches that have no athletic history. So, right off the start, there’s no requirement that you actually have to do something in order to be an effective coach at it. And I don’t think anyone would dispute that argument that it’s very possible to be a great coach and not have been a great athlete. I think sometimes, those two things get conflated when an athlete becomes the coach, but that potentially isn’t as good an athlete that sometimes people can think, “Well, that person wasn’t very good so then how could they be a great coach?” But then that reverse argument doesn’t hold water? I don’t believe that people that have an athletic history, if they weren’t good, or very good that they can then become great coaches. And I think sometimes there is definitely that sort of weird bias that the reverse is a thing. Like does that make sense what I’m describing?


Rob Pickels  04:46

Yeah, I certainly think so. And I think that you’re right that there is bias out there, especially among athletes where coaches have an automatic credibility sometimes, based on their own accolades as an athlete. And that very well could be true, they might be a 100% worthwhile coach, or they might not be. Their athletic career doesn’t necessarily tell you anything. But at the same time having that experience, it certainly lends an interesting insight into, say, the mind of an athlete, the process of training, and that can be really valuable too. So, I very much see athletic career as one of the many things that plays into being a great coach.


Trevor Connor  05:29

Yeah, and something else that is really important to mention here that I should have said right at the outset is we’re not just talking to coaches here. And not just talking to athletes who want to become coaches here. We’re also talking to athletes who are looking to work with a coach because that’s going to be part of your decision process. Do they have experience? Were they a high-level athlete? Were they not an athlete? And that’s going to affect the sort of coaches you pick? And it’s also going to affect how you interact with that coach. So, I think this is a really important question for everybody.


Melanie McQuaid  05:57

Yeah, and I think the third subset is sort of who I defaulted to talking to, I was talking more to athletes that are looking to hire a coach. I think back to Rob’s point, coaching is teaching based on experience. And I think there’s a lot more parallels between coaches and teachers than most people recognize, like, a lot of the, the soft and hard skills of being a teacher are exactly what are required of a coach. And then for athletes, they’re looking for somebody to guide them based on what their goals are. And so it’s important for a coach to be experienced in the specific requirements of what that goal is. So if you have a beginner triathlete, then a coach that has experience with preparing an athlete to basically exercise, you’re a beginner, if there’s there’s not like a huge demand in terms of specifics with that, because the beginner just needs to get started. But if you have an athlete that’s like planning to go to the Olympics, there are so many factors outside of even just the athletic preparation for that athlete to be their best that are specific and special about the Olympic experience. So having a coach that has some of that in their quiver of experience is important. And not just from like an athlete having gone to the Olympics, because sometimes they’re unaware of what those specifics are, because they didn’t have to manage any of them. Their coach did at all, I certainly like, there are experiences that are gained from being an athlete, but there are also interesting, different, and important experiences in being a coach that worked with an athlete to get to and perform at that level. And I think that is like the whole package of a high performance coach. And that high performance coach didn’t get there without going through all the stages of learning from athletes that maybe weren’t at that level yet.


Rob Pickels  08:02

Yeah, I think to put this simply, to take your coach and education parallel right, somebody can graduate college with a PhD in history, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can go and teach fourth grade history because there’s a lot of other things that you really need to know there. And just a straight knowledge of history or a straight knowledge of physiology doesn’t necessarily get you there. But as you gain that specific knowledge, right, Melanie, as you were saying, based on the Olympics, you can do that as an athlete or a coach, but also in how the heck do you teach a fourth grader, right? That’s the transition of the knowledge that maybe you learned in a book and you make it applicable to the people that you’re working with directly.


Trevor Connor  08:39

Both of you bring up a really good point. I mean, you stick with that analogy at the highest level with an Olympic athlete. When somebody’s that athlete, they’re just focused on their training. They’re just trying to execute their training plan. They’ve got usually resources of coaches and physiologists and people that are helping them out. But it’s mostly just so they can do what they need to do to hit the highest level. The coach is one that has to be figuring out, how do I poke and prod this person? How do I motivate them? How do I make sure they’re training the way they should be training? How do I make sure they’re not overtraining? Conversely, how do I make sure that on a rainy crappy day, they’re going out and doing what they need to be doing? And those are often some of the important skill sets of a coach that you’re not even thinking about when you’re the athlete. They’re just kind of being executed on you.


Melanie McQuaid  09:27

Yeah, and I think the fourth grader is a really good, analogy where, yeah you can know everything in the world, but if you can’t get somebody to listen to you, then you’re not going to teach them anything. So, in teaching a fourth grader, that is part of the skill set. How do you get their attention? How do you hold their attention? How do you make them want to listen to you because most of the time, like if they don’t want to, it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s it’s not going to happen. And that, in a nutshell, is essentially what being a coach is. One is like developing a relationship and buy in with an athlete so that they actually believe that you can help them. But that’s a huge mountain that is important, right? Because that trust in buy in is pretty much everything in coaching. And then we go back to the athlete that maybe, they just executed training the whole time and they didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about what or why, right? So they weren’t analyzing their own performance they were basically just performing. Then you get, what I see very often with beginner or age group coaches, which is, this is what we do, right? So like, these are the workouts that I did and they made me successful, so these are the workouts that you’re going to do. And so it’s that beginning stage of coaching of what. This is what you do. And really excellent coaches, it doesn’t really matter what you do, it’s why. Like, what are we trying to achieve, not what exactly are we doing? And that, I think that’s really what separates really good coaches, from beginner coaches is beginner coaches are just throwing, they’re basically throwing workouts in a plan and just trying to see what’s gonna happen. And really great coaches are like, this is what I want to happen. And this is how I think I’m going to effect that change. And that’s a real difference that sometimes athletes that haven’t spent a lot of time figuring out why something works for them, they may not have the benefit of that experience to then apply to somebody else. But an athlete who has spent a long time, you know, ruminating on what has worked and why it works for them, and what it is about them that requires that, that’s the learning stage of coaching. Understanding, like cause and effect. This is the end result I’m looking for and how am I going to get there? And those athletes can become good coaches, because that’s really what coaching is.

Benefits of a Coach Being a High-Level Athlete

Trevor Connor  11:51

So let’s talk a little bit about the the pros and cons. Melanie, what do you feel are the benefits of a coach having been a high level athlete first?


Melanie McQuaid  12:02

Yeah, so I think the number one thing about being a high performance athlete, is you’re probably going to end up spending some time with high performance coaches. And so, that I think that the best way for coaches to get better is to be mentored by really great coaches. And that for somebody who wasn’t a high performance athlete, it’s expensive, time consuming, and sometimes impossible to get access to really great coaches, there are options. I’m doing it now, both as an athlete and a coach. So there are options to get that mentorship, but you have to pay for it, you have to seek it out. Whereas high performance athletes, they end up just I mean Bureau high performance athlete, it’s a wonderful life, right? Like you basically have the opportunity to work with some of the most incredible coaching minds ever. Not always, but sometimes. And that exposure very often models really great coaching behavior. And I think that’s a massive asset. So, looking at who an athlete worked with, is probably a good indicator on on what their knowledge and expertise in coaching might become. So I think that’s number one.


Trevor Connor  13:12

So it’s not so much that they bring the experience of having trained at a high level, I’m sure there’s a benefit to that. But it’s more they can, when they’re working with athletes, they can say, “Hey, I was at a really good high performance center and here’s the way we did things.” And they can bring that.


Melanie McQuaid  13:27

Yeah, because I think you can’t underestimate that high performance athletes are often unicorns, like, they’re gonna be friggin good no matter what. So it’s like, just the fact that they were good doesn’t necessarily mean anything. I think because they probably would have been good, no matter who the coach was. We’ve seen this a million times, like athletes are good under a variety of different coaches, or they were awesome with one coach, and then they were just more awesome with another and you know, like talent kind of just rises. So sometimes, when you have a talent that, great your job is not to screw them up. You’re not developing anything, you just have this super talented person that’s going to be super talented. And I think that is something that very often elite athletes underestimate when they go to coach other people, is they just sort of can overlook, like how talented they are, and how this is not accessible by like some, you know, people who aren’t as talented. So that’s where I think like, their ability to be mentored by good coaches helps them to realize what the important things are, because otherwise they might not recognize what those important things are.


Rob Pickels  14:35

Yeah, I think it’s really interesting that you went to they’re exposed to smart people, essentially as your first. That’s totally out of left field for me, but it’s probably completely spot on, right? I know that I feel that way about my career. I feel really fortunate that I worked underneath Dr. Inigo San Millan, Neil Henderson. And I credit when I talk about my success, it’s oftentimes because of these people that I was mentored under. So Melanie, that’s really interesting that you’re saying essentially, the corollary for a high performance athlete that they were able to be mentored. It’s not necessarily about what they did. It’s not about that specific workout that they did. But they were exposed to those minds day in and day out for years, you’re going to learn something.


Trevor Connor  15:22

I actually have an analogy to this that’s coming to mind. When I was setting up these businesses, I talked to several very successful business people to get their thoughts on setting up a business. And something that really stood out to me was one of them saying, “Look, your job setting up a business is not to have all the best ideas.” He’s like, “I look back at my career.” And this was a very successful business person who said, “I look back at my career, and I’m not sure I ever had a single good idea. My job was to be exposed to the right ideas, whether it’s from my team, or mentors, or whatever. I didn’t have to come up with it, I just had to recognize it when I saw it.” And I think that’s part of what we’re talking about here is, if coaches have exposure to really good coaches, they don’t have to be brilliant. They don’t have to have all the ideas, they just have to recognize, hey, that’s great coaching and apply it themselves.


Melanie McQuaid  16:13

Yeah. And I think there was other factors that we had talked about before, in terms of, you know, being in a good culture. What does that look like? What does that feel like? And that’s something as a coach you, like, you can’t set the vibe in a squad or in a group, it’s up to the athletes, but you can help to steer them in the right direction, so that they choose what their culture and their environment is. And then, in as much as humans are all the same animal, each person is going to be somewhat unique. So even if you’re trying to affect the same change, at the end, there may be a variety of different approaches to doing that with different people. And so sometimes when you’re an elite athlete, and you’re in a high performance squad, you know, everybody’s in this block, where everyone’s trying to work on whatever, you know? Just their aerobic capacity and early season. And if you’re good enough, and you’re in a good enough squad, you’re gonna see, hey, like I did, like two thirds of the volume of this other person, but then we both arrived and we’re both at our best fitness here. Like, you start to see that it’s okay to have individual differences, there’s more than one road to get to wherever you need to go. And you can be confident with that and understand, you know, like, there’s going to be a lot of right answers to solving this equation. And I think that it’s easier to see that when you’re a high performance athlete in a high performance group, and everybody is is good, and has big goals, but their approaches are all very different. Whereas, if you aren’t in that environment, and you’re not exposed to athletes at that level, and the, you know, in the various ways that they get to amortize that level, you might think, “Okay, well, this is the one program that works,” right? That this is what works, this is what so and so did and so therefore, this is what you have to do. You know, I think a perfect example is everyone’s going to like bananas, over the no region method, right? That’s not reproducible for like, almost 100% of the population right now. That’s like people even trying to apply that to themselves is ridiculous. Like look at even Lionel Sanders trying to apply that to himself and he just died, right? That is crazy to even think that this is the answer for you to be at that level. And yet, so many people and coaches don’t understand that.


Trevor Connor  18:34

I’m trying to remember who it was, but this was a couple years ago. There was a cyclist who was putting his training plan up on social media. And he got asked, “Why are you doing that? You’re giving all your secrets away?” And his response was, “No I’m not. Good luck trying to execute my plan.” And it’s exactly what you’re talking about.


Melanie McQuaid  18:49

Yeah, exactly. If it was a magical formula, why would they share it?

Benefits of a Coach Who Wasn’t a Former High-Level Athlete

Trevor Connor  18:54

Yep. So, let’s flip this question around and ask kind of almost a more interesting question. What are the advantages to a coach who wasn’t a high-level athlete before becoming a coach.


Melanie McQuaid  19:09

Who wants to go first?


Trevor Connor  19:11

I have one thought on this. And my feeling is potentially a better ability to empathize. Because as you pointed out, sometimes that person who is the high-level athlete beforehand, they get very locked in one mindset that might work for somebody who’s very much like them. But when they’re working with an athlete who is very different from them, they might have a harder time understanding that person. Where a coach who comes in without that bias might have a better ability to interact with a whole variety of different people and understand their perspective, understand where they’re coming from, and adapt more to what they need.


Melanie McQuaid  19:50

Yeah. Piggybacking on what you just said, just what I was saying about the unicorns and the high performance athletes, there’s stuff that they never trained to be able to do that they just were born with. These amazing qualities that no coach has ever coached into them, and they just have them. And so they’re just going to think that “Oh, well, everybody’s just born with this,” right? But no, most people are not born with it. So you actually have to coach that into people. And so it’s really easy when you’re a high performance athlete to overlook a bunch of steps. And I’ll be honest, like I had an athlete who was just so great for my development as a coach because he pointed out ways in which he’d be like, there’s things and I think that it was like things related to mountain biking in particular that he was pointing out to me, I think. But he was like, “You forgotten a bunch of stuff, like that you just automatically know, that some of us have no idea. Like, it would be good for you to be able to break this down even further than you think because you’re underestimating or overestimating what we know.” And so I thought that was a really insightful conversation I had with him that even though I thought I was getting really good at coaching beginners to come up, I was still overlooking things because I take them for granted. Because I’ve been riding a bike for 30 years, right? It seems like, you’ve forgotten a bunch of stuff that’s important. And I think that’s a really astute observation that he made for me. And you wouldn’t have that problem if you were a coach who was looking at somebody and think, okay, this is my system of developing qualities in an athlete. And you’re not going to overlook a step because you start at the bottom and you basically build up. This is my system of developing this athlete, and you do what you do, because you’ve learned over time what’s really effective in, you know, building the athlete that you want to see. And so there are a lot more details in terms of looking from an outside perspective in. Whereas, sometimes an elite athlete can be coming from an inside out sort of approach that misses details, for sure.


Rob Pickels  21:58

Yeah, Trevor, you asked that question in a very interesting manner. And I’m glad that you did, because it forced me to reframe how I was thinking about the question, right? Not like, what are the disadvantages of being a coach after a high performance athlete? But what are the benefits of never having been a high performance athlete? And for me, something that springs to mind is, well, man, how does that coach then get their knowledge? And if they weren’t an athlete before, then their knowledge probably comes from more just straight education, more straight observation, and they have to learn and build their foundation of knowledge that they can then apply to athletes. But to use a term that you had, it feels like it would have less bias in it. That they might be able to look at the bigger, broader picture a little bit more easily, and then apply knowledge. And granted, I do think that they might need to have some sports specific knowledge to be able to do this. But they might be able to apply that foundation in a more objective manner than otherwise if they started as the athlete first.


Melanie McQuaid  23:03

One thing that I thought was interesting is one of the mentorships I did when I was trying to figure out what demographic I wanted to spend time coaching was I was in a more junior group. And just the bias that I have of my development, having, you know, developed in the stone age compared to these kids versus what their reality is now, there’s a massive generational gap there at the moment. And I’m sure that no matter what generation it’s going to be, the reality is different, you know, for kids growing up. And in particular, just the the autonomy of young adults is a lot different than the autonomy that I had when I was their age. So if I was trying, if I wasn’t, like already a coach learning to be more observational about this stuff, and understanding who I’m coaching, and I was more an athlete, basically, who’s going to start coaching, go okay, well, this is how we trained and did things when I was, you know, 18-19, like learning how to ride bikes. If you try to apply that now to this generation, it’s not going to fly because their whole reality is way different. I find that the generation coming up is almost a little bit younger and a little bit more insulated than we were back then. So there’s, there’s just a little bit more coaching that’s required to allow them to perform the way we did when we were that young. And that’s a pretty major thing that being an athlete, trying to like reverse engineer your experience to this other generation, it’s going to be really difficult. So I think a coach who has just been coaching is going to constantly be observing this change in generations, and the reality of these personalities, and these experiences, and their experience and will be much better at communicating with that athlete because they’re aware of it. I mean, for me, having been immersed with that group, I started to see it on a daily basis. And that was, like, amazingly powerful for me both as an athlete and a coach to see what was happening. And I mean, at the end of the day, it comes down to experience in both ends and not as an experience that a coach would have, that an athlete coming out of high performance, who, like, they just wouldn’t have that.


Trevor Connor  25:27

You raise a really good point.


Melanie McQuaid  25:28

Well, and even just think about, like, I remember the first time I flew to Europe, with the national team to race mountain bikes, we went to Europe, like you might have one, or even Australia, both of those places, like you’d have one phone card, you know, to phone home, maybe once the entire trip. There was like no Internet, email there. Like maybe the plug that phone cord in, really spotty internet. So you go away, and you were young, and you would be awake. Like your whole connection to your world was the coach and the other athletes in that athlete group and you race mountain bikes, and you were focused on that. Like home was so far away, you’d maybe talk to your parents once, if you crashed your mountain bike. Like it was just like, you were on your own. Whereas now, it’s like this constant connection. And it’d be a really sort of awkward and difficult thing to be in that on your own sort of feeling. I don’t think any of us really have that any of the time unless we’re flying in a plane that doesn’t have Internet, right? So it’s understanding that that autonomy, and that, okay being on your own feeling, is something that is, you know, nurtured by experience. And sometimes when there is none of that experience, that feeling when an athlete goes off to a race or like it can create anxiety for them to like, just, you know, be in a different place or not be comfortable. And I think that that is something that you learn about athletes, and is part of the communication and relating to an athlete that not all coaches have. But absolutely I think coaches require.

Coaching and Competing Simultaneously

Trevor Connor  27:13

So let’s shift gears, let’s talk a little bit about how to make all this work. So Mel, you are somebody who was both coaching and well, I shouldn’t say was, still are coaching and competing at a very high-level. Tell us about some of the challenges you had trying to balance those two things?


Melanie McQuaid  27:33

Well, I think that I think the biggest thing is time, right? Just understanding how much time you have to do what you are going to feel good about. So like, I coach a small group so that I can do a really good job with the athletes that I work with. And then at the same time, I don’t generally have the same bloodthirsty commitment to my own career that I had before. So it’s easy for me to make time for things related to my coaching. Because this year like yeah, I’m racing for another season. I didn’t grow my group at all, I kept it quite small. But I also took on a mentorship again, with Altis so that I could continue this coach education. So that when I do decide, I’m going to be just a coach, I can hit the ground and feel really confident that I’m very well prepared for whatever level I have an opportunity to coach at that point. Because that’s one thing like I didn’t get to go the Olympics. On one hand, I thought that I would like to work with the Olympic athletes. And maybe someday that opportunity might come to me that if we go back to one of our original points, it’s difficult as a female coach to get jobs in high performance sport if you weren’t actually an Olympian, which is, you know, it’s a fact. So I find that disappointing. But I mean, even if I wanted to work with professional athletes, right, I want to feel like I have a solid grasp of what I’m doing. But I think that understanding that you need X amount of time to do a good job with athletes is the biggest part of trying to to balance the two. And then also, I am working on what’s the best delivery of the coaching communication that I do, because I want to provide a coaching experience that’s as close to high performance as I can offer. But I have athletes that aren’t high performance, right? So camps, video analysis, communication, all that. How do you do that stuff when athletes are remote? And that’s a big part of me learning how I can make my coaching delivery as effective as possible.


Rob Pickels  29:38

Now, Melanie, correct me if I’m wrong, you started your career off road as a mountain biker? Correct?


Melanie McQuaid  29:41

Yep. Yep.


Rob Pickels  29:41

And then you moved into XTERRA and then I’ll say regular triathlon, is that right?


Melanie McQuaid  29:52

Well, so I did, I was with the national team for mountain biking for about seven years. And in that time, we did a lot of road racing because mountain bike races used to be longer. And we were under a coach that really believed in having a road base in order to be strong mountain bikers. So I basically raced on the road as well, doing a bunch of big stage races while I was a mountain biker. And then I didn’t make the Olympics. And so I switched over to road, and actually had a road contract for a year and went to the road world championships. So I did one year kind of as a roadie, and then I switched to XTERRA for, I don’t know, 9-10 years, and then I switched to Ironman.


Rob Pickels  30:28

Gotcha. So this is ultimately where my question is going because you brought up knowing your time, knowing how to manage your time is really important as an athlete who is still competing and also coaching. Now, with people that you’re coaching and in your experience, have you continued coaching people whom have the same disciplines that you know and you’re knowledgeable about? Has that shaped who your group is? Like do you only work with say, triathletes or only people who are mountain bikers? Or are you coaching a breadth of people? And does that not play into this economy efficiency of time?


Melanie McQuaid  31:03

It’s hard to say. On one hand, I work with cyclists that are prioritizing Gran Fondos. And so, yeah, Gran Fondo is kind of like a one day road race, but this person and their experience with that race is a lot different than what I have done. And then I have some people that are targeting gravel and mountain bike racing. And gravel is a little different. I have actually finally done a gravel race. Obviously, mountain bike racing is not, it’s something that’s in my wheelhouse. But I also coach people that don’t race. And so their whole thing is just high-level, train for a rad life where they want to have a high performance body that ages well, you know? And so that is an entirely different ask from an athlete that is wanting to go to Kona, because that’s what, I mean, that’s the tagline of my business is train for a rad life. And that’s a really unique and individual proposition. So I certainly I don’t have a system that I like plop into a program for this group of people because they couldn’t be more different. I have one woman who is training for a marathon right now. I personally have never run a standalone marathon, but I feel really confident that I can coach a marathoner. Maybe not an Olympic marathoner.


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Setting Up a Coaching Business

Trevor Connor  33:27

Melanie, here’s a question that I was really excited to ask you. Because you have set up a very successful coaching business. What advice do you have? I mean, this will apply to anybody setting up a coaching business, but particularly for athletes who are trying to set up a business, who might understand the training side really well, but don’t understand the business side really well. What advice do you have for setting up your business?


Melanie McQuaid  33:51

Oh man. I think the business side I’m not that strong. I didn’t go into coaching to build a business. And in fact, I don’t like any of the business part. I actually had a really great conversation with another coach I admire and he was describing to me what the options are as a coach. Like you have an option to work for a federation and then you’re like the national team coach or whatever. You can be the CEO of a conglomerate like Matt Dixon, you know, he’s like the massive Purple Patch. You can you know, be a smaller version of Purple Patch. So you have like your coach who hires a bunch of other coaches to like bring more athletes into your business. And that model, depending on the number of other coaches really like determines how much of your coaching life is actually business life and managing these other people. And then you can be more like what I am and that is like you’re a privateer. Like you are a coach that your primary, you don’t have to manage any other people, you just have to try and you know manage your own small little thing. And that is what works for me because it’s the coaching that I enjoy and the interaction with different people and working one on one with people. I’m not in this to make a whole bunch of money, right? So I think that it depends what your coaching motivation is. Is this what you want to do for a career and then is what you want to do for a career going to only be valuable to you, if you’re making lots of money from it? And probably the model that I’m going for is not the model for you. Because you know, you’re going to have a limited bandwidth when you’re the only person that can apply services, and you only have so much time. So again, every time we talk about this, it’s going to come back to time. And since I am like approaching 50 now, I’m realizing how valuable time is. And I don’t want to spend a minute of my time doing things I don’t like. The reality is I have to do some things that I don’t like, but building out a big business that requires a whole bunch of business responsibilities is not for me. So for I think that the first thing you have to do as a coach is understand what your motivation is for coaching. Is it to make money or is it to coach people? And be honest with yourself, because some people are using coaching as a way to build a business because they want to run a business. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s a lot different than wanting to be a coach.


Rob Pickels  36:16

So Melanie, in your situation, you were an athlete. You were interested in the interaction with people sharing your knowledge, helping coach and grow better, what was the first step that you took as an athlete who had not ever coached anybody before? Did you start giving advice to friends? How did you become a quote-on-quote, coach? What was your first step?


Melanie McQuaid  36:37

Yeah so, there was a clarity for me really early on, like, the first time I started coaching was about 2005. And I met a woman who was just this amazingly talented, fast mom who lived in Colorado, and I just wanted to help her be even faster. I wanted to help her like climb the ranks and be like a great athlete in the XTERRA scene. And so I did everything I could to try and, you know, help her improve like, share as much as I could. And so I coached her and her husband, and I think they were two of the, she was definitely the first mommy coach and she’s the first one that I remember as one of the athletes that I’ve worked with. I think that my values in life have been evident to me the entire time and one of the main values is growth. So like learning about things. And my primary motivation for working with her was to learn how other people get better. And so the really interesting part of that is that she lived at really high-altitude. And unfortunately, I made a lot of mistakes early on with managing and like her loading, for living at that high-altitude. And I think we had a really good relationship where I learned a lot from her, she would just describe like, what she was feeling and what it was like. And I went and trained with her there to like, see what it felt like for me, and learned to compare it that way. So my early forays were just to learn about what it is to coach another person. And that just kind of built into working with more different people and working with cyclists, and it just grew from there. Ultimately, the reason that I’m in coaching is that I just find it just a fascinating way to learn about people. And I just really like learning. I really like education and learning. And so I think it’s just a lifelong curiosity about this particular subject.


Trevor Connor  38:31

That’s a great perspective. Now, when you were starting out as a coach, did being a well-known athlete and a high-level athlete, did that help you to find athletes? Or did you find that you had to struggle just like any other coach to define people to take the risk on you and hire you as a coach? When you were first starting out?


Melanie McQuaid  38:52

Oh, no, there’s there’s no question that there’s an advantage to having a profile as an athlete in building a coaching business. Because there is that, if she can do, then of course she can coach, right? So like, that can be a curse and, you know, an asset. And to be fair, I mean, that was one of the ways in which I thought it made sense to keep racing Ironman, because I’m still getting better. And so, not only am I learning how to train myself to perform well in this almost 50-year-old body, but it also, you know, I’m learning a lot about what it is to be training in the body, this old. Which is relatable to you know, I think the largest group of people that come to me for coaching like certainly, athletes over 40 are looking to me and my own results and are curious as to what the hell I’m doing. And so I think that definitely helps to drive people to what my coaching is. But that doesn’t mean that what works for me is going to work for them. But I do know that I understand what it is to train at this age. And so I think that, you know, experience of being this age is pretty valuable, particularly for women in finding what is going to work for them. So it’s absolutely, it’s like right now my own racing is my only marketing vehicle.

Building Athletes If You Aren’t a High-Level Athlete

Trevor Connor  40:18

So what about coaches who don’t have those palmeras, they haven’t been that recognized high-level athlete, who are just starting out in coaching themselves, and are trying to build their first athletes. And maybe you don’t have suggestions for this, but any thoughts on what those coaches can do to get their first few athletes and so that they don’t have some of the benefits you had?


Melanie McQuaid  40:42

Yeah, it’s funny because I actually got a direct message from somebody on Instagram, specifically asking that question. And I know that when I first started, like, I had a coaching business in 2005, where I primarily worked with mountain bikers and XTERRA athletes, and then I kind of let that go and decided to just be a pro athlete for a while. And then I decided to go back and said, “You know, I do actually really enjoy that and I’d like to rebuild my group.” And so I just went back to the same name, same thing and just restarted. And what I started with was a really tiny number of athletes, like maybe two. My whole mandate was that just if you do a really good job with people, and they really enjoy their experience with you, they’re going to tell people that. I think that’s the most powerful way you can build your business is by word of mouth. And it also gives you time to learn. Because number one, it’s really, it’s time consuming to get to know a person. It’s time consuming to gather the knowledge you need to solve more and more complex problems that you’re going to have with more and more different specimens, organisms. And so if you take things slow and don’t try to rush the size of your growth and do a really good job with the athletes that you’re working with, you’re going to have natural growth. And that will also create a culture and a group that builds itself. I think that’s another thing that I really appreciate about having built the middle road racing squad, is very often athletes know another athlete that come in, and so we kind of have a vibe. Like we have a group that has a really good rapport. And like I said, that just creates the culture. So if I can distill that into like, two words of advice are, one, start really small, and two, do a really friggin good job. And generally, you’re going to be successful. If you’re good at what you do it shows


Rob Pickels  42:39

Actually what Mel meant to say was that she referred this young coach to the Craft of Coaching with Joe Friel found exclusively on


Trevor Connor  42:50

That was the worst.


Rob Pickels  42:53

Dude, I slid that in there. Nobody even noticed.


Trevor Connor  42:55

Slid that in with an 18-wheeler.


Melanie McQuaid  42:59

It’s funny because Joe Friel, like when I long story, like if we start with how did I start coaching, my origin story as a coach was switching from cycling to triathlon, and finding myself in the national triathlon center with coaches that didn’t know my sport. And I think one of the fundamental principles of coaching is like specific adaptation to impose demand, right? Like understanding what the heck you’re trying to do. And they didn’t know, right, because they didn’t know anything about XTERRA. And so I spent a year in the National Center with like Simon Whitfield, who’s like the best triathlete in the world at that point and I just sucked, I was terrible. Like, I went to race XTERRAs and I just couldn’t have been slower than I ever was. And so I was like, “Okay, well this isn’t working so I better figure out how to train for triathlon.” So I bought Joe Friel’s book, and basically read it. I’m probably one of the only people that didn’t go straight to the workouts and just read the workouts like I read the book. And then I started coaching myself like pretty much immediately. Now does that mean that I didn’t constantly go and like, bother coaches like Cliff English, and Joel Filiol, and like all these coaches that are, you know, superstars in triathlon? Did I not waste a whole lot of their time trying to learn from them? No, I was absolutely up in their grill all the time. But it taught me that you have to have a coach that knows what they’re trying to do. And at that time, I was the only person who understood what was required for my sport because it was a new sport. And so that’s why I was like really successful coaching myself as I learned. And so I think if you’re a coach, that was the other thing, too, is that like, fast forward, a large number of years, I decided to take on Ironman and I wasn’t coaching full Ironman athletes until I started to feel like I understood what the said principle was for Ironman. And that is something that I think athletes that are trying to be higher performers in Ironman that are coached by athletes that don’t really understand what the specific demands of going fast and an Ironman are, are going to be at a disadvantage. Because even though I had maybe 20 years of coaching, I still didn’t really understand what is Ironman at the at the heart of it. And I took a good long time before I felt like I was a strong enough coach for that discipline to properly prepare athletes for it. So then going back to this brand new coach, who are you trying to coach? Do you know actually what is required of what that goal is? And if not, don’t get in over your head. Like make sure you are 100% sure that you know what you’re doing. Coaches do make mistakes sometimes, because very often you’re like, it’s a shot in the dark to see if this approach is going to work because you never know for sure if it’s going to work. So buying large, there’s going to be mistakes along the way. But if you have no idea what you’re trying to accomplish because you don’t understand what they’re doing, then you’re more likely to make a lot of mistakes. And I think it’s better not to do that.

Understanding Coaches Biases

Trevor Connor  46:04

So as we’re approaching the hour mark here, there was one last question that I really want to ask you Mel and it’s actually because you sent this question to us. As we were getting ready for this episode, you were pointing out, it’s really important for athletes to understand the biases of their coaches, and to manage those biases. And I would imagine is going to be very different for an athlete to manage a coach who was a high performing athlete themselves, versus a coach who wasn’t. So what are your thoughts for the athlete on both hiring a coach, and then working with that coach, knowing whether they’re they were a high level athlete and how that impacts how they should interact with that coach?


Melanie McQuaid  46:46

Yeah, so there’s three levels to this. Is one, understanding what your personal values are. So whether it’s as an athlete or a coach. So my personal values are growth and health, like, I want to be healthy, and I want to keep learning. And then my coaching philosophy is to build the most athletic athletes possible to create the best athletic journey that they can have, and that their sports experience will be with them for a lifetime. So they will always be training to some extent for either high performance or longevity, that’s what train for a rad life is. So then, it comes down into my training philosophy. And so that’s where my bias is really exposed. Because I feel like, athletes are athletes for life. I really push back against this, okay, you have this short window as a high performance athlete and you need to maximize it now because, you know, it’s not going to be forever. And certainly that’s colored by the fact that I coach, mostly endurance sport, which people can do for a relatively long time. If I were coaching an NFL player who’s basically going to spend half a season in the NFL, I think that they would not appreciate that bias at all, because no, it’s now or never literally, right? So I think, since that’s my bias, there are some athletes that want to push the envelope in terms of risking injury and setback, you know? Like I’m definitely a coach that is geared towards consistency, minimum effective dose, really good skill and mechanics, putting the foundation in place before you move forward. And some athletes don’t appreciate that patient, you know, foundational approach. They just want, you know, it’s their hobby and they want to have it, they want to do all the things that they really like doing. I like to actually have people express their real potential. And so I don’t really like being an exercise coach, I’m not just gonna put workouts in that are fun. I just don’t do that, right? And so if you’re an athlete, and you come to me, and you say, “Well, I just really liked doing the O2 max training, so I just want to do the O2 max training as much as possible. I’ve had a variety of injuries, all this push through, and then get a cortisone shot.” And I’m exaggerating here, right? But that athlete is probably not going to fit really well with like, I actually want to coach athletes like they’re athletes, I don’t want to just prescribe workouts. And if there is an injury, I want to deal with it in a rational and thoughtful way and make it you know, manage it properly. And I also feel like there’s always more time and we can take that extra day in the interest of that consistency. And so those are things that expose my bias towards this longevity sort of approach to it and healthy athletes that arrive at races. And it’s tough for athletes that are really quite compulsive to work with a coach that is that measured in terms of their approach.


Trevor Connor  49:52

So it sounds like it’s really important for an athlete when they’re considering a coach to ask the big questions. You know, what’s your coaching philosophy? What is your approach? What do you believe in? Like, yes, we have goals during the season like I want to do well at this particular event or I want to complete this GranFondo. But there’s also the the larger goals. You brought up the health and longevity. So it sounds like those are the things you need to be asking your coach and get good answers on and make sure they’re very aligned with what you want as an athlete.


Melanie McQuaid  50:23

Yeah, and similarly, I think a coach needs to think about those kinds of things as well, so that they can communicate that to an athlete. So that you don’t end up in a situation where you’re on an entirely different page with someone, when push comes to shove and you guys have to make a decision together and your philosophies don’t align. Then you just end up with problems, right? Because you just don’t agree on an approach to something. And like as a coach, I’ll always default to like leaving the final decision to the athlete because I’m just an advisor at the end of the day, like it’s their life and their decision making. And depending on how high-level at the athlete is like if they’re a pro, I’m going to always be a little bit more assertive. And this is the I think this is really the right decision we should make now, in light of this. Like, the race is in a month or the race is in six months, you know? This is sort of the timeline that I think is going to work best. But I’m still with that athlete, their pro, this is their livelihood, they still get to make that decision, no matter what. I work really hard to allow athletes their autonomy and to like, create their own path. And then if it’s an age group athlete, and this is their hobby, I’ll give advice, but then I stand right back, like sometimes I’ll say things three times and an injury ends up happening and they’ll be like, well, you know, this is our third time through, what should we do this time? You know, I try to like, let that go because this is their hobby and it’s not the end of the world. I mean, I wish they would not do it that way. But I think you know, as a coach to Trevor, like, sometimes you let’s put it this way, I’ve made the same mistake so many times. Like I’ve learned from failure so many times. I have fallen in the same hole like five times, right? And so I understand what it is to think that you’re doing the right thing, but that you’re not. You just don’t have the perspective. And you’re like stubbornly refusing to see that you’re making this bad decision and you just have to keep making it until you stop. And so I think that it’s better for a relationship to let somebody make those mistakes. And then, you know, support them when they come back. But yeah, ultimately, as a coach, it’s your job to not be a dictator, you have to allow athletes that autonomy.


Trevor Connor  52:42

I agree completely.

What Makes for a Good Coach?

Rob Pickels  52:44

Great answer. So Mel, we’ve had a great conversation with you today. And I would love to hear as we finish up from your perspective, from your perspective as an athlete who has coached, from an athlete who was self-coached, from an athlete who coaches other people. In your opinion, what makes for a good coach?


Melanie McQuaid  53:01

Okay, so I believe that experience counts a lot when it comes to coaching. I do believe that there’s nothing that can replace years of exposure to whatever level and specific sport that you do. Like I think having experience there is really important. Equally important is a coach that can communicate well. Not only in terms of being able to relay information to you, but is really good at reading information. And that is listening to an athlete, that’s watching an athlete move, so understanding their body language, and also having a coaching eye for movement, I think makes a really great coach and is super important if running, and swimming, and technique is important as it is for triathlon, even for cycling. And then I think empathy is really important. So I think it’s important for a coach to not have so big an ego that their coaching is about them. I think having that empathy where the the coaching is about the athletes success. And that’s, I think that trips up a lot of kind of famous coaches. I think that empathy is really important. And then finally, I think curiosity in a coach. Because that’s another thing that I see sometimes with coaching is that coaches get really good and then they stop trying to learn. And then they think they know it all and they get left behind by the sport because it evolves and then all of a sudden that experience and knowledge is no longer valid because things have changed radically. So having a really rabid curiosity as to what is happening, all of those things will make a good coach and also help them to evolve over time and consolidate that experience in a meaningful way.


Trevor Connor  54:56

Great answer.


Rob Pickels  54:59

Hi listeners, we just launched our new podcast series, Fast Talk Femme. Tune in to hear co-host Julie Young and Dede Barry, former pro cyclist and US national teammates, chat with a stellar lineup of experts to explore female physiology, nutrition, training through pregnancy, and more. Check it out at


Trevor Connor  55:21

Well Mel, it’s always a pleasure having you on the show, you always have a lot of great things to share with us. So, appreciate you taking the time.


Melanie McQuaid  55:28

Well, thank you so much for having me, you guys. I really appreciate how you guys are exposing both us coaches and athletes to really brilliant and amazing people and experiences that they have. So it’s just so fun to be here. Thanks again.


Trevor Connor  55:45

I really appreciate that. So go enjoy the sunny Hawaii weather as I’m looking out at cloudy, about the snow, weather. We’ll feel a just little bit jealous of you right now.


Melanie McQuaid  55:59

Well there might be some snow on Mauna Kea or something like that. There’s some cold weather coming over too. I’m going to Maui tomorrow so it looks like there might be snow somewhere in Hawaii, but hopefully not where I am. Thanks again you guys.


Rob Pickels  56:11

That was another episode of Fast Talk. Subscribe to Fast Talk, we ever prefer to find your favorite podcast. Be sure to leave us a rating and a review. The thoughts and opinions expressed on Fast Talk are those of the individual. As always, we love your feedback. Join the conversation at to discuss each and every episode. Become a member of Fast Talk Laboratories at to become a part of our education and coaching community. For Melanie McQuaid, Trevor Connor, I’m Rob Pickels. Thanks for listening!