Managing a Coaching Team

Mike Ricci of D3 Multisport started out with a goal of getting to 100 athletes. He quickly realized he was going to need to hire more coaches. He describes the mistakes he made early in his career and how he manages his business now.

My triathlon coaching career started in 1992, when I coached a few friends who were racing a local half Ironman. I had been racing for 4 years at that point and I was coaching a high school swim team and running on my college cross country and track teams. Over the next 6 years I coached friends off and on, pro bono. More than anything, I enjoyed the process of watching them improve, trying new things, and seeing the results on race day.  

In 2000, I took my first USA Triathlon Coaching Certification class. I was thrilled to become an official triathlon coach, having met the national governing board’s standards. I learned a lot those first few seasons. There was little information available to help endurance coaches like me understand the right way to do things. When I was starting out, Joe Friel’s book, The Triathlete’s Training Bible, answered many of the questions I had about coaching and how to build a year-long program.  

I launched my D3 Multisport website in March of 2000, while holding down a full-time corporate job. My first athletes were from France and Canada, and it was then that I realized the power of the worldwide web. As I grew my stable of athletes, I knew the end was near for my corporate career. It was 18 months after launching my website and business that I lost my job in September 2001. Over the next year business was steady and by the end of 2002 things were booming. I was on track to reach my goal of having 100 athletes by the end of 2003. A funny thing happened along the way, however. At around 54 athletes, I realized that I had too much on my plate. I was managing the website, publishing a monthly newsletter, marketing my business, managing the budget—not to mention keeping track of my athletes’ schedules and progress. It was clearly too much.   

One of the business books recommended to me was The E-Myth by Michael Gerber. This book caused me to look at how I was running my business and to what extent I could improve my efficiency. In a matter of months, I found help in running the website, managing the newsletter, and marketing. I still had the problem of managing 50+ athletes who needed my attention on a weekly, if not daily, basis. I was a few years into using the Training Bible online program, but still I was not keeping up. I saw that Joe Friel’s UltraFit company was hiring coaches and referring leads and I thought that would be a good strategy to implement. I asked Joe about how he was running UltraFit. He was very generous in sharing his thoughts and strategy and I was able to replicate his model with my own methodology in the mix. 

RELATED: Mike Ricci, D3 Multisport

Building my coaching business 

My first hire was a triathlete friend of mine who was a Kona qualifier. I figured his status would be helpful in attracting athletes, and it was. One of my mistakes—and there were many—was to start out taking just 10% of his earnings each month. Of course, when I tried to raise my percentage, it was hard to justify. Eventually I learned the power and purpose of having a contract. This rule applies to every person working with you. If you have coaches working for you without a contract, I want to communicate this loud and clear: You are one step away from a major problem. I’ll tell you the nonnegotiables that belong in your contract, but it helps to first understand the mistakes I made along the way.  

My Rookie Mistakes How I Run My Business Today 
I started out with a commission rate that was far too low—10%. Our contracts start at 40% until the coach has more than 15 athletes, then the commission drops to 30%.  
I let the athletes pay the coaches directly, rather than paying the business.   D3 now collects all the payments and distributes the money to the coaches by the 15th of the month.   
I allowed coaches to leave with athletes without taking a fee from the coach.   Coaches who leave D3 with athletes pay a few hundred dollars per athlete. When a coach does leave, the company has the first right of refusal on the athlete.  
Coaches were able to train and race in any kit, whether from a sponsor, a club team, etc.   It’s easier and better to have everyone on the same page with this. If a coach doesn’t want to promote the business, that’s a red flag that they aren’t the right fit.   

Building solidarity with my coaching team

Over the next few years, I grew D3 from a solo venture and 50+ athletes to a group of 5-6 coaches and 100+ athletes. As a business owner, I wanted loyalty from our customers and our coaches. If you give an athlete (or a coach) great customer service and get to know what makes them tick, you’ll get lifelong loyalty from the people who you want to be working with. In particular, I didn’t want our D3 coaches to merely use the company to build up a following and then leave as soon as they had enough athletes to go out on their own. I wanted to create a company where the coaches wanted to wear the brand, take pride in it, and represent it well in talking with athletes or potential athletes, whether at a race or an industry event.  

To win the loyalty of my coaching team, I needed to involve my coaches in the business. I asked for their feedback on which products we should use for our racing gear, what type of videos we should shoot, what kind of events we should run for our athletes, where we should run our training camps, which events to make team races, etc. It was essential for coaches to have a say in what we did and how we did it. It’s what made the coaches feel like they were a key part of the team early on, and it’s why they continue to stick around today. 

Video Transcript

Mike Ricci  00:06 

So my triathlon coaching career started in 1982. I was coaching high school swimming at the time and I had walked on cross country in college. And then as I was lifeguarding and coaching some athletes in the pool area would come and ask me for 5k and 10k plans, and then I started writing those and it was early ’90s, ’90-’91. And then I had a few friends who were doing triathlon, I had started triathlon in ’88. And I had some friends—since I was the experienced guy, you know, three or four years into this—they had asked me for some help, and I started writing some plans in about ’92-ish, and half Ironman and Olympic distance plans. As I was in the corporate world, I started thinking about other things I wanted to do, I enjoyed coaching, and I was coaching people here and there, but really, there was no certification or anything like that. And then USA Triathlon started their coaching certification—I believe it was under George Dalam at the time—and I think I was in the second class for level one, USA Triathlon, which was pretty neat. Joe came out with the Triathlete’s Training Bible and I had contacted him about possibly joining UltraFit, which was his company at the time. And I’m not sure he was adding coaches at the time, but it didn’t pan out. I basically took whatever he had in the book and put it in an Excel sheet. And then I found somebody else online—this was all new at the time—and I found somebody else online that had a really cool version of everything Joe did. You just had to put the number of hours in the week and it just filled it in for the whole year, it was amazing. And then from there, like within two years, that’s when Training Bible started, it was actually online which is now TrainingPeaks. It was just amazing to see that it could be laid out like that. And he had referred a couple of periodization books, which I had read, so kind of understood the concepts of it, but to have it laid out like that, you know, it’s like a recipe, right? Like someone can say, “Hey, throw these three things in there make this,” but when you see it laid out, you’re like, “Oh, it’s really easy, right? It’s not as hard as you think.”

So I was working in the corporate world, started coaching, I was coaching a few people just for free, and then I realized it was actually niche for this. Especially living in Boulder there’s more people doing triathlon probably than you know, other places. And I had a bunch of friends who worked at VeloPress, and you know, we’d go out for margaritas and all that stuff. And I was getting kind of tired of the corporate world, and one of my buddies had just said, “You know, maybe you should give that a shot. You’re good at it and just, you know, see what happens.” So I actually bought at the time was called a top box. And it was a little advertising box on the website and I think I paid $75 a month. And I think within the first week, I had two inquiries in coaching, one was from France and one was from Canada. And that’s my mind, I started thinking, “Wow, this is global. This isn’t just Boulder or in the US,” I thought this could be huge. And I just realized that there was a lot of outreach work, because we still didn’t really know what the internet was and how far it could go at least at that point. So I hired a web designer and he built it for me. I forget how much I paid him, it was a couple hundred bucks at the time, which seemed like a lot of money at the time. And yeah, he built it up for me. And, you know, he had some pictures and I pulled some racing photos, and some people I had coached and some photos of me, we put it up and you know, all that stuff was so new in terms of graphics, and all of it was just, you know, it was really neat. My plan was to take my bonus at the end of 2001 actually, and just leave that and just start D3 in 2001. But I got laid off right before 9/11, so that was in August of 2001.  


And I started it then and I just went for it. So my goal, you know, my goal was to have 100 athletes, that was my first goal. And I got to about 50 athletes and realized that 100 was probably unreasonable, because it’s just too many people to manage. It’s like 50 relationships, right? It’s just really hard to have all those relationships. So I brought a coach on to help me out. And he took on, you know, probably 15, 20 athletes, which brought me down to like 30, 35 and I still needed another coach so I brought another coach on. So, when I got my sweet spots, probably 10 or 15, and when I got there, you know, and it kept growing and just kept adding coaches. In the beginning, I probably really mucked up how the relationship went with the coaches on the business side of it. And that’s when I realized, you know, the contracts and all that stuff was really important, and just laying that out. So it was also saying that it wasn’t just this throw it against the wall and hope it sticks. So, you know, in the beginning, I think I charged the coaches like 10%. So, you know, 10% wasn’t even covering my fees. And you know, when I would go to them and say, “Hey, look, I need to charge more,” you know, they would be upset with it, because we really don’t have a contract laid out. And at the same time, you know, it’s like I was coaching one guy who worked in, he worked in bonds and investing, you know, he was really mad and then came back to me two weeks later and said I realized as you own your own business, the only way you get a raise is if you have a higher percentage and because I understand that now. So it all started to make sense to him and me and that that was my first coach. And then from there on I think the minimum I started with like I would start the coaches that was like 20% Now it’s like double that, but as they add more athletes, they can, you know, bring that number down. So I think the big thing with our coaches is they’re all different. They all have different strengths and weaknesses. You know, I have coaches that are super swim specialists, I mean, they know they know triathlon, obviously, but they’re really good at swimming, or they’re really good at power on the bike, or they’re really good at run mechanics. In the beginning, what I did was I would just refer the athletes to the coaches. And I thought that the rate that we were pulling in athletes was pretty good. You know, it was probably like 70% of everybody we talked to, we ran as an athlete. And then I said, I thought about how can I do this better. And I talked to some people that were in business, and they said, “You need to talk to the people, you need to be the person bringing them in the door.” And so I took that on. And I think we probably went to like, 89, 92%, or something like that, because I could close the deal. Because the coaches want to coach they don’t want to be salespeople, right. And the sales thing is my job as the owner of the company. So when I have even, you know, now, last week, this week, whatever, and I talked to new athletes was like, “Well, how do you know what coach to set me up with?” I can tell by their personality, who they’re gonna fit with. And I tell everybody, I say, “Look, you may have an Ironman this year, and that’s your only goal, but our goal is to keep you for five years, like we don’t want to just have a one year thing we want this to go on and on.” So, you know, we want you to love your coach and, you know, work well together to have a good rapport. Like, that’s important, right? Like that’s, that’s the, you have confidence in someone giving you the workouts and having confidence in you that you’re going to complete, you know, your times your goals, that’s I think where that that connection is made and the athlete stays long term. We all have the same goals, we have the same philosophy, we agree on things, I think that’s really important. We definitely have differing views on training sometimes. And we always share those ideas. And you know, and I’m someone that you know, I’m a little bit old school, so I think what I do works, but when one of my coaches comes up with an idea, I usually scoffed at, and I’m kinda like, huh, and then I’ll try it and I’m like, yeah that does work. So you got to be open-minded, right? Like, you still have to have conviction of what you want to do, but at the same time, it’s good to have a group because you can listen to what they also are suggesting and say, you know what, give that a shot. So one of the most important things about owning your own business and having coaches work for you, is having non-negotiables, and realizing that those things are really important, and keeping the structure and the fluidity of the company. And there is another video that I’ll go into more detail on that. I think you have to have conviction that it’ll work and have confidence in yourself and your ability. You know, I think that there are a lot of great coaches out there that don’t know the business side of things. And I think that just learning from people smarter than you, always surround yourself with people smarter than you and understand like, you can do it, but you need steps, right? You need to have a way to do it. And it has to be it has to be measurable and it just has to be something that you can just check the box and say I did these five things. If it’s marketing or it’s accounting or whatever it is like just keep knocking things out and then eventually, you know, you grow the business and you have the confidence to just say I can take the big step.