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Beginner’s Luck: The Great Coach Debate

Whether or not you need a coach depends on a lot more than your athletic caliber.

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Whether or not you need a coach depends on a lot more than your athletic caliber.

One of the most common questions I hear around triathlon-centered groups is about coaches. The dialogue usually goes something like this: How much should I pay for a coach? Do I really need a coach? How much does YOUR coach charge? Which usually ends in the exclamation of, “You pay how much? You crazy.”

I will tell you (and many in our sport will concur) that a great coach is worth a million bucks. But the question of whether or not you need one depends on how you as an individual operate. Do you do well with someone giving you a schedule, motivation and tough love? Are you more likely to wake up early and accomplish your task if you are being held accountable? Do you need help scheduling your busy life around this sport? If your answer is “yes” to those questions, then I think hiring a coach is a wise move.

I have had a coach since almost the beginning of my triathlon journey, and I honestly do not think I would have lasted in this sport without his support. Especially as a completely clumsy beginner, I needed someone to help me navigate the muddy waters of triathlon. Sure, at the time I was semi-embarrassed about having a coach when I was slogging through a four-mile run at a 15-minute-per-mile pace. But over the years, a coach has been integral in my development in the sport and as a person (I now slog through my four-mile runs at a nine-minute mile).

Here’s the thing, though. Many newbies or “slower” triathletes feel that they don’t deserve a coach. Coaches are reserved for the fast people, right? Trust me, I understand it, and I empathize with it. Financial considerations aside, I know how hard it is to reach out, be vulnerable and make the leap to even inquire with a coach. But I do encourage you to think about it, especially if you are the type of person I described—one who thrives on support, accountability and help with a busy schedule.

In recent times, as triathlon has grown, coaches have become a dime a dozen. Certified or non-certified, virtually anyone can hang their tri shingle and say, “I am a coach.” I became a certified coach back in 2013 when I decided, “Hey I have this blog and I am giving out advice. I should probably make sure that I am giving out the right type of advice.” So my coaching start came out of a desire to make sure that I was guiding beginner triathletes on the right path and really just encouraging folks (with some knowledge behind it) to live the dream. I’m not sure what is driving some of the new coaches on the market these days, but I will say to triathletes who are coach shopping: Buyer beware.

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First, sure, let the buyer beware of the knowledge that each particular coach has. Improving as a coach comes from experience. Just like a young lawyer or doctor, a new coach has to start somewhere. I don’t like to knock beginner coaches just because they are new—that’s not fair. The question I like to ask is: What is the motivation behind this person becoming a coach? Is it just about the money? Is it all hype? Is it ego? Earlier this year, I became acutely aware of an attitude in some coaches that I can’t seem to shake out of my brain. The attitude and sentiment in these coaches, and sometimes the things that are coming out of their mouths, actually echoes and mirrors the exact fears of the beginner, slow and/or overweight triathlete: I am not good enough. I am too slow. I am too fat. I don’t deserve a coach. Only it’s more like: YOU are not good enough. YOU are too slow. YOU are too fat. YOU are lucky to have ME even talking to you, let alone coaching you.

My first instinct was, “What in the hell?” To me, the real issue that I saw during the course of the dialogue was not the triathlete—it was, unequivocally, the coach. This particular coach had no issue taking this client’s money but clearly had issue really being a help and a friend to this athlete. And that’s where I draw the line.

A coach should have a fundamental desire to help athletes become the best version of themselves—not try to immediately change an athlete into what the coach thinks they should be. My first coach helped me navigate my way through this sport as a beginner by treating me like any other athlete. And guess what? Because of his kindness and motivation, he paved the way for me—all the way to my first Ironman.

The way a coach treats an athlete from the outset can set the tone for a beginner athlete’s success or failure. Sure, the ultimate responsibility falls on the athlete. But if a person has spent his or her whole life with people telling them that they aren’t good enough, fast enough, thin enough, X enough—and a tri coach is one of the first in their lives to say: YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH—who knows what kind of impact that might have. This sport is about so much more than just data and stats—it’s about heart and soul and meaningful human interactions.

Look for caring and kindness in your coach—even if they are ass-kickers, Kona qualifiers and you have seen actual rainbows fly from their rear-ends. Ask the important questions: Is this coach listening to me? Is this coach kind to me, even if there is “tough love” and the hard things are said sometimes? Is this coach the type of person who sincerely wants to help me achieve my goals?

At the end of the day, the goals are yours. If the coach can’t help you or is too self-centered, blind or rude to do so (you’d be surprised), then move on. Life is too short to put up with someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. There are many wonderful coaches—guided by the right priorities and questions, you just may find someone who will change your life.

Meredith Atwood is a wife, mom, attorney, Ironman, coach and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children, and blogs at

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