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In English: Finding The Right Coach

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Do you need a coach? What are the qualities of a good coach? Cliff English answers these questions and more.

Written by: Cliff English

A new year is approaching and the present year, in its waning does, just seems so 2009. The race season is a thing of the past and we are looking toward a bright future. Ideas, dreams, goals and fantasies occupy our thoughts. So many things to do, change, improve on, purchase, plan and decide upon.

For athletes, starting a new year is an exciting time, and quite often the hopes for the upcoming race season are bolstered by the recruitment of a coach or a switch to a new coach. Recently I was asked the very simple question, “Why hire a coach?” This is a great question, and in this article we will examine the reasons for hiring a coach, the different roles a coach can play and the qualities that make a good coach, and I will discuss how to find a coach who is a great fit for you.

Reasons to hire a coach
One of the first ways an athlete may benefit from having a coach is the simplification of his life, especially if the athlete is self-coached. The coach takes care of your training and the details of your program, allowing you to focus entirely on what you enjoy most about triathlon—the swimming, cycling and running..

One of the more important assets a coach has to offer is his knowledge and experience in coaching. A coach can help fast-track your learning process by imparting his knowledge. While I am old-school enough to appreciate the trial and error method, there is no need to stumble forward blindly as an athlete today when there is so much good coaching information circulating out there. A coach can teach an athlete all the necessary components to being a complete athlete. Swim, bike and run technique and analysis, how to train, when and how to recover, nutrition, mental skills, goal setting, race tactics, tapering as well as planning and periodizing your annual and multi-year plans.

The more athletes a coach is exposed to at different levels of competition and in different disciplines over the years, the more experience and knowledge he acquires and the better he will be able to coach you.

A coach will also provide objectivity to the athlete on her racing and training. He can communicate in a constructive manner about what he sees and what needs to be improved upon in the quest to be a better athlete. Most importantly, a coach can hold the athlete accountable to her goals, training and racing, and occasionally provide a kick to your butt to get you out the door.

Finally, consider what services and programs the coach offers as well as the coach’s philosophy. Is it primarily an online program or is it a club or team, or does that coach offer camps, clinics and/or individual sessions or private training camps? Identify what you need and want from a coach.

Mirinda Carfrae (right) and her coach Siri Lindley. Photo: Jay Prasuhn
Mirinda Carfrae (right) and her coach Siri Lindley. Photo: Jay Prasuhn

Roles of the coach
A coach is so much more than a person with a stopwatch on the pool deck or a keyboard monkey who uploads your weekly training. A coach needs to be capable and comfortable in many roles. There are times when an athlete needs just a coach and times when the athlete needs the coach to be a mentor, teacher, motivator, leader, role-model and definitely at times, a friend.

Qualities of a good coach
What makes a good coach is always a good discussion and can be debated inside and out. To start, it is important to remember that you can have too much of a good thing. A good coach is an individual who is very well balanced, with a good formal education, good practical and technical experience and knowledge and good people skills. While formal education, certifications, coaching levels, athletic achievement and so forth are excellent attributes for a coach to have, they don’t automatically make for good coaches.

A coach needs to be proficient in a wide array of skills and amass much experience and knowledge to do his job well. The most important trait a coach needs to have is the ability to communicate. This doesn’t mean that all he does is talk sport science nonstop, but rather that he actually listens to you, the athlete, and knows the importance of feedback and open communication in the athlete/coach relationship.

A coach should always conduct himself in a professional manner. A coach must also have empathy and compassion, and it is important that a coach understand what it is like to be an athlete–but he does not need to be a current or former professional athlete. He just needs to be a dedicated and caring professional coach.

A coach understands that every athlete is different and coaches each athlete as an individual and gives the athlete exactly what she needs. A good coach is creative and knows how to keep a training program fresh and enjoyable and how to integrate it into the life schedule of the athlete.

Finally, a coach should be passionate about his work, and this should be reflected in his enthusiasm for the sport and in coaching athletes.

Ultimately, you are looking to build a relationship over time with this person, so it is important that the coach possess many of the qualities that you feel you need from a coach.
If all that fails, remember you are paying for the coaching services.That in itself may be enough to get you out the door.

Coach Cliff English has more than 15 years of experience coaching age-groupers to Olympians, first-timers to Ironman champions. For more on coach Cliff’s coaching services or training camps visit