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Triathlife: Why Coaching Is A Smart Investment

Jesse Thomas explains why hiring a coach is the best investment you can make, plus the do’s and don’ts of being a coachable athlete.

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One of the most common questions I get from triathletes is, “What’s the best investment you can make to become a better triathlete?” And much to their shocked surprise, my answer isn’t a Dimond superbike, a Pearl Izumi speedsuit or even a Picky Bar, though each of those things is clearly a remarkable investment. The best investment you can make is hiring a coach. A good coach will make a far bigger difference in how fast you finish than any piece of equipment, nutrition or even shaving your legs. (I know—amazing.)

But, unlike the superbike or shiny calves, the results aren’t instant. A coach is an investment that only pays off with long-term consistency, trust, communication and execution. A good coach doesn’t just work; you have to work to make him or her work. It’s like that scene in Jerry Maguire where Tom Cruise yells at Cuba Gooding, Jr., “Help me help you!” You have to let your coach Tom Cruise help you by being a coachable athlete. And if you do, you’ll have the season you always dreamed of, make that big catch in the fourth quarter and have an epic bro hug at the end of the game.

I’ve been around long enough to see many forms of athletes, ranging from high school basketball dudes who were just plain lazy, to NCAA All-Americans who hid injuries, to the Purplepatch Fitness (Matt Dixon-coached) professional triathlon squad, including myself, who are perfectly coachable athletes in every single way imaginable.

Regardless of how good your coach is, there are a lot of ways you can make it hard and/or impossible to coach you. I’ve made a lot of mistakes that hampered my coaches’ ability to coach me. But I’ve evolved, and I’d like to think that now, outside of a few too many phone calls and/or hating on band-only swim sets, I’m a fairly coachable athlete.

So to save you some of the mistakes I’ve made and seen, and the lost time, frustration and failures that occur as a result, I’ve compiled a list of do’s and don’ts for being a coachable athlete. And like I do in many of my articles, I polled my readers on Facebook and Twitter to help me identify the qualities, habits and tendencies they’ve seen or experienced that aided (or hampered) their coaching relationships.

RELATED: 8 Reasons Your Coach Hates You

Do: Be honest. “Be honest with where you are as an athlete and your desired or actual lifestyle/family/work situation.” —Corie Young

Honesty is the foundation of a good coaching relationship. From the outset, be honest with your coach about your goals, potential limitations or conflicts, your expectations for progress, and the nature of the relationship. These of course will evolve, but it sets the stage for a great partnership.

Don’t: Know everything already. “Knowing everything helps me not listen to my coach. It’s such a put-off because he thinks he knows everything.” —@benatkins33

Ben gives the perfect example of one of the typical problems with our sport—lots of intelligent, type-A people who are confident and motivated to do independent research, and in short, think they know everything. But if you’re hiring a coach, you’re doing so because you don’t know it all, so make sure you let yourself approach it that way.

Do: Ask questions. The counterbalance to not being a know-it-all is asking questions. The best coaches, I think, aren’t afraid to explain their philosophies and methodologies, and are open to constructive questions and feedback. It’s OK to want to understand why and how, and work with your coach to make sure you do. It’s a healthy part of the communication process.

Do: Trust your coach. A coach’s vision, influence and/or plan can only be realized if you give it a chance. And in order to do that, you have to trust your coach. Of course, there’s always a risk that things won’t work out exactly as you both had hoped (in fact, this is likely!). But you won’t know if it’s working unless you give it a real shot.

Do: Stick to the plan. It’s a pretty simple concept, but it’s something a lot of triathletes mess up. Once your plan is in place, do it! (See the next two ‘don’ts’ for some common examples of not sticking to the plan.)

Don’t: Strava-tize and/or group-demolish your workout. It’s great to train with groups, and it’s a useful tool for getting more out of your hard days, but make sure you don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re hammering/racing/destroying yourself on your easy day! This happens with almost every age-grouper I’ve ever trained with. Also, I love me some Strava KOMs, but I keep those for the days only when that effort is prescribed.

Don’t: Randomly make up workouts when you miss them. “Uncoachable: when workouts are missed and athlete tries to add 3 swims, 2 bikes, 2 runs all in one day to make it up.”—@Dgar5

This is also a common mistake and a recipe for disaster. Instead of binge exercise, do the following:

Do: Communicate. There are going to be workouts that you miss, you feel terrible for or just can’t do. It’s part of balancing triathlon with life. Rather than hiding in your man cave, tell your coach about it. No plan is perfect, and communication is key to proper adaptation.

Do: Tell your coach when you’re injured. “Best way to be uncoachable? No matter what, don’t tell your coach if you’re injured. (Not that I’ve done this.)” —Jessica Russell

This is kind of a repeat of communication, but it’s such a common mistake I think it’s important to include. If you’ve got something bothering you, tell your coach. Don’t just assume you should train through it. Injury prevention is about managing signals before they get bad.

Don’t: Be negative. “Uncoachable—whine about every set you are given during Masters swim. I always wonder why they come if all they do is complain.” —Deb Gifford Essel

I agree, unless the set is band-only.

Do: Let them pull you back. “Reining in is much of what ambitious athletes need, since they are inclined to overdo everything.” —Michael T. Smith

Agreed, this is the point of a coach for many of us, myself included. Part of why communication about injury, illness, fatigue, life, etc., is so important is so your coach knows when to back you off.

Don’t: “Request that your weekly plan comes via fax machine.” —Jake Steen

Yes, that would be annoying.

Do: “Based on experience, if you have a very good looking and sexy coach … you will work extra hard at what they recommend you do!” —Shelley Ann Harper

I’ve never experienced this before, but makes sense.

There is no perfect coach for everyone. The right coach for you depends on logistical factors such as location and cost, and physical and emotional factors such as coaching philosophy and communication style. When looking for a coach, it’s important that you take all into account and seek the advice/input of his or her current and former athletes. Once you do find your coach, base the relationship on trust, communication and honesty. Then brace yourself for the most epic finish-line bro hug of all time.

More Triathlife from Jesse Thomas.

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a five-time Wildflower Long Course champion and the CEO of Picky Bars (

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