There are many reasons why we hire a coach and just as many reasons why we do not hire a coach. A coach is not for everyone. But, if you are ready for it, a GOOD coach can really help you. Some athletes feel they are too “slow” for coaching help! No such thing - a coach can target what your specific issues may be and significantly improve your times. Some athletes think they know themselves well enough to put together their own plan. I would argue that that athlete is not maximizing their potential because a good coach can assess your abilities and limiters from the outside and make suggestions on how to improve or address them in a new way.
It takes some thorough work to find the right coach - someone who you like, respect and who has the knowledge necessary to assist you in your goals. The coach that works for your best friend may not be the right fit for you. Keep that in mind and do your research.
When hiring a coach, start by asking your triathlon friends and local shops for recommendations, or go through a directory such as on TrainingPeaks or a national governing body (NBG) coach directory. You don't need to stay local; online coaching is just as successful these days when you have tools like TrainingPeaks to enable location-independent communication. If the coach is good, it works seamlessly.
Once you have a list of different coaches to research, you should set up time to get to know them. You can meet the coach in person if local, or interview them on the phone or Skype. The process should take a couple of weeks of checking references and interviewing several different coaching options.
To help you in your search for the right professional, I have put together a list compiled from some of my current athletes, myself and peers on 10 things to look for in a good coach.
1) Knowledge and Credentials
Look for a coach who has experience and who has been working with athletes that you admire, like and have seen succeed. Make sure that the coach has the right skills set to help you achieve your goals. Don't assume that a successful athlete makes a successful coach. Your coach should have a proven track record working with athletes of all abilities – and especially someone like you!
Look for coaches with certifications from NGBs such as USA Triathlon (USAT), USA Cycling (USAC), and British Cycling. There are 3 levels of coaching certification within USAT, with Level 3 being the highest and relatively rare. I would recommend checking out www.usatriathlon.org for further explanation of the certification levels. They also have a coach directory of USAT certified coaches.
The coach should absolutely have an open-door policy. The coach should be accessible. You should be able to ask questions via email and get responses that are not only timely but also detailed enough to answer your questions. Emails should be returned within a business day.
How does the coach interact with her/his athletes? Is this person accessible to each athlete? Is this coach positive and a great role model and mentor in the sport? How does this coach motivate his/her athletes? Make sure you ask for referrals and ask their current athletes how the coach interacts with them. Some coaches are hands off – send schedules and then are done. Some are VERY involved on a daily basis. You may lean towards one of those options more. Find that right match for you.
Make sure your coach asks your what your goals are and what you want to accomplish, both short- and long-term. The coach should be able to set up the day to day plan for you, but also be able to see the big picture, set up a macro plan and be able to explain to you why the workouts and races are structured like they are to achieve your goals.
Ask the coach how they will provide feedback to you on your workouts and races. Progress is the name of the game and if the athlete does not feel they're making progress, they should be able to ask the coach for feedback on how to change things up. Also, the coach should be able to provide feedback on your workouts and data, tell you how to move things around when you're sick or traveling, and adapt schedules on the fly. They should also be able to give you specific training feedback such as how to improve your swim stroke, for example.
Some ways that a coach can provide feedback is in person, via Skype, via email, or via social mediums like Twitter and Facebook. I personally get an email from TrainingPeaks every time one of my clients completes a workout. From this email I can assess the athlete’s progress and/or address any issues or questions that arise from each workout.
This is a tricky one, but one that I find is absolutely vital to success. It's also one of the harder issues to address between coach and athlete. When looking for a coach, spend some time asking this coach how they can tell you how realistic your goals are and what you need to do to improve your swimming, cycling or running. You are really doing yourself a disservice if you do not hire someone who has experience in handling tough conversations about what is realistic for you in regards to progress, race results and realistic time goals. Honesty sometimes hurts, but it is critical to improvement and setting realistic goals.
A good coach understands life. They realize that this is a hobby for most and it is absolutely critical to maintain balance with work, family, social life and sport. Find a coach that emulates this in their life and leads a similar lifestyle to yours. If you are a full-time working parent with four kids, hiring someone who has similar life experiences or works with athletes like you will help in their understanding of the schedule you need. A good coach will help you sort through these life-sport balance issues daily!
A good coach should be able to instill confidence in the athlete in their racing AND training. A good coach should also be able to inspire athletes to be their best and work hard during all their workouts and races. Find a coach that makes you want to work hard. Someone that inspires you!
A good coach should be able to figure you out. A coach should be able to read each athlete, determine what their strengths are, which workouts would help them improve and which ones woud not, and create programs that are individualized to bring the best out of you. Each athlete is so different. A good coach recognizes that and writes challenging workouts for each individual person.
Yes, you have to like your coach. Read blogs. Honestly, most people are JUST like their blogs. If you like someone on their blog, most likely you will like them as a coach. Of course #1-9 must also be addressed, but the Internet is a powerful tool for research. Ask around. Find the athletes you admire and research their coaches. Remember that a good coach is one that you like, not only as a coach but as a person too.
Good luck and happy shopping!
As Jennifer mentioned, these days you are free to find a coach almost anywhere. TrainingPeaks makes it easy for athletes and coaches to stay in constant contact whether you live in the same city or not. Find a coach on our Coach Directory, or better yet, fill out a short questionnaire about your goals and let us match you with one of our TrainingPeaks Certified Coaches (who are all certified by an NGB like USAT).
Jennifer Harrison has been racing Triathlons since 1995 and coaching since 1999…well before being a coach was an acceptable job to the public (and her mother). Jennifer has competed in over 200 Triathlons all over the world in the past 17 years, including the Hawaii Ironman several times. Jennifer is a perennial All-American and constantly wins or podiums in her 40-44 Age Group. Her last race was Ironman Arizona where she went 10:35 and got 3rd in her Age Group. Jennifer has her own coaching business: JHC Coaching and spends her days on TrainingPeaks, Skype and email. In her free time she is
a mom to 10 year old twins, a wife, loves to read anything trashy, and eat as many M&Ms as she can possibly inhale without getting sick. You can learn more or get in touch on http://www.jenharrison.com.