Coaches have played a pivotal part in my life. As a junior alpine and Nordic ski racer, with Olympic aspirations, I spent hours upon hours with my coaches. They were coaches, trusted friends and mentors, and sometimes father figures in my life.
Each coach left her or his mark on me. My very first coach, Roxanne, taught me it was unacceptable to cry after a disappointing race. She suggested her young athletes go into the woods to cry so that no one would see our tears. I was seven years old. Some thirty years later, I’ve yet to master holding back tears on demand, but after a poor race, I will go off on my own to cool down.
I could not believe I found this in my photos! This is my me with my first coach Roxanne. What a “respectful” child.
I coached junior high and high school track and field, cross-country running, and Nordic skiing beginning when I was in college, but stepped away from that in 2005 to devote more time to skiing. Several years ago, I coached Minnesota Junior Cycling, but that too became too much to balance with a fulltime job and cycling. When I get to the point that I scale back my cycling, it’s my fondest desire to get back to coaching juniors. Given my past, and my future, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what makes a good coach. My thoughts follow.
Some of the young ladies I have coached. I miss working with them!
Please note, I am speaking of those who make coaching their fulltime or near fulltime profession. The below does not reflect your 3-month a year little league coach for whom coaching is a hobby.
Willing to be Disliked
There have been plenty of times this year when Larry has been, how shall we say this, not my best friend. It’s more than just terribly difficult workouts that make me grumble his name. Plenty of times, he told me to do something that I really was not in the mood for, be it to go for a spin on “a day off,” race with the men’s field, or work on my posture.
Times come when good coaches have to have difficult conversations. Maybe it’s time to take the athlete’s ego down a notch, intentionally or unintentionally. This is, and always will be, my biggest weakness as a coach. I want my athletes to be happy and cheerful, but what satisfies the athlete’s desires in the moment is often not what will help her reach her goals in the long run.
Brutally Honest and Direct
Everyone has weaknesses. A good coach is one who notices each and every one of those weaknesses. Once upon a time, not too long ago, Larry and Sophie did a video review of one of my races with me. Ouch, let’s just say they don’t miss much. At the end of the conversation, I felt slapped and shocked. The only way to get faster is to improve upon weaknesses. Really, I should view my weaknesses as opportunities; the more things they can see to correct, the more room I have for improvement. The challenge, as a human, is not to become defensive and reactive in those moments. The job of a coach is to make the athlete faster. My coaches do their job.
If your athlete consistently completes every assigned workout and gives it her all in races, but consistently performs poorly, you own a piece of it.
It’s been my experience that this is when abandoning or cutting athletes occurs. As a Nordic skier, I had a coach who showed his disappointment by leaving the side of the course during a particularly bad race. In the weeks and months that followed, his lack of enthusiasm became evident. Ultimately, I got the message and left, and he got to avoid having a difficult conversation with me.
Many years removed, I understand that this coach probably felt backed into a corner. He had coached me as best as he knew how, but I was not skiing to my potential. If he did not get rid of me, and fast, he was in danger of exposing what he did not know.
In my many years of following skiing, both alpine and Nordic, I’ve watched countless 20-something athletes have an off-year and get cut from programs, making space for the latest and greatest 19-year old. I have to wonder if some of these failures were not those of the athletes. Burning through one young star and then hopping to the next is not good coaching.
Emotionally Aware Skilled Communicator
A good coach understands physiology and can put together training plans. A great coach has been around the block, watched countless athletes succeed and fail, and knows how to cultivate confidence in his athletes.
I’m convinced that it’s fairly easy to make an athlete “pretty good.” A solid training plan, followed consistently, will produce results. The first one or two years of serious training often go well: the athlete loses weight, gains fitness, and the improvement curve is steadily upward.
Then it gets hard. Improved results cause heightened expectations both from the athlete and her community. At the same time, past a certain level of fitness, improvements are smaller and much harder to attain. Expectations can be crushing. Add an injury or another challenge, and the emotional road gets rocky.
Above all, a coach needs to be present during these times, willing to meet the unhappy athlete at the finish line, or take an after-hours call. It might be best to leave this job to the sports psychologists; but, wait, anyone seen one of those hanging around lately? The near absence of sports psychology resources means, with little to no official training, coaches handle the mental aspects of sport.
Coaching is an art. Like becoming a builder or an electrician, hands on experience is more important than classroom learning. A clinic may teach you to analyze the data, but the step between analyzing the data and leading an athlete to her best performance is a leap.
With this in mind, I have a strong preference for coaches with many years experience. My ski coach at Gould Academy, Dick Taylor, had been in the sport for more than 20 years when I worked with him. He had a stash of kick wax in pink tubes from some short-lived wax company, which was perfect in rare snow conditions. Literally and metaphorically, I prefer the coach who knows when to bring out the old pink kick wax.
I know that I’ve had valuable experiences as an athlete that will help my coaching. That said, a great athlete is not necessarily a great coach. As a skier, I encountered many collegiate and elite skiers who could not prepare their own skis. The best programs, skiing and cycling, are those that most thoroughly support their athletes. The ideal situation is one where the athlete’s travel, lodging, food, and equipment are taken care of, so she is rested and ready to race. Yet, this very situation produces athletes who are not skilled at taking care of themselves, never mind others.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that truly great athletes are self-centered. Racing well requires taking care of yourself, and that sometimes means putting yourself first. Leading up to Nationals, I’ve gone so far as to remind my husband to wash his hands lest he bring illness into the house. Consider Lance Armstrong. His self-confidence, self-absorption, and brashness were part of what made him a winner. In contrast, coaching requires one’s focus to be on another person’s needs and motivations.
Elite athletes have physical skills that exceed those of the general population, but otherwise they are normal. They may be very intelligent, or less so. They may be good communicators with empathy, or not. In short, just because someone can ride a bike fast, does not make him a good coach. Racing and training experience is valuable, but knowledge and people skills are more so.
Puts Athletes First
A responsible coach knows when it’s time to let go.
With juniors in particular, there often comes a time when the athlete outgrows your coaching or the program. It’s hard not to be possessive. An athlete is your project or portfolio, and it strikes the ego a little bit to transfer a lot of hard work on your part to another person.
So many times as a junior athlete, coaches and programs fought to keep me when I was ready to move on. I was completely taken aback as a 12-year old to watch grown men fight about my alpine skiing future. My mom taught me the word “politics,” as I struggled to make sense of why it mattered so much that I wanted to join another team. In that moment (and a few choice ones that followed), I committed to myself to always doing what’s best for the athlete, not to mention, never, ever fighting over a child.
At one point, when I left one coach for another, the first not only supported me, but said he should have suggested the move. Athlete-centered coaching means you are always trying develop the athlete, even when that means pushing her out of the nest.
The opposite of distance is proximity. Now that we have that straight…..
As an adult, most of my coaches have been “low contact.” While they have been local, we didn’t meet often, between twice a week and once a month depending on the season.
Rare is the day that I am not in touch with Larry. I’m luckier than most because the studio is 1.3 miles from my house (but who’s counting). It’s easy for me to stop by even on days when I am not working out there. Whenever I do, Larry always asks me how I am
feeling. (I think it might be worth paying a coach just to have someone care about how I am on a daily basis!) I’m always honest with Larry, but at this point, he’s got a pretty good read on me anyway.
The data derived from my power meter and Training Peaks is valuable, but my mood and level of perceived fatigue are a better indicator of if I am burning the candle at both ends. Over the last few years, I’ve rarely been sick or had any overuse injuries. I attribute this
to Larry and Sophie’s careful monitoring of my fatigue levels.
Regular contact also helps build trust and a rapport. You really get to know someone when you see them nearly daily. And trust is everything in the coaching relationship. Someone like me has so much invested (time, energy, money) in sport. It’s essential that I’m completely comfortable, can express my concerns, and trust the process.
Face-to-face communication is also invaluable when things hit the skids. This fall, coming back from injury, I struggled with confidence, and Larry dragged, pushed, and nurtured me through it day-by-day. Were he at a distance or our contact infrequent, I think I could have found myself alone and adrift.
At least I no longer stick my tongue out when posing with my coach!
Apologies, this isn’t a quality of the coach, but rather a quality of the coach-athlete relationship. It’s invaluable, but largely out of the coach’s control.
I’ve had plenty of good coaching relationships and a couple of great ones. The great ones had a lot to do with how well we “clicked.”
As a high school sophomore, I was coached by a woman with whom I completely connected. We only worked together for one year; in fact, she only coached for one year. It’s was a bit of a right time, right place scenario. Her complete faith in my ability gave me great self-confidence over the course of the season. Meanwhile, my connection with her was such that I would have done what ever she asked. By the time we got State Championships, I was in a place where I felt I could not fail. (Indeed, I did win.)
This magical season had little to do with her skills as a coach. She was young and inexperienced. I doubt she could have successfully guided me through the pressure of being a “favorite” the following season. Like any other relationship, the coach athlete bond is impacted by personality and circumstance. When the coach and athlete click, so that the athlete has complete faith in her coach (even blind faith), it’s a wildly successful ride.
Another old one just for good measure…from before skiing became complicated.