Finding The Right Coach

By Jordan Blanco

Jordan Blanco

Finding The Right Coach

By Jordan Blanco

With some careful thought, a rewarding athlete-coach relationship can be yours this year.

With the arrival of a new year, you may be considering using all that holiday money from Grandma to gift yourself a triathlon coach. But how exactly does a person go about choosing the right coach? We caught up with three triathlon coaches for their advice on finding your perfect match for the new year.

Step one: Define your goals: as with any decision, selecting the right coach starts with a review of your needs and goals. Work through the below checklist of things for you to consider before talking to coaches.

1. Level of experience. Are you a beginner lining up for your first IRONMAN race with the single goal of completing it within the time limit? Or do you have several seasons of racing under your belt and you’re now looking to take your abilities to the next level?

AJ Johnson is a USAT Level I coach with D3 Multisport. "If you are looking to be on the top step of the podium you want a coach that has previously coached athletes to that level," he says. "Conversely, beginner athletes would be best served by hiring a coach that specializes in first-time athletes."

Being very clear about your goals and needs will help you better evaluate the variety of coaches and coaching plans available.

2. Location. A coach with a group of local athletes who train together might be appealing if you're seeking training partners, camaraderie and in-person feedback. Technology, however, has helped to level the playing field when it comes to communication. Don't dismiss a great fit based purely on your location.

Jennifer Harrison, of JHC Triathlon Coaching, is a Chicago-based Level 2 USAT coach with 16 years experience. She has successfully worked with athletes all over the world. "Email, texting, Skype, Face-time, phone calls and videos work remarkably well to reduce the distance," she says.

Through his company purplepatch fitness, Matt Dixon has successfully coached hundreds of professionals and amateurs from around the world via his “virtual training group." He also coaches a group of athletes in San Francisco, so he has an interesting perspective on coaching athletes both locally and virtually.

Dixon says he strongly believes that athletes benefit from community, and so he always aims to connect athletes when he can. In order to do this, Dixon uses a variety of tools, including Google Plus for group video sessions, and proprietary technology that allows purplepatch to deliver training plans, education, and support. "The group format is compelling," Dixon says. "All our athletes love to watch and learn from these sessions, even when they cannot attend live."

3. Skills assessment. Do you have a specific weakness that you want to focus on? Should you consider hiring a swim coach or a run coach to assist with your weaker legs in the triathlon?

Harrison believes the triathlon coach needs to oversee the program: "The triathlon coach can manage 99 percent of an athlete's needs, but there is no reason that if an athlete wants to work with a specific coach (e.g. swim coach) on their limiter, that they shouldn't. There is a benefit to having the triathlon coach seamlessly put the program together with a "top down" approach and create a macro view for the athlete."

Dixon is more forthright on this point, noting that triathlon IS a single sport—one of "swimbikerun, not swimming, cycling and running." He says a quality triathlon coach should understand the unique nature of the sport, and realize that the three disciplines never exist in a vacuum. "I have yet to see an athlete succeed by integrating individual coaches from each discipline, then aim to weave it into a master approach," he says. "While there are great swim, bike and run coaches, only a few understand the mosaic of a triathlon training program. Each area of focus may be wonderful, but combined, the result may spell disaster."

4. Flexibility. Do you have a consistent work and family schedule with a predictable amount of time to allocate to training each week? If so, you may not need a custom plan. However, if your work life is unpredictable, possibly with frequent travel, a coach who can adapt your training plan on the fly can be invaluable.

"Make sure the coach knows your personal and work commitments and be realistic so the coach can create a plan that works for you," Harrison says.

5. Feedback. How often do you want to communicate with your coach and what feedback do you expect? How much feedback are you able to share? What are you looking for, exactly—a weekly workout plan, detailed analysis of your training data, objective feedback on how your training is going, or simply accountability?

"Some athletes need to talk with their coach on a weekly basis, others are fine with an occasional email," Johnson says. "Just be honest, tell the coach the frequency and type of communication you expect, and make sure they will provide that.”

Any coach will be limited by the feedback you share, so remember that a coaching relationship will require a commitment on your part. “I prefer to have a combination of data and subjective feedback for every workout," Harrison says. "Then, I'm able to analyze the entire workout thoroughly and provide appropriate feedback and/or change the following workouts.”

Johnson adds: "Always communicate how you are feeling. Uploading data on a daily basis is great, but with additional information like how the legs felt, overall fatigue level, or that your nutrition went well really puts all the pieces in place for a coach."

Step two: Identify potential coaches. Once you have a clear understanding of your goals and expectations, you need to create a shortlist of potential coaches.

1) Start by asking other triathletes you know.

2) Reach out to your local triathlon club for a list of coaches that they recommend.

Step three: Interview away. "Matchmaking" is right—your ultimate choice of coach will likely boil down to personal chemistry. After all, you'll be developing a very important relationship. Trust in the coach’s process and plan is critical.

When you interview a potential coach or evaluate his or her program, be sure to ask specific questions about coaching experience, communication style and even other athletes they work with. Also, consider asking for a sample week of workouts so you can see the level of detail and type of workouts being prescribed.

Johnson suggests even going a step further: "Try to talk with athletes that have used that coach. Getting first-hand knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of a coach can be the final piece in the decision-making process."

Harrison, a highly successful masters athlete herself, is candid about her criteria for selecting a coach. Just a few of the questions she considers are as follows: "Is the coach accessible? Do they respond to emails in a timely manner? Are the workouts specific to me and my needs, goals and strengths/limiters? Have they had success with athletes similar to me?"

The path to finding your perfect match is quite simple: do your research, ask lots of questions, select the right coach for your needs and then, most importantly, follow the plan! Consistent training will yield great results to set you up for your best season yet in 2015.

Jordan Blanco is a multiple-time IRONMAN finisher and writer living in San Francisco.

About the Author

Jordan Blanco

Jordan Blanco is a multiple-time IRONMAN finisher and writer living in San Francisco.