C is for coach(es).
I’ve been excited to sit down and write this post because it talks about something that has forever changed the trajectory of my life: coaching.
Yes, I’m a coach with a full-time coaching business. But over the years, I’ve worked with four coaches who have changed my life as a person and athlete. I want to tell you about my experiences with them. In doing so, you’ll discover what makes a good coach and a successful coaching relationship.
In 2003, I had been in the sport for four years with some promising results locally. The next logical step was to seek out a coach to see how far I could take it. After a quick search on the USA Triathlon website, I found one local name that I recognized: Jennifer Harrison. We chatted for a bit on the phone and I remember telling her two things; 1) my husband and I are a package deal – you coach the both of us and 2) I want a day off every week. I’ll never forget her reply: Elizabeth, do you really think the girls winning your age group are taking a day off every week?
Over the next seven years, we worked together to achieve amazing progress. Jennifer took me from winning my age group at the local sprint to winning national championship races overall. What we accomplished together performance-wise still to this day inspires me. Remember, this was long before the gadgets, the data, the Training Peaks uploads. What mattered more – and still, what I believe matters significantly – was that someone who cared, who truly deeply cared about me and my outcome was behind me. She didn’t just know her stuff – she knew people. She cultivated an unshakable confidence that I still carry around this day. Simply put, she believed in me.
Over time, that coaching relationship grew into a deep friendship. Then, it grew into mentorship as I started my own coaching business. Everything I learned about how to be a professional coach is from Jennifer. She is the ultimate business woman who places loyalty, integrity, quality and gratitude at the heart of everything she does in business.
And now for the past few years, I have coached Jennifer. To me, that demonstrates tremendous trust between two professional and well-connected individuals who only want the best for and out of each other. We continually evolve our relationship – this year, we set out to team coach an athlete, we accepted a group coaching project for a charity and we have more exciting projects on the horizon.
Kurt is one of the most knowledgeable, straightforward and effective coaches I know. Simplicity is what he does best and he encourages his athletes, simply, with this phrase: do work. There is no fluff about him. You do safe, repeatable work day after day. His program is built upon your ability to master day in, day out consistency. And that’s why it works for so many. The simplicity of his program was welcome at a time when my life begged for it – I had just had my son and had set out with the big goal of qualifying for the Ironman World Championship. At the time, the goal itself felt complicated let alone how to balance the training. He took it down to the basics – a repeatable week with predictable training sessions. This predictability was exactly what I needed as a new mother. Kurt also mastered something that very few male coaches can do well – the connection. If I had a question, he was there. He had a knack for saying the right thing at the right time – doing so very matter-of-factly. Still to this day, we randomly pop into each others lives to connect about kids or coaching.
Everyone in Chicago knows him by name and two decades of race results speak for themselves. I presented Adam with no small task when I approached him in the summer of 2013: you have 8 weeks to get me on to the podium at the 70.3 World Championship. In exchange, I committed those 8 weeks of my life to doing whatever he told me. His high volume approach was something far beyond what I had ever done before. I remember the week where I spent 12 hours on my bike (how could I forget?). Hundreds of miles in the saddle, consistently running upwards of 40 miles a week – it was a lot of work at a dangerous ramp rate. But I made my goals very clear and this was the first time ever as an athlete that I was truly ALL IN. Not that I didn’t work hard, sacrifice or suffer before but doing it for 20+ hours a week was a completely different level. Adam threw some of the most creatively challenging workouts at me that made me redefine how hard is hard, how much faster can you go on tired legs. Though we only worked together for a short period of time, he displayed utmost confidence in his ability as a coach and my ability achieve the end goal. His caring and responsive approach instilled a confidence not just from the work I was doing but in myself. Not surprisingly, we achieved what we set out to do. I got on the podium.
The first time I spoke with Matthew on the phone, it was like connecting with an old friend. What drew me to him as a coach was not just our similarities – both age groupers who turned to coaching, both with families – but his impressive record of success with female athletes. We had six months to go from zero (after baby #2) to being less than 2 minutes off of winning the amateur race at Ironman Texas. What continues to intrigue me, as a coach and athlete, is how although we all know the basics of what makes for strong endurance performance – we all go about it slightly differently. Having said that, Matthew’s approach was quite different. There were intervals at watts I had never seen before. Interesting ways of doing long runs. Different tests. Like any good coach, he was open to answering any of my questions about the why and the how. He was clearly operating from a long term vision of me racing at Kona even before I got there. Always honest, encouraging and open to discussion, a true professional with incredible passion for what he does and care for his athletes.
Hopefully what you’ve gained is a picture of what makes for a good coach. In an ever-growing market full of those who call themselves coach without any idea of what coaching actually means – I have a very, very short list of coaches I would ever consider or recommend. The list above is a good place to start.
What makes them good coaches? If you read between the lines, you’ll see that good coaches are not just masters of the knowledge but of the connection. They do so by being responsive, honest, and open to discussion. They commit to caring as much about you and your goal as you do. You walk away from them not just a better athlete but a better person.
The good coaches know they don’t need a lot of fluff, marketing or gimmicks. Their way of representing themselves and their work speaks for itself. They behave like a true professional. They continually look for ways to add more value to what they can provide for athletes: through more education, more communication and simply committing to aspiring to be one of the best.
Do I think every athlete should work with a coach? No. Only those who are interested in cooperating, communicating and learning more about what they can do to improve versus what they’re doing well. Don’t hire a coach to give you a bunch of gold stars. Hire a coach to take you someplace else – the next level, the discomfort zone. Be open to their way of doing things and when you don’t understand – ask questions.
Often, I get asked how you become a coach or how you grow a business. You learn coaching by coaching. By getting out there in front of people. At times, this means giving away your time for free. At other times, this means working with groups you didn’t think you’d ever want to work with. You must embrace the opportunity to get your hands dirty and learn real world coaching. You don’t learn it in a book, on a website or by attending a certification. Get in front of people. Learn how to effectively communicate and build connections.
Every good coach and well-coached athlete know the science of coaching is important but what makes the magic is the art of coaching – how you apply the science and do so in a way that creates a genuine connection – to the athlete, their goals and to you. Nearly 20 years in the sport, and I’ve still found ways to make magic in my racing – all of the races aren’t home-runs but to still be setting PR’s at age 40 and to find myself still craving more, still learning? I have those above to thank for that, those who have taught me how to be a better coach, mom, business owner and athlete.