One of the best things about my job during this part of the year is the opportunity to work with many different types of people; kids, beginners, age groupers, elites, swimmers, men, women.
I’ve been gathering observations and thoughts about these groups. Because as any coach knows, working with kids is not the same as working with adults. Coaching beginners is nothing like coaching age group elites. Men are different than women. What a 30-34 year old can do is very different than the training you give to a 45-49 year old female. What a male 30-34 year old can do in training is different than what a woman of the same age can do. (and, guys, sorry to say but most women can outwork, outtrain and outhurt you. It’s truth and it’s often due to hormones)
You don’t “coach” kids. You communicate with them in a way that connects and engages. You guide them through activities that improve skills, drills and coordination. As a result, they get a little fitter. More importantly, they have fun. Something that many coaches and parents forget is that children are not small adults. They have different physiology and psychology. Youth is the time to develop athletic skills and coordination through the best training of all – play. Resist the urge to push or structure your child’s “training”. Gentle encouragement is useful but let the child lead. If they want to do something, you’ll know – they’ll show an interest and they’ll want to go back. The biggest mistake I see parents making is taking their child’s sport too seriously. Keep in mind that less than 1 percent of kids get scholarships to D1 schools. Guide your child towards sports not to win or gain scholarships but to develop team/collaborative skills, an appreciation for the power of their bodies and self-confidence. Research has shown that early specialization leads to injury and burnout. Try a variety of sports for fun, general fitness and athletic skills. Get your child motivated to move – this will go a long way in adulthood. One last thing: avoid going too far too soon. Long course racing and training has no place in a child’s athletic (or physical) development. Be a wise mentor for your child making decisions from a place of lifelong health and enjoyment of sports.
Spend enough time coaching advanced athletes and you can easily forget what it’s like to take those first steps – to simply be brave enough to act on the idea that maybe you can do this. The best thing you can do for a beginner is to assure them that we were all beginners at one time, we all started somewhere. Provide a coaching approach where no question is stupid, no knowledge is assumed and no experience is necessary. Beginners bring a unique set of fears to the sport that can look trivial to the more advanced. They fear being slow, looking silly or finishing last. Along with building basic movement skills and fitness – you need to build their confidence. Connect with them – listen, talk and educate. Keep it simple. Even something as simple as “swim a 50” will go over the head of most beginners. Break it down to the basics – teach them how to breathe before you let the swim, teach them how to pedal, teach them how to run again. Assemble in areas where you can connect to each athlete in the training session – in the pool, on a track, on trainers in a room for biking. Provide positive feedback before you make corrections. Check in with them often to keep them on track. They can easily get off track by other life stress or de-motivation.
It’s that pesky hormone testosterone that makes men less able to handle a less intense training load than woman. The older the man, the less they can do in terms of intensity. Specifically around age 50 when testosterone really starts dropping, training load must be adjusted. Men are also slow recoverers due to higher muscle mass. One key workout in each sport each week is sufficient. Emphasize maintaining strength and how to improve recovery (sleep, quality foods, body maintenance). Men are more likely to burn the candle at both ends – they’ll be the first to sacrifice sleep to cram in a workout and the last to tell you that they’ve had a sinus infection for 2 weeks. Check in with men often as they’ll be less likely to reach out. Keep the message clear, factual and unemotional. Most men are quite honest with themselves – if they’re having a rough workout chances are they know why and won’t hesitate to call themselves out. They also have a clear understanding of their place in sport – they’re used to being competitive and playing sports – they get how it works. Younger men often need their expectations realigned not due to machismo but lack of experience. Once a man “knows” he “gets it” and then adjusts his attitude and effort accordingly. Lastly, men need proof – if they’re doing something right or wrong, they need to see the why or how. Video of their stroke, data, trends are helpful in making points about their fitness and pacing to help them better understand their strengths and weaknesses.
Due to their bodies, hormones and lower muscle mass, women can train more and train harder than men. Maybe because our bodies are prepared to handle childbirth – we tolerate pain both psychologically and physiologically at a different level. The more experienced the athlete, the more you need to beware that when a woman finally says “it hurts” chances are it’s really, really bad. Psychologically, women are in a tougher place. They are less comfortable with competition – from childhood women tend towards dyadic groups where competition rocks the boat whereas men prefer larger groups where competition is encouraged. Women are more likely to suffer self-esteem and body image issues. They are more likely to manipulate food and diet which can interfere with recovery and training. For that reason, stay on top of them and their details. Never assume they know what to do or will do it – women tend to need more guidance up front and then get to the point where you can slowly ween yourself out of their process. Women are more sensitive to what you say – and what you don’t say. They take things more personally, emotionally and read between the lines. When providing feedback, point out what they are doing well as women often do not have the confidence to believe they are as good as they are. Follow it up with what they can improve. Women are also very interested in the connection; they prefer a personal connection with their coach and your success with them is often grounded in your ability to relate.
Adult Onset Athletes
These are the adults with limited athletic experience from childhood or high school, perhaps a long break through some of adulthood and then they return to athletics as older adults. The best thing a coach can do for this group is to advise them with the big picture in mind – the big picture being their health. This group is likely to take on too much too soon – couch to Ironman, a heavy race schedule with excessive endurance events, 2 Ironmans per year followed by marathons. Often, this group lacks the basic athletic skills or coordination to support the type of training they want to do – or need to do for endurance events. For example, they want to do track workouts but lack the coordination and economy that supports faster running without risk of breaking down. This group is therefore most susceptible to injury. Their bodies don’t have the structure to handle the load of long course training and racing – back problems, knee problems can take this athlete completely out of the sport very quickly. When coaching, be their voice of reason. Explain that longevity is the goal – be conservative with their approach and realistic with their expected rate of progress. Teach them patience and respect for the process – two important factors in the mindset for athletic success.
A tricky group. Often just entering the period called perimenopause, a 10 year process in which women’s hormones change before menopause is complete. This group is adjusting to the difficult changes in their body – mood swings, sleep disturbances, body composition changes. Recovery is often compromised. By age 43, a woman’s sensitivity to estrogen which can cause these changes. I’ve read this group needs more protein to maintain muscle mass. They are more likely to manipulate their diet to counteract hormonal changes affecting their body composition. They can handle much less training load and intensity than they think they can. And, they are often frustrated by declines in their run performance (which tend to come sooner than swim or bike performance). Remind this group that they are racing their age group – not the younger women and not the younger version of themselves. Focus more on the process, less on the outcome. Encourage full disclosure of what they are going through and be very, very supportive as their emotions and frustration can make them more or less committed to their goals.
Age Group Elites
Coaching and developing age group elites can be a highly rewarding or frustrating experience. These athletes have the innate abilities, the commitment and drive to achieve big things. They often have a background in sport where they learned the importance of hard work, sacrifice and suffering. They are hungry and committed. The downfall of this group can often be the perfectionism that seems to accompany the hard-driving never say die age group elite. A missed workout derails the entire plan, a failed interval is proof that they are slow, an off race is reason to doubt. Keeping them focused on the big picture and not judging the day to day can be one of your bigger tasks. Daily, more often than not, the coach is holding these athletes back rather than pushing them harder. Pay close attention to their recovery: HR, hunger, mood, sleep patterns, weight and performance. This athlete is comfortable with pushing far beyond before they admit failure or pain. Rare is the age group elite who is brave enough to say, hey, I need rest!Your job as coach is to push this athlete to athletic maturity rather than to get them to work more. Like I said, they will work – hard, far harder than others. But this same drive can be their downfall through injury or fatigue. Psychologically, especially with the women, you may need to find ways to keep them out of their own way due to destructive habits with (under)eating, social comparison, self-confidence issues and sensitivity with their perception about what others think.
Having competed a short stint as a pro and coached a few pros, I’ve found this group can (ironically) require the most hand holding )especially as they make the transition from amateur to elite). Being a pro is so much more than rising to the top of the age group ranks. It’s a commitment to a lifestyle and mindset that is predominantly focused on one thing: performance. Too many athletes turn pro under poor guidance or the assumption that because they’ve placed top 3 in a big race, they’re ready to take the leap. Give it time. Develop yourself and see your career as a progression. Speed, performance, placement is such a small part of it. You’ll also need to build a brand to attract sponsors/followers, cultivate relationships that are mutually beneficial to cover the services you’ll need (massage, nutrition, strength training, etc). And then, make time to go at it 100%! A pro can nearly clear their life of everything else to focus on the most important thing: THEMSELVES. This selfish lifestyle is not for everyone and doesn’t fit into too many lives. It’s often said that pros don’t train harder (well, sometimes they do) but they recover more simply because they have the time (or can make the time). If you don’t have the time to act like a pro in the spaces between your workouts, wait until a time in your life where that’s possible. Let’s face it – being a pro is a full-time job; eating, drinking, recovering, napping, strength training, body maintenance in addition to the training. This can be upwards of 30-40 hours a week of training and the peripheral activities! Often you will need to retrain their expectations about finishing place, the “game” of the race, their strengths, weaknesses. Keep them focused on the process but also be prepared to micromanage the process like never before – no stone unturned, no holes anywhere. Set clear, realistic, non-time-focused goals so they can see their success every step of the way. Above all, advise pros to conduct themselves professionally in their relationships and communications – representing their sponsors, their sport and themselves. Gratitude, maturity and poise go a long way in any business and as a pro – you are now a business!
The largest growing group in the sport, typically with very limited history in triathlon. They signed up for an Ironman because it’s the thing to do, their friends are doing it or they need to check it off a list. They are blank slates with very limited knowledge about endurance sports. Frequent reminders on proper fueling, hydration and sleep are important with this group. And, the importance of consistency. Note that their biggest gains in fitness will come simply from stringing together workouts day to day. Unfortunately, this is the group most likely to skip workouts. Skip enough of the key workouts and they’ll arrive at the start line not just underprepared but minimally fit. I often have to explain that while this group is not out to win workouts, the goal is to get them to the start line with enough fitness to enjoy the event and not get injured after it. This takes durability, patience and commitment. Those three things will be your biggest obstacles with this group. Keep workouts simple but be honest with them – it’s not spin class, it’s Ironman training. And extreme endurance events can often require some extreme changes in beliefs and behavior. Encourage that they can do it but that it will honestly take time and effort on their part. It’s more than just signing up for it. Above all, emphasize that your reminders about fueling, recovery, pacing are for their own safety in training and on the race course.
Athletes with a swim background come along with an impressively strong work ethic. Work with any age group swim team and you’ll see that from a very young age, swimmers are used to big yards, big work day after day. Locally, I’ve worked with 12 year olds who are swimming 7000 yard workouts several nights a week after their normal school day and other sports. Impressive or scary – hard to say! They have huge engines. They love the thrill of competition and want to do their best. However, their early and excessive history in sports can often mean they are prone to burnout, especially with swimming. Good news is that most swimmers tend to require much less swim volume to maintain their engine and feel so you can invest more time in the other sports. They will need the most work with their run yet they are also the most injury prone. Shorter, frequent runs go a long way. It’s not uncommon for some of my swimmers to run 2 to 3 times a day. Build up their durability through frequency and strength training. Remind them to take a conservative approach with running as they tend to apply their hard-driving swim training background into the run which can mean breakdown or injury.
Runners who come into triathlon tend to experience a good deal of success early on as their fasts splits impress the competition and make a statement. When you can finish the race with your strength, you are in a good place! The trick is to remind these athletes that triathlon is a swim-bike-run; one event. Everything you do before the run matters and the longer the race, the more it matters. Runners tend to struggle with fueling and hydrating, and can be more susceptible to eating disordered behavior. Separating their performance from their eating/weight can be a challenge. Runners need to know that their run is always on track. Remind them that the cumulative fatigue from swim and bike work can slow their run temporarily – which doesn’t mean it’s time to work harder on the run or abandon the training path. Assure them that becoming a more balanced triathlete will provide more reliable performance over all distances.
I’m coming up on my 8th year of coaching and what I’ve learned over the years is that the workouts, the data, the annual training plan development – that’s the easy part. The hardest part is understanding the people. It’s also the most important part. When I worked in education, we were taught to know your audience and deliver a program that connected to their unique traits and needs. Highly relevant to coaching. Know your audience, tailor your message or approach specifically to their needs, personalities and characteristics and the experience tends to be successful for all involved.