Hiring a Coach? Buyer Beware

It seems that new triathlon and cycling coaches are popping up everywhere—on the internet, at the local gym, in newspaper ads and on one-page fliers placed under your wiper blade. With all of the advertising and so many options for coaches, how does an athlete know where to start and who to trust with their goals? This column covers what to look for when shopping for a new endurance coach.

Race experience alone does not make a good coach.

Successful completion of 12 years of schooling does not qualify anyone to be a teacher in the education system. Even if the person was the valedictorian at their high school, top scholastic performance does not automatically make that person qualified to teach others. The same basic principle applies to sport coaches.

In addition to comprehensive race experience, make sure your coach has coaching experience and credentials.

A good coach will be versatile.

Top endurance coaches have knowledge about physiology, anatomy, nutrition, biomechanics, pedagogy (the principles and methods of instruction), sport psychology, sport-specific skills, race tactics, athletic injuries, planning, age-appropriate training, goal-appropriate training, plan individualization, working with different personality types, training principles and training periodization to name a few topics.

Coaches can obtain knowledge from a variety of sources including college degree programs and certification programs offered by various organizations such as USA Triathlon, USA Cycling, USA Swimming or USA Track and Field.

Inquire about the coach's educational qualifications. You want a coach that has a degree from a recognized university or a certification from a credible organization such as those listed above. A one-time certification or diploma is not enough; top coaches seek out continuing education opportunities, they never stop learning.

Consider breadth of coaching experience.

In addition to book knowledge and personal athletic experience, look for a coach that has experience coaching other athletes. Of course every coach has to begin somewhere, and you could be a coach's new athlete. The good news is that new coaches, with limited experience, usually charge less than experienced coaches with proven track records.

Be willing to pay more for a coach in high demand, and with a history of success, than for a new coach.

Consider the risks.

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people looking to take advantage of others in every industry. If you are going to give a coach or coaching organization your credit card number, would you want to know if one of the coaches has had a fraud or felony conviction? Would you want to know if a coach has had a history of sex crimes?

USA Triathlon and USA Cycling require coaches to complete a criminal history check prior to allowing that coach to be certified. Other professional organizations may have this requirement as well and it's worth your time to find out. Even if a coach displays a logo on their website that gives the impression they are certified by a top-shelf organization, it doesn't hurt to check with the issuing organization to be sure the coach is actually on their roster of coaches that are in good standing. Certainly report any coach that is falsely advertising a certification with an organization to the proper authorities.

Clarify who will provide the service.

In some cases, coaching advice is provided by a coaching group. Ask whether you will be assigned your own personal coach or if you will be coached by any and all members of the coaching group. Are all of the coaches in the group certified? Do the certified coaches answer all the questions on the message board or are non-certified, non-coach ghost writers used?

If you work with a coaching group, don't be afraid to clarify who is providing your coaching advice and services.

High expertise and high level of personal service is more valuable.

If you want a high level of service from a highly qualified and experienced coach, be willing to pay more for that service. What you pay for your coach and your training plan will depend on the coach's level of experience, the amount of face-time you have with the coach, phone and e-mail contact with the coach and the coach's education, to name a few.

Frequent interaction with a highly qualified coach is worth more than a ready-to-use training plan designed by a newbie coach.

Do your homework.

If you are thinking about hiring a new coach, start your research with an internet search on the  person's name to see if anything unusual or suspicious pops up. If the coach you are considering has a certification through USA Triathlon, USA Cycling, USA Track and Field or USA Swimming you know that the person has gone through a background check and must complete a background check every two years in order to maintain certification. This feature alone makes it desirable to work with a coach certified by one of the national governing bodies.

Working with a coach is a very personal experience. It can be greatly rewarding for the athlete and the coach. Choose your coach wisely and you'll enjoy a rewarding experience while achieving personal best performances.


Gale Bernhardt was the USA Triathlon team coach at the 2003 Pan American Games and 2004 Athens Olympics. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Games in Sydney. She currently serves as one of the World Cup coaches for the International Triathlon Union's Sport Development Team. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow cycling and triathlon training plans. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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