10 Tips for Finding the Right Coach

Whether you're new to the sport of triathlon or a seasoned veteran, having a coach is a big step toward improved performance.

The structure and accountability that comes with training under someone else are two of the biggest reasons why triathletes turn to coaches to achieve their goals. But whatever your reasons, the big question is: Where do you begin?

Here are 10 questions to consider as you get started on the process of hiring a coach.

1. Why do you want a coach? I know it seems like an obvious question, but you must ask yourself what you are looking for from your coach. The answers may change as you continue your investigation; but begin with a list or a paragraph describing why you want to trust your training to someone else.

2. What is your budget? Begin your investigation process with a monthly budget in mind. As you proceed through your search, you may find that you need to modify your budget or your coaching service expectations.

The fee that a coach will charge depends on a combination of the coach's history of success and the services provided. A highly successful coach providing very personalized services demands a higher fee than either a new coach with very personalized services, or a highly regarded coach providing limited services.

3. What is that person's actual coaching experience? A coach that has vast and proven experience at successfully coaching athletes has a bigger knowledge base to draw from than someone who has only coached one or two people. Expect to pay less for lower experience levels.

Keep in mind, however, that just because someone has achieved a high level of personal success in the sport doesn't mean they'll automatically make a great coach or be the right fit for you.

4. What is the coach's formal education? There are several forms of applicable formal education. The two most common sources include a college degree and a coaching certification from the national governing body for the sport, USA Triathlon.

For a coach to meet the standards of a degree or certification, he or she is required to pass a test that exhibits their ability to develop athletes. While there are no guarantees that someone with a degree or a certification is a good coach, they do provide proof of a minimum level of knowledge.   

5. How much contact do you need or want from the coach at training sessions? If you need or want a coach to be with you at workouts to help with form, technique, motivation, or all of the previously mentioned, expect to pay more for personal attention.

You can typically reduce the cost if you can become involved in a group coaching situation. These group sessions are a great way for athletes in a certain region or triathlon club to pool resources, get quality instruction and develop camaraderie. In this situation, the athletes may or may not be following the same overall training plan.  

If all members of the group are following the same training plan and the coach meets with athletes at the group training sessions, this is an excellent way for athletes to quickly gain knowledge and skills. Depending on the particular situation and the size of the group, the coach may help athletes modify the training plan to meet personal needs, or individual athletes may need to make their own modifications.

6. Do you want to be associated with a club or a group? Some coaches offer team training kits (including tri suits, jackets and other gear) along with group training sessions. If you like to be involved in a team atmosphere, look for a coach that offers this option.

7. Do you want a highly personalized training plan? If you want a training plan designed to suit your specific strengths and weaknesses, expect to pay more for that kind of coaching service. If you are paying for a highly personalized training plan, be sure that your definition of "personalized" is the same as the coach's definition. Expect to pay more for a completely customized plan than for a plan that has been modified from a template or for a single plan given to a group of athletes.

8. How much contact, outside of actual training sessions, do you want with your coach? If you want to have access to your coach at any time, including a personal cell phone number, and have priority on that coach's e-mail list, expect to pay more for this service than for limited contact or no contact at all.

Some coaching packages come with a limited amount of monthly contact. If you purchase a training package with such an agreement, honor those limitations in the contract.

9. Do you want the coach to be present at races? Is it important to you that your coach be physically present at races? If you expect the coach to attend your events, be willing to pay more for this service.

10. At the end of three months, six months or a year, how will you and the coach know that the coach/athlete experience was successful? Certainly, athletic progress is one measure of a successful coach/athlete relationship. Each time you modify your training or racing goals, be sure to take a second look at defining a "successful season."

For some athletes, there are additional items they look for in a coach/athlete relationship. Examples include daily phone calls, exposure on the coach's website and having the coach accompany the athlete on visits to a sports medicine doctor or nutrition consultant.

Coaching Service Options

There are a wide variety of services offered by various coaches, and this column touches on a few of the important items to consider. None of the coach/athlete situations described in the column are "good" or "bad"; rather, it is a matter of deciding the level of service you want provided and how much you are willing to pay for the various services and experience levels.

In addition to the service options of a coaching relationship, there is also the personality component that is critical to your success as an athlete. You may need or prefer to work with a coach with a particular personality, coaching style or philosophy. Be aware of this as you investigate your options.

A Coach for You

Take the time to think about how much of a commitment—in both time and money—you can make to your training and what you hope to get out of it, and don't be afraid to ask a potential coach questions about how they can help you achieve your goals.

It doesn't matter whether you are looking for a high level of service and reputation or just a training plan to follow on your own schedule, there is a coach available to help you succeed.

Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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