I have been thinking a lot about coaching lately. What it means to me, how I want to coach, what has worked over time and what has not. I am sharing some thoughts and reflections below!
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I have been thinking a lot about coaching in the last ~8 months. What it means to me, how I want to coach, what has worked over time and what has not.
Over the years, I have seen a lot of coaches come and go, mostly because they were coaching as a side gig to a job that had nothing to do with working with athletes, like the triathlete who is really a full time insurance broker but also a triathlon coach on the side. About 17 years ago, shortly after I moved to Canada from New Zealand, a new triathlon coach asked me where I get my workouts from. I remember looking at him with a puzzled look on my face. What do you mean, where? I make them up. Based on coaching experience, listening to the athletes I have worked with over the years, observing their progress, monitoring their results and using underlying physiological principles to blend the art of coaching with science.
The truth is, coming up with workouts isn't hard at all. In fact, it's probably the easiest part about coaching.
A bit about my coaching background
Consider it a prologue of sorts.
I started coaching as a 16 years old (25 years ago). My swimming coach needed help with the younger swimmers, so a few times a week I showed up earlier to help before my own training session to observe and assist. In turn, she taught me how to structure training sessions, analyze technique and many lessons about coaching. Her influence went beyond teaching me swim coaching basics. She taught me about work ethic, no excuses attitude, attention to detail and dedication. She cared deeply and she was able to modify training sessions to accommodate for individual needs as/if needed - Anyone who has swam competitively and/or coached swimming knows it is not an easy task to do that within a squad setting, especially when there is limited lane space. The lessons I learned all those years ago still shaped the way I approach working with athletes.
I coached on and off until I went to university, mostly casually helping athletes with their cycling / running / triathlon training plans, and teaching swim lessons. At university, I coached daily, as one would expect when enrolled in a sport coaching and science degree… I mostly coached kids / junior track & field and cross country running at the time, because I wanted to gain experience with a sport I have not coached before (but competed in). I won’t bore you with my coaching work since, most of that is on my website if you are curious.
Over the (almost) 17 years of running my business, my work has shifted from mostly coaching to mostly bike fitting (with the amount of sports nutrition work staying fairly consistent). It was an organic shift due to demand and I rolled with it. I have individuals I coach (cycling and triathlon) and I have been in the process of going backwards to how I used to coach until about 5 years ago. Normally, going backwards might seem like a step in the wrong direction, but in this case, it seems like the best way forward.
As mentioned earlier, I have been reflecting a lot and have come to realize that I was at my most effective as a coach when I was working with athletes creating a highly individualized training plan for each of them, and in some cases, when appropriate, there was also a team/squad environment. What I mean by that, is each athlete had their own individual plan, a direct line of consistent communication with me as their coach, but there were also weekly group training sessions that were often modified to fit individual needs. I think there is a difference in the effectiveness of the program when it starts with the individual and their needs at the core, as opposed to starting with the group as the core and then maybe getting some individualization if needed.
I strayed from that model by doing a bit too much generic coaching / planning for my liking and as I mentioned above, I am now in the process of going back to my ‘roots’.
I have been doing some reading and one article caught my attention in particular: Training or Synergizing? Complex Systems Principles Change the Understanding of Sport Processes.
I found this line from the paper very relatable, and important (in my opinion):
“Coaches and practitioners usually search for practical recipes, but the only recipe emerging from complex systems principles is that there are no fixed recipes”
Interventions in one context can be dysfunctional in another, meaning that personalization is everything (as well as context, of course).
Here are some points I have mulling over lately and I want to share them with you:
What is the minimal effective dose (intensity, hours, etc) to get the desired outcome? We want to find the dose that allows for consistency - daily, weekly, monthly, yearly… It is individual and will vary for each athlete, depending on a lot of different factors like work, family, life… It is also likely to fluctuate over time.
One size does not fit all. You can’t just take someone else’s training program and copy it for yourself, especially when the plan you are trying to copy is for an elite athletes and you are an age grouper (even if you are a fast one). The underlying principles could certainly (and likely should) be applied, but first you need to:
Understand what those underlying principles actually are
Know what your needs are
Learn how to modify those principles to meet your needs
Of course, if you are a coach working with an athlete, you need to know how to do that for him/her.
Sounds straight forward, right? Unfortunately, that is not the always case. In other words, stop copying the answers to the test from others. It might work short term, but we all know how that story ends.
Writing workouts is not the hard part. The real challenge is planning workouts in a way that works for the individual, prescribing the best workout for the individual at the right time based on their individual goals and needs, while following the point above about minimal effective dose. Because… Consistency… As well as longevity in sport and so on (because lets face it, most of us pay to play, not getting paid to play).
Be patient. When you think that things ‘clicked’ all of a sudden, like magic, it was really just a result of being consistent over time. Its okay to spend time in the plateau, even though it might seem scary, as breakthroughs typically follow a long period of stagnation. We often need to wrestle with our natural tendency of being impatient and absorb all the work before we see the benefits (I am sure there is a life lesson here, too).
As a side note - In case you missed it, I posted the answers to the Ask Me Anything questions asked at the end of January (a paid subscriber benefit). You can read the Q&A under the AMA section above or by clicking here.
I hope you found this article valuable and interesting. I would love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to comment below and share this post with others!
Next week, the theme is nutrition. I have not decided what to write about yet, so if you have requests, feel free to start a thread in the chat, comment below or reply to this email.
Great read, Noa. I share many of these sentiments, myself. A current quandary of mine is the dynamic whereby influencers become coaches. The process of becoming engrossed in a sport and journey, sharing their journey online, building a following, and then 'coaching' on the basis of what they know. Yet, what they know is to focus on the isolated variables of the coaching environment - the 'training plan'. Not the individualised, humanistic application of said plan. The first half of this journey is wonderful. Generating passional people. The second half can go either way. I'd love to know your thoughts.
All the best.