My coach is fitter than yours

by May 2, 2021Uncategorized0 comments

I am always amused when coaches use their own results along with the number of races they have done as their primary method of promoting themselves and their businesses. I can understand being proud of what you have achieved as an athlete, and why wanting to share this with the world is important for some people. However, as far as coaching is concerned, it doesn’t make a difference.

What you achieve or are achieving as an athlete means very little to the long term goal of becoming a better coach. Yes, you do need to understand the race specifics. Having done a few races will help in that process, but going to the extreme while trying to become an elite coach will actually hinder your ability and long term development. This is especially true of coaches who race with their athletes, rather than coaching from the sidelines. It is difficult to be focused on your athletes when you are on the course being one yourself. The correlation between athletic ability, past or present, and great coaching is not particularly strong.

“You teach from the water; you coach from the pool deck”
Duncan Laing – NZ Olympic Swim Coaching Legend

When I was an athlete 20 years ago, I weighed about 40lbs less. If being super fit and fast makes you a better coach, then I would have been a better coach 20 years ago. The truth is, education, experience, empathy and perseverance make you a better coach, not current peak fitness. As a professional coach I spend much of my day focusing on my athletes, family and improving my coaching skills.

Yes, as a coach you need to stay fit and healthy and so I work out a little most days. To go beyond this point as an elite coach and try to compete as an athlete, rather than just participate, pulls too much time from the areas that have the potential to make me a better coach. More importantly, it pulls me away from my athletes who have chosen to invest their trust, time and effort with me so that they may succeed.

For many coaches, coaching is a way to monetize what they love to do. At the introductory/development level of coaching where you are working with people coming into sport, training for their first event or starting to climb the ladder, I see no problem with this. If fact having an athlete as a coach at this point may be a motivating factor for athletes helping them stay focused and on track. However once you move from this level of athlete to High Performance Athletes and national level Age Group athletes, those athletes who are trying to podium or are elite/pro athletes, then you do them a disservice by not focusing fully on their coaching.

When I was a regular presenter at USAT level 1 clinics, one of the opening questions I would always ask potential coaches was, “How many of you race?” The answer was always between 60-80%. When you move to Level 2 coaches, this number drops to less than 50%. At Level 3 you are lucky if there is more than 10%.

If you are an athlete looking at balancing your own training/racing with that of your athletes there are some basic rules you can follow to help alleviate some of these issues. 

  1. Keep you focus on athletes that are below your current level of performance so that you are not competing directly with them
  2. Never race the same event as your athletes are racing, As a coach you need to be a coach, or be an athlete, trying to do both at the same event doesn’t work well at all.
  3. Invest in your education, always be learning, just because you are a great athlete does not make you a great coach! “I’ve had lots of surgeries! but you wouldn’t want me to do yours.”
  4. Coaching is made up of 3 key areas. Sport Specific, Technical and Pedagogical  are all key aspects to coaching at a high level. If you are racing the sport specific will come easy so focus more of Technical and Pedagogical to balance your skill set. 

Being a performance coach is much like being a first time parent, you quickly move from being the center of your own world, to revolving around someone else who is now at the center. For many coaches this shift in priority away from themselves as athletes can be hard on the ego.

“Training with your athletes Ok, but it should always be about them, and never about you”

In order to succeed as athletes we are required to be relatively selfish in our approach to training and racing. As a performance coach we cannot afford to be selfish, because to be a coach means that someone else is always going to take priority.

I remember the first time I switched from feeling athlete-focused to coaching-focused I was in my mid 20s. I was climbing a hill on the bike with two of my elite women and I was watching them ride away from me. I remember feeling proud and hurt all at the same time. I had always prided myself on my biking ability, and yet here I was getting hammered by my elite females. It was at this point I realized that while it is easy to feel like you are giving something up, by focusing on others and coaching them to success what you are gaining in the long term is infinitely greater.

As you move forward throughout your coaching careers don’t ever feel that just because you are not the athlete you once were, this in any way makes you less of a coach. The two are not the same. In fact the ability to make the transition from athlete to coach is a critical developmental step in the professional coaching pathway. Some coaches will never get beyond the point of being an athlete first and coach second. If your long term goal is to be a great coach, this transition will be a natural part of your progression. It may not happen today, tomorrow or even this year. However, I can assure you that when the time is right to make the paradigm shift from athlete to coach you will know.

For me I can honestly say I am happier as a coach than I think I ever was as an athlete. While there are still points in time where I think I would love to be race fit again, the investment in my athletes at the expense of some of my own fitness is worth it.

By Justin Trolle