What makes for a good triathlon coach? I’m tri-ing it out.

I've been told a coach doesn't need to be the best herself, she needs to know what to look for in others. (Creative commons; army.mil)

I’ve been learning the fine art of triathlon coaching since January from my friends at Well-Fit Triathlon & Training center.  I say “art,” because I think a person could read all the books in the world on science, fitness and health, and not know how to approach a given athlete’s needs.

To start learning that “art,” the owner of Well-Fit paired me with an experienced and analytical coach, who challenged me to learn new things by doing, rather than by watching.

Case in point: The first time he asked me to lead a training group through a bike workout on the computrainers, I shied away. I was nervous, and, as I told him after the class, I didn’t know what all the terms in the workout meant. Instead of telling me, for example, what spin ups were, he asked me what I thought they were. Then he asked me to walk him through the work out.

And we progressed from there.

He had me research swim drills that would help his swimmers perfect their form. I found drills to help improve head lift, kick technique and finishing the stroke. And then — he invited me teach them to the class! First he’d ask me to “teach” him, he’d give me some feedback that made it helpful to explain what we were doing and why to the swimmers, and then he let me teach.

The first time his feedback was to “be louder.” I laughed and told him that somewhere my dad fell down and didn’t know why (no one has ever accused me of being too quiet!). But he was right — it’s hard to hear in the pool with all the water in your ears and with all the echo.

The next time, his feedback was to “be confident.” He said that when a coach exudes confidence the athletes feel more comfortable. He also said that that would come with time, more training, and figuring out what I might specialize (e.g., beginners) in if I were to start coaching.

Eventually I worked up the courage (and a little bit of know-how) to lead the group through a morning bike workout he had written. I felt like I was a touch awkward, and that I should try to tell the members that they were doing well, or say something between telling what they needed to do. But I also didn’t feel like being cheerleader-y. I remember taking a strength-training class recently and the instructor was way too awake for 5 a.m. It just made me angry. I didn’t want to piss these folks off; I wanted them to try to enjoy their workout.

When I told the coach about not knowing how to communicate with the class, he told me that it takes a little while for a coach to find his or her style.

Then I asked him for more feedback, and he obliged. He told me he could tell that I am used to running things, that I’m a boss. “You can tell you’re a field general,” he said. “Don’t be a field general.” I laughed, because I felt silly for being militant without being bad ass. I mean, if a coach is going to be militant, they need to own it and make it work for them. I don’t think that’s my style. We’ll see, though.

Update from the coach I’ve been working with:
He read the post and said: “I think you misinterpret what I mean by field general. The general has to drill good habits into his soldiers and get them to buy into the plan, but then he has to trust in them that they will be able to go out on their own and execute his plan as he watches from afar.”

Didn’t I tell you he was analytical? Helpful. Thanks for clarifying!

Fast forward three months of observing and learning, and it’s time to say goodbye to the Well-Fit team. I’ve really had a great time, but volunteering is starting to get in the way of my job and career.

And two days ago, when I finished my second-to-last session with the coach and class, I wondered if I had learned enough to know if I want to pursue coaching on the side. I was worried that I hadn’t.

Until, that is, my friend Heather and I met up for a swim last night.

I hadn’t planned to play coach. I just planned to swim with a woman who I run with from time to time. As these things tend to go, I figured we’d swap tips if we had ’em. We certainly do that when we run together.

Well, Heather was trying to get back into swimming after a decade of not swimming — and, understandably, her form needed a little work. When she was breathing, she was rotating to take a breath, but then pulling her head up to put her head back down in the water. It almost looked like she was sighting.

So I asked her if she wanted some tips. I told her that the coach and Well-Fit had taught me a lot and that I might be able to get her breathing more efficiently.

She was open to it, so I hopped out of the pool and watched, and analyzed. Then I had her do a breathing drill with the kickboard. That helped a little, so I walked her through what rotation should look like — and that helped more. Finally, she said, she was struggling with not getting enough air. And after we talked about a finding rythym and gliding, I was able to help her fix that as well.

I was so proud of Heather — and of myself, to be honest! — for getting her swim form to be much more efficient.

So, blog readers, if you would be so kind, I would like YOUR feedback:

  • What do you like in a coach?
  • What’s helpful?
  • What’s not?

(And Heather, if you’re reading this, please give me honest feedback and tell me how I did, even though I wasn’t really coaching you. It might help me be a decent part-time coach one day).



Filed under Coaching, Swimming, Tips & Tricks, Triathlon

7 responses to “What makes for a good triathlon coach? I’m tri-ing it out.

  1. One person told me: “Regarding what you feel are awkward silences, most people just want to focus on the task at hand in the middle of an interval.”

    I can get on board with that.

  2. Sue

    I agree with Jen. What I loved about my coach was that she always tailored the workouts to me, and never made me shift my life around to fit the workouts. She made sure it was always about me and was totally willing to change plans based on what my body and mind needed at the time. Also she was great at explaining why I was doing what I was doing – how the workout fit into my overall plan. But most of all, she was encouraging and totally believed in me, even when I doubted myself. So those are my two cents!

  3. Heather

    This is Heather. I thought you were great! Super patient and you made sure I was doing it right before getting back to your workout even after several times of me telling you to do so. I really appreciate the time you took with me!! I would totally recommend you!

  4. Oh so true! The folks at Well Fit do a great job – glad you are doing some work with them!
    I think a coach must be a good fit for YOU – not your friend, your dog, your cat..YOU….and that coach listens and is able to give you feedback on your workouts that lead to progress. Measurable and subjective feedback.
    Communication is key — just doing a random “generic” plan isn’t really coaching, it is writing workouts for random people.
    A good coach really invests their time and their heart into making you a better athlete and help you reach your goals! Good luck! :)