Starting the sport at age 35 in 2011, I burst into the triathlon scene and hit the ground running. Consistent overall age-group wins and course records at local triathlons, 70.3’s, then an ITU world championship title at age 37, I thought, “Now or never RBM!” With a fire in my belly and the genetics to do well, I decided to take my professional license and start competing against the best in the world.
During the age-group years, my triathlon guidance was fueled by triathlon magazines and online plans. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. All sources were beckoning my need for a coach to “get to the next level”—a phrase which now pierces my ears like fingernails down a chalkboard. Nevertheless, I was convinced and a search for the best possible coach ensued. Enter website rummaging.
Truthfully, I didn’t know what I was looking for in a triathlon coach. My soccer background taught me well about the unique qualities of a skilled soccer coach—they were easy to spot. But what about an individual endurance sport like triathlon? What was important? Was it possible to be coached remotely? What qualities crafted a so-called “good coach” anyway? At this point, I barely knew the names of top professional female triathletes, so I certainly didn’t have insight into the big pro coach names. For example, Emma-Kate Lidbury mentioned that her coach at the time was “Matt Dixon from Purplepatch” to which I replied, “Never heard of him.”
Then, Emma-Kate suggested Dr. Philip Skiba from Physfarm. After all, I had a duel interest in duathlon, and Phil had coached Catriona Morrison to four Duathlon World championship titles. Ok, great—another coaching website to pick apart to decipher the fact, from fiction, from fuzzies, from false promises.
Upon review, Physfarm was different. Physfarm had purpose. Physfarm had legitimacy. Physfarm was science driven, and was run by a smart dude with a good head on his shoulders. Ten minutes into our conversation, my difficult decision became an easy one. No sales pitches, no guarantees, no phony ideas or plans. He was an academic medical doctor with stellar analogies who could logically explain down to the cellular level precisely how training ‘works’. His information came straight out of PubMed and his own research on critical power. No fluff. Straight up empirically driven coaching methodology. Physfarm was a solid choice and Phil was the right coach for me.
“For me” is italicized as I have learned that good coaches and talented athletes don’t always align. Coach-athlete compatibility and developmental success is so much more. Compatibility results from having a firm trust in the system, allegiance to the process, personality congruency, shared goals and values, shared expectations, and a genuine team orientation. There are dozens of systems, hundreds of personalities, and endless possible goals and expectations. The “right” coach for a unique athlete does exist. Everything depends on the solid ground—the relationship.
From an oblivious endurance athlete to a well-informed, student of the sport, Phil and I shared much success—70.3 champion, bronze medal at Powerman World Championship, 2x USAT Duathlete of the Year, Kona pro qualification, and multiple podium finishes. As we all know, all good things come to an end. Phil and I had a long chat after Kona about our personal and professional goals. It was a natural departure for our relationship as he has decided to cut back his coaching in 2016 due to other life commitments. Our friendship will continue, but he will be missed—a true gem.
And so…another round of coach shopping for 2016. What a task. Instead of searching blindly, however, this time I knew exactly what I was looking for. From my work with Phil, I established certain coaching standards in which I didn’t originally peg as important. There were now requisite coaching traits I deemed as “non-negotiables”—the essential and necessary ingredients to build a solid relationship and help me to continue to grow as an athlete. In addition to the qualities that a coach must have, there were also several qualities I would not tolerate.
First, the coach shopping in a nutshell:
1) Heavily researched 15 coaches highly regarded in the triathlon world
2) Spoke to several pro athletes about their experiences from past and current coaches
3) Considered my personal non-negotiables.
4) Contacted 8 coaches who made the initial RBM cut.
5) Obtained Phil’s advice from his coaching perspective.
6) Considered the “on paper” pros and cons of each coach
7) Interviewed six coaches and continued email correspondence
8) Considered my non-negotiables again
9) Made an easy objective, and ‘gut’ decision. I knew instantly.
10) Took a nap. Seriously, this was an exhausting process.
There are many coaching traits (beyond my non-negotiables) that are important which certainly contribute to my definition of a “good coach”, but here are the deal breakers.
- Highly sophisticated knowledge of anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, training principles. No guess work. No frying my endocrine system. Must be watchful of overtraining syndrome & ‘truly’ value injury prevention. Anyone tinkering with my body/effort at this high level must be purpose driven and know exactly what is happening to the body systems as a result of session assignments.
- Solid communication skills (writing skills, verbal skills). Logical, articulate, available for athlete, etc. I also listened to a few coach podcasts–easy rule in’s, easy rule outs.
- Personality (genuine care/concern for athletes, non-defensive, open to new ideas). An interpersonal connection or “click” needs to happen—typically somewhat immediate. Easy to nail down in first 5 minutes of an interview (my psych degree comes in handy here! ).
- Professionalism (e.g. collegiality, social media and personal conduct, language used, unquestionable integrity). I’d much rather have a coach who is distracted by knowledge acquisition and their athlete’s needs than engaging in unproductive social media conversations. Coach conduct translates to athlete conduct and athlete professionalism.
- Teacher: High capacity to teach. Both smart AND wise. Can break down a mountain into a stone, and explain it effectively. Knowledge overrides triathlon ‘certificates’ or “levels”. A “Yoda” teacher, where the athlete chews on high level information for a while & growth happens. Provides athlete with consistent, reliable, accurate information. Also, has a “critical eye” and perceptiveness.
- Life long learner—Generates own literature and shares information. No hiding what they know. Has an insatiable desire to learn, has flexibility in his/her thinking. Coach who values his/her own growth & learning as a professional.
- Shared values (e.g. equality in sport, performance excellence, not affiliated with triathlon initiatives I don’t believe in. Respects my need for family considerations.
- Possesses strengths where I have weaknesses (e.g. swim).
- Whole person: Values every dimension of the athlete. Guides athlete and promotes self-sufficiency.
- “Rule out” traits:
- Coach who believes their way is the ‘only way’.
- Coach who bashes other methodologies. There are multiple ways to skin a cat.
- Egocentric (e.g. calls themselves one of the ‘world’s best coaches’) and believe they can ‘prove’ their competency with their roster.
- Affiliated with $$ driven (not athlete centered) initiatives.
- Believes their program does more for the athlete than the athlete does for him/herself.
- Claims for “secret strategies”. They don’t exist…unless they are illegal and found in the bloodstream…and in that case, I’m not interested.
Choosing a new coach is not something that should be taken lightly. High coaching standards are incredibly important for professional athletes and age-groupers alike. High coach standards by athlete seekers help grow the sport, keep coaches accountable, keep athletes safe & healthy, and allow for maximized athletic and personal development. Advice to others: Don’t rush your decision, be methodical, do your research, stick to your own “non-negotiables”, and don’t hire a coach based on his or her roster. The last point may only mean that the coach is good salesperson who happened to attract talented athletes to begin with. I am so thankful that my time with Phil taught me so much and served as a template for my new coach search.
Ecstatic to say, that I have found a perfect match “for me” for 2016 and beyond. Alan Couzens from Endurance Corner embodies all of my non-negotiables, and more. His passion for coaching and commitment to excellence is indeed palpable and each item above can easily be checked off without hesitation. Our 5-6 week start has been extremely motivating, hope inspiring, and overall seriously impressive. Thank you Justin Daerr for giving me your candid A+ ‘AC’ evaluation. Alan and I have come up with a plan of attack for 2016, and there is no question that the next era will be an exciting one. Thanks for reading.