There are some class athletes out there who have the knowledge and experience to coach themselves. They know which combination of sessions will make them go fast, know which new methods and products will help them and which will waste their time and money. They know when to rest and when to train, they recognise the signs they are doing too much or too little and have the self-confidence to see their plan through to success. If you count yourself amongst them I applaud you and will enjoy your success.
If you think doing all this and training for your events is beyond your skill and experience, you may well benefit from consulting a coach to help you achieve your goals.
Who is a coach?
There are many types of coach who offer support to athletes in aspects of their preparation and race performance. Some coaches will be trained to work within a club to instruct groups in the skills required to compete successfully. Other coaches will be there to assist these club coaches, helping those who need greater support and working to pre prepared session plans. All these coaches are trained and accredited by the sport governing body to ensure they meet the appropriate standards of quality and safety awareness. In most sports they are known as the level 1 and Level 2 coaches. These club coaches are the life blood of the sport, helping grass roots athletes develop skills and enjoy their sport, however they are not trained or accredited to support individual athletes. Their help will usually be available at a reasonable cost by joining a club affiliated to the sport governing body and attending the club group training sessions.
The other key group of coaches are those who support individual athletes. These are normally accredited by the sport governing body and known as Level 3 coaches. They are generally more experienced coaches, usually starting out working as club coaches then completing extensive classroom and ‘on the job’ training to achieve their Level 3 qualification. Once qualified they will continue their own professional development, studying and gaining experience as they work with their athletes. They will also develop a network of contacts in other specialist areas such as nutrition and physiotherapy to refer their athletes on to. These coaches will normally specialise, not only in a single sport but also the types of athlete they work with. Some will work with the highest performing elite athletes, some will work with young developing athletes and others will provide more focussed support for age group racers seeking to achieve their competitive goals.
You should be a little wary of coaches who offer their services to athletes yet are not accredited by their sport governing body. They may be successful, even elite athletes, or have many years of competition behind them, unfortunately this does not always make them good coaches and they may not be properly insured; sports coaching insurers generally require appropriate governing body coaching accreditation before providing cover.
What can a coach do for you?
No two athletes are the same, each has a different background, lifestyle, ambition, commitment, knowledge, experience and natural ability. They have different strengths, different weaknesses, different desires and different limits, this is why there cannot be a generic plan to develop an athlete to their full potential.
A coach will share their knowledge and experience to help develop you from your current state of fitness and training to where you need to be to achieve your ambition or at least be the best you can be. They will provide an honest assessment of your current state, work with you to address areas of weakness and prepare you for your event. This is not a one off piece of work, it is an ongoing process over a significant period, constantly reviewing progress, adjusting the plan, teaching skills and responding to both positive and negative indicators. They will also provide that objective assessment of your response to the training, providing encouragement and where necessary restrict your training effort.
Put simply they will guide you through the training and preparation process to ensure you reach the start line of your key events as fit and as well prepared as possible. They will support you, be a critical friend and provide the answers to those troubling questions when things don’t go so well.
What is wrong with the plans in books, magazines and on the internet?
Generally there is nothing wrong with them, they are relatively low cost, the price of a book, a magazine or an online subscription, some are even available free. However they are not your plan. Even if they offer different versions of the plan, beginners, intermediate and advanced they do not take account of your strengths and weaknesses, your available time and will not adapt to your progress or difficulties. You will have to adapt them yourself or may be tempted to follow the plan blindly whatever happens.
How do I find a good coach?
There are plenty of coaches offering their services. A simple internet search will reveal many offering plans and other coaching services. It is difficult to assess their quality without knowing them personally, a glossy website is not always a good indicator of a coach suitable for your needs. Cost is not always a good indicator either, an expensive package may seem attractive including clever use of computer communication, but this will not make you faster, it is the quality of the advice and guidance which will give you what you want. That expensive package may not be much better than a generic plan from a book if it is not genuinely personalised and adapted to suit you and your current state of skill and fitness.
The best way to find a good coach is to speak with other athletes or club mates, you will find some are guided by a coach and will normally be happy to explain how well it works. You may know an athlete who has been improving steadily over their time with a coach. Talk to them to see if similar support may help you.
It is important you take your time, talk with the coach, a good coach will be happy to chat and will not pressurise you to take their advice. They will be interested in your background, your current state of fitness, interested in your proposed events and ambitions, interested in you. Confidence in you coach is paramount, this develops through personalised communication between you over a period of time. These days it need not always be face to face, but should be regular and about you and you alone.
What will be expected of me?
Once you start with a coach regular and honest communication is essential to build your relationship and get the best out of it. Without this regular and comprehensive communication you cannot expect your coach to adapt the plan to keep pace with your needs. Honesty is essential, don’t tell the coach what you think they want to hear, tell them what is going on. If life prevents you training, tell them, if you do something different to the prescribed plan tell them. This will help them adapt the plan to your needs, or they may just explain why it was so important you follow the plan exactly.
For many athletes the coach will actually reduce the training volume. Overtraining is often the reason performance has plateaued or even deteriorated. The athlete is then tempted to add in an extra session or two on the sly, don’t do this, trust the coaches experience you may be surprised at the result.
The road to success
Every athlete will benefit from consulting a coach or coaches. However, as in all relationships not all athletes will fit with all coaches. If in the first few weeks of the coaching plan the coach/athlete relationship is not working, a good coach will recognise this and discuss it with you. It does not mean either of you have failed, it has not worked and hopefully the coach will help guide you to more appropriate support.
If that relationship does work you will see a steady improvement in your performance, all your training sessions will be worthwhile and you will know why you are doing them. Most importantly you will approach your races with confidence knowing you are well prepared.