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5 Things Athletes Should Say To Their Coach

These 5 conversations can take your training to the next level.

The author discusses race execution with an athlete at the JFK 50 Mile in Boonsboro, Maryland

One thing that has surprised me as a coach is the tremendous variation in how athletes communicate with me. Some athletes only communicate when they need scheduling adjustments, others want the occasional bit of workout advice or context, and others rely on me for a push to get them out the door for their workout.

It seems that a lot of the variation stems from uncertainty among athletes about what they can expect from their coach, and with good reason. Endurance coaches have referred to their industry as "a wild west" of sorts, with no established standards for education, demeanor, experience, etc. One coach might be highly knowledgeable in nutrition, while another has very strong foundations in practical training methodologies, while yet another has a PhD in physiology. The way each of those people coach can be vastly different, and it's hard for the athlete to anticipate the differences in the approach before working with the coach.

A coach's area of expertise is only one piece of the puzzle, because two coaches with identical education and experience could still have radically different coaching demeanors.

My goal with this post is to better define how and what athletes can communicate to me as their coach. By opening our discussions up to what some might perceive as taboo topics, I'm able to better understand the needs of the athlete, and together we're able to build a better coach-athlete relationship.

As coach and athlete, we are on the same team. Making sure that athletes can feel that sense of teamship will be a performance enhancer in itself, regardless of changes to fitness.

With that, here are 5 things more athletes should say to their coach.

1. "What does it mean for my training if I sign up for this event?"

Thinking through the aspects that go into the successful training and completion of an event is a skill. How big an athlete can reach in their goals depends on their unique situation, and having the foresight to thoroughly discuss the answer to this question before the athlete gets attached to the goal often leads to the best results.

I have never answered this question with "No, you can't do that". The question opens up discussion for exactly what will be required (in terms of time and energy) to get the athlete from where they are today, to where they need to be to achieve that goal. By having these discussions for goal after goal, athlete develop a sense of what's attainable for them, and what sacrifices they can expect to make to get there.

2. "I heard/ read [insert concept] about training and thought it was interesting. What do you think about it? Is it something we could incorporate or try?"

There is a lot of advice out there for health and performance. A lot of it is accurate and useful information, but there's a lot of bad information out there as well. In either case, this is an awesome question to hear. First, the athlete is giving thought to their own training. What could work for them? What is interesting to them?

Regardless of my answer or opinion on the topic, the athlete has opened a learning opportunity up for one or both of us, and there's a very real chance they will see a benefit to their training as a result. If not from a performance perspective, then possibly from an enjoyment/ experimentation perspective.

My experience with this question is that the concept is of value about 50% of the time. There is not one right way to train an athlete for their goal(s), so I aim to be flexible when an athlete brings something to the table. If I'm against the proposed concept or topic, then at very least I owe the athlete a thorough explanation as to why or when it might make more sense to test (e.g. trying back-to-back threshold training sessions characteristic of the Norwegian Method probably isn't the right call in the last 6 weeks of training for a 100 Mile trail race).

The author runs during a track workout
Track workouts for mountainous trail marathon training?

3. "I'm not sure this strategy will work for me because..."

Respectful disagreement is incredibly powerful. A fear of disagreement limits our ability to communicate, and by extension, to learn and grow. If an athlete and I have different ideas about what is the best approach for them, I'm open to listening so long as they also keep an open mind. I've made understanding these sort of topics my full-time profession, and I usually have good reasons for advocating for the strategy I have. The same goes for many other coaches. My approach has always been to trust the intentions of others first, and expect that trust in return.

There are a lot of reason hearing this from an athlete is powerful for our success together.

  • First, if we can handle disagreements with each other, then we can handle just about any other topic as well, which goes a long way to deepening the relationship.

  • By having a strong opinion, the athlete clearly has developed a sense of ownership over their training and performance, which is far better than simply following orders from their coach.

  • The athlete spends a lot more time in their own head than their coach ever will, so they could have really valid reasoning behind their disagreement that hasn't been previously discussed with their coach. In which case, disagreement has opened a highly valuable learning opportunity.

4. "I am really enjoying this/ these things or really not enjoying this/these things"

While the topic above is about the more objective matters in training, like what will work and what will not, this one is about preferences. Sometimes athletes are afraid to share their perspective, because they think they need to follow the plan to a T for it to get them to their goals. Even though there are probably strong foundations behind the workouts in that athlete's schedule, as a coach, getting the feedback from them that they are really enjoying (or maybe dreading) those sessions carries weight. Maybe the athlete just needs to better understand why those session are so important, or maybe it's time for a change due to some other circumstances. Either way, the conversation never happens without that kind of bigger-picture, honest feedback from the athlete.

Mountain trail for running in Colorado
Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

5. "What else is going on in your life?"

This question matters more than some athletes might think. Sure, sometimes people worry that talking about things other than training is a breakdown in the professionalism of the coach-athlete relationship. There's a point at which this is true, but the benefit of this far outweighs the risks in the majority of cases.

By opening our discussions up to what some might perceive as taboo topics, I'm able to better understand the needs of the athlete, and together we're able to build a better coach-athlete relationship.

Some athletes seem curious about my situation, running and otherwise, but are afraid to ask. I won't share this stuff unless I am asked, because my focus is on the athlete, not on me. That said, I'm an open book and it's great to be able to connect with athletes on things besides running from time to time.

We are people first and athletes second. I'm not interested in prying into anyone's personal life beyond what they're comfortable with, but I'm happy to chat about non-training things that they want to chat about. The life we live around our training, influences the training, and therefore is relevant. Even if it wasn't, the best coaches will still care about "the person", not just "the athlete".

Extra Credit: "Where can I learn more about ...?"

Whether looking for hard data to substantiate a training practice or a good story to stoke up some inspiration, I'm always excited to answer this question when athletes ask. Human potential is my passion and profession, so I almost always have extra resources to share on any given topic.

Join the movement and realize your potential.

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