The Triathlon Coach Vs The Basketball Coach – Managing Expectations

I love to read business books, which are really just self-help books that dudes don’t feel embarrassed reading. One thing that I notice a lot is that the great minds of sports coaching (John Wooden comes to mind) are frequently mentioned in business books. This is because these coaches are great at the big picture leadership skills that matter to business. But that leadership was able to evolve because the coach did not have to do his job alone. He has a whole team of assistant coaches that specialize in every aspect of the game, not to mention the team chiropractors, doctors, nutritionists, physical therapists, athletic trainers, sports psychologists, and more. Under this type of structure, a head coach is given the help he needs so that he can work on the big picture and bring his special talents to his team. Now let’s compare that to a triathlon coach.

We are expected to do everything: leadership, sports psychology, injury prevention and guidance, strength training, nutrition, exercise science, training plan strategy and creation, racing strategy, gait analysis, etc. ALL OF IT. And convey it all to our athletes. I think it’s an unrealistic expectation. I certainly know that there are VERY FEW coaches out there that excel in all these areas equally and are able to communicate that information effectively to all their athletes. This creates some unrealistic expectations for both athletes and coaches that I don’t see getting talked about at all.

Athletes expect their coaches to know everything about triathlon training – fair enough. But we also get the calls about bike fit, X helmet versus Y helmet, nutrition and weight loss, lack of sleep, training protocols, and that nagging pain on the outside of the knee. We do our best to handle all these things as they arise but if we are being honest, we have one or two areas of expertise (the things we are passionate about and that probably got us into coaching in the first place) and the rest is just basic knowledge suitable for answering basic questions. As it stands now, most coaches don’t advertise their services in a way that highlights what their specialties are so that athletes can make choices that better serve their individual needs. Instead, all coaches are assumed to know all things and how you choose a coach is more about geography and referral than anything else.

I think the this is partly because coaches don’t want to let people see behind the curtain. It’s not really a great feeling to say to the world “I am a coach but I don’t know everything”. But guess what? John Wooden was an amazing coach but he still used a whole team of coaches to help his team win games. He wasn’t expected to be the expert at everything. He was expected to trust the knowledge of the experts he chose to guide his team to victory. The same should be true of triathlon coaches. Each of us can let our potential clients know what we are great at and outsource the rest.  As an example, I recently had an athlete ask me about a supplement. I don’t keep up-to-date on every supplement out there other than the few that I think everyone can benefit from. I could have looked up some info on it and then given my athlete a reply that seemed like I knew something about this topic, but I chose instead to send him to MY trusted source, In this case, my advice on this topic would not have been a well-informed professional opinion, so better to make that clear than to give an uninformed opinion or worse, make some blanket statement about supplements in general that make it seem like I have a strong opinion when really it’s that I don’t know.

Then there is the money issue. It’s hard to ask an athlete to pay another professional for services that the athlete may assume should be part of what you provide as a triathlon coach. But keep in mind that as triathlon coaches, we don’t make a salary like pro sports team coaches; it’s ok to set boundaries. Yes, it is a big commitment to some of our athletes to pay $150.00 or more per month for our services, but it’s better to be really awesome at the few things that are your specialty and let your clients know that is what they are paying for than to water down your services with stuff you aren’t great at.

Some key steps you can take to set boundaries and improve your brand:

1. Communicate UP FRONT, when you have that new prospect, that you charge X amount of money and that includes X services. In addition to your services, you can refer them to other professionals for additional needs. I think that stating this up front is the best way we currently have for setting reasonable expectations for the coaching relationship while also highlighting for our athletes what we are great at.

2. The other way to deal with this is to hire other coaches who complement your skills. That way you have an internal source for information you are weak on, allowing you to give your athlete a more well-rounded coaching experience. You can and should advertise this as part of the strength of your business. Andrew and I have very different passions when it comes to triathlon coaching and we are always talking about our athletes and getting perspective from each other. It’s like each of our athletes has 2 coaches…this is starting to look more like a football or basketball team now, isn’t it?!

3. If you aren’t in a position to hire, set up a small group with a few other coaches where you can share expertise with each other and ask for help with athlete issues you aren’t 100% comfortable with. Tell your athletes when you have asked another coach for advice on their situation. I think most athletes would LOVE to know that you asked for a second opinion. It shows that you care enough to put the work in to get the best possible outcome for them.

In conclusion, remember that the first step in being exceptional in your coaching is to identify what you are awesome at! It’s just as important to maximize your strengths as it is to minimize your weaknesses. Focus on that when you market your services and then get started thinking about how to fill in the gaps with help from others.