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More Than Just Training: The Coach/Athlete Relationship

BY Andy Kirkland

A successful coach/athlete relationship is built on trust and communication from both parties. Here, coach Andy Kirkland Ph.D. and top IRONMAN age group athlete Simone Dailey talk about how they work together to optimize performance.

It’s at that time of year when athletes have new goals for the season and are looking for a coach to work with. As coaches, we’re all in this business because we want to help others reach their goals and because we are passionate about our sport.

However, coaching is not just about designing an annual training plan or prescribing an individual session. It’s about building successful coach/athlete relationships, and that takes hard work. For such relationships to work requires mutually compatible philosophies and an ability to get inside of the head of the athlete. This way, we can work out what they want and, more importantly, what they need. ‘Want’ and ‘need’ are not the same thing.

Open Communication

For most coaches, it takes time to learn to coach someone effectively. It is no different for most athletes, who often need to learn to be coached. Writing plans and prescribing training sessions are only a small part of the coaching process. Then comes getting athletes to provide effective feedback, data analysis and for us to adapt our plans and sessions almost continually.  For the coach-athlete relationship to work, athletes must have the ability, willingness, and desire to be coached. When I’m taking on a new client, I always ask, “Why do you want to be coached, and what do you think the role of a coach is?” Listen carefully to the answer and also listen to your ‘inner voice’ to help you make a judgment on whether their beliefs are close enough to yours for the relationship to work.

Caring About the Athlete

It’s a people business, so seeing the world from the athlete’s perspective is key. It very quickly becomes apparent if an athlete views coaching as a commodity and is expecting someone else to do the hard work. We must care as much as, but not more than, the athlete about their success; otherwise, frustration is likely to result. We must also define what that success looks like.

Success to me is simply to be able to support a healthy and happy athlete who enjoys their sport. Lots of little process goals along the way give plenty of opportunities for success. Asking, “How are you?” rather than, “How did you get on in the race?” shows you care about them more than their results. Answers will often tell you far more than a Training Stress Score will.

Coaching a Successful Athlete

When I got an email from Simone Dailey asking about the possibility of me coaching her, I was excited. Simone was already a successful age group triathlete and yes, seeing a sub-10-hour Kona time after only competing in a few races was great. However, what marked her out was clarity in knowing what she wanted to achieve and that she needed help to get there. She certainly wasn’t looking for a path of least resistance and had a clear desire to be coached.

There’s never that moment at the weekend when I think I can’t be bothered planning her training or having a chat. That’s because I know she’ll do what I ask, give the type of feedback I’m looking for and ‘suggests’ very nicely if she thinks I’ve got something wrong. Her work ethic, both in her life as a fitness instructor and in triathlon, is exceptional, and the biggest challenge is finding balance.

Of course, I’ll look at TSS data but not in isolation. Simone works as a fitness professional, so she has to be just as energized with a 10 AM client as a 9 PM one, and that could be on the same day as doing an early swim and an afternoon bike. The training load must be adapted accordingly.

Trusting the Athlete

What’s even better is that Simone has got expertise in strength and conditioning and an awareness of her own body that I don’t. I, therefore, leave it to her to do her own conditioning sessions, only guiding her on what to focus on.

In this case, I know Simone well enough to trust her to take on a portion of her own training. This only happens when you know your athlete and trust that you are on the same page with them.

Simone on Communication and Building Trust

One of the first questions Andy asked me when we first started to work together was, “How patient are you?” It made me realize that it takes time to reach your goals. No matter how talented you may be, you have to put in the work and back off when you’re told. This is key for me to stay injury free.

Andy’s trust in me to do my own strength and conditioning builds mutual trust and respect between us both. There has to be trust and communication for any relationship to work. I am given guidelines as to what I can work on, i.e., upper/lower limb, so when designing my program, he still has control of what my body needs and what training is going to get the best out of me in terms of performance.

I fill in my training daily into TrainingPeaks and talk via call one to two times per week. Like any athlete, I am eager and willing to put in the work and always want to do more, but he limits my wants to needs. It works very well for both of us. Consistent communication is key.

Simone Dailey also contributed to this article. Dailey was 2nd in her Age-Group at Kona in 2014. She is a British Triathlon Level 2 Coach, a STOTT-qualified Pilates instructor, a Paul Check qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach, and a Advanced Level 3 Personal Trainer.

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About Andy Kirkland

Andy Kirkland Ph.D. is a Lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Stirling, delivering on the MSc. in Performance Coaching programme. He is an expert in endurance performance an active triathlon coach and a Chartered Scientist. He worked for British Cycling for 6 years as a coach educator and is a TrainingPeaks certified coach. You can find out more about Andy on his website.

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