Transitioning Athletes to a New Coach in 3 Steps

Transitioning Athletes to a New Coach in 3 Steps

Switching up coaches can feel jarring and uncomfortable for athletes. Learn how to smooth the transition by focusing on these 3 simple steps.

Athletes switch coaches more frequently than you would expect them to. And as many of you know, each coach has their own style of coaching. Coaches can vary drastically in many factors, from their training plan creation, personality and interaction style, to how they motivate, what they expect of their athletes and more. When an athlete transitions to a new coaching group, a different coach in the same coaching group, or even switches up their desired level of coach attention or sport type, the required coaching style inevitably changes.

No coach is identical to another. The beauty of this is the huge diversity of coaches allows for the huge diversity of athletes to find an optimal coach-athlete relationship. 

Change can be stressful and lead to disheartening miscommunication. This is why leading with patience, establishing open lines of communication and taking the initiative to really get to know your athlete are so essential to smoothing out a coaching style transition. 

Step 1: Evaluate Self-Determined Strengths and Weaknesses 

Before starting off with an athlete, you need to assess their strengths and weaknesses to make sure that your coaching style and program design will align with that individual. It’s so helpful to gather information on your new athlete, especially if they’ve previously worked with a coach. This will hopefully reveal if/why they’re changing coaches and if your athlete-coach relationship has potential.

By creating a simple questionnaire that explores their self-proclaimed strengths and weaknesses, you can come to understand that elements and style of coaching will benefit them the most. Perhaps they struggle with time management and committing to workouts on a regular basis. In this case, you can open with a discussion as to whether gentle reminders or a more rigid confrontational style of coaching feels best for them. Some athletes thrive on strict accountability, while others appreciate patience and training plan flexibility. If they are leaving a previous coach, there’s a good chance that the previous style worked against the aspects of their training that feel weakest and most underserved. 

Step 2: Ask What Worked (& Didn’t Work!)

Another factor to assess is what was successful in their previous experience. It’s important to isolate which coaching elements they gain the most value from as you can use that information to shape the program and style you present with. You also want to ask what they felt was missing or how they were served ineffectively in their previous relationship. 

This assessment should value not just the physical side of training but also the mental and motivational interactions they received.

After this assessment, several important decisions should be made. Discern whether a major coaching style change is necessary or if just minor tweaks will suffice. Alternatively, this might be the point at which you discover that you and the new athlete simply aren’t an appropriate fit for each other. Remember, although some flexibility is necessitated and appreciated by your clients, it is also important to turn down the job if you feel that you and the athlete are on completely different pages. Even though it’s disappointing to lose the work, in the end, both you and the client will be happier if you feel it’s best to say no and move forward independently.

Step 3: Integrate Past Training 

Once you understand the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses and have determined that your styles align, it’s appropriate to start digging into their past training. Ask the athlete to provide you with as much training data as well. This will hopefully reveal their previous training patterns and their current physical ability. Ask for information such as pacing, HRV patterns, sport preferences, volume, training groups, specific days they train, etc.

This will do more to reveal their previous coach’s style, or if they didn’t have a coach, it exposes their personal training tendencies. Some coaches will prescribe a 180-degree flip, starting to train the athlete in a completely foreign way than they are used to. This complete switch is only valid in two scenarios. One, for elite-level athletes with whom you’ve established long-term invested relationships, this is okay because you’ve already built trust and clear lines communication. Two, for the athletes coming off of a long off-season with a fresh slate or those new to the sport, this works because their bodies are ready to make the shift to training. 

However, generally speaking, you want to avoid an abrupt, complete change for the majority of athletes. Try to gradually integrate or mix in their old training with the new style. One of the benefits of creating a transitional integration is the heightened level of learning and understanding of their previous training. This will also reduce the likelihood of injury. Mentally, the athlete will be more onboard for a gradual change because it will feel more comfortable and familiar.

Mackenzie Madison

Mackenzie Madison is a professional triathlete and USAT certified coach. She has been competing in triathlon for 18 years and coaching for 15 years. Mackenzie acquired her B.S. in Kinesiology & Coaching and Masters in Exercise Physiology. She is also a former D1 runner and elite cyclist. Mackenzie is also an instructor at the University of Oregon. Learn more about Mackenzie at www.kenzmadison.com.