Why you need a coach

But, to be successful at the highest potential level as soon as possible, every athlete in any sport needs a coach. Trial and error will work but it could take years of effort when the answers could be found quickly by working with a coach. You cannot stand back from yourself and see exactly what you might be doing wrongly or how you might effect an improvement.” – Arthur Lydiard, Running to the Top

When I first took up running I learned, like most new runners, by asking more experienced competitors, reading books, browsing the internet and eventually joining a running club (Crusaders AC). I noticed, that in spite of this crescendo of ideas from all directions, translating them into day-to-day training was not easy. At the ripe old age of 27, I knew that to succeed I had to make the very best out of my time: I had to filter out the noise and not be guided down dead-ends. To solve my problem I hired exercise physiologist Emma Cutts, then of the PeakCentre, to be my coach. Unsurprisingly, the years of our collaboration were my best.

When to look for a coach

When the point has been reached when an athlete, keen to continue improving, finds he cannot do it on his own, he needs to see advice from a good coach or the most knowledgeable person he can find in his particular field. Joining a club is the best first move and singling out the best coach in the club is the second. Look for the coaches who are being successful, not the ones who are not. – Arthur Lydiard

Every athlete goes through a phase of self-experimentation and this period can be a rewarding experience teaching you improvisation and self-reliance while allowing you to ease into the sport or playfully exploring every type of workout and race out there. When you feel ready to make a more serious commitment and target consistent long-term progress, the time has come to engage a coach or mentor.

Do I need a coach?

Orbana Ltd.’s renowned coaching expert Bruce Tulloh, a former European champion on the 5,000m, sums up the role of the coach nicely (“Running is Easy”, p. 71):

  • To encourage and support the runner.
  • To advise him on the right training to do.
  • To prevent him from doing too much.
  • To advise him on his training programme.

Where to find a coach

My own experience supports Lydiard’s advice to seek out a running club and get to know the best coaches there, but running clubs are not your only avenue for coaching advice. No substitute exists for having a coach standing by your trackside during workouts or running with you on workouts, but club coaches are amateurs and generally have to cater for the needs of hundreds of different runners and, usually, all at once!

Turning to online coaching services such as our own can therefore be an option. This way way you can benefit from the expertise and experience of a coach without having developed the personal relationship already. Online coaches usually have software allowing them to individualise programmes for multiple runnes and professional coaches have more time. Having someone at track side remains invaluable but you may be able to replace this part of your coaches role with experienced training partners. Clear and regular communication become even more important when working with an online coach.

What to look for in a coach

Not every coach out there will be a maker of champions but every competent coach must be able to bring the best out of their athletes. You need coach who has a proper understanding of the sport and who can evaluate the different strengths and weaknesses of individual athletes.

  • Has practical coaching experience.
  • Understands the physiology, psychology and mechanics of sport without going off on tangents in either.
  • Should welcome questions regarding training and other methods. (“If a coach can’t tell you why you are doing what you do, find another coach,” Lydiard would say and I agree).
  • Should demand sincerity and command respect. Respect and esteem for your coach are an essential ingredient of a successful athlete/coach relationship.
  • Should not need to refer to lofty compendiums and big notebooks to answer questions about training. A coach with a proper grasp of the underlying principles of the sport will know the answers intuitively.
  • Must develop a positive attitude in his athletes.
  • Make you enjoy your training. From enjoyment comes the will to succeed.
  • Cooperate with other coaches and specialists when facing questions outside their expertise.
Personalities differ and some runners will get along with different types of coaches. An affable, easy-going personality who can make your mutual company enjoyable and who masters understanding and empathy will work for most. Yet many of the world’s top coaches such as Percy Cerutty, Nakamura and Bill Bowerman had eccentric personalities so no set template exists for the perfect coaching personality.

How to work with a coach

You will need to keep a detailed training log so the coach knows exactly what is going on. Keep in contact at least once per week so they know what is going on and remember that any major upset in your lifestyle (illness, stress, travel) impacts on your training and your health. Your coach will need to know these details to advise you correctly.

Your own input is essential: read all you can about your particular sporting area, learn the basics of physiology and tactics, and so on, to help you understand why you are doing a particular exercise at a particular phase of your training programme.

Do not follow the figures, repetitions and other information in the training programme blindly. They are hypothetical figures, not handed down from Mt Sinai, and although good coaches are astute judges of the amount of work an athlete should do, they cannot know everything about everyone nor predict how the athlete will feel from day to day. Listen to your body as well as your coach.

Working with a coach and listening to other experienced competitors will invariably expose you to many different lines of thought. Take a leaf out of Dick Quax’s book and “accept good advice easily and dismiss bad advice even more easily.”

Consider carefully controversial advice such as suggestions to change discipline or distance. We all cherish certain notions about our own favoured type of race but an experienced coach has often seen what it takes and may be able to guide you to the distance and discipline where you will ultimately be most successful, saving you years of frustration trying to make it in a discipline that you may lack the basic speed, strength or endurance to excel in.

Biggest mistakes

You need to take responsibility for the relationship with your coach to make the best out of the relationship. What follows is a list of habits you will want to avoid:

  • Don’t lie about your general fitness, state of health or state of mind.
  • Don’t be argumentative and question and challenge everything you are told.
  • Don’t try to use other authorities to refute your coach’s teachings.
  • Don’t grow into the habit of losing confidence quickly and going from coach to coach and winding up going nowhere.
  • Being indifferent: if poor personal effort or lack of application does not concern you, train without a coach. There is nothing wrong with this approach but if someone else invests time in you they deserve full commitment.
  • Don’t do another coach’s workouts together with your own. Programmes are carefully balanced and any unplanned supplementary work could ruin your performance, and your body!

What to expect

Most of us don’t know how good we could be until we train systematically on balanced programmes for about three years. There will be improvement in the first year and even greater improvement in the second but the third year’s results are likely to be quite marked. You tend to jump ahead at that stage and then maintain a steady rate of improvement. – Arthur Lydiard, Running to the Top

Do not expect success overnight, many poorer coaches get early results through over-reliance on anaerobic training but cannot develop their athlete’s potential beyond that. To reach your best potential find a coach who takes a long view and will work patiently with you over a number of years.

A coach should provide you with an individualised training programme suited to your goals and objectives (not his or hers) based on sound proven training principles. These principles can be applied in many different ways, so just because two coaches both proclaim to follow the Lydiard system, does not mean their schedules will be identical. Read between the lines and the principles will show through.

Experienced competitors/elites

In the case of world-class athletes, the coach may not necessarily know that much more about running, but is a source of inspiration, and by arranging the training, takes a lot of pressure off the the athlete…The athlete in the thick of training often cannot see things objectively…World-class runners don’t have coaches because they don’t know how to run, they have them because two heads are better than one.” – Ron Daws, Running Your Best

An experienced athlete essentially needs a mentor more than a coach. Often the athlete will go on this journey with their coach. When the athlete is still a novice, the coach will take charge and dictate more, as the athlete gains in experience this role changes. Rob de Castella described how his own relationship to Lydiard coach Pat Clohessy evolved into: “he consults, he discusses and persuades.”  At this point of your athletic career your greatest need is someone you can sit down with and talk things over before making important decisions.

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.

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