Everyone thinks their triathlon coach is the best. How can everyone be right?
I am in the somewhat unique position of being a licensed professional psychologist and also a certified triathlon coach. I have noticed that these jobs have quite a few similarities. As such there are some things that can be said for each based on the other.
Good coaches are in many ways good psychotherapists and vice versa. Some of the best realize that you have to have a tool box of techniques and not just use one tool for each person. They also realize that a strong connection with their client or athlete trumps any techniques they may be versed in as the fundamental factor of change or improvement.
REPETITIVE SOCIAL DISCUSSIONS
I can’t tell you how many times I have read a good blog or a social media post about whether a coach is worth it, if I should get one, and/or what makes a good coach. Sometimes posts have a single sport focus as in should I get a running, cycling or swimming coach? Regardless, these are valid questions for many triathletes, including those new to the sport, those often injured, and/or those trying to improve their times.
The responses generally are favorable towards getting a coach if you can afford it. This usually is suggested because he/she helps you with scheduling, guiding training and racing, tailoring training to your limiters, or helping you to not kill yourself or be too lazy. The social media responses often indicate that nearly everyone has the best coach and they recommend their particular coach.
I love the praise as a coach (and psychotherapist) but wonder if it lacks validity without a wealth of data supporting it. This bias toward positivity for the current professional or type of treatment has been referred to in the psychological research by Rosenzweig as the Dodo Bird verdict. There is some debate in the field on the accuracy of the verdict but its a powerful reminder that human factors play a huge role in outcomes.
As a psychologist, I have seen how this same verdict plays out in the psychotherapy domain. Therapy clients love their therapist way more often than they hate them and often go out of their way to praise him or her. The discussion of the reasons behind the Dodo Bird Verdict is probably better left for a graduate psychology class. For triathlon blog purposes, I just want to show you how the psychotherapy outcomes research applies to coach selection and draw some conclusions about how to proceed in a hunt for the best coach for you.
By now you are probably wondering how you can not be a Dodo bird,which goes back to the Lewis Carroll book Alice in Wonderland, where the Dodo bird says after the race is decided that “everyone has won and all must have prizes.” Is every psychotherapist or coach a winner? Do we just look better to active clients because of a bias?
TRIATHLON COACHING IS LIKE PSYCHOTHERAPY
How this applies to psychotherapy and coaching is that both are quite similar human services that are striving for positive outcomes through techniques that go above and beyond the common ones like therapy/training rooms, certifications, communication lines, rapport, and shared goals. There is a limited amount of common approaches in coaching and psychotherapy and there is a paucity of outcomes research in each, but moreso within the field of triathlon coaching.
Thus, we have to draw some conclusions from similar fields of applied human performance about coaching not based on anecdotes and marketing materials, but more heavily on the major findings in psychotherapy outcomes research. The latter are summarized below.
RESEARCH FROM PSYCHOTHERAPY
There has historically been minimal psychological outcomes research evidence, until more recently for particular disorders. But, from researchers like Wampold, we have learned some interesting findings like:
- 1. one type of psychotherapist or technique is often not significantly more effective than another might have been (in helping maximize a human’s functioning or lowering the discomfort).
- 2. treatment is better than no treatment,
- 3. a variety of psychotherapist variables like sex,race, etc. did not account for much if any variance in outcomes.
WHAT IT BOILS DOWN TO
So, if not the therapy technique (provided they are one of the vastly used or common types of techniques) or the match of sex, race, or other variable about the provider, what makes one psychotherapist or coach and his/her techniques better than another for you? It largely boils down to goodness of fit and strength of bond. Yes, it is the relationship or alliance that matters most.
HOW COME WE HAVE TO FALL BACK ON PSYCHOTHERAPY OUTCOMES RESEARCH FOR COACHING?
Back to coaching to not get too far afield. Like their counterparts in psychotherapy, the field of triathlon coaching is not documenting outcomes very well unless you think tweeting every good athlete race and not the bad ones, or listing all accomplishments and not listing failures on a webpage is documenting outcomes.
Also, one can argue about the type of outcome that needs to be measured. How many did the coach lead to a podium or world championship qualification? And just because a coach prepared a Kona Qualifier, what has he/she done with helping Joe or Jane Age Grouper to fulfill his or her potential? How many DNS’s (did not starts) or DNF’s (did not finishes) did they produce? Who is the best value in terms of what they bring to the coach-athlete relationships? Does a particular coach have flexibility to use different tricks of the trade or do they use the same ones for all athletes all of the time to motivate or improve an athlete’s performance?
As can be seen with these questions, not only would the research be difficult to conduct for a triathlon coach, it would be a very complex question. Ultimately, the athletes suffer for lack of a acceptable answer to these questions. They have to go by word of mouth and advertising that is inherently biased and negative information is often obfuscated.
A BETTER WAY TO APPROACH THE QUESTION OF WHO THE BEST COACH IS FOR YOU
So we end up back to the questions we started with. How should you make the call about whether to have a coach and who would be the best coach for you? There are lots of tips to help you with triathlon coaching selections already. A quick google search will help you find them.
My suggestion is to attend to the goodness of fit more than other variables. Don’t allow the Dodo Bird Verdict to cause you to short change yourself. Here are some ways to figure out the elusive, yet essential, goodness of fit. In other words, these suggestions and questions below will help you determine who really is the best coach for you:
TOP 10 THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN HIRING A TRIATHLON COACH
- 1. What can you afford? This is important as if you are overpaying you will regret that soon after and if you are underpaying you might undervalue the services.
- 2. Generate a list of coaches through various means that you think you will jive with, can trust, and might work harder or longer for.
- 3. Ask for HONEST opinions from trusted resources on what coach would fit with you. Maybe target those triathletes with coaches that you trust and/or have seen improve.
- 4. Ask coaches privately who they would be coached by and why?
- 5. Scan their social media if that is an area that may be important to you and gain clues. Some give none, others give moderate amounts, and some give lots of shout outs. Will that help or hinder you?
- 6. Be aware of your personal preferences. Do you perform better for cheerleader, hard nose, or nerdy types. Do you work harder in other areas of your life for a more stereotypically maternal or paternal type regardless of sex? Be careful not to settle for someone that won’t push you outside your comfort zone if you want to improve.
- 7. Interview the coach and ask for outcome information, training approaches, and current and former athlete names (preferably ones that fired them). Make sure there is nothing that sounds fishy. Trust is key. Ask each coach for a list of a few current and former athletes. Then call these athletes and ask for input and what reasons are given for the failure or success.
- 8. Assess how much time they will have to communicate with you and how transparent they will be with answering the questions you may have about the big picture or little things like lingo (e.g., negative split, tempo, lactate threshold). In doing so, see what kind of caseload they have and what other demands or limits they might have (like no communication between 9am to 5pm).
- 9. Ask for a sample training week of training sessions to review after you give them your availability. Maybe have them assess your current regimen and comment on it.
- 10. See if they have any questions of you and if they are able to offer a realistic plan for your progression and an honest assessment of your potential based on your accomplishments to date. Provide more information about your goals, short- and long-term as needed.
MAKE A DECISION
Now you should have more information that you need to feel most comfortable with your decision. Weigh out the positives and the negatives for the sample of coaches you investigated. If you are one who goes by feel to some degree, it may be best to honor your visceral feelings (i.e., your chemistry with the coach you think brings the most to the table in terms of goodness of fit).
If you are not comfortable, table the decision and do more investigating or “sleep on it” for a few nights. You may ask the coach you decide on if they are amenable to a 3 month trial to see how the fit is and try not to make a long term commitment if you are nervous. However, invest fully after all of this time investigating the most important variable, how aligned you will be with your triathlon coach.
To summarize, in my opinion, favorable psychotherapy outcomes are like favorable triathlon coaching outcomes. Positive outcomes are difficult to come by but definitely there for the taking with hard work, motivation, and good guidance.
Psychotherapy outcomes research tells us that psychotherapy (vs. no psychotherapy) is worth the time and money and there are not a lot of techniques or variables that stand out except in some narrow cases. However, the one variable that clearly does is how closely the psychotherapist and client are aligned or how good they fit together. This relationship is of the utmost importance and seemingly translates well to triathlon results/outcomes in my opinion.
Triathlon coaches are generally valuable resources for triathletes who will mostly be more effective than with no coaching for the vast majority. No particular coaching style or technique is shown to be all that more effective than another no matter what you may be led to believe on the interwebs. The best coach for you is likely the one that is likely to get the most out of you due to your strength of bond.
Finally, do not listen to the Dodo Birds. Be careful choosing your triathlon coach (or psychotherapist for that matter) based on what you read in a form of social media. If the price is right, and you have done your homework in interviews and a bit of background assessment, invest in a coach with whom you think you can build a meaningful bond. It most likely will give you better race results.