Friday, August 19, 2011

The key to building an effective coaching relationship

(Or any relationship for that matter...)

The picture above is of myself and Mike Coughlin, 3rd place Ultraman Canada 2010 & a long standing athlete in the AC stable, cresting the top of Mt Evans (the highest paved road in America) on our recent Endurance Corner Colorado Climbing Camp.

Mike is in Boulder for the summer (training for Ultraman Hawaii) and has been staying with Jen and I for a bit. It’s always interesting living 24/7 with someone. You learn about that person on a whole new level but the ongoing reflection of how others live differently also forces you to learn about yourself. He and I were stopping for a mid-ride cookie in Nederland the other day when a thought came to me –while we both have an unquenchable passion for triathlon in common, when it comes to a coaching relationship, we truly are the odd couple – Apart from the physical differences, Mike is the quintessential extrovert. He is a verbal guy, I’m a read-write guy. He’s a ‘take in your environment’ guy, I’m a ‘live in your head’ guy. And, I have to think that all of these differences are what make for a coaching relationship that really works.

In Chuckie’s latest blog, he talks about the importance of relating with athletes on an emotional level, citing the example of a coaching buddy who doesn’t fall under the “Rah Rah” category of motivational coaching. I’m not sure if I’m that buddy but it certainly sounds like something I would say :-) and it’s true that I’m much more likely to calm an athlete down than to rev them up. Funnily enough (perhaps for this very reason), I tend to work with athletes who are plenty revved up themselves! Often I’m pulling on the reins, holding them back from how hard they want to train and how much they want to do. Then for maybe 10% of the year, a couple of carefully chosen words act as the proverbial flick of the riding crop to carry them over the finish line, but, with these athletes, it doesn’t take much.

I think the reason that I tend to work with that type of athlete comes down to what Darwin called Natural Selection. Those that demand more extrinsic motivation to keep following the plan fall by the wayside. The last athlete that I parted ways with fell under this category –

Athlete: “Coach, I don’t feel like I’m getting what I deserve given the training I’m putting in”

Me: “We all respond at different rates to the training. Some folks have to put in more training than others to get the same result. That’s just a reality of that fact that we’re all individuals”

Athlete: “But I have been talking with my buddies and they think I would do better on a lower volume, more intensity driven program”

Me: “We have tried & tested different compositions of intensity and arrived at the best balance of load/intensity for your physiology. If we add more intensity, your load drops beyond what you’ve proven necessary to get better”

Athlete: “Well, I want to try this type of program…”

Me: “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out…” Well, I didn’t really say that but you get the point.

Fundamentally, this athlete just no longer had the passion for the sport to spend that much time on their bike each week. Maybe this passion is something that some coaches can re-ignite, or at least bolster, maybe not. Either way, that is not a coaching ‘skill’ that I particularly want to develop. If an athlete doesn't have the intrinsic passion to enjoy A LOT of training then there is only so much I can do.

No, the athletes that I work with long term are those that realize that, despite best instinct, when it comes to an effective coaching relationship (or any relationship designed towards achieving a result), it is important to seek out the things that you NEED rather than the things that you WANT, i.e. the things that you don’t have intrinsically. For most of my guys this turns out to be - long term planning, structure and the ability to put the brakes on when needed. For other coaches’ athletes, it may be motivation, excitement or social reinforcement. Either way, it is important before beginning a coaching relationship to be honest in what you expect to get out of it and to seek that type of person, even if that type of person may be the same type that you beat up in high school :-)

Taking the “what I need vs what I want” approach is going to demand an additional, all important quality – tolerance, i.e. the ability to embrace working with folks who think a little differently, and sometimes bite one’s tongue and just get on with the business at hand. Put another way, when working with others who have different strengths, different weaknesses will also become apparent. As a slow and steady ‘thinker’ sometimes I’m sure athletes are mildly irritated by the time it takes me to digest, consider, think, research and then respond to questions. I have to assume that those who stick with me & tolerate a less speedy response time consider a quality, thought-out response more important than a quick ‘off the cuff’ style answer, even though it goes against their own Type A instincts. Similarly, I often find myself having to re-communicate the same logical response to a question, a few times, in a few different iterations before it finally breaks through all of the negative emotional self talk that may be bouncing around a more emotional athletes’ noggin before it takes hold.

I guess it takes a certain level of maturity to reach the point that you truly begin to recognize the value in diversity and begin to let in, or even seek, folks you know will personally challenge you on all levels, but when you do I can absolutely attest that the synergy that results from working with others with the same passion but different strengths and outlooks will lead to infinitely more productive relationships, whether in coaching, business or personal development than filling your world with mirror images of yourself.

Train Smart,



Alan Couzens said...

Hey Sonja,

Glad you commented. I was thinking on my ride yesterday that I hope the post doesn't come off as in any way 'anti-Chuckie'. I put Chuckie in the same category as Mike. We're sufficiently different to challenge each other but sufficiently the same to deeply respect each other and I truly, deeply respect Chuckie and his perspective as a real coach.

I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment that what each athlete needs to believe in the coach, the program and themselves is a little different for each athlete and one of the most important considerations when choosing a coach.

It all starts with belief....

Thanks for the great comment.



Alan Couzens said...

You know Alen,
I think with any coaching relationship, you have to be you, you have to be authentic. You also have to give each athlete a slightly different nudge based on who they are. Like with children, you can't parent each one the same, but your parenting philosophy doesn't change between children.

I think the best coaches are just like the best parents, they are dedicated to their craft, the are humble, and fair and kind, they nudge when it's needed and they provide a constant level of accountability.

I consider myself pretty darn motivated but I still need my coach to push me further at times. His belief in my makes me rise to the occasion...often. But that is a gift, not a requirement of coaching.

Thanks for the food for thought!