Problem with… Athlete Turned Coach

Based on simple observation, it seems that ‘athlete turned coach’ make up the majority of coaches in sport.  There is some sense to it, if you loved a sport, played a sport, progressed in sport, then obviously there is something to continuing along the path and assisting others to find their way in the sport.

Problem is that the ‘athlete who turns into coach’ tends to have a massive blind spot.

As athletes they trained in a particular way, or they were trained in a particular way.  Not knowing any different, and not having the education or experience to know different, they are unaware that they are blind to the fact that everyone is not like them.

Problem with the ‘athlete turned coach’ is that they are almost all guilty of the following syndrome:

“When all you have is a hammer, all your problems start to look like nails.”

Because their training worked for them, because their training resulted in their resume of podium placements trying to convince them that their philosophy does not apply universally is typically met with a blank stare which seems to state “what do you mean the training I do won’t work for everyone else?”

When athletes of the ‘athlete turned coach’ fail to make progress, these coaches have only one solution (i.e. the hammer) and with that they apply more of their magic by either picking up the volume or the intensity of their athlete’s training, or in extreme cases, both.  At no point in time does the ‘athlete turned coach’ conceptualize that their approach is simply wrong for that athlete. How can it be wrong?  It worked for them, therefore hammer that nail harder.  If that doesn’t work, hammer harder still! Geez that’s a stubborn nail, hammer it harder (get the point, or do I have to hammer it further)?

At first I thought this observation was an anomaly, but after awhile… after taking coaching courses, after working with numerous coaches, and after reflecting on how I was trained by many of my coaches I came to realize that the pattern is consistent, and eerily so.

Then I read in Chrissie Wellington’s autobiography that for a period of approximately a year, she turned to former International Triathlon Union (ITU) Champion Simon Lessing who after his stellar career turned coach.  Who wouldn’t want a 5x World Champ as coach? Chrissie shares how the relationship didn’t last because Simon spent more time coaching himself then actually coaching Chrissie.  Plus she states that his ego had difficulty with the fact that his athlete was setting a new standard (i.e. Chrissie was undefeated at the iron distance of triathlon competitions).  But not all former ‘athlete turned coach’ are guilty of the hammer syndrome, or of forgetting that they are coach.  Chrissie switched to 6x Ironman World Champion Dave Scott after Simon, and continued her success in her final years working with Dave.

So, how do you go about selecting a coach? I suggest the following:

DISREGARD… their resume of podium placements as it is irrelevant to you.  Their training worked for them but whether or not it will work for you is to be determined, and their success in no way guarantee of your success.

INSTEAD… compare the number of athletes that the ‘athlete turned coach’ helped vs the number they have harmed: the number of athletes they have injured, broke physically, mentally or emotionally, burnt out, blew up, max out, discarded blaming them for lack of talent, motivation, drive or desire. This is not info that will be made publicly available by the coach, so you will need to talk to the athletes/parents of athletes to a sense of the truth.

There is a concerning consistency amongst the ‘athlete turned coach’ that is a telltale of those you want to avoid as a coach. Every coach has helped an athlete achieve a level of success, that is no measure of a coach. The measure of a coach is the ratio of athletes they have helped to the number they have not helped, and those they have harmed. Problem is that these ‘athletes turned coaches’ rarely appreciate their role in burning out, blowing up, and maxing out athletes, and therefore rarely take any responsibility.  Instead, their typical reply is that those athletes who do not make it were either uncoachable, unmotivated, lazy, weak, untalented.

But isn’t that why athletes comes to a coach? Because they need help? So if you run into a coach who uses athletes as scape-goats, be cautious. When you fail to progress you too will likely find them blaming you for your lack in achieving successes. Is that what you want? To be blamed or do you want to be helped, mentored, coached?

If your health matters to you.  If your training matters to you.  If you are serious about your training, about improving, about progressing as an athlete, find a coach who is concerned equally about all their athletes, not just their top performers. Find a coach who objectively assesses their own performance to determine whether athletes who are failing to progress has anything to do with their own coaching style, and if so, makes specific changes to their style, pursues continuing education, widening their skill set, or in humility refers athletes to other coaches who they believe can truly make an impact.

Watching the Rio Olympics it was amazing how many times the coach of the athletes who were at the Games was the father or mother of the athlete.  In some the cases, the father or mother were not even former athletes, nor college or university coaches.  What does that say?

To me it says that above all what truly matters in a coach is that they care.

Find a coach who cares about you as a human being first, and the athlete part second.