First of all, I’m sorry I haven’t written in a while. It’s been a busy summer. I got married in June and it feels like I have been traveling a lot since then. Finally, though, things are calming down and I have a lot to write about. So, for the first blog back it seemed like an appropriate time to talk about starting, ending and pausing coaching....
Every full time coach knows that our business is seasonal. Typically we get new clients when athletes start to think about their upcoming season. For road and mountain bikers, this is usually between November and January. Things don’t usually change much between February and June, and then we usually lose a couple athletes between July and September when the road and mountain season wind down. For cyclocross and track racers the schedule can be a little different, but in the interest of not having to talk about these exceptions with every point, I'm just going to talk about road and mountain bikers here that follow a "traditional" March through September racing schedule.
For coaches, getting new athletes can be a lot of work. Likewise, losing athletes can be financially and sometimes emotionally painful, but it comes with the territory. Sometimes though, the reasons why athletes start, end or pause coaching at certain times don’t really make sense. This article is my take on the whole matter.
When to Begin
I often get inquiries from athletes in the summer or fall about coaching, only to hear that they don’t want to start until January, February or March. The thought process behind is often one or more of the following:
- I'm not really doing any "real training" in the fall
- I’m “just doing base training” in the winter
- I don’t have enough money to be coached year round
Let's talk about each of these. First of all, the fall is usually a time to decompress before you start to think about next season again. I tell athletes to do this in 3 steps: 1) Become human again (spend time with your family & the people you love, have a good time, do some activities that don't have anything to do with fitness), 2) Become an athlete again (do some cross training, core strengthening, general body exercises). 3) Become a cyclist again (general riding). Eventually, there comes 4) Become a bike racer, 5) Become a bike race contender and 6) Become a bike race winner but that is a long way away. The point is that the fall is the start of the process. Starting off right is critical for all the stages to come. If you do the wrong training in the fall it could have a domino effect for all your training to come. Also, though volume and intensity are down in this transitional period, fall is when you take a step back from the season and evaluate. Fall is when I like to have end of season evaluations with athletes, where we both take an honest look at the past season and try to find areas for improvement. It is good for all athletes to do this rather than simply go from season to season out of habit, thereby repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
As far as the winter goes, at face value winter base training may not be that complicated, but it is more than just doing a lot of miles. Base training is about becoming mechanically and metabolically efficient as a cyclist in order to set the groundwork for the intensity to come. To use a car metaphor (which I love to do since I used to work in the auto industry), it's about increasing the size of your engine as well as your gas mileage. Most coaches these days prescribe a fair amount of intensity in the winter time as well as endurance miles instead of the old school "Ride & Repeat" model, but doing this training in the shortest, coldest, most miserable days of the year requires a lot of motivation and creativity. Having a coach can help you find ways to keep the training exciting as well as to shuffle things around when necessary. For many athletes, especially those in cold weather climates, having a coach in the winter is even more important than during their actual racing season.
When to End
Let's face it. People need different things in coaches. Some need a teacher, some need a friend, some need a drill sergeant, some need a cheerleader and some need a therapist. For some athletes, all they really want is a training plan. Some athletes need an objective viewpoint and a sounding board more than anything. For some, it's the tactical advice that is key and for some having someone to give them workout feedback is the most important thing. Some people require a coach who is more specialized, either in a specific aspect of the sport (cyclocross, track, time trialing, etc.) or a specific group of people (older athletes, women, disabled athletes, juniors, etc.). Some athletes really need a coach who is local and will be at the races and rides they are at and for others this is irrelevant. Before you choose a coach you should put some serious thought into what is most important to you. Every coach has their strengths and weaknesses. It can't hurt to ask a prospective coach what their areas of specialty are as well as where they are not as strong. A good coach should be honest with you about this, though getting some references from the athletes they coach is also a good idea. Despite this, you may not know exactly what you need until you aren't getting it.
There are plenty of good reasons to try another coach, but there are also plenty of bad ones. Don't give up on your coach just because they do something you don't understand. If your coach isn't meeting your needs, tell them and give them a chance to do better or at least tell you what they can and can't do for you. Your coach may just have a process that isn't what you're used to. All is not revealed immediately. There is a saying that coaches use all the time with new athletes: "Trust me now... believe me later".
When to Pause
Athletes often ask their coach to pause their coaching for a few months. This can be because they do another sport in the off-season, they are taking an extended trip, they are trying to cut back on expenses or they will be busy at work or school for a while. In addition, some athletes are simply too embarrassed to tell their coach that they want to quit. I talked about many of these topics in the first section, so let me just say this: most of the time it is not beneficial in the long run for you to pause your coaching but there are some exceptions:
1. If you have no motivation to train and looking at any kind of training schedule just adds anxiety to your life. Of course, my advice is to first talk to your coach and see if they can help with the problem but sometimes you do just need a break.
2. If you have a completely unpredictable schedule from day to day. Again, before you put your training on hold you should realize that there are ways your coach might be able to help. In my opinion, having very little time available to train is all the more reason to have a coach that can help you make the most out of that time. For most of us, having an unpredictable schedule is worse than anything though and sometimes it can be close to impossible to plan anything. Again, if seeing a workout come up on your schedule that you know you won't be able to do will only add stress to your life, it might be a good time to put your training on hold for a bit.
3. If you have no goals, it will be tough for a coach to help you. Although I certainly believe that a coach can help talk through your thoughts about your future goals and whether or not they are realistic, it is not the job of the coach to tell you what your goals should be or to make them for you; it is the coaches job to show you the path towards your goals.
Just like ending coaching, pausing coaching is often done for the wrong reasons. If you are pausing your coaching for financial reasons, ask your coach if there is something you can do to help knock the price down. Money is a concern for many cyclists. Our sport is very expensive already and the last thing we want to do is pay for something we don't need. But if financial concerns are the main thing stopping you from pulling the trigger on coaching, ask your coach if there are ways to lower the price. Personally, I don't like to give discounts for nothing because I think it devalues the coaching, but if an athlete is willing to help me out, it can be worth something. Maybe they can send me some referrals. Maybe they can help out as an assistant coach. Maybe they can help me with my website or social media. Heck, maybe they can help me do some filing for me. Who knows? The point is that if there's a will there's a way.
Being short on time is usually a very bad reason. In fact, the busier you are the more you can benefit from structure and someone to help you make the most of the time you do have. "Not enough time to train" is probably the most common reason I have seen why people quit or pause coaching but before you do this, ask yourself what you see yourself doing when you don't have a coach. Usually it is either a) Do nothing, b) Train when you can or c) Follow your own training plan. With a), although we all go through periods where we take time off, you are an athlete for a reason. Maybe it's because you need exercise for your mental health. Maybe it's because you are a competitive person and this is a healthy way to express it. Whatever it is, you will need to figure out some other way to fulfill those needs. b) doesn't work for busy people because when you are really busy there is always something else you could be doing. If you wait around until you have time to train, you will be waiting a long time. You have to make time for the things that are important to you in life. c) can work for some people, but most people that coach themselves struggle with the "all or nothing" mentality because they don't have someone they can turn to when things don't go perfectly... and they never do. A good coach is a problem solver. If you miss a workout, whether it is because of the weather, motivation, lack of time or boredom, your coach should be able to help you figure out where to go from here and find solutions needed in order to give you a training schedule that is more doable in the future.
This fall, take some time to think about what you need in your coach. If they aren't delivering, talk to them about ways they can meet your needs and if that fails... look for another coach. It all starts with an honest conversation. Those without a coach should ask themselves the same questions. If you decide to give coaching a try, there are plenty of good ones right around the corner.
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you are interested in coaching or if you want to find out more, check out Backbone Performance at www.BackbonePerformance.com or like us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/BackbonePerformance. Thanks for reading!