A Brief Conversation on Distinguishing the Coach from the Athlete

“How much do you think your own performance affects your business as a coach?” Gill asked.

It’s an interesting question. We had established that although there were other factors involved at Ironman Lanzarote the quality of my preparation had played a major role, and while this was something I could address it was also clear I was unlikely to do this to the extent a peak performance required. I simply did not want the result enough to make the necessary sacrifices. Neither did I want to spend the following months writing race reports about limping over the finish line, on a practical level I would have to train more productively. The broader issue was whether that choice, to target a lower level of performance, would impact an athlete’s interest in my coaching.

“I don’t think it matters at all”, was my reply.

Because an athlete shouldn’t choose a coach on the basis of their race results; a coach’s personal performance is at best an indication they know how to enable athletes to perform, but what works for them may not work for others. A coach should be judged on what they achieve with the athletes they coach. But realistically, in a sport where coaches are as often as not also athletes, their own results can come into play; not least when their website – their business presence – utilises those results for content. As of course I do.

“It shouldn’t matter,” I backtracked.

I can see the logic that raises questions about my ability to coach when my results page shows a decline in performance and my race reports consist of excuses. The history is there – I have a number of sub-10 Ironmans, a couple of age group podiums and a pair of Kona qualifications – but the potential to question my training methodologies is also present when: I’ve injure myself through overuse on the run, I’ve spent a lot of time walking marathons and I’ve detonated two hours into the bike. If I seemingly don’t know what works for me can I know what works for others?

“I don’t train the way I coach others,” I added in my defence.

When I write about my own training I am honest about the haphazard way that I train. I present my data out of interest, to demonstrate ways to consider training or aspects that may work in a bigger plan, and also because – I think – people are still interested. When I write about training in general I am honest about how I approach the training of others, of the focussed, goal-oriented athletes I work with. The distinction may not be as clear as I think. So when I try to write an entertaining report on the many mistakes made in Lanzarote some may see it as a reflection on my coaching methods.

“The plans work, many of my athletes have been getting great results,” I pointed out.

“Perhaps you might mention that?” Gill replied.

Which is a good point. I have always been strangely reluctant to play up my athletes’ results; one reason a prospective athlete might turn to my results page is because there isn’t one for my athletes. I’ve never acted on offers of testimonials for the website, though have asked for references before. When I wrote about my personal worst in Lanza I declined to mention the top fifty finish and fastest British amateur time of 10:00:14 achieved by one of my athletes or the Ironman personal best achieved by another. I am bad at marketing and if my own results aren’t going to sell me it’s something I have to address.

“I suppose I should.”

Conversation moved on, but it planted the seed for further thought on the changing relationship of my coaching and my own training and how that is reflected on this website. Not that I intend to abandon the accounts of my haphazard training, nor am I warning you of an imminent marketing offensive, but it feels like a clearer distinction needs to be made between the coach and the athlete. And that has apparently been percolating in the back of my head, because my original plan for today was to analyse a couple of athletes’ power files from the CXIII Middle Distance Triathlon. I should mention, one of them won it, the other had a tougher day, but still performed strongly.


  • Well said russ,
    You are a good coach, and from your athletes results it’s a sign of it,

    As a athlete / coach it must be hard to find the balance with ur results to your athletes that you coach!

    But like you have said every one is different and different training works for others and it’s finding that balance of work / life / training . Fair to many people think by getting a coach that the hard work is out the way as they have some one to tell them what to do etc, but I found you can’t bet consistency, Keep up the great work


    Interestingly I was told about Russ Cox, he’s my new coach, you know he qualified for kona! Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does!

  • That reminds me… The other matter we discussed at the time – I never ask new athletes how they heard of me! Should add it to the questionnaire, it’s fundamental market research and would probably give a better answer to how important my results are to my business.

  • I always enjoy your posts here, and I don’t think they reflect in any negative sense on your potential to be an excellent coach! That said, an observation and a suggestion: (1) long-course triathlon happens to be a bit anomalous in this regard, for various structural reasons, but I think it would be fair for an athlete to prefer to work with a coach who had fast times in the past but _in the present wasn’t racing at all_ (more attention/resources available for athlete); (2) Hillary Biscay seems to have persuaded a lot of her coaching clients to blog as well, then if your client posts a race report you can link to it without feeling like you’re gloating too evilly!

    The other thought I’ve had as I’ve read some of these IM reports is that it’s ridiculous in this sport that so much prestige is attached only to long-course racing. Might be you shift to racing more 70.3 events? I would think on a consistent 10-15-hour training week the half distance will be more gratifying…

  • Jenny,

    Great feedback, thanks.

    I’d agree I have heard and had it said to me that an athlete felt that a coach needed to have raced long to understand how to coach it. I can understand the perspective and while there are very successful coaches who haven’t for a lot of age group athletes it does make a difference. The advantage is obviously I have experienced most of what an athlete is likely to go through, of course the counter side to that is the potential for a coach to be very fixed in their ways about how they approach Ironman. I personally don’t view it as essential, but I definitely see that perspective. My past results clearly do help sell that point, as has writing about what it took to go sub-10; I’m hoping that some future results from some of my athletes will go a long way to demonstrate I can get even better from those I coach.

    Your point about time to coach is also well made – the decision not to train to the same level largely came from the need to spend more time on the coaching. As you say there are other distances and I do have different plans for next year – I don’t want to be inactive and I have some ambitions which shouldn’t demand the same level of training time.

    Nice idea on the blog front, one or two do, but the majority don’t. Perhaps I should make it easier for them, or even provide a separate section of the blog for some of their race reports (distinct from my section). I am thinking through ways to put up their results without being too in-your-face about it, though part of that will be putting up the results when it hasn’t worked out – can’t claim a perfect track record.



  • As coaching psychology is one of my main interests, I just thought I’d add my two pence worth as to me, this blog opens up a can of worms!

    I think your second response to Gill’s question is the right one. It really shouldn’t matter at all what results you get, or your athlete’s for that matter.

    On a practical level, as you say there are many many coaches, master coaches even, who weren’t athletes first. I’m not sure where it is written that you have to be a good athlete to have a sound opinion and understanding of coaching. When you think about it, although it may help – it is by no means a prerequisite and could even be a barrier to one’s coaching ability – re the adage “you aren’t coached by your coach, you are coached by your coach’s coach”.

    Many will still look at your results though – it seems logical to think that if you can do it, you have the secret recipe for success. The flaw in this thinking though, is that if it was just a matter of doing the right training, you’d not have quite the same story from Lanzarote 2012 😉

    Somehow publishing your athlete’s results also still, I believe, misses the point. To me, coaching should be about enhancing well-being. If you can foster happiness, self-esteem and confidence, would an athlete not always keep coming back for more? It sounds wishy washy, but think:

    have you ever been happy with yourself, but not had the performance you liked?

    have you ever been performing well but been missing out on a sense of well-being?

    Do you have athletes that match these profiles? I’d imagine you do on some level. You only have to look to elite sport to know that you should value the person above the performance. Just look at all the elite athletes with significant psychological issues – depression, eating disorders, addiction etc etc. Just because they are good at what they do, doesn’t mean they are happy.

    Triathlon training is a big part of, if not a lifestyle in its own right for some – I’d measure your athlete’s life satisfaction, and publish that, far and wide.



  • James

    Gill has obviously been thinking along similar line to me although as she knows you better she was able to ask the question. You’re right in that it *shouldn’t* affect you as a coach but I suspect it does affect people’s view of you as a coach. You are after all coaching yourself.

    You’ve mentioned going to races to watch “your” athletes and it would be interesting to hear how that went with a kind of coaches perspective of a race report. You’ve have to get info from the athletes about how the race when and what was good or bad but it would be interesting to hear how this feedback from them affects your future plans with them. That kind of work is the point where I think the difference can be made v’s those who self-coach and where your selling point would be to those athletes.

  • Julie

    As one of your athletes I can safely say that it was you that made me decide that I wanted you to coach me, not your results. I like your attitude, your honesty, your willingness to discuss things, the fact that you listen to me and that you respond quickly to changes in circumstances/wibbles/injuries – whatever.

    Your racing results, if anything, would put me off as I would wonder (if I hadn’t ‘known’ you from internet forums/reading your blog) if you would really have the time and interest to coach a middle aged, middle of the pack woman who just wanted to reach her potential and was never going to get you the kind of results that you’d want to publicise.

    Of course that’s just me and I have no idea how representative of your clients I am!

  • Lots to reply to here.

    Andy – as ever good comments. And a fair point on the benefits of coaching to an athlete not being just about the results, originally the post had said “what results their athletes achieve”, instead of, “what they achieve with their athletes”, but I changed that to reflect the point you make – it’s about more than placings or times. I’m working with a range of athletes from those looking at Kona Qualification, sub-9 hours Ironmans, sub-10 hour Ironmans, to those looking to complete their first Sprint Tri. Completely different ends of the spectrum, but they all place similar value on taking steps towards their goals and from a coach’s point of view you gain as much, if not more, satisfaction from the beginners compared with the more elite.

    I suppose the idea of presenting athlete results comes back to the fact people look at results and so if mine aren’t going to impress at this point, then I may need to use the work my athletes do to sell me. You’re right though, exemplifying the enjoyment and satisfaction my athletes get would be better still; how to do that well is the question. Results are quick and easy, probably why many coaches use them and many athletes make choices based on them.

    On to James – and it’s good to know that that thought is out there. I suppose part of my point here is that I need to be clear that in a way I am not self-coaching, that is to say the way I train myself has little to do with the way I coach at this point. The structure and discipline that are required of my athletes isn’t present in my own training so results that follow don’t really reflect the training approach itself (older results do). That said I certainly can sharpen up my approach to races to avoid mishaps and minimise the extent to which my performance lags.

    Interesting idea on presenting more around races from a coach’s perspective I did report on Ironman Lanzarote fro that side in 2011, but largely underplayed what my own athletes achieved there that year (the poor salesman). I can do more taking apart athlete’s races and looking at what we do with the information. I’ve a few interesting cases that could be discussed and it gives an insight into the process we work through and how we prepared. You may have given me a good idea for the blog, thanks!

    I mentioned in a previous comment my plans to focus my training differently next year and part of that plans is to be able to go and support athletes at some of the UK races, there may be more opportunity to look at the preparation of others in the lead in to races and the outcomes.

    Finally Julie – though I don’t do market research I do remember you telling me how you weren’t sure if I’d want to work for you and this is a question I am occasionally asked; results and perhaps the focus of my blog do place some expectations in the minds of athletes – that they must be chasing sub-10 at Ironman or similar, or they need to have power meters and other gadgets. Neither is expected and I like working with people from those looking to win their age group to those looking to get round; and after spending a few hours looking at power and heart rate data it can be refreshing to work with athletes who don’t care about that!

    By the way – you’re very middle of the pack in my athletes, I coach a broader mix than people might think, one or two have yet to race a tri and will be doing so later this month. Some have done far too many!

    Oh, and thanks for the nice comments! I should say I didn’t write this to fish for compliments. I also didn’t write it to drum up business, fortunately my recent results haven’t had any apparent impact on inquiries. Generally I get the impression those who do enquire like what they’ve read about on the blog in terms of the kind of approach and structure to training I suggest, so something works there.