My lifting coach and I had a quick, interesting conversation a few weeks ago about athletes who coach other athletes vs professional coaches; this conversation got me thinking …
As a coach and an athlete in two different sports, I have insight into this topic. Because I know how to be a good coach, I also know how to have a good relationship with my coach.
I spent 7 years chasing the Olympic/National Team dream in rowing; I eventually moved on to coaching, which I’ve grown to love much more then competing, and I’ve built long-lasting professional relationships with my rowers. Then, over the past 4 years, I’ve transitioned my body from rowing to lifting. Though I don’t have any desire to compete in lifting or other related events, like figure or bikini, I’ve worked with some of the best coaches in the business, especially right now, and I’ve built professional, beneficial bonds with my coaches.
Here are some thoughts about how to find yourself the right coach and how to make the most of your relationship with your coach:
Begin by being very honest with yourself about what you want, what you can afford, and what you’re willing to put into your relationship with your coach. Do not over-commit yourself when you begin working with a coach.
Know that there is a huge difference between a personal trainer and a coach with a specialty. Personal trainers are perfect for “the generals”, such as losing weight and basic but thorough workouts. If you envision yourself doing a leg day, arm day, etc, find yourself a personal trainer at your local gym. If you want to enter a specialty area or your goal is specific, like gaining a lot of muscle, starting strongman comps, etc, find yourself a specialty coach. I enjoy power lifting, so I work with a power lifting coach who has tons of experience. I would never ask a personal trainer to coach me in power lifting, and you shouldn’t either, no matter what they claim they can do.
Seek a coach with the education and experience you need to achieve your goals. This sounds hard, but it’s very easy to do. If you have never lifted weights before and want to learn the basics, most anybody with a personal training license is right for you. If you need guidance on nutrition, look for someone who has a certification or degree in nutrition. The internet is your friend. Google your location and what you’re looking for, and Google will present you with many options! Coaches specialize in a variety of areas: obesity weight loss, physique and bikini shows, body building, strong(wo)man, etc. If you want it, somebody does it!
Professional coaches are compensated appropriately for their time, so if you can’t pay them for their time, they cannot afford to give you their time. This is a business deal, not a statement about your worth or potential as an athlete or person. I see so many people online commenting to professionals, “I’m a student/unemployed/etc and can’t afford to pay you. Can you give me advice anyway?” The correct answer is no. Professionals need to be compensated for their time. The only people who receive “free” stuff are seasoned athletes who are already at the top of their game.
If you’re new (and even if you aren’t!), it’s okay to work with a newer coach or trainer. This has worked out really well for me in the past because we were able to grow together. However, make sure they have the proper certifications. New trainers will sometimes give discounts or other perks to new clients — if you’re short on funds, these are great people to work with. It’s a win-win.
Before you begin working with someone, interview them. Ask them all of your questions to ensure you’re going to get what you want. For example, I have some medical concerns, so I made sure my coach was aware of those things and could work around them. It’s okay to walk away if the interview shows that you aren’t a good match, or walk away if the trainer or coach doesn’t want to be interviewed. Professionals will want to “interview” you too, though that may be done during your first session. If you have specific needs, talk to them before your workout. Any true professional will be okay with an interview. If you’re not sure what to ask, I recommend these questions: “Who in the fitness industry inspires you? What fitness professionals do you look to for workout and fitness ideas? Have you worked with someone like me before? What kind of education and training do you have in this field?”
Once you’re their client, keep the lines of communication open, but base that communication on what you are compensating them for. As a coach, I make it very clear to my rowers how and when they may contact me. This isn’t just for my convenience – it’s also to ensure they receive a timely response! If you’re only paying the trainer for the time you spend together, you should keep your questions until your next session, unless it’s something urgent (like you are injured, etc). I would not Facebook-friend their personal account or other personal social media accounts unless they make it clear that that’s okay. That goes for you, too – let them know if they are out of bounds.
Some clients challenge their coaches and trainers. They may read or view something online that is different than what their coach has them doing in the gym. As a coach, I want my rowers to talk to me about new ideas so that we can have a dialogue, but I expect them to keep the dialogue professional. They’re paying me because I have more expertise and experience than them. I am always open to new ideas, and as a coach I will try most anything once to see if it works, but most times I know better, just like my coach knows better than me. If you think you know better than your coach, why are you working with them?
This seems like an obvious one to an outsider, but I see a lot of people making this mistake — do not work with someone just because they’re “hot” and you’re attracted to them. As a female, I generally look for female coaches and shy away from super attractive male coaches (this isn’t the case with my current coach, but my previous coaches were females). I have a few friends who aren’t getting great coaching but are paying a lot of money to spend a few hours a week with a hot dude. If that’s your goal, great! But if you want more from your coach, find the right person, not just the most physically attractive one.
Sometimes clients and coaches/trainers outgrow each other, and that’s okay! I am training someone who hopes to make the US National Team. Once she’s on the Team, I don’t expect her to come to me for training advice anymore; conversely, if she doesn’t make the team, I expect that she will find another coach. If you feel like your goals have changed, you’re ready for something new, or you’re just not jiving with your coach or trainer anymore, it’s okay to move on. Keep the separation amicable. All of us in the sports and fitness industry know that our clients won’t always be our clients, and that’s part of working in this industry. Also, it’s okay to “take a break” for a month or more. Sometimes we need a little time away from the gym for personal, professional, or other reasons. Don’t be afraid to take that time. We professionals want happy clients, just like we clients want happy coaches.
My last point is an important one: Is it better to hire an athlete who is a coach on the side or a professional coach? I’m going to base this on my personal experience.
When I was an athlete trying to make the top tier in the rowing world, I dabbled in coaching to help make ends meet. I enjoyed applying my knowledge and working with people who were new to the sport, but I was not a great coach because I was more focused on my own success. This isn’t a question of holding others back for my betterment — my rowers had different goals or were not eligible for the National Team — BUT, I was focused on my own schedule, practices, etc, so I couldn’t give all my energy to helping my rowers improve. Now, as someone who is no longer trying to be a top performing athlete, I can dedicate my time to learning how to be a better coach and fine-tuning the nitty-gritty of the sport.
While some professional coaches keep their hands in the fire, so to speak, do not be afraid of hiring a specialty coach who is no longer in tip-top shape or winning national and international titles. I no longer look like a coxswain, but that’s because I’m no longer trying to be a coxswain — I’m a coach, and a darn good one.