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IMGCA Article - The Mental Game of Coaching


Who Needs a Coach?

Matt Russ

The athletes that are most hesitant to obtain a coach could often benefit the most. A common perception is that coaching is for "serious" athletes only. In actuality, anyone who wants to work toward a physical goal, or reach their true potential can benefit greatly from coaching. A proper foundation for beginners is crucial so that bad form is not carried forward and made bad habit. Many athletes in hindsight wish they had the benefit of coaching earlier in their career. How many times have you said "if I only knew then, what I know now…"

I was once asked a pointed question by a potential athlete; "what can a coach do for me that I can not find in a book?" The answer is specificity. A proper coaching program is personally specific to an athlete's needs. The plan considers the athlete's individual strengths and weaknesses, skill, training history, injuries, lifestyle, equipment, fitness level, goals, diet, and a myriad of other data. It can be the difference between buying a custom made suit versus randomly selecting one off the rack.

The first step in building a coaching plan is evaluation. A coach may outline an entire year's worth of training around specific goal events. They will ask you when you want to "peak" or be at your best. Field tests or metabolic testing may need to be performed to determine heart rate zones, and flexibility is tested for normal joint range of motion. The plan will be "periodized" with different training periods and work outs; each building off of the previous. Training will move from general to specific as you approach your peak. Training near peak may even consider the individual terrain and characteristics of the race.

Coaches monitor progress and make adjustments to an athlete's schedule as required. Adjustments need to be made for an individual's time constraints, to recover from or prevent potential injury, and to administer additional rest and recovery. A coach has to read between the lines a lot and consider an athletes mental state. Are they burned or under emotional stress? Are they challenged enough? They also adjust motivational cues from athlete to athlete. Some athletes respond well to simple orders, while others like to know the reason behind what they are doing. Strength training is administered based on the athlete's goals, and routine design may promote hypertrophy, power, or muscular endurance.

Perhaps one of the best things coaches provide is consistent, accurate, and clear feedback. Skill sets such as cornering, climbing, and proper running form are best accomplished while under direct supervision. Coaches can also teach mental skills such as visualization and positive self talk which can have a tremendous impact on performance.

Training should be a gradual building process, work out to work out, month to month, season to season. If your goal is general fitness or exercise you probably do not need a coach. But if you have a specific goal in mind, coaching can provide the quickest, safest, and most effective route to accomplishment. If you decide to hire a coach, make sure they are licensed by a national governing body such as USA Triathlon, USA Track & Field, or USA Cycling. You should also check references and competitive experience. Lastly make sure that your personalities mesh and that your coach is someone you enjoy and respect.

Matt Russ has coached and trained athletes around the country and internationally. He currently holds licenses by USAT, USATF, and is an Expert level USAC coach. Matt has coached athletes for CTS (Carmichael Training Systems), is an Ultrafit Associate. Visit for more information.

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