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Coach Paul Duncan: The key to a successful coach-athlete relationship


In this week’s blog, Coach Paul Duncan of QT2 Systems explains how trust and communication in a coach-athlete relationship can help you see major improvement in your triathlon game. 

I have had many cases where an athlete (that has another coach) has come to me asking advice about their training. The first thing I ask that athlete is, “well what does your coach think?”. More times than not, the answer will be, “I didnt want to bother them”, “they are too busy”  or something to that effect. Why is this? This is a problem. The conclusion that I come to is that athlete clearly does not trust their coach to provide them with the information that they need to help them reach their personal potential.

On the flip side. I have spoken with other fellow coaches about their athletes training, and they have made comments like “well, the athlete doesn’t listen anyway, so what’s the point?”. This is also a problem. The coach clearly does not trust that the athlete will perform the tasks given for one reason or another.

When I consider starting a new athlete/coach relationship, I have a detailed discussion with them about their level of commitment, and willingness to have fully open communication with me at all times. If that part is lacking (on either the coaches side, or the athlete’s side) trust is not going to be built, and eventually both sides are going to be unhappy in the long term.

I have found that for some athletes it can be very difficult to trust their coach in the beginning of the relationship, mostly because they want to see progress “right now”. In reality, that’s not the way fitness works. Gaining long term fitness is a very slow process. Most athletes tend to think very short term, while any good coach is always thinking in the long term.

In order for any coach/athlete relationship to work in the long term, the trust has to go both ways.

On the athlete side, it is crucial that the athlete has “bought in” to the coach’s training thought process. If the athlete has not fully bought in, they are going to constantly change the workouts, disregard training zones, and undermine a small percentage of what the instructions were. Eventually this will lead to the athlete not achieving the result that the coach intended.

On the coach’s side, if the athlete is constantly changing workouts, working at the wrong intensity, and not communicating… Something is eventually going to go wrong. The coach is of course going to start to feel guilty for this, and its going to be very hard for the coach to adjust the training plan, when they have no clue what the athlete has actually been doing. The coach can only help the athlete see progress if the athlete is doing his or her part. That includes communicating as much as possible and making sure that they are following the program as closely as possible. Of course the athlete’s workouts aren’t always going to go as planned, and that’s ok, as long as the communication is in place consistently.

I find that many athletes overlook this concept when in search for a new coach, when in reality it’s probably the most important factor when shopping for a new coach. As a coach, the number one thing I look for before agreeing to work with an athlete, is their willingness to trust in the information I am providing them, and their willingness to communicate with me at a high level.