Coaching Credibility Avoiding the easy answer

Andy Kirkland Ph.D.

Professional Coaching Expertise

Recently I read an article on a triathlon magazine website by another coach. It was a response to a reader's question on what sort of training they should be doing as they had very limited time available to train.

The response included very specific guidance and a recommendation that the athlete used sports specific nutritional products. I was genuinely annoyed by the answer, naming and shaming the coach on Facebook, suggesting he was talking "shite". Unfortunately for me, the coach had several mutual friends and my un-constructive feedback reached him quickly. Woops. It was a little bit embarrassing and I felt compelled to apologise.

One of the main reasons I did so was that Simon Ward, a coach I respect, had been attacked by another coach via social media, unjustifiably so IMHO and I believe he was upset by it too. The fact that I may have had a similar effect on another coach, suggested to me that I had fallen below the standards I expect of myself. I was genuinely sorry in my manner of criticism but still felt justified in my views.

Being a coach comes with power and huge responsibility. Much of my life is spent training other coaches, some at the grass-roots of sport and others working at the top of their game. Maintaining my credibility involves a great deal of hard work, recognising not only what my skills are but also the limits of my knowledge. Part of my philosophy is to challenge them to think very carefully about all of their coaching actions. It's far too easy to fall into the coaching trap of following the trend of the day, assimilating with the coaching environment or regurgitating some quasi-scientific theory without understanding the 'whys'. Writing for international magazines and websites, particularly as a coach, comes with even more responsibility and also the likelihood of getting shot-down by others.

Triathlon is a fast changing market in which many participants are new to the sport. They have limited understanding of how to train, are very impressionable and accept advice uncritically. The sport is a very market driven one, in which some nutrition companies, equipment manufacturers and coaches can take advantage of the naivety of their customers for financial gain.

What marks a good coach out for me is one who always acts with integrity, balancing athlete needs with their wants. That means not selling any dreams which include taking shortcuts unless the alternatives have been discussed in detail. It also means continually challenging one's beliefs, being comfortable in admitting when you're wrong and learning at every opportunity. Someone I've got a great deal of respect for is Joe Friel. I don't always agree with him or what he writes. However, he's an awesome listener, humble and is open minded to criticism, What great coaching skills.

For the question posed in the magazine, I believe the right answer for the coach to give was that the athlete had insufficient time to train frequently enough or with sufficient volume to justify doing anything too specific. My advice would have been to focus on developing a degree of consistency and enjoy doing what they do. I like Stephen Seiler's Hierarchy of Endurance Training Needs model (Figure 1) as it helps coaches focus on the level of guidance they need to give athletes. Triathlon is a demanding sport. If frequency and volume of training is lacking, then there's no point worrying too much about anything closer to the pyramidion.

Seiler's Hierarchy of Endurance Training Needs

Further, the answer to the question involved suggesting the use of sports specific nutrition; however, I don't believe this was justifiable without knowing more about the athlete. Before I give any nutritional advice, I point athletes to Asker Jeukendrup's schematic below.

Jeukendrup's Pyramid

Coaching is a hard gig to do well at financially whilst maintaining professional integrity. Marketing is often more important than the level of expertise of the coach. Pretending otherwise is fallacy. Writing in magazines and websites is one way to get that market penetration. However, editors are often just looking for simple, unambiguous soundbites and copy that doesn't upset their advertisers. This is a difficult environment for a coach to work in because honest answers are not always what people are looking for. However, for coaches to be respected as professionals requires that we act with integrity, honesty and intellectual rigour. It's fine to get things wrong when striving towards excellence. I'll typically only write for website like the TrainingPeaks one because that's the standard they expect too.

When someone is portrayed as an expert coach in the media, I believe it's imperative to be able to back it up with demonstrable knowledge and expertise. It also means recognising that there are many people in the readership who are more expert than the writers. Therefore, giving superficial soundbite or getting things wrong can be damaging to the credibility of the coach and the knowledge of the wider readership.

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