Do great athletes make great coaches?
There is a strange conundrum in the world of coaching. Great athletes seldom make great coaches. The two types of people that make up great athletes and great coaches are widely disparate. The athlete must, by necessity ensure that he/she gets everything they need in order to succeed. In the world of endurance sports that is coaches, therapists, agents, sponsors and the total support of family and friends. These individuals are by nature people with an intense ability to focus on what they need to do in order to perform at the highest level. They are athletes and warriors. Coaches on the other hand are multi-taskers. They are always last on the rung in top sport. They sleep in the worst accommodation and receive the lowest monetary compensation for their efforts. They do not often seek the lime-light, choosing rather to dwell in the realms of service as elder statesmen and motivators. Coaches are not as well known, or not known at all to the public that follows that particular sport. The athlete brings in the advertising dollars; the athlete is the actor, performer and star—and this is how it should be.
However, when the amateur wishes to progress in the sport of their choice they are often drawn to former superstars of their sport for advice on how to proceed. While many top athletes provide very sound advice and guidance, surely it is the support crews of these stars who where instrumental in putting together the performances not only in this individual, but in (often) many others as well. It take special attributes to be a great athlete, some physical, some mental, some genetic, some acquired through hard work, but many are called to compete at the highest level, but few succeed. Very few great athletes achieved greatness without very long periods of intense, educated commitment from coaches and support crews—be they family and or any other of the myriad professionals required in the creation of long term high level performance.
Often, when a star’s prime performance years are past, athletes get into coaching for a number of reasons: to give back to the sport that supported them, to make a contribution to the community that supported them, to supplement their income and so on. Some succeed and some fail—it all depends on the character of the athlete. There have been many occasions when I have worked with amateur athletes who attended seminars or workshops put on by top athletes who have come back disillusioned, confused or disappointed. But there are others who have truly been helped by these former greats. Often also, athletes who are just bubbling under breaking through into the big time go to a top athlete with the hope that they will get what they need to cross over into that rarefied air of greatness where the rewards and accolades are stunning. They fail more often than they succeed. Why? Perhaps the star knows intimately what they specifically did or needed to perform and subsequently share this information. This “thing” like a magic bullet often only works for that athlete. Also the athlete seldom knows the fine details of periodization, timing, volumes, frequencies, intensities and durations that are applicable to the majority of athletes, rather than those specifically applicable to them. I have personally witnessed the frustration of a star athlete when athletes that they have coached fail, despite them showing form prior to competition that would have had the former great themselves perform at a high level. Similarly I have often fielded requests of talented athletes who wish to train with a star that I am coaching at the time. I warn them that they need a schedule specific to their abilities and demands, yet some insist that all they need is to train with the champion in order to succeed. The result? Every time, without exception, the athlete breaks down and fails to perform that season. We all know that “overnight successes” take 10 years to achieve, yet still some athletes somehow hope that they can circumvent that process of hard work, dedication and commitment.
A coach can never know exactly what it took internally, mentally for a top athlete to have achieved a given performance. Here the star can relate and motivate and inspire the “age grouper” with tales of challenges overcome, moments of choice where steps across the threshold into the unknown have brought glory and success. These athletes however seldom have the objectivity, experience, training or feel for bringing other, perhaps less gifted, individuals into great form to produce results commensurate with their ability.
Great coaches are people people, while great athletes are for the people people! When choosing a coach bear this in mind—there is much we can learn from our heroes that can help our performance. This holds true whether we are beginners, weekend warriors or someone with the potential to become a great athlete. There are also great athletes who have become wonderful coaches, but by and large your best bet is to find a coach who knows his/her craft, has a proven track record as a coach and who instills in you a feeling of trust and confidence.
Good luck—we all deserve the best support we can get in pursuance of our very precious goals.