I may not know you, but I know you’re probably an endurance athlete. That’s because this is a blog for endurance coaches, and most endurance coaches are also endurance athletes. While there are plenty of good coaches who don’t compete but being an active participant in the sport you teach can be a strong asset. In particular, it’s a source of both learning and credibility. Sharing your own athletic experiences is often an effective way to demonstrate to clients you’re familiar with what you’re explaining. One personal story is sometimes worth a thousand studies.
There are good and bad ways of talking about yourself with clients, however. The most important thing to keep in mind is that it’s not about you, it’s about them. Any and all sharing you do should serve the athlete’s interests first and foremost. Here are the guidelines I try to follow in deciding when and how to talk about my training and racing with my athletes.
Treat each athlete individually.
Most of my clients have read at least one of the books I’ve written. Some of them might even be considered fans of mine, while others just like the training philosophy I espouse in my work. The fan-type clients typically like to hear about my own training and racing. It’s part of what they’re paying me for.
On the other side of the spectrum are those athletes who couldn’t care less about my athletic exploits. They just want to know what I can do for them. Whenever I bring on a new client, I try to gauge their level of curiosity about my past and present exploits and then adapt my approach accordingly.
Even if you haven’t written books, as a coach you have a reputation that draws clients to you. Whether your name has been built mainly on your own success out on the racecourse, or on the successes you’ve had with other athletes, a certain fraction of the athletes who seek your help will want you to share relevant personal stories and experiences. Others won’t, no matter how much they respect you. Do your best to give each type of client what they want. Talking about yourself in relevant ways will inspire and enlighten those athletes who are curious about you, while not talking about yourself will assure those who aren’t as curious that your focus is on them.
Know your motives.
Ever since my high school running days, I’ve been motivated by a strong desire to impress others. I’m just being honest. Racing gives me satisfaction in a number of different ways, but outside recognition remains high on the list. When I perform well, I want the whole world to know about it. Nobody likes a braggart, of course, so I try to restrain this impulse, and with my clients, this is especially important. There are good reasons to tell an athlete about your own athletic feats, and impressing them is not one of them.
Nor is competition. Not every athlete is as motivated as I am by a desire to impress people, but most athletes are competitive. Imagine the following scenario: One day you happen to do the same workout that one of your athletes does. The session goes very well for her, and she’s very proud of his splits. But yours were a little faster. Are you tempted to mention this? Don’t!
Anytime you get a notion to tell an athlete about one of your own athletic experiences, ask yourself why. Is your goal to inspire or edify the athlete? If so, fire away. Otherwise, keep it to yourself.
Lead with empathy.
In my experience, the single best use for personal sharing in the coaching context is to demonstrate empathy. I have found that telling stories from my own athletic past is a great way to let clients know I have experienced the same thing they’re going through. Some stories serve to offer reassurance, others to teach a lesson.
For example, if I have a client who is feeling sluggish during a pre-race taper, I might tell them about the several times I’ve had a great race after feeling precisely the same way. Or if I have a client who is tempted to train through a developing case of plantar fasciitis, I might tell them about the time I did just that and ended up sidelined for eight weeks.
Even if you’re the humble and private type of coach who prefers not to talk about yourself with athletes, I encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and share personal anecdotes that offer hope to athletes who need it—or a word caution to athletes who need that.