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4 Tips for Improving Athlete Retention

BY Nate Wilson

Follow these four strategies to encourage better long-term coach-athlete engagement, as well as improved performance for your athlete over time.

When the fine folks at TrainingPeaks asked me to write an article on athlete retention, I had to first ask myself, “What characterizes athlete retention?” I came to the conclusion that to keep it simple, we could boil it down to two main aspects.

One aspect is longevity of revenue from a given athlete. The other aspect is longevity of “coach engagement” with a given athlete. I would characterize “coach-athlete engagement” as subjective criteria, consisting of good communication, good workout compliancy, and the athlete generally being active and involved in the coach-athlete relationship, not a passive receiver of a training plan.

In the ideal world, “coach-athlete engagement” coexists with continued payment to a coach, but the reality is that is not always the case. Many coaches have stories of the athlete they’ve been working with for three years, that they feel like they are not providing a service to, because the athlete is not actively engaged in the coaching process. I establish this distinction, because I want to focus this article on how to build long lasting “coach-athlete engagement.” In my experience, if the athlete is actively engaged in the coaching process, the continuity of revenue follows.

What follows this verbose blurb is a list of processes that I have found successful in establishing longevity of “coach-athlete engagement.” The caveat emptor I must preface this list with is that at the end of the day every athlete is unique, and different processes are going to be successful in keeping him or her engaged.

Coaches can develop a model of what they believe works, but at the end of the day what is going to dictate their success, is their ability to adapt this model to different athletes.

I put the sentiment of catering to the individual as being key to creating an environment of athlete retention above anything else. That said, here are some things that have been key for me:

1. Keep it fresh for the athlete.

The effect of novel stimuli, both physical and mental, is massive. It is often said that overtraining in the clinical sense is extremely rare, and an “overtraining diagnosis” is often a product of mental stagnation.

Athletes are more likely to stay engaged over time if they feel they are part of an evolving process, not a program that is stagnant. Are there technique elements in which the athlete could use improvement? Is there a different style of training that could be incorporated? Are there mental barriers to an athlete’s performance that outweigh physical barriers?

These are all critical components of training that by varying and progressing with time can keep the athlete mentally engaged and guard against the athlete tuning out and passively going through the motions.

2. Involve the client in the coaching process.

OK, that is super broad, and I’ve already said it a few times. In action, the key to me is the athlete understanding that their subjective feedback on their training is just as important as any quantitative data coming in.

I like to admit, right off the bat, that the way I coach relies on a certain element of trial and error, and that only with the athlete’s feedback and involvement, can we foster any hope of getting close to the ideal model.

Having athlete buy-in to the concept that with time, and their involvement, together a coach and athlete can get closer toward the grail of ideal preparation for events, creates longevity right away.

3. Set short term and long-term goals.

The scenario is an athlete that signs on to a coach in November, citing a goal the following June. The coach does a great job, athlete smashes goal, feels they have accomplished what they set out to do, and ends the coaching relationship.

Not a bad thing, and sometimes this may be all the athlete is really looking for. However, I think a key in translating these short-term successes into long-term athlete retention, are in the planning process.

It is really easy to become focused on relentlessly pursuing the short-term that any idea of long-term gets thrown out the window. That is good for many reasons, but there is also a lot to be said for long-term progress.

I believe that true progress only occurs on a multi-year scale, anything else is just eliciting an optimal performance with what the athlete already came to the table with. Work toward the short term goals, but always be assessing and pushing the big objectives in the background.

4. Annually assess the season with the athlete.

Seek out criticism and input, and plan for the following year. An ever-evolving training process is the key to sustainability. Sustainability is the key to progress, because progress takes time.

It is a wordy list, and perhaps vague. Ultimately, everything circles back to involving the athlete in the coaching process. An athlete and coach can only hope to reach the model of ideal preparation—for an individual athlete—if they are incorporating not just quantitative data, but an athlete’s subjective feedback on what they perceive to be driving success, driving mental enthusiasm, and what hesitations they have about how they have been training. Create an environment where athlete’s have ownership of their coaching relationship, and coaches will have created an environment of athlete retention.

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About Nate Wilson

Nate Wilson is the owner and head coach of Catalyst Coaching. While balancing professional racing, with pursuing a Physiology degree at the University of Colorado, Nate realized that coaching was the perfect crossover between the two. Nate has been fortunate to work as the head coach and director for the USA Cycling U23 Road National Team. Nate enjoys the chance to apply his knowledge and experience to help athletes progress to their maximum potential.

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