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Coach-Athlete Communication and Seeing Beyond the Metrics

BY Jesse Riley

In an effort to improve the connection to athletes and their goals, set expectations and leverage metrics through TrainingPeaks with these approaches.

Data. Numbers. Parameters. They rule the new age of information, and while they have their significant benefits in terms of predictive analysis, one thing they haven’t nailed down is the human condition.

It’s a typical scenario in coaching. You have amazing clients who give you feedback with each training session you program and ones where you feel like you must ask yourself, “Is this person even alive?” Working with endurance athletes from a strength training perspective on TrainHeroic, a Peaksware program and sister program to TrainingPeaks, I began having these opposing trends in my early stages of coaching.

Any tool is only as good as the person handling it, and when it comes to numbers and data, if we can’t pull reasoning from all of that information, what good is gathering it in the first place? Let’s discuss how to connect with these different types of clients you might have, how to serve them better and find context for the data while limiting additional work to do so.

Subjective vs. Objective — What Actually Matters?

Whether working with clients from an endurance coach perspective or a functional movement clinician, it’s ideal to have an initial sit down, face-to-face or virtually/over the phone. When I started my career, I would often rush through this portion because I wanted to ensure everyone knew how much I knew about all things movement, rehab, and pain.

That was until I came across a saying:

People don’t care how much
you know until they know
how much you care.

I think we are all guilty of the former when we first start, and as we get “reps,” we learn to relax. These days, I reiterate when speaking with clients to imagine we are sitting down, having a cup of coffee, talking openly.

This engagement session is a perfect time to get into their headspace. To know where an athlete is going, we must understand where they are right now. This information comes from asking questions that peel back the proverbial layers of the onion that is the client. I like to collect this information in terms of three areas: biology, psychology, and sociology. Some of you may know of the Bio-Psycho-Social approach. This is a client-centered way of seeing the person’s entire picture to optimize the best way to work with them. Questions are universal and may look like this:

  • What brings you this direction for coaching? What are you looking to gain from what I/we offer?
  • What is the overall goal of working together? If we were able to achieve this goal, what impact would it have on your life?
  • Have you worked with other coaches in the past? What did you enjoy or not enjoy about working with them?
  • What have been some pitfalls in the past with your training? Whether that be injuries or life interrupting your progress.
  • How does your social circle around you handle your training? Would you say your immediate family/friend circle is supportive?
  • How does your work-life balance handle your training? Do you foresee any difficulties with this while we work together?

As you can see, things get real, really quick. You may think these questions get awkward or make you grit your teeth, but they are imperative for solid communication. I can assure you that prefacing the conversation by stating “how much you care” will not only help you maintain a client but maybe one that would run through a wall for you.

The overarching goal is to set as much clarity as we can on the subjective aspects of a client and establish that questions and comments are ideal for moving forward for the best relationship as coach and client. Plus, proving that you welcome them as a person, not just a client, provides more insight into the subjective and objective attributes.

From there, we can begin to glean context from the data as you work together in the training process.

Load vs. Capacity — Can We Predict Icebergs?

Data can get messy fast. I often apply this to explaining pain to people. Jumping back to wide-eyed, wet behind the ears, Dr. Jesse, I laugh at how much time I spent trying to explain mechanics, tissues involved in an injury, etc. You may have tried to do the same by explaining the training cycles and philosophy of your training methods, only to find out that the client typically has no idea what you’re talking about.

Learn from my indulgence by making things less complex. I have since simplified how I explained pain to most clients, especially endurance athletes, by boiling it down to a balance between load and capacity. The idea is simple. It’s OK to have load slightly exceed capacity because that’s how we adapt in a training program (run further, bike faster, get less winded). However, if the load heavily exceeds capacity, we risk overloading the tissues involved or the body in general and risk being shelved.

You may be familiar with training load jargon but if you’re not, let’s quickly break things down in how they apply to TrainingPeaks.

  • Acute Training Load (Fatigue) – ATL is how much training stress the client has faced in the last seven days.
  • Chronic Training Load (Fitness) – CTL is how much training stress the client has faced in the previous 42 days.
  • Training Stress Balance (Form) – TSB is the difference of CTL subtracted from ATL, with 0 being homeostasis, positive numbers signaling recovery and negative numbers signaling declining form.

I’ll spare your eyes by stopping the lesson there because I’m sure most of you are familiar with the terminology. You can read more information in the glossary of terms. And to see a walkthrough from a coach and friend, Coach Andrew Simmons, talking about the terms mentioned above as they apply to a training program, watch the video here.

We could sit and focus on only the numbers or the trends in how they apply to the client we are guiding, but that only displays part of the bigger picture. This is where the “How did you feel?” and Perceived Exertion buttons come into play. As you may know, some are good at clicking these, and some are not. Convincing your athletes to leverage these feedback options could make or break a training plan, race, or season.

Finding trends and open discussions are crucial month to month, especially from training block to training block. People have needy jobs, needy children, needy spouses (many of which have reasonable needs), and additional roles that are part of their makeup. Although we are “just their coach,” we must know how the load in their life affects their capacity as well. I routinely meet with clients once a month, either on a phone call or a Zoom meeting, and I rely on questions that aren’t much different from the initial ones already listed above.

  • Outside of questions you typically answer with each workout, how do you feel your training has gone this month? (This opens the floor to talk about why they may NOT be good at answering these questions but not in an accusatory way.)
  • What barriers have you faced this month with your training? What barriers will you have next month?
  • Do you foresee anything being added to your plate this coming month, either personally or professionally, that could cause you trouble?
  • Outside of what we’ve done up to this point, what would you like to see next month, and can I help in any way from any standpoint revolving around nutrition or recovery? (Keep in mind that you don’t have to take on aspects outside of your realm as a coach, but you likely have people in your network who would be giddy to help.)

Using questions framed like these while looking at the trends within the data shows allows us to get a lens into the person’s consistency and resiliency upfront to keep working with them and going forward on a month-to-month basis. This process also makes managing multiple personalities easier as you have a blueprint to work from and tailor any methods to a specific person.

Personality Types — Catering to Your Audience

As mentioned earlier, we have two camps of clients we work with: active ones on the platform and those who are not. I’ll preface this portion by saying don’t overextend yourself, just seek confirmation, which means some people are not good at responding regardless of what you do. Everyone has that friend you send a text to, and possibly by the next election cycle, they respond, and if you don’t, it means you are that person. Initially, it’s best to set the precedent that the “door is always open.”

From working with many clients in face-to-face and online formats, it’s important to be flexible in using various communication platforms. Like me, I’m sure you have clients who naturally flow to a specific tool and some jump all over the place. Admittedly, I’m not the most organized person, and therefore the more clarity or absolutes I can facilitate, the better I operate. For my clients, I want to know from the start what platform they use the best by asking a few questions:

  • We obviously have a few different options for communicating, and I want to make sure I keep my door open to you. What platform (give them the options you prefer first) works best for you to correspond?
  • I have clients with many different styles of corresponding with me. Some are consistent with each workout, while others may not leave feedback for a week or more. Everyone is different but historically, what works best for you?

For the client who has been radio silent

  • I’ve been looking into your training progression intermittently and want to make sure you’re getting the best experience. Is there an ideal way for us to keep correspondence? Say, a phone call to catch up or emails every other week to get updated on how you’re recovering?

Another option I use is an “Office Hour” once a month for many clients I work with online. I will pick a day and time (it’s usually the first Monday evening of the month), email everyone a Zoom meeting link to either present a topic or leave the floor open for Q&A. It frees up so much time for me while also improving my speaking to a group and creating content I can repurpose for later.

Again, don’t feel compelled to overextend yourself. For many of you, this is your job. For others, a side hustle. Coaching is not your life, which is my last lesson that, quite frankly, I’m still learning how to manage. You can’t be available to the masses 24/7 because it leaves you no availability to yourself.

Work smarter, not harder.

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About Jesse Riley

Dr. Jesse Riley is the head clinician and strength coach at Modern Movement Clinic in the Denver/Golden, CO area. His main focus is working with endurance athletes both in rehab and strength training capacities. He uses his advanced skills in human movement and biomechanics to help educate people on pain or performance while also providing optimism and confidence in their journey. He has a strength program on Train Heroic’s Marketplace where he provides three workouts a week (two strength and one mobility). You can find more on social channels as @docjesseriley & @modernmvmntclinic.

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