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Successfully Coaching Different Athlete Personality Types

BY Bethany Rutledge

It's important to understand the different types of athletes you’ll be working with so that your approach can tailored appropriately. Here are just a few examples, but there is no one-size fits all style when it comes down this aspect!

How can you connect with a variety of athletes with different goals, motivations, and personalities? Tailoring your approach in small ways can help you more effectively meet the needs of various personalities when developing the coach-athlete relationship. Here’s a look at a few of the common types. Can you recognize your athletes or yourself anywhere in these descriptions?

The Number Cruncher

These athletes are most likely to request just the basic facts and want quantitative instructions and feedback. They sometimes become preoccupied with small details and miss the forest for the trees.

Coach Approach

Even if it’s in your nature to assume some small details to be understood, be sure to go the extra mile when specifying how your athletes should approach a workout. Avoid vague terms that involve an interpretation of feeling because they will ask for clarification later. If there is some subjectivity in executing a workout, spell that out too. For example, perhaps you want them to run by feel and take it easy if they’re feeling a bit worn out or run-up to a moderate effort if they’re feeling good. You can turn that into numbers by saying, “If you’re feeling 80 percent recovered, run up to Heart Rate Zone 3. If you’re feeling less than 80 percent recovered, keep the effort Zone 1 and 2 only.”

Also, with this type of athlete, it’s important never to assume something is understood, or you’re thinking about the execution of the workout the same as they are. For example, if I say, “ride as you feel in a casual group ride,” to me, that means don’t kill yourself and ride aerobically in Heart Rate or Power Zones 1 to 3 for 90 percent of the time. But if I don’t say that specifically, someone could very well interpret it to mean ride super hard and go all out if you’re up to it.

Finally, look to give quantitative responses and feedback. Responses like, “Good job,” “Nice effort,” or “How did you feel?” are likely to elicit a request for more specific feedback or more data.

Athletes who are detail-oriented will appreciate your willingness to treat them the same way. And while adding up exact yardage for swim sets seems trivial to someone focused on the bigger picture, prepare to get emails from numbers-oriented athletes if the numbers don’t always make sense.

Potential Problems

A common issue with this type of athlete is that they can’t let go of the numbers on easy days. They may be preoccupied with recovery day power or pace, for example. If they won’t leave the gadgets home on easy days, you may need to give them a specific range to make sure they keep the effort easy.  

The Type A-Max

This athlete is very common amongst high achieving triathletes and often overlaps with other types. They tend to exhibit early success and be praised for their determination and commitment.

Coach Approach

This type of athlete needs to exhibit maturity to grow out of their’ win every session’ mentality. It can be challenging for this athlete to understand that they cannot set a Personal Best every single day. If this athlete cannot learn to trust you, then they can be very tough to coach.

In order to move past their hyper-competitive mentality, you may want to advise them to do some solo training or stay off of athletic-based social media. If they train in groups, you may want to suggest they ride with the C group instead of the A group.

Potential Problems

This athlete type tends to get overly wrapped up in numbers and miss qualitative signs of improvement and success. They need to be reassured that sometimes, just doing the work is a victory, and they don’t have to crush every workout.

The Perfect Student

These athletes respond well to positive feedback and will seek to follow your instructions to the letter. Tim Myers, a fellow coach, is also an athlete who exemplifies this type in my practice. He has described his approach to his coach and nutritionist as, “If my coach told me to eat rocks, then I would!” This sums up the perfect student type well. 

Coach Approach

This athlete wants to do the work, execute each session perfectly, then reap the rewards for their effort. It’s easy to help them because they provide detailed feedback on each training session. Also, this athlete hates having any red workouts in their TrainingPeaks account. It’s important to be careful with this athlete type because they will often seek to stick to the plan past the point where they should.

This athlete type doesn’t need to be pushed. They need to be held back. They need to be encouraged to let you know if they are tired, something is hurting, or if they are feeling impending illness and not wait until the issue becomes full-blown.

Potential Problems

They will not want to tell you that a session went horribly, they need an extra day off, or if life stress interferes with their execution of the plan. They need to be encouraged not to see life’s inevitable setbacks as failures but as part of the process. You must be proactive in asking what else is going on with their life, health, etc. and let them know that it’s OK to miss a day or cut a session short. 

The Type B

The B title implies a lack of engagement by the athlete. Training isn’t just down the list a ways (where it should be). It’s all the way down the list. In other cases, they’ve bailed on the plan entirely or are impossible to track down for feedback.

Coach Approach

For this athlete, you will need to get to the root of the issue and find out what’s keeping them from being engaged. In many cases, these athletes may have had the best intentions but don’t have the time to dedicate to serious training right now- and that’s OK. An honest conversation can leave both parties willing to speak freely over the best decision for them.

Potential Problems

These athletes don’t tend to stick around long unless you can get them to feel like a part of your team and engaged in the process. That said, it doesn’t always have to be a breakup. Sometimes you can help with an underlying issue, whether it be needing to take a step due to work and home obligations, feeling intimidated or that they don’t want to ask specific questions. The best thing you can do is leave behind any reservations about being direct and try to help in a kind but firm way. Sometimes you may be surprised that what you uncover is not what you anticipated, and the end product is a happily engaged athlete.

The Ideal Coached Athlete

An ideal athlete can be any of these types. Still, there are a few other things coachable athletes have in common that go beyond personality: intrinsic motivation, (some) patience, and a desire to be the best they can be.

They all have a strong desire to improve, and they aren’t sure of their limits. Instead of adhering to a rigorous high bar that may or may not be feasible, they instead accept that nothing is certain and are willing to work hard and see where they land. They are happy with their progress but never satisfied because there is always more to improve.

The coach-athlete relationship isn’t only about you, but frankly, the athletes you coach should inspire you to strive to be better, more committed, and kinder to yourself. These are lessons that can be applied to any facet of life.

How do you tailor your approach to several athletes with various personality traits in addition to training needs and wants? With awareness and carefully.

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About Bethany Rutledge

Bethany is a USAT certified triathlon coach with an M.A. in Health Science/Health Promotion as well as graduate training in Counseling. She is one of the Atlanta Tri Club partners and owners of Energy Lab, a coaching and cycling studio in Atlanta, and serves on the USA Triathlon Southeast Regional Council as the Technology coordinator. Bethany has been coaching both individuals and groups in running and triathlon for several years now. She also serves on the USA Triathlon Southeast Regional Council as the Technology Program Manager.She is also a freelance writer, contributing regularly to the training section of Triathlete Magazine, co-author of the recently published 180 Your Life from Tragedy to Triumph: A Woman’s Grief Guide and various other publications.A two time IRONMAN World Champs and 70.3 World Champs Qualifier, and perennial USA Triathlon All American, her personal focus is the Ironman distance. In the 2015 USAT Rankings she was ranked 6th in 30-34 in the SE, and 3rd in the state. She was also ranked 4th in the country for 30-34 in the 2013 IRONMAN 70.3 Age Group Rankings. Her favorite mode of exercise is running with her two vizslas, Sadie, and Bailey.