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COVID Coaching: Tailoring Your Coaching to Fit the New Client Type

BY Phil White

Athletes are undeniably different people than they were at the start of 2020—their priorities, goals & availability have shifted. Assure that you're coaching with this new client in mind.

Doing anything well in life – work, parenting, and marriage, to name just three – requires time, effort, and persistence. Being a caring and committed coach is no different. When done right, the coaching craft can have a profoundly positive impact on people’s performance and their ability to function as capable, confident, and competent human beings. The need for what you do has never been greater, but the pandemic has complicated matters, to say the least. Even the most driven athletes are finding it hard to focus on their training, despite the fact that it will equip them to be more physically and mentally resilient. Here are some ideas to help you tailor your approach so you can better meet your clients’ needs. 

Breaking Out

One of the biggest challenges your clients are facing is cabin fever. While many might’ve initially embraced the working/schooling/everything from home shift, it’s likely that the sheen has now worn off and that rarely leaving the house is getting old, fast. More than ever before, you’ve got to help your athletes break out of their funk and shake up their largely static COVID-19 routines. 

As shown by surging sales of Peloton bikes, treadmills, and other home exercise equipment, an unexpected plus of the pandemic is that many people are getting back into training and those who were already committed are doubling down as they seek an outlet for the doubts, fears, and frustrations that we’re all feeling right now. However, training at home while also doing just about every other darn thing there too can make it feel like the walls are closing in. 

Fortunately, outdoor activities like running and cycling offer a unique opportunity to escape, get a change of scenery, and reap the health benefits of being in nature while also staying relatively safe from coronavirus. So if any of your athletes have been training exclusively indoors, encourage them to venture out and hit the road or trail instead. They might feel uncomfortable at first, but as long as they’re observant, pick low-density areas, and have their mask at the ready, they’ll likely experience a big boost in their mood, remember how much they like training outside and be more likely to stick with your program.

As the authors of a study on outdoor exercise conducted at the University of Essex in England put it, “outdoor natural environments may provide some of the best all-around health benefits by increasing physical activity levels with lower levels of perceived exertion, altering physiological functioning including stress reduction, restoring mental fatigue, and improving mood and self-esteem and perceived health.”

Fostering Connection + Community

In a world in which more than three billion people are now connected via globe-spanning social media networks, it’s amazing just how disconnected and isolated the pandemic has made many athletes feel. Competitors are also struggling to reconcile with disruptions to their training schedules and canceled events resulting from COVID-19. This isn’t merely anecdotal – a study of Italian athletes published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health noted that 35.8% of participants were upset by pandemic-related changes to their routine. The researchers recommended that athletes get more support from social connections, particularly those with their training group and coaches – to help improve their emotional state. 

To foster community among your clients, you could schedule a weekly group Zoom or GoToMeeting call that brings everyone together virtually. As well as geeking out about training, the latest gear, and other sports-specific topics, you could ask each attendee to share one recent low and one high. When met with support and encouragement, such vulnerability will help your athletes invest more in each other’s lives and give them a sense that no matter what they’re facing, they have a support team in place to help them through. You can supplement this by scheduling times to text or email each one of your clients a couple of times a week, or more if you know that they’re trying to cope with a sick family member or have recently lost their job. Such touchpoints might not seem like much, but they’ll make a big difference in helping your athletes feel appreciated and cared for. 

Setting New Challenges

Another obstacle that the pandemic has put in your athletes’ path is boredom. Sure, everyone has a myriad of gadgets to play around with, but if you’re seeing issues with athletes failing to adhere to your programs, these are likely rooted in them feeling like everything has gone stale, including their training. This issue isn’t confined to the pandemic, as 34.8 percent of participants in a study on athlete boredom published in Frontiers in Psychology said they lose momentum when having to perform too many repetitive tasks over and over again. 

To shake things up a little and encourage them to re-engage, you could start thinking like a gym owner, an app designer, or both. The reason that 30-day weight loss, 60-day muscle gain challenges, and other short-term fitness initiatives are so popular is that they’re highly focused on an ambitious yet achievable aim, involve people coming together as a group to celebrate each other’s progress, and provide a series of small wins. The same goes for apps and online platforms that increase user engagement by gamifying their experiences.  

So try to come up with a challenge or two for your athletes to tackle over the next couple of months. This could be targeting a specific number of total miles or meters, getting on a two-week or month-long streak, or hitting a daily metric. Not sure where to start? Send out a group text or email to all your clients with a few options and go with the most popular one. You could then focus on the other end of gamification by setting up a leaderboard to trigger your athletes’ competitiveness, recognizing daily and weekly winners, and setting up a Facebook group for your clients to share their progress and get support from one another. 

Finding a New Edge

It’s easy to view the pandemic as one persistent set of problems. Yet as real as the health, economic, and psychological difficulties that we’re all facing are, there are also some unique opportunities to embrace. You can help your clients find these by reframing the situation for them. Let them know that one of the key differences between a contender and a champion is that the former makes excuses while the latter always looks for a competitive edge. 

Whether it’s mental skills training, nutrition, or mobility, the amount of time your athletes have on their hands allows them to start dialing in aspects of their performance that they might normally neglect or overlook completely. Suggest a skill, recovery modality, or another area that each of your athletes can concentrate on for the next few weeks that will allow them to up their game in some way. 

Be proactive in suggesting a book, course, or podcast that will help lay the groundwork, or if you have some expertise in an area like sports psychology or soft tissue work, share some of the basics and suggest how your clients can build on these. Looking back a few years from now, your athletes will want to say that while getting through COVID-19 was difficult, they made the most of the chance to become more skilled and resilient and came out the other side stronger. And they had a great coach that helped them do so. 

About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at www.philwhitebooks.com and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.