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How to Make Your Small Coaching Business Thrive

BY Phil White

Gross revenue and sales growth don't have to be the holy grail for coaching businesses. Developing stronger ties to your athletes and coaches can lead to greater rewards.

Most of the articles, podcasts and books about the business of coaching focus on growth and scale. The thinking seems to be that if a small coaching setup is good, then making it midsize will be better and big will be best. But that might not be realistic or even desirable for you, your fellow coaches, and the athletes you serve. I’ll explore the counterargument to bigger is better in this post: small can be sweet, and impact is measurable by factors other than gross revenue and sales growth.

To gain some insider insights, I turned to my good friend Mary Johnson, who started her female-focused  Lift Run Perform (LRP) enterprise four and one-half years ago. Mary’s passion for coaching begins with her love of the sport. She started running for fun in 2010 and shaved her marathon PR from 3:44 to 3:06 and her half-marathon from 1:48 to 1:25. When COVID struck and longer races got shut down, she shifted her focus to shorter distances, running an 18:31 5k and 38:44 10k in the fall of 2020.

Like many others, Mary came to the coaching craft in the middle of her career. She worked in fashion for six years before deciding that, as she puts it, “There was so much more to life than working behind a desk.” As a strength coach, she started her coaching journey at Ranfone Training Systems in Hamden, CT, then began coaching runners with McKirdy Trained in 2016 and launched LRP in 2017.

Person First, Athlete Second

One of the reasons that Mary started LRP was that she saw a need for coaches who wouldn’t just see runners whose training times and race results defined whether they were successful or not. “To me, the human element is the most important thing to my business,” Mary said. “Getting coached by a former elite athlete might seem great to someone at first, but it doesn’t always turn out well because that person doesn’t understand the demands of real-life for people who aren’t world-class. So they might not treat their athletes well or give them a positive experience.”

Coming up with a system that offered something better for athletes involved understanding where her target demographic was in their lives and then working backward to create programs from there. “Most of the women I coach are busy with their jobs, and many have husbands and kids,” she said. “They are serious about improving their running performance, but they also want to look and feel good. And on days when they’re feeling burned out, maybe it’s better that they don’t train and just relax with a nice glass of wine instead.”

This person-first, runner-second philosophy also extends to Mary’s holistic training approach. The name of her company provides a solid clue to this, particularly its first element: Lift. Mary’s entry point for coaching was through strength training, so, naturally, she believes in its efficacy because she has seen the positive results firsthand. But the incorporation of resistance work into every running program also ties back to her desire to help women become more durable, capable and confident. “I’m working with a runner who has a chronic back problem,” she said. “Her previous coach is old school and kept telling her to run through it, but she got to a point where this was doing more harm than good. Now I’m helping her with the running side, and she has a local strength coach she’s training with in-person. She recently switched from two to three resistance workouts per week, and her back is much better, so she’s enjoying running more than ever.”

The Power of “Project: Breaking 3”

This example illustrates how Mary and the nine other coaches who are now part of LRP have differentiated themselves: by making strength training an integral part of their programs. Speaking of which, one of the breakthrough moments for this business came in 2019. When talking about goals with her athletes, Mary kept hearing a recurring theme. Many of them were determined to break the three-hour mark in the marathon. So she and her fellow coaches sat down and devised a program that would help get them there. “It’s pretty easy to take someone who’s slow and make them quicker, but much more of a challenge to help a fast runner get even faster,” Mary said. “But that’s what we set out to do with Project: Breaking 3. Now we’re into the second year, and we’ve helped many ladies meet that goal.”

This is a limited program that Mary deliberately keeps small, with just eight women per annual training cycle. While opening it up to more people would bring more revenue, she has resisted this temptation because she’s determined to keep the coaching high-quality and coach-athlete communication frequent and responsive. Another win from Project: Breaking 3 is the sense of community felt by both coaches and athletes. “People feel a strong need for human connection, particularly with the pandemic,” Mary said. “Being able to finally meet up with people who you’ve trained with virtually and give them a big hug when they cross the finish line is a special moment.” As such, LRP is planning to keep the number of athletes the same but add more groups that aim to duck under the three-hour barrier mark at more events, such as the Houston Marathon.

In addition to cultivating a stronger, more vibrant running community, Mary is constantly trying to serve her coaches better. This includes paying for whatever certifications they might want to pursue, securing nutrition sponsorships with the likes of Momentous, and providing access to resources that they might not have previously had access to. “I’m blocking off at least one day a month just to check in with each coach, see how they’re getting on, and figure out how I can help them,” Mary said.

Servant leadership. Community. People development. These are all unique and lasting wins that don’t show up in race results or on the balance sheet. But for Mary Johnson and her fellow coaches at LRP, they’re what success is all about as they continue building a thriving coaching business that improves times and lives alike.

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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.

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