New Year’s Reflections

Driving home from Switzerland to the UK for Christmas last week gave me plenty of time to catch up on some podcasts, mostly from the always thought-provoking GainCast with Martin Bingisser (@bingisser) and Vern Gambetta (@coachgambetta). Listening to these conversations got me thinking about some of the key lessons that I have learned as a coach in the last 20 years and I thought I would share some here.

I’m certainly not claiming that they are all original, like any coach I keep and use anything good that I read, hear or see. You may well have seen some of them before but hopefully there is something new in here for you as well.


  1. We don’t coach sports, we coach people.

    It doesn’t matter how good you are as a coach, it is impossible to improve the ability of a bike to ride itself! So the lesson is to spend as much time learning about people as you do about the sport.

  2. Listen and observe.

    Listen to what the athletes tell you, actively and without allowing yourself to be distracted by other things. But don’t miss the wealth of other information that they give you when you observe how they enter the room, how they move in the warm up, how they react when you say hello or ask them a question and so on. If you are observant athletes don’t just talk using their mouths.

    There’s always more than one way to get to where you want to go!

  3. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

    Coaches and athletes will discuss (probably for evermore) the best way to train in order to get stronger, fitter, faster, more explosive and so on. In reality there is not one single best solution. Instead there are many different solutions which are very close to being equally good across a population. The difference is whether the programme suits the athlete as an individual and whether the athlete believes in it! Stop wasting time debating with yourself whether to do 5 or 6 reps of an exercise and ask the athlete to decide based on how they feel.

  4. Words, words, words!

    Words can be so important and so very powerful. If you have a good relationship with an athlete (and sometimes even before that relationship has

    Just like Location, Location, Location…..words are important!

    developed) the things that you say can have a huge impact on that athlete, either positive or negative, so think before you speak, choose your words and

    timing wisely and observe the effect of what you say.

  5. Words, words, words (part II).

    This might sound like it contradicts my last point but I guess that just highlights the “it depends” nature of coaching. Many coaches feel like they are not doing their job if they are not talking (or shouting). The may feel that their job is to “give” the athletes the benefit of their knowledge, telling them everything that they know in order to help them develop. Vinny Webb (@webb_vinny) says that we must remember that “learners are not empty vessels just waiting for us to fill them up.” Learn when to keep quiet and how much you need to say to each individual athlete and don’t let the pressure to “coach more” give you verbal diarrheoa.

  6. Don’t shy away from difficult conversations.

    It’s not easy sometimes but if you have the difficult conversations (about behaviour, commitment, potential, selections and so on) at the right time and in the right way the athlete will have more respect for you and everything will be a lot easier in the future. Prepare well for the conversation, get the environment right and don’t shy away from confrontation if necessary.

  7. Get the environment right! 

    What do you want the environment to promote? Less Pressure? Open conversations? Relaxation? Focus?

    One of @willfeebery ‘s many pearls of wisdom: Whether it is the coaching environment being set-up in the best possible

    way to promote learning or the environment that you choose for a team meeting or a one to one with an athlete being most conducive to the type of conversation that you want to have it is so important to get right. Do you want to challenge, stimulate, motivate, inspire, confront, encourage, debate with or relax the athlete/athletes? The environment can help you to do all of these more effectively.

  8. Be open and honest with the athletes that you coach. Always!

  9. They are not “your” athletes!

    The athletes that you coach don’t belong to you. I first heard this from my good friend Stuart Blunt (@stuartblunt) years ago. It might sound pedantic but calling them “my athetes” immediately defines the relationship and places it nearer to the Coach-centered, autocratic end of the spectrum.

  10. Culture is key.

    If you have a group of athletes, whether that is in a team sport or a training group, getting the culture right is absolutely essential. Make sure that everybody (staff and athletes alike) understands the standards of behavior that are expected. Even better, let them define those standards as Coach K describes here (

  11. Work really hard on relationships…….but you’re not the athletes’ friend.

    You need to work really hard to cultivate great relationships with athletes if you are going to be successful as a coach, as the saying goes “they won’t care what you know until they know that you care.” However, you are not aiming to be their best friend. If the relationship is too friendly you leave yourself open to allegations of favouritism and in reality it makes taking objective decisions almost impossible.

  12. Coaching is not easy!

    At least being a good coach isn’t. Whatever level you are coaching at you will, I hope, want to do the best job that you can and that means constantly being aware of how you behave, what you say, and how all of the athletes are feeling. You will put them first most of the time, sacrificing time and making decisions to better support them rather than to make your life easier (these two things are almost never the same). You will spend a lot of your free time with the athletes and even outside of that you will spend a lot of time thinking about coaching and how to get better or how to better support the athletes that you work with. In summary, coaching can very easily take over your life.

  13. Most people won’t ever fully understand what you do. 

    Is this the popular view of coaching?

    Ask the vast majority of people to think of a coach and they will imagine the all-knowing

    motivator standing on the sidelines of a pitch or court barking out instructions to the athletes. If you are working at a high level and travelling to competitions or training camps they will almost certainly tell you how great it must be to travel the world, not realizing that you rarely see much outside of the airport, the hotel and the venue. Most importantly it will be difficult for them to understand why you have to take that call or respond to that message on your “day off” or, even more difficult, why holidays can’t be planned until the competition calendar is confirmed.

  14. The payback from all of the hard work can come from unexpected places.

    Of course it’s great when an athlete wins a race or sets a PB and, in some ways, the higher the level the better it feels when it all pays off and the results come good. But sometimes the feeling when someone says thank you, sends you a Christmas card or simply tells you a story about how they think that you have helped them can be just as good, if not better.

  15. Be creative!

    Without creativity there is no progress. It’s essential to understand traditional ideas and not to dismiss them but don’t be afraid to experiment sometimes and to think outside the box. Take a leaf out of @twowheelprof ‘s book and look for new ways to support learning…..balloons, lego, Dobble and tennis balls all regularly play a part in his coaching sessions. Try adding some tennis balls to a recovery session on rollers to make it more interesting as well as add some technical challenge for the riders.

  16. Coaching is not for everybody!

    But if it is right for you it can be the most rewarding, most interesting and most fun thing that you will ever do. In short it can be the best job in the world!

I’d love to hear your thoughts and any of your key lessons-join the conversation on Twitter @fitinnotimeuk or drop me an e-mail at and I can start a list here.