An Open Letter to All Coaches on What Really Matters- Questions You Should Ask as an Athlete

Written by Matt Smith, MS, Training Peaks and USAT Level 2 Certified Triathlon Coach

As coaches, we start our relationship with an athlete completely backwards. I know this is a bold statement, but one that has taken me almost ten years of coaching to feel comfortable making. I’ve known deep down that it’s right, and have practiced it after the fact, but continue to realize that during that first meeting with an athlete or even during the “honeymoon phase” as we get started working together, I revert to what’s comfortable. We need to challenge ourselves to think differently about how we interact with an athlete’s life.

What’s backwards?
In most cases, when an athlete begins working with a triathlon coach, the three common questions revolve around the athlete’s goals and coach’s track record of helping similar athletes accomplish these goals. What the workouts are going to be like or what the coaches training philosophy is or how many hours and how intense it will be. How the coach uses or doesn’t use data to drive the physiological progression for an athlete. Finally, what training technology will be required of the athlete.

The Athlete as a Whole
The one set of questions that never come to fruition revolve around the rest of the athlete’s life. Granted, we talk about communication with the coach usually and ask about what they do for work and how many hours a week they can train. Do we really take the time to understand the work and family life of that athlete and how training fits into the puzzle? I’m placing my bet on most of the time, not so much. I’ve also come to realize that if we leave the rest of the puzzle pieces on the table, the puzzle is incomplete and these are the pieces that most make up the complete picture vs. the border pieces that are training.

Stress is Stress
We need to remember that age old formula taught by one of the most successful coaches ever, Stephen Covey, “Stress is Stress.” Whether it be positive, endorphin-driven workout stress or the negative stress from an angry boss or managing the family schedule, it all goes in the same bucket. Stress comes from four main sources:

1. Psychological
-Family schedule management

2. Emotional
-Spouse/partner relationships
-Friends and co-workers
-Spiritual connection

3. Environmental
-Nutrition and nutrient density
-Toxic load

4. Physical
-Workouts and training
-Sleep and recovery

What questions should we be asking as coaches? I recommend asking these 7 questions to shed light on the whole picture of what an athlete’s life looks like. These questions tell us where the stress comes from in an athlete’s life and how to help them manage stressors in order to maximize training. Athletes, these are also the most important topics you should be discussing with your coach.

Start with these Questions:

  1. What motivates you: How would you rank triathlon training as a priority in your life (1-5)? What brings you the most joy in life? Do you have a personal mantra or purpose for your life? Which motivates you more: accomplishing a goal or the act of training to get there?
  2. How do you manage your life: Do you keep a to-do list? Do you keep a calendar? What is the amount of detail you block your calendar in? Are you early or late?
  3. Tell me about your work life: How many hours a week do you work? Do you like your co-workers? Do you appreciate your boss? How do you feel at the end of a work day, invigorated or spent? Is your work a means to an end or do you find joy in it? On a scale of 1-10, how stressful is your work?
  4. Tell me about your family: Who manages the family schedule? Do other people in your household train? Do you have an open dialogue with your spouse/partner about training schedules? Do you involve your family in the sport with you?
  5. Tell me about your social life: How does training and racing fit into your social calendar? Are your friends supportive of training and racing? Do you have a close circle of friends that support you in life?
  6. Talk to me about your nutrition: What would (3) days of your normal diet look like? How often do you eat out vs. prepare food? Fresh or frozen? Do you eat to train or train to eat?
  7. Let’s talk about recovery: How much do you sleep per night? Do you wake rested or feel groggy and need coffee to kick start the day? Do you feel tired in the afternoon? Do you engage in spiritual disciplines or meditation? How often do you check your phone or device/do you unplug?

I know…this is more like 7 buckets of questions vs. 7 single and specific questions, but this list of questions paired with simply listening to the answers and reiterating what you hear to the athlete will help dig into the three-quarters or more of the athlete’s life that we don’t see in Training Peaks. If we ask these questions first, the training will fall into place behind. I can confidently say that the athletes I’ve worked with where we have an open and honest dialogue about their life and priorities up front are the most successful. Nine times out of ten, even when they nail the training plan, a bad race day experience is caused by neglecting one of these other stressors in life and not having enough room in the bucket for the physical stress of race day.

Sansego Experience at Canyon Ranch
Do you want to learn more about how endurance sports training fits into the whole picture for your life and how to balance these stressors? Join 3x Ironman World Champion, Kona course record holder, husband, and father of three, Craig Alexander and his global team of coaches at the famous Canyon Ranch health and wellness resort in Tucson, AZ this September for the most complete triathlon and life experience ever offered. You’ll receive the ultimate in one-on-one coaching from the Sansego team, plus personalized access to the comprehensive life management and exercise physiology resources at Canyon Ranch. TriSports is a proud supporter of the Sansego Experience at Canyon Ranch.

About the Author: Matt Smith has been actively involved in competitive endurance and multisport racing and training for almost 20 years. He is a 5 time Ironman World Championships qualifier and has raced the 70.3 World Championships 4 times with a top 10 age group finish. He holds a master’s degree in leadership and personal development. He has managed university and executive leadership development programs. He is also a USAT and Training Peaks Level 2 certified triathlon coach and is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner. His extensive background in leadership and personal development, coupled with a firm grounding in coaching practice lends a unique perspective in working with high performing athletes. Matt has an understanding of where stressors come from in life and how to maximize performance given multiple responsibilities and time constraints.