If you think you need to make a coaching change, start by asking yourself why. Do you need someone with different skills, a different approach, a different temperament, or maybe more visibility? If you don’t know, you won’t know what to look for in a new coach.
Make a Checklist.
In order to pinpoint your reasons for wanting to switch coaches, make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of staying with your present coach.
Then, after you have had a chance to look at and interview other coaches, do the same for them. Toss out the coaches who aren’t clearly better than the one you have now. This should leave you a fairly small number to choose from.
Next, ask yourself if what you’ll gain is more important than what you’ll lose. It’s surprising how often this point is overlooked. Switching coaches doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get everything you have now plus more. More than likely you’ll get a trade-off. A change makes sense only if you’re ready for and need to embrace something new.
Is Lack Of Visibility Your Concern?
If you want to switch coaches because your present coach isn’t well-known or well-connected and you feel you’re missing competitive opportunities as a result, don’t assume you have to take the initiative. If you’re a good athlete, famous coaches will find you. And if you’re not a good athlete, famous coaches won’t be able to push you to the top anyway.
If you have talent, top coaches may have already noticed you. Sooner or later someone will approach you about switching coaches. Protocol prevents most coaches from approaching you directly (they don’t want to be accused of stealing another coach’s student). But someone else will relay the message that the coach is impressed with you. Example:
- When gymnast Kerri Strug (who was only six and training in her hometown of Tucson, Arizona) visited her older sister (training at Bela Karolyi’s gym in Houston), an assistant coach approached Strug’s father. “Dr. Strug, your little girl has the perfect body for this sport. … She can get a good education here and become one of the best in the world. She is flexible and strong. She jumps powerfully. She is perfect to get started. I hope you think about sending her here. We’ll take very good care of her and make her a champion.” (1) Kerri’s father declined the offer and she did not go to Karolyi’s until she was in high school.
If you don’t have talent, switching coaches is not likely to help you. Further, you run the risk of being ignored altogether if you go where a number of top athletes train. You’re better off staying where you’re appreciated.
How Most Athletes Pick Coaches.
Athletes who are shopping around for a new coach should focus on a coach’s skill and personality. But often these factors are not what athletes look at first. Instead, most of them ask: What other athletes has the coach worked with and who is he or she working with now?
Fair or not, a coach’s worth is usually based on the quality of athletes he or she has been associated with; a coach’s reputation is usually based on how many winners he or she has produced. As a result, a coach (no matter how competent and dedicated) who has little or no experience working with top athletes will have limited recruiting success.
Given the way the system works (i.e., the fact that you have to have worked with talent to attract talent), it is hard for any coach to reach the upper echelons of the profession. Often breakthroughs only happen when a coach is lucky enough to team up with an unknown, but talented, athlete who makes it to the top of the sport and takes the coach along for the ride.
As a result, the pool of top coaches is very small. And because athletes tend to gravitate to the coach who has trained the most champions in their sport, they would all end up working with the same coach except for two reasons:
1. EGO. A top athlete doesn’t want to share the spotlight with his or her competitors. He or she knows that the greater the number of elite athletes training with a coach, the less time and attention the coach can give them. Example:
- Tennis coach Nick Bollettieri said that while Monica Seles was at his academy, her family always wanted her to be his star. In 1988 he told them, “… Andre [Agassi] and Monica will always be my top priority, but I cannot refuse to supervise the training of anyone else. What about my traveling team students, Jim Courier, David Wheaton, and the countless other kids whose parents pay the tuition bills that ultimately allow me to feed, clothe, and house my family?” (2)
2. OPPORTUNITY. The greater the number of elite athletes training with a coach, the fewer the opportunities there may be for each of them. This is especially true in team sports. A good (but not great) athlete in a top team will get less playing time than a good (but not great) athlete in a mediocre team.
There is something to be said for being a big fish in a little pond. If you’re the only star, your coach will be doing his or her best to promote you. If, on the other hand, you’re one of many stars, your coach has to parcel out not only his or her time and attention, but also any sponsorship money, competitive opportunities, and publicity that comes to along. (If the coach isn’t doing this, and is playing favorites, find another coach.)
Training With Your Competitors.
If you’re like most athletes, you’re going to think about how many other athletes a prospective coach is training and you’re going to end up picking the best coach you can find who has an opening for you. In other words, you’re going to find a coach who has a good reputation, but isn’t currently training someone who is a direct competitor of yours.
But, before you do, think about this: You’ll probably train harder and better if you go to a coach who IS working with your competitors.
Training with your competitors doesn’t make for a congenial atmosphere, but the result may be a higher level of performance from all of you. Examples:
- When figure skaters Jill Trenary and Caryn Kadavy both trained under world-famous coach Carlo Fassi, there was tension on every practice session. Yet they were both at their best because of it.
Said Kadavy in 1988, ”There’s always tension. You can feel it. But Carlo is very good about it. He separates both of us and splits himself very equally.”
Noted Trenary, ”We seem to push each other. I may see her do something and think I have to do that to be better. I’m sure I do the same for her.” (3)
The first year they trained together, Trenary won the national junior championship and Kadavy became the senior bronze medalist. The following year, Trenary, coming off an injury, was fifth at seniors and Kadavy was second. A year later, in 1987, Trenary became national champion and Kadavy was third; but Kadavy went on win the bronze medal at the world championships. And so it went until the 1988 Calgary Olympics where the two skaters were in fourth and fifth place going into the final phase of competition. (Trenary finished fourth, while Kadavy was forced to withdraw because of illness.)
- Jon Lugbill and Dave Hearn, whitewater canoeists, trained together. According to Lugbill, “Early on we came upon the idea that it was better to train as a group. We’d get better faster.”
Hearn agreed. “Sure, it can get frustrating. But it wouldn’t have been as much fun if Jon weren’t there. I know I wouldn’t be as good. And I think Jon would argue that I’ve pushed him. That’s what racing is all about, duking it out.” (4)<
The training partnership worked for them. Lugbill was world champion in 1979, 1981, 1987, and 1989. Hearn finished second to Lugbill during those years and was himself world champion in 1985 and 1995. (Championships are held every two years.)
- As members of the U.S. Ski team, Picabo Street (winner of the 1994 Olympic downhill silver medal) and Hilary Lindh (winner of the 1992 Olympic downhill silver medal) trained and competed together. Said Street in 1994, “I’ve come to appreciate Hilary’s persistence, her hard work, how she always wants to do more and more. She teaches me I can always bring myself to a higher level.” (5)
Although the two were never close, they got results as teammates. In 1995 Street won the World Cup downhill title (the first American and non-European to do so) and Lindh finished second.
- Swimmers Tom Dolan and Eric Namesnik trained together at the University of Michigan. Namesnik had been the 1992 Olympic silver medalist in the 400 individual medley and he held the American record for four years. Then Dolan, who is five years younger than Namesnik, came to the school. Dolan broke the American, and then the world record.
Said Namesnik, “We push each other hard. Hopefully I’ve made him better.”
Added Dolan, “I don’t think either of us would be in the place we are today if we didn’t have each other in the pool every day. I learned a lot from Eric, and I was lucky to have him pushing me. Anytime you go through the kind of training we do, you’re going to have rough edges. But with all the pressure we’ve been under, we were able to work together and get along.” (6)<
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Dolan won the gold medal in the 400 IM and Namesnik won the silver.
Interviewing New Coaches.
One of the last steps before switching coaches is to meet with each of your prospective coaches and outline for them what you think you need. The more specific you can be, the more productive your meeting will be and the sooner you’ll know if you’ve got a potentially workable relationship. If you find a coach unreceptive to your ideas at this point, you’re not likely to find the situation improving with time. A coach who is indifferent to you now won’t warm up to you later on. If anything, a coach will be on his or her best behavior during the initial interview. Be prepared to temper what you hear with a dose of realism.
Red flags during the intervie
- willingness on the coach’s part to push his or her other students aside for you. It may be great in the beginning to be the coach’s new project, but it also means you’ll probably be pushed aside just as fast when someone else comes along.
- A focus on payment. When a coach’s first question is how much you can afford to pay, he or she is primarily interested in you as a revenue source, not as an athlete.
- Lots of assistants. There’s nothing wrong with an extensive staff. It may mean you’ll get more personalized attention. But it will probably also mean you’ll get relatively little attention from the head coach. Sometimes the only time you’ll see him or her is AFTER you’ve won an important competition. Example:
- Nick Bollettieri said this about his tennis academy. “Often, probably too often, in concentrating on the world-class players, I slighted lesser players, the nonscholarship students at the academy. I didn’t really totally ignore them–I popped into their classes, dashed onto their courts, shouted, made my presence felt–but I didn’t give them equal time.” (7)
Author: Suzanne Lainson; Licensed content of Jobs In Sports.
1 Kerri Strug with John Lopez. Landing on My Feet. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1997.
2 Nick Bollettieri and Dick Schaap. My Aces, My Faults. New York: Avon Books, 1996.
3 The New York Times, January 4, 1988.
4 USA Today, March 12, 1990.
5 Denver Post, December 2, 1994.
6 SI Online, July 22, 1996.
7 Nick Bollettieri and Dick Schaap. My Aces, My Faults. New York: Avon Books, 1996.