Having a coach who has years of experience, study and practical understanding can really help you avoid the common pitfalls of training for sport; of which there are there are many and various. And the comfort of knowing that someone else is looking after your training schedule and optimising it for your event calendar and keeping an eye on how you're doing can make life simpler/less stressful. And when you get closer to an event and start worrying about things, they can really help you stop doom-mongering, stop worrying about things that aren't important and reflect on all of the great work you've done and forgotten about.
But how do you find a coach that's appropriate for you?
- Frequency of interaction
- Training plan
Secondly, do you want to work with your coach face-to-face on a frequent basis, or are you happy with an online coach who you speak to on the phone regularly, or do you not need a personal interaction at all? If the former, you may well be best off working with a personal trainer (PT) at a local gym or with a coach at a local club for your sport. PTs aren't cheap (central London prices at a top-end gym is around £50 per 1 hour session), but you do get 1:1 training time and if you need that kind of interaction, then you're going to have to fork out for it.
Online/remote coaching can have quite a high level of interaction. There are many companies who have a range of coaching plans that include a weekly (or even more) call with your coach and training weekends through the year (which cost extra on top of your monthly fee). A weekly call with your coach in the off season can feel like too much, but you don't have to take them every week if you don't want to - companies are happy to take your money and you miss out on part of the service ;o) These sorts of coaching packages cost anything from £60 a month, for up to £300 a month depending on interaction, personalisation, response times to questions, extras like sports psychology support.
Thirdly, a training plan is quite key to most people's need for a coach. You can purchase training plans, from many companies online, which are just a general written plan and not tailored in any way. These can be quite economical (e.g. £30 or so for a 12 week programme) and effective if you just want to get a structured, consistent plan and you're good at self-motivation. You'd be surprised how self-motivated you can be if you have a plan that's written out for you already. Some people need or want a bit more personalisation or interaction than that and that's when you probably want to get a coach who will personalise a plan for you, that you feed back your achievements from each training session and they modify the plan as you go along; on a weekly or monthly basis, usually depending on how much you're paying.
Lastly, if you are going for a personal coach or trainer rather than an off-the-shelf training plan, you want to check out the chemistry. Having been through 4 gym PTs and 2 triathlon coaches so far, I can vouch for the benefits of really getting on with a trainer/coach. You need to have faith in their ability and understanding of you and the sport and they need to instil confidence in you. You'll only find that out by spending some time working with them.
My first triathlon trainer/coach didn't give me the level of confidence in him that I needed for me to believe I'd achieve my basic goal for 2012 by working with him and that meant I had to change quite close to the wire for the tough part of the season. I'm so glad I did change coach and I've ended up with one I have a lot of trust and faith in now. He really helped stabilise my mental as well as physical preparedness for the Ironman Ultimate Challenge events this year and with his help I made it through 3/4 of them (OK it was outside of both our control that I didn't make it to the start line of the 4th one, but I have no doubt that I would have completed the 4th one, had I not smashed up my collar bone at the 3rd one). And I didn't feel silly asking him about the terminology in the training sessions he gave me.
So, back to budget... you need to think about the frequency, type of interaction and training plan you want in order to inform your decision on budget. You can see you can spend anything from £30 for a 12 week generic training plan to £300 per month for a highly personalised, all the extras, fairly unlimited phone/online interaction arrangement.
So, now that you know what to look for, how do you actually find a coach? Ask around, see who's advertising in the press of your sport, ask other athletes at events. Or look for a coaching company that's doing a training day or weekend near you, or one that does a course familiarisation day for a race/event you're doing and go along. Yes, this will cost you money, but you'll get to meet some coaches and see if you get along with them. This is pretty much how I found my current coach, though I didn't meet him on the familiarisation day I thought the other coaches from the company were switched on and easy to get along with so I took a punt.
When you decide on a coach or trainer, don't be afraid to have a trial period to see if you get on. Talk to them face-to-face or on the phone before signing up with them, if you can. If you don't get on right away or after a few weeks, or even months, or you don't feel you believe in them in the right way, don't be afraid to change coach. There is utterly nothing wrong with that. You need to trust them to train and coach you well and you need to believe that they will do you good, support you and boost your confidence when it's needed. The best thing I did during the 2012 season was change coach and it made a huge difference to my mental state, confidence, performance and ultimately my enjoyment of my sport.