Personalised coaching, how personalised is it?

So this week a friend of mine spoke to me and said that he had employed the services of a personal coach and he though that the plan was simply drawn from a template. In fact, he'd seen his mate's plan and it looked relatively similar. As he was paying a large amount of money for this service, he seems a little upset and asked me whether we use templates in our coaching or whether it's written bespoke to each person. I told him that we use templates, we always have an we always will. He seemed a bit shocked by that, so let me explain...

Personal coaching for endurance sports has become a popular trend over the last 10 years and there are many services out there which will provide you with structure and support towards your ultimate goal. One of the key aspects of personal coaching is the term 'personal'. Athletes will pay considerable amounts of money to gain a 'personalised' program, rather than one which is simply from a 'template', so what does the term 'personalised' really mean?

Lets start with the most important fact, almost every coach uses a template for their athletes. It's nice to think that everything is personal to you and you're getting value for money, but every coach uses a template in some form or another. The coaches probably won't tell you that because by stressing for the last 5 years that schedules are 'personalised to you' for the purpose of gaining more business, they've completely shot themselves in the foot, so have to keep their 'template' quiet for fear of an athlete riot!

So if they're using a template rather than writing it specifically for you, surely that's really poor?

No, it's not poor not at all. This isn't complicated, every coach has their own views on how athletes should be trained. All of the great coaches have a system which they believe in, whether that be high intensity winter cycling, Maffetone running, strength work etc. All coaches have a system or formula which they believe works best and they will apply that formula to all of their athletes in a template. It's ridiculous to think that they would train 3 similar athletes in 3 different ways, when they have one clear view of how people should train.

If a coach thinks that every athlete should do strength work in winter, then all athletes will do strength work. The coach will have a list of favorite strength exercises and EVERYONE will do the same exercises as he believes they are the best ones! It's a template, everyone is doing the same and it's for the right reasons.

But surely training should be personalised?

Yes, there is a personal element and that's largely based on how you deal with the training. For example, if a coach thinks every athlete should be doing a long zone 1/2 Sunday run/ride through winter, then everyone will be given the same session. From a group of 10 athletes, everyone's zone 1/2 will be different, one will be injured, one will not be able to run the full distance, one will struggle with nutrition and one will have family issues and not be capable of riding. It's not the coaches job to make your session personalised, it's the coaches job to make sure he solves your personal issues and answers your questions so you can complete as many sessions, as successfully as possible on the plan. That's how the plan, becomes personalised.

At this point you may well be thinking that you could just follow a template from a book. The reality is that you could, but you need to be sure that the template is the right template for you and you also wouldn't have anyone to ask questions and seek guidance throughout the process. If you're very experienced, you may well not need to ask any questions, so go for it.

So why get a coach?

When you buy into a coach, you're buying into their ethos and approach. Do they support longer and slower base training or do they favour higher intensity? Do they focus more on novice or elite? Each coach will favour certain ways of training as they believe them to be the most effective, they will prescribe that method to all of their athletes. You're buying into their approach and their 'template', they'll support you through the template and deal with your individual problems to ensure you do as much of the training as successfully as possible.

I need someone to talk to and to guide me through and I want to personalise it to me!

Okay, so having coached for many years, there is a real danger of athletes wanting programs to be 'over personalised' and often they can simply be seeking reassurance that 'not doing the training' is ok. If a coach gives you a schedule to follow, then follow it for 6 months and see what the end result is. Don't sign up and then question within the first week whether you should be doing those sessions or whether you're better suited to something else. Are you paying the coach to tell you which sessions you need to do, or are you paying a coach to tell him which session 'you want' to do, so he can agree and make you feel better about it?

The biggest factor in whether you succeed in achieving your goals in 2017 in you. The coach can't get you out of bed in the morning or put you on your bike late in the evening. Many times I've heard people say that they've signed up to a coach as they need someone to 'kick them up the arse' but it never works. The only person who can motivate themselves to do the work required is you.

So what's the point in a coach?

1. He will give you the template and critically, it needs to be the right template for you. The key things is whether you buy into their ethos and understand the purpose of the session. Does it make sense why you are doing it?

2. Get your head down and do the sessions. Don't seek out a coach and then question their methods, either get another coach or crack on and give it 6 months at least to see if it works.

3. The coach will answer your individual questions and resolve your problems, thereby making the process individual to you.

4. No coach has a magic wand, you'll get nowhere unless you're prepared to do some hard work. If you've been training for several years, then training won't make you faster, it'll keep you where you are.

In summary, the term 'personalised' has been misinterpreted in recent years. All of the great coaches such as Arthur Lydiard, Bill Bowerman, Maffetone and Jack Daniels, all have their own ethos and beliefs. They all think athletes should train in a specific way and therefore apply the same template. It's whether you buy into their approach, how you respond to the sessions and how the coach helps you through which is the individualised aspect of coaching.

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Marc Laithwaite