I started lifting weights in the early 1970’s and competed in my first Bodybuilding contest in 1991. I did it mostly without a coach because in those days having a coach was rare. If you wanted to compete in Bodybuilding, you first studied Bodybuilding. We ate and trained and talked with other athletes, and read articles in magazines that were supposedly written by the top stars in the sport. There wasn’t much in the way of research available on training or sports nutrition, so we did our own experiments and shared the results with our friends to figure out what worked best and what didn’t. We read biology text books and studied anatomy charts to understand how muscles moved then we created new exercises to strengthen our weak points. Learning was just as important as training back then because we believed that knowledge along with hard work and discipline were the keys to being the best we could be in physique sports.
Today everyone has a coach and the very best coaches have studied and learned from all those years of trial and error. Today’s athlete has an advantage because of the coaches that have dedicated their lives to helping athletes be their very best. There is another side to that story, however, that is not so great. Few athletes study their sport anymore because they rely entirely on a coach. Without a basic understanding of what a coach should know it’s difficult to know a good one from a bad one. Consequently, many coaches are chosen based on their popularity rather than their knowledge, experience, and ability to positively motivate and educate the athletes they work with.
While we can’t cram years of training and nutrition knowledge into one article but we can pass on some tips to help you choose a good coach and one that will be able to get the very best out of you as an athlete.
Some athletes do better working from within a large team. There is lots of support, some friendly or not so friendly competitiveness (whatever works for you). There is lots of experience to draw from, and accountability, and a tremendous sense of belonging and sharing one of the great experiences of your life with what to many is their fitness family. The main problem here is that instruction tends to be more generic when you are a member of a larger team. It’s the difference between being an only child and being one of a dozen children. There is only so much mom and dad to go around, so everyone looks after each other. You get more support and advice from fellow athletes than from your actual coach. There is also the issue of competitiveness between team members. Some of it can be fun and motivating, but the competitiveness can quickly turn unhealthy. Cliques can form among team members and dissension overtakes what should be a positive and motivating atmosphere.
Other athletes prefer to work one-on-one with a coach for the individual attention and a much more tailored approach that is suited to your unique strengths and areas that need improvement. A bond is built quickly between athlete and coach as does trust. The coach has a tendency to be more involved and feel a greater level of responsibility for your success as an athlete. A good one-on-one coach will help you progress more quickly and learn more about yourself and the sport. This has always been my preference, but this kind of closeness can come with its own set of problems. You are in a bubble and there is no one to compare notes with about what’s working and what’s not. Some one-on-one coaching relationships turn into an unhealthy sense of ownership and coaches can at times become overbearing and controlling. As an athlete, you need to set clear boundaries but the added stress of the relationship can overshadow the purpose for working with a coach in the first place, and the relationship can end badly souring your interest in competing.
The process of choosing a coach starts with you sitting down with a pen and paper and making an honest list about what you think you need to do to involved in getting ready for a contest, and therefore, what you need from a coach.
The next step is interviewing prospective coaches with a similar mindset you would use when you interview any person you would potentially hire to do a job that is costly in money, time and your spirit. Here are some tips to help you with the process.
1. Ask for references and talk to previous clients and existing clients and read between the lines about what they say about the experience of working with that coach.
2. Certifications are helpful but experience and knowledge about the sport is extremely important for a good coach to possess. And successful athletes are not necessarily the best coaches. Don’t assume a potential coach knows what you need them to know just because they did well on stage. Coaching and competing are two different things.
3. Using Performance Enhancing Drugs is a personal choice. They are not necessary to compete in Physique sports, however. If a coach advocates for PED’s that is a red flag. PED’s are a fall back for coaches that don’t have the knowledge or experience to solve problems when they come up during your contest preparation. If you decide to use PED’s, then do your research and understand the health risks so you can manage them appropriately.
4. Does the coach you are interviewing ask questions about you and what your goals are and discuss how they will help you achieve them? Are they interested in knowing more about you so they can realistically provide you with expectations? Or do they tell you about themselves, their achievements, and tell you why you need to be trained by them and how lucky you would be if they chose you as a client?
5. Does this coach have a goal to teach you as much as possible, so you understand what is happening to your body or is everything shrouded in secrecy, so you are dependent on them blindly for everything? Is this coach open to you asking questions about the plan you are on or other questions that come up along the way, or do they get defensive and tell you just to follow the plan?
6. Does this coach have an off-season plan for you so you can use that time to improve in all aspects of your presentation and offer you the structure and goals you will need to stay on track when you aren’t doing contest preparations?
7. And perhaps most of all is this someone you want in your life. Does this coach inspire you, respect you and your family, does he or she actually care about you and your goals? Are they knowledgable and experienced? Are they honest, and are they someone you feel you can trust?
8. Hire your coach for a prescribed period with clear goals about what you agree to accomplish during that time. Afterwards evaluate what worked, what didn’t and discuss it with your coach. Make a decision then if you want to move on or not.
9. Once you have chosen a coach, set clear boundaries for yourself and your coach so the relationship remains healthy. Then be loyal to the coach you chose and follow the plan you have agreed to follow throughout until the completion of your contest. It’s the only way you will learn what works for you and what doesn’t over a contest prep cycle. There is not perfect contest prep plan or cycle. It’s a constant learning process and the more times you compete, the more you learn. And, you rarely learn as much winning as you do when you do less than expected so embrace those shows where you finish less than expected as they will teach you what you need to know so when you are competing in the important shows later on in your career, you make less and less mistakes.
10. Don’t rely entirely on your coach. Learn everything you possibly can about yourself, your body and the sport you compete in. Become an information sponge and discuss what you learn with your coach so you broaden your understanding. You should learn from your coach but do your own research as well. Become an authority on your sport, you will be a far better athlete because of it.
And finally, if for any reason your coach crosses boundaries, becomes controlling, abusive, inattentive or acts in any way that is inappropriate or not in your best interests, or contrary to what you agreed to, you have the right to confront them and sort it out, or fire them. They are coaches. People you hired to do a job for you. The relationship should be a healthy and respectful one, and it should foster an environment that is positive and helps you become the very best you can be.