Siri Lindley is a well-known triathlon coach. Shown here with Wildflower 2011 winner, Leanda Cave/Photo by Jay Prasuhn
USAT. USAC. NSCA. ACSM. These are just some of the acronyms for associations that offer professional certifications in the fitness industry. We’ve been conditioned to assume that an acronym after a name suggests superior ability. Triathlon training isn’t as complex as the space-time continuum, or as technical as brain surgery, but it does require discipline and a good plan—two things triathletes turn to coaches for.
Do credentials matter when it comes to finding the right coach? Is it necessary to go with that brand name USA Triathlon (USAT) coach who comes with the paperwork-pedigree of a purebred, groomed to deliver a textbook training experience? Or, are you just as well relying on street cred to develop your plan and work with someone who learned about triathlon through experience?
Purebred: Pros and Cons
Purebreds can talk the talk—but can they walk the swim, bike, run? It’s hard to believe, but some USAT coaches have never done a triathlon. On the basic level, the certification requirements include a background check, a current USAT membership, and a weekend training course that culminates with an online take-home test.
USAT Coach Development Manager Linda Cleveland says that just because someone is certified doesn’t guarantee they’ll be a great coach. They will, however, gain the skills necessary to succeed. She compares the idea to the medical field: “Some brilliant doctors may lack in bedside manner, but they don’t get graded on bedside manner. It’s the same for us—we can’t stand side by side with our coaches on a daily basis, but through our certification process we can provide them with the resources to make sure they are competent in best practices and training fundamentals.”
But is it really about nurturing coaches to be better with their athletes? Or is it about nurturing the bottom line for the company that serves as the governing body of triathlon in the United States?
One of the ways USAT ensures coaches stay up to snuff is through the recertification process, requiring coaches to obtain 15 continuing education credits every two years. One way to get credits is by registering for USAT webinars. The cost of one webinar and the corresponding exam that must be completed for a single credit is $35. If a Level 1 coach planned to obtain all 15 credits through webinars, it would cost $525. Coaches can also obtain credits by attending relevant events outside of USAT through associations like USA Cycling, NSCA and ACSM. Cleveland adds that compared to other associations, USAT is in the normal range for these costs. “The goal is not to generate a profit,” she said. “The goal is to educate coaches.”
Street Cred: Pros and Cons
The Street Cred coach won’t have a framed certification to show you, but he’ll have a shoebox of finisher’s medals and a pair of shoes soaked with sweat and urine to prove his experience in the sport. While the USAT coach sits in an air-conditioned hotel room learning about swim stroke analysis, the Street Cred coach might be swallowing blood after catching a heel to the jaw during an open water swim.
Every good hard knocks story reminds us that we don’t need the right “credentials” to be good at what we do. “Drive” can’t be taught through webinars. Consider college dropout Steve Jobs, who tinkered his way into iFame through his passion for computers—nary a business or engineering degree to be found on his resume, or renowned skateboarder Tony Hawk, who made millions after teaching himself how to skate and then starting his own business.
Whereas the certified coach trains athletes in a calculated way based on industry best practices, the street cred coach relies on experience. This person will be teeming with enthusiasm, but will they be able to successfully harness that energy and channel it into other athletes?
As a USAT coach, I respect the science behind training. But as an Ironman finisher, I appreciate the learning that comes (literally) from blood, sweat and tears. Choosing a coach—like choosing a doctor—is a personal matter. This person will take an intimate look at what makes you tick, and you’ll trust them to care for a most prized possession: Your GOAL.
Whether you go with purebred or street cred, here are a few tips to help you make sure your coach can go the distance—and help you do it, too.
Meet in Person: The best plan in the world can’t shake hands or make eye contact with you—two ways to begin building trust. Training is about time, distance and measurements; but coaching is about words, feelings and motivation. Chemistry is important, so meet your coach.
Summarize Your Selection: Hiring a coach is an investment—if you’ve thought about it enough, you’ll be able to quickly communicate your needs. If you can’t do that, you might be rushing to hire someone without making sure it’s the best fit for you.
Get a Second Opinion: Talk to different coaches before you make a choice. One coach might be more technical, while another uses colorful language. Make sure you align with the coach’s style to ensure your communication will be effective.
Lisa Barnes is a newly-certified USAT Level 1 coach and an Ironman athlete who lives and trains in upstate New York. In her monthly column Life Trainer, she helps triathletes balance other aspects of life with their passion for multisport.