How do you know when a coach is right for you? Dr Josephine Perry asks Louise Damen and her coach Tom Craggs what’s required for success

Knowing the coaches to avoid can be a hot topic among athletes. They share horror stories of over-egged egos and far from nurturing personalities. A coach may have great names on their CV but some athletes will move on quickly realising that poor communication and an attitude of ‘coach knows best’ will not only cause them frustration and poor performance but could push them towards injury or burnout.

With a coach so key to an athlete’s progress and in managing development, finding the right one is crucial to ensuring long-term happiness and wellbeing. It is the coach’s knowledge, expertise and approach that can help you as an athlete take the next step on the ladder – they will get you faster, or throwing and jumping further or higher.

Ideally this should be in an environment which enables you as an athlete to learn and thrive. And, I have to note, it is a fluid situation. The coach who is right for you when starting out may not work as well when you are ten years down the line and in
a very different place in your training and leading a completely different lifestyle.

So, apart from letting other athletes tell you who to avoid, how should you approach your next coach? What should you look for? What questions do you need to ask? How do you match your stage of athletics with someone who can meet your current needs and ensure you have an easy and effective relationship?

Coach Tom Craggs, athlete Louise Damen and the five Ps

We spoke to international runner Louise Damen (pictured above) and her coach Tom Craggs to find out how they started working together and what makes their relationship work.

Damen has been running for 23 years representing Britain on the track, road and cross country. Coach Craggs works with both novices and elites like Damen and has been an England team coach at events such as the Loughborough International and Manchester International.

Coach and athlete have been working together for 18 months and they both agree there is no perfect coach. Different athletes have different requirements at different times in their lives and sporting careers. However, the experience of Damen and Craggs illustrates there are five ‘Ps’: Proximity, Prescription, Philosophy, Power and Performance – all of which can help an athlete consider how to choose the best coach for their goals and circumstances.

1. Proximity

Damen is clear that the first thing to think about is whether you want to be able to see your coach regularly. “Geographically, are you someone who needs to be able to see a coach on a regular basis?” she asks. “Because that can be a deal breaker.”

In Craggs she found a coach who goes to some training sessions but not all of them. She also suggests you think about any politics involved around clubs or formal training groups and whether you would be able to join in.

2. Prescription

Some athletes are looking for really prescriptive training plans with exact sessions to be completed and times to be hit. Others need more generalised support. Damen knew that after being an athlete for so long she didn’t need someone setting out sessions but someone who she could go to for guidance.

“Now it is more the emotional side of stuff I need,” she says. “I’ve had quite a few injuries over the last few years and it has been quite difficult so that is what I really value at this stage in my career.”

Craggs suggests this is common in elite athletes where they don’t need a transactional approach, rather they need advice and a supportive eye on them. “With them I’m more of a safety net” Craggs says. “They don’t need me to push them. My role is more to set boundaries and get them to relax more.”

3. Philosophy

As well as the type of approach taken, the philosophy a coach follows will be a deal breaker for some. Is an athlete expected to stay quiet and just do what they are told or are they able to collaborate in decision making?

Damen explains that after 20 years in athletics she wanted to know she could voice her opinion to a coach and feel confident it would not be met with hostility. “Fifteen years ago when I was less mature and experienced I wouldn’t have been able to cope with that philosophy but now it is important.”

She loves that Craggs not only accepts this approach but actively promotes it. “I wasn’t an elite athlete first” he says. “I want the athletes I work with to be involved in the discussions, not to be dictated to. I push Louise to reflect, to question. Anyone can set training but that is not coaching.”

4. Power

At an elite level a coach may have an athlete’s career in their hands. The balance of power can feel unstable and athletes need to take this into consideration when choosing a coach. Damen was clear how she wanted her coach to behave.

“I’ve seen a few coaches where they make athletes dependent on them. You want a coach to empower you rather than control you,” she says.

Craggs, not surprisingly, agrees: “I’d suggest athletes looking for a coach avoid anyone with an ego. If their ego is so big that they won’t adapt to what the athlete needs they are not a coach, they are simply telling people what to do.”

5. Performance

Finally, of course there is performance, not just the athlete’s but the coach’s. Craggs is so hot on this he is in the middle of a performance coaching MSc.

“I use a reflective diary and write in it whenever I have time to think,” he says. “I also look at other coaches in the UK and outside of the UK. I try to find stuff I don’t agree with and try to understand it. I think I’m a better coach as a result.”

This checklist of the five Ps should help to shape your choice when you look for a new coach (hopefully it will also assist coaches as to how they coach too).

Looking out for their proximity, how prescriptive they are, what their coaching philosophy is, how they handle their power, and what they do to improve their own performance should help you to find one who suits your practical, personality and process preferences, and is easy and fun to work with.

» Find out more about Dr Josephine Perry at performanceinmind.co.uk