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Out There: No Such Thing as a Know-It-All

A running coach should complement—not override—what an athlete brings to the table.

A few years ago, I hired a running coach—for the purposes of this column, we’ll call her “Polly.” Though Polly was incredibly nice and one of the most motivating people I’ve met (both important qualities), I eventually learned she lacked one of the most critical elements of a running coach: actual knowledge of how to coach runners.

It wasn’t obvious at first. Polly did a good job playing the role of expert, and I bought what she was selling (literally, with a monthly coaching fee deducted from my bank account). But the more time I spent under her tutelage, the more questions I had about her approach to training. When I asked to modify the plan, she said no. When I said her strategies weren’t working for me, she insisted it worked for others, so I must not be trying hard enough. When I dared question her tactics, she was quick to point out how little I knew about running.

One day, I finally decided to research some of the “facts” she spouted about her training philosophy, only to come face-to-face with reality: my so-called expert, the person I turned to because I didn’t know enough to coach myself, wasn’t such an expert after all.

Eventually, I learned that Polly had only been a runner herself for two years. Her coaching style was identical to the way she had been coached, and the training plans she sent me were the exact same training plans she had followed. The “facts” she shared with me about her training philosophy weren’t facts; they were merely vague, unfounded claims she could recite, but never explain.

She wasn’t an expert—she was a parrot. And I was an idiot for hiring a parrot to coach me to a PR.

Looking back, I cringe at my own stupidity. In addition to bypassing the research portion of hiring Polly, I ignored a lot of red flags during our coach-athlete relationship. The biggest one, of course, is that Polly claimed to know it all.

Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: Nobody knows it all. It’s dangerous to say so; once a person proclaims expertise, it usually signals an end to learning. In the case of Polly, she learned one training strategy that was effective for her, and therefore decided she knew enough to tell other people how to train. That’s how parrots are made.

RELATED: 5 Reasons to Hire a Running Coach

In the years since that eye-opening experience, I’ve encountered dozens of coaches like Polly. Just recently, a friend of mine came to me with a “Polly” story of her own, and the experience left her diminished and embittered. These parrots serve as a stark reminder that just about anyone with the time and willingness can call themselves a coach—but that doesn’t mean they should.

It took months after leaving Polly to find the joy in running again, and even longer before I fully trusted a new coach. When that coach asked for input on my training plan, it made me scoff.

“You’re the expert,” I said. “You tell me what to do.”

“Actually, no,” he replied. “You know yourself better than anyone. That makes you the expert.”

With that statement, I realized I had ignored another big red flag in my tumultuous situation with Polly: failure to give myself some credit. Though I admittedly didn’t know a lot about running back then, I did know how I felt about running under her guidance, and it wasn’t good. In hindsight, I should have listened to my gut.

Take heart—there are very, very good running coaches out there. I have met them, I have worked with them, and I have learned so much from them. The biggest thing I’ve learned, are that the best coaches are the ones who don’t know it all. Instead, they’re the ones whose knowledge complements, not overrides, what an athlete brings to the table.

RELATED: New Runners: How to Choose a Coach


About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke