As the global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus disrupts life as we’ve known it, a coach can—and should—be a valuable resource. But it can be challenging to keep in touch.
When you can’t—and shouldn’t—meet up with others, remote coaching fits the bill. But maintaining a healthy, productive coach-athlete relationship remotely requires a different approach than practicing IRL.
In my view, in-person connections are exponentially more efficient (at least) and powerful (at best) than virtual connections. In person, a mere 30-second check-in during the warm-up or between intervals fills my desire to connect with an athlete and simultaneously allow my athlete to feel seen and be heard. At practice, I read my athlete’s body language and see in their faces how they are doing. Remotely, it takes more work to find out how they’re doing and what they need.
The good news? A plethora of tools and tricks exist to make remote coaching a positive reality. In fact, a boom of online running coaches work around the globe using digital training platforms, email, texts, and calls. The not-so-great news? It might take some coaches awhile to get up to speed with some of the tech. Like athletes, individual coaches bring their own unique skills, qualities, and weaknesses to the equation.
High school and collegiate coaches, for example, are taking the changes in stride, but each is handling it somewhat differently. Some are posting workouts and information as shared documents on cloud services like Google Docs. Others are sending specific weekly workouts on parent-athlete team sites. Others still have already given out a chunk of training and are checking in every week or so, but mostly relying on athletes to reach out if there’s an issue. Some, like Leah Kangas, assistant track and field coach at Garfield High School in Seattle, Wash., text with their athletes daily.
At Lincoln High School in Portland, Ore., assistant track and cross country coach Marie Davis Markham hosts bi-weekly Girls Talks, a practice she started last year but has now moved to Zoom. Lincoln head track and cross country coach Eric Dettman is holding 1:1 Zoom meetings, using the Remind app to send out announcements, and posting training on Google Docs. Athletes log their training through Google, connect with each other on group chats, and even created virtual team challenges on Instagram and beyond. Coach Davis Markham says, “We have two team mantras that Eric preaches all the time and these kids are totally bought in. They are: ‘Be the best version of yourself’ and ‘Love your teammates.’ All the things we do really support those mantras.”
For many it’s not just about whether or not an athlete did the training. It’s about how they’re doing. Are they healthy and safe? Are they stressed? Are they sleeping? Are they connected to others? Being coached remotely may take an extra step or two, but it’s worth it—especially if you could use some support, connection, and/or training inspiration right now.
Here are three tips for communicating with and learning from your coach remotely:
1. Use the right tools
We’re clearly not limited to just texting or emailing with online coaching. Tools like Final Surge, TrainingPeaks, and Strava offer a range of tracking and data-sharing capabilities, and sync with GPS watches so you can easily upload your training details. The plethora of data has its own pros and cons. I use TeamSnap with my athlete groups to share workouts and photos, and to host group chats. But I prefer 1:1 communication: texting, emailing, and good ole-fashioned phone calls. Some tools are better for some athletes than others; for example, my women’s running group prefers Zoom happy hours! I say keep it simple. The lower the barrier to entry, the better.
2. Show up, with honesty
I can’t help my athletes be accountable. It’s on you, as an athlete, to do the work. Or rest, or something in between. Or it’s on you to tell me what’s preventing you from doing what I asked, so I can tailor your training accordingly. Some athletes are hard-pressed to admit they feel tired or injured. But now is not the time to silently tough it out, or to go dark. Be honest with your coach about how you’re feeling and what you’re doing. We don’t know what we don’t know.
3. Speak up
It’s OK to be not OK. Whether you’re struggling with illness or family stressors, or the uncertainty of the future, share what’s on your mind and in your heart. Whether you tell your coach or another trusted confidant, it’s important to tend to your mental and emotional well-being as well as your physical health. If whoever you tell isn’t holding space for you or makes you feel worse, look elsewhere for support, especially if you’re feeling triggered with food and body issues, depression, or anxiety.
Toll-free, confidential helpline: 1-800-931-2237
24/7 Crisis Support via text: send NEDA to 741-741
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Melody Fairchild is a running coach, director of Boulder Mountain Warriors Youth Run Club, founder of The Melody Fairchild Girls Running Camp, and master’s athlete in Boulder, Colorado. Her first book, GIRLS RUNNING (VeloPress), co-authored with Elizabeth Carey, is forthcoming.
Elizabeth Carey is a freelance writer and running coach based in Seattle, Washington.