In the first 15 years of my coaching career I fired two clients. It’s not that they were “uncoachable,” as we coaches sometimes classify athletes who don’t seem to respond to our philosophies and methodologies. Those two were likely coachable by someone. But, as I found out for both of them, that was not me. After I fired the second of those two athletes, which wasn’t very enjoyable, I came to realize that I needed to do a better job of screening potential clients. I shouldn’t have started coaching those two in the first place. I should have seen how different we were. There were red flags for both of them right from Day 1. But I wasn’t paying attention. My bottom line was too important. In each case it took several weeks for the incongruity to sink in and the need to fire them become increasingly obvious. By then the whole process of separation was much more difficult than had I done it upfront. Somewhat reluctantly, I decided it was actually my fault, not theirs. I decided I had to determine why I wasn’t compatible with those two. And why I was compatible with the others I coached at the time. Then I had to take action to do something about this for future wannabe clients. It all came down to doing a better job of screening athletes for certain important characteristics that would point toward a good coach-athlete relationship. Or just the opposite: Those characteristics that indicated incompatibility. That mental journey eventually led to a set of questions I found helped me decide if we were a good match. The questions I came up with were unique to my personality and coaching style and gave me clues as to how the athlete and I would work together. Here are a few of the questions.
- Question: How often do you train with other athletes? How often alone? Reasoning: Low motivation athletes frequently need others to get them to workout. There is some balance which is appropriate. How much? That’s up to the coach and perhaps the sport type, also.
- Question: What types of foods do you avoid? Reasoning: The more foods they avoid the less stable our relationship would be, I found. Also, I may need to adjust their diet to their training. If the applicant is strongly dedicated to a certain nutritional regimen, change, although necessary, could be quite difficult and produce a crack in the relationship.
- Question: Have you ever had a coach before? If so, why not continue with that same relationship instead of coming to me? Reasoning: This gets at what the athlete likes and doesn’t like about coaches. Is there anything said here that contrasts with my coaching style?
- Question: Did you ever disagree with your coach on what a training plan should or should not include? If so, what did you do about it? Reasoning: I like to see the athlete have a sense of co-ownership of their training. They should be involved in the final product and understand the “whys.” But if the athlete disagreed with the coach, what they did about it is the crucial piece here. There are lots of possibilities. I’d chase down the answer until I learned how involved – or not – they were in the coaching process and the likelihood of rebellion.
- Question: What is your athletic goal? What are you willing to do to achieve it? Reasoning: Don’t accept “anything” as an answer. Everyone has limits. Would they disown their family or quit their job? I know of one who would – and did. That isn’t for me. But if unwilling to give up or change “peripheral” stuff in their life then the chances of success are reduced.
- Question: What’s the biggest goal you’ve ever achieved and what did you have to do to achieve it? Reasoning: This question is related to the previous one but addresses the matter from a historical perspective. Did the athlete make sacrifices? What were they? That’s usually necessary for achieving high goals.
And finally, I also came to realize that athlete screening has to be done in a person-to-person conversation. Email won’t hack it. Nor will an online form the athlete completes. These can certainly be used. Screening is best accomplished face to face, but often must be done via phone, Facetime, Skype, Zoom, or some other electronic media. From such a lengthy conversation, I was diving deeply into their psyche and this was sometimes uncomfortable for both of us. But it helped me see if we could still get along. Could we have a cordial and friendly relationship despite uncomfortable topics? Coaching is a person-to-person matter. You and your client are not robots. You both have feelings that are often quite sensitive. There will be times in the coach-athlete relationship when uncomfortable gut feelings must be expressed by one or both of you. How will you both handle that? A positive coach-athlete relationship is very hard to define and so it is certainly difficult to come up with screening questions that always guarantee success. But whether or not you work with this athlete is ultimately the most important decision you make. If the conversation lasts long enough and you cover enough ground then you will likely have a strong gut feeling as to how you and the athlete will do working together. This is important. Don’t dismiss it out of hand. Your personal relationships with your athletes are the foundation of your coaching business.
Realize, of course, that the few questions I suggested above are not intended to have meaning or purpose for all coaches. I found these and others were helpful for me, however. And that’s all that mattered. I’d strongly suggest that you need to come up with your own method of screening athletes that will help you identify those with whom you are likely to have a successful relationship – and those you suspect just won’t work out. Trust your instincts here. Your decision is largely based on your experience working with many types of athletes. Those athletes you find that aren’t suited for you are often well-suited for another coach, perhaps one of your assistants or someone you have high regard for.
By successfully screening potential clients you’ll become a happier coach, life will be easier, you’ll do a better job of coaching – and your dedicated and successful athletes will help promote your coaching business by telling their friends.
Here’s another article on a closely related topic by coach Matt Fitzgerald.