The Inconvenient Truth About Coaching

I was talking this week with a group of athletes, some coached by CTS and others not, and the conversation turned to their experiences with coaching over the past several years. Most of them had at least one poor experience with a coach, and the most important point I took away from the conversation was that independent coaches and coaching companies look very similar on paper and on the web, but the athlete experiences vary dramatically. So perhaps I need to be clearer about what sets professional coaches apart.

CTS Coaches Do More Coaching

According to survey data from TrainingPeaks, the majority of coaches are hobbyists. They supplement their primary career with endurance coaching. It’s their side job. What that means for athletes is that when push comes to shove, your coach’s primary career takes priority. It also means they do less coaching (1-19 athletes, according to TrainingPeaks) on an annual basis than a professional coach. When you look for an orthopedic surgeon to replace your knee, do you go to the doctor who dabbles in knee replacements, or the doctor who has replaced tens of thousands of knees? What makes that experienced surgeon more valuable is the number of variations and complications he or she has seen. You don’t want your doctor to be surprised by what he or she encounters when you’re on the table. My coaches coach for 40 hours a week, at least. They work with a variety of athletes from different backgrounds, with different challenges, and at different starting points in terms of fitness and experience. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say my coaches do more actual coaching in three years than most independent coaches do in 10.

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CTS Coaches Are Accountable

My coaches are accountable, to me. First they have to be invited to be trained as a CTS Coach. Then they have to graduate from a mandatory Coaching College that includes classroom education, practical learning, and close mentoring. All in, it takes 3-5 months of training before they begin working with their first athlete. All an independent coach has to do is take a weekend seminar from a National Governing Body like USA Cycling or USA Triathlon. In ultrarunning there isn’t even an NGB to be certified by! And to be honest, a lot of independent coaches have no licensure at all. It’s not required; there is no barrier to entry in the coaching profession. Anyone can hang a shingle, put up a website, and call themselves an endurance coach.

For me, accountability goes beyond a coach’s initial training. There is ZERO oversight of coaches licensed by NGBs. No one is checking to see that your training program has any basis in sports science. No one is checking to make sure your coach is being ethical. No one is holding your coach accountable for delivering the services or responsiveness promised on his or her website, and you have no one to go to in order to hold them accountable. I built an entire Quality Assurance Program to hold my coaches accountable. We randomly review athlete training plans to make sure they are sound. We have a dedicated Athlete Services department so athletes have a resource they can turn to if they need anything. And one of the hallmarks of our continuing education program is putting an athlete’s training plan (with name removed) up on a big screen so the coach can explain and defend his or her rationale for anything in the plan to our most senior coaching staff.  

Perhaps most important, I fire coaches who don’t deliver. We devote lots of resources to supporting and developing coaches, and that makes it easy to spot the best performers and weed out ineffective coaches. Some may be great at connecting with athletes but not at producing performance improvements. Others may be great on the sports science side but incapable of inspiring an athlete. Nobody is there to fire an independent coach. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s best to be self-employed.

CTS Coaches Use Technology

This was one of the most surprising revelations that came from my conversation with athletes, and was confirmed by talking with my coaches. With so many pieces of technology available for scheduling, monitoring, and analyzing training, I figured online scheduling/communication and data file analysis were absolutely industry standard. No one could possibly still be delivering training plans via Excel spreadsheets or fax machines, or ignoring power or GPS files, right? Apparently I was wrong. Lots of independent coaches are still doing just that. There’s no excuse. If your doctor says he still prefers ether for anesthesia you’d run out of the office. Sure, it works, but if someone is using substandard tools, why would you expect their methodology to be any more up to date?

CTS Coaches Talk to Athletes

This was another point I could barely fathom. Did you know there are coaches out there who talk to their athletes once a month? Who adjust training once a month? There are even coaches out there who hand out an identical – IDENTICAL – training plan to dozens of athletes. It’s one thing if you are offering static training plans; it’s another if you’re advertising full-service coaching and still delivering static training plans! There is no coaching package at CTS that offers anything less than weekly contact with your coach. Some athletes choose to communicate less frequently than that, but when athletes call my coaches pick up the phone. We even have policies around how quickly athlete communications must be responded to, and we hold coaches accountable to those standards.

One training plan adjustment per month is closer to a static training plan than it is to coaching. Communication is the essential difference between training and coaching. Communication is what defines coaching, not the training plan. If you go a month without talking to your coach or your coach looking at and adjusting your training (if necessary), you can be way off track before anything gets done about it. And it would be one thing if such low-contact packages were cheap, but independent coaches out there are charging as much or more than CTS for those packages. Again, with no industry oversight, there’s no system to ensure athletes are receiving the value they are paying for.

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The Good News

There are a lot of great independent coaches out there. Lest you read this and think I am saying that CTS Coaches are the only great coaches out there, I make the case above in affirmation of all professional coaches, not just CTS Coaches. The only coaches who will disagree or take offense to anything written above are those who know they haven’t done the work and aren’t delivering the service commensurate with their fees. Coaching is a profession, not a hobby. The bar for entry should be higher than completing a marquee event, attending a weekend clinic, and/or being the local fast guy or gal.

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This week we announced that 2x US Pro National Champion Matthew Busche is our newest CTS Coach. His pro career is absolutely an asset to the toolbox he brings into professional coaching, but it was not his qualification to be a CTS Coach. He had to complete the exact same process as someone with a Master’s degree in Sports Science. He had to meet the exact same standards and demonstrate the exact same coaching proficiencies as any other CTS Coach. And as a CTS Coach he will be held to the exact same standards to remain a CTS Coach. That is how a profession works; true professionals welcome structure because it exposes amateurs and poseurs who undermine an industry by delivering substandard services with no repercussions.

If you are not coached by CTS, naturally I want to change that. But even more than that, I want you apply what I have written above to ANY coach you are working with or are considering working with. Look critically at their education, their accountability, and their commitment to the profession of coaching. Choose a professional; your goals deserve nothing less.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 29

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  4. I have been coached by CTS for 9 years. The last 3 being with Chris. I have nothing but respect for all involved with CTS. Not only coaches but mechanics, support staff , and office personnel. They are the best! They understand what I need and how to incorporate it into my busy schedule. More importantly they are always there for me and willing to go out of their way to help me. Every coach, every mechanic, every staff person. I have never felt like a number but rather part of the family. When you want the best you go to the best!

  5. I’m not a pro cyclist, but I am a Colorado native and I cycle. I also had a blog for cycling in Colorado Springs in 2012 and I’ve done quite a bit of research up until the passing of 2D. I can’t help but hear about the great careers of coaches and cycling in the Springs. When I read this article I was inspired by the idea in the first paragraph about having a teacher who knows from experience rather than someone who doesn’t. Yes, great point. Learning is hard to do if you don’t have a good teacher. Why ask an English teacher to teach you Chemistry? But when he said later in the article that those who have too many ideas should be self employed, my heart dropped. Maybe because my parents are both self employed. Does that mean they should not know what they are doing? I hope not. I prefer to believe instead that the coach just meant that cyclist’s need traditional coaching methods. A formula that works to improve in time is not ideal. Results for winners and losers are the only things that count? Or, that performance and talent can’t be taught. Its all about hard work, determination and dedication. So now I feel like I should say something. Because yes, I am affected by the statement he made. I couldn’t finish the article after that. It’s like, what just happened? Competition is everything is the only answer. Well I disagree. Before my cycling blog I thought being a journalist was something that happened to other people. But after trying my best to be a freelance writer I learned that this is not true.

    1. Post

      I read your comment, but I’m confused. It appears you’re taking issue with the line “If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s best to be self-employed.” The context for that line is that we believe oversight and mentoring is important for coaches, especially developing coaches. There are great self-employed professionals in all sorts of career fields, many of whom prefer to be self-employed so they only need to be accountable to themselves and their clients. For some people that is a successful model, but in every field there are also people who use self-employment to avoid being held accountable for poor performance or lack of knowledge and skill. The free market takes care of that scenario eventually, but only after many clients suffer.

      Another commenter in this thread had a poor experience with a CTS Coach who is no longer working for us. We find it very unfortunate anyone had a poor experience with one of our coaches, but we also acted quickly to replace that coach with someone who could deliver the experience and results we demand. In the industry as a whole, that rarely happens. Bad coaches churn through athletes, recruiting new ones to replace the ones who get fed up and quit. In the big picture that is bad news for ALL coaches, because it increases the number of people who have a bad impression of coaching in general. We think accountability improves quality and provides a mechanism for our athletes to voice concerns and seek successful resolutions. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach and Media Director

  6. I started cycling in 2011 with no ambitions beyond getting more fit. I have no problem being a self starter and working. Of course being competitive I found myself wanting to get faster so I started doing research. Of course there is a slew of training plans online and they all pretty much say the say thing, if you lack the time we have the next best thing for you! Being naive, I bought in to the idea that just follow this plan and you too can be standing on the podium. Hype Hype Hype. So when I found myself standing on the side of the road on several occasions with severe cramps and getting dropped on group rides let alone races, well this is where you start to think what am I doing wrong, maybe I need a coach. So down the rabbit hole I went. Everyone is extremely nice at CTS, and I would recommend them for the athlete that fits their “template”. It seems that the training plans were not all the much different from what I was already doing, maybe putting in more rest periods, but that was about it. I have since found my mojo, and thanks to CTS of what not to do for me, I have found what works for me, and it’s because I looked at my physiology and not numbers I could produce in a test, that makes me a stronger rider everyday. BTW. My HITT training now only now comprises 1% of my training. Definitely not a CTS template. There is no one size fits all….

  7. My coaching experience has been a game changer in my fitness. While I don’t always look forward to the workouts, just knowing my coach (Dave McIntosh) is looking over my shoulder, encouraging and challenging me to be better and do better is INCREDIBLE. I am so far ahead of where I usually am at this time of year, its amazing. I am the perfect example of a time-crunched cyclist and Dave works with my limited training time (and frequent travel schedule) to ensure I am pushing myself at just the right level to make the gains I am looking for. Workouts are posted a month in advance and adjusted if unanticipated travel arises. I very much appreciate the hard work he puts in to every one of my workouts. AND, when he learns something new, he makes sure to incorporate that into my workout. Love it! He is curious, challenging of himself and me! I assume his other clients feel the same. He is a rock star. If your experience with CTS has been less than satisfactory, try another coach. Fit is important!

  8. Chris, I’m that person who is in the middle of good and bad. Had a bad experience with my first coach after attending a camp. The athletic service department got me a new coach. Communication was the main issue. Coach two was an improvement. I thought we had a good relationship. When my renewal date approached I was planning a long trip. First to North Carolina and then to Italy. It made no sense to pay for coaching. I was going to be unable to do structured rides. They offered a suspension for the time, I decided to cancel and planned to restart when I got back. My coach knew that, seemed more interested in not having me give negative feedback as to why I was not renewing. When I returned no contact from my coach, asking how the trip went. It was a biking tour. After two weeks I texted him, asking why he didn’t care, in jest. He answered weakly didn’t want to bother me. Then how was Europe. I was in Italy for ten days, kind of felt a lost connection. Didn’t renew and moved on. So I agree with most of what your article said, I don’t bad mouth CTS but your actual doesn’t line up. As I stated mix bag.

    1. Post

      Thank you for your comment. One of the things we try to impress on all our coaches is that in a profession so reliant on personal relationships, every interaction counts. Lapses in communication or responses that aren’t thoughtful enough can injure – or even sever – a relationship. I regret your experience ended the way it did; I hope one day we have another opportunity to deliver a better one. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach and Media Director

  9. My CTS experience started with Spring camp, 5 years ago. I liked the business model, specifically, that the coaches are full time, and exercise professionals.

    I started with a coach almost 3 years ago. We talk about my goals, my events, and adjust the training plan for good results, bad results, other commitments, whatever is necessary. I think I learn something new about my riding, exercise science, life, you name it, every time we talk.

    Nina is wise beyond her years, we have forged a good partnership, and if my watts improve only a fraction, my fun factor grows exponentially.

    Not too bad for a 62 year old.

  10. In reading Chris’ article today on coaching, the movie “Jerry Maguire” came to mind. How Tom Cruise stayed up all night pouring out his heart and soul writing a Mission Statement on suggestions for the future of his Sports Agent company. Maybe not the best anology, but I respect and appreciate Chris for writing this article! I’ve been coached by CTS since 2003 (probably longer than most athletes!), which should show my satification level in them.
    Over the 13+ years, they’ve helped me podium and have worked with me during times of injury, health and financial issues. What I’ve learned has also helped me in my teachings as a Police Cyclist Instructor and NICA Coach. Has it always been smooth sailing, no, but I’ve certainly enjoyed the journey down the road! A BIG thanks and respect to my current CTS Coach Matt Freeman!

  11. Chris,

    I just wanted to let you know I super happy about the coaching and support I’ve received from Dave Sheek over the last couple of years. The weekly contact is key aspect for me. I’ve been riding for 40+ years and was unsure if coaching was right for me, but I’ve enjoyed not only the improvements in fitness but also the learning process.


  12. This is an informative statement about what quality coaching should look like. As Chris points out, there is quality in volume, exposure and accountability. I am “that” Orthopedic Surgeon. I only do hip and knee replacement and I have done thousands of them. I try to make each one perfect and most of the time things go quite well.

    I have had a CTS coach now for 3 or 4 years and I have contemplated quitting the service many times for reasons that I will point out. First of all, I love my coach (some of the time), but in my opinion, the system is not quite set up as outlined above. Does my coach do more coaching than many or most other coaches? From what I can tell, he does. Does my coach use technology? Absolutely, I now own multiple power meters and head units. I love Training Peaks. Does my coach talk to me? NOT VERY WELL. We have tried on multiple occasions over the years to come up with times for phone conversations and this has never worked well due to scheduling conflicts. This is a great source of frustration to me. Last, but most important, is my coach accountable? I am sure he is properly certified, trained and experienced. I am sure that someone looks at what he does as a coach from time to time. But from my perspective the accountability is poor. I started with CTS so that I would have someone to be accountable to. To have someone there to hold my feet to the fire and get the work done. The key component of this is COMMUNICATION which has never been great. I need the most help when I am burned out and need a jump start. Not when I am highly motivated with Leadville looming over me. I wish CTS was like the healthcare industry and sent out surveys to find out what was really going on between Athletes and Coaches. Yes, I do have the ultimate say when I pull the plug and go elsewhere but for now I am still a CTS guy that is not completely satisfied with the service.

    1. Post

      That is good feedback, and points to perhaps the most important component of a successful coach-athlete relationship: communication. A coach can write the perfect training program, make all the right adjustments, and improve an athlete’s performance to all-time highs; but if the communication style/frequency/tone is off it can negatively impact athlete satisfaction. We’ll make sure Athlete Services gets your comment so we can address it. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach and Media Director

  13. I used a CTS coach last summer. Very dissatisfied. No connection. Coach seemed too busy running her own races to take time to coach. Workouts were posted late or not til the last minute. At the end of the contract period athletic services contacted me and wanted me to renew. I told them not yet because I wasn’t happy with the coach. I wanted to talk to someone about it and they said, “you will be sent a review form” Well none was ever sent. CTS did not seem interested in feedback from me. I definitely did not renew. I do not recommend CTS for older female ultrarunners. Yes my goal event was a couple days past the end of my coaching contract, but it would have been nice if coach was concerned enough to see how it went.

    1. Post

      Linda, I realize the remedy for your situation arrived too late to turn around your experience with CTS, but I can tell you the coach you worked with is no longer a CTS Coach. The Quality Assurance Program worked, in the sense we identified an underperforming coach, worked to improve the coach’s performance, and ultimately determined the coach was not a good fit for CTS. We pride ourselves at recruiting and developing great coaches, but occasionally we bring on a coach who doesn’t work out. We hope to have the opportunity to work with you again in the future. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach and Media Director

  14. Coaching isn’t for everybody but once you decide coaching may work for you, find a coach (may take several tries) that you can work with to reach your goals.

  15. As a former Clinical Lab Scientist, now clinical lab cyclist, having started and run two medical laboratories I took notice of the word “professional”. One important aspect of being a “professional” is what they do when no one is looking. It’s the late night reading, reviewing, studying and analyzing old data and new theories, concepts and technology. Not every idea “that comes along” is true, accurate or will work but coaches aren’t aware or never try anything new will never know.
    The progress of both science and technology is pretty brisk these days and what is published & promoted is often adulterated with a lot of pure hype. A professional has to have the time, energy and commitment to filter out the “wheat from the chaff”. If a coach pro or part time doesn’t have the time or mindset to “experiment” your coach will never keep you informed or at the cutting edge.
    I had the privilege of meeting Chris last August. He took the time to listen and test some new “technology” or strategies. When one guy who “knows his stuff” meets another guy who “knows his stuff” somethings pretty cool can emerge from the relationship.
    In my opinion Chris “knows his stuff” and has the mindset of a professional.

  16. Chris,
    Several people have posted negative reviews. I suppose no company bats 100%. I have been coached by Reid Beloni since December 2015 and I have had a great experience. Reid set up training plans based on my goals. He demanded explanations of missed workouts. When I was unable to complete workouts, he adjusted future workouts, based on how I felt about the failure, to get me back on track. He was always ready with scientific explanations for the workouts he designed and for the rest periods he planned. I had a great time on the 2016 Ride The Rockies, and a large number of PR’s on Gran Fondos and centuries in 2016. Based on my results in 2016, I am expecting great results in 2017.

  17. I had a similar experience with a CTS coach in line with a couple of the guys above. However, I had a very different outcome and experience. Athlete Services took my concerns very seriously even though I’m not a high profile athlete. I was reassigned with apologies to a new coach who is really helping me make big improvements.

    Maybe it’s because I run a company but I have empathy for growing pains, revamping employee screening processes that don’t work, and balancing attentiveness to customers with volume. My experience was very recent so I would suggest that perhaps Chris & Co have done some QI. Regardless, a shout out to John Fitzgerald and AS for running as my experience has been top notch so far.

    1. Post

      Thank you for your comment. We are happy to know Athlete Services was able to pair you with John Fitzgerald. We have always felt continuity is one of the biggest strengths of the coaching education program. Each of our coaches has a distinct personality and style, but they coach with a common language and shared philosophy. This makes it possible for athletes to transition seamlessly from one coach to another if the personality match isn’t right or the athlete’s athletic goals evolve and there’s a coach with a different specialty that might be a better fit. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach and Media Director

  18. Full time coachest sounds great, but how many athletes do they have. I believe a part time coach that has 2 athletes can be equal or more effective than a full time coach that has 20 athletes.

    1. Chris
      While I do agree with some of your article, I am one of those independent coaches who is all on my own and have taken most of the training and education that is available to me. I am certified with both USA cycling and I am a level 2 Training Peaks coach. Not only was it my desire to help other cyclists increase their performance it was also because of a great CTS coach I had. There are many things I do as a “small shop” like constant communication with my athletes and sometimes adjusting training plans late into the evening when one of my athletes from another time zone leaves a post workout comment that needs attention. I have had several of my current athletes tell me they use to be with some big coaching outfit (not CTS) and I do more for them than the other service.
      So here is my challenge and request for you. Allow me to join your team and put me thru your coaching college. While I am not a former pro cyclist I have been racing as an amateur for over 20 years, coaching on my own for 3 years and coach all my athletes as of they were my one and only client, whole hearted coaching if you will.

      I do have a website but the website field was not working from my phone.
      I look forward to hearing you!

      1. Post

        Frank, It is great to hear you are a professional coach and an asset to the entire coaching industry! We recently brought on a group of new coaches, but keep an eye on the page for upcoming openings for coaches. We hope you’ll apply for our next opening! – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach and Media Director

  19. I’m a professional – 35 years, fulltime – Executive coach. I was coached for two years by a CTS coach. Nice guy. I saw improvement. I tried many times, but my coach wouldn’t adjust to my goals, wanted me to have “fun.” I was fully capable of doing that on my own. He was defensive about his view of what my goals should be. He was defensive about any feedback that wasn’t completely positive. Athlete services treated me rudely, was defensive, and I didn’t see them as a resource. Running a larger company is tough. Getting accurate feedback from clients is tough. Who wants to put a nice guy in a bad spot? It is important for everyone involved to welcome feedback – just like the company expects clients to welcome it. Improvement comes from continually evaluating each aspect of staff training and not assuming a one-size fits all is working. Like training, it’s not easy.

    1. Post

      Jay, thank you for your candor. It’s apparent the systems we have in place didn’t properly identify your frustration at the time, and hence failed to make the proper corrections. We work to prevent that scenario, but as you pointed out, it’s not easy nor perfect. We hope there will be a time when you are willing to give us another opportunity to work with you. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach and Media Director

  20. I’m in my third year of coaching CTS coach Tracey Drews. I just turned 67. My goal is to ride faster, climb faster, manage my weight and stay physically fit. And … I simply want to perform well at the handful of events I participate in each year. I have seen measurable gains in my performance. My CTS coach holds me accountable. My CTS coach constantly builds and adjusts my training program and workouts for whatever life throws at me. My CTS coach encourages, motivates and inspires me. My CTS coach helped me cope with a couple a of demoralizing DNFs … like crapping out 55 miles into the Gran Fondo New York and not making it up Mount Greylock with a group of more advanced riders.

    Chris, everything you wrote is the coaching experience that I count on CTS to deliver … and it has.

    Like you, I own a coaching company … but we coach business owners. Everything you wrote applies my company as well. Coaching is about accountability, expertise, discipline, communication, relationships and a deep personal commitment to the work and responsibilities of coaching.

  21. Chris,

    I was coached by CTS last year and had a completely unprofessional experience. When I complained to athlete services, I received a perfunctory call that did nothing to address the litany of issues I laid out in an email. Based on that, I chose to go a different route and as they say “it has made all the difference”. While I agree with much in this article, true dedication to a professional coaching experience requires each professional organization to review their coaches and promptly address any issues. I didn’t see that in my experience, and in fact, felt like “just another athlete on the roster”…

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